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Image: Byland Abbey (copyright Historic England)

Monasteries and the monstrous: 900 years of the supernatural at England’s abbeys and priories

By Michael Carter and Dale Townshend

Most English Heritage sites have a spine-chilling story of the supernatural associated with them. Although many of these stories are modern in origin, some monasteries have blood-curdling tales of ghosts and demons that date right back to the Middle Ages. In later periods, their ivy-clad ruins stirred the imagination of many eighteenth and nineteenth-century authors of Gothic fiction, drama and poetry. 

Monks and Ghosts

Image: Byland Abbey (copyright Historic England)

From the time of the Venerable Bede (d. 735) onwards, monks were prolific recorders of ghost stories. This was in part because they enjoyed the pleasing terror and wonder provided by spooky tales as much as we do today. For instance, Matthew Paris, monk of St Albans Abbey, recounted in his chronicle a tournament of ghostly knights near Roche Abbey (South Yorkshire) in 1236. 

But for the most part, the ghost stories written by monks had explicitly pious and theological purposes. The twelve ghost stories written by a monk of Byland Abbey (North Yorkshire) in around 1400 are an excellent example of this. Many are set in the fields, lanes and villages that border the monastery. The ethereal ghosts appear to people and request prayers so that they can be released from the pains of Purgatory and find everlasting peace in Heaven.

Image: Byland Abbey (copyright Historic England)

Saying prayers for the dead was a core purpose of monasteries, so the stories very much affirmed their spiritual importance. 

Despite this, one of the Byland stories concerns a much more malign ghost that takes solid, bodily form. It is described as rising from its grave at Byland and gouging out the eye of its former mistress. The only way in which the monks could rid themselves of this evil presence was to destroy the corpse, which they exhumed and flung into a nearby lake. Ghosts of this type are known as ‘revenants’, that is, as those who return from the dead either as animated bodies. Some medieval revenants were blood sucking and caused outbreaks of plague, and thus have much in common with the vampire legends that started to be recorded in eighteenth-century Europe. 

Spectres of Architectural Preservation

Image: Netley Abbey (copyright Historic England)

Although the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s under Henry VIII left most of England’s monasteries in ruins, the ghost stories associated with them would prove far more difficult to suppress. In fact, when antiquaries of the late seventeenth century turned their attention to England’s own medieval architectural inheritance, they discovered and recorded some of the supernatural legends and traditions that circulated around these ruins. 

However, as an antiquarian study such as Browne Willis’s An History of the Mitred Parliamentary Abbies, and Conventual Cathedral Churches (1718–19) makes clear, the nature and function of the ghost had, by this time, changed considerably.

Image: Netley Abbey (copyright Historic England)

Describing the ruins of Netley Abbey, a thirteenth-century Cistercian monastery in Hampshire, Willis related the tale of a carpenter named Taylor who, having acquired the ruin set about converting the once-sacred space into a place of modern, domestic habitation. Having dismantled the remaining portions of the abbey’s roof and pulled down some of its walls, Taylor is troubled by an unsettling dream in which a ghostly monk appears before him and warns him of the fatal consequences that are to befall him if he persists in his task of architectural demolition. Upon waking, Taylor persists with his programme of vandalism at Netley completely undaunted– at least until, in an uncanny enactment of his dream, he is crushed to death by a large piece of masonry that falls from one of the abbey’s windows. This tale of the supernatural is offered up as a means of ensuring the ruined abbey’s protection from the hands of avaricious despoilers; no longer bound up in Catholic theological rights and practices, the spectre becomes a vehicle for nascent notions of ‘heritage’ and architectural preservation.

Ghosts of the Gothic

Image: Netley Abbey (copyright Historic England)

The Gothic tradition in fiction that arose with, and in the wake of, the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in late 1764 adopted the haunted Gothic architectural ruin as one of its most characteristic settings. Although, in the romances of Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis and many others, these monasteries were entirely imaginary, several writers of supernatural fiction in the late eighteenth century dared to set their blood-curdling tales in the real Gothic ruins that they encountered around them in the English countryside. 

One such example is Richard Warner’s Netley Abbey: A Gothic Story of 1795, a truly gruesome tale of violence, coercion, ghostly occurrence and live burial that consolidated and added to the supernaturalism that had long accreted about the site. Throwing off the shackles of antiquarianism and official historiography, Warner in this fiction projects into Netley’s ruins a dark, apocryphal Gothic romance. 

Image: Furness Abbey (copyright Historic England)

It was undoubtedly Furness Abbey (Cumbria) that, together with Netley Abbey, was the most imaginatively suggestive of architectural sites in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ann Radcliffe, author of best-selling Gothic fictions, was quite overcome by a rich and vivid visual and auditory fantasy of a ghostly procession of monks when she visited and described the ruins of Furness in A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795). Though they are not haunted in any real or actual terms, Furness’s ruins in A Journey serve Radcliffe as an imaginary theatre in which to stage a terrifying yet simultaneously pleasing ghostly reverie. Radcliffe’s vision of the supernatural at Furness had a considerable effect on the ways in which tourists responded to the abbey in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. 

Image: Furness Abbey (copyright Historic England)

In the poems that they subsequently wrote in, to and about the ruins of Furness Abbey, Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth and Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.) did everything in their power to quash and revise the supernatural imaginings of Radcliffe. However, they were up against a redoubtable cultural tradition that went at least as far back as the Venerable Bede. Though its meanings and functions have changed significantly over time, the ghost has been in perpetual residence in Britain’s ecclesiastical ruins. Perhaps Halloween marks the moment to pay the revenant its due reverence. 

Dr Michael Carter is a Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage.

Professor Dale Townshend is Professor of Gothic Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University.


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