Calvariae Disjecta

The following note appeared in the November 1883 issue of The Folk-Lore Journal: “At Burton Agnes Hall, East Yorks, there is a skull of a female, and, if it be buried out of the house, the whole place is disturbed with the most unaccountable noises, which last until it is brought into the Hall again: it now peacefully reposes in a closet in the wall.”

Seven years later in 1890 a longer version of the story was published in The Yorkshire Gazette:

Some years ago there was quite a stir in the neighbourhood of Burton Agnes Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire, owing to the worthy Baronet who owns the property removing a skull, which had been in the home of the Boynton family from “the days whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.”

The present Baronet, however, thought the skull had occupied its position long enough, and had frightened servants and page boys into fits for as many years as such a weird relic ought to do.

Having thoroughly settled his mind on this point, he called to his gardeners and instructed them to remove the relic of [his] ancestors. They did so, and duly buried the skull in the garden.

Strange to relate, that no sooner was this done than dismal, unearthly noises were heard by night. The cries issuing in the vicinity of the skull were, in fact, fearful in their intensity; in the daytime, even after the burial of the relic, accidents of all kind took place, and everything in and about the hall went wrong.

The servants were simply frantic, and threatened to leave in a body. The more superstitious, in fact, had already left.

The remaining scion of the house of Boynton saw that unless he did something to appease the superstitious feelings of his household he would be left alone; so he made the best of a bad job and ordered his niece to replace the skull in its original resting place.

The relic was dug up, and consigned to a cupboard in the hall, right on the spot it formerly occupied, and by way of trial it was walled in. To this mode of procedure, the skull evidently had no objection, for peace has reigned in the hall ever since.

Calvariae Disjecta: The Many Hauntings of Burton Agnes Hall is a 2017 book edited by Robert Williams and Hilmar Schäfer that traces the development of a local legend through tellings and re-tellings since the nineteenth century. Beginning with the first mention of the skull in The Folk-Lore Journal, every article and book excerpt on the subject, up to the present day, is presented in chronological order. The reader is able to identify new details as they are added to the story. For example, in an account recorded by John Nicholson, in the 1890 book The Folklore of East Yorkshire, the ghost is given the name “Awd Nance” by servants at the hall.

The Elizabethan manor house at Burton Agnes was built between 1601 and 1610 by Sir Henry Griffith. It has been in the same family since Roger de Stuteville settled there in 1173. When the male line died out it passed in the female line first to the Griffiths and later to the Boyntons and thence to the present owner.

The single most influential account of the Burton Agnes skull was a work of fiction. In 1893, Henry Frith, the English-language translator of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days, wrote a series of thirteen ghost stories which were widely syndicated in regional newspapers under the collected title, “Haunted Ancestral Homes, Their Ghostly Visitors and Portents.” The entry on “The Grinning Skull of Burton Agnes Hall” first appeared that year in The Hampshire Telegraph. It begins, “‘Whither are you going, Anne?’ asked Mistress Griffiths [sic] of her younger sister.”

Anne Griffiths and her sister are presented by Frith as the daughters of Sir Henry Griffith, who built the hall. Frith portrays Anne as a contributor to the design of the house, to which she maintains a deep connection. “I would willingly die here,” she says. “If my body could remain within its walls.” One day on the road to Harpham, where she has been to visit friends, Anne is set upon by two beggars who rob her, beat her, and leave her for dead. She is carried back to Burton Agnes Hall where she makes her sisters promise that when she dies, “let my body be laid in the old churchyard, but let my head be separated from it and preserved within this house.” However when she dies her sisters bury her body whole. The haunting then begins and continues until the corpse is dug up, decapitated, and the head brought home to the hall.

Frith’s account is woven into nearly every re-telling of the story that follows. One of the figures in a painting of three women that hangs in the hall today has been identified by the family and tour guides as Anne Griffith. The website of Burton Agnes Hall names her as the ghost. But did Anne Griffith or Griffiths ever exist? Did Henry Frith base the details of his story on research, or was it simply an entertainment that he made up?

The answer appears later in Calvariae Disjecta in the form of an exhaustive study by Andy and David Clarke first published in 1996 in Fortean Studies. They write that, “research by English Heritage guide Margaret Imrie into the historical basis of the Griffith sisters has found no record of the existence of an ancestor called…Anne Griffiths [sic].” In the parish church “there is a memorial tablet, seemingly a copy of an earlier stone, which names three sons and two daughters of Sir Henry, but no Anne.” In the 1612 Visitation of York by the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms, “when Anne should have been noticed, only two Griffith children are recorded, these being Frances, aged 14, and Henry, aged 9—the only two known to have reached childhood.” The authors point out that this would seem to “throw doubt on the painting” of the three women “dated 1620” since “only Frances appears to have survived childhood.” The article ends with a tantalizing suggestion: “That the Griffith family were Welsh may be of significance in view of the Celtic predilection for skull guardians,” the authors write. “Was a magical talisman needed to protect the newly constructed hall when the family moved to Yorkshire? And if so, who provided the skull?”

The pleasure of Calvariae Disjecta is to follow and untangle the threads of the original story as they are interwoven with fictions and strands of other related legends. Bettiscombe Manor in Dorset and Tunstead Farm in Derbyshire have screaming skulls of their own. Calvariae Disjecta means “skull fragments.” It is an apt title. Williams and Schäfer are not interested in proving or disproving the narrative, only presenting the literary evidence. It would be nice to see other legends given similar treatment.

I enjoy ghost stories, but as a Christian I do not believe that the souls of the dead wander the earth. They are elsewhere, in trust to God, until that day when He throws open the tombs and raises the dead, knitting back together bodies and their souls, and restoring biological life to each and every person who has ever lived. Many hauntings are hoaxes, of course. Others have commonplace explanations. The real ones, I believe, are the work of nature-spirits, boggarts, and fairy folk.

Sources:

Baker, Phil. (April 26, 1017) “Skulduggery,” The Times Literary Supplement. London. https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/skulduggery-2/

Williams, Robert (ed); Schäfer, Hilmar (ed). (2017) Calvariae Disjecta: The Many Hauntings of Burton Agnes Hall. Edinburgh: Information as Material.


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