The Haunted Mines of Hartshead-cum-Clifton

Situated atop rich deposits of high-quality black bed coal, the parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton has a history of small-scale mining operations dating back to at least the Middle Ages. However, for roughly a hundred years between the early Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, the area became home to several much larger commercial mining enterprises. At one point, these collieries employed over five hundred people in the two villages, including boys as young as twelve who had been brought from Scotland or Ireland and were fostered by local families.

In 1838, the colliers of the district formed the Clifton Brass Band as a source of recreation. In his Story of the Ancient Parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, Reverend Harold Pobjoy recounts a story that once, for no adequately explained reason, all the Band’s instruments were thrown down an abandoned mine shaft at Gin Pit Hill (named after the horse-worked windless mechanism which brought up the coal), an area just adjacent to Clifton Common today. It was said that on certain nights, village children passing the workings would be terrified by the sound of ghostly music rising from the depths.

Evidently the mining families were a superstitious lot, as the following story from Hartshead Pit vividly demonstrates. This colliery once operated in the vicinity of Soap House Farm from 1861 until 1935 and was one of the largest in the area, employing over two hundred people below ground at the height of productivity in 1908. However, during the National Coal Strike of 1912 it fell silent like all the rest and in order to obtain fuel, the women and children of the surrounding villages were forced to spend their days gleaning coal from the waste tips of the pit.

One day, they had nearly finished bagging up all they could find when twilight began to fall. The Huddersfield Daily Examiner for 16th September 1929 recounts what happened next: “Suddenly a ‘ghost’ appeared at the edge of the tip, mouthing horribly and gesticulating with it shapeless arms. There was a scream, sacks of coal were dropped and the gatherers fled in terror… Half-an-hour later the more intrepid of them gingerly made their way back to the tip and went to retrieve their coal, the results of a day’s work. But it had gone—sacks and everything!”

Published in: on February 29, 2012 at 13:50  Comments (2)  
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Roe Head, Hartshead

Situated in the hinterland between Hartshead and Mirfield, Roe Head lies on the very eastern edge of this site’s geographical remit, but still arguably within Calderdale (when that title is used to mean a topographic rather than administrative region). The location has excellent views back up the valley towards Brighouse and down the River Colne towards Huddersfield, making it a very desirable situation for a grand residence. A house was first constructed on the site in 1666 on land purchased from the Armytage’s Kirklees estate (which it still adjoins), but the current three-storied building dates from 1740. It has seen a number of uses of the years, but it’s most famous incarnation was from 1830 until 1838, when it was leased to Miss Margaret Wooler’s School for Girls.

Like the neighbouring village of Hartshead, Roe Head is renowned for its connections to the Brontë family. Possibly owing to happy memories of his curacy at St. Peter’s Church twenty years earlier—not to mention the excellent reputation of the institution—Rev. Patrick Brontë chose to send his eldest surviving daughter to Miss Wooler’s academy for tuition between 1831 and 1833. There were never more than ten pupils during Charlotte’s time at the school, lending the place a close-knit, familial atmosphere, and by all accounts, she was very happy there. It was at Roe Head that Charlotte met her close friends Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey, whilst she bonded with Miss Wooler to such an extent that the headmistress gave the girl away at her wedding in 1854.

Indeed, Charlotte was evidently so happy at Roe Head that in 1835, only two years after she’d left as a pupil, she returned as a teacher. Her salary allowed her sister Emily to attend the school, but the ever-delicate future author of Wuthering Heights only lasted three months before she was forced to return to Haworth due to homesickness. The youngest sister, Anne, replaced her and remained as a pupil at the school until 1837, when she fell seriously ill with gastritis and was forced to return to Haworth. Charlotte left her job as a teacher at Roe Head shortly thereafter. However, her time at the school evidently made quite an impression and well-acquainted her with the topography of the Calder and Spen Valleys, providing the inspiration for her 1849 novel, Shirley.

During Charlotte’s tenure at Roe Head, it seem that the building had a reputation for being haunted, something first mentioned in print by Elizabeth Gaskell in her 1857 Life of Charlotte Brontë. She writes “The number of pupils… ranged from seven to ten; and as they did not require the whole of the house for their accommodation, the third story was unoccupied, except by the ghostly idea of a lady, whose rustling silk gown was sometimes heard by the listeners at the foot of the second flight of stairs.” It is not clear whether tales of the haunting predated the establishment of the school and sadly, no accompanying story to account for the phantom seems to have survived either. Some have wondered, however, if this idea of a mysterious presence in the attic might have influenced Charlotte when she was writing Jane Eyre.

