This edited article about haunted battlefields originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
If any one part of Britain should be haunted more than another, one would imagine it to be the country’s ancient battle-fields. After all, what better place for haunting than a scene of violence and sudden death?
Certainly there are some British battle-fields that boast remarkably well confirmed stories of curious happenings, although for some reason it is rare to hear of anyone who has witnessed a battle actually in progress. But then the great majority of ghost stories feature spectres going about their business in rather a dull fashion.
The traditional grey ladies, cowled monks and headless noblemen may have met their ends in all manner of blood-curdling ways, yet they seem content to spend the centuries wandering about manor houses and ruined monasteries exceptionally quietly. And most of the ghost soldiers left over from the past appear to conduct themselves in much the same way.
One of the most authentic accounts of a haunted battle-field dates from just before World War II, because the ghosts were vouched for by two witnesses, neither of whom were expecting to see anything unusual.
It was late on a November afternoon when a commercial traveller named Thomas Horner set out to drive from Filey to Harrogate, accompanied by his friend, Arthur Wright. About four miles east of Hammerton a motor bus approached from the opposite direction, and Horner pulled well over to the left of the road in order to give the larger vehicle plenty of room.
As he did so his companion said sharply: “Watch out! There are some chaps right in front of you in the road!”
Apparently the bus driver had seen the walkers, too, for he braked for a moment before driving on. Horner stopped dead, for they were directly ahead of him on his side of the road, and only a few yards away. There were three men, wearing high, old-fashioned riding boots, wide-brimmed hats and long cloaks. Their hair, astonishingly for the 1930s, fell to their shoulders, and they trudged along the road regardless of the oncoming car with a kind of hopeless weariness.
Horner and his friend jumped out on to the road, curious to discover who the men might be, but abruptly the strangers vanished. But where to? The commercial traveller and his companion stared about them in bewilderment, convinced that they had been on the point of running down three real people. But the countryside was bleak, open moorland, with absolutely no cover of any kind.
It was Arthur Wright who broke the astonished silence. “You know where we are?”
Horner shook his head. All he knew was that the road was the A.59.
His friend said quietly, “This is Marston Moor, the old battle-ground of the Civil War.”
It was, in fact, the scene of Cromwell’s crushing defeat of the Royalist troops under Prince Rupert in 1644. And there seems little doubt that the three figures had been the ghosts of beaten cavaliers who, on that long ago afternoon, had set off in the hope of making their way safely to York. Presumably they failed in the attempt, and have been making their last journey ever since.
Perhaps because civil wars give rise to such bitter feelings, the fight between King and Parliament accounts for a considerable number of military hauntings in Britain. Edgehill is another battle-field that is reputed to live out that day in 1642 over and over again, and there are a number of accounts not only of the sound of ghostly drums but of sightings during which the whole battle is fought out.
Close to Edgehill is Woodcroft Manor, the scene of another grim episode featuring the Roundheads and Cavaliers. It was in 1648 that Dr Michael Hudson, one of the King’s chaplains, organised the local farmers against marauding bands of Parliamentary troops. This early guerilla fighter at first enjoyed considerable success, but more and more Roundheads were called in to capture him until eventually Dr Hudson was forced to withdraw what was left of his small force behind the walls of Woodcroft Manor.
Cromwell’s men surrounded the house and a bitter siege began. One by one the chaplain’s men were picked off, and eventually the Roundheads broke down the door and made an entry. The farmers made a gallant last stand, but before long Dr Hudson alone was left alive, his back to the battlements.
Seeing that further resistance was useless he surrendered, only to be picked up bodily by two troopers and hurled into space. Somehow Hudson managed to grab the edge of the parapet and hung there until one of his attackers slashed at his fingers with a sword and he fell into the moat far below. He succeeded in swimming to the bank, but still more of his enemies were waiting for him, and he died with a pike in his heart.
Today, people who live near the manor report that on certain nights it is still possible to hear the clash of steel behind its thick walls, and sometimes from the battlements there drifts down the sound of Dr Hudson, crying: “Mercy!” and “I pray you give me quarter!”
East Anglia claims a surprising number of Roman ghosts, who re-fight single-handed battles with their old enemies, the wing-hatted Vikings. And it is here, where so many of Britain’s earliest battles were fought, that there are scores of odd stories about ghosts of ancient fighting men.
Some of them have a surprisingly authentic ring to them, such as the one concerning groups of what appeared to be Ancient Britons re-living some long forgotten battle. When an archaeological dig was undertaken in the area of the hauntings, numerous skeletons were found, all showing axe or sword cuts.
Of all military apparitions, the largest was undoubtedly that seen in the Lake District during the summer of 1745. No less than 26 people witnessed what appeared to be an entire army on the march, and although 200-year-old ghost stories should be taken with a very large pinch of salt, this one was meticulously recorded. But whose ghost army was it, and why did it appear in an area where no battle had ever been fought?
It’s possible to guess one possible explanation from the date, for it coincides with a time when the Young Pretender was exercising troops on the West Coast of Scotland in preparation for his ill-fated invasion of England. It seems more than likely that the ghost army was a mirage, caused by freak weather conditions.
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