“It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this as a warning to posterity, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony.”
-William of Newburgh, writing in the 12th century.
Derived from the Latin reveniens meaning ‘returning’ or ‘to come back,’ the word revenant is used in a supernatural context to refer to people who return from the dead. To encounter the first popular usage of the word, we have to travel back nearly 900 years, to England in the 12th century, where we meet an unlikely chronicler of vampire and zombie encounters called William of Newburgh.
The setting is the county of Yorkshire where, in the year AD 1145, the wealthy monastic order of the Austin Canons, based at Bridlington Priory, decided to establish another, smaller priory at Newburgh, near Coxwold.
The Nave of Bridlington Priory survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was subsequently restored to become the parish church – the Priory Church of St Mary. (Public Domain)
Little is known about the history of Newburgh Priory in the then relatively remote North Yorkshire Moors during its monastic heyday, although in the years following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when it became a private house, Newburgh was reputed to be the final burial place of Oliver Cromwell.
In the 12th century that first group of Austin Canons engaged in the construction of Newburgh Priory. Among them was a young, nine-year-old Bridlington boy called William Parvus. William spent his entire life (1136-1198) at Newburgh and subsequently became known as William of Newburgh “the father of historical criticism.”
William of Newburgh (Public Domain)
William of Newburgh on History
William’s great work was Historia rerum Anglicarum or the History of English Affairs, a history of England from the Norman Conquest in 1066 up until William’s own death in 1198. William’s book is still valued as a contemporary account of the reign of King Stephen and the civil war with his cousin the Empress Maude.
This chaotic period in English history (1135-1154) is sometimes called The Anarchy, although the years that followed were no less chaotic, with frequent rebellions by barons and rival factions within the Angevin royal family.
However, along with an account of the major military and political events of the time, William of Newburgh’s History also includes glimpses into everyday 12th century life, beliefs and folklore. In particular, William is the first English writer to recount tales about ‘revenants’.
The Dangerous Revenants
Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) (Public Domain)
The way William uses the word is in the context of a visible, tangible ghost or a reanimated corpse. To the modern reader, some aspects of William’s descriptions of revenants sound suspiciously like vampires, but at the time he was writing, the primarily South-Eastern European legends about vampires were unknown in this country. In fact, many of the characteristics of the creature we know today as a vampire only began emerging in folk-tales in the 18th century. For example, the first mention of a ‘vampyre’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is not until 1734, nearly six hundred years after William was writing.
A page from William’s Historia. (Public Domain)
So what did William have to say about these revenants?
The Serious Nuisance of Buckinghamshire
His first story told of a woman in Buckinghamshire whose husband had recently died. The deceased returned from the dead one night and tried to climb into bed with her and “...not only terrified her on awaking, but nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body.” These postmortem amorous advances continued for three nights after which the revenant started making nocturnal visits to his former neighbors and other members of the family living nearby, before extending his ramblings to walks around the village in broad daylight.
“He thus became,” wrote William of Newburgh, “a like serious nuisance,” which seems to be something of an understatement. The villagers complained to the local priest, who referred the matter to Bishop (later Saint) Hugh of Lincoln, then living in London, who solved the problem by writing a Letter of Absolution for the deceased. The revenant’s tomb was opened, the Letter placed on the chest of the corpse before the grave was sealed one final time. After that, the deceased never troubled the living ever again.
The Restless Chaplain of Melrose
Another of William’s stories is about a chaplain who worked for a noblewoman living near Melrose Abbey in Scotland. During his lifetime he’d frequently ignored his religious duties, preferring instead to spend his days out hunting with the hounds, which possibly explains why, shortly after his death, he began appearing at the gates of Melrose Abbey but was prevented from entering by the abbey’s sanctity.
He then switched to appearing in the chambers of the noblewoman he’d served in life and started haunting her with his cries of anguish. Not surprisingly, the noblewoman sought help from the abbey’s monks and it was agreed that one of them would stand guard over the chaplain’s grave. The next night, the chaplain’s corpse duly rose from the grave and immediately launched an attack on the monk.
The monk responded by swinging the axe he’d been armed with to take several whacks at the revenant. This had the desired effect as the revenant slunk back to his grave, which apparently opened to receive him and then closed again. The following day the monks returned to the grave to exhume the corpse and deal with it. When they uncovered the body, they noticed the slash marks of the axe and a growing pool of blood inside the casket. They then burned the corpse and the revenant was seen no more.
A depiction of a vampire (Public Domain)
The Rich Rogue of Berwick
William’s third tale, located in the Borders town of Berwick, is about “a wealthy man but, as it afterwards appeared, a great rogue” who after his death and a Christian burial “though unworthy of it... sallied forth out of his grave by night, and was borne hither and thither, pursued by a pack of dogs with loud barking, thus striking great terror into the neighbors, and returning to his tomb before daylight.”
Although the locals were obviously terrified of encountering this revenant, “the wiser shrewdly concluded” that having a “pestiferous corpse” wandering the town would also spread disease and death. Finally, ten young men “renowned for boldness” were hired to dig up the “horrible carcass,” while it slept during the day, cut it limb from limb and burn it on a pyre. This solved the problem of the revenant but it was not the end of the people of Berwick’s sufferings as the town was subsequently hit by an outbreak of plague which “carried off the greater portion of them.”
