Leaving behind our political skinwalkers and ghouls in Westminster for a bit, let’s spend some time with the monks of Byland Abbey in Ryedale, North Yorkshire and their tales of medieval shapeshifters.
I’ve visited Byland Abbey in all weathers and all seasons. It’s one of my favourite haunts. And it seems, I’m not the only one haunting it.
God’s Own County is home to some of the oldest recorded ghost stories in the UK. Yorkshire Cistercian abbeys had some of the finest libraries in Europe; Byland, founded in the 1170s, was no exception.
Byland Abbey in the 1530s
In the 1530s, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the contents of Byland’s libraries were sold off/scattered to the winds, by proto-Brexiter anti-intellectual, Henry VIII.
Items from the Byland monks’ scriptorium are, incredibly, still coming to light.
There is one particular manuscript that has been known about for a long time, which details a dozen Yorkshire ghost stories.
Ghost stories at Byland Abbey
Around 1400 CE, 12 ghost stories were documented by an unknown monk at Byland Abbey. These were discussed by none other than M R James in Twelve Medieval Ghost-Stories in 1922.
They’re incredibly important because there are very few medieval accounts of the supernatural remaining, and no medieval accounts of Yorkshire folklore.
I’ll share one with you, here. It was originally written in Latin – all 12 in the original Latin and in translation with commentary can be found here.
Most of the Byland tales are a fusion of Norse-influenced Yorkshire folklore and Christianity and concern the spirits of the restless, unabsolved dead, who act up to gain the attention of the living, who can then get a man of the cloth to hear their confessions, so they can then rest in peace.
The rationale behind ghost stories
After all, monks would not have recorded these stories if they didn’t have a moral purpose. The 12 stories appear to have different authors, with some more gossipy than others. One seems scared of the tale he is recounting and ends with pious prayers to save his own soul, for sharing a ghost story.
Some of the stories’ ghosts are shapeshifters – maybe this is typical of medieval spectres. The Byland tales – most only a paragraph or two long – also seem to have a Scandinavian feel to them, as if they’re later versions of lost tales told by our Yorkshire Norse ancestors. These aren’t vague tales set in exciting, faraway places, but set mundanely, in places local to the North Yorkshire abbey.
Story number eight, set in Bradford
Our story is set only two and a half miles away, up in the romantic, stunning wooded hills behind Byland Abbey itself.
Story eight is typical, with some trippy shapeshifting. Although it does have a rather modernistic, unresolved ending, unlike most of the other stories where the ghosts’ spirits are ‘conjured’, dealt with by priests, and absolved of the sins they committed in life.
Story eight concerns a hapless Bradford (‘Bradforth’ in the tale) man, straying from West Yorkshire to North – with some ghostly consequences, it seems.
The tale goes…
“William of Bradford was followed by a voice, shouting ‘Hoo, hoo, hoo!’ This happened three times, one night. Then again, three more times the following night. On the third night, William heard it again, an unearthly, owl-like call. On the fourth night, William was on the road out of Ampleforth, just up in the Hambleton Hills beyond Byland, when he heard a terrifying voice shouting at some distance, almost as if from a mountain top, or high in the hills above.
“He kept walking.
“Then, the voice shouted again, this time a little closer to him. As if whoever it was, was heading towards him at some pace. Then, a third time, the weird voice called through the darkness again – this time from just behind him, on the road.
“Then he saw it. An unearthly white horse. William’s dog, terrified, hid at his feet. Gathering up all his courage, William challenged the ghost to not block his way and let him pass.
“As he spoke, the horse shapeshifted into a square piece of canvas, with four corners, and slowly revolving, mid-air.
“William had not conjured the ghost and so, without being invited, it couldn’t speak or be helped. But also, it had no power over him. Slowly, it drifted away.”
Wild Hunt in ghost stories
And here story eight ends, with the ‘canvas’ ghost slowly dissolving into the dark on the High Bank between Ampleforth and Wass, as William of Bradford makes his way along the pitch-black lane over-arched with trees, going down to the Abbey. The unabsolved spirit, never laid to rest, might in theory still be seen from the highest windows of the Abbey library, or the monks’ graveyard, behind the East wall of the Abbey church; close to the home of the monks who recorded the tale.
A note on the shapeshifter in this story. Horses in folklore were often associated with the Wild Hunt; fairy, or the otherworld. The piece of ‘canvas’ is maybe the first ever sighting in literature of the classic ‘white sheet’ ghost and may refer to winding sheets, which would, throughout most of history, have been made from undyed linen.