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Watton Abbey


A private residence, Watton Abbey is a Grade I listed building dating from fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and built on the location of Watton Priory, which was a Gilbertine double monastery founded by Eustace fitz John (died 1157) in 1150, as a penance for having fought in the Battle of the Standard (aka Battle of Northallerton) (23 August 1138) on the Scottish side. It was closed during the Dissolution of The Monasteries in 1539 when Robert Holgate, last Prior of Watton surrendered the priory with seven canons, two prioresses, and twelve nuns.

According to The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain (1897) by John Ingram, the house was reputedly haunted by a headless woman, the victim of a murder during the English Civil War. Watton is also well known for the story of The Nun Of Watton, who was unsuited to celibacy and fell pregnant to monk. Her tale was recounted by the Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey, St Aelred (Born 1110 – Died 12 January 1167) in De Sanctimoniali de Wattun. Below is how the stories appeard in Ingram's book.

Mr. F. Eoss is contributing a most interesting series of antiquarian, historical, and folk-lore sketches to the Leeds Mercury, entitled, "Yorkshire Legends and Traditions." Some of these sketches have already been made use of for this volume, and from one on Watton Abbey, which appeared in the Mercury for June 1884, the following particulars are derived.

The Tudor style of building which goes by the name of Watton Abbey, never was an Abbey, Mr. Ross informs us, but was a Gilbertine Priory. It is situated between the towns of Driffield and Beverley, in a charming sequestered spot, surrounded by patriarchal trees. It has been occupied for some years past as a private residence, after having served for several years as an educational establishment. The present residence appears to bare been erected since the Reformation, and for its erection nearly the whole of the original conventual buildings appear to have been destroyed. Two hundred years ago the somewhat extensive remains of the old Priory were removed and made use of to repair Bolton Minster.

The original nunnery is supposed to have been founded in the earliest period of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. In the ninth century the establishment is believed to have been destroyed by the Danes, and to have been refounded in the twelfth century by Lord Eustace Fitz-John of Knaresborough, at the instigation of Murdac, Archbishop of York, and in atonement for his manifold crimes. He endowed it with the Lordship of Watton and its appurtenances, for the benefit of his own soul, and the souls of his parents, relatives, friends, and servants. It was to provide for thirteen canons, and thirty-six nuns of the new Gilbertine Order, who were to reside in the same block of buildings, but with a party-wall for the separation of sexes; the canons "to serve the nuns perpetually in terrene, as well as in divine matters."

Murdac had obtained preferment from Thurstan, Archbishop of York, and when that dignitary died, Murdac headed the Cistercians against William Fitzherbert, the nephew and nominee of King Stephen for the vacant Archbishopric. Appeal was made to Pope Eugenius, and His Holiness suspended Fitzherbert, the Archbishop elect. Out of revenge for this, Fitzherbert went, with his supporters, to Fountains, of which place Murdac was now Abbot, and after an ineffectual search for his rival, set fire to the abbey, and retired. The deed caused an immense sensation. Fitzherbert's triumph was short; he was deposed from his Archbishopric, and, in 1147, Murdac elected in his stead.

Murdac went to Rome and had his election confirmed by the Pope, but on returning to England found York barred against his entry. He retired to Beverley, but the King refused to recognise him, sequestered the stalls of York, and fined Beverley for harbouring him. Murdac, however, appears to have continued to perform all the functions of his exalted office, even excommunicating certain Church dignitaries, and laying the northern metropolis under an interdict. He died at Beverley in 1153, and was interred at York Cathedral.

Soon after Murdac's return from Borne he greatly promoted the welfare of the re-established Watton, and placed within its walls for education, with a view of her ultimately taking the veil, a child of about four years old. Of this little girl Mr. Ross furnishes the following story:

"Elfrida, the child whom Murdac had placed in the convent, was a merry, vivacious little creature; and whilst but a child was a source of amusement to the sisterhood, who, although prim and demure in bearing, and some of them sour-tempered and acid in their tempers, were wont to smile at her youthful frolics and ringing laugh ; but as she grew older, her outbursts of merriment, and the sallies of wit that began to animate her conversation, were checked, as being inconsistent with the character of a voting ladvwhowas now enrolled as novice, preparatory to taking the veil. As she advanced towards womanhood her form gradually developed into a most symmetrical figure ; and her features became the perfection of beauty, set off with a transparent delicacy of complexion, such as would have rendered her a centre of attraction even among the beauties of a Koyal Court. This excited the jealousy of the sisters, who were chiefly elderly and middle-aged spinsters, whose homely and somewhat coarse features had proved detrimental to their hopes of obtaining husbands. They began to treat her with scornful looks, chilling neglect, and petty persecutions; but when she, later on, evinced a manifest repugnance to convent life, ridiculed the ways of the holy sisters, and even satirised them, they charged her with entertaining rebellious and ungodly sentiments, and subjected her to penances and other modes of wholesome correction, such as they considered would subdue her worldly spirit.

