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.

Advertisements
Published in: on April 1, 2014 at 10:16  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One

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

Chapter Two

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

Chapter Three

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

Chapter Four

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

Chapter Five

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

Chapter Six

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

Chapter Seven

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

Chapter Eight

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

Chapter Nine

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

Chapter Ten

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

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

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

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

The Three Nuns, Cooper Bridge

Although the current building is not the original, a hostelry by this name has stood on the site for centuries and enjoys something of a rich history. The original structure was built in 1497 and following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 it gave refuge to Katherine Grice, Joan Leverthorpe and Cecilia Topcliffe, the last three nuns at Kirklees Priory, from whom the establishment’s name was later taken. A local tradition claims Grice was seduced by one of Henry VIII’s commissioners and upon discovering she was pregnant, she committed suicide by drowning herself in the adjacent stream known as Nunbrook.

It is said that Oliver Cromwell stayed at the inn in 1644 en route to his victory at the Battle of Marston Moor, whilst in 1812 it was used as a meeting place by Luddites prior to their ill-fated assembly at the nearby Dumb Steeple and the subsequent attack on Rawfolds Mill. A collection of their weapons was discovered hidden in the ceiling in the 1920s. Sadly, despite its venerable history, the building was allowed to fall into dereliction and it was entirely rebuilt in 1939. The foundations of the original Three Nuns now lie hidden beneath the car park of the current one. Certain fixtures and fittings were transferred, however, including much of the oak panelling.

On 15th June 1985, the Evening Courier reported on a series a supernatural disturbances experienced by workmen during renovation work at the pub. Site manager Ian Thompson was troubled by doors mysteriously opening and shutting and the sound of feet descending the cellar stairs whilst he knew himself to be alone in the building. He told the newspaper: “I went into the cellar. It’s always cool down there but on that occasion there was a strange sort of chill about the place”. An architect reported a similar experience, whilst a plumber working in the cellar experienced a shadowy figure pushing past him, resembling a woman with a veil over her head.

The workmen attributed the disturbances to a carved ram’s head, part of the oak panelling of the original pub, which they’d discovered concealed behind plastering and removed for the duration of the renovation work. Mr. Thompson commented: “It has very strange eyes. They are almost human”. The whole affair was dismissed by the landlord Glyn Ashley, however, who said: “Frankly I don’t believe there is a ghost – it’s all in the mind. My wife and I have lived here for nine months and we haven’t heard a thing. The theory is that it’s all to do with the ram’s head but as far as I know that was a motif used by Ramsdens (a brewery) before the pub was taken over by Tetleys.”

The ram’s head was returned to its rightful position once the renovations were complete. However, the paranormal phenomena at the establishment clearly persisted as a new landlord was forced to carry out an exorcism in 1991, whilst Stephen Wade reports on more recent occurrences in Haunting In Yorkshire, such as a guest who “insisted he was being watched by a tall grey figure with a beard.” Similarly Kenneth Goor in Haunted Leeds mentions “Customers often complain of an old man who laughs at them, but when they complain to the management about his behaviour he disappears”. Goor also refers to continued poltergeist-like activity and cold spots in the pub.

In addition to the ram’s head, the supernatural manifestations at the Three Nuns have been associated with the unhappy spirit of the suicide, Katherine Grice, or even the Kirklees Prioress who bled Robin Hood to death and has been blamed for apparent vampiric activity in the vicinity of the outlaw’s grave, approximately half a mile from the pub. It has also been suggested that the building lies on a ley line – a conduit of mystical energy – which ran through Robin Hood’s grave and the Alegar Well at Brighouse. Leys are often associated with concentrations of supernatural phenomena, but they have been dismissed as pseudo-science by many sceptical investigators.

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.

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