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.”

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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.

Nether House, Hove Edge

Nether House is thought to be one of the oldest surviving dwellings in Brighouse. A house of the same name is recorded on the site in the Doomsday Book and it is possible the structure seen today retains some features from this house in its fabric. A timber-framed dwelling was erected in 1589, plastered with wattle-and-daub, then cased in stone sometime during the 17th Century (the walls are now an astonishing three feet thick). Considering the religious strife at the time of its construction, it is little wonder that the house contains a priest hole, six by eighteen feet, used to conceal Catholic clergy in the event of a search by pursuivants. Despite its substantial dimensions, it was so well concealed that it was forgotten about and not rediscovered until an investigation by the Halifax Antiquarian Society in 1965.

Although Nether House was a farmstead for most of its history, for a period during the 19th Century it was a coaching inn called The Black Horse. Apple Tree Lane which runs past the cottage may be a sleepy backstreet today but at the time it was part of the main highway towards Brighouse. Tradition claims the Brontë sisters often stopped at the inn on their way to visit friends in Mirfield. A more persistent legend in the district, however, is that the pub was given its name The Black Horse after the steed of a notorious 17th Century highwayman by the name of Will Nevinson who is rumoured to have once hidden there. Nevison is briefly referred to by that serial diarist of the period, the Non-Conformist preacher Oliver Heywood, which suggests that his exploits extended to this part of the country.

Nevison was born in 1639 at Wortley in South Yorkshire but left home as a teenager and fled to Holland where he enrolled in the Duke of York’s army and fought in the Battle of the Dunes on 14th June 1658. He turned to highway robbery after leaving the army, like many former soldiers; starting as a footpad near York, he soon graduated to horseback and was soon the terror of travellers on the Great North Road. Like Robin Hood, Nevison was supposedly an honest robber, who stole only from the rich and often redistributed his spoils to deserving causes. Despite the risk he posed to their clientèle, innkeepers often gave him shelter and stable-boys were the first to warn him of pursuit. Legend claims he was even harboured by a magistrate who lived at Parceval Hall, near Appletreewick in Wharfedale.

Nevison’s most famous feat was an epic ride between Rochester and York, later erroneously attributed to Dick Turpin by the 19th Century novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth. Legend claims that after robbing a man early one morning at Gad Hill in Kent, Nevison crossed the River Thames by ferry, then rode his horse two-hundred miles to York; he arrived in the city just as evening was falling and even greeted the Lord Mayor. When the renowned highwayman was subsequently tried for the Gad Hill robbery, he produced the Lord Mayor to provide his alibi, and because nobody on the jury believed such a long-distance ride was possible in such a short space of time, Nevison was acquitted. Rumour of the feat earned him the nickname “Swift Nicks”—a title supposedly bestowed by King Charles II.

Many other legends attached themselves to Nevison and his hardy horse. For instance, he was supposedly given an enchanted bridle by a cunning-woman who dwelt beside the Ebbing-and-Flowing Well near Giggleswick. This permitted his horse to accomplish remarkable feats of endurance and agility when evading pursuit. The beast is supposed to have jumped over the limestone chasm of Gordale Scar by such magical means, whilst numerous ravines in Yorkshire were dubbed “Nevison’s Leap”. The most famous example is a deep cutting which carries Ferrybridge Road through a hillside in Pontefract; a blue-plaque commemorates the deed and “Nevison’s Leap” is the name of a pub nearby. Another example can be found at Giggleswick Scar above the Ebbing-and-Flowing Well.

As one of the most famous highwaymen in the country at the time, Nevison was regularly inconvenienced by the authorities. Tradition claims that on one occasion he escaped from gaol by pretending to have contracted plague; his body was carried out of the building in a coffin and rumour of his demise spread sufficiently that victims of his next robbery believed him to be a ghost. Although this legend may be apocryphal, we know Nevison spent some time imprisoned at York Castle in 1677. He was tried at the assizes, but after he turned King’s evidence against his accomplices, his sentence was commuted from execution to transportation. The wily highwayman subsequently managed to give his escort the slip en route to Tangiers.

Inevitably, Nevison’s luck did not last forever. Following his return to highway-robbery, he killed a constable named Darcy Fletcher, who’d tried to apprehend him at Soothill near Batley. He was eventually captured on 6th March 1864 at the Three Houses Inn in Sandal Magna near Wakefield. On this occasion, Nevison was tried for murder as well as robbery, and a capital sentence was passed. He was hanged at the Knavesmire gallows near York on 4th May 1684. Nonetheless, he lived on in the memory of the region as a folk hero and the ballad “Bold Nevison” was once commonly sung. Even his relics were preserved: the leg-irons that once restrained the highwayman are displayed at York Castle, and the chair in which he was sitting when he was captured can be seen at St. Helen’s Church in Magna Sandal.

