Friday, 30 April 2010
St. John the Baptist Church
The Haunted Yew Tree
North end, where the ghost of a woman has been seen, possibly a victim of premature burial.
The village of Wroughton lies 3 miles south of Swindon. Evidence of a settlement at Wroughton can be traced back to the Mesolithic, though archaeology for this period is a little thin on the ground, if you pardon the pun. In contrast, many scattered finds found throughout the area indicate a settlement at Wroughton during the Neolithic period, not surprising when you consider its close proximity to the Avebury complex.
There have been two decisive battles at Wroughton. The first was in 556AD, when the West Saxons led by Cynric and Ceawlin defeated the Britons near the Iron Age hill fort of Barbury Castle.
The second battle was at Ellendune (Wroughton's former name) between King Beornwulf of Mercia and King Egbert of Wessex, which was to end in a decisive victory for Egbert and a pivotal event in English history. Burial sites in the vicinity are believed to be associated with the battle.
The current Grade I listed church is built of dressed sarsen stone. The original church, of which nothing remains, first appeared in the Ellendune charter of 956 appending the recognition of a boundary wall. The construction of the current church began in the 12th century. What can be seen today is mainly 14th century and, in the case of the tower, 15th century. More recent restoration work was carried out in the 19th century by T.H. Wyatt in 1846. Further work was undertaken in the 1850s, 1880s and in 1905.
The Haunted Yew
I recently visited St John’s and on entering the graveyard, I couldn’t help but notice the immense Yew tree to the south. It’s canopy covers some 60 feet or so in all directions. Centuries old headstones encrusted with lichen stand in its shadows, their inscriptions long since eroded by the passage of time. As I approached the Yew, a sudden gust of wind disturbed its branches, causing its heavy bulk to creak and groan like and old sailing ship. It was at that moment I was reminded of the stories surrounding this grand old tree.
I had lived in Wroughton for most of my childhood and had heard tales about a haunted tree in the churchyard. There had been stories of folk claiming to have seen a ghostly figure of a man, a man believed by some to have hung himself from its very branches earning it a place in local legend. Many described a chilling feeling of ‘being watched‘ as they tended the graves of a loved ones. Others claimed to have had a fleeting glimpse, a peripheral sighting if you like of a 'shadowy figure' standing close to or under the tree.
Sightings of this mysterious wraith still occur today. The figure is always described as wearing black, its features indiscernible, concealed by the trees' deep shadows.
There is a creepy story attached to this grand old giant, which as kids, none of us ever had the gumption to try out. The tale goes, that should you run round the tree anti-clockwise thirteen times and on the stroke of midnight, you will summon the 'Tree Ghost.' What is not clear however, is once the Tree Ghost has been summoned, what method should be deployed to send it back from whence it came. If I recall, the ambiguity of the stoires outcome was enough as kids, to deter us from playing out the ritual. It is unclear whether the Tree Ghost and the shadowy figure are one of the same apparition.
A Story of Premature Burial.
The Victorians lived in fear of premature burial, also known as vivisepulture. Their understanding of coma, catalepsy and disorders of the nervous system were in their infancy. Their fear arose during a time when burial sites in England were at a premium. It was not uncommon to dig up old graves and store the bones in ‘bone houses’ allowing space for the recently deceased. It would be a gruesome discovery when exhuming the dead (1 in 25) to find evidence of scratch marks in the coffin.
The Victorians would go to extraordinary lengths to ensure they would not fall victim to a living entombment. The thought of being pronounced dead and then waking up in the cloying, suffocating blackness of one’s own coffin was just too much to have to imagine. One example of ‘taphephobia’ was to instruct the undertakers (before one’s death of course) to make a small hole in the lid of the coffin where a chain or piece of rope was passed through and attached to the corpse’s wrist, whilst the other end was affixed on top of the filled grave to a post with a bell attached to it. I can't help but wonder, who would be prepared to sit all day and all night beside the grave, just in case its occupant should wake and tinkle the bell. It was this bizarre practice of chain/rope and bell, that gave rise to the expressions ‘saved by the bell’, ‘dead ringer’ and 'the graveyard shift'.
It was not until 1852, when the stethoscope became widely available, that a noticeable decline in errors regarding the pronouncement of death would go some way to ease the troubled minds of many a Victorian.
It is strongly rumoured, though not confirmed, that such a fate befell a young woman buried at St. John the Baptist during the 19th century. Shortly after her burial, it was discovered to the horror of the family physician, that the woman was subject to seizures which would paralyze her entire body giving the impression of death. Her coffin was hastily exhumed and when opened, it was clear to all that the body had moved but what was more horrific, was the discovery of deep scratches on the underside of the coffin lid, inflicted by the terrified woman’s desperate, futile attempts to claw her way to freedom.
Could it be that the ghostly figure of a woman wearing a tattered dress the colour of ash and in the style of the Victorian period, be that of the poor wretch who met her death as a result of premature burial. She is most often encountered at the north end of the churchyard where she stands quite motionless until approached, whereupon she vanishes.