When I was a student Leeds University, in the north of England, (this was in the early 1970s) I used to go on nocturnal ghost-hunting forays with one of my flatmates, a medical student called Ralph. I had the notebook and a typewriter. He had the Pentax 35mm camera. We both had flasks of black coffee.
ST MARKS MYSTERIOUS EVE
One of our first ventures was to camp out in the graveyard of St Marks Church in Leeds to keep the St Mark’s Eve Vigil. The folklore behind the vigil holds that if you sit in a churchyard or church porch between the hours of 11pm to 1am on St Mark’s Eve (25th April), you will see the spirits (technically they would be the doppelgängers) of all the people who were due to die over the coming 12 months.
The following passage in Chambers Book of Days explains it in more detail in the section headed Traditions and Legends of St Mark’s Eve... “In the northern parts of England, it is still believed that if a person, on the eve of St Mark’s Day, watch in the church porch from eleven at night till one in the morning, he will see the apparitions of all those who are to be buried in the churchyard during the ensuing year.”
There is even a piece of anonymous verse to describe the vigil...
Tis now, replied the village belle,
St. Mark’s mysterious eve,
And all that old traditions tell
I tremblingly believe;
How, when the midnight signal tolls,
Along the churchyard green,
A mournful train of sentenced souls
In winding-sheets are seen.
The ghosts of all whom death shall doom
Within the coming year,
In pale procession walk the gloom,
Amid the silence drear.
There is an actual account of this superstition to be found among the Hollis Papers, which are part of the Lansdowne Manuscripts, one of the earliest collections of documents acquired by the British Museum in 1807. The writer, Gervase Hollis of Great Grimsby, was a colonel in the service of King Charles I. He said he heard the story from a minister called Liveman Rampaine, who was the household chaplain to Sir Thomas Munson, of Burton in Lincolnshire, at the time of the incident.
“In the year 1631, two men (inhabitants of Burton) agreed betwixt themselves upon St. Mark’s eve at night to watch in the churchyard at Burton, to try whether or no (according to the ordinary belief amongst the common people) they should see the Spectra, or Phantasma of those persons which should die in that parish the year following. To this intent, having first performed the usual ceremonies and superstitions, late in the night, the moon shining then very bright, they repaired to the church porch, and there seated themselves, continuing there till near twelve of the clock. About which time (growing weary with expectation and partly with fear) they resolved to depart, but were held fast by a kind of insensible violence, not being able to move a foot.
“About midnight, upon a sudden (as if the moon had been eclipsed), they were environed with a black darkness; immediately after, a kind of light, as if it had been a resultancy from torches. Then appears, coming towards the church porch, the minister of the place, with a book in his hand, and after him one in a winding-sheet, whom they both knew to resemble one of their neighbours. The church doors immediately fly open, and through pass the apparitions, and then the doors clap to again. Then they seem to hear a muttering, as if it were the burial service, with a rattling of bones and noise of earth, as in the filling up of a grave. Suddenly a still silence, and immediately after the apparition of the curate again, with another of their neighbours following in a winding-sheet, and so a third, fourth, and fifth, every one attended with the same circumstances as the first.”
So what happened at our St Mark’s Church where Ralph and I held our vigil in the early 1970s?
Well nothing actually. We saw no ghosts nor doppelgängers. There again we did make the fairly fundamental research error of overlooking the fact the churchyard was no longer used for burials and different versions of the legend are a little vague on whether you see “the ghosts of all whom Death shall doom” or just those who will be buried in that particular churchyard in the coming year. (There is also another version of the legend, which John Keats used in his poem The Eve of St Mark, which holds if you see the ghost come back out of the church again, then that means the person will become gravely ill in the following 12 months but eventually recover to full health.)
As for the church we visited, it is located in the Woodhouse area of Leeds and was one of 600 Church of England (Anglican) churches built across England in the years immediately following the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
RUINATION AND RECONSTRUCTION
When I last saw St Mark’s Woodhouse, in 1972, it was a soot and pollution-blackened building surrounded by a churchyard filled with equally soot and pollution-blackened gravestones and memorials. Even if there were no actual ghosts haunting the graveyard it was a distinctly spooky place.
Thirty years later, falling congregations, rising costs and, rather more worryingly, falling masonry from the church tower, resulted in the church being closed, declared redundant, and added to Leeds City Council’s Buildings at Risk Register due to its rapid deterioration and crumbling structure.
And that could have been that: another fine Grade II listed building falling victim to a developer’s wrecking-ball, except in this case an English evangelical Christian group – the Gateway Church – bought St Mark’s in 2010, restored the building, and reopened it as both a place of worship and a community center. Still no ghosts though.
FIRES OF LOVE BURN DANGEROUSLY
There is incidentally another, and far more cheerful, piece of folklore associated with St Mark’s Eve—namely it was also the time when “young maids” would try to use divination to discover the identity of their true love and husband to be. One method was to place a line of hazel nuts on the grate in front of an open fire, giving each the name of a prospective husband. If the nut jumped from the fire, then the love was meant to be. The verse ran...