 

High Sunderland, Shibden

A vast castellated edifice festooned with grotesque carvings, perched high atop a hillside overlooking the Shibden Valley, High Sunderland must have been an imposing sight. It was surely one of the most remarkable buildings in Calderdale. Descriptions and surviving photographs of the hall make it seem the very epitome of the Gothic mansion so it is hardly a surprise that ghost stories attached themselves to such a place. Indeed, every rambling pile in the valley has probably had a good haunting attached to it at some stage in its history. But aside from the idiosyncrasy of the building itself, High Sunderland and its spectre are significant in having most likely been the inspiration for not only the eponymous dwelling in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights but also one of the most memorable episodes in the novel (a degree of verisimilitude entirely lacked by the better-known candidate, Top Withens).

A house is first recorded at High Sunderland in 1274 and the Sunderland family not long after that. The elaborate façade which so dominated the valley was probably an older medieval timber-framed structure encased in stone, completed in either 1587 for Richard Sunderland or in 1629 for his grandson Abraham. This building was justly famed for its crenellations and ornately carved stonework, including a veritable bestiary of grotesques and numerous Latin inscriptions. One such engraving over the south door bore the legend, “This place hates negligence, loves peace, punishes crimes, observes laws, honours virtuous persons”; whilst another over a window on the south front read “May the Almighty grant that the lineage of Sunderland may quietly inhabit this seat, and maintain the rights of their ancestors free from strife until an ant drink up the waters of the sea, and a tortoise walk around the whole world”.

Despite such entreaties, the history of the hall was not a particularly happy one. It slipped from possession of the Sunderland family in 1646 during the Civil Wars when the Parliamentary forces imposed a decimation tax on Langdale Sunderland for his role fighting for the Royalists as Captain of a Troop of Horse under the Earl of Newcastle, forcing him to sell the family estates. Over the centuries it passed through a succession of owners and by the early 20th Century it had been divided into separate tenements. During the 1940s mining activity in the area caused substantial subsidence and the house was declared unsafe. The owner at the time attempted to sell it to both the Halifax Corporation and the Bronte Society, but the cost of repair was estimated to be greater than the value of the property itself and so it was demolished in 1951, a sad end for such a singular and significant building.

High Sunderland’s Wuthering Heights connection dates to 1838, when Emily Brontë found work as a teacher at Law Hill School in Southowram, little over a mile from where High Sunderland stood. Although Emily’s time at Law Hill was not a happy one, it seems she was fond of the landscape – which had much in common with her beloved Haworth – and would often ride around the district, making it certain that High Sunderland was known to her. In the opening chapter of her famous novel, when Mr. Lockwood first approaches Wuthering Heights, he observes “a quantity of grotesque carvings lavished over the front…a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys above the principal door,” a description which perfectly corresponds to the doorway at High Sunderland. It has also been ascertained that the floor-plan of the building had much in common with Brontë’s portrayal of the interior layout of Wuthering Heights.

If the correspondence between the floor plan of the real and imaginary building was indeed more than a coincidence that suggests Emily must have been a guest at High Sunderland on at least one occasion. Doubtless on just such a visit she would’ve been regaled with the ghost story, later recorded by R. Thurston Hopkins in his 1953 volume, Ghosts Over England. It tells how anybody sleeping in a certain room in the hall would awake in the dead of night to hear footsteps along the corridor outside and a fumbling at the door. Once the door had proved secure, the rattle of the handle would be followed some moments later by a tap at the window and if a person was brave enough to look out, they would see a disembodied hand rap against the glass several times before a peal of hideous laughter was heard. It was said the hand had once belonged to an “estimable and virtuous lady” unjustly accused of infidelity by her husband, who had then cut off the appendage in a fit of jealousy.

The story bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Lockwood’s ghostly dream in Chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights, when unable to return to his home at Thrushcross Grange due to a storm, he is forced to spend the night at Wuthering Heights. “I heard also the fir-bough repeat its teasing sound… it annoyed me so much that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and I thought I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple… ‘I must stop it, nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me. I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in — let me in!’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself.  ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied shiveringly.”

The fields and lanes in the vicinity of High Sunderland in the hours around midnight were also reputed to be the haunt of a phantom white horse. A reference to this in the Evening Courier in April 1973, along with speculation that the apparition was largely folkloric and had not been seen by anybody in living memory, prompted a response from a Robert Whitehead of Illingworth who believed that he and his wife might have witnessed it twenty years previously when they had been walking home one night along Claremount Road towards Godley Bridge. He claims they saw a white horse running down the middle of the road and fearing that it could prove a danger to traffic, contacted the police. However, despite the squad car taking little time to arrive and proceeding to conduct a thorough search of the surrounding streets, Mr. Whitehead recalls that the horse was never found, having apparently vanished into thin air.

