Screaming Skulls – An Introduction
The tradition of screaming skulls seems to be almost entirely isolated to England, where stories of these mischievous bone locked spirits abound. A screaming skull is basically a skull of dubious origin, said to cause great havoc – storms, poltergeist activity, and (given its namesake) unearthly screams – when it is removed from its pride of place within a stately home, or other ancient abode. Just how each skull came to reside within the house, is the subject of colourful stories, which also explain why the skull is so unwilling to return to the grave.
Many of the stories about the skulls origins do not stand up to the scrutiny of investigation, but the actual tradition itself bears interest, and can be seen as a folklore motif widespread throughout the English counties.
It has been suggested that the tradition of screaming skulls may be related in some way to a fragmented ancient tradition, associated with the reverence for the head. The Celts in particular were worshippers of the head. There have been many archaeological finds from the Iron Age to suggest that this is so, from skull shrines to the plethora of carved stone heads. The tradition has also been passed down in the Celtic Myths, from Bran’s sacred head to the beheading motif found in Cu Chulainn and other folklore. The only problem with this theory is that the tradition of screaming skulls seems restricted to England, and is not found in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Counties where you would more readily expect to find fragments of surviving Celtic traditions. So whether there is any connection with older traditions is difficult to quantify, and as the stories do not seem to date back further than the middle of the 16th century the tradition may be relatively new.
In some stories these skulls have almost become the ‘luck’ of the house, in much the same way as some stately homes and castles have an heirloom, which in tradition must be kept safe to maintain good luck for the home and the family. Here is a selection of some of the most famous and well-documented screaming skulls in Britain:
The Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor
Perhaps the most famous screaming skull is the one that resides at Bettiscombe Manor in Dorset. The tradition (which has many variations) to account for its presence suggests that it was the skull of a black servant of the manor some time in the distant past. It was his dying wish to have his body returned home to the West Indies, – the land of his fathers. Unfortunately the master of the house – a man called Azariah Pinney – had no intention of returning his earthly remains to the West Indies, and he was interred locally in Bettiscombe Churchyard. Soon after his burial terrible screams and strange guttural noises issued from the grave, and the house was plagued by poltergeist activity. Finally after the local villagers and family members could take no more, the skeleton was recovered and brought into the house, whereupon the haunting ceased. The bones of the skeleton became lost over the years until only the skull remained. Any attempts to rebury the skull are always said to have resulted in the same disturbances.
One owner – who was disgusted at the grisly relic – is said to have thrown the skull in a nearby pond only to be plagued by all manner of unearthly screams and groans throughout the night. Inevitably he is said to have quickly retrieved the skull from the watery depths to restore it to its pride of place. In another story the skull was buried in a deep hole in a hasty attempt to be rid of its presence. The perpetrator was shocked to discover that the skull had somehow burrowed itself out of the depths, and was met with its empty eyed stare in the morning, as it sat waiting to be returned to the house.
There is also a tradition that a phantom coach issues from the manor house along the road to the local church, and that this haunting is associated with the presence of the screaming skull.
Any truth in the mythical origin of the skull was shattered when it was examined by an archaeologist called Michael Pinney in 1963, who dated the skull to the Iron Age. He suggested that the skull was that of a female, and was most probably associated with the Iron Age settlement of Pilsdon Pen close to the Manor House, although its true origins will never be known.
The Screaming Skull of Tunstead Farm, Tunstead Milton, Derbyshire
Tunstead farm has a skull named Dickie that had its height of fame during the 19th century. The name seems strange in that legend suggests the skull is actually that of a woman, who was murdered within the house. Before she died she managed to blurt out that it was her wish for her remains to stay within the house forever. Over the years the skeleton was gradually lost until only the skull remained, and the tradition grew that if the skull was removed then all manner of things would go wrong at the farm. Accounts in the 19th century also suggest that the farm was haunted by the woman’s’ spirit who was seen as a guardian kind of figure. The other story is that the skull belongs to Ned Dixon – hence Dickie – who was murdered at the farm by his cousin when he returned from some nameless war in foreign parts.