William suggests the plague was caused by a “pestilence” spread by the corpse, which actually makes the Berwick incident seem more like a zombie outbreak than a vampire infestation.
The Jealous Plague-Bearer of Alnwick
William’s fourth revenant tale is about “a man of evil conduct” who fled from York, on the run from the law, and took refuge in the Northumbrian village of Alnwick. There he married a local woman much younger than himself. Suspecting she might be having an affair with a local youth, one night he hid in the rafters of her bedroom in the hope of catching her and her lover together. He did but unfortunately he then accidentally fell through the ceiling, hitting the floor so hard that he was mortally wounded and died a few days later.
It was then that the trouble began as, within a few days of his funeral, there were reports of his corpse being seen wandering the streets of Alnwick, followed soon after by a fatal outbreak of plague, which everyone attributed to the pestilence being spread by the revenant.
As the death toll from the plague began to rise, two young men resolved to rid the village of the revenant and dug up the corpse in the cemetery. They found the corpse “swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure suffused with blood” and its shroud torn to pieces. “Spurred on by wrath” one of the men hacked at the corpse with a spade “out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons.”
Le Vampire, engraving by R. de Moraine (Public Domain)
They dragged the corpse beyond the village, hacked open the side of the corpse with a blunt spade, then one of them pulled out the revenant’s heart, tore it into pieces then tossed it and the rest of the corpse on to a hastily built funeral pyre. They burned the corpse, after which Alnwick was no longer troubled by either the revenant or the plague.
The 800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with iron rod to keep it firmly in its grave. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Identifying a Revenant
It is interesting to see that both in the Berwick and Alnwick accounts, we see features now frequently associated with vampire tales, including blood filled-graves, the creatures returning to their graves at dawn and only finally being laid to rest after they had been dismembered and burned on a pyre.
William of Newburgh went on to explain “It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony.”
He added that he reported these cases “as a warning to posterity” and said the stories were so common that “were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome.”
So, was England plagued by the walking dead in the 12th century? William said ‘yes’ and it is certainly true anyone living during those troubled times would have been familiar with the sight of rotting, unburied corpses littering the towns and countryside in the wake of King Stephen’s civil war, as well as frequent outbreaks of famine and pestilence.
But, William’s contribution to English folklore and legend does not end with revenants, be they vampires or zombies, as there is one final story of his—or another “mysterious, wondrous occurrence... a strange and prodigious event,” as he put it—and this concerned the Green Children from St Martin’s Land.
The Green Children: Visitors from Another World
The location for this story was Woolpit in Suffolk, UK where, one day at harvest time, during the reign of King Stephen, two strange children, a brother and his sister, were discovered beside one of the wolf pits from which the village’s name is derived. They looked like normal children except they spoke an unknown language nobody could understand, and they would eat only raw beans and their skin was green.
The mysterious children were said to have green skin. (CC BY 2.0)
The boy was sickly and soon died but the girl, subsequently baptized as Agnes, adapted to eating other food, lost her green color and eventually married a lawyer from Kings Lynn. (Which also might say something about lawyers!)
Agnes also is said to have mastered speaking English and explained that she and her brother came from a place called St Martin’s Land where the sun never shone and everything was green. According to Agnes, the children had been herding their father’s cattle when they were attracted by a loud noise, which William of Newburgh wrote was the ringing of church bells in the nearby cathedral town of Bury St Edmunds. The two children followed the sound and eventually found themselves coming out into our world near the old wolf pit.
Although William of Newburgh offered no explanation for this event, it is interesting that his story is corroborated by another contemporary writer, Ralph of Coggleshall, the abbot of a monastery located just south of Woolpit. So who were the children? One suggestion is this is just a garbled folk tale while a more historical explanation is that they were the orphaned children of Flemish immigrants (a large number of Flemings were killed at the nearby Battle of Fornham in 1173) and their green skin color was the result of either arsenic poisoning or a dietary deficiency called chlorosis.
There are other explanations including that they were extraterrestrial aliens, which would make them the first ‘Little Green Men’ ever recorded in England, while yet another suggestion is they were two inhabitants who had strayed from the Faerie Otherworld that exists underground beneath our own world. The legend, incidentally, is kept alive to this day at Woolpit, where the village sign incorporates two green children.
As an historian, William of Newburgh prided himself on the accuracy of his chronicles and believed they were based on reliable sources, unlike another of his near-contemporaries, Geoffrey of Monmouth (who wrote one of the first accounts of King Arthur) of whom William says “only a person ignorant of ancient history would have any doubt about how shamelessly and impudently Geoffrey lies in almost everything.”
That said, William of Newburgh has the distinction of introducing what we now call zombies and vampires, as well as fairies and possibly aliens, into the English historical and literary scene.
Charles Christian is a Norfolk-based writer and journalist. His most recent book is “A travel guide to Yorkshire's Weird Wolds: The Mysterious Wold Newton Triangle” and he can be found at www.UrbanFantasist.com as well as on Twitter at @ChristianUncut