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The Headless Lady: The Terrifying Story That Led To The Reported Haunting Of Watton Abbey

Watton Abbey, Driffield, England, has a dark history of violent murder, for years reports of chilling apparitions being sighted have plagued the visitors of the ancient property.


Ghost sightings UK
A mother & her baby were brutally murdered at Watton Abbey, leading to years of reported ghost sightings

On a night of June, 1956, seven workmen settled down to sleep in makeshift beds set up on the ground floor of Watton Abbey, near Driffield, Yorkshire, whose owner was selling up after a tenancy of more than thirty years. A fierce June wind howled round the reputedly haunted building as they slept. Then, above the wind, at one o'clock in the morning, there sounded the eerie tolling of a bell. The workmen sat bolt upright in their beds, spines tingling. They knew that nowhere in the abbey was there a bell.





One frightened man dived headfirst through an open window, landing in a flower bed. The auctioneer's foreman, who was in charge, grabbed a sporting gun, loaded it, and fired two shots skywards. The bell ceased to toll. But the workmen, who had come up from Retford, Nottinghamshire, to help with the three-day sale at the abbey, picked up their beds and spent the rest of the night in a large marquee put up in the abbey grounds. They were taking no chances. The ringing, they thought, could have been the word of the Watton ghost.


The haunting of twenty-roomed Watton Abbey, or at least the presence of its more commonly believed ghost, dates from the time of the Civil War. The Tudor mansion, built on the site of an ancient priory, was then the home of a devoted Royalist. In 1644 he was away fighting in the ranks of King Charles, leaving the lady of Watton at home with only a handful of servants for protection. After the battle of Marston Moor, near York, in which the Royalists were defeated and the Parliamentarians gained complete control of the north, a band of fanatical Roundheads began a trail of persecution and plunder across east Yorkshire. They eventually arrived at Driffield, five miles from Watton.


News then reached the abbey that the marauding Puritans were on their way there to loot "the home of a Royalist malignant", at which the lady of Watton shut herself and her baby in an oak-panelled room with a secret door. She hoped, in extreme danger, to escape through the secret door, formed by one of the wood panels, down a concealed stone stairway to the moat.



The Roundheads, on their arrival at the house, hammered at the door, demanding admittance. On getting no response from the terrified household they searched around for some implement with which to break down the door. During their search they caused sight of a low archway opening into the moat, which they guessed to be a side entrance to the house, and, across the moat, they found the stone stairway. Climbing this they came to the disguised door and broke through.


Watton Abbey Ghost
Watton Abbey

They found the lady of Watton prostrate before a crucifix. Rising up and taking her baby close in her arms, she demanded to know the reason for their violent entry. They answered that they had come to despoil the mansion of "a worshipper of idols" - and to kill him if he were there. The strong-minded lady spiritedly lashed the raiders with her tongue for their vandalism, but they roughly demanded the plate and other valuables of the house. These she scornfully refused to give up. She continued to upbraid them until, provoked by her bitter tongue, they suddenly pulled the baby from her arms and dashed its head against the wall. They then cut down the screaming woman and struck off her head. After stripping the house of its valuables the marauders then made off.


From that time, the headless ghost of the lady of Watton, her baby in her arms, has been said to haunt the room in which they were both murdered. The tradition sprang up that she returned to the room nightly to rest, for constantly in the morning, the bedclothes were found disarranged, as if someone had slept in them. To anyone bold enough to sleep in the room, the headless ghost would appear dressed in her bloodstained garments, the baby in her arms. She would stand motionless at the foot of the bed for a time, then vanish. On one occasion a visitor who knew nothing of the legend was put to sleep in the wainscotted room. In the morning he said that his sleep had been disturbed by the spectre of a woman in a bloody dress, carrying an infant in her arms. Her features, he said, bore a strange resemblance to those of a woman whose portrait hung in the room.


This is the only recorded appearance of the spectre with her head. Other hauntings reported at the abbey may have their explanation in much earlier violent events at Watton, for the abbey has another ghost story. This goes back in time to when Watton, once a nunnery but destroyed by the Danes, was refunded in the twelfth century as a Gilbertine priory. The priory housed thirteen monks and thirty-six nuns of the new Gilbertine Order, all quartered in the same block but separated by a party wall. It was the monks' duty to serve the nuns "in terrene, as well as divine matters", which brought them into regular though silent contact.