"Sprightly and light-hearted as she was, Elfrida was not happy, immured as she was within these detested walls, and condemned to assist in wearisome services, such as she thought might perhaps be congenial to the souls of her elder sisters, whose hopes of worldly happiness and conjugal endearment had been blighted, but which were altogether unsuited for one so beautiful (for she knew that she was fair, and was vain of her looks) and so cheerful-minded as herself; and she longed with intense desire to escape, mingle with the outer world, and have free intercourse with the other sex.

“According to the charter of endowment, the lay brethren of the monastery were entrusted with the management of the secular affairs of the nunnery, which necessitated their admission within its portals on certain occasions for conference with the prioress. On these occasions Elfrida would cast furtive and very un-nunlike glances upon their persons. She was particularly attracted by one of them, a young man of prepossessing mien and seductive style of speech, and she felt her heart beat wildly whenever he came with the other visitors. He noticed her surreptitious glances, and saw that she was exceedingly beautiful, and his heart responded to the sentiment he felt that he had inspired in hers. They maintained this silent but eloquent language of love for some time, and soon found means of having stolen interviews under the darkness of night, when vows of everlasting love were interchanged, and led, eventually, to consequences which, at the outset, were not dreamt of by the erring pair.

"Suspicion having been excited by her altered form, she was summoned before her superiors on a charge of ' transgressing the conventual rules and violating one of the most stringent laws of monastic life/ and as concealment was impossible she boldly confessed her fault, adding that she had no vocation for a convent life, and desired to be banished from the community. This request could not be listened to for a moment. The culprit had brought a scandal and indelible stain upon the fair fame of the house, which must, at any cost, be concealed from the world; and her open avowal of her guilt raised in the breasts of the pious sisterhood a perfect fury of indignation, and a determination to inflict immediate and condign punishment on her. It was variously suggested that she should be burnt to death, that she should be walled up alive, that she should be flayed, that her flesh should be torn from her bones with red-hot pincers, that she should be roasted to death before a fire, &c. ; but the more prudent and aged averted these extreme measures, and suggested some milder forms of punishment, which were at once carried out. The miserable object of their vengeance was stripped of her clothing, stretched on the floor, and scourged with rods until the blood trickled down profusely from her lacerated back. She was then cast into a noisome dungeon, without light, fettered by iron chains to the floor, and supplied with only bread and water, ' which was administered with bitter taunts and reproaches.'

"Meanwhile the young man, her paramour, had left the monastery, and as the nuns were desirous of inflicting some terrible punishment upon him for his horrible crime, they extorted from Elfrida, under promise that she should be released and given up to him, the confession that he was still in the neighbourhood in disguise, and that, not knowing of the discovery that had been made, he would come to visit her, and make the usual signal of throwing a stone on the roof over her sleeping cell. The Prioress made this known to the brethren of the monastery, and arranged with them for his capture. The following night he came, looked cautiously round, and then threw the stone, when the monks rushed out of ambush, cudgelled him soundly, and then took him a prisoner into the house. The younger part of the nuns, inflamed with a pious zeal, demanded the custody of the prisoner, on pretence of gaining further information. Their request was granted, and taking him to an unfrequented part of the convent, they committed on his person such brutal atrocities as cannot be translated without polluting the page on which they are written; and, to increase the horror, the lady was brought forth to be witness of the abominable scene.'

Whilst lying in her dungeon, Elfrida became penitent and conscious of having committed a gross crime, and one night, whilst sleeping in her fetters, Archbishop Murdac appeared to her and charged her with having cursed him. She replied that she certainly had cursed him for having placed her n so uncongenial a sphere. 'Rather curse yourself,' said he, 'for having given way to temptation.' 'So I do,' she answered, 'and I regret having imputed the blame to you.' He then exhorted her to repentance and the daily repetition of certain psalms, and then vanished, a vision which afforded her much consolation.

