A dying girl’s request, a promise broken – and a terrifying haunting…
Burton Agnes Hall, in Yorkshire, was built by wealthy aristocrat Sir Henry Griffith in the early 17th century, during the closing years of the reign of Elizabeth I. He planned to live there with his three daughters, Frances, Margaret and Katherine (known as Anne). The girls were all thrilled with the construction of their stately new home – but Anne, the youngest, was particularly in love with Burton Agnes. She’d watched it being built and loved to wander the estate, making plans for the gardens.
One afternoon, when the house was almost finished, Anne went to visit friends who lived about a mile away. But, on her way home, the terrified girl was viciously attacked by ruffians, who left her for dead. She was brought home to her beloved Burton Agnes, seriously wounded and near death.
The injured girl slipped between delirious fever, and periods of clarity. Anne told her distraught sisters she would never rest unless part of her could remain in ‘our beautiful home as long as it shall last’.
As she slipped from life, Anne made a disturbing final request of Frances and Margaret. She made them promise that, after her death, her head should be severed and preserved in the Hall forever – and, to calm the distraught girl, the sisters agreed. However, after her death, they chose not to follow Anne’s troubling plea and laid her to rest in the local churchyard.
And now the spooky stuff began… Anne’s restless spirit began to walk the Hall, terrifying the household. Loud crashes and bangs were heard, and wild poltergeist activity disturbed the darkest hours of the night. Remembering Anne’s dying words, the sisters spoke with their vicar and finally agreed that the grave should be opened.
So Anne’s grave was dug up and her coffin opened – and what her family found was truly shocking. Although her body remained well preserved, to their horror they found that her head was detached and stripped of flesh – only her bare skull remained. It was brought into the house and placed on a table in the Great Hall. And, as long as it was undisturbed, peace was restored to Burton Agnes.
Later inhabitants of the house, spooked by the presence of the ghastly grinning skull of a murdered girl, tried to get rid of it – by throwing it away, even by burying it in the garden – but with no luck. This always triggered the terrifying psychic activity, with nights shattered by hideous screams.
A young chambermaid wrapped the skull in a cloth and threw it from a window and it fell into a horse-drawn cart. The horses reared and trembled in fear, the Hall shook and pictures fell from the walls until the skull was replaced inside the building.
In the end, it was decided that the best plan was to put the skull in a secret spot within the walls of the house, probably behind some panelling, so that its grim presence was less likely to spook household members.
A portrait of Anne and her sisters hangs in the Inner Hall and it’s said that Anne, also known as Owd Nance, still walks in October, the month she supposedly died. Her presence is often felt in the Queen’s State Bedroom at Burton Agnes Hall.
The skull remains in Agnes Burton to this day, probably in the Great Hall. Nobody knows for sure just where it is, but now Anne’s spirit can be at peace and she can watch over ‘her beautiful home’ forever.
Screaming skulls – the history
A screaming skull is basically a skull of unconfirmed origin, said to cause often extreme phenomena – storms, poltergeist activity, blood-curdling, unearthly screams, hauntings – when it is removed from its resting place within a building. Most skulls come with a story to explain how they came to be in the house and why they cause mayhem if moved, but most of their origins can’t be historically confirmed.
However, the phenomenon of screaming skulls is common in folklore and widespread throughout England. Some say the tradition of screaming skulls may be related to ancient tradition, associated with reverence for the head. To the Celts in particular, the head was very important, with archaeological finds from the Iron Age revealing skull shrines and carved stone heads.
The tradition is also found in Celtic myth – from Bran, king of Britain in Welsh mythology and his sacred head, to the beheading game of Irish mythological hero Cu Chulainn – and other folklore.
But it seems, despite this theory, the tales of screaming skulls are only found in England, and not in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. So perhaps there is a connection with even older beliefs – or perhaps, as the stories don’t seem to date back further than the middle of the 16th century – the phenomenon is recent.
At least one such skull has been professionally examined, and found to be much older than its legend suggested. So perhaps the stories of many, if not all of the screaming skulls, were made up to explain an inexplicable phenomenon.
In some stories, these skulls are linked to the ‘luck’ of the house, in much the same way as some stately homes and castles have an heirloom, which in tradition must be kept safe to maintain good luck for the home and the family.
Why not visit Burton Agnes Hall – you could even take part in a ghost hunt! For more info, visit www.burtonagnes.com.