Some Christmas Ghosts
Queer Pranks of Uncanny Spirits That Make Their Appearance Each Yuletide.
Ghosts and other preternatural apparitions have always been recognized as among the essential factors of a good old-fashioned Christmas. Our forefathers loved to gather round their mighty fires in their ill-lit halls at Yuletide to listen to the histories and legends of their ancestors, whom, when their imaginations had been sufficiently inflamed, they would seem to see in the flesh once more, flitting across dark corridors and peeping from behind the wind-shaken arras.
So, in course of time, men grew to look for ghosts at Christmas as naturally as for mistletoe and holly berries. And the ghosts obligingly made a note of our requirements, more especially as they were surer of a sympathetic reception at that time of year than any other. A man may be cynical, if you like, on August bank holiday, on Christmas eve never! Christmas became the fashionable time for haunting. No self-respecting ghost could afford to be out of the swim at that season of the year. Thus we find that specters of old established reputations–ghosts who may almost be said to have retired from business–will put in an appearance at Christmas if on no other day in the year.
There is a wicked Jemmy Lowther, for instance, otherwise known as the “bad Lord Lonsdale” of whom indeed, history makes no record, but whose iniquities are still recounted with bated breath (or used to be) by the people of Westmoreland. For centuries this notorious spirit energetically haunted the Whole county frightening his descendants out of their wits, raising unearthly dins, scaring nurse girls and teasing cattle. Now in more dignified style he contents himself with riding as a phantom coach and six at full speed across the country, generally at Christmas-time. No one ever seems to have seen him or his equipage, but the sound of the wheels, the snorting of the steeds, and the objurgations hurled by his lordship at his invisible coachman serve to remind the country people at the festive season that he is not “laid” forever beneath Wallow Crag as they had the impudent assurance to suppose.
Queen Anne Boleyn and her less famous sire have also given up haunting for many years past; and if they are to be seen at all it is at Christmas they must be looked for. Like Lord Lonsdale, both these personages revisit the glimpses of the moon in coaches. The luckless Queen drives down the avenue at Blicking Hall, holding her head in her lap in a hearse-like conveyance drawn by four headless horses with headless coachmen and grooms to match. Poor, pretty, flighty Anne Boleyn! You little thought that yours would become a shape to frighten lovers in their evening rambles, and send the children screaming to their nurses! Her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn. is also a headless specter, driven by headless horses. He has to cross 40 bridges and drive through 40 gates till someone courageous enough can be found to open or to shut — we forget which — one or all of these before him. The headless driver in the coach-and-six is a frequent apparition in Ireland. On Christmas Eve, when a family is seated at the board expecting a belated guest, the noise of wheels will be heard. There will be a rush to the door, it will be flung open and in the darkness without the spectral coach will be seen driving away — sure harbinger of misfortune for host or guest.
A legend of this kind must materially contribute to the enjoyment of the Irish Christmas dinner!
Then there is the spectral headless horseman of Wyecoller Hall, near Colne. This ruined mansion was the seat of the Cunliffes de Billington, a family which became extinct in 1819, in fulfillment of a curse laid upon it by the murdered wife of one of its members. Every Christmas a headless cavalier, in seventeenth century costume, gallops wildly up the road to the hall. He dismounts and enters, making his way with echoing footfall up the stairs. Fearful screams are heard, the tragedy is re-enacted and the horseman reappears to gallop frantically away over hill and dale, as if the devil were at his heels.
Watton Priory, photograph by JohnArmagh
Yorkshire is infected by ghosts and these never fail to gratify the legitimate expectations of the Christmas holiday-maker. Between Driffield and Beverly is the old Gilbertine priory of Watton. There are several uncomfortable legends connected with this venerable pile, and it is not easy to identify the various spectral visitants who haunt the place. There was an erring nun, who was walled up according to the humane fashion of those days, and some declare they have seen her. The most authentic apparition, however, is that associated with a wainscoted bed room connected with the moat by a secret passage. In this room a Royalist lady took refuge with her child when the mansion was attacked by a marauding band of Roundheads. Her retreat was discovered and the Puritans, incensed by her haughty replies, dashed out her child’s brains and struck off her head. Now the poor lady comes once a year to sleep in the oak-paneled room and next morning the bedclothes are found-disturbed and bearing the impression of her fair form; and if any one occupies the bed she appears at the foot headless, in bloodstained garments with her child in her arms, standing motionless for a while, and then vanishes.
Calverley Hall, photo by Betty Longbottom
Another victim of the barbarous practice of the bad old times was Walter Calverley, who was pressed to death at York in 1604. There is a painful story of his begging his old servant to sit on the stones with which the life was being slowly crushed out of him. “A pound o’ more weight lay on, lay on!” The servant obliged his request, and was hanged for his good nature. Calverley seems to have nourished (and not unnatural) considerable ill-will against the human race. He used to gallop about on a headless horse, running down any luckless folk he met in his path. Then he was “laid.” But a clergyman who visited Calverley hall about Christmas time was unpleasantly reminded of the dead criminal’s post-mortem activity. The reverend gentleman felt something creep on to his chest as he lay in bed, pressing him very hard, and was then thrown three times on to the floor. Other pranks has Calverley played, such as tolling the bell toward the close of the year from midnight till dawn. The weight on the chest of which the clerical gentleman complained is a sensation not unknown about Christmas time, and is not always to be ascribed to supernatural causes.