"The holy sisters were now much troubled on the question of what should be done with the infant which was expected daily, and preparations were made for its reception; when Elfrida was again visited by the Archbishop, accompanied by two women, who, * with the holy aid of the Archbishop, safely delivered her of the infant, which they bore away in their arms, covered with a fair white cloth.' When the nuns came the next morning they found her in perfect health and restored to her youthful appearance, without any signs of the accouchement, and charged her with murdering the infant a very improbable idea, seeing that she was still chained to the floor. She narrated what had occurred, but was not believed. The next night all her fetters were miraculously removed, and when her cell was entered the following morniug she was found standing free, and the chains not to be found.

"The Father Superior of the convent was then called in, and he invited Alured, Abbot of Rievaulx, to assist him in the investigation of the case, who decided that it was a miraculous intervention, and the Abbot de- parted, saying, 'What God hath cleansed call not thou common or unclean, and whom He hath loosed thou mavest not bind'
"What afterwards became of Elfrida is not stated, but we may presume that after these miraculous events she frould be admitted as a thrice holy member of the sisterhood, despite her little peccadillo."

Now there is a haunted room in Watton Abbey, and the spectre which frequents it is popularly known as "The Headless Nun of Watton." The belief of the learned is, however, that the apparition which haunts Watton is not that of the transgressing nun of the twelfth, but a brutally beheaded lady of the seventeenth, century. Mr. Ross opines that the story-tellers have confused the two traditions, and have treated them as one story, regarding the two heroines as identical. No one would appear to have seen the possibility of the old place being haunted by two ghosts by rival apparitions!

The stories of both the heroines are narrated by Mr. Koss; that of the frail nun being derived from Alured of Rievaulx's account. The old monkish chronicler vouches for the truth of his narration, saying, "Let no one doubt the truth of this account, for I was an eyewitness to many of the facts, and the remainder were related to me by persons of such mature age and distinguished position that I cannot doubt the accuracy of their statements."

So much for the account of the fair nun; that of her more unfortunate sister is of comparatively recent date. According to the later tradition, as related to us by Mr. Ross, "a lady of distinction who then occupied the house (at Watton), was a devoted Royalist in the great Civil War which resulted in the death of King Charles. It was after the battle of Marston Moor, which was a death-blow to the Royalists north of the Humber, and when the Parliamentarians dominated the broad lands of Yorkshire, that a party of fanatical Roundheads came into the neighbourhood of Watton, 'breathing out threatenings and slaughter,' against the 'Malignants' and especially against such as still clung to the 'vile rags of the whore of Babylon' vowing to put all such to the sword. The lady of Watton, who was a devout Catholic, heard of this band of Puritan soldiers, who were 'rampaging' over the Wolds, and of the barbarous murders of which they had been guilty. Her husband was away, fighting in the ranks of the King, down Oxford way, and she was left without any protector excepting a handful of servants, male and female, who would be of no use against a hand of armed soldiers, and it was with great fear and trembling that she heard of their arrival at Driffield, some three or four miles distant, where they had been plundering and maltreating 'the Philistines,' fearing more for her infant than herself, as she believed the prevalent exaggerated rumour, that it was a favourite amusement with them to toss babies up in the air, and catch them on the points of their pikes.

"At length news was brought that the marauders were on the march to Watton, for the purpose of plundering it, as the home of a 'malignant and the lady, for better security, shut herself, with her child and her jewels, in the wainscotted room, hoping in case of extremity to escape by means of the secret stair, and in the meanwhile, committed herself and her child to the care of the Virgin Mother. It was not long ere the band of soldiers arrived and hammered at the door, calling aloud for admittance, but met with no response. They were about breaking down the door, and went in search of implements for the purpose, when they caught sight of a low archway opening upon the moat, which they guessed to be a side entrance to the house, and, crossing the moat, they found the stair, which they ascended, and came to the panel, which they concluded was a disguised door. A few blows sufficed to dash it open, and they came into the presence of the lady, who was prostrate before a crucifix. Rising up, she demanded what they wanted, and wherefore this rude intrusion. They replied that, they had come to despoil the 'Egyptian' who owned the mansion, and, if he had been present, to smite him to death as a worshipper of idols and an abomination in the eyes of God.

