STOP PRESS: My book “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place” has now been published by CFZ Press. It examines the history and legend surrounding Robin Hood’s grave at Kirklees in great depth. More information can be found here and the book can be purchased by clicking here.
Located in the dense woodland of Kirklees Park, the site of Robin Hood’s Grave has always been a locus of superstition and myth. Whilst in recent years, the stories have become more lurid, the earliest tales recall some of the most venerable traditions of British folklore. In his 1730 work, The Ancient and Modern History of the Famous City of York, Thomas Gent claims that in years gone by the gravestone was removed by one of the local gentry for use as the hearthstone in his manor. However, on the morning following its installation it was discovered “turned aside,” something that occurred on three successive occasions until it was returned to its original position. Meanwhile, the reason the stone was enclosed by railings in the late 18th Century was to deter navvies working in the area from taking chippings from the stone, which they believed worked as a cure for toothache.
Such stories are very similar to those attached to numerous prehistoric standing stones and other megalithic sites across Western Europe, leading some to speculate that the original stone of Robin Hood’s Grave may have been a much earlier monolith which was adapted to a new tradition. This process is not uncommon in the Calderdale region, where a number of ancient geomantic sites have become associated with the outlaw, who is sometimes regarded by folklorists as a medieval folk-memory of a pre-Christian deity. One such example is Robin Hood’s Penny Stone, a rocking stone at the centre of a lost stone circle near Wainstalls, that local folklore holds was thrown there by Robin from across the valley. He is often portrayed as a giant of enormous strength in legends of the region, which supports the notion that older pagan legends have been transposed into his name.
The first published hint of a long-standing local belief in darker supernatural forces around the grave comes from Land of Lost Content: The Luddite Revolt by Robert Reid, in which the author writes: “The Armytage family lived over the brow of the hill on a splendid site once occupied by Cistercian nuns. It was called Kirklees. There was more than an insularity which set the mansion apart. There was a mystery about it which local people only reluctantly tried to penetrate. The mystery was helped physically by the thick shroud of trees that surrounded the place and was sustained by local tales of ghosts of prioresses and nuns and or the death of Robin Hood whose grave is so imperturbably marked as lying within Kirklees grounds in spite of any facts which might suggest to the contrary.” This has become a much quoted passage and appears to have greatly influenced subsequent belief attached to the site.
A number of local stories concerning apparent paranormal activity in the area have been collected over the years. One of the earliest oral recollections dates to 1923 when John Hill, a tenant farmer living in the gatehouse where Robin is supposed to have died, returned from a nearby pub one night and reports to have seen a shadowy figure wielding a bow in the upstairs window. In another account, local musician Roger Williams claims to have been walking through the woods near the grave when he encountered the apparition of a woman with mad, staring eyes on two occasions in 1963 and 1972. Then there is the testimony of journalists Judith Broadbent and Sue Ellis who visited the grave to write a feature for Yorkshire Life. Whilst there, Broadbent experienced the sensation of being pulled to the ground and immediately afterwards, Ellis was seized by a mysterious paralysis which lasted for weeks.
However, things get much murkier when the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society enters the equation. The Society was founded in 1984 by local resident Barbara Green and over the years they have tirelessly campaigned for access to the grave, much to the chagrin of landowner Lady Armytage. Facing repeated obstruction in their reasonable desire to visit the site, its members were forced to engage in trespass and whilst this was a last resort, the parallels with Robin’s own behaviour in the face of aristocratic opposition were not lost on them. In this correspondence there is a hint of a phenomenon academic folklorists have dubbed ostension, whereby an individual closely associates themselves with a legend, often to the extent of re-enacting its narrative. The Society’s attempts to promote the grave increasingly became a crusade against class privilege and the ensuing lack of diplomacy on both sides served to muddy the waters further.
The majority of supernatural activity recorded at the grave in the past two decades comes from Barbara Green herself and other members of her organisation. As president of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society, she would already have been well acquainted with the rumours surrounding the grave and quite probably the passage from Land of Lost Content. Moreover, not only have many of her visits been illicit and in the dead of night, but Green is also a believer in the paranormal. It’s not too disingenuous to suggest that these facts may have coloured her perception of the site and her claims must be treated accordingly. One such example is her account of a night in April 1990 when she was holding a vigil at the grave, only to be overcome by a profound sense of dread and see a red-headed man accompanied by a black shape amongst the trees, which she speculates may have been the spirits of the Prioress and her lover, Red Roger of Doncaster.
However, Green’s experiences look positively sensible when compared to the assertions of Reverend Sean Manchester and the case of the Kirklees Vampire. Manchester is an ordained priest and an alleged descendant of Lord Byron, but perhaps he is more notorious as the United Kingdom’s most prominent and apparently entirely sincere vampire hunter. He rose to tabloid fame in the early 1970s during the infamous Highgate Vampire hysteria and his feud with rival investigator David Farrant which was at the centre of those events persists today. It seems Manchester had already identified Robin Hood’s Grave as a potential source of vampiric activity, arguing that both the outlaw and his murderer could be candidates for the undead. The former because he had been buried in unhallowed ground and the latter due to the means by which she’d dispatched her troublesome cousin.
It is therefore hardly surprising that when Manchester made his visit to the grave – coincidentally also in April 1990 – he claims to have found all the signs of a vampire infestation. These included occult symbols scrawled on the gatehouse; the mutilated carcass of a goat in the woods, seemingly drained of blood; and claw marks in the earth around the grave itself. Whilst they were at the grave, Manchester writes that he and his fellow “researchers” heard a terrifying wailing sound and one of his companions claimed to have seen the spectre of a darkly-clad woman who suddenly turned into a crimson-eyed demon. The self-styled vampire hunter then proceeded to drive back these forces of darkness, bearing his crucifix aloft and intoning “Behold the Light!”, dousing the area around the grave with holy water before they left. His account of the incident can be found in his Vampire Hunter’s Handbook.
Barbara Green invited Manchester to act as the patron of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society, a role he held until the two fell out over Green’s refusal to expel a member who Manchester believed to be a Satanist. In what was surely a calculated snub, when Green relaunched the Society in recent years, Manchester’s arch-enemy David Farrant had taken over the role of patron. Since this time, Manchester has attempted to discredit Green (and naturally, Farrant) at every opportunity, even going to the extent of denying that he had ever propagated the myth of the Kirklees Vampire, despite that chapter in his book. Meanwhile, Green is satisfied that all paranormal activity at the grave has ceased since an exorcism performed there with Farrant and others on 20th April 2005. One suspects, however, that the centuries-old reputation of the site and the internecine squabbles of its would-be protectors will not be laid to rest so easily.