The Screaming Skull of Burton Agnes Hall

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  1. Ian Topham says:

    Re: The Screaming Skull of Burton Agnes Hall

    The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain by John Ingram (1897) 

    Amongst the haunted houses of Great Britain those which are the permanent residence of certain skulls are the most curious. Various grand old halls, quaint farm-houses, and ancient dwellings, scattered about the kingdom, are troubled at times by all kinds of supernatural disturbances, in consequence of some long and carefully preserved skull being removed from its resting-place, or otherwise interfered with. These pages furnish several singular instances of such legends connected with old ancestral dwellings, but none more mvsterious, or devoutly believed in, than that connected with Burton Agnes Hall, the family seat of Sir Henry Somerville Boynton.

    Burton Agnes is a picturesque village, between Bridlington and Driffield, in the East Hiding of Yorkshire. It has some pretty cottages, a handsome church, containing several splendid tombs of the Boynton, Griffiths, and Somerville families (one of the last dating back to 1336), and the grand old Hall, the residence of the Boyntons. The village, which is chiefly, if not entirely, owned by the Boyntons, lies on the slope of the Wolds; a long chain of hills sweep round it from Flamborough Head on the north, whence extensive views over the lowlands of Holderness are obtainable.

    The Hall, says Mr. F. Ross, from whose interesting article in the Leeds Mercury much of the following information is derived, is a large and picturesque building of red brick, with stone quoins a mixture of the Tudor, Elizabethan, and Jacobean styles, with a long broken facade, ornamented with octagonal bays in the wings, and mullioned windows. In the interior are a grand hall, with a fine carved screen, behind which is the magnificent staircase; a noble gallery, containing a choice collection of paintings an apartment which has not its equal for many miles. All the chief apartments are profusely ornamented with carved woodwork, over the fire-place of the hall being a curious specimen representing "The Empire of Death." Inigo Jones is said to have designed the Hall, and Rubens to have decorated some portions of the interior. Inwardly and outwardly, this English home is as magnificent as it it curious yet comfortable. From the grand entrance gateway, an avenue of yew-trees stretches away to the porch of the Hall, producing a picturesque effect. Standing, as the edifice does, on an elevation, the panorama seen over the surrounding neighbourhood from its windows is both grand and impressive. Altogether, Burton Agnes Hall might be deemed, in every respect, a desirable dwelling. But there is a skeleton, or, rather, a portion of one, in this splendid mansion.

    In the course of centuries the estates had passed, by descent, into possession of the De Somervilles, Griffiths, and Boynton families, until they became vested in the persons of three sisters, co-heiresses. A painting at the Hall, represents these three ladies in costumes of the Elizabethan period ; and in one of the upper rooms is the portrait of a lady, apparently one of these three, the bodily representative of the spirit which haunts the ancient mansion, and who is familiarly and irreverently called "Awd Nance," by the domestics. The skull of this lady is preserved at the Hall, much against the will, it is averred, of the inhabitants thereof, but it is more than mortal dare do to remove it. When this relic of mortality is left quietly upon its resting-place, all goes well; but whenever any attempt is made to remove it, most diabolical disturbances and unearthly noises are raised in the house, and last until it is restored. The story to account for these phenomena, as told by Mr. Ross, is as follows:

    "The three ladies, co-heiresses of the estate of Burton Agnes, were in possession of considerable wealth, and had: very exalted ideas of the dignity of the family. For a while they resided in the ancient mansion, which had been the home of several generations of Griffiths and Somervilles ; but it had become dilapidated, and was altogether out of fashion with the existing Elizabethan style of architecture, now merging into the Jacobean, and the three ladies began to think it altogether too mean for the residence of so important a family as theirs. They had many consultations on the subject, and, at length, determined to erect a hall in such a style as should eclipse the splendour of all the mansions in the neighbourhood, even that of the mighty Earls of Northumberland at Leckonfield, a few miles distant. The most active promoter of the scheme was Anne, the younger sister, who could talk, think, and dream of nothing but the magnificent home to be erected for themselves and their descendants. Money they had in abundance. They called in the best architects of the day to furnish designs; bricklayers, masons, and carpenters were soon at work building up the mansion, and then, for the decorative portions, the genius of Inigo Jones and the talents of Rubens were employed on whatever portion of the interior that was susceptible of artistic treatment. In process of time it emerged from the hands of artists and workmen, like a palace erected by the Genii of the Arabian Nights, a palace encrusted throughout on walls, roof, and furniture with the most exquisite carvings and sculptures of the most skilled masters of the age, and radiant with the most glowing tints of the pencil of Peter Paul.

