The Devil’s Bargain, Kirklees Priory

In 1872 an poet-cum-antiquary named Stephen Fawcett published a collection of lays called “Bradford Legends”. The style is typical of provincial poesy in the Late Romantic period and rather cloying to modern tastes; however, his contemporaries were more easily impressed and one fellow antiquary refers to Fawcett as “a local poet of considerable power”. The authenticity of the stories he versifies are debatable: although the ballads are clearly his own literary creation, many purport to record genuine folk-narrative from the region. Some of these—such as the Boar of Bradford or Pity Poor Bradford—are familiar from earlier sources and thereby independently verified; many others are unique and have no analogue in surviving sources. As such, it is difficult to affirm their provenance: were they once widely-told local legends which only Fawcett ever documented; or were they entirely a poet’s antiquarian fancy?

Thus, with regard to this tradition connected to Kirklees Priory related by Mr. Fawcett, it is best to remain in that state which John Keats called “negative capability… when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. It is not clear whether the narrative had any currency outside Fawcett’s imagination, but let us tentatively accept the possibility that it was a story still told by locals about the legendary history of Kirklees Priory in the 19th Century. It certainly displays many of the hallmarks of an authentic folk-narrative and whilst there was little to be seen of the ruins at Kirkless Priory following its dissolution, its former presence loomed large in the local psyche thanks to the legend of Robin Hood’s death—not to mention the fact that the site’s ecclesiastic history was preserved in the very name “Kirklees”.

The legend starts with a man called John awaiting the witching hour in the priory-church at Kirklees, whereupon he intends to strike a wager with Old Nick himself. Curiously Fawcett refers to the protagonist as “Prior John”, which is problematic because Kirklees was a nunnery rather than a monastery—however it is possible that this detail would’ve been unfamiliar to many locals and nunneries did have their own priest to perform the sacraments from which women were debarred. Fawcett’s account is not especially clear about why Prior John wishes to bargain with the Devil: there is no suggestion that his soul is otherwise imperilled; nor is there initially anything that the priest hopes to win through the deal. Although Prior John subsequently offers his immortal soul as his stake in the tournament, no reason is given why either party should have agreed to the contest in the first place: it is portrayed merely as a testament to John’s holiness.

In typically imperious fashion, Satan himself selects the modes of the duel; and in typically unsporting fashion, he chooses three “weapons” he himself invented: “tippling”, gambling and fighting. John promises that if he loses, then his opponent may claim his soul; however, if the Devil loses, he must release fifty souls from Purgatory. Fawcett claims that during their contest, “the corpse-lights burned red, white and blue; and the abbey’s ghosts gathered, the black game to view”. But despite the fact that Beelzebub had thought to give himself an unfair advantage by insisting upon games of his own invention, Prior John bests him in every one—including the drinking contest, for which the pair booze on malt liquor for seven whole hours and the priest still manages to drink the Devil under the table. Indeed, this finishes Old Nick off and in the throes of his hangover yields the fifty souls to Prior John.

However, Prior John is not done with the fiend and extracts a further guarantee that henceforth all monks will be adept at these three varieties of the Devil’s sport. John then proceeds to explain to his bested opponent, that the only reason a priest such as himself prevailed on this occasion was because he’d surreptitiously greased his hands with holy-water before the games began. In this respect, the story of Prior John’s deal with the Devil at Kirklees is typical of that sub-genre of migratory legends in which the old adversary is outwitted by a pious human. The fact that the story conforms to a common folktale model suggests that, whilst Fawcett may have added some poetic embellishments—such as the abbey ghosts gathering to watch—it is probable that the narrative was a genuine local legend connected with Kirklees at the time. It is simply surprising that it has not been more widely reported.

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Published in: on April 1, 2014 at 10:16  Leave a Comment  
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Copley Hall, Copley

This location is somewhat beyond the usual remit for this website; however, I wrote the piece for my forthcoming book, Haunted Halifax & District, but was ultimately unable to include it due to the constraints of the word-limit. Therefore I am publishing it here so that my efforts were not wasted. And Copley isn’t that far beyond the lower reaches of the valley.