Charlotte’s close friend and fellow Roe Head pupil, Ellen Nussey, added a little further information in memoirs published in 1871. “The tradition of a lady ghost who moved about in rustling silk in the upper stories of Roe Head had a great charm for Charlotte. She was a ready listener to any girl who could relate stories of others having seen her; but on Miss W. hearing us talk of our ghost, she adopted an effective measure for putting out belief in such an existence to the test, by selecting one or other from among us to ascent the stairs after the dimness of evening hours had set in, to bring something down which could easily be found. No ghost made herself visible even to the frightened imaginations of the foolish and the timid; the whitened face of apprehension soon disappeared, nerves were braced, and a general laugh soon set us all right again.”

When Ellis Chadwick visited Roe Head for his book In the Footsteps of the Brontës, published in 1914, he reported that the owners at that time had not experienced any supernatural activity. However, the spirit has evidently returned in recent years. Today, Roe Head is a school once more, run by the Hollybank Trust for disabled children. In 2009, Syrie James also visited the establishment whilst researching her novel, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, but her findings were quite different to those of Mr. Chadwick almost a century earlier: “The Director of the school took my me up into the spooky, rambling attic and told us old legends of the Ghost of Roe Head. He and others have seen strange apparitions, including an inexplicable, icy presence which haunted the main hall.”

The White Gate Inn, Hartshead

Located beside Leeds Road on the border between Hartshead and Mirfield (not far from Roe Head) the White Gate is perhaps better known today as the adjacent garden centre to which it has lent its name. However, it is also one of the most venerable public houses in the area and whilst its antiquity is not quite as great as the nearby Three Nuns, it was certainly standing in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, when—like so many hostelries in the vicinity—it was well-known to many of the men who participated in the ill-fated Luddite uprising of 1812.

Although it may not be as old as the Three Nuns, the White Gate shares a history of supernatural activity, albeit of a more benign character. The phenomena was reported to the Huddersfield Daily Examiner in 1978 by Alice Barker, who had served as landlady at the pub for the preceding seventeen years. She claimed that the disturbances first came to her attention not long after she moved onto the premises with her family in 1961, starting with the sound of disembodied footsteps ascending and descending the stairs at regular times of day.

Customers and staff also reported hearing the noises when the pub was known to be otherwise empty. The building was frequently searched for intruders and on one occasion the police were called, but nobody was ever found. Mrs. Barker added, “These days the family or the cleaner will often hear a man whistling during the day. We never see anyone. It is a happy tone and seems to be that of a cheerful man, so we don’t think we have cause to be frightened”. The apparition was dubbed the “Old Man” and the family began to refer to the ghost “as if it were a house-guest”.

The only occasion on which the Mrs. Barker admitted to feeling unnerved was when she actually glimpsed the ghost, one evening as the family were about to leave the building to attend a function. She told the Examiner, “I went upstairs to fetch my shoes from my room and saw an old man in a grey suit sat in my chair, warming his feet by the fire. He looked very kind and homely”. Despite the shock of the sighting, the apparition’s appearance confirmed the landlady’s intuition that it was a friendly spirit, who watched over the pub and its patrons.

When Mrs. Barker asked locals if they had any idea what might have caused the haunting, she was told a tale that connected the pub to one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the region. On the evening of April 11th 1812, several hundred Luddites gathered by the Dumb Steeple at Cooper Bridge and marched across Hartshead Moor to destroy the new cropping frames installed at Rawfolds Mill, Cleckheaton. Unfortunately, the proprietor was expecting them and met the attack with full force, utterly routing the ramshackle insurgency.

Following the defeat, many of the retreating Luddites made for sympathetic pubs in the area; a number had been fatally wounded in the attack and died of their wounds in such establishments. Local lore claims that one such individual, having being turned away from the Star Inn at Roberttown managed to stagger on to the White Gate, only to expire on its threshold. However, whilst this is certainly a satisfactory story to account for the haunting, most of those involved in the attack on Rawfolds were young men and so the narrative regrettably fails to tally with Mrs. Barker’s sighting.

Published in: on February 29, 2012 at 13:33  Leave a Comment  
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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.

