10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore

Tim Flight - April 18, 2018

Folklore is the memory of a people. Passed down orally over many centuries, even millennia, it reveals how ordinary people – often marginalized or ignored in written chronicles – interpreted the world around them. Snippets of folk belief can be seen in the written record of a certain period, but it was only in the seventeenth century that an effort to record oral tales was made. Charles Perrault (1628-1703) was the pioneer of this field and was the first to record timeless tales such as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Similar work was undertaken by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century.

Today, the work of these pioneering researchers has ensured that the old folk motifs and tales continue to bewitch and enthrall us. England is particularly rich in folklore and, having been colonized by people as diverse as the Celts, Romans, Saxons, and Normans over the centuries have inherited a cultural miasma that has produced a wonderfully complicated set of tales. Life for the peasants who passed these tales down the generations, however, was desperately bleak, and so many of the preserved tales are deeply unsettling and horrific. Keep the lights on: here are ten of the creepiest tales from English folklore.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
The Black Dog of Bungay, from Abraham Fleming, A Straunge and Terrible Wunder, England, 1577. Wikimedia Commons

Black Dog

Across the country, tales are told of a hideous, shaggy-maned black dog with glowing red eyes which terrorizes lonely travelers and portends doom. It goes by many names, depending on the region in which it is found: Black Shuck and Old Shock (from the Old English scucca, ‘devil/ demon’), or Old Scratch (a folk name for the devil). Where it was found, the black dog had specific places that it haunted: the Reverend E. S. Taylor of Ormesby, writing in 1850, was alarmed to hear from his parishioners that a ‘black shaggy dog, with fiery eyes… visits churchyards each night’.

We will focus on the black dog’s most notorious appearance, in the Suffolk town of Bungay in 1577. A pamphlet on the hound’s deeds was written shortly after the event by Abraham Fleming, a prominent writer and clergyman. The story takes place one dark and stormy night, Sunday, August 4th, 1577. Then as now, such weather bred superstition and panic: ‘the roaring noise… ministred such straunge and unaccustomed cause of feare to be conceiued’. Though the people of Bungay were sheltered from the tempest at Mass, ‘the Church did as it were quake and staggar’ in the howling wind.

‘Immediatly… [there came] then & there present, a dog as they might discerne it, of a black colour’ in St. Mary’s Church. The congregation fell to their knees, praying to God that they be saved from ‘this black dog, or the diuel in such a likenesse’, but for two penitents it was no use: the dog ‘wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that euen at a moment where they kneeled, they straingely dyed’. After grabbing another man, whose skin instantly shriveled as if scorched, the dog disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived.

The church’s roof collapsed, but the dog’s killing spree was not over. It seems to have raced to nearby Blythburgh Church, where it sat on a beam where a cross once hung before running amok amongst the parishioners, killing two and scorching another. Burn-marks on the door of Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh, are to this day attributed to the black dog’s fiery claws. But our story has one more creepy twist: in 2014, archaeologists found the remains of a 7-foot long dog at nearby Leiston Abbey dating from the 1500s. Is this tangible evidence for the legendary event?

Bungay has embraced the horrific event in more recent times, incorporating the black dog into its coat of arms, and some locals even have weathervanes topped by the beast. Explanations for the event itself range from outright credulity to the trauma of an especially fierce electrical storm. Fleming’s pamphlet offers a moralistic interpretation, as we might expect of a clergyman, leaving some to suggest that the tale was simply a piece of propaganda from the newly-reformed Church of England. The black dog is profanely commemorated in the song, Black Shuck, by The Darkness, who hail from nearby Lowestoft.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
Herne the Hunter, engraving by George Cruikshank, England, c.1843. Wikimedia Commons

Herne the Hunter

“Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,

Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;

And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,

And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain

In a most hideous and dreadful manner.”

So Shakespeare sums up the story of Herne the Hunter in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act IV, Scene 4). Herne appears as a half-human, half-stag chimera, and haunts Windsor Great Park, a former royal hunting preserve in Berkshire, and was used by parents to scare their errant children from mischief.

Shakespeare provides the earliest account of Herne the Hunter, but an origin for the legend is given by Samuel Ireland in 1792. Herne was a gamekeeper during the reign of Elizabeth I (suggesting Shakespeare was up-to-date with his Berkshire gossip), who hanged himself from an oak tree in fear of losing his job and falling into disgrace. More ominously, in 1843 the novelist Harrison Ainsworth wrote that Herne was the ghost of a forester whose life was saved by the devil after being gored by a stag, on condition that he wore antlers thereafter, but ended up committing suicide anyway.

