Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ghostly Portents

It's October once more, that season of Halloween thrills and frights. Fortunately, English history is rich with ghosts. Of all such spectral encounters, however, I think the spookiest may be those involving ghosts said to appear as harbingers of death.

Occasionally, these ominous appearances come in the form of a fateful animal. Arundel Castle in Sussex is the principal seat of the Dukes of Norfolk, and the appearance of a white owl at the castle windows is said to herald the imminent death of some prominent resident or member of the Howard family.

Similarly, a sinister black dog with glowing eyes--the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles--pops up again and again in English folklore, particularly in East Anglia, where the hell hound is known as "Black Shuck" or just "Shuck" (the name may stem from the mythology of Viking riders, from an Old English word for "demon," or from a dialect word for "hairy"). Such an otherworldly dog is particularly known to haunt Leeds Castle in Maidstone, Kent. It is seen roaming the halls and disappearing into stone walls just before a resident of the castle dies.

The south front of Leeds Castle, shrouded in fog (photo by Ian Wilson).
The dog's presence is thought to date to the fifteenth century, when Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, was imprisoned in the castle to await trial for witchcraft and necromancy. Despite the ominous implications of the spectral dog's appearance, however, the ghost once reportedly saved a woman's life. A member of the Wykeham-Martin family, former owners of the castle, was sitting in a bay window when she saw the dog. Leaping up, she narrowly avoided tragedy when the window masonry where she'd been sitting collapsed.

Another old castle has an even more fanciful ghostly omen--the Dun Cow of Warwick. This magical giant cow was said to have run amuck until it was killed on Dunsmore Heath by the equally legendary Guy of Warwick. (The Victorian philologist Isaac Taylor believed that the tale of the Dun Cow likely commemorated an Anglo-Saxon conquest of the Dena Gau or "settlement of the Danes" near Warwick.) Whatever the origin of the story, the appearance of an actual dun cow is now said to foretell the approaching death of a member of the Earl of Warwick's family.

But not all ghostly omens come in animal form. Perhaps the most spectacular specter of all is the horse-drawn hearse--manned by a headless driver, no less--that was said to enter the gates of the now-ruined Caister Castle in Norfolk just before the death of a family member. The ghostly hearse would circle the castle courtyard seven times. I'd think that sight alone would be enough to guarantee a death, if only from sheer fright.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's newest regency romance is A Tryst With Trouble, the story of an arrogant man's man and an outspoken spinster who must join forces to solve a deadly mystery. It joins her first two regencies, Lord of Secrets and Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you.

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