Friday 28 March 2008

The Legend of Borley

An atmospheric English churchyard an hour or so before sunset, complete with clipped yew trees and locked church. Just the sort of place where you might imagine strange goings-on.

As I was touring the Essex/Suffolk border on Tuesday, I noticed a sign to Borley. This tiny village had been a cause celebre in the 1930s, when Borley Rectory (which has since burnt down) was named 'the most haunted house in England.' Many suspect the whole affair was faked but the myth of Borley continues and there is talk of a film being made.

The central figure in the story is that of a phantom nun who could often be seen walking across the rectory garden - indeed, the Victorian Rector, Henry Bull, even built a summer house so that he could sit and watch her pass by.

There were two theories as to her identity. One was that she belonged to a nunnery that had stood on the site before the Reformation (though there is no evidence for this), had fallen in love with a local monk and was consequently - you can guess what is coming - walled-up alive. Of course, such punishments simply did not exist, even in the 'barbaric' Middle Ages. The Jesuit scholar Fr Herbert Thurston showed a century ago how tales of walled-up nuns were a confusion with anchorites who had voluntarily immured themselves in order to live a life of prayer and penance. It is interesting, incidentally, how many seemingly quaint ghost stories have anti-Catholic streaks concerning monks and nuns who meet a sticky end.

The other version of events is more credible. The nun, Sr Maria Laire, had belonged to a convent in or near Le Havre (perhaps one of the many English foundations in what is now Belgium and northern France) but had left in order to marry a member of the Waldegrave family in Borley. This family was Catholic and Mass was often said at their home in penal times. The story goes that the relationship did not work out and that the exclaustrated nun was murdered. A hundred years ago a skeleton was found in the grounds of the Rectory, along with a medal of St Ignatius, which was thought to be that of the poor girl.

I remembered reading about all this years ago, so I was glad to have seen the village. However, we shouldn't be too curious about such stories and can content ourselves by trusting in the Lord and praying for any Holy Souls who need our suffrage. I certainly didn't see anything strange during my five-minute stop at Borley, beyond my travelling companion (a young priest from Southwark) suddenly leaping out at me from behind one of the clipped yews...



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Silly young priest! lol

4:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want ghost stories, M.R. James is your man. Try Casting the Runes for "anticatholicism". I suppose James was just establishment-nonchalant about the Catholic Church: the truth might spoil a good story. Someone once told me that he would compile bibliographies over breakfast. I don't think his type exists any more.

6:11 pm  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

I've been there. It is atmospheric. One of my creepy faves is the Bronte churchyard in Haworth. I was there in the off-season so there were not a lot of tourists. It just added to the chilliness. Nothing like age, setting sun, tombstones, the smell of mold and moss to get the goosebumps goin'

7:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely all the nonsense at Borley was largely confected by the fraudulent ghost hunter, Harry Price? Apparently the Bull family pretended there was a ghost but the wife of a later vicar was an attention-seeking hysteric who claimed there really was one. Its a pity the vicarage burnt down as it was an interesting Victorian building.

8:06 am  

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