St. Peter’s Church, Hartshead

 

Although this church lies on the very border of Calderdale with Kirklees, its status as an integral part of the ancient parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton means that its associations with the region are strong enough to warrant its inclusion here. It is one of the oldest churches in the district and a place of worship is first recorded at the site in 1120 when the Earl of Warren granted it to the Priory of Lewes, although it was possibly the location of an earlier Saxon chapel. Although the church was extensively restored in 1881, the chancel arch, west tower and south door are believed to be remnants of the 12th Century Norman structure.

Arguably, the church’s greatest claim to fame is that Reverend Patrick Brontë, father of the famous literary sisters, was incumbent here between 1810 and 1815. The Luddite attack on Cartwright Mill at Rawfolds occurred during his tenure and his memoirs from that period provided his daughter Charlotte with material for her novel “Shirley”. Although Brontë was an opponent of the Luddite movement, it is said that one night he witnessed some of the men killed during the failed assault receive a surreptitious burial in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard and did not intervene. There is still a space where their unmarked graves lie.

It was a curious local superstition for Hartshead folk to hold a vigil in the porch of the church every year on St. Mark’s Eve (24th April) from 11pm to 1am. The vigil had to be carried out for three years in succession and on the third year, the watchers were supposed to witness the spirits of all those who would die in the year ahead process into the church. It is said that if anybody whose name was mentioned as amongst those seen on St. Mark’s Eve fell ill during the course of the following year, they often despaired of recovery and some are actually supposed to have died as a result of their anxiety arising from such gossip.

Given the proximity of Kirklees Park and the long association of the Armytage family with the church, it is unsurprising that a couple of Robin Hood legends have attached themselves to it. It is said locally that he cut his last arrows from a yew tree in the churchyard, the dead trunk of which can still be seen standing there today. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society has suggested that the original stone from his grave — recorded by Nathaniel Johnston and others in the 17th Century but which some believe vanished from the grave site long ago — may be the medieval slab inscribed with a simple Calvary cross lying next to the south-east door of the church. However, this has been disputed.

Just to the north of the church, now almost entirely concealed beneath a hawthorn tree, lies the Lady Well. The origin of the name is likely to be Our Lady’s Well, referring to the Virgin Mary, which suggests it was once an important holy well used for baptisms in the earliest period of Christianity in England. Local historian H.N. Pobjoy thinks it possible that the 7th Century missionary and first Archbishop of York Paulinus may have performed baptisms here and like many such wells, it was probably regarded as sacred long before the arrival of Christianity. It’s presence certainly attests to the antiquity of worship around the site of the church.

Hal of Kirklees

“Hal” was a generic term in days gone-by for an individual with learning disabilities and sometime in the early 18th Century, Sir George Armytage of Kirklees Hall befriended just such a person and gave him a position at the hall as a jester, for despite his affliction he was said to possess a sharp wit. It is sometimes said that his surname was Pierson and sometimes Wormald but both local historians J. Horsfall Turner and H.N. Pobjoy seem satisfied that he was a historical figure, living sometime around 1730.

Despite the patronage of Sir George, many of the other servants at the Hall would frequently torment Hal with a variety of practical jokes. On one occasion Robbie the estate carpenter told Hal that if he placed a half-crown in a hole, it would magically multiply. The jester complied and later, Robbie sneaked back and exchanged the coin for coppers, knowing Hal did not grasp the relative value of different coins. Hence Robbie’s victim was initially pleased with the outcome but when Hal discovered he’d been tricked, he swore he would get his revenge.

For a while Hal contented himself with hiding Robbie’s tools but one evening when the carpenter failed to turn up for dinner, people noticed that Hal seemed unusually pleased with himself. When questioned, he claimed to have hidden Robbie’s head under the wood shavings, “and when he wakens he’ll be troubled to find it!” The shocked servants rushed to the workshop and sure enough, discovered a decapitated body with its head concealed beneath a pile of shavings. Still failing to understand that he had killed Robbie, Hal attempted to reattach them.

Hal was tried for murder at York but was acquitted on the grounds of “weak-mindedness” and returned to the care of Sir George. However, finally cognisant of what he had done, Hal was never the same again. He was often found weeping by the beck and refused to go near the carpenter’s shop or touch an edged tool. The guilt of the experience prematurely aged him and he supposedly died a grey-haired man aged only thirty. However, his memory was kept alive in the phrase “worse than Hal of Kirklees” which for many years was a popular local dismissal for foolishness.

