England is chock full of genteel living: peaceful lakes, impromptu tea parties, and random skulls tucked away in walls to silence their freakish screams from beyond. A few of England's ancestral homes have a little extra something between the paneling: the grinning skull bones of those who swore to never... ever... leave their homes.
While researching my new book, Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Skulls, and Other Creepy Collectibles (Llewellyn), I found tales of screaming skulls that included a decapitated priest, a woman with an unhealthy attachment to her living room, and a pair of heads that rolled across the floor at a dinner party. It looks like England's historic houses aren't as bucolic as they seem.
Ignoring the last wishes of his faithful servant, Azariah Pinney was just asking for a haunting. After promising the servant's burial in his West Indies homeland, Pinney didn't want to foot the bill for transporting the body back over the sea, burying the old man in the local churchyard instead. Soon the townspeople began to hear loud moans and unexplained noises coming from the grave and demanded Pinney return the body to Bettiscombe Manor, near Lyme Regis. Storing the corpse in a barn loft, it was left to rot as all attempts to bury it on the grounds resulted in the agonizing screams that echoed throughout the Manor's walls. Eventually, all that was left was the skull as a grim reminder of a failed promise.
Since the skull was quiet when within the great house, it stayed parked on a staircase leading to the roof for many years. As generations passed, a careless stumble on the steps would lead to attempts to rid the skull from the Manor. In one instance, it was thrown into a nearby pond, hopefully to sink to the bottom. That night, the Manor's windows shook from the force of the skull's screaming. In the morning, the pond was drug to find the skull and return it to its place inside. Again they tried to dropkick the skull, this time in a deep hole far away from the house. The next morning, groundsmen found the skull sitting on the lawn, waiting to come back inside.
Burton Agnes Hall
Anne's dying request was to have her head stay within the walls of her father's home in Yorkshire so she could always look upon its beauty. Yeah... no. After her death, the result of a vicious beating from vagabonds, her sisters made the executive decision to bury Anne's head along with the rest of her body in the church's graveyard. Days later the girl's ghost appeared, screaming and pleading to come home. Unable to bear it, the family had Anne's body dug up, only to find that while her body had changed little in a week, her skull was detached from her neck and the bare bones waiting to be taken back to Burton Agnes. Repeated attempts to bury her head resulted in the walls of the Hall echoing her screams until the family finally tucked it away in a hidden chamber within Burton Agnes, it's location now forgotten.
Is it an unlucky monk or the severed head of a drunken brawler? The skull at Wardley Hall near Manchester, England has dueling legends. Traditionally, the skull was believed to have sat atop the shoulders of Roger Downes while he picked fights with large men and caroused during the 17th century. His last ill-chosen donnybrook with a guard on Tower Bridge resulted in the severing of his head. His body was dumped into the Thames and his skull returned in a box to his family at Wardley Hall. Charming. Downes' coffin, opened for some ungodly reason in 1779, revealed that his head was still firmly intact with the rest of his body.
The skull actually belonged to a Benedictine Monk, Dom Edward Ambrose Barlow. During the English Civil War, when Catholics practiced Mass in secret, Barlow performed his duties on the down low for over two decades. Arrested at Morleys Hall in 1671, the monk was hung and quartered for his faith and his head removed. The skull was put on display as a warning at either Manchester church or Lancaster castle until Francis Downes rescued the head and returned it to Wardley Hall to be safely hidden in the walls.
A century later, the head was discovered in a box after it fell from a crumbling wall. A servant, thinking it was an animal skull, threw it into the moat. That night a storm raged over the Hall, and the house couldn't sleep for the screaming that tore through the chambers. The next morning, the moat was drained and the skull returned to its place within the stonewalls. Other stories tell of the head being burned, buried, or smashed to pieces - only for it to be intact and waiting to be replaced in its resting place the next morning.
The Calgarth Skulls
Don't mess with a witch, baby. Unable to convince Kraster and Dorothy Cook to sell their land overlooking Lake Windermere in Cumbria, England for his new manor house, wealthy landowner and magistrate, Myles Phillipson, devised a plan. Inviting the couple to his home to celebrate Christmas and renew the friendship that had been strained over years, Phillipson framed the couple for stealing a silver cup that had been present during the dinner party. Arrested for the theft the next morning, the couple were convicted and hung within the week for their supposed crime. Before her death, Dorothy Cook was recorded as saying, "Hark's to here, Myles Philipson, that teenie lump o' land is t'dearest grund a Philipson has ever bowte. For ye shall prosper niver maur, yersl, nor yan of o't breed. And while Calgarth's strong woes shall stand, we'll haunt it day and neet." Well, he had been warned.
A year later, the construction was finished on Calgarth Hall on the spot where the Cooks cottage once stood. A party was thrown to celebrate Christmas and the Cooks forgotten. During the festivities, Mrs. Phillipson left to fetch something from her rooms when she stumbled upon two skulls sitting on the staircase. Frightened, she had them thrown into the courtyard but that night, screams tore through the Phillipson household. The next morning, they found the skulls again sitting on the staircase. Each day they would remove the skulls only to be terrorized by night with moans and tormented cries - and each morning they would find the heads of their victims on the steps of the staircase.
Years passed and the Phillipsons became outcasts. Their friends refused to visit lest they were also cursed by Dorothy Cook's promise. Phillipson's business suffered and the once prosperous family fell into ruin. The skulls didn't forget them though; they came every night until his death only to return twice a year: Christmas and the anniversary of the Cooks' deaths. Not even their heirs escaped the curse. It's told that during a dinner party, the doors were flung open to the dining room and two skulls rolled across the floor. I bet no one stayed for dessert.