Herne is said to travel wide distances, accompanied by a pack of hounds, causing mischief and terror wherever he treads. As such, many claims to have seen his revenant, and one witness is said to have been Henry VIII, which fits in with another origin hypothesis. According to James Halliwell-Phillipps, a poacher named Richard Horne was caught poaching deer in Windsor Great Park, and was hung for his crimes, during Henry’s reign. As recently as 1962, students from nearby Eton College claimed to have accidentally summoned Herne by blowing an ancient hunting horn they found in the Great Park.

The folklore behind Herne is relatively common. Suicides are often said to haunt the place of their death, a tradition perhaps derived from Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide out of guilt for betraying Christ and was believed in medieval folklore to wander the earth in despair as punishment. An oak tree in Windsor Great Park long-reputed to be the tree on which Herne hung himself blew down in 1863, and its replacement is still known as ‘Herne’s Oak’. The terrifying Herne is still seen today, and the deer of Windsor Castle is said to call his name at dusk.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
Asgårdsreien, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, Norway, 1872. Verola

The Wild Hunt

Herne the Hunter is not the only ghostly huntsman in English folklore. Lone travelers on certain nights of the year must be careful that they are not seized by a whole troop of ghostly huntsmen and dragged to the pit of hell. The Wild Hunt, as the tradition is called, is common throughout Northern Europe, and is believed to have a pre-Christian origin. As the illustration above suggests, with its clear depiction of Thor and his hammer Mjölnir, the Wild Hunt probably comes from Germanic Folklore, a remnant of the pagan beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons before their conversion in 597.

The first English account of the Wild Hunt comes in an 1127 entry to the Peterborough Chronicle, a historical document compiled between the 9th and the 14th centuries: ‘many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible’. This continued every night for 9 weeks and was heard by monks. Orderic Vitalis records a similar encounter from Normandy of 1092 in which the hunters were recognized as recently-deceased parishioners.

As in the tales of Herne and, more remotely, Judas, the people recognized by Orderic Vitalis in the ghostly troupe was known to have been sinners in their mortal time, and so their nightly exercise was seen to be a part of their punishment. The tradition, henceforth, deemed the huntsmen to be demons accompanied by the damned. Usually, however, the Wild Hunt was heard rather than seen, as in Wordsworth’s Sonnet VII (1815): ‘He oftentimes will start/ For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s Hounds’. ‘Gabriel’s Hounds’ is a term for the Wild Hunt most common in the North of England.

One identification of the leader of the Wild Hunt, first mentioned by the twelfth-century courtier Walter Map, is King Herla. Herla was an ancient British King, who once granted an audience to a dwarf riding a goat, and agreed to allow the little man to attend his wedding in exchange for attending his guest’s a year to the day afterward. Herla enjoyed the dwarf’s wedding, and departed with gifts of ‘horses, dogs, hawks, and every appliance of the best for hunting or fowling’. Upon returning, he found that centuries had passed, and his wife was of course dead.

One of the gifts given to Herla was a fine bloodhound, and the dwarf commanded that none should dismount until the dog leaped from its bearer’s lap. In shock at finding that centuries had passed while they were attending the wedding, some men forgot the warning and turned to dust. The rest waited for the dog to leap down, and are waiting still, for the bloodhound never left its bearer. King Herla and his men are yet wandering, waiting for the dog to leap, and in the meantime frightening all who come across them on their timeless march.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
Satan appears to a monk, still from Haxan, 1922. The Movie Bucket List

Devil’s Footprints

The winter of 1855 was harsh, and the snow fell thick. People froze to death, and others were close to starvation as food stores were ruined and livestock deceased. As if this were not bad enough, the people of Devon, a county in the Southwest of England, were apparently visited by the Devil himself in February. From February 8th-9th, cloven hoof tracks mysteriously appeared across 40 to 60 miles (64 to 96 km). Whilst it would be tempting to blame goats or deer for the tracks, this does not explain how the footprints came to be present on rooftops.

The tracks appeared over the course of several nights and seemed to indicate that whatever made the tracks was traveling in a predetermined direction, climbing directly over houses and haystacks in an unbroken line. The devil was not initially blamed, and many Devonians suspected that they were the victims of a practical joker mocking the rural populace. The national press was flummoxed, and attributed the tracks to ‘some strange and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity’. However, the tracks apparently coming from a cloven-hoof naturally led to the assumption that the devil, in his popular Baphomet-incarnation, was responsible.

