Haunted York – A Journey Through York’s Criminal Haunts
Author Summer Strevens investigates York’s murderous and supernatural history…
Serving a Spectral Sentence…
It is said that powerful or traumatic events can leave behind residual energy known as a psychic imprint. An echo captured in the surroundings, replaying itself over and over again… York claims to be the most haunted city in England. It boasts a plethora of ‘Ghost Walks’ – tours exploring the famous and infamous haunted sites throughout the ancient City. And as one would expect, in such a spectrally, supernaturally charged environment, the impressions of crimes and violent acts perpetrated in the past have left an indelible psychic fingerprint on the city of York.
Don’t Lose Your Head
Appearing in the quintessentially ghostly guise of the headless spectre is the phantom of Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland. He is a staunch catholic in conflict with the protestant dogma imposed by Queen Elizabeth I. After execution in front of All Saints Church, Pavement, befitting of a traitor, his head is stuck on a spike over Micklegate Bar.
Remaining in situ for some two years, Northumberland’s head is eventually rescued by a sympathiser. It is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity, Goodramgate. However, as the remainder of the Earl has been laid to rest in an grave with no name in the churchyard of St Crux after his execution, it is not surprising that his headless spectre is repeatedly seen over the years staggering amongst the graves at Holy Trinity, searching in vain for his head… Thomas Percy has spiritual company in his quest though. It is said that a ghostly nun also haunts the churchyard at Goodramgate.
Lund’s Court is a ‘snickelway’. Particular to York, the name is for a narrow lane or passageway. It links Swinegate and Low Petergate. However, the thoroughfare is formerly known as ‘Mad Alice Lane’. Here, it is said that the restless spirit of Mad Alice still haunts the environs…
Mad Alice Lane
Resident of the lane that once bore her name, Alice Smith is allegedly hung in 1823 for being insane. Or in another version of her story, in 1825 for poisoning her husband. With regard to either variant of her demise, there is no evidence in the records of any Alice Smith going to the galley in York. Yet the myths persists…
The Ghostly Guilty Brother…
St William’s College in College Street is home to both internal and external spectres. On the steps outside the college the ghost of an old lady smiles pleasantly at passers-by. Presumably not carrying the weight of the guilty soul whose disquiet spirit paces the upstairs corridors and rooms of the college to this day. This particular ghost is the guilty sibling who dies a broken man. It follows years of tormenting self-recrimination at turning-in his brother for a murder they had both jointly committed.
In the 16th century, the two brothers, presumably down on their luck, lay in wait. In the darkness of the Minster Yard they have the intent to rob a wealthy priest. Slitting their victim’s throat and making off with his money and valuables, the guilty pair return to their lodgings at the college. However, the younger brother, overcome with remorse at their crime locks himself, along with his share of the ill-gotten gains, in a cupboard. Fearing his brother’s resolve, the elder reports his sibling to the authorities.
Immediately arrested, tried and subsequently hung, in spite of his elder brother’s betrayal, the younger never gave away that the pair of them were culpable. As a consequence, wracked with remorse at his less than fraternal actions, the elder brother falls into a decline. He paces his lodgings night and day until he too meets an early grave, but clearly not eternal rest.
“A poorly aimed pistol”
In the Georgian era York’s becomes a fashionable centre for the local gentry. The creation of New Walk, shaded by parallel rows of elm trees, stretches from Tower Gardens along the banks of the river Ouse. It affords the fashion conscious a formal promenade on which to stroll and socialise. The area is also a popular spot for duellists to meet. As well as one of the purported haunting sites of Dick Turpin. His spectral figure variously spotted on horseback sporting a black cape and a tricorn hat.
Tower Gardens is originally part of St George’s Field. This area is favoured by noblemen to settle scores in the honourable yet illegal pursuit of duelling. It may well account for the sight of a staggering figure and a blood curdling scream heard in the vicinity. Supposedly the Earl of Stafford dies here early one morning, discharging his debt to honour as well as a poorly aimed pistol.
“Consigned to shallow graves”
The heart-rending manifestation of a child’s hand seen and felt at Bedern Arch, off Goodramgate, is the ghostly legacy of the cruelty and negligence of the alcoholic schoolmaster once in charge of the York Industrial Ragged School. It is established in 1847. The school no longer exists but, on cold winter nights, it is said that if you wander through Bedern Arch you may feel the grasp of a tiny cold hand in yours. Then you hear childish giggles that disturbingly turn to screams of terror. The cries of the murdered orphans.
The authorities pay an allowance for each of the waifs housed at the orphanage-cum-workhouse. But the wicked master keeps all the money. It should be put to use to feed and clothe the children. As a consequence many die of starvation and exposure. This suits the master very well however, as with the death of each child he just keeps on claiming their welfare payments and, of course, there was one less orphan not to care for. The tiny bodies are consigned to shallow graves. But when the winter frosts come and the ground proves too hard to dig, instead the dead children are hidden in a capacious cupboard at the school.
“Stream ran red with Saxon blood”
Over time the accumulating victims began to decompose and putrefy. As the months pass the Master’s grip on reality deteriorates too. He eventually becomes convinced that he can hear their terrified screams from beyond the padlocked cupboard door. His guilty conscience eventually drives him completely insane and he loses all control, running amok through the school and murdering all of the remaining children with an enormous knife. Found the following morning amongst the mutilated bodies, the authorities commit him to the York Lunatic Asylum where he remains, deranged and incarcerated until his death.
From St Saviour’s Church on St Saviourgate come reports of a phantom Viking warrior, possibly the victim of a Saxon reprisal after the Battle of Fulford Cross. The often over-looked precursor to the Battle of Hastings fought in York on 20th September 1066. This engagement is a Viking victory in a city that was pro-Harold, and while York ‘came to terms’ with the victorious Norsemen, that’s not to say that some vengeful retributions didn’t take place. The stream that drains the marshy battlefield known as German Beck ran red with Saxon blood…
One stalwart ghost hunter is so intent on verifying the Viking reports that he spends the night in St Saviour’s. However, on entering the church the following morning the vicar finds the unfortunate investigator dead – his body lodged high up on a beam, apparently frightened to death…
A five-minute stroll from St Saviourgate is Ogleforth, on the route from Monk Bar to York Minster. The street name is from the Scandinavian meaning ‘the ford haunted by an owl’. Though there are scant reports of spectral birds of prey in the vicinity.
“A penchant for frequenting the men’s lavatory”
We end with a duo of shadowy lady transgressors, both nuns who are clearly not entirely bound by their earthly vows of chastity. Our first Grey sister is said to have been bricked up alive for her sins. After giving birth she is sealed behind a wall and left to die on the site now occupied by the York Arms pub on High Petergate.
This phantom nun is seen in other buildings in the Petergate Bar area of the city, but does seem to favour the York Arms particularly, where items have been known to fly around in this the smallest bar in York, with stools overturning as the ghostly nun searches for her lost baby. One landlord, obviously mid redecoration, said that he threw a paint brush at the apparition, but that she simply sneered at him as the brush passed through her non-corporeal form. It hits the wall behind her leaving a paint splat… She is also said to have a penchant for frequenting the gents’ lavatory in the pub!
The York Arms, High Petergate
As well as the late night stains of a ghostly melody coming from the Georgian Theatre Royal in St Leonard’s Place, the other unhappy grey sister is said to frequent the room behind the dress circle. Understandably grey for good reason, she is said to have fallen in love with a nobleman in the Middle Ages when the site of the Theatre was the Old Hospital of St Leonard, and locked in a windowless room, again sealed with bricks to form a living tomb.