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Screaming Skulls – a very British Tradition

The_Screaming_Skull_sepia

Screaming Skull, 1958, director Alex Nicol. Wikimedia

Tales of screaming skulls punctuate both the folklore and the ghost literature of the British Isles. From benevolent guardian spirits bringing luck to the household to vengeful spirits tied to a location for all eternity, promising doom and destruction should their mortal remains ever be disturbed. England, is dotted with many manor houses and farmsteads with such tales -but what is their origin?  Are they comparatively recent – many tales cite the seventeenth century for their origin – or do they have more ancient antecedents?  The tales were both relished and embellished by the Gothic-loving Victorians and later writers – how much influence have those literary tales of screaming skulls had in shaping the living folk tradition?

How to spot a screaming skull

So, what exactly is a screaming skull and what are their defining characteristics?

Firstly the term screaming skull, with all its supernatural and dramatic connotations, is unsurprisingly the product of literature. In folklore they are categorised as guardian skulls – the embodiment of the luck of a household or family – which, frankly, sounds a lot less sensational and a lot more, well, protective.

David Clarke in his PhD thesis on Head Cults [1] proposes the following characteristics, common to most traditions:

  1. A Dwelling place has a human skull which has been kept for hundreds of years in an important part of the house, in a specially made wall niche, on a prominent windowsill, or beside a hearth;

  2. The origin of the skull in unclear, but in oral tradition the date when it took up residence is often placed outside living memory, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, usually as the result of violence, for example murder or execution;

  3. Under no circumstances must the skull be removed from its resting place in the building, this being emphasised in all the stories as the most important theme;

  4. If the skull is disturbed then outbreaks of paranormal, poltergeist-like phenomena will plague the residents of the house until the skull is replaced in its favourite place.

Three tales of screaming skulls: Anne Griffiths, ‘Owd Nance’ of Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire

Burton Agnes Hall. Image by Lenora.

Burton Agnes Hall. Image by Lenora.

I have to admit that my first introduction to Screaming Skull folklore came from a Misty annual in the 1980’s- and it resulted in me pestering my dad until he took me to Burton Agnes Hall.  I still have the old guide-book and one solitary grainy old photograph I took at the time (see above) as well as a lingering sense of disappointment that I didn’t get to see the infamous skull itself, which is walled up in a secret location within the hall.

Anne Griffiths, by Geehearts.

Anne Griffiths, by Geehearts (Burton Agnes Hall).

Folklore has it that the three Griffiths sisters, Frances, Margaret and Catherine (known by her baptismal name as Anne), caused Burton Agnes Hall to be built during the closing years of the reign of Elizabeth I.  Just before the hall was completed, the youngest sister, Anne, was returning from a visit to a family in a nearby village when she was attacked and left for dead by a gang of ruffians.  Brought back to her beloved hall, her dying wish was to remain there after death; she claimed to her sisters that she would not rest ‘unless I, or part of me at least, remain here in our beautiful home as long as it lasts’[2]. She pressed her sisters to agree that once she had died, they would remove her head and keep it on a table in the hall.  However, unsurprisingly, they buried her intact in the local churchyard.

Shortly afterwards, strange things began to happen within the Hall, loud crashes and bangs were heard, poltergeist activity erupted in the depths of the night. The family was terrified and recalling their broken promise to Anne, they set out to make amends.  The coffin was duly opened and what they found shocked them – Anne had preempted them. Although her body remained well-preserved, to their horror they found that her head was now detached and bare of all flesh – only a grinning skull remained.   Anne had her will in the end, and her skull was set upon a table in her beloved hall. Peace reigned once again at Burton Agnes Hall…..well, for most of the time – it is said that Anne, also known as Owd Nance, still walks in October, the month of her supposed demise, and her presence is often felt in the Queens Chamber at Burton Agnes Hall, to this very day.

The Vengeful Slave of Bettiscombe Manor, Dorset

fig443_Bettiscombe Manor2

Bettiscombe Manor. Image source: British History.ac.uk website.

Bettiscombe Manor is the ancestral home of the Pinney family, and is built on very ancient ground.   The story goes that one Azaiah Pinney was due to be hanged drawn and quartered for his part in the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.  A swift bribe ensured he was instead whisked away to the colonies, to be an indentured servant in the Caribbean.  Clearly being a man of sterner stuff, Azaiah eventually became a rich plantation owner on the Isle of Nevis.  Many years later a descendant of Azaiah,   returned to Bettiscombe in the company of a negro slave.

r3Pinney_BettiscombeSkull

The Bettiscombe skull beneath the gaze of a Pinney. Image from Rusmea.com.

