This post was written in respectful memory of “LOUP GAROU”, long time poster on the Living TV Most Haunted forum, and a fine teller of the chilling tale. We miss you mate…
It is perhaps ironic that despite having worked for several companies involved with Most Haunted, appeared on the show, and (as CJ.23) been for several years one of the most vocal commentators on the Most Haunted Forum (now sadly defunct) I actually watched very few episodes of the show at the time it was transmitted, or indeed subsequently. I used to joke this was because I lacked a ready supply of tranquilizers: in reality I actually lacked a TV set, and later I had a TV set but no cable. However when friends invited me to watch the show I usually found an excuse to be elsewhere, that much is true, and while I did watch the first two series eventually it was because Living TV were kind enough to send me the episodes so I could comment!
In this piece I am going to (after my rambling intro) look at one episode of Most Haunted: Series 3, episode 1, where the team visit East Kirkby airfield in Lincolnshire, a disused WW2 airbase now a museum. I selected the episode at random form a pile of Most Haunted DVDs I acquired at a charity shop: watched it through and made a few rough notes as I went. Owing to pressure of time I will not be research extensively the airbase and history involved, but I will briefly summarise and provide links. It would probably have made more sense if I had selected an episode I actually wrote a research brief for, and used that, but apart from the MHL episodes I worked on I don’t think such notes were very extensive, and it would arguably be unprofessional.
Still I can lay one myth to rest – it was often said by skeptics that everyone involved with MH, even quite tangentially, signed masses of non-disclosure agreements and had gagging orders in their contracts. I never had a contract with either ANTIX or HanrahanMedia for anything I did, and signed no such paperwork. I am not aware, or at all convinced, that it existed. Given how vocal some of the actual stars of the show have been on leaving, I find it very unlikely. It is also noteworthy that other than the allegations levelled at Derek Acorah, no one involved seems to have claimed the majority of “phenomena” the team witnesses was faked, though everyone I have spoken to has a different opinion on who threw the spoon in the infamous Falstaff Centre episode. This matches my general belief that the majority of the crew (and the show blurs the usual talent/crew distinction in TV, so the whole crew pretty much are the stars here) , and in particular Yvette, responded naturally to what they believed to be happening.
My approach to psychical research differs quite a bit from the Most Haunted “vigil” model. I feel I am closer to David Taylor, Andrew Homer and others who take a long time and historical/investigative approach, rather than emphasising trying to witness the phenomena myself. However my time working for Richard Felix, and the twenty odd “MH style” ghost hunts I organised myself have given me a few insights in to how it works, and more importantly how it feels to be part of such an vigil based night. I used to joke that this was all the commodification of “legend tripping“, but hey, it was certainly more exciting than any show about my research would ever be.
I have in the past despite my seeming overwhelming cynicism, and arguments that Most Haunted may have seriously set back spontaneous case research in parapsychology, also defended the show. I still think it was a brilliant creation, and Karl and Yvette pioneered not a single show, but a whole genre of reality TV programming. Also, I have argued that in some ways the much vilified Most Haunted represents something nearer to what actually occurs in ‘real world’ cases of haunting than the rather more austere accounts of apparitions in say the classic SPR literature. For now, however, let us turn from theoretical issues to an actual episode, and watch Most Haunted. Obviously it is probably more interesting if you actually watch the episode as well: at the time of writing it is available in a number of parts on YouTube, with the first part here. You can find the other parts listed on that page. I don’t know if it is a legal version, and how long it will be up, and I in no way endorse copyright violation, but for a reviewer it is rather useful, and I think what follows will make more sense if you watch the episode.
TV.com provide a useful summary taken from the opening of the episode that introduces the location:
Work started on the construction of the airfield in 1942 and by the middle of 1943 East Kirkby’s runways were operational and 57 Squadron, equipped with Lancasters, arrived. During November 1943, 630 Squadron was formed and also remained at East Kirkby for the duration of the war. The number of servicemen and women stationed at East Kirkby soon exceeded the 2,000 level. East Kirkby’s aircraft suffered losses in the Berlin and Nuremberg raids, but its worst night was 21 June 1944 when 11 aircraft were lost in an attack. Towards the end of the war, in April 1945, a Lancaster caught fire while being bombed up, resulting in a huge explosion which set off further bombs. Four people were killed, six Lancasters totally destroyed, and a further fourteen damaged. In the post-war period, the airfield was used for trials and for a short time during the mid-1950s it was occupied by United States Air Force. Eventually closing in 1958, the RAF finally disposed of the site in 1970. In recent years due to the work of Fred and Harold Panton, East Kirkby is now home to the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.
There is a short but useful wikipedia entry on the location as well.
OK, so what actually happens in the show?
ACT ONE: SETTING THE SCENE
…is the introduction, setting the scene. We are given the information above about the airfield, and of course there is a stress on the large number of planes and aircrews lost. Richard Felix clearly invokes the supposed link between death and tragedy and ghosts, repeatedly stressing the violent and horrific nature of the “passing” of the crews lost here. he refers to the supposed spooks as “unfortunate tormented souls”. The narrative is similar to that offered by Derek Acorah in the episode – ghosts are spirits of the dead, unable to pass over to the “other side”, unhappily earthbound by unresolved business. I have spent so long on the SPR group theorists hypotheses about apparitions it actually came as a shock to me to realise that I used to think this was juts a normal common sense definition of what a spook is: a dead guy or gal, lingering in our world. To be fair, having looked at the ideas of Gurney, Myers, Tyrell, Hart etc on telepathic projections, based upon the supposed evidence for telepathy, I’m actually not of the opinion those theories are better evidenced in any way than the one Derek and Richard favour. The “dead guys” hypothesis may actually have greater explanatory power than many of the parapsychological theories, and rests on assumptions that seem little greater to me than invoking ESP to account for spooks.
Anyway, now what could have been the most interesting bit of the show: Fred and David Panton briefly talk about their experiences. And here we have in a nutshell my critique of Most Haunted - Fred and David, the owners of the museum, clearly know the place inside out. Furthermore they have been there for many years — so we might expect them to have witnesses a great deal more “phenomena” than the MH team can hope to in one night, and furthermore to be able to discount those supposedly paranormal phenomena that are actually caused by unusual natural causes. Their testimony seems vital to me. We could dedicate the whole show to them explaining how and why the ghost stories developed, what they saw, where and when? All the other staff and visitors could be brought in. A cumulative picture of the evidence could be produced.
Most Haunted is not that kind of show. MH is about the crew having an adventure: about a vigil in a haunted location. The show takes place in a bubble of its own, with the events that have gone before merely providing a pretext and direction for what happens in tonight’s investigation. No wonder vigils are now the standard procedure for investigating spooks in Britain’s ghost hunting community, and so little effort and emphasis seems to be placed in to interviewing witnesses, recording and analysing testimony, and collecting supporting evidence. I think this is the single greatest weakness of MH: far more so than the use of psychics, or the questionable assumptions at times at play — it removes the ghost experience from human and historical experience, and renders it an isolated theme park thrill ride for one night only.
It also seems to me to make little mathematical sense. 5 separate apparitional experiences would be enough, in a thirty year period, to give any place a good reputation for being haunted. I make that roughly 2,190 to 1 therefore against anything major happening on the night the team are present. Of course it could be that events are far more common – but even at one a week it’s still 52 to 1 clearly. I may however be greatly exaggerating how rare these things are: wherever MH go, something seems to happen. (And it’s worth noting Karl personally assured me he would do an episode where nothing at all happened if that was the case; in some cases in all fairness it comes very close! The inherent drama of the situation and the interaction between the team actually makes up for it well, so it could and did work.)
OK: so what actually happens? I tried to note down the phenomena
* figure believed to be deceased American airman seen walking toward the control tower.
* murmuring voices heard.
* telephones ring, despite being disconnected (Control Tower)
* green lights observed in control tower (from outside).
* Strange feeling of being watched.
We don’t get enough information to really say much about any of the above sadly. Was the figure seen at night or in the daytime? (My notes don’t say: the episode might). The one thing I did note was that the green lights were seen from a nearby caravan park, so I did for a moment wonder if they were in high summer and possibly fireflies, however unlikely that may be. Again, murmuring voice type noises MIGHT be caused by the wind hitting the hangars, and a low vibration. The telephones ringing however is beyond me, but there may be an explanation.
Actually many years ago while conducting an investigation at the Old Bell Hotel, Dursley, Gloucestershire, my colleague Derek and myself were both asleep in a room when we were woken by the phone ringing. It was 3 or 4am, I forget which, but the time when a ghostly maid is said to have given visitors a wake up call through their door. We got the phone – I answered it, and sure enough the phoneline was dead, and on examination the phone was disconnected at he wall (itself rather mysterious in a working hotel!). Not sure what the cause was, but thought I’d mention it here. Also rather amusing that back in those days we tried to sleep at night during an investigation rather than sit up and look for ghosts.
There follows an explanation about a couple of famous crashed in the rough district of the airfield. One was of a fighter plane that never made it back, the other of a B17 bomber that was refused permission to land despite being badly shot up, and eventually crashed near the runway killing all ten on board, having suffered a catastrophic malfunction or simply run out of fuel while circling in a holding pattern. The suggestion was the figure seen approaching the Control Tower as the pilot of the B17 off to “have it out” with the Control Tower staff. The plane burned on impact, and Dave Panton gave his fascinating memories of the tragedy he witnessed.
The suggestion throughout the episode was that a mistake was made, and the plane SHOULD have been given permission to land. The runway today is combined grass/tarmac at 950m, and the fact it was home to a bomber group suggest to me that in 1944 the runway could have landed a B-17 could have landed, but the runway now may be shorter than it was, given the length these planes needed to take off. However RAF East Kirkby could handle big planes no problem — so that was not why it was denied permission to land. I feel it more likely that other planes were taxiing, or on the runway at the time.
I tried to find out, quickly identifying the name of the plane, the names of all killed, and the date and location of the crash. Now I have a problem. I don’t want relatives to Google any of that, and find me talking about ghosts. It was nearly 70 years ago, but no I feel bad about the possibility. So instead, I shall explain briefly what I found – you can easily work it out for yourselves if you want to check. One site says the pilot suffered engine problems on take off, and tried to land. He overshot the runway, was going round again to try a second time and crashed on the hillside. (Would have to be serious problems given these are multi engine planes, but perhaps a fire?) Yet another site which appears more reliable says it crashed after sustaining damage over Germany on the return from a bombing raid on the Bullay railway bridge at Koblenz, and gives the Mission number. So we are no closer to establishing what happened, but the plane existed and crashed while trying to land.
This pretty much wraps up the first part of the show, where the setting is introduced. We see fragments of the wreckage of the B17 on display, and another small section of a fighter plane. We are told the pilot should have been on leave. Then it cuts to Phil Whyman who has apparently been taking baseline readings with an EMF meter, and checking out “the residual energy” of the location. Phil was well aware by this time of my cynicism about EMF meters – we had talked about it several times, both in forums and in bars. Still it was what he had to do, part of the format, I think introduced by Jason Karl in series 1.
ACT 2: THE PSYCHIC ANGLE
One can say a great deal about the use of psychics in an investigation, and even more about Derek Acorah. I don’t intend to get too involved in these discussion, but in this episode Derek is much like in most. For many people this is probably the key part of the show, and what it does is to expand upon material already discussed, with Derek purporting to make contact with a number of spirit entities, and providing a number of names and facts that correspond with the historical record. IN the brief time I chose locations for the show I felt I had good reason to believe Derek could not know in advance the locations, but Ciaran O Keeffe has suggested a way round this; I am not going to concentrate on these issues here. One thing I think that is important is that Derek is filmed for a long period off time, and presumably edited for material that fits the correct framework, and I certainly do not believe that Karl and Yvette colluded in briefing Derek for reasons I am unable to discuss. One could simply argue Derek could easily have said much that was wrong but not shown — I do not believe that is the case however, for various reasons, notably that his hit rate does not decline in the live broadcasts. I have discussed my thoughts on Derek’s mediumship after witnessing his stage show elsewhere, and will simply ignore the issue here for time reasons, concentrating on other aspects.
Firstly, I must return to ethics. As I noted above, there are very likely living loved ones of those deceased individuals purported to appear in the episode. For that reasons it is not my intention to name the individuals Derek mentions; and for that reason I am unable to do justice to any discussion of the accuracy or otherwise of Derek’s statements with regards to known historical fact. I ill say that Derek gives a number of names, and seems to be accurate with those names, but also gives some curious names; curious in that they are not mentioned in the sources, or indeed known to the ANTIX research team, Richard Felix, and presumably the Pantons.
