The Calverley Ghost

From Legendary Yorkshire we have a ghost story resuscitating time and again the tragic circumstances of a forced marriage and madness-driven murder.

The Calverleys were a knightly family, having contributed members to war from the time of Henry I, when their ancestor arrived with Queen Maud from Scotland. They were devout Catholics. Under Elizabeth I their faith put them under financial pressure from fines and other penalties.

‘Once you become entangled with the Calverleighs…. We came to England with the Conqueror, you know. It’s my belief that our ancestor was one of the thatchgallows he brought with him. There were any number of ’em in his train.’

Their principal seat was in Yorkshire, Calverley Old Hall.

Toward the end of the Tudor queen’s reign, William Calverley died, leaving a minor son to inherit the family estates and fortune. Walter Calverley’s wardship was a lucrative one. The Crown gave it to another local family, the powerful Brookes, linked to Robert Cecil, the queen’s Lord Privy Seal.

Young Walter was made to marry another of the Brooke wards, Philippa. During the period of these wardships, several Calverley landholdings were sold off–the reason uncertain. The loss of substantial rents from these properties put a dent into the Calverley family’s income. By the time Walter reached his majority, the debts were already mounting.

Walter and Philippa had several sons, all boys. In a fit of madness, whether from drink or money problems or jealousy, their father slew the two oldest. He nearly killed their mother before he set off to the wet nurse’s cottage to dispatch the youngest.

On the way, his horse stumbled and Walter was pinned beneath the animal, held fast until he could be apprehended and confined in York Castle. He was brought to trial there not only to pay for his crimes, but to submit himself to the court’s jurisdiction. By operation of law, this would mean surrendering his estates for confiscation, in effect completing the final takeover of the coveted Calverley lands.

Calverley Old Hall contains remarkably intact features from both the medieval and Tudor periods. You can rent the whole house (it sleeps five) for less than £500 per week from the Landmark Trust
photo via wikicommons

Explaining Walter’s motivation for his murder spree has inspired a Shakespearean play, several contemporary pamphlets and stories for Yorkshire guidebooks. The one that seems best fleshed-out centers around the charge of adultery. Walter and Philippa were initially childless. Discontented, Walter indulged in spirits and spent a good deal of time hanging out with friends.

One friend was Leventhorpe. His family and the Calverleys were related by marriage. Steeped in Renaissance culture, this charming young man was frequently seen entertaining Philippa with his Italian novelettes and songs. When she became pregnant, Walter rejoiced. But two more sons in quick succession aroused his suspicions that it was Leventhorpe and not he who fathered all three.

Leventhorpe had the sense to keep out of the way thereafter. Philippa, insisting she was innocent, took the brunt of her husband’s drunken savagery which culminated in the heinous murders. She was saved from Walter’s dagger by the happy circumstance of wearing a corset reinforced with either bone or metal.

The surviving son inherited what remained of the Calverley fortune thanks to his father’s determination to thwart what had been set in motion when he was still a child. Because he refused to plead either guilt or innocence, he was made to suffer a grisly procedure until he did. This was known as the peine forte de dure (torture by really heavy weights.)

He bore the agony with firmness and endurance, even when the great pressure broke his ribs and caused them to protrude from the sides…

‘Nearby is a lane, a weird and lonesome road a couple of centuries ago, overshadowed as it was by trees, which cast a ghostly gloom over it after the setting of the sun.’

Walter Calverley died without uttering a plea. But Calverley Wood promptly became a nuisance. The lane that crossed it and used by people going about their business could not be transited after dark. All because of an apparition that thoroughly frightened anyone who made the attempt.

When questioned as to what they had seen, the reply was always the same, a cloud-like apparition, thin, transparent and unsubstantial, bearing the semblance of a human figure, with no seeming clothing, but simply a misty, unpalpable shape; the features frenzied with rage and madness, and in the right hand the appearance of a bloody dagger. The apparition, they averred, seemed to consolidate into a form out of the mist which environed them soon after entering the lane, and continued to accompany them, but without sound, sign or motion, saving that of a gliding along, accommodating itself to the pace of the terrified passenger, which was usually that of a full run.

Efforts made to ‘lay the ghost,’ all failed until ‘some very potent spiritual agencies were employed.’ Whatever those agencies were, they revealed to the locals a procedure that would suppress the spirit of Walter Calverley. If they tended the holly bush he’d planted, he’d leave them alone. That’s it.

” ‘Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips,’ Scrooge said, ‘should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.’ ” — A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Reportedly there is a holly bush in a field that lies along the path of the Calverley Millennium Way (pictured here) – photo via wikicommons

quotes, unless otherwise noted, come from Legendary Yorkshire by Frederick Ross, 1892

2 thoughts on “The Calverley Ghost

    • Because Black Sheep, and particularly Miles Calverleigh, is close to my heart, I couldn’t help inserting another reference to it, even if there is no connection to the real Calverley family.

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