"An angry altercation ensued, the lady, who possessed a high spirit, making a free use of her tongue in upbraidings and reproaches for their dastardly conduct on the Wolds, of which she had heard, to which they listened very impatiently, and replied in coarse language, not fit for a lady's ears, at the same time demanding the plate and other valuables of the house. She scornfully refused to give them up, and told them that if they wanted them they must find them for themselves, and, at length, so provoked them by her taunts that they cried, 'Hew down with the sword the woman of Belial and the spawn of the malignant' and suiting the action to the word, they caught her child from her arms, dashed its brains out against the wall, and then cut her down and 'hewed' off her head, after which they plundered the house and departed with their spoil.

“It must not be supposed that these ruffians were a fair specimen of the brave, God-fearing men who fought under Fairfax, and put Newcastle and Rupert to flight at Marston Moor, who fought with the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other, who laid the axe at the root of Royal arbitrary prerogative, and were the real authors of the civil and religious liberty which we now enjoy. But, as in all times of civil commotion, there were evil-minded wretches who, for purposes of plunder, assumed the garb and adopted the phraseology of the noble-minded soldiers of Fairfax and Hampden and the Ironsides of Cromwell, out-Puritaned them in their hypocritical cant, bringing disgrace and scandal upon the armies with which they associated themselves. And such were the villains who despoiled Watton, and slew so barbarously the poor lady and her infant; and from that time the ghost of the lady has haunted the room in which the deed was perpetrated."

In the present house at Watton, says our authority, "there is a chamber wainscotted throughout with panelled oak, one of the panels forming a door, so accurately fitted that it cannot be distinguished from the other panels. It is opened by a secret spring, and communicates with a stone stair that goes down to the moat; and it may be that the room was a hiding-place for the Jesuits or priests of the Catholic Church when they were so ruthlessly hunted down and barbarously executed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns. The room is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a headless lady with an infant in her arms, who comes, or came thither formerly, to sleep there nightly, the bed-clothes being found the following morning in a disordered state, as they would be after a person had been sleeping in them. If by chance any person had daring enough to occupy the room, the ghost would come, minus the head, dressed in blood-stained garments, with her infant in her arms, and would stand motionless at the foot of the bed for a while, and then vanish. A visitor on one occasion, who knew nothing of the legend, was put to sleep in the chamber, who, in the morning, stated that his slumbers had been disturbed by a spectral visitant, in the form of a lady with bloody raiment and an infant, and that her features bore a strange resemblance to those of a lady whose portrait hung in the room; from which it would appear that on that special occasion she had donned her head."

Does not the appearance of this last-seen apparition seem to favour the theory, despite our authority's ironical remark, that Watton may be haunted by the apparitions of both the unfortunate women whose stories have just been narrated?


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Ian Topham
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Re: Watton Abbey

The BBC website gives the following account of the story of the Nun of Watton by Look North Reporter, Jenny Hill.

Let me take you back to the 12th century and in a small village north of Hull a religious order called the Gilbertines have just established a new and unusual abbey. The Gilbertines was the only religious order which allowed men and women to live at the same site.

Watton Abbey was established around 1150 by Eustace Fitzjohn and was home to around 140 men and 70 women. The original house was 600 feet long, one wing was occupied by the nuns the other by the monks. In its time it was the largest house of its type in England. The Priory was dissolved in 1539 by Henry VIII.

However, not long after it was built it was rocked by a gruesome episode that would taint the Order with scandal and horror. The story of what happened to them was so shocking, it has been remembered through the ages, even though nothing remains of the fabric of the abbey itself.

The story concerns a young girl who was placed with the Gilbertines. Her name is not recorded but was said to have little enthusiasm for the religious calling. As the girl grew, she became friendly and then fell in love with one of the lay brothers. She became pregnant. Once the nuns discovered what had happened they acted quickly to deal with the situation as they saw fit.

Local historian Dr. Barbara English takes up the story. "The young nuns wanted to punish her very severely, they want to burn her, they want to brand her. Eventually they settle for throwing her into solitary confinement, chaining her hand and foot and feeding her on bread and water."

Her young man was also to suffer for his 'sins'. Dr. English says of his fate: "The young man had run away and the men from the other side of the monastery caught him, brought him back and handed him over to the nuns for punishment and the nuns castrated him."

Although the events were documented at the time, the details of the fate of the young lovers in unclear. It's likely that the young man died from his injuries and the young woman stayed at the convent for the rest of her life.



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