So does that actually add to the credibility of the psychic testimony, or are they simply wild guesses? There is nothing of the “I’m getting a P… Peter” extremely vagueness and generalised statements about Derek’s performance. He is either genuinely an astonishing psychic who talks to spirits, a complete fraud and actor, or has rather amazingly good ESP and actually picks garbled and occasionally wrong information from those around him. I’ll let the reader decide: however these names that are mentioned but not confirmed fascinated me. While most of the material fits in the framework of stories mentioned in “Act One”, there was some interesting additional material, including spirits watching over the work on a Lancaster bomber with one engine still to be repaired, something Derek noted as coming from “spirit” information.
However — one of the names Derek gives for a spirit, while of a real airman, was of one who actually we learn from Richard subsequently died only in 1989 in Canada. That spirit apparently only visits briefly to watch over things. Whether you regard this as a spectacular cock up or convincing proof of the nature of the afterlife will depend on how you feel about Derek Acorah. Another name given by Derek was certainly that of a real US airman killed after the war in a training accident in the USA, but as the fellow was well known it could be cryptomnesia: I was surprised Richard could not locate it, but then why would he? There is no connection with the UK!
Another interesting aspect is the identity of the apparition said to be seen walking towards the Control Tower. Act One frames this as related to the crew of the downed B17 denied permission to land. Here Derek creates an alternative scenario, where the ghostly pilot is associated with another famous crash the wreckage of which can be seen in the museum, and which is really quite moving. I have discovered the chap in questions relatives are alive, and are very happy it would seem with the Panton’s commemoration of the chaps death, but again I’m going to withhold the name. Those interested can easily find that out from the websites linked above: Suffice to say the plane recovered from a Fen in 1989 after forty years of lying there possibly had with it the pilots wallet (though the body was recovered at the time, and therefore it may have simply been collected then and donated when his Spitfire was discovered) , and it is clear from papers within he was not meant to fly that day, but cancelled his leave. Derek specifically mentions the wallet and leave being cancelled, before they are produced, clearly impressing Yvette. He then ascribes the ghost approaching the control tower to this fellow, and says he was denied permission to land ran out of fuel and crashed.
Except.. this is the story normally ascribed to the B-17 pilot, whose identity is normally given to the ghost approaching the Control Tower. On one experiment under controlled conditions many years ago, a medium, Ms. Morven Alexander gave me a piece of historical information I believed to be wrong, which subsequently turned out to be correct. Could that be the case here? Have people been assigning the wrong identity to the spook? Did both pilots run out of fuel?
On the whole I do not believe the B-17 did. It was either damaged on take off with an engine flame out and failed to perform an emergency landing, or suffered battle damage in the raid over Koblenz and crashed on landing. I have played the card game B17 Queen of the Sky enough to believe the latter is a realistic scenario, but why do I not think there was fuel on board? Because the older Panton recalls the terrific fire when it crashed, and immediately exploded. This does sound closer to the take off, circle and crash on second approach scenario, as the plane may well have been fully fuelled. However if it had a full bomb load I think things may have gone worse with the would be rescuers, so I can’t say for certain.
Did the spitfire crash through running out of fuel after being denied permission to land at East Kirkby? Nope. Thirty minutes in to a training flight out of RAF Digby the plane spun out of cloud, entered an inverted dive, and crashed in to the Fen. It could have been a mechanical fault, a stall, but I’m inclined to think it was spatial disorientation and vertigo, but I would really not pay heed to my thoughts (I have never flown a plane). Horrible, tragic business, watched by the two other RCAF Spitfires flying alongside. No question of fuel, no chance for an attempted landing at RAF East Kirkby, and no reason for an irate pilot to seek out the Control Tower. In fact the Spitfire did not fly from East Kirkby, but RCAF Digby, about ten miles or so away. None of these facts that seem to throw doubt on Derek’s account were mentioned on the programme, whether because Richard did not know them or because of editing I can not say.
As usual, one can make allowances. I was quite confused about who Derek was “talking” to in terms of his spirits in various points in the show, and perhaps I misunderstand. The Spitfire is at East Kirkby today, a fitting tribute to a young pilot lost in the war, but perhaps Derek intended us to think of the B-17 pilot all along. Maybe the psychic channels were confused. Whatever the reason, the account must be compared with the plain facts of the accident. Now there is probably someone out there who thinks “typical debunker, hiding behind supposed ethical issues to make up critiques.” If you do think I would stoop that low (and I must say I LIKE Derek as a person, whatever I think of his mediumship), here you go. The plane was Spitfire Mk.Vb BL655 FJ – B Go check for yourselves what I assert.
And yes, I really do have ethical qualms about naming the alleged spirit communicators on a TV show. The problem of course is that without doing so, the evidence is simply non-existent. I’m sure MH often handled these things with tact and sensitivity, but on at least one occasion I felt they got it badly wrong (in another episode). Whatever one feels, I’m not going to take any chances, as I must live with my own conscience, and feel better safe than sorry.
There is of course far more one could say about the nature of the alleged spirit communications, what conclusions one could draw from them, and so forth. I do not intend to pursue that here, because much of it could refer to any episode. Perhaps I will discuss it in a future blog post. Instead I will concentrate on what to me was the more interesting “third act”, by my arbitrary division of the programme.
ACT 3: The Vigil.
The team soon finds itself on the actual vigil. This begins with a bang – well several of hem actually. Loud banging noises are clearly heard on the soundtrack. What are they? Phil mentions the possibility of the wind striking the aerodrome, but nope this sounds — metallic? Then Karl runs in, with the owners grandson Jonathan. They explain they have seen the apparition of the officer wearing his cap outside, looking towards one of the bombers! The mysterious banging is quickly forgotten, as Karl takes the crew out, and explains what happened.
I’d encourage the interested reader to watch this scene carefully. It seems the two of them outside both saw the same thing, though curiously Jonathan reports seeing a large “orb first”, that then becomes the apparition. I’m reminded of the opinion expressed by a psychic on MHL4 that “orbs are the first stages of a spirit manifestation” – not an opinion I tend to share, being inclined strongly to believe orbs are nothing but artefacts of digital camera processing. There are plenty of sites these days that explain perfectly normally orbs: however hang on, Jonathan was not as far as I can tell looking through a camera? So what did he see? A ball of light? A mist? Or was he looking through Karl’s viewfinder? Whatever happens the image seems to resolve in to a black silhouette of a pointing figure – was this just a shadow, or something more?
This takes me back to when we were filming for MHL4, as “overnighters”. I was camped out at Woodchester Mansion (with permission), and was standing in the very early hours alone near the side of the building when I suddenly saw what looked like three very tall grey robed figures staring at me. Shadows? Bushes seen in the darkness? Tired eyes? I walked away, rubbed my eyes and returned. Bushes I think, and looking from different angles suggested I was right, even if I could not recreate the illusion.. Hard to say – but the original vision had looked like something from an M.R.James tale, or Swinburne’s dark ladies. Maybe something like this befell Karl and Jonathan: or maybe they actually saw a spook, or … Actually, who knows? The problem is the apparitional sighting does not sound like many I have read about in the literature, but it could be genuine. Bizarrely no one seems all that interested. They never do on MH, when an actually apparition is supposedly seen. I have no idea why!
Derek then asks for more noise, because according to him spirits are greatly concerned with demonstrating their presence to us, and providing evidence for their survival of death. On cue, the banging starts up again.
Then it gets really odd. Jonathan the owners grandson starts to “burn up” — apparently actually experiencing a physiological temperature increase, well at least of his surface temperature. His forehead feels hot to the touch. He feels unwell, and appears a little distressed. Derek “confirms” by touch the temperature increase, but as an ex-nurse I’d say this is harder than it sounds. Maybe the lad was feverish, or suffering some other affliction – acute embarrassment? I dunno!
We are suddenly distracted by a couple of pebbles apparently thrown or fallen from (through?) the roof – a common alleged paranormal phenomenon — but before we learn more, things get weirder. Karl appears, announcing he has the same kind of symptoms as Jonathan – a burning sensation, in Karl’s case limited to his left arm. Do ghosts emit some kind of irritant energy?I rather doubt it, yet you could speculate thus, and think that Karl would from what I can make out have had his left side to the apparition which was by Jonathan when they saw it: or you could suspect lighter fluid as someone mentioned! Or it could be auto-suggestion, a somatic effect. Once again we know nothing. Everyone was distracted by the pebbles, and anything could have happened. The problem with a fraud hypothesis is that Jonathan would have had to be in on it – I find that inherently absurd. If Karl faked things that blatantly with outsiders, he would have been exposed and court very quickly. These things also upset Yvette – which I think Karl would be loathe to do, unless she was in on it. Yet Yvette seems genuine in every way here. Nope, I have little idea what is going on…
Derek then comes up with something almost more extraordinary than the phenomena by way of explanation. He suggest that pilots who died in flaming aircraft wrecks may be trying to make their mode of passing known, by some form of telepathy. This left me speechless! I really don’t know what to say about that, so I will leave it. I have seen a medium seemingly throttled (not by me, despite my well known feeling about psychics I hasten to add!) in a room where a century before a lady hanged herself, and I guess the idea is similar, but really this one is just mind blowing! Derek says these are the things spirits will do to prove themselves to us? OK, I think I’d prefer to doubt…
I really must get on to some outstanding work, and other things, so I will summarise quickly the end of the episode. The team all split up again, and Karl, John Dibley and Stuart see strange lights in the Control Tower. A door closes, seemingly on its own. Everyone else has nothing occur to them. It seems phenomena cluster round Karl, except for the stones. Dawn breaks and Ciaran O Keeffe is wheeled out in a VT insert, after reviewing the footage, and says how “fantastic” it was, and how it looked like “genuine phenomena”, before adding some realistic and reasonable sceptical caveats. And then it’s over, and we are left wondering, was it real? What really happened?
Well it is I am told a really good episode of Most Haunted, and despite my short attention span I guess I enjoyed it. Please do comment, especially if you were actually there! I certainly watched it open mouthed at times, and hope my few rather scatty and half-baked comments have amused. I was also amazed when writing this to discover Yvette is the mother of Will Sweeny, Harry Styles of One Direction‘s old bandmate!
Anyway, I may return to review other episodes in the future, but for now all I can say is “don’t have nightmares”
If you asked people what the worst natural disaster to befall Britain in the 20th century was (baring disease epidemics like the 1919 flu), most people will look at you and probably have no idea. It was actually in 1953 when a Spring tide combined with low atmospheric pressure led to an incredible storm and flood, and left 30,000 people homeless, and 307 dead on land, and over 224 at sea in the UK. Where I grew up it was known as the Great East Anglian Flood; however in the Netherlands they call it the Watersnoodramp, and Wikipedia calls it the North Sea Flood of 1953. Closer, but even that does not really cover the scale of the disaster – 28 died in Scotland, and the MV Princess Victoria a ferry doing railway duty on the Stranraer to Larne crossing sank with loss of 133 lives, with just 44 saved. Across the Low Countries and UK, over 2000 people died. 13,000 cattle drowned: a thousand miles of coastline flooded, and in modern terms did £941,000,000 in damages – that is £50 million pounds in 1953 money converted by purchasing power. This was nothing compared the Netherlands – there around 1,800 people perished.
The first casualties were on the MV Princess Victoria — a “roll on roll off” ferry. It went down around 2 in the afternoon, having been battered by the storms. The navy tried to reach it with HMS Contest and the lifeboat Jeannie Spiers; a few were saved by the heroism of the lifeboat crew of the Samuel Kelly and two merchant ships in the area. It was a day of heroes, and the valour of radio operator David Broadfoot who remained at his post till the very end sending the SOS was marked by his posthumous George Cross. Notably Captain James Feguson was last seen as the ship sank standing on the bridge, saluting: he went down with his ship in line with naval tradition, and all of the other officers were lost.
Despite the potential to notify those on the coast as the storm beat round Scotland, warnings were not passed on – many port offices were unmanned on a Saturday night, and the radio did not broadcast late enough. Some telephoned warnings did save lives, but everyone reacted as if it was a local problem. At least today modern communications technology would instantly notify almost everyone as to the impending threat.