Today, Copley is known primarily for its industrial heritage: in 1847, the Akroyd family moved their worsted mill to the site and two years later Edward Akroyd constructed a model village in which to house his workforce, pre-dating the more famous example of Sir Titus Salt at Saltaire by three years. Copley Mill, with its imposing triumphal arch, was demolished in 1975, but the model village endures—a testament to Victorian civic ambition. In recent decades, the area has become a centre for another sort of industry, thanks to the construction of Halifax Building Society’s data centre on land reclaimed from Copley Woods in 1987 (now owned by Lloyds Banking Group).

As such, it is difficult to imagine that Copley was formerly the site of one of the most venerable manors in Calderdale. The early pedigree of the Copley family has been the subject of much speculation and fancy, but it seems the Manor of Copley was already well-established during the Middle Ages. The first Copley Hall may have been erected around 1050, before it was rebuilt by Sir Henry Savile in 1421. As the fortunes of the manor waned in the 18th Century, part of the hall was converted into the Volunteer Arms. Sadly, the pub of that name standing today is not the same building, having been entirely demolished and rebuilt on the site in 1915.

In his 1847 chapbook, Rivers and Streams of Halifax, the local poet, F.W. Cronhelm, records that he gathered “with some difficulty… many years ago, a few fragments of the story (of Copley Hall), from an old crone at Copley Gate”. Cronhelm subsequently turned this tale into a doggerel ballad which tells how sometime in the Middle Ages, Sir Adam de Copley set out to fish for trout in Nun Brook, which ran beside Kirklees Priory, between Brighouse and Mirfield. Whilst there, his attention was captured by one of the young nuns, who eloped with him that night. As the Registers of the Archbishopric of York record that sisters at Kirklees were frequently admonished for “incontinence” during the 14th Century, this does not seem entirely improbable.

Sir Adam kept his mistress hidden in a seven-storey folly tower beside Copley Hall and for a while they were content together. Perhaps at length, however, Sir Adam began to feel uneasy about his sin and seek some atonement, for as Cronhelm records:

“Sir Adam, he took the holy cross,
And died in Palestine;
And lights were seen in the grated tower,
And voices heard lang-syne.
 
“But other moanings than the wind’s
Still rise on the midnight hour;
And other lights than taper or lamp
Shine from the haunted tower.”

With both tower and hall long gone, it is unlikely that the nun’s ghost walks still, and even the tradition goes unremembered in Copley today. Nonetheless, although Cronhelm doubtless romanticised the story according to a Gothic literary template, it is instructive as an early example of supernatural tradition in Calderdale. The historicity of the episode is probably to impossible to confirm, but if a sister of Kirklees Priory did ever elope with an heir of the Copley family, then eternal unrest would have been her punishment for such apostasy in the popular imagination.

Copyright Alexander P. Kapp and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Sterne Bridge, Copley

This location is somewhat beyond the usual remit for this website; however, I wrote the piece for my forthcoming book, Haunted Halifax & District, but was ultimately unable to include it due to the constraints of the word-limit. Therefore I am publishing it here so that my efforts were not wasted. And Copley isn’t that far beyond the lower reaches of the valley.

For centuries, a wooden bridge of this name carried Hollas Lane across the River Calder at the site of an ancient ford. It was named after the landowners, the Sterne family of nearby Wood Hall. Between 1724 and 1730, the young Laurence Sterne, resided at this house in the care of his uncle, whilst attending a local grammar school; he was later to find fame as the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in nine volumes from 1759 and now widely regarded as the “first modern novel”. There is record of “a secret chamber and a tradition concerning a ghostly visitor” at Wood Hall, but unfortunately further details have not yet come to light.

Sadly, Sterne Bridge was rebuilt in concrete in 1914 and again in 2012, on a much larger scale, to carry a new road as part of Calderdale Council’s controversial Copley Valley regeneration scheme. Whatever associations this Brutalist edifice might conjure, it is unlikely that Romantic verse is amongst them. Nonetheless, William Wordsworth immortalised a tradition connected with Sterne Bridge in the poem Lucy Gray, composed in 1799 and published the following year in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth’s literary heir, Matthew Arnold, described the work as “a beautiful success”, whilst the influential critic, A.C. Bradley, thought it showed a “visionary touch”.

