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Holy Trinity Church, York


Although much of the exterior dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, Holy Trinity Church sits on a site that has been used for a church since the Doomsday Book. Holy Trinty itself dates from between the 13th and 15th century, boasting some fine examples of medieval stained glass. It is supposed to be haunted by a phantom nun, and two other ghosts.


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Ian Topham
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Re: Holy Trinity Church, York

In his book The Haunted North Country, C T Oxley 'It was accepted by many that the (east) window at certain times was haunted by either one or two ghosts, a nun and a male figure wearing a surplice.'

Oxley quoted the following letter that was published in S Baring-Goulds Yorkshire Oddities (1890).  “While staying in York at this time last year (1865) or perhaps a little earlier, I first heard of the apparitions or ghosts supposed to be seen in Trinity Church, Micklegate.

“I felt curious to see a ghost, I confess, if such is to be seen without the usual concomitants of a dark night and a lone house. Accordingly I went to the church for morning service on a blazing hot Sunday morning in August last, with a girl about thirteen years old and her little brother.

“The east window of the church, I must explain, is of stained glass, rather tawdry, and of no particular design except that the colouring is much richer in the centre than at the sides, and that at the extreme edge there is one pane of unstained glass which runs all round the window.

“The peculiarity of the apparition is, that it is seen on the window itself, rather less than half-way from the bottom (as I saw it from the gallery), and has much the same effect as that of a slide drawn through a magic lantern when seen on the exhibiting sheet. The form seen — I am told invariably - is that of a figure in white walking across the window, and gives the idea of someone passing in the churchyard in a surplice. I say a figure for the number is generally limited to one, and I was told that only on Trinity Sunday did more than one appear, and that then there were three.

“But I can vouch for the larger number appearing on other occasions, as on the day I was there, which was one of the Sundays after Trinity, there were rarely fewer than three visible.”

“Of the three figures two were evidently those of women, and the third was a little child. The two women were very distinct in appearance. One was tall and very graceful, and the other middle-sized, we called the second one the nursemaid, from her evident care of the child during the absence of the mother, which relationship we attributed to the tall one, from the passionate affection she exhibited towards the child, her caressing it, and wringing of her hands over it”

Oxley goes into further detail concerning the haunting legends attached to the church.

It was seen on many occasions and mostly by members of the congregation who occupied the gallery which was many years ago removed. The figures appeared to move outside the window. A rector firmly believed that trees outside the window, which moved gently in the breeze, might account for what he did not believe were ghosts. The trees were duly cut down and a few months later, during a marriage ceremony the figures appeared again.

A legend exists to the effect that the father of a family was buried near the organ window. Not long afterwards the plague carried off his only child, whose body was buried outside the city. The mother, also a victim of the plague, died and her remains were buried in the grave of her husband. Yet there was no rest for her, and with the nurse the unhappy spirit of the mother brought the body of her child from the plague-pit to the grave of the father at Holy Trinity.

Another story concerns the abbess of a convent which in the sixteenth century was attached to Holy Trinity Church. At the time of the Dissolution, soldiers arrived to carry out the orders of Henry VIII. The Abbess, whose loyalty to her faith was supported by sterling courage, defied the intruders and told them that only over her corpse would they sacred place. In answer the soldiers cut her down on the spot, but not before she had declared that if they murdered her she would haunt the place until it was replaced by another dedicated to the same purpose.

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Re: Holy Trinity Church, York

‘Yorkshire Legends and Traditions’ by Rev Thomas Parkinson (1888)

The Ghost at Trinity Church, York,

One of the most curious and, as yet, unexplained illusions, giving us a real ghost in this nineteenth century, is the now well-known apparition or phantom nun of Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate, York.

A very full description of the scene on which it appears, and of the ghost itself, is given in Baring Gould's ‘Yorkshire Oddities,' vol I., to which those readers who are curious, and would learn more with regard to it, are referred.

For the purpose of explaining the legends connected with it, the following descriptions of the apparition, by three observers, may be quoted.

A writer, ‘A. B.' writing in 1866, sends to Mr. Baring Gould an account of what he saw from the gallery at the west end of the church: ‘The east window of the church, I must explain, is of stained glass. The peculiarity of the apparition is, that it is seen on the window itself, rather less than half-way from the bottom, and has much the same effect as that of a slide drawn through a magic-lantern when seen on the exhibiting-sheet. The form seen, I am told invariably, is that of a figure dressed in white walking across the window, and gives the idea of someone passing in the churchyard in a surplice. I say a figure, for the number is generally limited to one, and I was told that only on Trinity Sunday did more than one appear, and that then there were three. But I can vouch for the larger number appearing on other occasions, as on the day I was, there, which was one of the Sundays after Trinity, there were rarely fewer than three visible.

Of the three figures, two were evidently those of women, and the third was a little child. The two women were very distinct in appearance; one was tall and very graceful, and the other middle-sized. We called the second one the nursemaid, from her evident care of the child during the absence of the mother, which relationship we attributed to the tall one, from the passionate affection she exhibited towards the child, her caressing it, and the wringing of her hands over it. I may add that each figure is perfectly distinct from the other, and after they have been seen once or twice are at once recognisable.