Sixty years ago tonight. If the sinking of the Titanic was a defining moment in my grandmother Alice Bentley’s childhood, the Great East Anglian Flood is a memory that my parents told me of. They married in 1952 – I was not born for another 17 years, but they were living in Bury then. The memories of ’53 have conflated with a later East Anglian flood, probably ’64, when the Lark Valley flooded deeply apparently, as did many streets in town. I can’t imagine that had much to do with tidal surge — it has to have been rain run off, and one day I am going to go and find the Bury Free Press archive and take a look at the photos. Eastgate Street was flooded – and my father was amused by stories that he had been seen rescuing people in the road in a rowboat; it is the kind of thing one can imagine him doing. Well, he is a Viking! However, back to 1953…
There were heroes, like Reis Leming, one of those “oversexed overpaid and over ‘ere” US airmen who were part of East Anglian life for so. Reis died last year; but his heroism that night lives on. It is sad that Reis, who saved so many despite not being able to swim, could not be here for the 60th anniversary. All kinds of folk stories arose about the flood – but in Bury the effects were inconvenience and amazement, but not terrible tragedy as on the East Coast, thirty miles away. One of Alice’s friend’s husbands died; I recall sitting drinking tea in St. John’s Place and her telling me how she lost her husband, Mr Laytin that night, washed away and drowned near Felixstowe if I recall correctly. He was a coastguard or port official – I’m hazy on the details some thirty years on, but it was an awful thing to hear.
For all the stories I heard growing up, my knowledge of the event is limited to several articles and a single book I read years ago, that focussed almost entirely in the East Anglian aspects of this “perfect storm”. It is to my mind a very local tragedy — and everyone regards it this way. So despite some wonderful coverage today (and a decade ago) in the press, which seems to render any commentary from me redundant – after all witnesses like my parents are still alive and able to tell what they saw that night — I thought I’d comment here. If you want to see what it looked like, Pathe News have some footage here :
It was not “a very local” disaster at all – it was a national disaster. Yet the scale of the losses on Canvey Island down in the Thames Estuary, which was devastated by the flooding with a huge loss of homes, was just as severe as in East Anglia, and the losses in Scotland and Lincolnshire grim too. So why is it recalled as such a local matter? This is what interests me — I actually wondered if there was an intentional cover up, given the late and ineffective government response, or whether it was just the local press primarily reported the story which was therefore perceived everywhere as a local matter, and for some reason the London Press played it down? This was post-war Austerity Britain – and the Coronation and Festival of Britain demonstrated a “move on, keep cheerful” (I nearly quoted that bloody poster) attitude that natural disaster would have been at odds with.
I think that is probably the truth — people were sick of doom and gloom, and while the disaster was noted, to London it was (despite killing one person) a fairly minor thing. In Lincolnshire, the Western Isles, the Hebrides, the Orkneys, East Anglia and The Thames Estuary as well as across in the Netherlands it was very big news, the papers never reported the big picture, and so it has gone down in folk memory as a local affair. Perhaps it is for the best, for such a perfect storm should occur again, maybe not for centuries, but inevitably, and then we will see if the flood defences built in the aftermath really do work…
Growing up in Bury St. Edmunds it is almost impossible to not know the story of ‘Maria Marten and the Red Barn’ one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. In essence a fairly tawdry tragedy, there are a number of features – including some overtly supernatural elements – that render it fascinating even to this day, but at the time the sensation it caused was vast, and it was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were reported, and even the English language.
I don’t have time to give a full account of the case, so I will quickly summarize it here. On Saturday 18th May 1827 William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family apparently set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two walked separately through the night to a barn, the now infamous ‘Red Barn’ on Corder’s property, Maria dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice. In the barn Maria change in to her women’s attire, and while changing met her death, and was buried by Corder within the barn.
Corder remained in the little village of Polstead, and informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but that to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth. She was unable to write because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London, and wrote to her father saying that Maria and he were now married, and living on the Isle of Wight, and very happy (and requesting that the father burn the letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P.). Yet he told others in the village during his visits many other stories, with little consistency, as to whether or not he was married, and where Maria was residing in the year before the discovery of her body.
A Sensational Case
Now Corder forms the archetype we are told for the “wicked squire” (the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks) and Maria the type for the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama, and certainly the story formed the basis for large numbers of plays, many still extant today, which were performed by travelling troupes all over the country. Local author Peter Haining informs us that these plays, performed in barns, gave us the word “barnstorming”. Certainly they were hugely popular, and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows all over the region and down to London depicting the murder, and in Bury a camera obscura show. A nonconformist minister preached to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn, which was dismantled by souvenir seekers, and in Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten, chipped away by curiosity seekers. The London papers sent reporters to the Inquest and Trial of Corder, and 7,000 people gathered in Bury on August 10th, 1828 to watch Corder hang.
The Background to the Crime
Yet all this sensation masks some of the story, which may have a bearing on what really happened on the fateful night. Firstly, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman who is referred to at the Inquest as Mr P. (His identity is known and was given in court, but does not matter for our purposes). As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardry, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not it seems a “burden on the parish”, and because the father made generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep. (Though actually only one appears to have been alive by the time of the murder, and was being raised by Maria’s parents).
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time as they lived in a fairly small village, and Corder and her went off to live in sin in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one by Corder, and again bastardy charges could have followed. The couple returned to Polstead, and the baby died; Corder took the remains off in a box, and told people they were buried in Sudbury, but he in fact buried the child in a field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and William remained lovers, despite the gulf in their social position (nowhere as great as that between her and her former lover Mr P however), and the apparent disapproval of his family. Corder’s father was dead; several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother died in what according to Haining was a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice in to the village pond. Mrs Corder suffered an immense amount of tragedy, and now William was heir, and helping to run the farm. Yet he still did not have control of the money, and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child from it. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder, who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardry charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder
Twice they prepared to elope, but Corder backed out, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life seems to have been troubled by the moral condemnation of her younger sister, who appears to have regarded her as a ‘tart’, and been particularly scathing about how she dressed herself up. The death of her baby seems to have effected her greatly, she had health problems, and now Corder told her she was about to be arrested for bastardry, using this to frighten and control her. On the fatal night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, and so she dressed in his clothes, and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They left by different doors the Marten’s cottage, and walked to the Red Barn – there she was to out of sight of any villagers change, and they would make off to marry by Licence, so no banns need be read.
Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, and what followed appears straightforward enough. Maria was changing out of Corder’s clothes in to her own when she was shot by a pistol in the head, and then perhaps stabbed twice with Corder’s sword, before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they left the Marten’s cottage, Corder went to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder claimed the boy was mistaken, and this was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who also wore a velveteen coat. (The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at the trial of Corder the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.)
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn
Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. There is one curious episode during these proceedings, when he offered one of his farm hands a £1 to cut his throat. The man thought he was joking, but it may well be that Corder was under a terrific strain.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) was rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. An illustration exists (below) but it is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds, and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight, but actually to perform far more extraordinary deeds in London. We will return to those shortly. However for the next eleven months Maria was to remain buried in the Red Barn.
Supernatural Interlude 1: The Discovery of the Body
‘Providence [[CJ: That is, God]] led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest; in fact the events which led to the discovery of the body have been a staple of supernatural books from then onwards, because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt where the body was buried, and thereafter managed to convince her husband (Maria’s father) to go look. Note that in most accounts it is Maria’s mother who has the dream – that lady was long dead it seems, and so it was the stepmother, not that it makes any difference. What we know from The Times, April 22nd 1828 is that the dream was Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and occurred for three successive nights.
Now the papers made a lot of this, but in fact in that era of great scepticism they also offered fairly critical comment as well; sadly from the viewpoint of a psychical researcher like me the evidence for anything supernatural being involved is very weak. Maria and William had always met (and one presumes made love) in the Red Barn – it was “their place”, and they were well known by all to frequent it. As early as immediately after Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ Maria’s parents were suspicious something had happened to her, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe near dawn on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the aforementioned difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife’s dreams, when finally convinced he must search the barn, he took the time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. To be honest, such deference by farm labourers and the rural poor towards big farmers and landowners is not uncommon even today, or was at least not when I was growing up.
So Mr Marten took a friend, Mr Pryke, and armed with a spade and a rake they set off to the barn, went immediately to the very spot indicated in the dream and quickly uncovered the remains of poor Maria, much decomposed, indeed mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was note there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged, apparently missing any target. As Corder habitually carried, and occasionally fired in to the Marten’s fireplace, a pair of percussion cap pistols, well it looked bad for him.
So the dream – was it supernatural? On the contrary, the bizarre way Maria who could read and write and was close to her parents had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of all too conscious anxiety on the part of the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband who had spent eleven months doing nothing but worrying actually go and check Maria was not in the Red Barn dead. Some modern sceptics have suggested the Martens were in some way involved to know where the body was: the Trial record makes a nonsense of that suggestion. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe it display any supernormal faculty on the part of Mrs Marten. We are not done with the supernatural — I shall return to other supernatural elements later — but the most uncanny thing about the discovery of the body is just how long it took. However, I do have a theory here – not only did Corder have the barn key, but until April the area where they body was buried was under a large amount of winter hay, cattle food I suspect. Only after the cows returned to grazing could it be easily examined. Perhaps the Marten’s were just every patiently awaiting that chance.
Peter Haining also points out that the barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. The Red Barn was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun, and such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. It is inevitable that there are stories of ghostly re-enactments of the crime, but none holds much substance and the Red Barn itself is long gone now.
William Corder’s Lonely Hearts Club Fan
During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria Corder was of course in Polstead for a long period, but eventually he set off purportedly for the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London, where Haining suggests he and Maria had a number of criminal associates. I don’t have Haining’s book here to check his sources (it is truly excellent and I do want to re-read it) but what we know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself, and quite quickly given his unwillingness fixed his eyes upon matrimony. He may have planned to leave the country – her procured a passport to travel to France, but never did – instead he did what has been described as ‘inventing the Lonely Hearts column’. He took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827 –
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement suggests Corder’s lonely hearts ad was not the first, but it certainly worked. He received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him, perhaps with the intent of immediate marriage, at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling, and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck, and attend a certain service where they would meet. Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left; he afterwards discovered the woman making enquiries for such a man was a high ranking lady with a large fortune, and he was planning to try and contact her again when he met his wife to be.
Corder met Miss Moore in a public place, and they immediately hit it off. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single state, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were wed. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy, and Mr and Mrs Corder opened a boarding school for girls at Grove House, Ealing Lane. It was there, living with his wife and a few pupils, that he was to be apprehended for murder.
After the discovery of the body it was quickly ascertained by missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse was Maria. There was only one suspect, and the village constable set off to London to try and find Corder. However London was outside his jurisdiction, so he went to a police station, where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took him fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London, quite an impressive achievement! If Corder had changed his name or tried to hide it would have been harder, but he was easily located, and Mr Lea entered his house pretending he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as he had Corder in his study, he told him the game was up and Maria Marten was found; three times Corder denied knowing the girl. Corder was arrested nonetheless, and his sword taken, along with a small black reticule, effectively a handbag, that was once the property of Maria Marten. Inside it were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder; his wife, believing the charge was bigamy at first, stood by him, and did so until their final parting the day before his execution.He was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester, and on the second night there transferred in the early hours to the Cock pub at Polstead, where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
By ten am The Cock was filled with interested persons and representatives of the London press. There was a dispute between the Coroner Weyman, and the press about whether notes could be taken for their articles – the Coroner ruled against them, so accounts of the proceedings were filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that already the sensation was great, and that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and had declared Corder the murderer, to great prejudice against him. There is a strong irony in this, as we will shortly see. Proceedings were they delayed by Corder’s representative asking he may come downstairs and witness the testimony – this was am inquest, not a trial, but the Coroner ruled against him and stated instead he may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
In fact this proved extremely difficult – she appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed — and at his trial, Corder was charged with all nine, so as to make sure one of them stuck. (‘Murder by pistol, murder by stabbing in heart, murder by stabbing in neck’, etc, etc). This legal nicety, like the fact everything in the charge must be valued (stabbed by sword (“worth one shilling”), buried in gravel and soil (“of no value”) seems a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined poor Maria had been murdered – and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
Corder’s Other Crime
Corder it seems had already stolen £5 sent by Mr P to Maria; and after her death eh continued to benefit this way. However as he was in prison in Bury he was accused of another crime that could have sent him to the gallows, this time fraud. Those guilty of fraud were shown no mercy at all under the law in 19th century England – while murderers might have their sentence commuted from death on occasion, fraudsters, no matter how innocent, were hanged.