The poem describes the last hours of Lucy Gray, a sweet and solitary child who was sent by her father to light her mother home on a snowy December afternoon. But as she descended from the moors, she was overtaken by a blizzard and never met her mother in the town, nor returned home that night. The following day, her parents began a frantic search of the route she would’ve taken; they found her footprints, still faintly visible in the snow, and tracked them down the hillside, to the middle of a wooden bridge where they abruptly disappeared. Wordsworth ends the poem with a characteristically Romantic flourish, suggesting that Lucy’s spirit still haunts that fateful crossing:

“Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living child;
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome wild.
 
“O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.”

Although Wordsworth does not mention any locations in the poem itself, he later appended a note stating, “It was founded on circumstances told me by my sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax in Yorkshire, was bewildered by a snowstorm”. It is likely that Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, heard the story as a child living in Halifax. Following the death of their mother in 1778, William was sent to boarding school, whilst Dorothy was entrusted to the care of their mother’s cousin, Elizabeth Threlkeld, who live over a draper’s shop in Southgate. Although she left in 1786, she referred to Halifax as “that dear place which I shall ever consider as my home” and returned to visit “Aunt Betsy” several times over the years. William even accompanied her on one visit in 1807, when they stayed at Mill House in Triangle.

The fact that the setting of Lucy Gray is so closely associated with Sterne Bridge locally suggests the oral tradition which Dorothy Wordsworth communicated to her brother endured in Halifax for many years, independently of the poem. Of course, we might wonder if Lucy’s ghost was part of that tradition, or if it was just a typically Romantic flourish to round off the work. In his later note, Wordsworth adds that Lucy’s body was subsequently discovered in a canal lock nearby, which tends to support the former possibility: a life tragically cut short was often a candidate for post-mortem return in folk-eschatology. Even if it was Wordsworth’s invention, it clearly fed back into the local tradition, as one source mentions “vigils mounted by local residents” at the bridge on wintry December nights.

Copyright Alexander P. Kapp and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

Curiosities of Barkisland

A Grade 1 listed building, Barkisland Hall is generally regarded as one of the most interesting mansion-houses in the Calderdale region. Although in many respects it is typical of vernacular architecture in the district during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century (such edifices are often dubbed “Halifax houses”), it has several additional features which make it unique. These include the three-storied F-plan structure, the two orders of fluted columns which frame the doorway, and the rose window above it, believed to be the earliest example of such a detail in the domestic architecture of England.

The Gledhill family had long occupied an earlier house on the site, but the extant building was constructed for John and Sarah Gledhill in 1638. John’s brother, Richard also resided at Barkisland Hall for a short time between its construction and his early death. The Gledhills were noted Royalist supporters during the English Civil Wars, and in the First Civil War (1642-1646), Richard served as Captain of a Troop of Horse under the uncompromising Sir Marmaduke Langdale, earning a knighthood for bravery from the Marquess of Newcastle.

However, Sir Richard’s contribution did not last long, as he was fatally wounded at Hessay, near York, during the fateful Battle of Marston Moor. According to historian Edward Lamplough, writing in 1891, “Gledhill… died in his own house an hour after he succeeded in gaining its shelter. He had received twenty-six wounds”. It is not clear if by “his own house” Lamplough means Barkisland Hall. Travelling the distance from Marston Moor with such grievous injuries seems to preclude it, as does the fact that Sir Richard is buried at the Church of St. Martin on Micklegate in York, rather than locally.

Yet if he had died at the Hall, it might explain why so many generations of Barkisland folk believed his restless spirit haunted the building and its environs. Sadly, accounts of his phantom are vague and by the early Twentieth Century the story seemed to exist as nothing more than a indistinct notion in the local psyche. There are no first or even second-hand accounts of encounters with the revenant, only a brief mention in a newspaper article from 1931, which simply states “Richard Gledhill’s ghost is said to haunt the area around Barkisland Hall”.

In 1636, Richard Gledhill’s sister, Elizabeth, had married another significant local landowner, William Horton, who in addition to Howroyd Hall and Firth House at Barkisland, also took possession of Coley Hall following its sale by Langdale Sunderland to pay the decimation fines imposed on Royalist supporters by Parliament following the Civil Wars. In this capacity the Hortons came to know the Non-Conformist firebrand, Rev. Oliver Heywood, who in periods of adversity often lodged with Captain Hodgson who was tenant at Coley Hall between 1654 and 1672.