The slave, used to tropical climes, was not much taken with the wind and rain-swept Dorset landscape and was soon on his deathbed.  His dying wish was that his remains be returned home for burial and added to this entreaty was a warning not to fail him ‘if his wish were to be ignored, then the house would have no peace.’ [3].  Well, the canny Pinney family were not about to go to the expense of repatriating the remains of a negro slave, and the man was duly buried in the local churchyard.

Soon the dark chambers of Bettiscombe were disturbed by unearthly screams and unexplained happenings, something was terribly amiss.   The broken promise was recalled and the unfortunate slave’s remains dug up.  His bones were brought to the hall and at once the disturbing phenomena ceased.  Only his skull now remains, and was set in a niche in a chimney up in the attic.  Should anyone be foolish enough to try to remove it from its favourite resting place –

‘it is said to scream and cause agricultural disaster if taken out of the house and also causes the death, within a year, of the person who commits the deed.’ [4]

 A rake or a martyr – Wardley Hall near Manchester

Old Postcard of Wardley Hall.

Old Postcard of Wardley Hall.

Two stories exist to explain the mysterious skull of Wardley Hall, and they could not be more different.  The first claims that in the reign of Charles the II, one Roger Downes was a notorious rake and libertine.   One night in 1676, Downes was walking on London Bridge with some acquaintances, when he boasted that he would attack the next person he met – he was as good as his word, killing an innocent tailor.  Unfortunately for the young blade, his next intended victim, a Thames water man, was no pushover and not only got the better of Downes, but succeeded in decapitating him and tossing his body into the Thames.  In a macabre twist, his severed head was returned to his sister at Wardley Hall (one can’t help imagining her reaction upon opening the parcel…).

Rakes duelling. Image source uncertain.

Rakes duelling. Image source uncertain.

The head was duly buried but then the boisterous bachelor took haunting the hall in order to convey his displeasure at being displaced.  Consequently his skull found a permanent resting place in a niche on the stairs – and harmony returned to Wardley.

However in 1799 when Roger Downes coffin was opened – his head was found to be firmly attached to his body!

The alternative origin story of the Wardley Hall skull, is that is belongs to one Father Ambrose Barlow, a Catholic Martyr – and this is the view of the Catholic Church.  Wardley Hall is now the home to the Catholic Bishop of Salford.  Perhaps this is why the story of the libertine Roger Downes exists – as cover for the real provenance of the skull as a Catholic relic?

Skull of St Ambrose

Skull of St Ambrose.  Source: Visit Salford website.

During the seventeenth century, what with the Reformation and the gunpowder plot,  it was not such a good thing to be seen to be a Catholic.  However, certain parts of the country still held enclaves, Lancashire being one.   Ambrose Barlow was said to have been conducting a Catholic Mass on  Sunday 25th of April when a mob, lead by a protestant preacher, carried him off to gaol.  He was hanged, drawn and quartered on 10 September 1641.  As was the custom, his head was displayed (as a warning to the others) and was set upon a spike in Manchester.   Eventually the head was saved from this ignominious fate by a Catholic sympathizer and returned to Wardley Hall, to be revered as a holy relic.  It was lost for a time, then rediscovered in the 1740’s and the screaming skull legend swiftly began. In 1782 Thomas Barritt wrote:

‘From time out of mind the occupiers of Wardley Hall have had a superstitious veneration for the skull, not permitting it to be removed from its place on the topmost step of the staircase.  There is a tradition that if removed or ill-used, some uncommon screaming and lamenting is heard, and disturbances take place in many parts of the house.’ [5]

In order to ensure that the skull was secure in its tenure, its continued presence was even a condition of the lease [6]. All of which shows how quickly Skull legends could arise, as Clarke notes, the thirty years between the rediscovery in the 1740’s to the recording of the account in 1782, is hardly ‘time out of mind’!

From Guardian Skulls to Screaming Skulls

The origin of the skulls is often lost in the mists of time, and as the Wardley Hall Skull demonstrates, there may even be conflicting stories associated with them within the oral tradition.  Tradition places the origin for most of them as between the fifteenth and seventeenth century – with the Civil War being oft cited.