The order of their proceedings, with slight variations, was this: - The mother came alone from the north side of the window, and having gone half-way across, stopped, turned round, and waved her hand towards the quarter whence she had come. This signal was answered by the entry of the nurse with the child. Both figures then bent over the child and seemed to bemoan its fate; but the taller one was always the most endearing in her gestures. The mother then moved towards the other side of the window, taking the child with her, leaving the nurse in the centre of the window, from which she gradually retired towards the north comer, whence she had come, waving her hand, as though making signs of farewell, as she retreated.

After some little time she again reappeared, bending forward, and evidently anticipating the return of the other two, who never failed to reappear from the south side of the window, where they had disappeared.

The same gestures of despair and distress were repeated, and then all three retired together to the north side of the window.

Usually they appeared during the musical portions of the service, and especially during one long eight-line hymn, when — for the only occasion without the child — the two women rushed on (in stage phrase), and remained during the whole hymn, making the most frantic gestures of despair. Indeed, the louder the music in that hymn, the more carried away with their grief did they seem to be.'

Another correspondent, ‘L. S.,’ under the date March, 1874, wrote to Mr. Baring Gould: ’I went many times to the gallery in hopes of seeing the phenomenon, but was repeatedly disappointed. At last, one dull day, hopeless for the purpose, as I thought — rain was falling at the time — I was startled by seeing something.

'There are two east windows one on the right, filled with common green glass, the organ in front of it. From the outside of this window I saw something move, and immediately a graceful figure of a girl of eighteen or twenty years crossed the outside of the stained east window with a light, free step. She was entirely covered with a fine lace veil, which, as she walked and met the air, showed the outline of the head and figure. The features I could not distinguish, but could see a shade through the veil where they naturally would be.

The veil was of a pure white, flowing back as a train as she walked. In two or three minutes the figure returned, the robe flowing back in the same way, and disappeared behind the organ-window.'

A writer, ‘H. G. F. T.,' quoted in the Ripon and Richmond Chronicle, May 6th, 1876, thus gives his observations: ’The seat I occupied (in the gallery, Easter Day, 1876) was not an advantageous one, a large glass chandelier being between me and the lower panes of the window (east). In the middle of the service, my eyes, which had hardly once moved from the left or north side of the window, were attracted by a bright light, formed like a female, robed and hooded, passing from north to south with a rapid, gliding motion, outside the church, apparently at some distance. There are four divisions in the window, all of stained glass, but at the edge of each runs a rim of plain transparent glass, about two inches wide, and adjoining the stonework. Through this rim especially could be seen what looked like a form, transparent, but yet thick (if such a term can be used) with light. It did not resemble linen, for instance, but was far brighter. The robe was long and trailed. , It was, of course, not visible when it had crossed the window and passed behind the wall. About half an hour later it again passed across from north to south, and having remained about ten seconds only, returned with what I believe to have been the figure of a young child, and stopped at the last pane but one, and then vanished. I did not see the child again, but a few seconds afterwards the woman reappeared, and completed the passage behind the last pane very rapidly. Nothing more was seen during the service.

‘It is said to appear very frequently on Trinity Sunday, and to bring two other figures on to the scene, another female, called the nurse, and the child. It is often seen as distinctly on a dark, rainy, or snowy day, as when the sun is shining. When I saw it the sun was not bright. The motion is even — ^not at all jerky. Sometimes the figure glides swiftly, at other times slowly.'

It would be marvellous if this illusion had not given rise to many legends accounting for it. One is, that in the disturbed times of the suppression of religious houses, before the Reformation, a party of soldiers came to sack the convent attached to this church. Having broken in the door, they were met by the abbess, a lady of great courage and devotion, who stood in their way of entering, and declared that they should only pass in over her body, and that should they slay her, and succeed in their errand of destruction, her spirit would haunt the place, until the time came that their sacrilegious work was undone by the rebuilding of the holy house.

This legend has been very prettily versified by E.A.Ould, and published in the Yorkshire Chronicle a few years ago. Having described the sunset of a summer's evening, he pictures the city sinking into Nature's rest:

'Above old Ebor's ramparts the convent walls arise.
Transplendent and reflecting the glory of the skies;
The heavenward-pointing crosses the waning lights dismiss,
And dreamy Ouse returneth the sunset’s parting kiss;
The vesper bells are ringing o'er field, and tree, and dell,
The warbling lark is singing, to parting day, farewell;
Now wreaths of mist ascending, like holy incense creep,
O'er buttress, hall, and tower, o'er spire and turret steep;
And through its gauzy curtain the stars a vigil keep,
The breezes sigh a lullaby and — Nature is asleep.'