We will never know if Corder was guilty of this crime, but it does appear likely. On the 14th April 1828 Corder had apparently arrived at the White Hart in Manningtree, stating he had business with the bank opposite, Messrs Alexanders. Making conversation with Mr Dale the landlord, he explained he was an agent sent to cash a cheque, and when the bank opened he presented a cheque for £93 on the Hadleigh branch payable to a Mr Cook of Wenlam-Hall from the account of Mr Atkins, butcher of Stratford. The banker Mr Taylor refused, as he knew neither party, but Corder explained he was Cook, and was well known in the area. The landlord of the White Hart helpfully said he knew Mr Cook by sight, so the money was handed over. The presumed Mr Cook was paid in local currency notes — I’d like to know more about what these were – and Cook/Corder dashed off to the Branch Banking Establishment at Ipswich where he exchanged the notes for gold and departed before the fraud was discovered that night. When arrested his wife found eighty pounds in gold in his drawer, and Corder never denied the charges, simply saying “I dare say they will try to make enough of it”. He appeared genuinely defeated and contrite when confronted by Mr Taylor and Mr Dale, both of whom identified him as the fraudster. It seems the crime was committed for the purpose of funding his move to Grove House and new boarding school.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life is he never seemed to have enough money. That is the fate of many of us, but Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead, and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – the Corders were locally important folk. Yet he hints time and time again at trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear he doted on his mother, she seems to have been unwilling to surrender any control over finances to him. She was very attached to him, and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles, but she may well have disapproved of Maria, if she knew anything of their relationship, and certainly Corder while a snappy dresser with expensive tastes seems to have been unwilling to seek financial aid from this obvious source.
The trial held at Bury St Edmunds continued the sensation. Chief Baron Alexander presided, and his orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos as the crowds milled around outside, and once his carriage arrived it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with murder on nine counts, to cover all possible ways he disposed of Maria, and was horrified and outraged to discover the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! As he complained, this meant the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything but reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – last seen with the victim, who was found interred in his barn, with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, and having lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder, and there was no evidence he planned to procure the promised marriage licence or actually elope with her; he appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site, and for the first time in his life kept the barn locked after the murder, and his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was certainly looked grim. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardry. Afterwards when he was supposedly living with her he had refused to give an address to her parents claiming the couple were in fear of Mr P (who whatever his moral failings, seems to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and keep an eye out for Maria’s welfare). The picture from the trial that emerges of Corder is of a weak, not very bright schemer, who lied constantly to cover up Maria’s fate. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him, and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for the fellow. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence, and indeed his wife and it seems Corder were convinced he would be acquitted – and perhaps today he would be, on technicalities.
So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect and try for a technicality, as he had been charged with all nine! His second chance was stronger: arguing the body was not Maria Marten. He however chose to admit it was, and the evidence was such there can be no doubt it was anyway. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner now being employed as the Prosecutor, and the Judge was certainly sympathetic to that, as he was to Corder’s point the notoriety of the case was such he had already been judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial began. However, Corder decided to argue the one strong argument he could make, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide, and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury, when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night – I was not clear from the trial evidence if it was on this night he did this, but the Martens certainly said he used to do this. If it was, Corder had the pistols when he left their house. However, we know the pistols were found in Corder’s School in what was essentially Maria’s handbag. Corder claimed she had the pistols that night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen by her family to be crying, and as she changed at the barn Corder asserted she began to abuse him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, he claimed that he told her if she spoke to him like this before they were wed how would she treat him once they were married?, and telling her he would not marry her he walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, and turned to see her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. (No explanation was given for the second bullet mark, on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left, if his account was in anyway true.) He panicked, and concealed the body, cleaned up the scene, went and borrowed a spade and then later returned with a pickaxe, and buried poor Maria in the barn. After that he did all he could to conceal her fate, and this was why he told so many lies and wrote so many untruths.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – this happened he claimed as he dragged her body to the grave — and how to account for the wounds made by a stabbing instrument, growing wider as it went in, attested to by three surgeons and attributed to his sword. Corder made an interesting defence — that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse. I’ll return to this later.
The End for Corder
The jury retired and spent over an hour discussing the case, before finding Corder guilty. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday, and was taken from the court in a state of near collapse. He committed to Bury gaol, and met twice more with is wife, who seems to have behaved with great courage and dignity, and offered him a lot of religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others sought an interview, but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the chaplain. Finally, on the morning of his execution, he wrote and had witnessed a confession. According to this the argument was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated Corder killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn they fell to fighting, and while struggling Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime, and events proceeded as above. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon and hanged in front of 7,000 witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs.
So Was Corder Guilty?
In recent years there have been a number of attempts to suggest Corder was not guilty of the murder. Given this appears one of the most open and shut cases I can think of, and that he confessed, it is hard to see any other possibility. There is however one possibility I think, well perhaps two. At the times rumours circulated Corder was also having an affair with Maria’s stepmother, who was not much older than Maria, and she was involved hence her knowledge of the burial site. I find that hard to believe. Other authors have mentioned Corder’s criminal associates, and even a gypsy fortuneteller lady, but all this strikes me as nonsense. Corder was there when she died, and covered up the death – but was he actually telling the truth about suicide? Maria seems to have been deeply disturbed that night, and perhaps she did have the pistols — if so, perhaps the handkerchief round her neck was irrelevant as Corder suggested. The “sword wounds” could easily have been made by Mr Marten as he found the body. As a child I can recall Suffolk farmers using unusual looking “mole spades” with long slender blades, not unlike those used for tree planting today. Mr Marten was a mole catcher. We know that Mr Pryce probed the ground with the handle of his rake, and found an iron spike, perhaps part of Corder’s pickaxe. The wounds in the heavily decomposed body could be many things. So did Maria shoot herself? I find it extremely unlikely, and think not. Corder must have realised if she had covering the matter up would only make things worse, and in an argument as described I find it hard to see why she did not shoot him instead. A second, slightly more plausible theory would be that actually there was some suggestion of a double suicide, and each discharged a pistol at their head, but Corder decided to live and fired his in to the wall. Possible, but there is no evidence for this at all, barring the curious bullet marks in the wooden wall of the barn. No, I am afraid I think Corder was guilty, but fired twice, trying to stop Maria in some kind of violent physical struggle, probably with the intention of scaring her – but maybe with the intention of murder. In his Confession Corder says this, and there seems little reason to doubt him, though he is at great pains to swear before God that he did not make the sword wounds alleged.
Supernatural Interlude 2: The Ghost of Corder
In Moyses Hall musueum today you can still see a collection of relics related to the infamous murder. These include a particularly grisly item, a book about the trial bound in the Corder’s skin!
For many years Corder’s skeleton was used for anatomy lessons at teaching hospitals. One doctor became fascinated by this grim artefact and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his nerves by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned. So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore I read in the 1980′s anyway.
First up, do me a favour. If you don’t know or care about Ars Magica, but you enjoy strategy games, or fantasy games, or history games, go to this Kickstarter and think about pledging $20. If it funds, you get a download of the game when it is completed. If the funds aren’t raised, your money never leaves your account. $20. Do it for CJ I’m not involved with the project, but this is a computer game based on the rpg I spend my life writing books for, so I’m keen to promote it as hard as I can If you help fund, and later play and enjoy the computer game,perhaps one day you will understand what this whole Ars Magica thing is about So $20 – and you either don’t have to pay if it fails, or you do and get a cool game.
I’m pretty sure all fans of Ars Magica were delighted to hear about the kickstarter to raise funds to allow the funding of an Ars Magica based computer game set in the Schism War, and a lot of people would like to know more. Funding is going well, but after 4 days the project is still only 10% funded, so I think it’s vital now to push it as hard as possible, and let as many people hear about the project as I can. I think it probably will fund, but I am an optimist: yet very few roleplaying games have the beauty of setting and design that Ars Magica provides, and a lot of people who might never want to play the tabletop rpg might be excited by a game of wizards in England in the century of the Norman Conquest. Atlas Games have licensed it: if funding allows it will go ahead!
Now I won’t explain in detail what a Kickstarter is, or what Ars Magica is - basically a Kickstarter is a way to raise funds for a creative project, and you buy in at a certain level, pledging money if the project funds. If it funds in 30 days your money is debited and you receive certain rewards, based upon the level of your pledge – if the project is even a dollar short of the total, no one pays anything at all, and the project never goes ahead.
The guys at Black Chicken have a history of delivering high quality computer games, and are also genuine fans of the Ars Magica system – so here is my (slightly redacted) light hearted interview with them!
I have written a lot on games recently and not much else, but back to the normal soon. Despite the title this post is as much about real English history as my game, and therefore possibly worth reading — you can skip the sections with green headings and read the ones with dark blue heading to find the fact rather than the game stuff! I have just finished hosting Grand Tribunal 2012 the Ars Magica roleplaying game convention, and so am still full of enthusiasm for my gaming exploits. This year saw a rather unusual one — trying to recreate a rather important if obscure event in English history (a battle at Fornham, just outside Bury St Edmunds in 1173) with a combination wargame/freeform/rpg game set in the world of Ars Magica, using the 5th edition rules.
However, let’s start with the real world history…
Why was there a battle at Fornham?
During the reign of Henry II Henry was persuaded to grant his son (also called Henry) a coronation, making him effectively “junior king”. From this time on he is referred to as “Henry the Young King” to differentiate him from his father. This was deemed necessary to ensure a smooth succession on Henry II’s death — after The Anarchy of the 1150′s when the rival camps of the Empress Matilda and King Stephen fought a bitter civil war in England over the throne, it seemed like a good idea.
Unfortunately Henry the Young King felt his father had given him the title but none of the power, and rebelled against his father. The rebels fought a campaign in Normandy, then part of the Angevin Empire which Henry II ruled over. Henry, Geoffrey and Richard all attacked their fathers castles, and various baron’s including Hugh Bigod, Earl of Suffolk and Robert Beaumont Earl of Leicester rose in support of the siblings against their father.
Henry II however fought a brilliant campaign, and the rebels were smashed in Normandy despite the French joining them and the Scottish too entering in to the alliance and invading England in the north. Humphrey III de Bohun (the Constable of England) crushed the Scottish invasion and pursued them back north of the border forcing them to end hostilities, while Richard de Lucy (the Justiciar) took the rebel stronghold the city of Leicester and besieged Leicester castle.
In October 1173 Leicester tried a last gasp invasion of England, landing at Walton on the Naze with a formidable force of Flemish mercenaries. He attempted to take the port of Dunwich (which no longer exists, a victim of coastal erosion, except as a couple of gravestones on a cliff and a fish and chip hut as I recall from my last visit) but the townsfolk closed the gates against him and bombarded the besiegers with rocks and the contents of chamber pots.
Leicester withdrew, probably to Framlingham, where he met up with another powerful rebel Hugh Bigod. English history often turns on minor events, and in this case it was a squabble between two women. Bigod’s wife Gundreda and Petronilla de Grandmesnil, wife of Leicester, fell out soon after meeting. The two women simply could not stand each other — and all plans for a united rebel attack on London faltered. This may well have proven to be the disastrous moment for the rebel alliance. Leicester decided march east and try to reach his power base in the East Midlands, and perhaps relieve Leicester castle. Bigod was to proceed south through Essex. However once Leicester reached Bury St Edmunds where predictably the townsfolk closed the gates against him, and the monks raised a huge force of 1,200 men to repel him, he discovered the forces of Humphrey III de Bohun and Richard de Lucy waiting to prevent him crossing the River Lark.
Where was the battle?
As far as I can make out, the area bounded by Fornham St Martin, Fornham St Genevieve, Fornham All Saints and the Tollgate, Bury St. Edmunds. The Priory near the tollgate had a mural bridge across the Lark, heavily defensible (similar to the one you can see in Eastgate Street, Bury St Edmunds on the edge of the abbey ruins – a few flint remains exist which I discovered when I was fourteen and lived on the battlefield, behind the supermarket car park and to the right – also many oyster shells from the staple diet of the times in a midden slowly collapsing in to the river!)
You can walk along a footpath from Fornham All Saints Bridge down to the Mildenhall road which crosses the golf course and gives you a great view of the battlefield if you wish to take a look, and many artifacts from the battle included some wonderful swords and crested helmets (far more elaborate than I had expected from Ars Magica artwork, looking more like later full plate helms) can be seen in Moyses Hall Museum on the Buttermarket, Bury St Edmunds (admission free to Bury residents btw!). I worked out where I thought the troops were on the morning of October 17th 1173, and then assigned starting positions, though players had considerable flexibility in their exact set up.
How did we build the battlefield?
I have fought Fornham twice before – once as an Ars Magica adventure as part of my ongoing saga, using tabletop rpg rules, and once as a skirmish wargame. For Grand Tribunal 2012 I decided to combine the two. Counters would be used for the main units, plastic 20mm toy soldiers from the Airfix Robin Hood and Sheriff of Nottingham packs for the leaders and unique characters (each represented by a player) and then a light green king-size bed sheet was painted with the River Lark, villages, fields and water meadows. With help from Tom Nowell, Becky Smith, Phil Jenkins and Hugh Wake we ended up with a simple, cheap-ish and visually appealing set up for the game.