The Dumb Steeple, Cooper Bridge

Situated by the side of a busy junction at Cooper Bridge, where the A62 between Huddersfield and Liversedge bisects the A644 between Brighouse and Mirfield, the Dumb Steeple is a millstone grit column, approximately fifteen feet high, topped by a ball-shaped finial. It originally stood at the centre of the crossroads but was moved to its current location when the traffic grew too heavy in the 1980s.

Some 19th Century antiquarians such as J. Horsfall Turner fancifully argued that the name “dumb steeple” represents a corruption of the phrase “doom steeple”, so called because it once marked the boundary of Kirkless Priory, within which “doomed” men could claim sanctuary. Anybody who managed to reach it would be safe from the law for forty days after which they could choose to surrender themselves to the secular authorities for trial or be exiled from the country, never to return on pain of death.

An connected but equally unlikely explanation for the name is that it could be a corruption of the Latin phrase Domini Stapulus, meaning the Lord’s Steeple. However, the theory that it marked an ecclesiastic boundary is not universally accepted, as there is no evidence that Kirklees Priory was ever accorded sanctuary rights.

The monument itself only dates from the 18th Century (although it may have been a replacement for an earlier structure) and the most prosaic suggestion is simply that it was once a boundary marker, delineating the convergence of the parishes of Clifton, Mirfield and Hartshead. It seems that prior to the 19th Century it was referred to simply as the Obelisk, lending its name to the Elland & Obelisk Turnpike Road, constructed in 1815 and a now demolished house nearby, Obelisk Grove.

It is recorded that a common local reply to anybody who asked why it was called the Dumb Steeple was “Because it says nowt!” This supports the rather more probable  suggestion that it is called dumb because it lacks what you would expect to find in most steeples–namely a bell. A similar play-on-words may be behind the best known tradition attached to the obelisk: that either the whole column or just its finial revolves three times when it hears the bells of Hartshead church strike midnight. The joke is that because it cannot “hear” anything, these miraculous revolutions are never actually performed.

Arguably the most fanciful, and the most difficult to prove theory concerning the obelisk’s origin, is that the 18th Century structure replaced a much older standing stone or menhir which could’ve stood there since prehistoric times. The theory was mooted by Harry Speight in an article for the Yorkshire Weekly Post on the ground that other such ancient monoliths in the West Riding are colloquially referred to as Dumb Steeples, although further evidence of such nomenclature is difficult to find.

It has also been suggested that it may have been dubbed Dumb Man’s Steeple by local folk following the disastrous Luddite rally which took place there in 1812, described below. The name certainly doesn’t seem to have been used until after this event.

On the night of 11th April 1812, the Dumb Steeple was used as the meeting place of a contingent of Luddites who were gathering to march to Cartwright Mill at Rawfolds near Cleckheaton to attack the new cropping machines which they believed were a threat to local employment at a time when life was already hard due to the privations inflicted by the Napoleonic Wars. These events were subsequently dramatised by Charlotte Brontë in her novel Shirley, based on the diaries of her father Patrick Brontë who was the vicar at St. Peter’s Church, Hartshead at the time.

Doubtless the massed Luddites would’ve made a fearsome bunch. There were up to 150 men present, many with their faces blackened and carrying weapons such as hammers or muskets. It is little surprise, therefore, that one of their number lost his nerve and fled the scene just before the contingent began their march across Hartshead Moor towards their target.

The man who ran was a youth by the name of Rayner and his house was situated near St. Matthew’s Church at Rastrick. He must have been an exceptionally athletic individual, because he is alleged to have left the assembly at the Dumb Steeple at 11:40pm and have made it back just in time to hear the clock at St. Matthew’s strike midnight. As this occurred, the sexton was just leaving for the night and both men counted thirteen chimes, remarking on it to each other.

This could be interpreted as a sign of ill-omen portending the disaster which was about to befall the Luddites at Rawfolds or as the sexton said at the time, simply that the Brighouse clockmaker Old Skelton – who had been working on the mechanism earlier in the day – had failed to set it correctly. Nonetheless, this chance meeting and the singular event of the thirteen chimes was to prove instrumental in deciding Rayner’s future.

The Luddite attack on Cartwright Mill went ahead as planned. However, the mill-owner had been expecting them due to a build-up of smaller incidents in the prior weeks and weapons being stolen around the district. Consequently, the mob found the mill fortified and defended by armed workers and militiamen. They was driven back and at least two Luddites were so badly injured in the skirmish that they died of their wounds in the Star Inn at Roberttown.