Once the devil-hypothesis gained favor – after all, who or what could walk in a straight line over obstacles and leave cloven prints for 60 miles in winter – a reason for the devil’s visit to Devon was found. The church had recently replaced its standard prayer book with a new, less-popular, version. Naturally, this attracted the devil, presumably hoping to find some easy pickings amongst the now-sinful population. The devil is an ever-present in folk belief, often blamed for natural formations and duped by clever people like a pantomime villain, and so his reappearance in nineteenth-century Devon would not have seemed implausible.

Although the lack of concrete evidence for the phenomenon is a red flag for rational minds, this also means that the hoof-prints remain unexplained. Since more than 30 separate locations in Devon and neighboring Dorset bore witness to the hoof-prints, there must be a grain of truth. Theories about the prints’ provenance include a balloon escaping and trailing its line over all in its path, mice jumping in the snow and, most implausibly, badgers. Most likely, traveling gossip about one set of unusual tracks probably led to fearful locals attributing perfectly normal prints to the same supernatural source.

The thought of someone or something causing the mysterious tracks, scaling houses whilst the unwitting were asleep in the process, is deeply disturbing. In March 2009, a pensioner from Devon awoke one morning to find another set of mysterious footprints in the snow, which she instantly feared were from the devil again. This is a fascinating demonstration of the perseverance and power of folk belief: without the unsolved incident of 1855, would the 21st-century lady have given the prints a second glance? The story made national news and even attracted cryptozoologists to Devon to study the unexplained prints.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
Hand of Glory found in Castleton, Yorkshire, in 1935, displayed in Whitby Museum. Ancient Origins

The Hand of Glory

In the days before a formal health system, when superstition was widespread, many people resorted to consulting a local wise-woman or wise-man, roughly a mixture of a quack, white witch, and herbalist. They could be consulted on minor medical matters, from warts to hair loss, and were also authorities on everything from the weather and livestock to romance. Their remedies and divinations usually involved the creation of a mixture of everyday items procured on significant days of the year to give them magical properties. Such remedies were usually benign, but a notable exception in folk magic was the Hand of Glory.

The Hand of Glory was a hand cut from a criminal hanging on a gibbet, which was pickled in urine for thirteen days and then dried out in the sun. It must then be nailed to an oak tree for three days and nights. When it was ready, it could hold a candle or the fingers themselves be lit as candles. When lit, the Hand of Glory was supposed to render all nearby people motionless. The Hand, therefore, was popular amongst thieves, who would use it to rob houses unmolested. It could not, however, stop thieves from being traced.

William Henderson, a folklorist writing in 1866, tells the tale of a thief who used a Hand of Glory at the Old Spital Inn, Yorkshire. In Henderson’s narrative, the Hand’s spell only worked when people were already asleep, and a suspicious cook had remained awake to keep an eye on the furtive guest. Having quenched the candle with milk (the only way to put it out, possibly due to milk’s association with new life, the opposite of death), thus waking up the sleeping innkeepers, the cook locked the robber in a room he was plundering, and he was hanged.

It would be simple to attribute the Hand of Glory to the fevered imaginations of uneducated peasants, were it not for a surviving example. At Whitby Museum, North Yorkshire, a Hand of Glory from nearby Castleton is on display. Found in 1935 in an old house, it is worth noting that Hand of Glory superstitions are strongest in the folklore of the North of England. This particular example was concealed within a wall – either a thief’s hiding place, or perhaps to turn the spell on would-be robbers. The Hand of Glory is also recorded in Continental European folklore.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
The Fight in the Forest, drawing by Hans Burgkmair, fifteenth or sixteenth century. Wikimedia Commons

Woodwose

If modern folklore is to be believed, North America is inhabited by Bigfoot, a large, hairy creature that lives in the woods, and is very protective of its secrecy. As unlikely as that sounds, a 2017 study by Chapman University found that 16% of Americans (roughly 5.2 million people) believe in Bigfoot. The huge popularity of Bigfoot-finding shows on the Discovery and History Channels suggests that many of the other 84% were lying on the questionnaire. These statistics are quoted to demonstrate that the English version of Bigfoot, the Woodwose, was a real and terrifying entity to many.

The Woodwose, or wild man, was believed to live in the deciduous woods of England, and many other parts of Europe, much like its younger American cousin. The name is a Middle English term deriving from the Anglo-Saxon noun wudu (‘wood’) and verb wesan (‘to be’). Also like Bigfoot, the Woodwose was covered in thick fur, albeit usually decked with foliage and carrying a staff of wood. Woodwose was not very friendly, and would enthusiastically chase trespassers from their woodland. Contrarily, they were also said to be fond of kidnapping maidens from nearby villagers, who were never seen again.