If you love me,
Pop and fly.
If you hate me,
Burn and die.
Ladies line hazelnuts along the fireplace to divine their future husbands.
Another way was to hang their smock before the fireplace and await the arrival of an apparition of the man they were due to marry to come in and turn it for you. (Call me unromantic but this just sounds like a fire risk!)
On St Mark’s eve, at twelve o'clock,
The fair maid will watch her smock,
To find her husband in the dark,
By praying unto good St Mark.
And, there was also a tradition of young women visiting the Maiden Well, near North Kelsey in Lincolnshire, on St Mark’s Eve.
“Girls coming to the spring with the view of divination must walk towards it backwards, and go round it three times in the same manner, each girl, meanwhile, wishing the wish that she may see her destined sweetheart. After the third circle is complete, the inquirer must kneel down and gaze into the spring, in which she will see her lover looking up out of the depths.”
History does not tell us how many of these girls, walking backwards in circles, found themselves falling into the water!
(There are similar love divination traditions associated with Halloween, St Thomas Eve (20 December), Christmas, New Year’s Eve, St Agnes Eve (20 January), St Valentine’s Day, May Day Eve and Midsummer Eve. Today “young maids” presumably use online dating sites and social media apps!)
I’LL CUT THEE INTO COLLOPS
And then there was the time we both nearly caught pneumonia sitting out in the grounds of Calverley Old Hall trying to catch a glimpse of the ghost of Sir Walter Calverley.
Calverley is a village a few miles to the west of Leeds that was home to the Calverley family, the local lords of the manor, for several centuries. Walter Calverley (always called Sir Walter although he was merely Squire Calverley) was born in 1579 and, following the early death of his father, became the ward of his guardian Sir William Brooke, the 10th Baron Cobham.
When Walter left Clare Hall (now Clare College) at Cambridge University, apparently without earning a degree but with considerable debts (throughout this period the Calverley male line had a propensity for running up enormous debts) he became engaged to the daughter of a neighboring farmer in Yorkshire. But then William Brooke, shortly before he died, encouraged Walter to break off this engagement and marry Phillippa Brooke, one of Brooke’s own relatives.
For Walter, this proposal had two distinct advantages. He was marrying someone a few rungs higher up the social ladder than himself, which in Elizabethan England was a useful career move. And, Phillippa came with a large dowry – always handy if you have debts.
According to one source, Walter didn’t think twice about dropping the farmer’s daughter in favor of the wealthy socialite. However according to another source, he disliked his new wife and soon fell back into a wayward lifestyle of drinking heavily and gambling badly, firstly in London and later in Yorkshire at the family home Calverley Old Hall.
By 1600, after less than 12 months of married life, Walter had spent his money so fast that he was in prison for debt and his mother-in-law was attempting to reclaim Phillippa’s dowry.
This didn’t stop Walter and Phillippa from subsequently having three sons – William, Walter and Henry—but by 1605 Walter Calverley was in debt again. It cannot have helped that he was in the invidious position of having to sell off property to raise money to pay his debts while his mother, who had retained her side of the family fortune, was buying up land across the county!
Then tragedy struck, triggered, it is said, by Walter learning that one of his friends had been imprisoned for debts Walter himself had incurred.
It may have been the drink that drove him into a murderous rage. It may have been money worries that pushed him over the edge into a depressive ‘life is no longer worth living so I may as well end it all and take my family with me’ mood – what today we call family annihilators. Or, it may even have been a mental breakdown – this also ran in the family with his own father once being described as having “weakness of witt and braine and bene of long tyme subject to lunacie.”
Whatever the exact cause, on the 23rd April 1605, Walter Calverley lost his mind.
He accused his wife of being unfaithful to him, claiming the children were fathered by a lover, and promptly stabbed to death the two oldest sons William and Walter. Then he threw Walter’s nurse down the stairs, killing her in the process, and tried to murder Phillippa. Luckily for Phillippa, she was wearing a corset reinforced with metal stays that deflected the dagger blow. Nevertheless, she fainted and her husband, believing her dead, ran out of the Hall and rode off into the night, intending to kill his third son Henry, who was being wet-nursed in the nearby village.
Illustration depicting the murders by Walter Calverley.
Unfortunately for Walter (but fortunately for Henry) his horse stepped in a rabbit hole and fell, pinning him down – which is how Sir Walter was found when the authorities, alerted by the servants back at the Hall, arrived to arrest him.
His capture and arrest seemed to have jolted Walter back to his senses. He knew there could be no judicial forgiveness for his crime – it would be several hundred more years before any court would accept a plea of temporary insanity. More importantly, he also knew that regardless of whether he pleaded guilty or not-guilty, when he was convicted (as he inevitably would be) the courts of the day would confiscate his property, resulting in Phillippa and his remaining son Henry being penniless and the Hall lost to the family forever.