Becky made up paper models of the Priory and two churches, and the remaining church was one Hugh and I had built. They were lightweight and actually all looked rather good on the table, and dark green cloth cut t shape made excellent woods. We had planned to use books to make the hills (just placing them under the sheet) but I forgot to mention it to Hugh who did the set up and this being Suffolk they are more ‘slight rises’ than hills, except for Tut Hill and Barton Hill at opposite corners of the map which are still very low in the terms of anywhere but East Anglia, and almost entirely off map.
The actual Lark Valley is really quite flat, only rising behind my parents’ house as you proceed up what is now the Mildenhall Estate to a ridge line that divides it from the Howard Estate. I created the counters in Paintshop Pro, researching and pasting the correct heraldry on them, and colouring them perhaps confusingly according to the heraldic colours of their leaders, which meant many counters ended up red & yellow, blue & yellow, and so forth despite being on different sides. Reginald the Ear of Cornwall and Robert Earl of Leicester both ended up with blue & yellow counters, which makes it hard to see on the photos who is who. The actual counters used however were very clear as you could see the shields of each leader, though perhaps there was scope for some confusion over heraldry — which would be historically very appropriate – but on the day it never happened. The counters were printed on thick card, then pasted carefully by Phil Jenkins on to cork cut to size. It was all a bit Blue Peter!
The whole construction process took place over two weeks, though two days would probably be enough if a few of you were involved. The most laborious task was Becky’s - building the churches and Priory, though really this was entirely for scenic effect. You could miss that bit out. Alternatively if more ambitious you could build the houses for the three Fornhams and the tollgate, mural bridge and Fornham bridge. The ground scale used was 1cm to 7 meters, which meant the battlefield was a seventh the size of the real one, as everything in the game worked on 1cm to a meter, roughly the scale of the figures and buildings.
This contraction does not matter because the units counters were made to roughly ground scale, and then cavalry scaled up by a factor of four to show them milling around and their greater “reach” on the battlefield. These choices may seem odd, but they were very carefully designed to make the game run smoothly, and worked very well in practice!
The game as written has 19 characters and supports 19 players. Yes, really. However we fell short of this by a few on the day (some folks were tempted away to play The Jerbiton Summit freeform or other games: there is always a lot of games on offer in each slot at Grand Tribunal), and Jocelin of Brakelond is an optional character who need not be played, and if is should be used to replace someone who has died already.
We did the same with Binna & Banna, and Maggy, and doubled up one of the Royalist commands, and had Walter de Wahull arrive on the battlefield late when a last-minute player showed up. Reading the character sheets will show you who can be doubled up with who to give a player two commands. You could of course play Fornham as a straight battle if you so wish – just get rid of all the “oddball” characters, and fight it with any wargaming rules? Each of the characters had a full Ars Magica character sheet, and I used rules from Hedge Magic Revised, ROP: The Divine, ROP: The Infernal, ROP: Magic and ROP: Faerie as morale rules from Lords of Men and the core Ars Magica 5th combat system, and especially the group combat and leadership bonuses rules.
I explained all the relevant rules in the character sheets though so in fact we did not have to consult any books during the game! Each character was written with specific aims, often very tangential to actually winning the battle: these victory objectives each scored seven points in the final scoring, and there were a few bonus points available to each character. Highest score on the day was I think 24; average around 14, and a few players managed to score zero! The victory points system was important because it gives a) competitive players a reason to play in character b) gives the rebels, outnumbered six to one a good chance of actually winning and c) made it quite clear what everyone wanted out of the battle. You could ignore it though if you wanted. The characters were of three types; rebels, royalists and oddballs. The oddballs were various minor characters with no troops but whose action was to have a profound effect on how the day actually turned out, and one of them did end up commanding a unit of knights at one point.
- ROBERT BEAUMONT. Earl of Leicester
Commands 4 groups of trained knights (36 knights)
- PETRONILLA BEAUMONT, the Earl’s scheming wife.
Has a bodyguard group (4 knights)
- DIGGO OF KASSEL,leader of the Flemish Crossbowmen mercenaries
Commands 5 units of crossbowmen (100 crossbowmen) and 2 units of archers (40 archers)
- MENFRID OF GHENT, leader of the Flemish spearmen Commands 5 units of spearmen (100 men)
- BROTHER SAMSON OF BURY ST EDMUNDS
Commands 5 groups of knights (25 knights) and 10 groups of Bury Townfolk (1,200 untrained men with improvised weapons)
- RICHARD DE LUCY, JUSTICIAR OF ENGLAND
Commands 12 groups of knights (96 knights) and 3 groups of untrained spearmen (120 men)
- HUMPHREY III DE BOHUN, HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND
Commands 10 groups of knights (90 knights)
- WALTER FITZ ROBERT OF LITTLE DUNMOW
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights)from Essex
- WILLIAM D’AUBIGNY, EARL OF ARUNDEL
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights) from Castle Rising, Norfolk
- WILLIAM FITZ ROBERT, EARL OF GLOUCESTER
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights) from Bristol
- REGINALD DE DUNSTANVILLE, EARL OF CORNWALL
Commands 3 groups of knights (15 knights) from Truro
- WALTER DE WAHULL, ROMANTIC KNIGHT
One group of himself and bodyguard (3 knights)
- BINNA & BANNA
A little girl & her brother.
An elderly lady out collecting sticks
- JOCELIN OF BRAKELOND
A monk in the wrong place at the wrong time
- LUCIAN OF GUERNICUS
A Quaesitor on important business!
- RED HANNAH
A lady of Fornham St. Martin who has not fled her home.
- PRIOR ROBERT
His house is in the battlefield, but he seems strangely distracted!
- A MYSTERIOUS NOBLEWOMAN
She rides alone across the battlefield. What does she want and who is she?
The accounts of the (mythic) battle!
Rather than say what actually happened and spoil it in case there is a re-fight, as happened historically Leicester lost. Here follow the accounts of some of the main protagonists, emailed to me by their players after the battle. I think reading them gives you a sense of the fog of war, and I have provided another map of the battlefield in which I have shown the approximate positions and movements of each of the protagonists whose accounts are listed below. Hopefully it is amusing, even if you were not there on the day, and reading it really shows why medieval chronicles are often rather hard to understand when we try and sort out what actually happened in many battles!
Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.
Poor Robert of Leceister – Luck and God was certainly not on his side that day! His overconfidence led him to lead a heroic charge to destroy the southern bridge (over a drainage ditch), where he was met by Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall. A battle ensued between the knights of Leceister and Cornwall as the Leceister knights attempted to destroy the bridge. Leciester’s knights suffered 3 casualties and took 3 Kent knights prisoner, but Robert himself was gravely wounded against the Cornish lord, who smote Robert’s head open. Eyes full of blood, Robert botched his retreat and fell from his horse. Taken prisoner by Cornwall, who took him bound to the Priory, he remained there for the rest of the battle. His leaderless knights were overwhelmed by the Royalists, and Cornwall impaled Robert on a red hot poker and hung him from the Priory walls, as a warning to all other godless rebels.
Historically Leicester’s fate was kinder – see below!
Menfrid of Ghent, Flemish Mercenary Captain
Boldly did Menfrid send his hundred Flemish spearmen up the road to act as a vanguard and escort for the baggage train. Menfrid himself went into the church of St. Martin and prayed and prayed for the intervention of Saint Dympna. Forty of his men formed a defensive line outside the church to hold the knights coming along the road from the north whilst the rest moved back to defend the baggage train from the knights approaching from the Priory. Suddenly a terrible soul rendering howl emminated from the woods and his men holding the northern road fled into the church leaving their spears behind. They rambled about some big black dog or other. Finally Saint Dympna intervened and Menfrid rallied his men, twenty of whom went off to capture knights lying wounded on the field outside the church for ransom whilst he led another twenty men to relieve the Flemish crossbowmen outside with the aid of another twenty spear men who moved away from the baggage train as needed. The last forty men “escorted” two wagons of the baggage train off the field of war and sensing that the battle was lost Menfrid made a deal with Sir Reginald’s knights and gave up his hostages for safe conduct off the field.
Menfrid’s men escaped, but the Flemish crossbowmen were massacred by the knights of Humphrey. Only their leader, Diggo of Kassel, was to escape. Let us move on to the royalist accounts…
Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall.
That mumbler Damson (Editor: He means Samson - poor Reginald was deaf in one ear) bungled things from the start by lining his forces up behind the unfordable river where they’d never get into the fray, despite my protestations. The IDIOT actually thought he knew what he was doing! God may move in mysterious ways, but not as mysterious as Damson’s men, ha!
The key to the battle was clearly the bridge in front of the priory, which Damson’s bungling had thankfully left the path clear to for my household. So along the road we trotted, spotting Leicester and some of his knights attempting to take the bridge. Putting spurs to our horses flanks we smashed into them, driving them off the bridge and back into their camp in disarray. In the ensuing melee, several of his knights fell and I personally defeated and captured the rebel Leicester. My knights having the better of the combat, I left them to it and escorted Leicester back to the Priory where Damson (bloodthirsty bugger) insisted he be impaled. I returned to my Knights who were finally receiving some support from the knights under the supposed command of Damson, come belatedly to the battle (the men-at arms never made it, and a good thing too, as all they are good for is holding castles and being ridden underfoot) By this time the left wing of the army had found a fording point and were rolling up the remnants of Leicester’s forces from the North, I having pinned them in their camp to that end. The battle was over.
I did hear after the battle that all manner of weird and wonderful happenings had been reported. The wild imaginings of men green to war if you ask me, inventing stories to excuse their own shortcomings. I never saw or heard anything of the sort!
Brother Samson of Bury Abbey
My Lord Abbot, I beg to report that through Divine favour we have been victorious this day ! I grieve for those who have died in pursuit of our cause but I know that Our Lord will grant them a place of honour at His table for their service. By the Lord’s Grace, I gathered some 1200 men of the area who love their rightful king and 25 knights who owe service to the Abbey and we arrived at Prior Robert’s house in time to stand against the rebel, Leicester. As you know, there is but a small and defensible bridge across the Lark here and the rebel forces appeared few so I gave instruction to Sir Reginald, who had accompanied us, and our own knights to ride forth and seek battle with the ne’er-do-wells while I held back the citizenry to defend the House of God and the crossing of the Lark. I had hoped that some of the local men might know of a ford across the Lark so that they could support the knights but also their knowledge proved false so the entire host was required to slowly cross via the Prior’s house’s bridge.
I believe that to the north the men of the Constable and Justiciar manoeuvred also to bring the enemy to battle, though My Lord de Lucy seemed much hampered by the Lark’s swift flow and thereafter succumbed to diverse diversions rather than pursuing the enemy with his customary vigour. Surely God’s light shined upon Sir Reginald though for in Our service he rode hard for the traitors and he and his knights struck mighty blows against the enemy forces, including Leicester himself. Such was Sir Reginald’s prowess enhanced by God that Leicester himself has struck down and captured ! Truly God moves in mysterious ways for who would have thought that Sir Reginald, in his dotage, should be the instrument of Leicester’s downfall ! However, as the knights directly under my command also advanced to drive off Leicester’s men there came a dreadful smell of brimstone and I was affeared that the chapel in the Prior’s house had been sore afflicted by great evil ! Indeed, such an evil must have been present and must have touched Prior Robert for he joined me on the walls only to give orders to our knights that they should support Leicester ! Surely he was in the thrall of Lucifer !
As my superior though I could not gainsay him but made my way clear of the infernal stench and called upon St Edmund to show him the error of his ways. Ah, glorious day ! I had not thought to be so blessed that I should see such a saint walk upon God’s earth but it was so – St Edmund himself castigated the Prior in such tone that the Prior immediately repented his actions. Alas, the infernal dominion was strong here though for Satan’s minion challenged St Edmund for the Prior’s soul; but no one can match the power of Our Lord and St Edmund carried the Evil One away. Prior Robert is even as I write reconsecrating the chapel. But what of the battle ? Well, I am sorry to say, Your Reverence, that the fighting was so heavy with Leicester’s forces that ten of our knights have fallen and drawn their final breath on this Earth. They shall surely be rewarded in Heaven ! But none were captured – and in conjunction with Sir Reginald’s men we took some nine knights of Leicester captive.
