The Stories Of Haunted Battlefields & Phantom Armies In The United Kingdom

Updated: Jun 8

For hundreds of years, eyewitnesses have detailed how they had witnessed fierce battles taking place in the hills between ghostly armies. Here are some of the most famous ghost battles that people have claimed to have seen in the United Kingdom.

The true ghost stories of the phantom armies that have haunted the hills in the United Kingdom
Ghost stories of the phantom armies that have haunted the hills in the United Kingdom

On the hill of Echt, in Aberdeenshire, famous for its ancient fortification called the Barmkyn of Echt, almost every night during the winter of 1637-38 there was heard "a prodigious beating of phantom drums". The drumming was afterwards supposed to have presaged the bloody Civil War which shortly followed.

"The parade and retiring of guards, their tattoos, their reveilles, and marches, were all heard distinctly by multitudes of people," wrote Gordan of Rothiemay. "Eye-witnesses, soldiers of credit, have told me that when the parade was beating, they could discern when the drummer walked towards them, or when he turned about, as the fashion is for drummers, to walk to and again, upon the head or front of a company drawn up.

"At such times, also, they could distinguish the marches of several nations. The first march that was heard was the Scottish March; afterwards, the Irish March was heard, then the English March. But before these noises ceased, those who had been trained up much of their lives abroad in the German Wars, affirmed that they could perfectly, by their hearing, discern the marches upon the drum of several foreign nations of Europe - such as the French, Dutch and Danish.

The phantom drums were so constantly heard that all the country people living in the region of the hill became familiar with them. Sometimes the drums moved from the hill and were heard beating in places two or three miles from it.

"Some people in the night, travelling nearby the Loch of Skene, within three miles of that hill, were frightened with the loud noise of drums, struck hard by them, which did convoy them along the way, but saw nothing; as I had it often from such as heard these noises, from the Laird of Skene and his Lady, from the Laird of Echt, and my own wife then living in Skene, almost immediately after the people thus terrified had come and told it.

"Some gentleman of known integrity and truth affirmed that, near their places, they heard a perfect shot of a cannon go off as ever they heard at the battle of Nordlingen, where themselves some years before had been present."

Five years later, when the first engagements of the Civil War were in progress, further strange happenings were reported in Scotland. The vision of a furious battle was seen on the hill of Manderlee, four miles from Banff. The warring armies looked so real to those who saw them that many ran to bury their valuables in the earth, safe from invaders.

At Bankafair and Drum, in Aberdeenshire, the "tonking" of phantom drums was heard. The minister of Ellon in the same county, Andrew Leitch, reported that while sitting at supper one night he also heard "the tonking of drums, vivedly, sometimes appearing near at hand and sometimes far off."

On February 12, 1643, a vision was seen on a hill of Brimmond, four miles from Aberdeen, by William Anderson, a tenant of Craibstone. Anderson testified that he had seen "a great army, both of horse and foot", appear on the hill at about eight o'clock on a misty morning. The phantom host, with accompanying noises, remained visible till the sun rose above the mist, when they vanished.

Ghostly soldiers have been witnessed on Brimmond Hill, Aberdeenshire
Ghostly soldiers have been witnessed on Brimmond Hill, Aberdeenshire

Five days earlier, says a chronicler, "it was written here to Aberdeen that Kentoun battle at Banbury (Battle of Edgehill, October 23, 1642) wherein His Majesty was victorious, has in vision been seen seven sundry times sin-syne".

News of the strange vision seen at Edgehill - of the battle there, the first and fiercest encounter between the Roundheads and the Royalists, being re-enacted over and over again by spectral armies had quickly spread to many other parts of Britain. The uncanny contest of the ghost armies was seen by many reliable witnesses, including investigators sent to the spot by Charles I. The whole story of the events was recorded in a pamphlet published immediately afterwards.

The bloody battle at Edgehill, on the Warwickshire border three miles from Kineton, had been fought between opposing armies each 20,000 strong. The parliamentarians had failed to stand up to the charge of the Royalist cavalry led by flamboyant Prince Rupert, but because the victorious horsemen did not quickly return to the field and regroup for a second charge, the Parliamentarians were able to rally and crush the King's foot soldiers. Hours of hard fighting resulted in 4,000 dead. Both sides claimed victory but the advantage rested with the Royalists, who were not prevented from continuing their march on London.

The battle was fought on a Sunday. The first report of spectral armies continuing the fight exactly as it had occurred, on the field of the 4,000 dead, came two months after the event, on Saturday morning before Christmas, 1642. The pamphlet testified:

"Between twelve o'clock and one o'clock in the morning was heard by some shepherds, and other countrymen, and travellers, first the sound of drums afar off, and the noise of soldiers, as it were, giving out their last groans." Astonished, they all stood still to listen. The noise began to come closer, and taking sudden fright, they were just about to run away when "there appeared in the air the same incorporeal soldiers that made these clamours, and immediately, with ensigns displayed, drums beating, muskets going off, cannons discharging and horses neighing - which also to these men were visible - the alarum or entrance to this game of death was one army, which gave the first charge, having the King's Colours and the other the Parliament's, at their head or front of the battle, and so pell-mell to it they went.