The north of England has not a monopoly of ghosts. Once upon a time, at Bisham Abbey, on the Thames, lived a learned lady, the wife of Sir Thomas Hoby and afterwards of John Lord Russell. As ill-luck would have it, the eldest son of this Elizabethan blue stocking was an idle urchin, so averse to learning that he used deliberately to spill ink over his copy books. If much learning had not made Lady Russell mad it had made her extremely irascible, and she chastised the bad little boy so severely that he died. Dr. Lee, author of “Glimpses of the Supernatural” states that “in taking down an old oak window-shutter of the latter part of the sixteenth century a packet of antique copy books of that period was discovered pushed into the wall between the joints of the skirting, and several of these books on which young Hoby’s name was written were covered with blots, thus supporting the ordinary tradition.” The unnatural mother is now seen at Christmas gliding through a certain chamber, and washing bloodstains from her hands. Her little victim is never seen, and sleeps soundly, where tiresome masters and mistresses and copy books are not.
Glamis Castle in the Snow, Morris’s Country Seats, 1880
Glamis Castle, in Forfarshire, has a whole staff of ghosts and we are not sure that their visitations are confined to any particular season of the year. That wicked person, Earl Patie, [sic] may be relied upon to return to his ancestral hall at Christmas time. For was it not on a dark and stormy winter night — possibly Christmas eve — that he announced his intention of playing cards, although it was the Sabbath? The righteous Scots properly recoiled with horror from such a proposal, and Earl Patie retired grumbling to his room, declaring that he would welcome the devil himself as a partner. The invitation was responded to with alacrity. A tall, dark stranger appeared, and the reckless thane offered, if he were the loser, to sign a bond for whatsoever his mysterious guest might ask. They played with a zest. A butler who incautiously peeped through the keyhole, had his eye blinded by a sudden streak of flame; and Patie having lost the game, the stranger vanished with a bond for what the carl did not precisely know. Five years later he died and as his spirit continued to return to play cards with the dark stranger in the old chamber this was bricked up and remains the “Secret Room of Glamis Castle.”
No wandering, troubled spirit has more claim upon our credulity and our sympathy than the hapless Lady Bothwell, who returns every year to Woodhouselee, upon the Esk. Her husband, James Hamilton, or Bothwellhaugh, lost his lands as a result of his devotion to the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots. His wife retired with her infant child to her own personal estate of Woodhouselee, not knowing that this had been given by the Regent Murray to a creature of his, the Lord Justice Clerk Bellenden. This man came to Woodhouselee while the household was asleep and had the brutality to turn the lady and her infant out in the woods in their nightclothes. Next morning Lady Hamilton was found wandering a raving lunatic, the child dead in her arms. She died herself a few days later. Her husband swore to be avenged, and laying his plans carefully, shot Murray, Mary’s traitor brother, in the streets of Linlithgow. Men bore the wrongs done by process of law to those they loved less patiently than they do now. But still poor Lady Bothwell walks in piteous guise the park of Woodhouselee.
Prince Rupert at Edgehill
If supernatural apparitions are to be considered as they undoubtedly are, indispensable features of Christmas entertainment then the good people of Edge Hill, near Keinton, in Northampshire, had good reason to think themselves highly favored at Christmas, 1641. A battle between Cavaliers and Roundheads had taken place at this spot a month or two previously and to the amazement and horror of the villagers the action was fought over again almost every evening during Christmas week by spectral warriors. First the sound of drums, as afar off, would be heard, then the tramping of armed men, the trampling and neighing of horses, the firing of guns; then the rival hosts would appear in the air and the battle would be repeated in all its details. King Charles I. sent some of his officers to investigate the phenomenon, and they declared that they recognized among the ghostly warriors several of their old comrades who had fallen in the engagement.
In the same county of Northampton (says Mr. Thistleton Dyer) there still lingers the belief that the ghosts of suicides and of unfortunates buried at cross-roads with “stakes in their insides” have a particular license to wander about on Christmas eve, and to wreak their vengeance on defenceless persons.
Ghosts are generally believed by the country folk to be more spiteful at this season than at any other. In Ireland, however, the banshee who is usually more a friend of the family than otherwise, selects this time for a visitation.
Yes, most of us see ghosts at Christmas time. They do not all come to us in dreadful guise, clanking their chains and showing ghastly wounds. Most of us see ghosts of a different kind ; by the Christmas fireside and at the Christmas board, we seem to see dim, dear faces of husbands, wives, parents, children, old sweethearts and old friends whom we shall never greet in the flesh again. We are perhaps too busy to give them a thought during the rest of the year; but then they come back to haunt us. We would not be without them. And most of us, I suspect, are prone to unlock the haunted chambers in our hearts and hold sweet, sad converse with the inmates at the merry Christmastide.
Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 December 1907: p. 12
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Quite the embarrassment of ghostly riches! Of course, this was written as pleasant holiday entertainment. Several distasteful details are omitted, such as the grewsome fate of the Nun of Watton’s lover and the fact that Walter Calverley, far from being the “victim of the barbarous practice of the bad old times,” murdered his two children, nearly murdered his wife, and was riding hell-for-leather to murder a third child when he was captured. Any punishment was richly deserved.
Mrs Daffodil, who visited Glamis in her earlier career as lady’s maid, is clucking her tongue over the mangling of the name of the notorious 15th-century “Earl Beardie.” To be fair, several of the Lords Glamis were named Patrick; perhaps the journalist, in that over-familiar American way, thought “Patie” was an appropriate nickname. Mrs Daffodil wishes her readers bright Yuletide spirits and the happiest of New Years to come.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.