Glory be to God that Leicester himself was also returned to the Prior’s house. I am sad to say though that due to a miscommunication between Sir Reginald and myself, Sir Reginald had him put to death before he could be handed over to the King’s Justice. We have won great victory here, Lord Abbot. A traitor halted, an evil taint removed and a few pennies for Mother Church’s Holy Cause as well ! Truly the Lord smiles upon us ! Your Servant, Brother Samson
Richard de Lucy, Justiciar of England
Finally chased Leicester down just north of St Edmund’s Bury. Gave out my orders. De Bohun ranting about killing mercenaries as usual. That Samson is an awkward so-and-so, didn’t take the hint about the toll-gates. Both spent too much time talking about God and not the task in hand. And so we rode out to do the King’s will and crush the rebels, myself in the centre, de Bohun on the left and Samson on the right. FitzRobert kept pestering me about some legal document he wants me to put my seal to. Have to watch him. And so, we rode out onto the field. Tricky fellow, Leicester, got lots of archers. Hope we can buy them off, told de Bohun that we want them alive. He may have been listening. And so we rode forth, our pennons flying proudly in the breeze. The King’s men were arrayed in serried ranks, arms gleaming, before us lay the river. Distant sounds of battle came from the right and to the left the unearthly cries of some hunting beast, howling like a great hound, as I said to Sir Hugh. Most odd. The host rode forth, as yet unopposed, the enemy holding to their positions beyond the river.
At one pint, the treacherous bank gave way, plunging both me and my horse into the torrent. Emerging, I espied a most curious sight - two children, with skins as green as beans. Yes, most certainly like green beans. A very memorable simile, suitable, indeed, to be sung by minstrels. Their conversation was most charming, as they danced in the meadows. Indeed, I was strangely inclined to dance with them myself. However, sterner tasks called. So I bid Sir Hugh to gat down and give his horse to the green children, as I could not bear to be parted from such enchanting creatures, and we rode forth once more. Passing some fleeing knights of de Bohun, we stormed across the river and shortly thereafter a great victory was won, with the news that Leicester himself was taken by Reginald de Dunstanville and his forces destroyed. (Shame about the mercenaries). Good show!
Humphrey III de Bohun, Constable of England
Sir Humphrey’s battle diary Good. Run Leicester to ground without most of his allies. Bu**er still has his ru**y mercenaries with him though I see. De Lucy has given me command of the northern flank along with some rubbish about trying to save Leicester’s mercenaries so he can buy them out. I’ve told him that they are all spawns of Satan and he’d be mad to even consider using them. We agreed that any left alive after the battle would be his to recruit so I’ve given orders to my lads to make sure that none of the da**ed crossbowmen survive at least. Lost too many good men to them in the past to let them get off lightly now ! Sound fellow Fitz-Robert ! Wants to go charging off to have at the traitors. Solid fellow ! I’ll follow up with my lads and we’ll crush this treasonous lot my lunch time ! Some rum goings on with that de Lucy bloke. Capering about like some kind of madman. Always thought he was going a bit soft. Probably his age. Wish he’d get his men across the Lark though as we might need his knights to keep Leicester’s footmen off while we kill the crossbowmen. Well, got my lads across the Lark and well on the road to dealing with those ba**ard crossbowmen and what do you know but I come across, Margaret, the young filly who is betrothed to me. Can’t leave the lads for too long during the battle but best get her to a church. Silly gel, doesn’t know what’s good for her like most of her high strung gender !
Tried to run off – probably in terror with the battle only half a mile away. Still, now she’s cracked herself on the noggin she’s appropriately docile. I’ll have a priest look her over and make sure she was just lost round here. Can’t be too careful given her family connections. Time to get back to the lads ! Bl**dy idiots. Some baying dog has scared over twenty of them into the Lark. Serves them right if they drowned for being such lightweights ! Still, they have at least found a ford for de Lucy. Lord knows, he appears to need all the help he can get ! Ha, just getting up towards my boys and they seem to have overrun the remains of Leicester’s baggage train and have arranged a parley with what is left of Leicester’s forces. Da**ed good lads have also dealt with the crossbowmen as well. Never suffer one of those evil little bu**ers to live, that’s what I say. De Lucy can have the mercenary footmen and good riddance to them. Assuming de Lucy ever actually gets here of course. Hopeless. Married Margaret. Not bad but I’ve had better. HdB
The game was run using the Ars Magica 5th edition rules. Yes, tabletop rpg rules! The group rules made it very easy to run the battle. Each unit had statistics for an average member, and we used a simple method to declare if the leadership bonuses were being applied to attack or defence each turn. The movement rates (given on each character sheet) were taken from Lords of Men, as were the average stats for the units and the crossbow rules and ranges. Crossbows actually proved fairly ineffective against well armoured knights, perhaps surprisingly. The answer would be to use the knight’s Brawl (Dodge) or Ride as a Defence rather than there melee Defence when receiving missile fire – see Lords of Men for a discussion. We didn’t, because I have not included that on the character sheets. Add Ride + Quickness to work it out and archery will be much more effective; however as those stats are not given on the sheet for the units I’d default to Defence 5 against crossbows. The most important rule was only characters could take actions against other characters. So no matter if all your men were shot down by Flemish croissbowmen, only the leader of them (a player character) could shoot at your character. The game ran in four phases per turn.
1. Movement. Everyone moved simultaneously. If we had used initiative it could have taken much, much longer. You need a lot of rulers,.and if people come in to contact you work out where. It worked well.
2. Talking. The noise rules were important. Communication was 50cm (Voice range in Ars Magica), or 35cm if a melee combat or baying hound or something else noisy was within 50cm of you. You could shout a few words to any other player in that range. In reality we let people talk in character for a couple of minutes (not the few seconds of the Ars Magica combat round) to anyone they were in communication with.
3.Combat We calculated Initiative normally for each normal melee as it happened. Powers and spells used in combat were resolved in this phase using the normal initiative rules. For determining how the Leadership bonus was applied we used a sort of Paper-Scissor-Stones – players chose scissors for attack, or stone for defence, and their Leadership modifier was applied to the relevant combat score. Despite the madness of trying to run a full scale battle using table top rpg rules, it all went surprisingly smoothly, and even those who had never played Ars Magica before soon got their heads around the combat system. We allowed player characters to expend fatigue levels to boost rolls as in the normal combat rules, but ignored this option for units for the sake of simplicity.
4. Powers Magic and special character powers were resolved in this phase, in order of initiative, unless we had resolved them earlier. A second Storyguide (referee) could have sped things up here significantly, as each involved secret discussions between a player and the referee.Still it was all pretty fast. I think we resolved 9-10 turns in the three hour slot, including all discussion and rules explanations etc. Most people had their characters and a copy of the battlefield of map a few days before the game to plan, which is probably a good idea as some of the characters run to about ten pages or more.
So what really happened at Fornham in 1173?
The historical outcome was not that dissimilar to the game one (though I suspect Black Shuck and the Green Children played a less important role in proceedings). ”During the troubled reign of Henry II the Earl of Leicester staged a rebellion. He landed at Walton-on-the Naze with 300 Flemish mercenaries, a body of archers and some forty knights he had persuaded to join his cause. After unsucessfully attacking Dunwich (then an important port) he marched on to Risby, en route to Leicester where presumably he intended to raise a more substantial force” I wrote in my book Spectral Suffolkback in 1990.
“In the meantime the King’s loyal supporters had not been idle. The Lord Chief Justice of England Sir Richard de Lucy gathered together 300 knights and proceeded to Bury where he was joined by the High Constable Sir Hugh de Bohun and the earls of Gloucester, Arundel and Cornwall. Between them they raised a force of some 1,200 Bury men who were willing to fight for their cause and the future of the Crown. (It is ironic that forty two years later the Barons met again at Bury to draw up and prepare the Magna Carta, designed to limit the power of the Crown.) Battle was inevitable. The Rebel forces took the high ground on Barton Hill, and Leicester’s tiny army attempted to ford the Lark. It is said that the Earl’s men were unable to find a crossing place, although this seems hard to believe today, for the river rarely exceeds four feet in depth, although things may have been different then. Perhaps Leicester decided the crossing would disorganise and weary his men and allow the enemy to fall on them from behind. Leicester must have realised defeat was inevitable. None the less he drew up his men and prepared to make a stand on Fornham meadows with the river protecting his right flank. He made a heroic speech, and seems to have truly inspired his road weary and out numbered forces. The battle began with the heroic charge of Walter Fitz-Robert who was beaten back. Then the Earl of Arundel marched forward, only to be met with withering fire from Leicester’s archers. This was followed immediately by a charge by the High Constable’s knights. It is fascinating to try to imagine the armour, plumes and pennants fluttering from the steel tipped lances as the mighty war horses thundered down the hill and across the meadows towards Leicester’s tired men. One hundred men, mainly archers were captured yet still the rebel ranks held.
De Lucy decided enough was enough and through his main force forward to the attack. Leicester’s wife now fled in terror, losing her jewellery and to no avail as she was captured by the (hopefully) gallant knight Sir Walter de Wahull. Leicester saw his mercenaries cut down and no realised the day was lost. Falling back to the parish church of St. Genevieve (this particular building burnt down in 1782) he and his knights made a desparate stand, until overwhelmed by weight of numbers they chose surrender rather than death. It was a wise choice, for the prisoners were merely deported to Normandy and then confined to Calais for their treason… “
I thoroughly enjoyed the project, though some one hundred and twenty man hours went in to the preparation and construction of the game. Still all worth while, and possible because of the team of people who worked on it: Becky Smith, Hugh Wake, Thomas Nowell, Phil Jenkins and Lisa Langood all played significant roles in getting the game to fruition, and I wrote the characters and designed the whole things of which I am just proud. I have made the game available to Mark from Grand Tribunal America for use their perhaps in the future, and am happy to share with other Atlas Games promoters from the Atlas Games Special Ops demo team who attend games conventions promoting Ars Magica by running games. Many thanks to John and Michelle Nephew at ATLAS Games, everyone who played and all the delegates of Grand Tribunal 2012.
I’m occasionally approached by other game companies to promote their game by a one off event at a convention – well if I enjoy your game I’m happy to consider it, and you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reaading cj x
It will be twenty five years this September since I moved to Cheltenham, and I have lived here longer than anywhere else. While at heart I remain an East Anglian, I have a great affection for my adopted home, and a pretty good knowledge of its history. A few times in my life I have thought of returning to Suffolk to live; and on one occasion in my early twenties a group of us considered moving to Edinburgh, and even set off on a reconnaissance trip. Going up the M5 the car was involved in a minor collision near Stoke-on-Trent, and we turned back, reaching Birmingham where I insisted on taking the train back to Cheltenham, so shaken was I by my friend’s driving. So here I have stayed, and I have taken pleasure in learning the history of the town.
I must say at this point that my favourite resource for the urban history of Cheltenham is the wonderful blog Cheltonia, which is extremely accessible, readable and fascinating. If you have never seen it then do yourself a favour and go and have a look: I look forward to the irregular updates. It is not Cheltonia which inspired this post however, but the laying of a new carpet and cleaning that accompanied a recent house inspection.
It was in the early hours of the night that I found myself looking at a pile of books I had purchased over the years but never had time to more than glance at. The Reverend Frances Close suddenly seemed a more appealing prospect than cleaning the toilet, and I started to read about him. Eventually, somewhere about 5am I picked up Gwen Hart’s History of Cheltenham, and started to read. My first thought was this was perhaps the most tedious book I had ever read; several hours later I still held that opinion, but was far too interested to get up and actually finish what needed doing.
I also finished Hart’s book, and I discovered that while extraordinarily densely written in places,and hard going at times even for a historian, it is authoritative and extremely good, amazingly well researched and while not exactly accessible an excellent book on the history of the town. If you have am interest in the history of Cheltenham, this has a huge amount in it, but with a strong emphasis on events at the political, legal and administrative level. Occasionally there are fascinating glimpses of personalities, riots, odd little anecdotes and fun facts, but Hart’s viewpoint is firmly at the big picture level. Much of what I had learned about the history of Cheltenham I now see is a gloss on the detailed work of Hart; it must have taken her many years to writ the book.
The readers of my blog probably aren’t as fascinated by 19th century parliamentary elections as I (and these are some of the best bits, with vermin, bricks, name-calling, accusation of bribery and buckets of water thrown at the hustings which may have removed some of the peltings by horse droppings the candidates frequently appear to have sustained.) Still, there are some “big themes” that appear in this book that may interest the casual reader of this blog, and may even inspire some to take a look at Hart’s book so I thought I’d write a little on them today.
Firstly, the book cleared up one misconception I held – that Cheltenham was little more than a hamlet until Henry Skillicorne spotted pigeons pecking at mineral deposits and opened the famous spa. In fact Cheltenham appears in the Domesday Book, and was for most of history a town, albeit a very small one, about half a mile long and stretched out on either side of a single street on what is today the High Street. The meadow which lay beyond the Swindon Road north of the town, today St. Paul’s, was common land called “The Marsh”, and equally marshy was The Promenade area down to where the Town Hall is now, and it was best crossed by the planks provided. The River Chelt, more accurately described by most in the past as a brook, ran along the centre of the High Street, and was crossed by planks, stepping stones or wading through the mud. Millers diverted the flow for their waterwheels, and for centuries they disputed the towns demand that the water be allowed to flow along the High Street for a few days a week! I could have misunderstood, but it look that way.Certainly water shortages were a constant problem in the town, and those who lived through the aftermath of the flood of 2007 will sympathize with earlier residents!