    "Of the three sisters, Anne took the most lively interest in the new house. She witnessed the uprising walls, the development of the architectural features of the grand facade, and the outgrowth of the chiselled design of the interior under the cunning handicraft of  the carvers and sculptors, with the most rapturous "delight; and, when it was completed, could never sufficiently admire its symmetrical proportions, noble hall, stately gallery, and manifold artistic enrichments.

    "Some little time after its completion and occupation by its lady owners, Anne, the enthusiast, paid an afternoon visit to the St. Quentins, at Harpham, about nightfall proposing to return home. She was wholly unattended, excepting by a dog, as the houses were only about a mile apart, singing merrily as she went along. As she approached St. John’s Well, she perceived two ruffianly-looking mendicants stretched on the grass by its side. This was a very numerous and dangerous class, since the dissolution of the monasteries, at whose gates they had been supplied with food, and lived by traversing the country, and going from abbey to priory and priory to abbey, being generally too lazy to apply themselves to work ; and although parochial Poor Laws had been passed in the two or three preceding reigns, it had been left in a great measure to the people to contribute to the poor funds, more by way of a benevolence than as a compulsory rate, so that many parishes shirked the collection altogether, and thus the roads of the country and the streets of the towns swarmed with sturdy beggars, who would take no denial when they were able to demand alms by threats and violence. The lady approached them with some tremor, but did not feel much fear, as she was still within the precincts of Harpham, and not far from those who would afford her protection. The men rose as she came up to them, and asked alms, and she drew out her purse and gave them a few coins ; but in doing so the glitter of her finger-ring attracted their notice, and, in a threatening tone, they demanded that it should be given up to them. As it was a heirloom that she had inherited from her mother, she valued it above all price, and declared she could not, on any account, give up her mother’s ring.

    ‘ Mother or no mother,’ replied one of the men in a gruff tone, * we mean to have it, and if you do not bestow it freely, we must take it.’ So saying, he seized her hand and attempted to draw off the ring. At this manifestation of violence she screamed aloud for help, when the other ruffian, exclaiming, ‘Stop that noise!’ struck her a blow on the head with his stick, and she fell senseless to the earth. Her screams had reached the village, and some rustics came hurrying up, upon which the villains made a hasty retreat, without beinsf able to get the ring from her finger. She was found, as it was supposed, dead or dying, and was carried carefully to Harpham Hall, where, under the care of Lady St.Quentin and the application of restoratives, she recovered sufficiently to be removed the following day to her home. Although she was restored to sensibility she was suffering acutely from the blow, and was placed in bed in a state of utter prostration ; she remained so for a few days, becoming weaker gradually, until, despite the tender nursing of her sisters, and the best medical advice that York could afford, she fell a victim to the brutal attack of the robbers, and was buried in the church of Burton Agnes.

    "During these few intervening days she was alternately sensible and delirious ; but in whichever state she was, her thoughts seemed to turn on what had latterly been the passion of her life her affection for her fondly loved home. ‘ Sisters,’ said she, ‘ never shall I sleep peacefully in my grave in the churchyard unless I, or a part of me at least, remain here in our beautiful home as long as it lasts. Promise me this, dear sisters, that when I am dead my head shall be taken from my body and preserved within these walls. Here let it for ever remain, and on no account be removed. And understand and make it known to those who in future shall become possessors of the house, that if they disobey this my last injunction, my spirit shall, if so able and so permitted, make such a disturbance within its walls as to render it uninhabitable for others so long as my head is divorced from its homo’ Her sisters, to pacify her, promised to obey her instructions, but without any intention of keeping the promise, and the body was laid entire and unmutilated under the pavement of the church.

