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.