Another surprise was a railway that ran from Cheltenham to Gloucester before any steam trains existed — apparently it had wooden trucks pulled by horses. I already knew such a railroad existed up Leckhampton hill to the quarries, but had no idea there was a passenger service to Gloucester. The reason for this was probably the terribly state of the roads, which made travel to London arduous in the extreme – 24 hours travel seems to have been the case for most of history, and most travelers journeyed via Gloucester, Cirencester and then west it seems to me from what I could gather.
Hart’s book says little about Prestbury, which I know from other sources regarded itself as more important than Cheltenham in the past: that may be little more than village tradition. Winchcombe certainly was — the reasons for the decline are laid out clearly in Hart, as is the failure of another town that hoped to rival Cheltenham, Pittville. Indeed Pittville was built as a private estate development” according to Hart precisely as a second and better town in the valley, and Joseph Pitt and the Pittvillians avoided paying rates for a very long time — as surprisingly did the inhabitants of Bayshill, again a private development which saw itself as not part of Cheltenham. Of course Bayshill and Pittville were not built until after the Spa made Cheltenham fashionable — and one weakness of the book is it is a little hard to trace the precise development of the streets from it — Cheltonia is much better for this purpose.
The history of the manor of Cheltenham is complex, but in short it was a royal manor, then passed to a Convent and administered for their benefit, and after this long history of absentee landlords was purchased with the Dissolution of the monasteries and passed in to the hands of the Norwood family, the Duttons, and then the Sherbornes of Berkeley Castle. The Sherbornes come over as tremendous characters, given not just to fox hunting, but with all kinds of sporting events. Their political Liberalism set the tone for the town, which was dominated by Liberals and returned Liberal MP’s for many decades. When one of the Berkeleys was finally defeated and they withdrew from politics, the Conservatives had a two decade spell of victories towards the end of the 19th century, and this was undoubtedly helped by the purchase of the manor by the Agg-Gardner family and their hard work in Conservative politics, and by the Evangelical clergy of the Church of England, with their morbid fear of the Oxford Movement, and strong Tory politics. Hart traces the political history of the town in loving detail, and given the tumultuous and often riotous nature of local elections, it is a great read; one incident when during an election a young Conservative shot dead a Liberal campaigner at point blank range on the High St was rather surprising – the murder got ten years for manslaughter, but apparently their was general sympathy because of the heated nature of all Cheltenham elections!
The history of Cheltenham in the Civil War is also more complex than I suspected, with several skirmishes taking place in the area related to the Siege of Gloucester. The Lord of the Manor Tom Dutton comes over as a very sympathetic bloke: originally a moderate member of Parliament, who joined the Royalists when war broke out, then after the War became a dear friend of Oliver Cromwell. I had never heard of him till I read Hart. After the Civil War there was a different problem – Cheltenham and Gloucester had fine soil for growing tobacco, and had plantations that were damaging the economic prospects of the Virginia colony. Parliament decreed the crops must be destroyed and sent troops, and were met by large bodies of angry tobacco farmers who drove them off. Eventually Parliament succeeded in destroying the crop, and this was one of the final blows to Winchcombe – Cheltenham survived and prospered because of the market however.
Still it was not until the opening of the Spa’s in response for the Georgian craze for drinking mineral waters that Cheltenham prospered. Apparently the waters were known for their purgative powers, which I think means they made you run to the loo. Still they were immensely fashionable, and Henry Skillicorne set the fashion for tree lined walks, scenic spas, and grand balls. I think this period of Cheltenham’s history, when the young King George III paid an important visit is so well known I need not dwell upon it. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars Cheltenham was a very fashionable place to be, and when the Spa’s declined in importance, the creation of Cheltenham College, Cheltenham Ladies College and the polite and genteel nature of the place attracted many of the snobbiest elements of Society. It also attracted vagrants, the poor and dispossessed – and nine guards were placed on the routes in to town to work day and night to stop the destitute without hope of employment moving to Cheltenham and become a burden upon the Poor Rates. This was not unusual, as those who were unable to support themselves were expected to stay in their own parishes, and many slipped in anyway I expect, and some perhaps prospered.
Hart’s emphasis is mainly on civic administration, and the Reverend Frances Close, a famous 19th century Evangelical preacher is a central figure in the history of the town. I would write more on him did I not intend to one day blog on this most –er, words fail me actually — interesting fellow. Whatever the disagreements I may have with his very hardline Evangelical approach, he certainly worked tirelessly for the benefit of the town, and did a huge amount to help it. Tennyson, who resided for some years in the town despised him, and while the Liberals dominated the politics of the town, Low Church Evangelical Theology set the moral tone and acceptable manners, to the detriment of the horse-races (stopped by Close), Sunday trains (stopped by Close), the theatres (closed by Close) and the Catholic shop owners and residents, whose properties were damaged by riots inspired by Close’s anti-Catholic preaching! I hasten to add the above were NOT the benefits he brought to the town, which were in terms of municipal development, the opening of colleges, and the building of many churches for the poor, at a time when most of Cheltenham’s churches apart from the ancient parish churches charged on the door if you had not subscribed t its building and catered only for the wealthy!
Hart describes in great detail the three main bodies charged with civic governance – the Commissioners, and unelected and widely despised body drawn mainly from ex-service folk and the elite, who tried to arrange adequate lighting, water, sewage and policing (though often delaying for decades: perhaps because many of them were shareholders in the private Gas, Water and Sewage companies which supplied the wealthier part of town). Largely Conservative, they were often in conflict with the Vestry, a body with similar duties for the parish of Cheltenham, and the Magistrates. All three constantly clashed over civic administration, with the magistrates at one point simply refusing to convict any of the by-laws promulgated by the Commissioners. The Commissioners steadfastly protected the rights of the wealthy, and every attempt at democratic reform faltered on their insistence on plural voting, where those who paid the most in rates got more votes (up to twelve) than those who paid less, and the poorest received no votes at all. The Vestry and Commissioners together did manage to eventually force the Trustees of Corpus Christi to pay their dues for land held to the grammar school founded by Richard Pate centuries before, only to suffer from a Headmaster who refused to teach non-paying scholars anything but Latin and Greek. The problem was resolved, and the school, today Pates, went on to excellence, but it was a long struggle, which Hart relates in detail.
It is possible to trace the development of the town from Hart, and I was surprised at how long it took for parts to be built; some things have changed little, the Lower High Street area being rather run down even in the nineteenth century. She concludes her main story in 1876 with the struggle to incorporate the Borough, to provide a Mayor and town council — even then plural voting game most votes to those with the most property. With the decline of the Spa’s the generosity of James Agg-Gardner led to the creation of Pittville Park, and the municipality bought more land to add to it; at the other end of the town the old spa was demolished by Lloyds Bank, barring the rotunda, but Montpelier Gardens were bought and set aside for public usage.
Their is a splendid description of the struggle to create a public library: it was considered by opponents highly dangerous to educate the poor, unless one had some control over what they were reading, perhaps reflecting the minority influence of Cheltenham’s Radicals, who were their forebears of today’s Labour party, and strongly concerned with worker’s education, political reform and socialism, and who held meetings at the Mechanics Institute in Albion Street, and occasionally faced persecution. Radicals came from all classes of society however, and they had a weekly newspaper, to balance the Liberal and Conservative papers – all three sound positively scurrilous even by today’s low standards. It would be wonderful if some of those 19th century papers could be rescued from dusty microfiche and be made available online – has any History Society considered this?
Hart’s book is NOT a popular treatment, but a detailed and well researched, sometimes dry read. Nonetheless it contains a great amount of interest, in covering a thousand years of Cheltenham’s history. I would perhaps not recommend it to the casual reader, but if you are interested in depth in the history of the town, you really should pick a copy up.
Hart, G (1965) A History of Cheltenham, Alan Sutton, Gloucester.
OK, a light-hearted one this lunchtime. “why do ghosts go woo?” is an excellent question that was asked on Twitter by Ian Rennie to Hayley Stevens, and she, Kimberley Kendall and I discussed it for a while. I always joke that in Denmark ghosts go “WØØ! WØØ!” (they don’t), but it does lead to the question of what noise the ghosts of other cultures and languages make. When Hayley referred the question to me I thought the answer would be easy to find; after all, I have plenty of books on the cultural history of ghosts, Actually it wasn’t, and i can’t find much evidence they do go “woo!” even in my children’s books, but I certainly had that impression. I think actually the real answer if this is a modern sound that beasties are meant to make is it may derive from the use of the theramin for making spooky sound effects for films and TV: but I could well be wrong. Steve Parsons of Para.Science responded to my Twitter query with a suggestion of early talkies (sound films) with white sheeted ghosts going “woooooo!” so perhaps some people can have a quick look? The Laurel and Hardy Society produced this, but the music stops us telling what the original sound if any was…
While trying to look it up I also found the etymology of “woo” as in the modern sceptical usage of a “woo” as a “gullible believer” discussed: the phrase was of course originally “woo-woo” and some have traced it back as far as the end of the 1960′s employed in this sense. I think we might be able to work out one possible source for it through that…
I think that may answer that, though I can’t of course be sure?
OK, so what noises do ghosts make? Well first we have to decide what is actually a ghost in our modern sense. What is often cited as the first modern ghost story. Pliny gives in his Letter to Sura: LXXIII) the following account –
Now the following story, which I am going to tell you just as I heard it, is it not more terrible than the former, while quite as wonderful? There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the daytime, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost.
However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but, in order to keep calm and collected, tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him.
The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.
Pliny gives some other (less often cited) ghost stories including one of his own, but here we have the prototype of many modern haunt stories. The philosopher in question, Athenodorus Cananites, lived from 74BCE-7CE, and so this is a ghost story from roughly the time of Christ. The ghost acts in archetypal form, rattling its chains, clanking and making a racket. And here we see why Victorian ghosts, and indeed many ghost in our Classically educated nation used to rattle chains! Actually the loud noise is similar to some cases of “phantom housebreakers” which I describe on my Polterwotsit blog; for here let us simply note the ghost is associated with human remains, and appears at night in human form, wanting repose and scaring folks. All pretty central to the ghost story?
Now of course there are much older stories of ghost and spirits, from Sumer, Babylon, the witch of Endor in the Bible raising the spirit of Saul, from Ancient India, China, I could go on for ages. I won’t though, because this is perhaps the ghost story that had the biggest impact on British culture. It’s maybe hard for people to get now, but in ye olden times (well Early Modern Britain) everyone educated gent learned Latin and Greek, from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Plutarch etc. Right the way through from Shakespeare to the Victorians, we were a culture that was literate in both the Bible, and the Classic, and so tales of Greece and Rome were hugely influential. Pliny was someone cited as freely at Oxbridge in the 18th century as Shakespeare, Joyce or Ezra Pound are today, or if you prefer, as Dawklins, Ince, Cox and Wiseman are today!:)
So Victorian ghosts clanked and rattled chains? No, only in fiction and popular cultural representations. What “real” Victorian ghosts sounded like i will return to later, but for the moment let’s go back to the middle ages…
We have a number of sources for medieval ghosts. The miracula and mirabalia are books of miracles and wonders that were kept for the edification of tourists, sorry pilgrims, in many medieval abbeys. Ghosts sometimes crop up — and some are deeply, deeply, weird,more similar to what we today classify as “high strangeness” UFO accounts than apparitional reports. Ghosts change shape, being tortured souls seeking rest and entry to heaven – we encounter things such as a sinful knight who haunts in the form of a drinking horn, and souls trapped in the form of hats that fly around emitting sparks! For all the high strangeness cases, there are also a lot of fairly normal sounding apparition cases: and they do seem to groan, cry, or wail. Now Steve Parsons also mention the fact “woo!” sounds like the cry of an owl, and that immediately reminded me of Shakespeare, and from hence i recalled the imagery of Isaiah 34:13-15, here given in the King James version –
And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.
This imagery of a desolate ruin, a potentially haunted place is certainly evocative, and would have shaped popular consciousness every bit as much as Pliny I guess. I may be unusual in that I know the KJV but even a century ago I think most people would know those words… (Incidentally there are much more accurate versions of the Bible around today, so don’t get too excited about the dragons!).
Anyway I can’t actually find a reference to a medieval spirit hooting like an owl: I read through the whole of andrew Joyce’s excellent book on Medieval Ghosts this morning, and had a quick flick through Jean Claude Schmitt’s (1998) Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, and found nothing useful here. Still I recall many passages about screech owls in classical texts on Necromancy, and while I do not have my coipy of Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy to hand, I certainly can look it up later.