Murdac, Archbishop of York, who was instrumental in setting up the new priory, placed in it a four-year-old girl, Elfrida, to be educated for taking the veil. Elfrida was a vivacious and merry girl who, as she grew older, came in for constant correction by the nuns for her spirited behaviour. She also grew to be quite a beauty, which excited the jealousy of the sisters, who were mostly elderly and middle-aged spinsters. When she began to express doubts about the worth of convent life, even going so far as to satirise the ways of the nuns, they subjected her to stiff penances, but this only increased her desire to escape and mingle with the outer world. The monks of Watton, being responsible for the secular affairs of the community, often entered the nunnery to hold conference with the prioress. On these visits, Elfrida found herself particularly attracted to one young brother, and he quickly responded to her surreptitious glances. After maintaining this silent but eloquent liaison for some time they managed to find ways of meeting at night. Elfrida became pregnant, and in time concealment was impossible. Summoned before her scandalised superiors she boldly confessed her fault, saying she had no heart for a convent life and asking to be banished from the community. The angry sisters, however, would not consider this for a moment. Various terrible punishments, such as execution by fire or being walled up alive, were suggested, but the more prudent nuns averted these extreme measures. Elfrida was stripped and beaten with rods till the blood ran down her lacerated back. She was then chained in a dungeon without light and fed only bread and water, which was handed to her with bitter taunts and reproaches.


Her lover, meantime, had left the priory. The nuns, by falsely promising Elfrida that she would be released to go to him, got from her the information that he was still in the neighbourhood in disguise, and, not knowing their secret was discovered, would come as usual to visit her, signalling his arrival by throwing a stone on the roof above her sleeping cell.

The prioress alerted the monks, who were waiting the following night when Elfrida's paramour appeared. After looking cautiously around, he threw his signal stone, at which the monks rushed out of hiding, cudgelled him, and took him prisoner into the house. The younger nuns demanded that the man should be handed over to them for questioning. Their request, which seemed reasonable enough was granted, but taking him to an unfrequented part of the convent, and bringing Elfrida up from her dungeon to witness the scene, they then handled him with savagery.


Afterwards, Elfrida, still chained in her dungeon, became penitent. One night, as she was sleeping in her fetters, an apparition of the dead Archbishop Murdac, her patron, appeared before her and charged her with having cursed him for placing her within the harsh confines of the convent.


"Rather curse yourself," said the apparition, "for having given way to temptation."


Elfrida answered contritely and Murdac exhorted her to repentance and the daily recitation of certain psalms, then vanished. The nuns at this time were worried as to what they should do when Elfrida's baby arrived. But this problem was solved when Elfrida was again visited in the night by the ghost of Murdac, accompanied by two women, "who, with the holy aid of the archbishop, safely delivered her of the infant, which they bore away in their arms, covered with a fair white cloth".


When the nuns came to the dungeon the next morning they were astonished to find Elfrida now slim and bright. She told them what had happened in the night, but this was too much for them to believe. They accused her of murdering the infant, though how she could have done this, being chained to the floor, was problematical. But there was a second shock to come. On the morning of the next day, the nuns found Elfrida standing free of her chains, which were nowhere to be seen in the locked dungeon. She told them that the fetters were removed from her by a mysterious agency during the night. Alured, Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey, north of York, was called in to investigate the strange affair. He decided after careful questioning that it was a miraculous intervention, and cautioned the community, "What God hath cleansed call not though common or unclean, and whom He hath loosed thou mayest not bind." What afterwards became of the penitent Elfrida is not known, for Alured, from whose chronicles this account is taken, does not say. But it may be safely assumed that her critics were silenced and she achieved considerable status among the Gilbertines.


Alured concluded, "Let no one doubt the truth of this account for I was an eyewitness to many of the facts, and the remainder were related to me by persons of such mature age and distinguished position that I cannot doubt the accuracy of their statement." Whether Elfrida herself, after death, returned to haunt Watton Abbey has never been clear. In later years her penitent spirits seem to have been confused by many with the headless phantom of the Cavalier's lady murdered by the Roundhead fanatics.

Now you have read about the ghosts that are said to haunt Watton Abbey, make sure you take a look at The Terrifying True Story Of The Ghosts That Have Plagued The Homes Of The British Royal Family.