Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

A Byland Abbey ghost story

When Byland Abbey yielded to Henry VIII’s Suppression Commissioners in 1538, it housed 25 choir monks alongside Abbot John Ledes.

A hundred years prior, a monk had settled in the scriptorium to write twelve ghost stories on a blank page appended to a commonplace manuscript of rhetorical and theological works. These tales, in Latin, predominantly unfold within the rustic environs of North Yorkshire. All have a moral. Notably, one story is about events which took place within the sounds of the abbey bells1‚ÄėThe Byland Abbey Ghost Stories | English Heritage‚Äô. 2022.¬†English Heritage¬†<https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/members-area/kids/medieval-monasteries/byland-abbey-ghost-stories/> [accessed 25 October 2022]2‚ÄĆ‚ÄėByland Abbey Ghost Stories: A Guide to Medieval Ghosts‚Äô. 2020.¬†Blogs.bl.uk¬†<https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html> [accessed 25 October 2022]3‚ÄĆMedieval Histories. 2020. ‚ÄėGhost Stories from Byland Abbey‚Äô,¬†Medieval Histories¬†<https://www.medieval.eu/ghost-stories-from-byland-abbey/> [accessed 25 October 2022]4‚ÄĆ‚ÄėYorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 27 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive‚Äô. 2017.¬†Internet Archive¬†<https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/364/mode/2up> [accessed 25 October 2022].

During the reign of King Richard II, a tailor, known by the surname Snowball, and a resident of the township of Ampleforth, was journeying homeward from Gilling astride his horse. The hour was late, and the road, shrouded in darkness, bore an eerie silence. Despite this, our tailor made the ill-advised choice to travel the lonely countryside, all on his own.

He was cautious, watching for danger, especially wary of thieves and robbers who might hide in the dark shadows. He carried a sword at his side for protection against anyone who might try to harm him. However, he didn’t know that the creature he would encounter that night was no longer human and was not afraid of weapons, for it was already dead.

The tailor had heard no noise for some time except the wind rustling through the dried leaves. He stopped his horse when he heard a sound of movement, something wet and dripping. Then he heard a quack.

When it became evident that the noise came from ducks bathing in a nearby stream, he relaxed and prepared to resume his journey. However, he soon heard the loud whooshing of strong winds. Upon looking up, he spotted a large dark shadow descending from the night sky, circling around him.

The flying creature abruptly fell onto the road ahead of him and lay still, as though lifeless. Therefore, the tailor got off his horse to examine it. He could discern black feathers, dark wings, and the form of its beak, clear it was a large and evil looking raven.”

He bent low and extended his hand to grasp the peculiar, lifeless bird. Yet, when his fingers met its black feathers, fiery sparks erupted from its flanks. Startled, the tailor lept back, crossing himself and invoking, “I forbid the in the name of God to bring harm upon me

The raven, apparently recovered from its fall, rose and flew again, screeching as it ascended as fiery sparks erupted from it. The tailor quickly climbed onto his horse and urged it away as fast as possible.

The raven followed, swooping down from the sky, striking the tailor forcefully on his side, causing him to fall from his horse and inflicting an incredibly painful wound.

He remained still on the road for a while, feeling very weak and scared. But he found his faith, and it gave him the strength to stand up and grab his sword. The raven kept coming down from the dark sky, trying to attack the tailor again. He swung his sword hard at the bird to keep it at bay, but he couldn’t manage to hit it.

This continued for some time, with neither achieving much, though the tailor became more tired from the weight of his sword and the wound on his side. Finally, he resorted to protect himself with his belief in the Almighty: “God forbid that you have the power to hurt me on this occasion, but begone.

Upon speaking these words, the raven immediately fell back, and cried out as if in pain before flying off into the night. The tailor pressed on, but kept his sword close to his chest, fearing the bird might return. His fear was justified, as the raven soon came back, diving towards him on the road, transforming into a large black hound with an iron chain around its neck.

The tailor, upon seeing this new form, was even more alarmed. He cried, “What will become of me in the name of the Holy Trinity, and by the virtue of the blood of Christ from His five wounds, I demand that you speak and do me no wrong. If you are some damned human spirit haunting, the moorland then reveal to me why you are in this state and how your circumstances might be remedied to end your violent haunting“.

The creature cried out loudly, then groaned before surrounding itself with more flames and becoming translucent. It started to speak softly, but instead of a tongue, it produced words from its insides, saying, “It is your fault that I haunt you for this night for today. You have neither attended Mass nor seen the consecration of our Lord’s body and blood, which gave me the power to appear before you. In life, I committed a terrible sin and as punishment, I was excommunicated from the Holy Church.