Walter Calverley therefore took the only remaining option open to him: he refused to enter any plea at all. But, by denying the court had a right to try him, he was guilty of contempt of court, which in those days was punishable by Peine Forte et Dure, also known as pressing. This was a form of torture in which a stout door or planks of wood were laid across the victim, on top of which were piled more and more heavy stones, until eventually the hapless victim either entered a plea or was crushed to death. (Giles Corey, who was accused of being a warlock during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 but refused to enter a plea, has the dubious distinction of being the only person in American history to have been pressed to death on the orders of a court.)
Despite attempts by friends and even his long suffering wife Phillippa to have his sentence mitigated, Walter Calverley was pressed to death at York Castle on 5th August 1605. He never entered a plea and according to some reports his last words were “A pund o’ more weight! Lig on! Lig on!” – Yorkshire dialect for “A pound more weight! Lay on! Lay on!” (Apparently Giles Corey’s final words were also “More Weight!”)
A depiction of the punishment of pressing. "Giles Corey's Punishment and Awful Death", 1892. (Public Domain)
Walter Calverley was initially buried in York but legend says his body was later exhumed and moved to the family plot, at St Wilfrid’s Church in Calverley, to lay beside his murdered sons. (Over the intervening four centuries the site of the Calverley family burial plot has been lost.)
So what happened next? Because he never entered a plea, Walter’s estates and property could not be confiscated by the State. His wife Phillippa subsequently remarried and in due course his surviving son Henry inherited Calverley Old Hall. However, in keeping with family tradition, Henry was also plagued by bad debts, although in his case it was caused by supporting the wrong side during the English Civil War.
Then came literary fame. Within weeks of Walter Calverley’s crimes and execution, ballads were published. Then in 1607, George Wilkins (in reality a London inn keeper and minor thug) published a play called The Miseries of Enforced Marriage. It was originally a tragedy but after the Brooke family complained, he rewrote the ending to make it a comedy!
One year later, 1608 saw the publication of another related dramatization A Yorkshire Tragedy- not so new as lamentable and true.
For many years this was attributed to William Shakespeare, however the playwright Thomas Middleton is now believed to be the true author.
Then there’s the ghost.
SIR WALTER’S GHOST
According to witnesses, the ghost of Walter Calverley, brandishing a bloodstained dagger in one hand, has often been seen galloping on a large black horse, with glaring red eyes, through the lanes surrounding St Wilfrid’s churchyard. (Unless you see the other manifestation of the ghost, which rides a headless horse!) Sometimes the ghost disappears at the point where the horse fell. At other times, with the ghost shouting “Lig on! Lig on!” it is said it rushes at any witnesses and vanishes just as it reaches them.
The ghost of Walter Calverley is said to haunt the area. (Jimmy Brown/CC BY 2.0)
And, finally, there’s the story (first reported as long ago as the 1830s) of the local schoolboys who regularly tried to raise Calverley’s ghost on evenings after class. Piling their hats and caps together in a pyramid, they formed a ‘magic circle’ and, hand in hand, danced in an anti-clockwise (or widdershins) direction around the churchyard singing...
Old Calverley, Old Calverley, I have thee by the ears
I’ll cut thee into collops unless thee appears
(In case you were wondering, collops are slices of meat or bacon.)
The ritual required them to mix pins and breadcrumbs together and scatter them in front of the church, before one of them walked up to the church door and whistled through the keyhole to summon Walter’s ghost. A newspaper report from 1874 says that on one occasion the ritual worked, causing the boys to run away in terror. When they returned the following morning, their hats and caps had vanished, presumably taken by the ghost of Walter Calverley.
Perhaps I should have danced widdershins around the churchyard because I never saw Sir Walter’s ghost! However, there is another version of the legend which says one of the vicars of St Wilfrid’s laid the ghost to rest “and as long as holly continues to grow in the local woods, Sir Walter’s ghost will never return”.
There is also an interesting historical footnote here about the subsequent fate of the Brooke family.
The meddling 10th Baron was succeeded by his eldest surviving son Henry Brooke, the 11th Baron, who died in poverty after spending 14 years imprisoned in the Tower of London for his part, along with Sir Walter Raleigh, in a plot to depose King James I. (That’s the monarch more correctly termed King James I of England and King James VI of Scotland and subsequently called “the Wisest Fool in Christendom”.)
Meanwhile the 10th Baron’s youngest son Sir George was executed for his role in another conspiracy against King James. And, his youngest daughter Margaret “the Mad Lady Sondes” was treated by the notorious alchemist and necromancer Doctor John Dee, who conducted an exorcism that “delivered the Lady Sondes of a devil or of some other strange possession.”
Featured image: Do the ghosts of the ill-fated Calverley family still roam? (Alice Popkorn/CC BY-ND 2.0)
Images, unless otherwise noted are courtesy of author Charles Christian, and Public Domain