Then we are told of the arrival of the sacrilegious band of soldiers from the south thus:

On Twilight's cheek the rosy flush
Had scarcely turned to gray.
When on the quiet air is borne.
Along the southern way.
The pattering sounds of horses' hoofs
And clink of coat and mail.
And soon a goodly band of knights
The Southern Bar assail;
The trappings of their jaded steeds
Are dim with dust and soil.
And travel-stain and drooping plume
Their martial splendour spoil;
But tho' the knights are weary, and
Exhausted is the steed,
They do not stay to rest, but on
Their mission they proceed;
And soon before the convent gates
The martial cortege stands:
Their leader, thundering at the door.
An entrance there demands.
The door of iron-studded oak
With blows is nearly down,
The leader urges on his band
With many a curse and frown;
For he will hold no parley.
No errand will explain.
An entrance for King Henry's band.
An entrance he will gain.
Where harmless sheep reside,
They fight and clamour, when, behold,
The door swings open wide!
And silence falls like that which filb
The chamber of the dead,
And every man falls back amazed,
And bares his shaggy head;
For fearless on the threshold stands
A lady all alone:
The tumult in her woman's heart
Has turned that heart to stone.'

He then describes the fragile but erect form of the Abbess, barring the way with a firm majesty of mien, and eyes in which there lives a dangerous light — so different to her usual appearance.

For those soft eyes can swim with tears
At any tale of woe,
As oft in pity they have flowed
In days not long ago.
But now the time has come to bid
Adieu to woman's heart,
For kingly tyranny invades
God's righteous, chosen part
And shall she aid the crying wrong,
Shall she to robbers bow?
“Be brave," has always been her theme,
Shan she surrender now?
No! let the life that God has given
Be in His service spent
So there she stands, and straight demands
Their errand and intent'

Sir Ralph, the leader, explains that she and the whole sisterhood must at once be ejected from their house, and demands the keys. The Abbess replies:

Sir Knight, you are an Englishman,
I trust a Christian too.
I seek for mercy at your hands,
The feeble woman's due.
It b not for myself I crave
Your courtesy to-night,
But for my helpless fold of sheep,
And for the cause of right
By soldier's honour, woman's tears,
By every sacred pledge,
I charge you lay not on your soul
The crime of sacrilege.
What ! are my prayers of no avail?
You bid your men proceed?
Come, cowards, then! who crush the weak —
God help us in our need!
Come, and this feeble arm of mine
Your progress shall restrain;
Come, and this heart shall cease to beat
Ere you an entrance gain;
Come, then, and if with murderous hand
You set my spirit free.
It will not leave you to enjoy
Your blood-bought victory;
For it will haunt its convent home,
Which God has ever blessed,
But now shall curse, nor suffer here
The heretic to rest;
And ever shall my form appear
Ab witness of this deed,
To brand your name with infamy,
So, if you dare proceed

Sir Ralph then laughed a hideous laugh, unsheathed his blade, and cried, with dreadful oath and shameless jest:

“Mad womani turn aside!”
The lady stood as still as was
The virgin's image white.
“Stand back!" the ruffian cried again.
And dauds obscured the light.
And then the nuns in terror fled.
And on the threshold stone
One figure stood, like angel good,
Amid the fiends — alone,
"Stand back, or die!" he cried again.
The band advanced a pace.
She raised aloft her snowy arm.
And turned to heaven her face.
A pause — the word "Advance" is given
A rush, a muffled tread
A weary sigh — the moon on high
A holy woman — dead;
A throng of scared and shrieking nuns.
A band of ruthless men —
A furious mob without, and yells
Of execration — then
A struggle fierce, and flames that burst
On high with lurid light.
These were the sounds that met the ear.
These were the scenes that froze with fear.
Upon that fatal night
Those days have passed and perished,
Three centuries have fled
Since in that stony portal gate
The martyred nun lay dead.
Her name is now forgotten,
Her grave is now unknown;
And reverent tears no more bedew
Her monumental stone.
'The house she loved is levelled.
The church has seen decay;
And other worshippers are found
Where once she loved to pray.
But faithful to her promise,
Thro* all these changing years,
Within those sacred precincts still
The Phantom Nun appears.
A little form appeareth,
And passeth to and fro;
And those who see remember how,
Three centuries ago,
Against the power of tyrants
A noble woman fought;
And fighting, died, and with her blood
A martyr's glory bought
Still in the Church's service
She strives, and never rests;
For there her shadowy form against
Usurping power protests.
But when once more the Convent
O'er Ebor's walls shall rise,
And matin-song and vesper-bell
Shall echo to the skies —
(So says the ancient legend)
Her work will then be done.
And in her honoured grave at last
Shall sleep the Phantom Nun.'

Another and very different legend accounts for the appearance — not of one woman only, and that a nun — but of three figures.

It is thus given by Baring Gould's correspondent:

‘The Sunday-school children who sit in the gallery see the forms so often as to be quite familiar with the sight, and call them "the mother, nurse, and child." The legend that I have heard told of it is that a family, consisting of a father, mother, and only child, lived here once upon a time. The father died, and was buried at the east end of the church, under or near the organ-window. After a while the plague broke out in York, and carried off the child, and it was buried outside the city, as those who died of plague were not allowed to be laid in the churchyards for fear of communicating the infection. The mother died afterwards, and was laid in her husband's grave, and now, as in her lifetime, continues to visit the grave of her child and bemoan the separation. The child is brought from its grave in the plague-pit by the mother and nurse, and brought to the grave of its father, and then it is taken back to where it lies outside the walls.'

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