The Spirit then revealed its former name and the grievous nature of its sin, which the monk writing did not reveal. It then instructed the tailor, “To end my haunting, you must go to the city of York and seek out a certain priest to absolve my sin, then have 9 and 20 masses celebrated for my soul. I shall give you the name of the priest. And then you must decide. If you do as I asked, and I shall reveal how to heal the wound I have inflicted upon you. But if you choose to ignore my request, then know that in a short time, the flesh surrounding your injury to rot your skin shall dry and then fall whither from your wizard body.

The tailor, now completely scared, agreed to help the spirit and asked how they could meet again. The spirit said, “Meet me alone at Byland bank when your test is completed. Ensure that you have upon you the four Gospels and the name of victory, Jesus of Nazareth. This will be for your own protection as there are far darker spirits than myself which haunt these dark places of the world. Even now as we speak. I sense two dangerous spirits watching with interest. One shape is a raging fire and the other in the form of a deadly hunter. Go now before they dropped closer and I would urge you to complete this task quickly lest you die too in a state of sin and join us wandering spirits upon the moors.

The tailor rode his horse in fright back to his house, where he fell ill for many days with a sickness that affects those who come across the undead.

Having regained his strength, he journeyed south to York and found the priest the Spirit had mentioned, locating him in one of the city’s churches. He pleaded for the priest to absolve the spirit, mentioning the spirit’s name. After discussing with others, the priest proposed absolution in return for a donation to the church. Once 5 shillings had been exchanged, the priest wrote the spirit’s absolution on parchment. The tailor then visited York’s various monastic houses, asking all the orders of friars to hold mass for the Spirit as instructed. Finally, he ventured into the graveyard to complete the most unsettling part of his mission.

Under the cloak of darkness, armed with a shovel, the tailor located the burial site of the spirit’s earthly body and unearthed the decomposing remains. He felt concern about being spotted, yet also sensed an unexplainable dread, as if unseen malevolent eyes observed his every move.

He then placed the parchment given by the priest and placed it delicately on the skull before burying the remains and departing hastily from the scene.

Later, one evening, the tailor went to Byland Bank. There, he drew a big circle on the ground and put a cross inside it. He placed four holy reliquaries in the form of a cross on the circle. These boxes had words about salvation written on them, like the name of Jesus. He also had with him the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, along with other sacred writings. Then, he stood in the middle of the circle, waiting nervously for the spirit to come.

After a while, the tailor heard footsteps coming closer. Then, a goat appeared in the dark. It walked around the circle three times. Suddenly, it collapsed as if it had been fatally hit. Then, something strange happened. The goat’s body transformed. It turned into a man, a frighteningly skinny and sickly man. He stood tall over the tailor, looking more like a moving skeleton than a living person.

The tailor plucked up the courage, “I completed the tasks as requested. Has my labour been of service to you, spirit?

In response, the spirit said, “Yes, praise be to God. I am well aware of your labours, for I have been stalking your every move and observing your every action. No wonder you felt terror when you exhumed my bones, for I was behind me with three devils of hell, who tormented me at every opportunity since our last encounter, for they were aware that I will soon leave their custody. Thanks to your efforts, I shall ascend into the everlasting joy of the kingdom of heaven with 30 other fellow spirits, but not until next Monday.

The tailor was disturbed to learn that the spirit had followed him but relieved that it could now move on to heaven. He inquired about healing the wound caused by the spirit. The spirit advised, “Go down to the river, where you shall find an exceptionally broad stone, lift it and beneath it is a certain sandstone, you must wash in the water and then rub your body with the sandstone and this shall heal the part that I laid upon your body. But your soul is another matter for you yourself are stained by sin. You are unintentionally a thief, for you have wrongfully kept the belongings of a friend who parted ways from you long ago.

I urge that you travel to the town of Alnwick and return these goods lest you become a lost, wandering spirit, like myself and the others which have gathered to spy upon us here.

There are other spirits here?” asked the frightened tailor, to which the spirit replied, “I cannot reveal their names. But know that you are powerless to save them for their sins in life were so great that they shall find no remedy before the Day of Judgment, leave this place and leave these tormented souls behind.

And so, the spirit departed, freed of wrongdoing and poised for heavenly ascent, though its journey would not commence until the ensuing Monday.

As the apparition vanished, the tailor discerned other ghostly forms lurking in the shadows, one resembling a bull with no eyes, mouth, or ears. Feeling a chill, the tailor hurried away, clutching the curative sandstone, and hastened back to Ampleforth.

Yet, even as he retreated, the mute bull appeared to pursue him silently. Unable to communicate with the tailor, it continued its spectral vigil, while the tailor, returning home, found himself once again afflicted by the night’s terrors.

Eventually, the bull departed, but it still roams the moors with its fellow spirits, eternally seeking absolution in vain, for some sins are beyond redemption.


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