    " About a week after the interment, as the inhabitants of the Hall were preparing one evening to retire to rest, they were alarmed by a sudden and loud crash in one of the up-stairs rooms ; the two sisters and the domestics rushed up together in great consternation, but after much trembling came to the conclusion that some heavy piece of furniture had fallen, and the men-servants, of whom there were two in the house, went up-stairs to ascertain the cause of the noise, but were not able to find anything to account for it. The household became still more alarmed at this report, and for a long time were afraid to go to bed; but hearing nothing further, at length retired, and the night passed away without further disturbance. Nothing more occurred until the same night in the following week, when the inmates were aroused from sleep in the dead of the night by a loud clapping to, seemingly, of half a dozen of the doors. With fear-stricken countenances and hair standing on end, they struck lights and mustered up sufficient courage to go over the house. They found all the doors closed, but for a while the clapping continued, but always in a different part of the house, remote from where they were. At length the disturbance ceased, and as nothing untoward followed the noise of the preceding week, they again ventured to return to their beds, where they lay sleepless and quaking with fear until daylight.

    "Another week of quietness passed away, but on the corresponding night they were again disturbed by what appeared to be a crowd of persons hurrying along the galleries and up and down the stairs, which was followed by a sound of groaning as from a dying person. On this occasion they were all too terrified to leave their beds, but lay crouching under the bed-clothes perspiring with fear. The following day the female servants fled from the house, refusing to remain any longer in companionship with the ghost which, they all concluded, was the author of the unearthly noises.

    M The two ladies took counsel with their neighbour, Mr., afterwards Sir, William St. Quintin and the Vicar of the parish. In the course of conversation it occurred to them that the noises took place on the same night of the week that Anne had died, and the sisters remembered her dying words, and their promise that some part of her body should be preserved in the house ; also her threat that if her wish were not complied with, she would, if she were so permitted, render the house uninhabitable for others, and it appeared evident that she was carrying out her threat. The question then was : What was to be done in order to carry out her wish, and the clergyman suggested that the coffin should be opened to see if that could throw any light on the matter. This was done the following day, when a ghastly spectacle presented itself. The body lay without any marks of corruption or decay, but the head was disengaged from the trunk, and appeared to be rapidly assuming the semblance of a fleshless skull. This was reported to the ladies, who, although terrified at the idea, agreed to the suggestion of the Vicar that the skull should be brought to the house, which was done, and so long as it was allowed to remain undisturbed on the table where it was placed, the house was not troubled with visitations of a ghostly nature.

    "Many attempts have since been made to rid the Hall of the skull, but without success ; as whenever it has been removed the ghostly knockings have been resumed, and no rest or peace enjoyed until it has been restored. On one occasion a maid-servant threw it from the window upon a passing load of manure, but from that moment the horses were not able to move the waggon an inch, and despite the vigorous whipping of the waggoner, all their efforts were in vain, until the servant confessed what she had done, when the skull was brought back into the house, and the horses drew the waggon along without the least difficulty. On another, one of the Boyntons caused it to be buried in the garden, when the most dismal wailings and cries kept the house in a state of disquietude and alarm until it was dug up and restored to its place in the Hall, when they ceased."

    A correspondent of Mr. Ross, to whom, indeed, that gentleman was indebted for some of the particulars already given, furnished him with the following account of his own personal experience of the Burton Agnes hauntings, gained during a night spent at the Hall. He writes :