The tradition of the skulls power was so well known in the local district that it was blamed on the diversion of the 1863 Waley Bridge to Brunton railway. A bridge was being built near to the farm, but had to be abandoned due to unstable foundations. This was attributed to Dickies influence, obviously not wanting such a noisy diversion to his purgatory slumbering.
The skull is also said to have been stolen and taken Disley, where the thieves were plagued by such frightening disturbances that they returned it to the farm. Along with other screaming skulls one owner is said to have provoked its wrath by burying it, inevitably having to return it to the farm to restore peace.
The Screaming Skull of Wardley Hall
The skull that resides at Wardley Hall is another skull with opposing legends to account for its existence. In tradition the skull – which was kept behind a panel – was supposed to be that of royalist Roger Downs who lived in the 17th century. Roger was a man of ill nature, and according to legend once killed a Taylor in a drunken unprovoked attack, because he had sworn to kill the first person he met. His influence in high society allowed him to literally get away with murder. Eventually Roger picked a fight with somebody more than his equal, and during a drunken brawl on Tower Bridge in London, a watchman (or waterman) severed his head with one stroke. His body was Unceremoniously dumped into the River Thames. His head is said to have been delivered to the hall in a wooden box. The story was disproved when his coffin was opened in 1779, as his head was still attached to his body.
The skull actually belonged to Father Ambrose Barlow, who was hung and quartered for his faith in 1641; his head was then put on display at Manchester church or at Lancaster castle. According to some sources the skull came into the hall when it was bought by a catholic sympathiser, who kept the skull hidden lest his true leanings were discovered. The skull was then rediscovered in the 18th century by the owner of the house. One day a servant found the skull and threw the grisly relic into the moat, whereupon there was a terrible storm that led the owner of the hall to believe the skull was venting its wrath at being removed. He had the moat drained and the skull was returned to its position.
From traditional stories the skull seems to be indestructible as it has been buried, burned and smashed into pieces, always to be found outside the hall the next day, wearing its eternal grin.
The actual story is thought to date from the 1930s when a visiting journalist was duped into believing that that the skull was one with a tradition as a screaming skull. The skull has also been removed (by one time resident the Bishop of Salford) from the house for periods, without the purported paranormal occurrences.
The Screaming Skull of Burton Agnes Hall
The skull at Burton Agnes Hall is another famous screaming skull, although its exact whereabouts in the hall is unknown. It is thought to reside behind one of the walls, having been bricked up and forgotten about years before.
Tradition relates that three sisters built the Hall in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Before they managed to complete the building the youngest of the three sisters was attacked and mortally wounded by a cutthroat while walking in the park. She quickly fell into a fever and died. Before she passed away her sisters promised her that they would bring her head back into the hall so that she could see the completed structure. Her two sisters did not fulfil their promise and had her body buried, after they had moved into the finished Hall they began to be plagued by “strange moaning and weird sounds” until they could stand it no more and had their sisters skull disinterred. It was found to be already detached from the body and was fleshless. After it was placed in the hall all was well until a servant – who disbelieved the story – wrapped the skull in a cloth and threw it on the back of a wagon and horses. The horses reared and trembled in fear, the hall shook and pictures fell of the wall until the skull was replaced. After this the skull was placed in a niche in the wall, and eventually walled up.
The actual origin of the skull is unknown, but the Hall was built for Sir Henry Griffiths in the 16th century, and not for the three sisters – who may have been Sir Henry’s three daughters. But it is difficult to ascertain whether the skull actually belongs to Anne Griffith, as tradition asserts.
The spirit of Ann was also thought to haunt the hall and was known as Owd Nance. She is still said to appear on the anniversary of her death.
The Screaming Skull of Higher Farm, Chilton Cantilo
The skull at Higher Farm is said to be that of Theophilus Broome, who died in 1670. Before he passed away he left instructions for his skull to be kept at the farmhouse, and attempts to remove it are said to have resulted in poltergeist activity. The haunting is well documented; a manuscript at the farm has written account from a number of people who attested to the phenomena resulting in the attempted interment of the grisly item.
The tale was committed to paper in 1791 by John Collinson in his History and Antiquities of Somerset, and the tomb of Theophilus can be found in St James’s Church.