The Woodwose comes from a long tradition of wild-men. Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425 BC) and Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) both discuss wild men who lived on the fringes of civilization. Both authors attest to the uncanny nature of the Woodwose: it occupied the liminal space between man and beast. This liminality is also present in medieval thought, which held that one could become a bestial Woodwose if one went mad, which derived from the Biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4), who was sent mad by God, grew a long beard, and went to live with wild beasts.

As well as an explanation for the strange sights and sounds of the much-larger forests of old England, the Woodwose also offered a handy definition of the boundary of civilization and wilderness. Like the monsters that appeared on medieval maps, the Woodwose lived far from people and served as something of a warning to those who had accidentally strayed too far from the beaten path. Their essentially-symbolic function led to the Woodwose appearing in ecclesiastical carving and misericords alongside other grotesques. In this way, the Woodwose was ‘tamed’, and across Europe was depicted in heraldry and appeared in pageant plays.

At the crux of this folk belief lies man’s primordial fear of wilderness and paradoxical fascination with it. The Woodwose embodied the dangerous side of deep wilderness and worked as the defining opposite of what was civilized and hence safe. Bigfoot researchers may mention the Woodwose as evidence for the creature’s presence throughout history, but this only proves that Bigfoot fulfills the same role in the modern world: this folk-descendent is a legendary master of the forest, an environment in which people are ill-equipped to survive, and represents mankind’s wonder at the vastness and power of nature.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
Philippe de Champaigne, Vanité, 1644. La Nuit Etoilée

Screaming Skulls

Many old houses in England have in their possession a human skull, of which they are superstitious and fiercely protective. Usually displayed prominently to guests, the first records of such skulls date from the eighteenth century, when the field of antiquarianism began to flourish. The houses with these unusual heirlooms usually had a fascinating story of how the skulls came to be there, the date of origin always beyond living memory. The skulls acted as a sort of talisman, and their presence in the house was linked to the resident family’s prosperity and health, and even protection from the supernatural.

Were a skull to be removed from its rightful place, however, all hell would break loose. Family members and livestock would die, crops would fail, objects would be mysteriously broken, and ear-splitting shrieks would haunt the vicinity. It seems the skulls were operating a Mafioso-style protection racket, for the misfortune and cacophony would only cease once they were put back safely into their niche or pedestal in the house. Across England, there are numerous tales of skulls being removed, the ensuing chaos, and the final resolution of the problems. The term ‘Screaming Skull‘ was coined in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the most famous Screaming Skull of all was at Bettiscombe Manor, Dorset, the ancestral home of the Pinney family. Azaiah Pinney was said to have been sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered for participating in the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion (a plot to overthrow the Catholic King, James II), but escaped to the West Indies. Azaiah became a rich plantation owner on Nevis, and many years later a descendent returned to Bettiscombe with a black slave. The climate did not suit the slave, alas, and he passed away, with the dying wish that he be buried back on Nevis.

The slave gave the warning that if his request were defied, the house would know no peace. It was ignored anyway, and he was buried at the local church. Bettiscombe was instantly cursed with terrible luck, ghostly screams, and nocturnal crashes. Fearing the dead man’s curse, the Pinneys removed the skull from the body to the Manor, and peace was restored. They secreted the skull in a niche up the chimney breast, lest it be stolen by a burglar with an eye for a curio. It is also said that anyone who steals it will be dead within a year.

The story of the Screaming Skull was first investigated by J.S. Udal, a Dorset antiquarian. After examining the skull in the 1880s, he believed it to have belonged to a female, a hypothesis corroborated by other local stories that it was the relic of an anonymous woman murdered in the Manor’s attic. The true provenance of the skull may never be determined, but the more elaborate story offers a fascinating mixture of national history, family folklore, and superstition. The mysterious skull is still in residence at Bettiscombe Manor, and hence has not been heard screaming for many years.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
Striding chicken, from a late-twelfth-century manuscript, Flanders. Pinterest

The Cock-Stride Ghost

It is unsurprising that a land as old as England is reputedly haunted by innumerable phantoms, ranging from headless horsemen to Roman Legions. Many ghosts were looked upon fondly as benign figures adding color to the locales they haunted. Not all spirits were so welcome, however, and caused widespread terror and accidents, and so they were required to be banished. This was usually carried out by a ‘ghost-layer’, either a priest or a parson whose most potent weapon was the reading, or rather shouting, of Scripture accompanied by lit candles, to wear down the ghost’s willpower.

