As one of the oldest cities in Britain, York stands head and shoulders above other cities that claim to be the most haunted. Every street, alley and even pub seems to have a chilling ghost story to tell, often plied by one of the many speakers from a “Ghost Walk”.
Throughout Summer Ghost Walks take place guiding the curious through York’s murderous and wretched past. Tales of lost love, the black plague, deadly duels and above all revengeful ghosts, excite and chill thousands of people every year.
So not to spoil your possible visit to York, I will introduce some of the less known ghost stories of York.
In the winter of 1879, a barrister working the Northern Circuit, arrived in York, as he tells us in the “Leisure Hour” magazine, “after a freezing ride from London, looking forward to a warm sitting and bedroom at the old York lodgings. At last we found the “Judge’s House.” On entering the house, the barrister found that only the Judge and his Marshal were in residence and that the rest of the bedrooms were available. After a large meal, the barrister retired to bed and fell fast asleep. At two o’clock in the morning, he woke suddenly with his heart thumping as he says “150 to the minute and with a vague and undefinable terror possessing him”.
There was a terrible sensation of someone being in the room besides himself. He then heard footsteps walking across the room to the door. A loud cry shouted “Henry”, then again and again it shouted “Henry”. It seemed to be coming from the lower part of the house, as if someone was calling from the bottom of the stairs. The footsteps in his room walked towards the stairs and then he heard voices talking, a scuffle and then a silencing loud shriek. Soon after he heard the heavy stumbling of wounded person walking back into the room, falling heavily on the floor. The Barrister then lost unconsciousness with fright. The next morning, he awoke with to the sound of the servant trying to open his bedroom door, to bring him hot water but the door was locked.
At breakfast, the barrister spoke to the housekeeper who admitted after a little hesitation that the room he slept in was supposed to be haunted. The room had not been slept in for over fifty years but because the other rooms were not ready for the guest and that she wanted to see if the ghost would return, she put him in that room. The story of the room begins over a hundred and fifty years earlier, when a strange Judge was in charge of the York Assizes. With him as Marshal was his orphan nephew, a young man of great expectations who was heir to the Judge. The Judge’s butler slept in the next room to the Judge, one night he woke by the sound of the Judge walking to the young man’s room. Outside the door, the Judge began to call his nephew’s name three times, “Henry, Henry, Henry!” A door opened and then the butler heard a struggle, and a cry of pain. Then steps were heard returning back down the staircase.
The next morning the young Marshal was found lying on the floor curled up in death with a deeply inflicted knife-wound in his chest. The Judge took the enquiry in his own hands and gave the verdict as suicide. Strange noises and shadows were often seen and heard in the room of Henry’s death until it was locked and left for over a hundred and fifty years. Now the Judge’s house is no more, and with it the ghost and its tragic story.
York holds a strange tradition of headless ghosts. This may hark back to the days of Celtic worship of the Head. The Celts would keep the head of their chieftain or rivals, believing that their spirit is retained in the skull. One headless ghost haunts the Churchyard of the Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate. Although records show that no headless men were buried in that churchyard or church, the ghost still appears to this day. One legend may explain the sightings. In 1569 the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland rebelled against the Queen Elizabeth I. The rebellion was suppressed and the Earl of Northumberland captured two years later. A scaffold was built on the pavement at the end of the Shambles and on the 22nd of August 1572, the Earl was beheaded. The body was buried in St Crux’s church, while his head was set upon a pole on Micklegate Bar as a warning to other rebels. The head stayed there until 1574 when it was mysteriously stolen, disappearing from York and history. York Folklore claims that one of the Earl’s retainers took the head and buried it in the churchyard of Holy Trinity. The ghost first appeared in St Crux’s churchyard, which now is covered by pavement and shops. When this land was taken, the ghost moved to haunt the burial ground of St Saviour’s. The ghost, obviously restless then began to appear in the churchyard of Holy Trinity.
The ghost could be that of an older memory, in 1469 Roger Layton was beheaded and buried in Holy Trinity Church, could it be his ghost wandering the churches of York?
One of the strangest ghost stories of York is that of the “Burning Babe”.
Sometime ago, early last century, new drains were installed in the Precentor’s Court, turning up hundreds of human bones. The ground previously being the part of York Cathedral’s burial yard. One night a young lady visited a house on Precentor’s Court to talk to the occupants. It was a dark winter’s night and the lady knocked for a long time until the door finally opened.
There in the doorway stood a small figure of a small child surrounded by flames. The lady stood back in amazement, the figure grew and expanded until it filled the doorway. The lady ran away, collapsing at another house. There she was tendered for and recovered to tell her story.
The occupants of the house explained to her that house had been empty for over a month, the family was away on holiday. The records of York offer no explanation of the sighting or appearance.
One of York’s hidden ghostly treasures is the Black Swan Public House on Peasholme Green. This is the oldest pub in York, dating from the 16th Century but its ghosts are from more recent times. Bar staff claim regularly to see a young lady in a white flowing dress. Her long, flaxen hair glows slightly as she walks past the stairs.
Another ghost is that of a Victorian gentleman who walks up the warped wooden staircase of the public house, often tutting or fidgeting, as if waiting for someone or something. One staff member, while locking up, followed the ghost up the stairs believing it was a drinker, only to discover he had vanished when he reached the top of the stairs.
The true secret of the Black Swan is in the walls of the main room, on the second level of the pub. The wooden panelling dating back to the 17th Century has thousands of grotesque figures and demons imprinted in to the varnishing. This room has been the secret meeting place for esoteric societies through the years. Nobody knows who painted them or their purpose, but take your time and see the observing figures of the Black Swan.
I’ve recently completed the book “The York Ghost Walk – a guide to York’s ghosts and hauntings” with Sheila Walsh, it is currently available in Kindle format only by clicking here