Many others were forced to hide out in the aftermath, for fearing that the insurrection could spread, local authorities led by Huddersfield’s Squire Radcliffe were determined to purge the district of Luddism and saw the attack on Cartwright Mill as the perfect opportunity to do so. Consequently, a number of those involved were rounded up and after a trial in York where they stood accused of trying to demolish the mill, fourteen men were sent to the gallows at York Castle on 16th January 1813.

It is said that Rayner was named by those arrested as also having been present at the rally and so he too was brought up before the court. However, he informed the judge that he had been in Rastrick at the strike of midnight on the night of the attack. The sexton was called to corroborate his story, and even the clockmaker Old Skelton to offer expert testimony that the clock would indeed have struck thirteen that night as Rayner claimed. The judge was already aware that the Luddites had moved from the Dumb Steeple at 11:45pm and concluded that no man could have travelled between Cooper Bridge and Rastrick in that time.

His conclusion makes you wonder if Rayner’s remarkable fitness really had really allowed him to cover a distance of two to three miles in between fifteen and twenty minutes, thus unwittingly saving his life, or whether the story had been manufactured with the sympathetic sexton to give him a convincing and watertight alibi.

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 Ghosts of Shibden Hall

Shibden Hall is one of the jewels in Halifax’s heritage crown and amongst Calderdale’s best-known tourist attractions. It is also increasingly one of the most haunted buildings in the area, although despite its antiquity, these ghost appear to be a relatively recent phenomena, unlike the hoary supernatural traditions of other venerable houses nearby in West Yorkshire such as Oakwell Hall at Gomersal or Bolling Hall near Bradford.

Occupation is recorded at the site from 1389 but the oak-timbered H-plan building standing today was originally constructed in 1420 with substantial improvements and additions being made in the 1520s and 1830s. Many have speculated that it was the model for Thrushcross Grange in Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. Bronte taught at Law Hill School in Southowram in 1838 and would have been familiar with the Hall.

The hall was owned by the Lister family from 1615 until 1933, when the death of John Lister led to it being donated to the Halifax Corporation and opened as a folk museum. Its most famous occupant was Anne Lister who inherited the estate in 1826 following the death of her uncle James. During her tenure she made extensive alteration to the building and grounds but further improvements were curtailed by her death from the plague on her travels in Russia in 1840.

The reasons for Lister’s fame are numerous. Even in her own time, she was well known to be a lesbian and conducted affairs with a number of local women, whilst riding around the district in men’s clothes earned her the pejorative nickname Gentleman Jack. There was always much hostility shown towards her, with hoax marriage announcements made in the local press and reports of mobs gathering close to the house under cover of darkness.

However, she was also a formidable estate manager and landlord, investing in numerous business ventures in the area including collieries and quarries. The diaries she began keeping in 1805 from the age of 15 until her death – some of which were quite graphic in the description of her various affairs and so written in a private code – are regarded as an important primary source for 19th Century local, social and gender history.

The most prominent and enduring of Lister’s affairs was with Ann Walker, the heiress to Cliffe Hill Mansion at Lightcliffe. and the diaries record how they were “married” at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate in York. Lister left Shibden Hall to Walker in her will on the provision that she did not marry. Walker continued living in the Hall following Lister’s death until her own incarceration in an asylum in 1848. Following Walker’s death in 1854, the property reverted to the Lister family.

Walker had always suffered from mental health problems and Lister herself consulted a doctor about Walker’s mental state on several occasions. In Hauntings In Yorkshire, Stephen Wade describes Walker as the most prominent of Shibden Hall’s ghosts, her spirit haunting the red room where she barricaded herself in the years after Lister’s death and attempted to commit suicide. Upon arrival, a local constable allegedly discovered her covered in blood and surrounded by rotten food.

However, in an article for the BBC website dated 23rd October 2007, stories of a “Grey Lady” are dismissed as “just folklore” by Tony Sharpe, an attendant at the hall for twenty-six years. Instead, he relates his own experiences including an encounter at dawn with a nebulous black shape moving overhead and on several occasions the smell of pipe-smoke in the cellar and tower, thought to be an echo of the last occupant Dr. John Lister, a noted antiquarian and inveterate pipe-smoker.

There are also reports of a former curator who witnessed the spectre of a cat pass straight through her office wall; the ghost of a girl drowned in a nearby pond, who only appears in summer; and finally the manifestation of a headless coachman who drives around the grounds by night in a distinctive yellow-liveried coach made for Lord Lonsdale in the 18th Century and now on display at the Hall.