The Screaming Skull and other Mysteries by Peter Haining

The Screaming Skull and other Mysteries by Peter Haining

As far as written accounts go, it would seem that the phenomenon was first recorded by Antiquarians in the seventeenth century.  Further accounts were recorded in the eighteenth century, but it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that Screaming Skull legends became part of the popular culture. Writers such as Judge Udal’s 1872 work ‘Notes and Queries’ first brought the Bettiscombe skull to popular attention and inspired a number of other writers to follow suit.   Often these accounts were inaccurate (three sisters did not build Burton Agnes Hall, and it is even doubtful as tp whether Anne Griffiths actually existed) and rather on the dramatic side, emphasizing the supernatural phenomena associated with the skulls.  It was from these accounts that the ‘classic screaming skull’ story became fixed in the public imagination and in the literature. Including that of F Marion Crawford whose supernatural tale ‘ The Screaming Skull’, published in 1911, was inspired by the Bettiscombe Skull.

Earlier accounts had focused on the Skulls apotropaic qualities, their protective magic or ‘luck’ for a certain location or family, later tales focused on a more purposeful and romantic ideal of vengeful spirits of those who died violently. Such examples as those at Burton Agnes Hall and Bettiscombe Manor fit the ‘classic’ mold perfectly, with their wronged spirits tied to a place for eternity – and their noisy disapproval if anyone should dare to move them.  It has been noted by Gillian Bennett that once these tales were recorded, they became fixed and immutable, unlike the living oral tradition that had been repeated and elaborated on for many centuries.  Nevertheless because these artifacts do indisputably exist, they still form part of a living folk tradition.  Examples of this can be found at the Pack Horse Inn, Bury, Lancs, where Skull behind the bar (origin unknown) has, in recent years, developed a reputation for being cursed and causing supernatural events.

Celtic stone head. Image via Wikimedia.

Celtic stone head. Image via Wikimedia.

In 1996 Clarke recorded a gazette of 32 English Guardian Skull legends, noting that although many were missing, and 7 (including the Burton Agnes skull) had been walled up, 10 remained on display.  Such visible reminders of our own mortality coupled with their link to supernatural phenomenon make them a magnet for stories and legends.

However, considering that the actual evidence for supernatural events, and the famed screaming, is relatively hard to pin down, it might be that the skulls do represent some earlier tradition.  Possibly not stretching back to Celtic head cults as has been suggested (Jennifer Westwood cited in Clarke) –  there is little surviving evidence for Guardian/screaming Skulls in Celtic regions of the British Isles (baring outliers) [8].  Nevertheless such an early origin cannot be entirely discounted – Mysterious Britain also cites some evidence of ancient Celtic traditions surviving in remote communities. In addition to this, two of the skulls, Dickie of Tunstead Farm and the Bettiscombe Skull have been dated to prehistory, and are likely female not male.  Clarke has suggested that it is possible some remnant of a Guardian Skull/Genius Loci concept lingered in certain parts of England.  He cites evidence in that many areas where the legends occur, place names have Celtic origins. And he points to the specific places skulls are often displayed – facing doors, on window sills, at hearths or rafters.  Liminal places and entry points for  malevolent spirits.

It is also hard to ignore the veneration of skulls and bones in Christianity as demonstrated in the reverence for saints relics, a more acceptable form of ancestor worship to the Church, perhaps.

An alternative, could be more metaphysical than supernatural.  Many of the Skulls are said to date from the sixteenth century.  In the late Elizabethan and Jacobean world there was a flowering of metaphysical contemplation of mortality and the vanities of life, both in art and literature.  Could some of these skulls represent Memento Mori from the Jacobean Cult of Melancholy?  The skull was certainly a popular emblem at the time. Is it possible, that once the the original contemplative purpose of the skull was forgotten, stories and legends of a more supernatural bent grew up around these objects?  People have long been fascinated with human skulls, as the seat of the soul and offering a possible link to the other world.

By Philippe de Champaigne - Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain,

‘Vanitas’ c1671 by Philippe de Champaigne – Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

What ever their true origin, and it could well be a blend of ancient and more modern traditions, the Screaming Skull remains an evocative element of British folklore.

For a classic take on the screaming skull legend in literature, you can read F Marion Crawford’s ‘The Screaming Skull’, inspired by the screaming skull of Bettiscombe Manor….

Sources and Notes

Clarke, David (1999) The head cult : tradition and folklore surrounding the symbol of the severed human head in the British Isles. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield. <http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/3472/> [1]-[5] and [7]

http://www.darkdorset.co.uk/bettiscombe_screaming_skull [4]

http://www.mjwayland.com/index.php/screaming-skull/

http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/hauntings/screaming-skulls-an-introduction.html [8]

http://www.pitlanemagazine.com/cultures/the-history-of-screaming-skulls.html [6]

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/scremskl.htm – F Marion Crawford 1911

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