The obstreperous phantoms would try to blow the candles out, but the priest whose faith was strong enough could keep their candle lit throughout. After their resistance was broken down, some ghosts could then be bargained with, or required the ghost-layer to carry out a request, such as relocating their physical remains. Still, others required trickery. Many foolish ghosts were beguiled into accepting an impossible task before they were allowed to return to their old haunt, such as removing every blade of grass on a hill one blade a night or emptying a lake with a small perforated shell.

Whilst locals could be sure that the tricked ghosts would never return, other specters would only accept a more-feasible task. These were often ‘Cock-Stride Ghosts’, permitted to return to their intended destination by the distance of one chicken’s step on one night each year. For instance, at the appropriately-named Coffinswell in Devon, a woman is said to have been furious at being buried at a well rather than the Church’s sanctified graveyard. A ghost-layer allowed her to move to the churchyard one cock-stride every New Year’s Eve at precisely midnight, a feat calculated to take her until Judgement Day.

Sometimes, when a particularly loathsome individual passed away, efforts would be made to lay the ghost before it became a problem, usually with little success. In 1612, the wealthy Joan Carne of Sandhill Manor, Somerset, long-suspected of murdering her three husbands and witchcraft, was buried in a coffin with thick iron nails. The locals went to celebrate at Sandhill Manor, only to be greeted by Joan herself, smiling and casually frying eggs and bacon in the kitchen. A famous ghost-layer sent her spirit into a pond a mile distant, from whence she returns to the Manor one cock-stride a night.

Sir John Popham (1669-96) overcame his degenerate youth to become Chief Justice of England, but was widely reputed to be corrupt and cruel and greatly unpopular in his native Wellington. He died while hunting when his horse flung him into a nearby allegedly-bottomless pit leading to hell. A (still-extant) memorial was erected to him in the local church, but his ghost remained with his body in the pit until his wife prayed for its release. He must reach the tomb, taking one cock-stride a year, before Judgement Day to save his soul. Ghost-layers have sent his troublesome spirit back several times.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
A monk and nun in a cell, woodcut c.1515/20, Europe. AKG Images

The Monk and the Nun

The monastic orders in the middle ages were amongst the most corrupt institutions in a corrupt age. Many were known even by contemporaries to prefer hunting, drinking, and womanizing to ministering to their Divine Office. As early as 793 AD, Alcuin of York sent a letter rebuking the monks of Lindisfarne for just these offenses, and even blamed the recent Viking attack on the monastery on their sinful ways. In the late fourteenth century, Chaucer mocked the monastic orders in his portrayal of the hunting-obsessed Monk-narrator and the Wife of Bath’s garrulous attack on friars in The Canterbury Tales.

After the Reformation, when Henry VIII changed England from a Catholic to a Protestant nation (notwithstanding the brief Counter-Reformation), anti-Catholic propaganda seized upon the excesses of the Roman faith attested in medieval sources to justify the change of dogma, and the reformers’ fervor (and brutal-enforcement of compliance) was embraced by the wider populace. War with Catholic Spain served to align patriotism with Protestantism. Thus there are many tales of ghostly monks who wander the earth as punishment for their sinful lives and appalling crimes, along with exaggerated legends of Catholic excess and corruption, in the corpus of English folklore.

Some monasteries were twin-establishments, meaning that monks and nuns were housed in separate buildings within the same compound. Inevitably, some were caught committing the sins of the flesh together, and the punishment was usually death. At The Bull public house in Streatley, Berkshire, a Yew tree growing in the beer garden is said to mark the graves of two such offenders. A sign simply reads ‘In 1440 a nun and a monk here slain for misconduct and buried under the yew tree’. Legend has it that both were executed by being walled up alive before being buried there.

Fear of Catholicism, and the assumption of its members’ wrongdoing, inspired legends surrounding skeletons uncovered in old ecclesiastical buildings. Immurement, or starving people to death in a locked room, is a relatively rare phenomenon in English history, but its peculiar horror understandably gripped the popular imagination. At Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire, a skeleton found seated at a table with a book and candlestick in 1722 was claimed to be that of Thomas de Gretham, a fourteenth-century abbot said to dabble in black magic and degeneracy. There is also a spurious account of a nun suffering the same fate near Hereford.

