St Mark’s Vigil

st marys whitby ghosts ghost hunting folklore
A Victorian image showing divination on St Mark’s Eve

In North Yorkshire and the North West there has been a tradition for countless years surrounding the night of April 24th, also known as the Vigil of St Mark the Evangelist. The tradition in North Yorkshire relates around Maggie, a seventeenth century Whitby based witch who “fishermen and sailors of the town felt that they should keep on the right side”. Maggie was famous for selling winds to sailors and witch stones to locals (pebbles with natural holes in them) and there are a number of historical records about her and her activities.

Central to Maggie’s story is that she would visit the porch of St Mary’s church every year on the night of the 24th April. She would sit in the porch all night so that she could witness the souls of those who are to die in the following year gathering outside. Everyone believed this story and thought that Maggie knew who was doomed to die the following year. With this in mind many of the locals would be very kind to her and give her offerings with the hope it wasn’t them to die.

I discovered the above story in a local guidebook but I wanted to know more and began to research the story. The only other reference to this tradition that I could find in association with Whitby is in the excellent “Whitby Lore and Legend” by P. Shaw Jeffrey. The book published in 1923 states, “Before the old Norman church of the Parish was pulled down, towards the end of the eighteenth century” the church was actually expanded rather than demolished, but this suggests Maggie lived in the 1800s, “it was customary for Whitby folk to gather in this porch on the vigil of St Mark, when on the stroke of midnight shadowy forms might be seen to pass through the porch on their way from the Church to the Churchyard. These were supposed to be the forms of such of the parishioners as were fated to die in the course of the following year.”

Interestingly Bram Stoker used St Mary’s Church graveyard as the setting for a scene in his novel, Dracula:

“For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible… It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.”

The more I researched this interesting tradition the more I discovered how popular it was in Northern and Western England, both with variations on what should be said and done during the night.

‘Tis now, replied the village belle,
St. Mark’s mysterious eve,
And all that old traditions tell
I tremblingly believe;

How, when the midnight signal tolls,
Along the churchyard green,
A mournful train of sentenced souls
In winding-sheets are seen.

The ghosts of all whom death shall doom
Within the coming year,
In pale procession walk the gloom,
Amid the silence drear.’

I then discovered that there was an account of two witnesses taking part in the vigil in 1631, in Grimsby, North Lincolnshire. The two men who were intrigued by the tradition followed the superstitions and sat in the church’s porch and waited.

”About midnight, upon a sudden (as if the moon had been eclipsed), they were environed with a black darkness; immediately after, a kind of light, as if it had been a resultancy from torches. Then appears, coming towards the church porch, the minister of the place, with a book in his hand, and after him one in a winding-sheet, whom they both knew to resemble one of their neighbours. The church doors immediately fly open, and through pass the apparitions, and then the doors clap to again. Then they seem to hear a muttering, as if it were the burial service, with a rattling of bones and noise of earth, as in the filling up of a grave. Suddenly a still silence, and immediately after the apparition of the curate again, with another of their neighbours following in a winding-sheet, and so a third, fourth, and fifth, every one attended with the same circumstances as the first.”

After the vigil both men were distressed and became ill but they still made notes on the figures they saw in the “winding-sheet”. Both agreed that they were the apparitions of three of their neighbours, one of an infant and a fifth of an old man.

Within the following year three of their neighbours did die and shortly afterward a woman in the town delivered of a child, which died likewise.

“So that now there wanted but one (the old man), to accomplish their predictions, which likewise came to pass after this manner. In that winter, about mid-January, began a sharp and long frost, during the continuance of which some of Sir John Munson’s friends in Cheshire….despatched away a foot messenger (an ancient man), with letters to him. This man, tramling this bitter weather over the mountains in Derbyshire, was nearly perished with cold, yet at last he arrived at Burton with his letters, where within a day or two he died. And these men, as soon as ever they see him, said peremptorily that he was the man whose apparition they see, and that doubtless he would die before he returned, which accordingly he did.”

After discovering this fascinating folklore which on face value seems to have died out, it seemed too much of a challenge and with two friends we decided to undertake a similar experiment and sit in the porches of Norman Church in and around Whitby.

It sounds far easier than it is, however we were able to obtain access and each of us sat vigil. Unfortunately year one was a complete wash out, we encountered heavy winds, rains and near freezing temperatures, little after midnight we ventured back to our beds.

During the year that we waited until our next vigil, I discovered further references to Maggie and her Whitby adventures, it stated that to actually witness the spiritual forms of those to die, you must visit the church three times, and on the final time you will be successful.

So this year, we once again sat vigil in the corresponding churches, and once again nothing happened. Maybe it’s all part and parcel of the ritual, whatever it is we’ll be there next year for the third and final time. Just maybe, like Maggie we’ll spot the spectral forms moving from church to churchyard with the hope that none of them look like us.