This month for Halloween, Berwick Time Lines is deviating from the normal a little. There are not that many authentic stories of ghosts and ghouls from Berwick, which is odd considering the wealth of history we have. There is, however, one really good story. It’s considered to be one of the earliest recorded stories of its kind and is known as ‘The Vampire of Berwick’.
It was written by William Parvus, also known as William of Newburgh (1136–1198), an Augustinian canon who wrote several accounts of hauntings and potential vampire cases in his ‘History of England’.
He tells us: “At the mouth of the river Tweed, and in the jurisdiction of the king of Scotland, there stands a noble city which is called Berwick.
“In this town a certain man, very wealthy, but as it afterwards appeared a great rogue, having been buried after his death sallied forth (by the contrivance, as it is believed, of Satan) out of his grave by night, and was borne hither and thither, pursued by a pack of dogs with loud barkings; thus striking great terror into the neighbours, and returning to his tomb before daylight.
“After this had continued for several days, and no-one dared to be found out of doors after dusk – for each dreaded an encounter with this deadly monster – the higher and middle classes of the people held a necessary investigation into what was requisite to be done; the more simple among them fearing, in the event of negligence, to be soundly beaten by this prodigy of the grave, but the wiser shrewdly concluding that were a remedy further delayed, the atmosphere, infected and corrupted by the constant whirlings through it of the pestiferous corpse, would engender disease and death to a great extent; the necessity of providing against which was shown by frequent examples in similar cases.
“They, therefore, procured ten young men renowned for boldness, who were to dig up the horrible carcass, and, having cut it limb from limb, reduce it into food and fuel for the flames. When this was done, the commotion ceased.
“Moreover, it is stated that the monster, while it was being borne about (as it is said) by Satan, had told certain persons whom it had by chance encountered, that as long as it remained unburned the people should have no peace. Being burnt, tranquillity appeared to be restored to them; but a pestilence, which arose in consequence, carried off the greater portion of them: for never did it so furiously rage elsewhere, though it was at that time general throughout all the borders of England, as shall be more fully explained in its proper place.”
The term ‘vampire’ did not come into use in Britain until 1732, and this ghoul that stalked the streets of medieval Berwick is certainly not some suave, caped count!
This manifestation (and others written about by Parvus) sounds far more like a zombie. These creatures were known as revenants, animated corpses that, it was believed, rose from the grave at night to terrorise the living and then returned to the grave during the day.
In the 12th century there were sporadic outbreaks of plague. In an age with no medication for these diseases and less understanding of them, such stories might have served as a way of explaining these outbreaks.
There is also an element of the memento mori (“remember [that you have] to die”) about them. The memento mori became something of a fashion statement on the graves of the very rich in the 15th century.
A well-known 15th-century poem tells of ‘The Three Living and the Three Dead’. It tells the cautionary tale of three kings who go hunting and are greeted by three hideous living corpses.
They warn the kings that their indulgence in life’s pleasures and neglect of their prayers and devotions will lead to their ultimate downfall.
Built into the east wall of Holy Trinity churchyard, there is an early gravestone with a skull and crossbones carved on it, which many believe (erroneously) to belong to a pirate or a plague victim. This is more likely to be a 17th century stone: it was rare for anyone except the very rich to have gravestones before this in this part of the world.
The carving is a memento mori: the skull and crossbones is obvious, but the hourglass on its side, signifying the passing of time, less so.
So have a fun Halloween, everybody.
Just be careful if you hear the howling of dogs…