"Till two or three in the morning in equal scale continued this dreadful fight, the clattering of arms, noise of cannons, cries of soldiers, so amazing and terrifying the poor men that they could not believe they were mortal or give credit to their eyes and ears. Run away they durst not, for fear of being made a prey to these infernal soldiers, and so they, with much fear and affright, stayed to behold the success of the business. After some three hours' fight, that army which carried the King's colours withdrew, or rather, appeared to fly; the other remaining, as it were, masters of the field, stayed a good space triumphing and expressing all the signs of joy and conquest, and then, with all their drums, trumpets, ordnance and soldiers, vanished."

The terrified spectators immediately hurried to Kineton, where they knocked up William Wood, a magistrate. He called up Samuel Marshall, The Kineton minister, and together they heard the men tell their incredible story on oath.

Wood and Marshall, knowing some of the men to be of proved integrity, suspended judgment until they themselves had visited the spot the next night. This was Sunday - Christmas night - and the magistrate and the minister, together with their informants and "all the substantial inhabitants of that and the neighbouring parishes" went in a body to Edgehill field, where half an hour after their arrival "there appeared in the same tumultuous warlike manner the same two adverse armies fighting with as much spite and spleen as formerly; and so departed the gentlemen and all the spectators, much terrified with these visions of horror, who withdrew themselves to their houses, beseeching God to defend them for those hellish and prodigious enemies".

Nothing was seen to the next night, nor for the rest of that week so that all were hopeful that the spectres had departed. But on the Saturday night following, at the same time, the phantom armies re-appeared, fighting with ever greater force for nearly four hours before vanishing; and on the Sunday night, the fantastic sight was repeated again.

This was too much for Mr Marshall, the minister, and several of his friends, who "forsook their habitations thereabout and retired themselves to other more secure dwellings". But the magistrate and others stayed - to see the spectral battle fought out yet again on the next Saturday and Sunday nights.

Reports of the phenomenon reached King Charles, then at Oxford, and he immediately sent Colonel Lewis Kirke, Captain Dudley, Captain Wainman, and "three other gentlemen of credit" to conduct an investigation. Their journey was made both to satisfy the King's curiosity and to quieten the mounting terror among the inhabitants of Kineton and the surrounding districts.

After hearing the accounts of the magistrate and other eyewitnesses the six men stayed, and on the following Saturday and Sunday nights not only saw the ghostly battle fought out again exactly as described but were able to recognise on the Royalist side several of their personal friends who had been slain, including Sir Edmund Verney, the King's standard-bearer.

The six investigators returned to the King and testified on oath as to the remarkable sight they had seen. The pamphlet giving the whole story was published within days of their report.

The phantoms of Edgehill have remained unquiet throughout the centuries. There have been persistent reports of apparitions and noises of battle, of phantom riders seen - messengers for the armies, perhaps - and the noise of hard galloping horses. But in recent years the battlefield has lain inside the barbed wire surrounding an Army ammunition dump set up on the site, which has not made for easy investigations.

Sir Edmund Verney claimed he was warned by the ghost of Lord Strafford
Sir Edmund Verney claimed he was warned by the ghost of Lord Strafford

The ghost of ill-fated Sir Edmond Verney has also been seen far from the battlefield. In the fighting, the Buckinghamshire squire was hacked down until all that was recognisable was his hand still clutching the King's standard. He was buried in a common grave, but the severed hand was eventually returned to the Verney family at Claydon House, ten miles northwest of Aylesbury; the ring it bore is still the family's most treasured heirloom. Sir Edmond is said to roam the house which he built, looking for his lost hand. In more recent years several people have experienced his "presence", including a member of the family and pupils of a girls' school evacuated there in the last war.

Three years after Edgehill, and not many miles from that battlefield, King Charles himself was visited by a ghost. This was in June 1645 at Daventry, Northamptonshire, where the King had marched his army of fewer than 10,000 men, intending to do battle with the parliamentary army then quartered at Northampton.

About two hours after the King had gone to bed in the Wheatsheaf Hotel, in sheep street, some of his attendants, hearing an "uncommon noise" in his chamber, went into it and found Charles sitting up in bed greatly agitated. The King told them he had been disturbed by an apparition of Lord Strafford (whom he had beheaded on Tower Hill four years before). The apparition, after upbraiding him for his cruelty, told the King he had come to return him good for evil and advised him not to meet the Parliamentary army at Northampton for he could never conquer it by arms.