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.

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

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.

Sited in a hollow between Hartshead Moor and the River Calder and adjacent to the M62 yet seemingly entirely isolated from the clamour of modern life, Kirklees Park is a delightfully rural oasis amidst the jumble of housing and industry crammed into this tract of the Calder Valley. The Park is the estate of Kirklees Hall, constructed in 1610 and home to the Armytage family until the death of Sir John in 1983 when it was sold and after many unsuccessful ventures along with much legal wrangling, finally converted into residential apartments in 1999. His widow Lady Armytage continued living on the estate until her death in 2008, in a grotesquely inappropriate modern bungalow which still sits like a carbuncle amidst the meadows and ancient buildings.

The site was originally a Roman encampment but it is in the medieval period that its history really begins. The name Kirklees (the Park still stands in Calderdale despite lending its title to a more nebulous neighbouring municipality) derives from the Old English words “kirk” and “lees” meaning “church by the clearing”. The Priory was founded on the site by Reyner le Flemyng, a local lord of the manor, in 1135 and housed between eight and twenty nuns until like all such institutions it was abandoned in 1539 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was to supply the priory that a farm was originally built on the site and it is primarily as a farm that the estate is still worked today. However, elements of its ecclesiastic history can still be seen, including the 14th Century grave of the prioress Elizabeth de Staynton and the early 16th Century timber-frame gatehouse.

However, even in its heyday, the Priory was not always the most sanctified environment. In 1315, the Archbishop of York heard that “There are scandalous reports in circulation about the nuns of Kirklees, and especially about Elizabeth de Hopton, Alice de Raggede, and Joan de Heton, that they did admit both clergy and laymen too often into the secret places of the monastery, and have private talks with them, from which there is a suspicion of sin, and great scandal arises.” And indeed, over the centuries, Kirklees Park has repeatedly been the focus of suspicion and scandal, with a great deal of that controversy centred on its most famous and yet perversely neglected asset, the site of Robin Hood’s Grave, a place forbidden to visitors for half a century now at least and so still a source of great intrigue.

The story of the death of legendary outlaw Robin Hood is found in the 15th Century ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hode His Death, part of the fragmentary 17th Century Percy Folio. These sources tell how in his dotage Robin travels from his habitual haunt of Sherwood to Kirklees Priory – where the prioress is his cousin – to be bled, a common medieval procedure for the treatment of all manner of ailments, accompanied by his faithful comrade Little John (who one of the ballads asserts Robin had originally met at “Clifton-under-Calder”). On the road they are stopped by an old hag by some black water who curses Robin, although the details of the curse are obscure because the manuscript is damaged at this point, but it is nonetheless a classic mythological harbinger of the tragedy about to unfold.

Upon their arrival at Kirklees, Robin is installed in the gatehouse, the only part of Priory in which a man could’ve been received and the bleeding goes ahead. However, his cousin the Prioress and her lover Red Roger of Doncaster conspire against the outlaw for reasons which are never entirely made clear and proceed to drain his blood to such an extent that his life ebbs away. With the assistance of Little John, Robin makes it to the gatehouse window and with the last of his strength fires an arrow, commanding that he should be buried where the arrow falls. He also commands John not to harm any of the inhabitants of the Priory and so following the death of his master, Little John leaves Kirklees with a curse which some have claimed still blights the area today.

The first record of an actual gravestone at Kirklees purporting to be that of Robin Hood can be found in Grafton’s Chronicle of 1569 which describes a stone beside the highway engraved with the name Robert Hood amongst others. Then, in the 1607 edition of his seminal topography Britannia, William Camden mentions that Kirklees is known for Robin’s tomb. Camden obtained his information from local antiquarian John Saville, whose family briefly owned Kirklees before the Armytages. A sketch of the grave made by the Pontefract historian Nathaniel Johnston in 1665 supports Grafton’s descriptions of the grave (although it may have been later embellished by William Stukeley). These sources suggest that the gravestone seen today is not the original marker, the only remaining evidence of which may be the large eroded fragment of sandstone which lies on the floor of the modern enclosure.