Following the extinction of the Gledhill line, the Hortons took up residence at Barkisland Hall and upon the death of Elizabeth, the house was once again associated with supernatural activity. Rev. Heywood records in his diary for 2nd February 1671: “Mistress Horton the owner of this hall were we live died on Thursday night last… she lay from Tuesday to Thursday night speechless, not at all stirred, none were admitted to see her, many things considerable about her, several of the servants were affrighted with a great knocking and variety of music the night before she died”.

Domestic staff employed at Barkisland Hall were accommodated in a separate building erected in 1642 on Stainland Road nearby. By the early Nineteenth Century, this had been converted into a public house called the Griffin Inn and in recent decades, the established has also acquired a reputation for being haunted. The ghosts of an old man sitting by the fire and an old lady dressed in white, carrying a bunch of keys, have been witnessed on several occasions, in the taproom and cold-storage area of the cellar respectively.

As a relatively isolated hilltop village, superstition seems to have endured well into the Twentieth Century in Barkisland. A short distance from the Griffin Inn on Stainland Road stands Stocks House, so called because it was formerly the village lockup and an old set of stocks still survives beside it as a memorial to its former role. At some point it was converted into a private residence and it was probably during this process that a “witch-post” was added to the hearth to deflect the influence of baleful magic known as maleficium.

Chimneys and fireplaces were regarded as a vulnerable location by which witches could gain access to a house and so to the superstitious mind, demanded such apotropaic contingencies. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud explain, “In Yorkshire farmhouses of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, hearths were screened by partitions ending in posts of rowan wood carved with cross-shaped patterns, called ‘witch posts’… Belief in their protective power continued into the 1920s, when Yorkshire builders made new ones when old houses were being rebuilt”.

Meanwhile, Peter Brears notes a further tradition associated with witch-posts, “A crooked sixpence was kept in a hole at the centre of the post. When the butter would not turn you took a knitting needle, which was kept for the purpose in a groove at the top, and with it got out the sixpence and put it in the churn”. Sadly, it is not clear if such a custom would’ve been practiced at Barkisland or exactly when the witch-post was added to Stocks House; whether it was an original feature invested with genuine belief or a later recreation of the vernacular style.

Robin Hood’s Grave, Kirklees Park (Part Three)

Okay, this entry doesn’t actually contain any new information but that’s because all such material can be found in my recently published book “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place”! This is doubtless an act of shameless self-promotion on my part but in these days of dwindling marketing budgets, what else is a poor author to do? Plus, if I can’t hawk a book I’ve written on my own blog, where else can I? I hope, however, that many regular readers of this site will find the tome extremely informative and as such, I pray nobody will mind me bringing it to their attention. To purchase a copy, please click here or on the cover image further down the page.

According to a review in Northern Earth Magazine Issue 129, “Kai Roberts unravels a highly tangled skein of fact, folklore, paraphenomena, assumption, reinterpretation, vampirism, ego and propertarianism to seek a single unified theory of Robin Hood’s supposed resting-place in West Yorkshire. It makes for an entertaining read, all backed up by thorough research and organisation of the material”.

And from the March 2012 issue of Valley Life: “Folklore enthusiasts will find much that enlightens and informs in a carefully researched book that examines every fact and fantasy connected with Robin Hood’s death. A little light reading it certainly is not but the reader who persists will, at the close of the last page, be able to claim an encyclopaedic knowledge of a British icon that still intrigues and enthrals to this day.”

Below, you’ll find a chapter breakdown, whilst here’s the blurb from the back cover:

“In the modern era, the narrative of Robin Hood’s death is increasingly one of the least familiar aspects of the outlaw’s legend. It is all too commonly assumed that as Robin Hood is a legendary hero in the vein of King Arthur, there must be numerous sites that claim to be his final resting place. Yet this is not the case. Kirklees Priory in West Yorkshire is the only place that has been repeatedly associated with the outlaw’s grave, in terms of both documentary sources and material remains, over several hundred years.

Studying Kirklees and the various legends to have grown up around it allows us an insight into the reciprocal relationship between people and place. Of particular interest is the extent to which the state of Robin Hood’s grave in the modern era and all the associated disputes have determined the interpretation of the paranormal phenomena witnessed in the vicinity of the site today. In this regard, it is a study in modern myth-making.”

Chapter One

A detailed examination of the narrative of Robin’s death from the earliest medieval ballads to romanticised Victorian sources, observing variations and continuity especially regarding the role of Kirklees Priory and the legendary location of the outlaw’s grave.

