Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Headless Horseman Stalk the Moors

The 1999 film "Sleepy Hollow" starring Johnny Depp features a headless horseman who terrorises a remote community in upstate New York during the early years of the 19th century. The phantom slaughters the locals before being packed off to hell by the actions of the hero. Tales of headless ghosts often crop up all over the country and Staffordshire Moorlands has its own examples of such a phenomena which panicked the people of the area over hundred years ago. One winter’s night in the 1900s an Onecote farmer was returning from Leek market. He had a successful day at market and did not notice the sound of thundering hooves on that lonely moor coming up fast behind him. Suddenly, he was picked up and found himself seated on horse back behind a headless horseman. The horse galloped over hedges and through fields clearing obstacles effortlessly. Eventually the farmer was thrown from the horse dazed and injured near to his home, and shortly afterwards he died. Another local shortly afterwards encountered the dreadful spectre and survived the experience, but his horse and dog both died of fright.

Seven clergyman were got together to exorcize the spectre and managed to compel it to speak. The horseman told them that he was one of four evil spirits that were compelled to wander the earth until the end of time. A writer recording in the 1940s added two other elements to the story. It was suggested that it was the ghost of a peddler murdered by robbers who as a macabre joke cut off his head and set the headless body on a horse; or it was the ghost of a knight killed in the wars with the Scots whose horse was bringing his master home to the Moorlands
I can well imagine on a dark night people in the remote country areas listening out in a state of fear for the sound of a neighing house and the clatter of galloping hooves on ice hardened ground thinking that the phantom was in the area.

Another headless ghost on a white horse and clad in armour is also alleged to hunt the lanes between Farley and Alton and in the neighbouring county of Derbyshire a lane between Great Longstone and Ashford in the water is said to be haunted by a procession of 12 men carrying an empty coffin thought by a folklorist to be a death omen.
The headless ghost is one of the classic ghost stereotypes present in folk tradition throughout Europe. It has been suggested that it is a shorthand way of talking about apparitions, like ghosts being dressed in white or rattling chains. It is a curiosity because death by decapitation was a rare form of punishment from the Middle Ages onwards and it was a fate usually reserved for the aristocracy as readers of the "Orrible History" series will no doubt remember. Such stories however do crop up throughout the country and for some authorities it was believed that they were often used to keep people off the streets so that criminals could engage in their nefarious activities. In 1804 a correspondent in the Morning Chronicle noted that a smuggling gang operating along the Pembrokeshire coast travelled in a hearse drawn by the imitation ghosts of six headless white horses in order to frighten off custom officers.

Others have proposed that the preponderance of "headless" ghost sightings in the west of the country is that it is an echo of pre Christian beliefs. The Celts practised a cult of collecting heads as they believed that the soul was located there and at death the head is separated from the body as the soul departs. The severed head was a powerful symbol from them as indicated in the medieval Welsh tale of Bendigeidfran or Bran the Blessed whose head lies buried in the foundations of the Tower of London as a palladium against foreign invasion or the decapitation of the Green Knight in the poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" the climax of which is played out some experts believe at Ludschurch in the Staffordshire Moorlands.