Instead, the current gravestone bears the epitaph “Here beneath this little stone / Lays Robert Earl of Huntingdon / Never was an archer so good as he / And people called him Robin Hood / Such outlaws as he and his men / Will England never see again” It is dated “24 kalends of December 1247.” There are two substantial problems with this inscription. Firstly, the date given does not exist in the Roman calendar and secondly, the inscription is rendered in a pseudo-archaic version of Old English which is certainly a later invention. An epitaph of these words is mentioned by Thomas Gale, the Dean of York between 1697 and 1702 but from the style of the script it seems the gravestone is even later than that, probably added when the walling – complete with pillars and finials – was constructed in the late 18th Century.

The current grave stands on unhallowed ground 660 yards uphill from the priory gatehouse, a distance which expert archers insist could not have been covered by an arrow, even shot by a longbow. Moreover, it is reported that Sir Samuel Armytage excavated the grave in the 18th Century to a depth of three feet but found no evidence of human remains or even that the earth had ever previously been disturbed. Whether these factors count as evidence against the burial of Robin Hood at the site, however, is a matter of perspective. Some will maintain that the grave has simply been moved and the outlaw’s remains now lie unmarked somewhere else in the vicinity. Others will maintain that Robin Hood never existed to be buried in the first place. Meanwhile, wise men will point out that it does not matter whether or not he is buried there, but that successive generations have believed it to be the case and as a result the site has become a locus of myth and legend.

Yet whilst the site was certainly once well-known – Kirkless Park appears as “Nunwood” in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley where it is described as a “one of Robin Hood’s haunts” – and it was an attraction at fairs held by Sir John Armytage in the early to mid 20th Century, in the last couple of decades it has become the centre of a storm over access. Kirklees Park is still a private estate and for many years following her husband’s death, Lady Armytage refused to allow people to visit it, despite the indefatigable efforts of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society. Moreover, it is claimed that Lady Armytage actively suppressed any mention of the grave in tourist literature or the media and more fancifully that MI5 were involved in a conspiracy to prevent mention of Robin Hood’s Yorkshire connections damaging the Nottinghamshire tourist industry!

Following the death of Lady Armytage in 2008, it is possible this situation may change and indeed, in her later years Calderdale Council had managed to negotiate a number of open-days every year. Still, the grave today is in a sorry state, overgrown by the surrounding vegetation, the railings and pillars fallen down. It remains a local rite of passage to sneak over the wall into the estate in the dead of night and seek the grave amongst the tenebrous woodland. Indeed, whilst a site of such socio-historical importance should certainly be easily accessible to the public, there is an argument to say it’s the very mystique this lack of admittance has engendered which has contributed to the substantial body of folklore that has built up around the site in recent years and which will be discussed in the second part of this article.

Link to Part Two

The Clifton Dragon

Prior to the construction of the M62 in the 1970s, where it scythes through Hartshead Moor there once stood a hamlet by the name of Blakelaw, the only surviving evidence of which is Blakelaw Lane which runs between Clifton and Hartshead, crossing the motorway as it goes, and which presumably once passed through Blakelaw itself.

In his chronicle The Story of the Ancient Parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, the Reverend Harold Pobjoy relates that whilst he was vicar at St. Peter’s Church in Hartshead between 1925 and 1930, he was told by a parishioner that a copse on the rise to the north of Blakelaw was once thought to have been home to a terrible dragon which menaced the area many generations ago.

The settlement of Blakelaw appears in the Domesday Book under the name of Blakhlawe and in an attempt to corroborate the tale of the dragon, Pobjoy suggests that this may have been a corruption of the Old English “Dracanhlawe” – meaning Mound of the Dragon – which if true would suggest that the story had a very old provenance indeed.

As well as being mentioned in the Domesday Book, the antiquity of the area is manifest in the presence of the Walton Cross at Windy Bank nearby. It is the base of an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross or way-marker (the name is recorded on old documents as “wagestan” meaning “way-stone”) dating from the 10th Century.

Dragons were certainly a major component of the Anglo-Saxon world-view, with winged dragons known as “drakes”, an example of which makes a memorable appearance in the contemporary poem Beowulf. The English landscape is full of place-names with a dragonish derivation such as Drakeholes and Drakelaw, the similarities of which to Blakelaw are obvious.

However, using place name derivations to account for local legends is a risky business and Pobjoy’s suggestion is by no means certain. In the arguably definitive source on this subject Place Names of the West Riding, edited by A.H. Smith and published in 1961, the derivation is given as “Blachelana” which has the more prosaic meaning “black hill”.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 13:25  Leave a Comment  
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