    "Some forty years ago, John Bilton, a cousin of mine, came from London on a visit to the neighbourhood, and having a relative, Matthew Potter, who was a gamekeeper on the estate, and resided in the Hall, he paid him a visit, and was invited to pass the night there. Potter, however, told him that, according to popular report, the house was haunted, and that if he were afraid of ghosts he had better sleep elsewhere ; but John, who was a dare-devil sort of a fellow, altogether untinctured by superstitious fancies, replied, ‘ Afraid ! not I, indeed ; I care not how many ghosts there may be in the house so long as they do not molest me.’ Potter then told him of the skull and the portrait of ‘ Awd Nance,’ and asked him if he would like to see the latter ; the skull, it would appear, from what followed, was not then in the house. He replied that he should like to see the picture, and they passed into the room where it was hanging, and Potter held up the candle before the portrait, when, in a moment, and without any apparent cause, the candle became extinguished, and defied all attempts at * blowing in again/ and they were obliged to grope their way to the bed-room in the dark. They occupied the same bed, and Potter was soon asleep and snoring ; but Bilton, ruminating over the tale of the skull and the curious circumstance of the sudden extinguishment of the light in front of the portrait of the ghost, lay awake. When he had lain musing for half an hour, he heard a shuffling of feet outside the chamber door, which at first he ascribed to the servants going to bed, but as the sounds did not cease, but kept increasing, he nudged his bed-fellow, and said, f Matty, what the deuce is all that row about? ‘ ‘ Jinny Yew- lats ‘ (owls), replied his companion, in a half-waking tone, and turning over, again began to snore. The noises became more uproarious, and it seemed as if ten or a dozen persons were scuffling about in the passage just outside, and rushing in and out of the rooms, slamming the doors with great violence, upon which he gave his friend another vigorous nudge in the ribs, exclaiming, ‘ Wake up, Matty ; don’t you hear that confounded row ? What does it all mean?’ ‘Jinny Yewlats,’ again muttered his bed-fellow. ‘ Jinny Yewlats,’ replied Bilton, ‘Jinny Yewlats can’t make such an infernal uproar as that.’ Matty, who was now more awakened, listened a moment, and then said, ‘ It’s Awd Nance, but ah nivver take any notice of her,’ and he rolled over and again began to snore. After this ‘ the fun grew fast and furious,’ a struggling fight seemed to be going on outside, and the clapping of the doors reverberated in the passage like thunderclaps. He expected every moment to see the chamber door fly open, and Awd Nance with a troop of ghosts come rushing in, but no such catastrophe occurred, and after a while the noises ceased, and about daylight he fell asleep. " The writer adds that his cousin, though a fear-nought and a thorough disbeliever in the supernatural, told him that he never passed so fearful a night before in his life, and would not sleep another night in the place if he were offered the Hall itself for doing so. He further adds that his cousin was a thoroughly truthful man, who might be implicitly believed, and that he had the narrative from his own lips on the following day."

  2. Ian Topham says:

    Re: The Screaming Skull of Burton Agnes Hall
    County Folk-Lore Volume VI – Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning The East Riding of Yorkshire (1911)’, edited by Eliza Glutch.

    Burton Agnes. So much that is inaccurate has been printed about the ghost that I am tempted to give a true and unvarnished account of the skull which undoubtedly finds a resting place in the great Hall. There is no want of foundation for the statement that three sisters built the Hall in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and were most impatient to see the work completed — especially so was the youngest of the three. One day, when wandering alone in the park. Miss Ann was murderously attacked and robbed by an outlaw, who seriously wounded her. This brought on a fever of which she died. Before her death she grieved incessantly that she would never see the grand structure complete, and made her sisters promise to remove her head to the new grand Hall, where it was to be placed on a table. This they agreed to do, but after her death they buried her without fulfilling the compact. Nothing happened until they took up their abode at Burton Agnes. Then strange meanings and weird sounds made the sisters’ lives a burden to them. No servants would stay ; so at last after two years they caused the body to be dug up and decapitated, and placed the now fleshless head upon the table. For many years it was left there uncovered, until one day a certain maid professing to ridicule the story, took it up and threw it on a loaded waggon standing near. The horses plunged and reared, the house shook, pictures fell, until it was once more restored to the place of honour. It used to be a belief that so long as the skull was left undisturbed nothing serious would happen to any of the Boyntons, but woe betide the moving of it. To avoid calamity, it has now been placed in a niche of the wall, especially prepared for it, and hidden from view. Implicit belief in the story is a second religion with the Boyntons, and the skull is regarded by them as being almost sacred property. — Y.C. vol. i. p. 22.