Chapter Two

A history of Kirklees Park from its earliest occupation during the Iron Age and Romano-British period, through the life of Kirklees Priory during the Middle Ages, the estate’s subsequent possession by generations of the Armytage baronetcy and its sale in recent years.

Chapter Three

A history of the monument known as “Robin Hood’s Grave”, endeavouring to show that whilst its origins may be shrouded in mystery it is far more than an 18th Century folly and interrogating the reliability of much of what has been written about the site since the 1600s.

Chapter Four

A discussion of how the narrative of Robin’s death and the material presence of a “grave” at Kirklees has been used to support arguments for the outlaw’s historical existence (or otherwise) over the centuries, including some comments on the character’s mythic aspects.

Chapter Five

A history of public interest in the site of Robin Hood’s Grave, from the Armytage’s early exploitation of the site to their disinterest in the late 20th Century and refusal to permit access, resulting in the controversial campaign of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society.

Chapter Six

A digression chronicling the events at Highgate Cemetery in the early 1970s, in order to provide a valuable comparison with later occurrences at Robin Hood’s Grave and introduce readers to the colourful characters of Bishop Sean Manchester and David Farrant.

Chapter Seven

A study of the reputed paranormal activity around Robin Hood’s Grave, from 17th Century folklore to the range of contemporary reports, with reference to the involvement of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society and the site’s role in the decades-old Manchester/Farrant feud.

Chapter Eight

An examination of the psychogeogaphical landscape of which Robin Hood’s Grave has become an important part, encompassing Castle Hill, Hartshead Church, the Three Nuns pub, the Brontë family, holy wells, Luddites, dragons, ghosts and a brief history of ley-lines.

Chapter Nine

A survey of folklore pertaining to Robin Hood elsewhere in the Calder Valley, with particular reference to its connection with sites of topographic or prehistoric significance, introducing a tentative hypothesis regarding what this might tell us about the monument at Kirklees.

Chapter Ten

An analysis of the sociological, psychological and folkloric processes which have influenced perceptions of Robin Hood’s Grave, introducing the reader to concepts such as fakelore, legend-tripping and ostension, and the roles they have played in the site’s curious history.

Finally, the acknowledgements were omitted from the book in error. They are published below until such as time as they can be included in a future edition.

For information and advice: Paul Bennett, Anna Best, John Billingsley, Calderdale Libraries, Jon Downes, Corinna Downes, David Farrant, Catherine Fearnley, Barbara Green, Michael Hartley, Anthony Hogg, Gareth J. Medway, Bishop Sean Manchester, Andy Roberts, Paul Weatherhead and West Yorkshire Archive Service.

For moral support and good sense: Jim Firth, Mark Firth, Tom Firth, Patrick Green, Mark Howells, Helen Roberts, Pat & Derek Roberts, Phil Roper, Samantha Rule and Quentin Whitaker.

The Screaming Skull of Sowood House

Constructed in 1631 by the prosperous Whitley family of Northowram, Sowood House in Coley is an imposing edifice typical of many buildings erected in the region during the Seventeenth Century. By 1968, the house had fallen into a dilapidated condition and its new owner, Mr. Frank Drury, set about renovating it. During this process, workmen stumbled across a mysterious iron box concealed in the brickwork behind a chimney. Upon opening it, they made the macabre discovery of a human skull, prompting an investigation by the West Yorkshire Police to ensure that it was not evidence of a recent murder.

Forensic examination of the skull, however, revealed that it dated to the Seventeenth Century and was probably placed in the chimney when the house was built, as “protection against witches”. That period saw an effusion of such superstitious beliefs and countless objects have been discovered in buildings of the time, bricked up in threshold locations such as chimneys or roofs for talismanic purposes, including shoes, horse skulls and witch bottles. Mummified cats were particularly popular in the Calderdale area, with instances recorded at Slead Hall in Brighouse and the now demolished Mitre Hotel in Halifax.

Human remains are much rarer and more significant. This was confirmed by a letter published in the Evening Courier on 5th September 1968 from an eighty year old Southowram woman: “I remember my mother telling me about the skull over seventy years ago. She said the skull was found in an iron box in the chimney breast. It was taken to Coley and buried in the churchyard. Afterwards the house began to be haunted by cries of ‘Where is my head?!’ When, on the advice of the vicar, it was replaced in the chimney the cries ceased. My great-grandfather was a churchwarden of St. John’s, Coley and was present when the skull was put back”.