What is clear is that medieval ghosts speak: indeed there primary purpose often seems to be to dissuade a sinner from their wicked ways, lest they end up suffering the same miserable fate as the ghost! Sometimes they need to put matters right or seek revenge, like the woman who had cheated her husband and son out of her will, giving everything to her brother, or the case of the man who fell through the roof and died while trying to ctach his wife committing adultery, then returns to haunt her! Medieval ghosts are actually very vocal…
The Living Dead
As a bit of a digression to out main theme, 12th century England was a bit hammer House of Horror. Specialists often differentiate between the apparition and the revenant, with the latter being an animated corpse — a descendant of the draugr of Norse mythology, the dead who rise from their graves and seek to terrify and destroy the living. These are the British ancestors of the Vampires and Zombies of today, but they are far more horrific than Edward Cullen – in fact they are far more horrific than even Jedward Cullen would be! (You will have to be UK based to get that joke I’m afraid…)
The Medieval Chroniclers tell us quite a bit about these beasties, and my favourite tales come from William of Newburgh. He dedicates three chapters of the fifth book of his Chronicle to the theme, and I think his words are still spine chilling even today…
It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity.
If you are interested in the whole story, read chapters 22-25 here.
Now you may very well be thinking at this point “pah! old hat! I knew all this…” I shall therefore proceed in part 2, assuming I ever find the time to write it, to look at what noises Victorian and Modern Ghosts make according to the findings of psychical research – but for now I shall leave you with an anecdote. I have above offered what I hope is a sensible explanation as to why Victorian Ghosts clank chains – but many years ago my friend David Curtin suggested that gurgling, groaning and the clanking of chains in ghosts might coincide with the development of the indoor toilet – rather than tell visitors Aunt Fanny was locked in the lave with a very dodgy tummy, the ghost was blamed for the noises!
And just in case you all think I have finally taken leave of my senses in dedicating my leisure time to the pressing societal issue of “why do ghost go woo?”, a) will it really be any more irrelevant than anything happening at a political conference this week, and b) I’m not the first – Ian Topham has a thread on the topic on the Mysterious Britain forum!
I’ll be back with a part two at some point
OK, so it all started with the radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage (and you can listen to it from this link). It was quite funny, and as normal irreverent. Ince and Cox were funny, and joined by Wiseman, Bruce Hood(whose book Supersense I keep meaning to review) and Andy Nyman. As such there was clearly no attempt at balance or actually addressing the pro-paranormal perspective, but I’m not sure this is required for comedy. Still this walked a thin line between humour and science, and the naive could easily be misled by simple assurances like Hood’s opening claim that ghosts were scientifically non-viable.
Andy Nyman talks about ghost narratives as they developed over time – and surely they do, though his claim that ghost stories start with Pope Gregory is laughable to anyone with any knowledge of Classics (and I was fairly shocked by his apparent ignorance of the earlier ghost narratives – see Ogden for an instant refutation, or Felton ) and his claim that ghost stories exist for purposes of religious control pre-Reformation, and become secular afterwards is so laughably over simplified I felt this show may take several diazepam to listen to, doing to History what Most Haunted does to academic parapsychology…
I think anyone who has ever studied Hamlet is aware that ghosts hold a peculiar position in the Early Modern period, and anyone with a knowledge of theology would be in tears at this misrepresentation of a horrendously convoluted issue. Oddly almost nothing in Nyman’s account reflects anything in the academic literature on the development of the ghost narrative. The audience are hardly likely to appreciate this, but maybe I am too harsh on Nyman for a throw away explanation on a radio show. At the end of this piece I list a few excellent books for those interested in the area. Unfortunately I am incredibly boring in this respect, usually describing myself as a cultural historian of ghosts if someone asks me what I do. I start to quote the Bylands Fragment and they go away. And anyway, the detective genre and detective story narratives have evolved over time. Do detectives not exist?
Richard Wiseman was as usual hilarious. His discussion of sleep paralysis and incubi had me laughing out loud — but long therm readers of this blog will know that his proffered explanation is a rather drastic over simplification of a horrendously complicated issue with no agreement on the physiological or neurological factors involved — it was basically the usual sceptical place holder “sleep paralysis”, and while Richard does offer the old idea that we are paralysed in (REM, though he did not say so) sleep to prevent injury, I’m not sure how many sleep researchers still hold this true. I have seen it questioned in my recent review of the literature. I fear the truth, while as Richard suggests probably located in mundane causes, is actually rather more mysterious than he leads us to believe, with several competing models vying as explanation and none currently empirically demonstrable. And you know I’m going to mention Hufford here don’t you? Well maybe not if you are not as obsessed by actual parapsychological/folklore studies as me, but there ya go.
No the problem is I feel like a tosser making these carping critiques of a comedy show, but when public intellectuals spout bollocks, even in a humourous light entertainment show that should clearly not be taken seriously at any level, up and down the country people think they are being informed and educated, when really they are being sold a rather glib and very superficial treatment of a complicated and intriguing area of academic debate. In short it’s a lot like the pop science pot boilers one finds in Waterstones – fine for ignorant peasants like me, but no substitute for the real journal stuff. If my fellow sceptics did not so often but uncritically accept anything that meets their prejudices, and actually questioned what they hear from even big names with honest-to-God PhD’s, it would not be a problem. If people read deeper in the issues, that would be fine. But life is short and love is always over in the morning – oh sorry that’s a Sisters of Mercy lyric — anyway we don’t have the time or the inclination a lot of time to go read Prof John Beloff or Prof Archie Roy or some other eloquent defender — we just take the bloke on the radios word for it. As I commented this morning on Twitter, the irony of modern life to me is that Sceptics appear full of certainties, while “believers” like me are assailed by doubts at every turn.
Still, this is a comedy show. I have a sense of humour. Critiquing it feels wrong. As I said, it makes me feel like I’m missing the joke, have no sense of humour, and I’m somehow being a bully. I hope none of these are ever true. One of my friends, and academic from the same institution as Bruce Hood was horrified by the show, as he pointed out it was full of holes. I laughed at him gently, and reassured him no one would take it seriously, hoping I was right. Anyway I am less than seven minutes in, but should I keep breaking a butterfly on the wheel?
Hood made a interesting point suggesting (in line with his oversensitive entity detector hypothesis) that ghost experiencees are more likely to find order in random patterns – type I errors — I’m not sure that is the case. I think the papers he is citing suggest paranormal believers are more prone to Type I errors, and that may be true – and although there is a correlation between paranormal believers and people who have seen a ghost the two are just not the same. But I have not yet checked, so this may be an unfair critique. Anyone out there know?
Anyhow enough! I have a sense of humour. Some nonsense is inevitable in any pop-science treatment, but I’m not going to sit here and rip in to the remaining two thirds. I can cope with nonsense being spouted even on a show that claims to be a “bastion of rationality” — some people have lives and have not dedicated themselves to decades on these subjects – well Wiseman has both, for which I am frankly envious. You should by now gather that a) I’m astonishingly critical, and sceptical of almost any claim I hear from an “expert” and b) this was a light hearted treatment with a condescending and at time close on sneering tone, but genuinely funny and entertaining — just don’t take it too seriously.
And there it should have ended, and I would have laughed, enjoyed the show, and never said another word about it.
Then it all got nasty. Some people suffered a sense of humour failure, and appear to have complained to the Beeb that the show was unbalanced, pitting five sceptics against, well no one. It’s not that you can’t find people with PhD’s who believe in ghosts, indeed heaven forbid people with PhD’s who research ghosts. Now I actually disapprove of the complaint, because the Infinite Monkey Cage is comedy, not a serious debate show. Indeed so crass were some of the errors in this show it was not just comic, it was bleeding laughable
But it does also masquerade as a) rational and b) scientific, and let’s face it if that is the case then having someone who could discuss the opposing case might have been fairer, and actually funnier. I can think of plenty of people, I’d have done it and been publicly crucified, I mean hell I did Ghost hunting with the League of Gentlemen (and very nice they were too), and certainly in the case of Reece Shearsmith astonishingly open minded and happy to read the journal stuff himself — despite his hard core sceptic beliefs — and they might have even found someone talented and funny to appear if they called the SPR? But calls for balance seem sadly misplaced in a light entertainment show, if only as I said rational sceptics actually bothered to check the assertions of big name sceptics as carefully as they examine the writings of Creationists for errors!
A few of my mates from Skeptics in the Pub mentioned it to me, and I am always happy to offer an alternative viewpoint (and pedantically jump on errors!). But I could not take it seriously. Some people did though, and called in the great God “broadcasting objectivity”, and while I sympathize it seems heavy handed for thirty minutes on Radio Four aimed at an audience who probably don’t care much either way, but want a good laugh. Still I don’t blame them, I blame the BBC…
Here is how the show was advertised – the emphasis is mine…
‘Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined by actor Andy Nyman, psychologist Richard Wiseman and neuroscientist Bruce Hood to investigate popular claims of supernatural events, and debate whether a belief in ghosts and psychic abilities is harmless fun, or if there are more worrying implications.’
Investigate? Yeah maybe. Debate. Nope. A debate by definition requires some disagreement. False advertising by the BBC led to the complaints I think, from disappointed listeners, not the show itself. It never was a debate. In fact it was not really an investigation – it was a quick chat with a few intriguing suggestions, a few bizarre mistakes, and a rather superficial gloss for people who aren’t really keen on actual debate or the involved issues. Light entertainment, nothing more, nothing less — but actually fun, even though I’ll never take any other topic they handle seriously again.
And then Brian Cox made a mistake. He turned to Twitter in frustration, and the word “nobbers” was used. I mean really. Nobbers. Yes, Nobbers. It sounds like the playground taunt of a five year old.
Here is my official statement, which also has the benefit of being a fact. There are no ghosts, so it would be silly to believe in them.
“There are some utter nobbers out there!”
So ran Professor Cox’s reasoned dismissal. Now actually I understand his frustration, because I think the complaints were misjudged, because of the appalling way the show was advertised. I assume he is referring by utter nobbers to people who complained, but I secretly hope he meant ghost researchers like myself, as pretty much every other commentator on “Cox and Nobbers” seems to think. Why?
People have called me far worse. and to be fair, I quite like “utter nobber”. “That CJ is an amazing nobber!” might count as false advertising, but its the kind of reputation I would like to have where young ladies are concerned. Professor Cox has been voted one of the sexiest men alive, and why parapsychologist Cal Cooper and a few others might give hm a run for his money, well I need all the help I can get. So yes, I have to admit, I am an utterly amazing nobber…
And if this playground smut offends, then be grateful I have not made all the other puns I could on the unfortunate juxtaposition of bollocks, cox and nobber. In deference to my dear friend Richard “Dick” Lay I won’t go there. Because I am big and grown up, and don’t resort to playground name calling and making puns on people’s names, which with mine might be throwing stones in glasshouses.
Instead I did the adult thing, and tweeted Prof Cox, asking him if he was familiar with the peer reviewed literature on apparitional experience. I thought maybe he had read say Dewi on the Hallucinations of Widowhood from The Lancet, or was familiar with the Report on the Census of Hallucinations, Tyrell’s Apparitions, Evans Seeing Ghosts, or Hornell Hart’s Six Theories of Apparitions. I jest of course, I was pretty sure he had no clue what he was talking about. But if he responded I was ready to reply with at least Public Parapsychology’s excellent pdf An Apparitional Experiences Primer.
He didn’t, but he is busy with a book, and let’s face it this is not really his field, so I don’t blame him for not being drawn in to a discussion. But at least I git something better than a mildly funny radio show from all this — now I can proudly tell all that I am an “utter nobber”. And that has to be worth something?
Davies, O (2009), The Haunted; a social history of ghosts, London, Palgrave Macmillan.
Felton, D. (1999) Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity, Austin, University of Texas Press
Finucane, R.C (1982) Appearances of the Dead: Cultural History of Ghosts, Junction Books
Finucane, R.C. (1996), Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation, Prometheus Books
Hood, B.M ( 2008) Supersense: why we believe in the unbelievable, New York, Harper Collins.
Hufford D.J. (1982) The terror that comes in the night: an experience-centered study of supernatural assault traditions. Philadelphia:University of Pennsylvania Press, – Still by far the best book on sleep paralysis, night terrors, and the phenomenological study of the same.
Ogden, D (2002) Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook, OUP USA.
Wiliams, Wilson, Ventola (2010) An Apparitional Experiences Primer (pdf)
Schmitt, J.C (2007), Ghosts in the Middle Ages: Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, Chicago, University of Chicago.