Next morning Prince Rupert talked the worried King out of his fears, but the following night the apparition appeared to Charles a second time and told the King angrily that this was the last advice that he would be permitted to give, and if Charles kept up his resolution of fighting it would be his undoing.

The King wasted another precious day at Daventry "fluctuating between the apprehensions of his imagination and the reproaches of his courage", but was again persuaded by Prince Rupert to disregard the warning, and the Royalist army marched on northward. There followed, on June 14, 1645, the disastrous Battle of Naseby. The defeat put a finishing touch to the King's affairs, for after it he could never get together an army strong enough to look the enemy in the face. It was the decisive battle of the Civil War.

Charles was often heard to say that he wished he had taken the warning and not fought at Naseby, the meaning of which nobody knew except those to whom he had spoken of the apparition, and whom he had charged to keep the affair secret.

Forty years after Naseby, the ambitious young Duke of Monmouth met his defeat at the battle of Sedgemoor, near Bridgwater in Somerset. His ghost has many times been seen riding the moor and is said to appear on June 6, the anniversary of the battle fought in 1685; but the duke's phantom has also been seen across the border in Dorset, where he was captured after fleeing the battlefield.

Monmouth rode from Sedgemoor before the fighting was over, leaving more than a thousand of his soldiers to be cut to pieces and many others taken prisoner and hanged on a long line of gibbets on a road from Weston Zoyland to Bridgwater. He fled with Lord Grey and a party of horse, and when their horses failed they disguised themselves as rustics and went their own ways on foot. Grey and others were soon picked up by search parties of the Royalist troops, and Monmouth himself was discovered hiding in a ditch at shags Heath, a spot between the villages of Horton and Woodlands, in east Dorset. Gaunt, dirtied, and ragged, the handsome rebel was identified with difficulty.

Monmouth was executed on July 15, the executioner taking five blows to sever his head from his body, and his remains were buried under the communion table of St Peters Church in the Tower, but through the years the duke's bedraggled ghost, carrying his hacked head, has been said to haunt the ditch where he was found, especially on July 16, the night following his execution. The exact spot where he was seized is marked by a tree known as Monmouths Ash.

A phantom army that appeared near Keswick, Cumberland in the next century had no connection with an actual battle, but, like Edgehill, it appeared several times and was seen by a host of witnesses together, and the events were recorded very soon after they occurred. The spectral army appeared on Souther Fell, a precipitous mountain with sheer north and west sides rasing 900 feet.

Ghosts on Souther Fell
Many people have reported witnessing terrifying phantom armies on Souther Fell

On Midsummer Eve, 1735 a farmhand at Blackhills, about half a mile from the mountains, looked up to see the eastern side of its summit covered with marching troops. They came in distinct bodies from an eminence on the north end and disappeared in a cleft in the summit, the spectral march continuing for a full hour.

No one believed the farmhand's story, but two years later, also on Midsummer Eve, the farmer himself, William Lancaster, saw the phantoms. On looking up Souther Fell he saw a few men following their horses on the mountain and took them to be returning huntsmen. But when he looked up again, ten minutes later, he saw to his astonishment the same figures now mounted and followed by a great array of troops, marching five abreast and following exactly the same path as that described by the farmhand two years before. Each company of the soldiers was kept in order by a mounted officer, but as the evening came on discipline seemed to be relaxed and the various sections of troops intermingled, moving at unequal speeds until all were finally swallowed by the darkness.

All the Lancaster family saw the phenomenon, but their story was no more believed than that of the farmhand. However, on Midsummer Eve eight years later - June 23, 1745 - the Lancasters gathered together twenty-six people to keep watch on Souther Fell with them, and all witnessed the same spectacle as before - and more besides. For this time, carriages were interspersed with the troops, a "multitude beyond imagination" who filled a space of half a mile. They marched on quickly till darkness fell and hid them - still marching. There was nothing vaporous or indistinct about the soldiers, who looked so real that some of the watchers went up next morning to look for the hoof marks of horses. They found nothing.

The witnesses attested their story on oath before a magistrate. It then came out that two other people had seen strange things on Souther Fell, but had kept silent to escape ridicule.

On a summer evening in 1743, two years earlier, Mr Wren of Wilton Hall, and his farm servant had looked up and seen a man and a dog pursuing some horses along a ridge of the mountain so steep that a horse could hardly be any possibility keep a footing on it. The figures moved on with great speed, and their disappearance at the south end of the Fell was so sudden that Wren and his servant went up the next morning to find the body of the man, whom they were convinced must have fallen to his death.

But of man, horses, and dog they found no trace. Now you have read the stories of the phantom armies of the United Kingdom, make sure you check out the ghosts that have plagued the British Royal Family for years.


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