This places the Sowood House skull in that class of relics known as “guardian skulls” or more luridly, “screaming skulls”. In all cases, their legend is the same. The skull protects the house and family from malign influences and preserves their prosperity, as long as it is treated with due respect. But if it is slighted in any way, or removed from the house, misfortune and paranormal activity invariably ensue. The supernatural aspect typically manifests as uncanny auditory disturbances, hence the term “screaming skull”. Such troubles always persist until the skull is returned to its rightful position in the house.

There are several famous examples of guardian skulls throughout the country, including those at Calgarth Hall in Cumbria, Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire, Tunstead Farm in Derbyshire and Wardley Hall in Lancashire. The Sowood House skull has been overlooked until recently and whilst it lacks the developed legend of other examples, it is rendered interesting due to the wider usage of images of the human head for apotropaic purposes in Calderdale during the Seventeenth Century, such as the archaic stone head at Coley Hall nearby. Sadly there is no record of what became of the skull following the police investigation of 1968.

For more information on the Sowood House skull, please refer to my extended article in Northern Earth Magazine, Issue 124 available here.


The Gabble Ratchets

In his Memoranda for 2nd March 1664, whilst living at Coley Hall, Reverend Oliver Heywood wrote: “There is also a strange noise in the air heard of many in these parts this winter, called Gabriel-Ratches (sic) by this country-people, the noise is as if a great number of whelps were barking and howling, and ‘tis observed that if any see them the persons that see them die shortly after, they are never heard but before a great death or dearth.” Heywood is keen to point out, however, “Though I never heard them”.

The phenomenon known variously as the Gabble Ratchets or the Gabriel Hounds was not unique to the lower Calder valley. It was notorious throughout England, although primarily concentrated and surviving longest in the northern counties. The tradition was still familiar to the Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth in 1807. One of his sonnets from that year contains the lines “For overhead are sweeping the Gabriel Hounds / Doomed with the imperious lord, the flying hart / To chase forever on aerial grounds”.

Given the geographical range of the belief, the exact nature of the Gabble Ratchets varied somewhat. In his Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England of 1879, folklorist William Henderson described them as “monstrous human-headed dogs, who traverse the air, and are often heard although seldom seen.” However, Henderson goes on to add “In the neighbourhood of Leeds the phenomenon is… held to be the souls of unbaptised children doomed to flit restlessly around their parents home”.

In all traditions, they were thought to portend death or disaster. As spectral hounds, they were believed to be hunting the souls of the newly dead. Indeed, the term “Ratchets” may be derived from the Old English word “ræcc”, meaning a dog that hunts by scent. “Gabble” is probably just an onomatopoeic representation of the noise they made. One source from Sheffield informed Henderson that “the sound was exactly like the questing of a dozen beagles on the foot of a race, but not so loud and highly suggestive of ideas of the supernatural”.

It is thought the Gabble Ratchets may be derived from the Celtic Cŵn Annwn (Hounds of the Underworld), mentioned by the Sixth Century Welsh poet, Taliesin. The Cŵn Annwn were similarly imagined as a pack of spectral hounds, led by a black horned figure. Equally, there are correspondences with the Germanic myth of the Wild Hunt, who followed in the wake of the god Woden. The Wild Hunt was also known in some parts of southern England, where it was led by Herne the Hunter or even the Devil himself.

Belief in the Gabble Ratchets was dismissed by learned authorities as long ago as 1686. For instance, Robert Plot, first Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, believed their infamous cacophony to be nothing more than the cries of migrating geese. An ornithologist writing to Notes & Queries almost two centuries later concurred, identifying them as “bean-geese, coming southwards in large flocks on the approach of winter from Scandinavia. They choose dark nights for their migration and utter a loud and peculiar cry”.

Published in: on May 22, 2011 at 10:58  Leave a Comment  
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The Headless Hound of Toothill Hall

Set in extensive grounds at the junction of Toothill Lane and Huddersfield Road, a building was first recorded at Toothill Hall in the 16th Century and the Toothill family as early as the 1300s. The name of the area derives from the Old English for “look-out hill”, suggesting human activity had existed there since before the Norman Conquest. It certainly makes a fine site for a watch post, commanding extensive views up and down the lower Calder valley. Although it seems likely that the Toothill family were the founders of the Hall, it has been occupied by a diverse succession of people over the centuries and the current edifice was constructed by Quaker philanthropist Thomas Firth in 1823 and later, divided into two in 1957.

