I was listening to a ghost story several nights ago. The narrator did incredible work of running chills down my spine as he laid the scene. Rarely do ghost stories have an effect on me and as the tale progressed I felt my pulse quicken, I became aware of every little sound around me. Its fair to say I was on the edge of my seat. He then reached the end of the story – “… Gunther turned and stood before him was a man, as he took in the scene he say the appirations head with under his arms!”. I suspect this peak would normally have people screaming given the groundwork that had been laid however my response was to sigh and respond “well that’s just a non standard head placement”.
It was all going so well but I find anatomically inconvenienced ghosts to be very anticlimactic. Frankly given the evidence I would argue the ghost was probably having a worse day than the drunk baker confronted by him.
It did bring into sharp focus however the prevalence of headless ghost stories in British folklore. Beheading was a particularly popular judicial punishment by the English and British monarchy. Queen Elizabeth I was particularly famous for introducing people who had annoyed her to the axe. Beheading as a capital punishment was been around for a lot longer than the later preferred hanging. Arguably if someones head is ten feet from their body, you cant be in much doubt about their vital status. Whereas in the case of William Cragh it was definitely possible to survive a hanging, twice in fact. Additionally whilst you could present a hanged corpse in a gibbet, a head is far more decorative on a pike.
Beheading seems to end as a punishment in the mid-eighteenth century, in favour of hanging. The last hanging in the UK took place in the 1960s however it was still a technical option until the introduction of the Crime and Punishment Act in 1998. Meaning any reference to beheading is likely to be more historic and thus inherently more mystical. Additionally a man walking around with his head under an arm is definitely not alive whereas intact ghosts could just be living men seen in dim light or fog.
There does seem to be some solace for decapitated spectres, many of them seem to have horses. I suspect this is some kind of ethereal compensation. You’re now ten inches shorter but here is a pony. Having spent a week or so researching this post I noted that a huge amount of the stories cluster around Suffolk. Some of the oldest may have their origins during the Roman occupation however translated through the years may have inspired stories like Sleepy Hollow. One refers to a headless Germanic warrior who rode around lopping peoples heads off at night before retiring to his grave under a “great blood oak” at dawn.
Side Note: I’m unsure how they identified the headless, and thus mute, warrior was Germanic. I suppose he could have been Germanic in garb but its quite a specific detail for a time when people observed very little cultural detail, there’s us and everyone else are the savages.
People eventually got a bit pissed off at the ongoing threat of beheading by an angry German jockey and found his grave, exhumed him and did some Christian stuff to it. Thus the killings and sightings of this specific horseman ended. However the lore suggests these killings were happening most nights for at least two generations. I’m unsure why it took them so long to decide to do anything about it.
Again in Suffolk, on a road between Brantham and Bentley where a priory once stood. There have been accounts of a headless monk. Honestly that’s as much detail as I can reliably ascertain. No one appears to have been harmed by this monk. There are lots of accounts of seeing him but no real explanation or exploration. The priory in question was Dodnash Priory which appears to have been established in the early twelfth century and was abandoned around the time of the reformation n the sixteenth century. There’s a fair amount of administrative documentation that survives from the time, mainly how much they were collecting in rent but none of the day to day records survived Henry VIIIs sexually frustrated rampage against the church. Certainly I wasn’t able to find anything particularly unamusing happening to a monk. However accounts of this chap strolling down the road at night number in the one or two a year for several centuries.
Headless Women (Ghosts)
Interestingly tales of headless female ghosts are fairly scarce in Britain. Notable beheaded figures such as Anne Boleyn has been noted in a lot of places however I am unsure how the identity has been established. In particular she can be seen angrily stomping around the Tower of London.
Phantasmic women do feature quite heavily in British and world folklore, particularly the independent evolution of the Woman in White mythology which seems to have sprung up pretty much everywhere. But as a rule this women are cranially in tact. Whilst its true over the millenia far more men have been beheaded than women its surprising how few headless females inhabit the great beyond.
Whilst tales of headless spirits seem widespread there are very few connecting themes. I do wonder how many of these tales had been more dynamic in oral tradition before we started writing stuff down. What we believe to be a tale of Saxon or Roman origin may have been kicking around for centuries as a celtic fable.
A very cool project, if someone hasn’t already done this, would be to colour code a map of the UK by folkloric tale type so you could see the clusters for different categories like I noted with Suffolk.