There are no contemporary records of the Streatley monk and nun ever-existing, although there are many former monastic sites nearby. The Yew has perhaps contributed to the legend, as the trees frequently grow in churchyards (often survivals of pre-Christian pagan sites where churches now stand). Although it is a dubious tale, the story of the monk and the nun demonstrates how feared the Catholic faith was after the Reformation, aided by the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the aforementioned war with Spain. The association of Catholicism with brutality and sin certainly led to some titillating ghost stories and legends.

10 of the Creepiest Stories from English Folklore
Theodor Kittlesen, The Plague on the Stairs, Norway, 1896. Pinterest

Vampires of Drakelow

The term ‘vampire’ did not enter the English lexicon until around 1734, and is derived from the Serbian vampir. Thus it is anachronistic to term this section as above, given that the tale is eleventh-century, but there really is no more appropriate noun to describe the beings that Geoffrey of Burton claims haunted rural Nottinghamshire. Though the word ‘vampire’ is not used before the eighteenth century, there are many vampiric beings in English folklore. Indeed, the walking dead were apparently so common in twelfth-century England that William of Newburgh (c.1136-c.1198) said that it was too tedious to chronicle them all.

Around 1090, two villagers from Stapenhill fled to Drakelow, Derbyshire, which was owned by a Norman aristocrat named Roger the Poitevin. Their home village, Stapenhill, was owned by the Abbey of Burton, and the peasants were fleeing from working for their monastic overlords. Hearing the peasants’ fraudulent complaints against their former masters, Roger plundered the Abbey’s storehouses at Stapenhill, seizing crops from the barns and removing them to his own buildings at Drakelow. An armed fight broke out between Roger’s knights and ten outnumbered knights employed by the Abbey, which the latter miraculously won through the monks’ prayers.

The next day, the two peasants who started the trouble sat down to eat, and suddenly died. They were buried the next morning at the church of Stapenhill in wooden coffins. This is when things got disturbing: later that day, the dead peasants reappeared in person at Drakelow, carrying their own coffins astride their backs. Wandering around Drakelow for the night, the men sometimes shape-shifted to the form of bears and dogs and knocked on the doors of the local peasants, urging them in loud voices to ‘Move, quickly move! Get going! Come!’ This went on for many nights.

Eventually, a terrible plague followed the undead peasants to Drakelow. All of the living peasants except three sickened and finally died. Count Roger, terrified at the turn of events, begged forgiveness from the Abbot of Burton and prayed to Saint Modwenna. He commanded his reeve to bring double the crops he had stolen to the monks, before fleeing to his other lands. At Drakelow, the two remaining peasants (the reeve having also fled) got permission from the bishop to exhume the two plague-bringing Stapenhill men. Their bodies were intact, and the burial shroud around their mouths was stained with blood.

As in more familiar vampire tales, the undead were dealt with by being mutilated. The survivors removed the corpses’ heads and placed them between their legs in the grave. They next removed the hearts, burying what remained of the bodies again, and burned the organs from sunrise to sunset. Finally, the hearts cracked violently, and the awe-struck onlookers saw a crow fly from the flames, which was understood to be an evil spirit. The vampire-slayers fled to the next village with their families, and Drakelow as a cursed place was abandoned and generally avoided for many years to come.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Ancient Legend of Satan’s Visit Reawakened by Footprints in the Snow,” The Daily Telegraph, March 13, 2009.

Dash, Mike. “The Devil’s Hoofmarks,” Fortean Studies 1 (1994): 71-150.

Fleming, Abraham. A Straunge and Terrible Wunder Wrought Very Late in the Parish Church of Bongay. 1577

Geoffrey of Burton. Life and Miracles of St Modwenna, edited and translated by Robert Bartlett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Halliwell-Phillipps, J. O., ed. The First Sketch of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. London: Printed for the Shakespeare Society, 1842.

Lecouteux, Claude. Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead. 2011.

“Leiston: Are these the bones of devil dog, Black Shuck?,” East Anglian Daily Times, May 15, 2014.

“Mummified Hand from Yorkshire May Be Last Hand of Glory Still in Existence”, ALICIA MCDERMOTT, Ancient Origins, UPDATED 5 NOVEMBER, 2015

“Study: Americans are as likely to Believe in Bigfoot as in the Big Bang Theory,” The Washington Post, October 24, 2014.

Waldron, David, and Christopher Reeve. Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay. Milton Keynes: Hidden Publications, 2010.

Westwood, Jennifer, and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. London: Penguin, 2005.

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