In Legends and Traditions of Huddersfield and Its District, Philip Ahier recounts a curious legend associated with Toothill Hall and the surrounding area. He was told that during the English Civil Wars, it was home to a young cavalier who was in love with a daughter of Newhouse Hall, located just over a mile away on the other side of Felgreave Wood at Sheepridge. This girl, Sybil Brooke, was held to be a great beauty and had many suitors in the locality, but only the cavalier of Toothill found his affections reciprocated. However, her father did not approve of the match, despite also supporting the Royalist cause in the Civil Wars, and so forbade the lovers from meeting, confining his daughter to the Hall.

Nonetheless, the young cavalier was determined and devised a means by which he and his beau could communicate still. He would attach a message to the neck of his hound, who then sped through the woods by moonlight to be met by Sybil at the kitchen window of Newhouse Hall. The girl would then send him back to his master with a message in return. This method proved successful for a period of time, but one fateful night the hound discovered not Sybil Brooke at the kitchen window, but her enraged father. Such was his anger, he took his sword and with a single blow, cleaved the dog’s head from its body, slicing the letter it carried in two in the process. The hound then turned tail and scampered headless through the woods.

Upon hearing of the fate of his faithful messenger, the Toothill cavalier is supposed to have been so incensed that he changed sides in the Civil Wars, swearing his allegiance to Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, just to spite the Newhouse patriarch. Meanwhile, on moonlit nights in autumn, the apparition of a headless hound is still said to roam through Felgrave Wood and back to Toothill Hall. Anybody who witnesses this phantom is supposed to suffer grave misfortune. This aspect of the legend has much in common with the widespread “black dog” motif in English folklore, known variously as black shuck, barguest, guytrash and skriker. Hence, it may be that the story was grafted on to explain a much older folkloric tradition in the area.

A variation on the legend appears in the mid-19th Century, when a phantom dog with the head and beard of a man was believed to haunt Felgreave Wood (today bisected by the A641 between Bradley Bar and Huddersfield). A woman named Elizabeth Haigh is reported to have fallen into a deep swoon upon witnessing the monstrosity and was not found until the following morning. Ahier suggests that the origin of this adaptation may lie in Felgreave Wood’s reputation at the time for plentiful game, especially pheasant and hare. The gamekeepers probably traded on the existing legend to deter poachers, and to reinforce it further may have taken to donning furs and crawling on all fours through the undergrowth.

Although Newhouse Hall lies firmly within Kirklees and the Colne Valley and so beyond the remit of this site, due to its connection with the Toothill legend it seems worth recounting here that the Hall also has its fair share of ghosts. Following the brutal intervention of her father, tradition claims that Sybil Brooke lost her reason and pined away in the upper rooms of the house, which her ghost still stalks to this day. Maids in the 19th Century claimed to hear the rustle of silk along the corridors at night and one often complained of being “clutched by an unseen hand”. Meanwhile, in one particular bed in an upper chamber, guests were often disturbed by a thing that crouched heavily on the legs of the sleeper, only to disappear as soon as a light was kindled.

Archaic Stone Heads

These distinctive stone carvings of the human head can be found distributed throughout the South Pennines and represent a unique centuries-old tradition, the exact origins and purposes of which has been the subject of considerable debate amongst folklorists and historians since the custom was first noticed by academia in the mid-20th Century. Lying at the very heart of the region, Calderdale is especially abundant in such images with approximately 150 documented and whilst the upper valley tends to be richer (as is so often the case), prominent manifestations of the art have been recorded on a building at Pinnar Lane in Southowram, on the gateway at Coley Hall and in a courtyard at Shibden Hall, whilst free-standing examples have been uncovered at Shibden, Greetland, Brighouse and Elland.

These carvings have been dubbed “archaic heads” by folklorist John Billingsley (who has written extensively on the subject) to distinguish them from the more obviously representational and finely worked “Classical” head. Archaic stone heads are primarily features of vernacular architecture and whilst they vary in style most appear to be rather coarsely rendered, although this is often a case of deliberate stylisation rather than any lack of skill on the part of the sculptor. Typically, the face is circular or ovoid with relatively flat features, whilst a triangular nose is carved in relief continuous with the eye ridges. Eyes tend to be amygdaliform and lentoid; the mouth a slit or “cigarette hole” lacking lips or teeth. Other characteristics such as the representation of facial hair are occasionally found, whilst some instances are janiform or tri-cephalic.

Common locations to find archaic stone heads on buildings include above doorways and windows and on chimneys, gables and eaves. They are also found on gateways and bridges, occasionally built into field-walls and sometimes buried, especially in the case of the free-standing examples. Their precise function has been the subject of much speculation, but it is generally thought that they are associated with pre-modern concepts of liminality, as they are so often found at threshold locations. As such, they act as boundary guardians and mediators, a physical representation of a tutelary spirit. The fact that many such carvings are found in positions where they are difficult to see supports the theory that they were primarily “magical” devices rather than decorative motifs.

The phenomenon of archaic stone heads first came to public attention in the 1970s when the Director of Bradford Museums Service Sidney Jackson mounted an exhibition of examples he had collected during his tenure. By the time of his death, he had catalogue over 600 instances. Jackson himself dubbed the carvings “Celtic” stone heads, whilst noted Celtic scholar Dr. Anne Ross proclaimed the exhibition represented evidence of a remarkable continuity of tradition in the South Pennines. However, the Celtic designation has been the source of some controversy since Jackson’s exhibition. Certainly Celtic cultures are known to have venerated the image of the head, similarly believing it to possess an apotropaic function and some of the examples uncovered in the region may indeed date to the Iron Age or Romano-British period.

Other examples, however, are much more recent and the tradition was still thriving in Calderdale and surrounding areas up until the 19th Century. Whether this is evidence of a surviving Celtic tradition in the South Pennines as Anne Ross suggests is hard to assess. Some historians such as Ronald Hutton have entirely dismissed the idea of survivals of this nature and antiquity, asserting that many traditions dubbed Celtic by mid-20th Century folklorists are unlikely to be older than the late medieval period. If this hypothesis is correct, then the archaic head represents not a uniquely Celtic icon but one that has arisen in the folk tradition of many different periods and cultures, suggesting a commonality in the collective human psyche which some find just as interesting.

On the other hand, historians base their findings purely on documentary evidence, whilst the whole crux of the folklorists’ arguments is that the oral tradition may have preserved beliefs for centuries before they were written down. Moreover, if archaic stone heads were an isolated phenomenon, then the Celtic theory might not seem so feasible. But the South Pennines is an area teeming with customs for which a Celtic origin can at least be suggested from well-dressing to sacred stones, and there are numerous examples of that other manifestation of head-lore, the screaming skull. It is also relevant that until the 7th Century AD the region formed the heart of Elmet, the last surviving Celtic kingdom in England and that prior to the Industrial Revolution, the area was profoundly isolated from outside influences.

Further support is lent by the justification for the carvings offered by local residents. Some carvings were thought to represent an individual who’d died during the construction of the building on which the image is found, and it has been suggested that this echoes the Celtic practice of foundation sacrifice to ensure the “luck” of the dwelling. A more common explanation is that heads were carved on the building to ward off evil spirits and whilst this is a rather simplistic interpretation of the heads’ liminal tutelary role, it suggests a persistence of the apotropaic function in the local folk memory. As late as 1971 the landlord of the Old Sun Inn in Haworth was advised by one of his regulars to place a carved stone head above the doorway to lay a ghost which was supposedly haunting the establishment.

Ultimately, it will be impossible to “prove” whether such a belief system could have survived for over two thousand years and arguably, it is most prudent to adopt towards the question an attitude of what the poet John Keats called negative capability, whereby you entertain all possible theories without feeling the need to settle on any definitive answer. However, when all the various factors are accounted for, the possibility of an enduring Celtic tradition does not seem so unlikely. There can be no doubt that the design of archaic heads known to date from the 17th Century is remarkably similar to those of heads known to date from the Iron Age, whilst their ritual function has much in common with certain types of magical, pre-modern thinking which were especially characteristic of Celtic culture.

Copyright Kai Roberts

Robin Hood’s Grave, Kirklees Park (Part Two)

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.

Link to Part One

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.