Screaming Skulls

Screaming Skulls –
The Head of the House

Screaming Skulls are a famous folkloric ghost story.  The story is basically this, a human skull has been in a house for a long time, even centuries. If it is left alone in the house all is well. However is it is removed or even treated without respect all hell breaks loose. Screaming is heard storms break over the house bad luck blights the family, e.g. cows stop giving milk etc. The person removing the skull is sometimes also doomed to die within a year.

The best article on this subject is “Heads and Tails: the Screaming Skull Legends of Britain by Andy Roberts and David Clarke” in Fortean Studies Volume 3. They give 27 cases, only one in Clwyd is outside England. Is very much an English phenomenon, who strangely do not have a history of head hunting/head reverence that the Celts had up to the iron age. Here are some of the best of those cases.

The one of the most famous of these stories is of Bettiscombe Manor in Dorset. Owed by the Pinney family for many centuries. An ancestor was transported to West Indies, when he returned to Bettiscombe Manor he had with him a West Indian servant. The servant  in time became very depressed and his health declined. He asked that his body be returned to his home county if he died, or he would give the house no peace. When he died these wishes were not followed, and he was buried in the local churchyard.

At the house a ghostly presences were felt and screaming broke out. Then someone remembered the servants wish. The body was dug up and brought to the house and it was found out that only the skull was needed to keep the house quiet. The skull was kept in the house from then on.

In 1963 a Professor of Human Comparative Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons examined the skull. He believed that the skull belonged to a young European  woman 25-30 who had died approximately 2000 years ago.

It was said that one of the owners of the farm, threw it into the duck pond. He had such bad luck that he had to fish it out again. In the 1930’s a bunch of Australians arrived in a car at the farm. They informed the current owner that one of their family had thrown the skull into the duck pond. Asked if he had died within a year, they agreed that he had.

Chilton Cantelo in Somerset, has the skull of Theophilius Brome. It is believed that he fought in the English Civil War, after seeing the brutality of the Royalist forces, asked his head kept in the house after death.

A more infamous skull was kept at Tunstead Farm Derbyshire. This was known locally as Dicky. Much feared by the owners of the farm, and the local community, if treated with respect it would open gates etc on the farm, if treated with disrespect there would be no peace. It is said that he caused the railway to change its course, as no bridge could be built on Dicky’s land. The spirit of the skull has appeared in two other shapes, a young woman in a silk dress and a black dog.  It is believed it was buried some were on the farm in the 1980’s.

The skull at Wardley Hall Lancashire, home of the Catholic Bishop of Salford is believed  to be of a catholic martyr Father Ambrose Barlow. Beheaded in 1641 for holding a catholic mass. Which makes it a sacred relic.  It still  has all the powers of a screaming skull. The skull was also said to be able to turn into a hare.

This next story is attached to Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire. It is a strong part of the local folklore, but there is no historic record to confirm it. It is set around three daughters of the house Francis Margaret, and Catherine (who was known by her baptismal name of Annie). Annie was passionately involved  with the building of the house.

Not long after the house was finished, Annie was attacked by beggars on the way to another village, and left for dead. She lived on for another three days. During this time she got hers sisters to promise that after her death that head would  be removed and kept in her beloved home.

When she died however this promise  was ignored, and she was buried complete in the churchyard. At the hall night after night everyone was kept wake by  with supernatural disturbances, screams etc. The  vicar asked the sisters to honour the broken promise  and her body was dug up. The body was totally intact, but the head  was reduced at a clean skull. This was taken to the Hall, were peace returned.

Repeatedly the skull has been removed from the hall, but then all hell would break loose and it would be returned. Two  particular occasions, are recorded what happened when it was moved.

The first occasion was when a new maidservant took a dislike to the skull and threw it out of the window onto a cart load of manure. The horses pulling the cart froze and would not move no matter how much they were whipped. It was soon found what the maidservant had done with the skull. The skull was retrieved from the manure and the horses moved off at once. 

The second occasion was when a one of the Boynton family buried it in the garden. It is quoted that the most dismal wailings and cries kept the house in a state of disquietude and alarm. It was then dug up and restored to the Hall. Annie’s ghost is also seen from time to time in the hall.

Sir Henry Boynton at the end of the nineteen century had the skull bricked up some were in the Hall. The Hall is still owned by the Boynton family, and now open to the public.

The last famous screaming skull story, involves two skulls. It is at Calgarth Hall in Cumbria. The land were the present Hall is sited originally belonged to elderly farmers Kraster and Dorothy Cook. Their land bordered on the land of a wealthy Justice of the Peace Myles Phillipson. Phillipson wanted their land to build his new home Calgarth Hall. The Cook’s however stubbornly  would not sell.

Phillipson then invited them to a feast in his home. On display was a valuable silver cup. At the end of the evening the cup went missing. A search was made and it was found to the clothing belonging to one of the Cook’s, were it had been planted by Phillipson.

They were arrested and appeared before Phillipson as the local Justice of the Peace.  He found them guilty and sentenced them to death. Dorothy Cook laid seven curses on the Phillipson family from the dock. In brief, they would haunt their family forever, and they would never be rid of them. Also the  Phillipsons would never prosper, nor would any future generations of the family until they would be  forced to sell the hall. They were duly taken out and hung.

Calgarth Hall was then built on their land and was finished just before the  next Christmas. On Christmas  Day they had a party to show off their new home. The wife went up to a bedroom during the party. Coming back she found two human skulls at leering her from a niche at the top of the stairs. After this the skulls were buried, burnt, reduced to powder, but always came back to scream in the night, and laugh at the families misfortunes.

Bit by bit the Phillipsons lose their fortune and with in a few generations it was all gone, and the Hall was sold to strangers. It was said that one of the skulls was taken to London in the eighteenth century and never returned, and the other skull moulted away at the hall. However the local people swear  that they still had seen the two skulls at the hall, after this time.

Eventually the hall  was purchased by the Bishop Llandaff, and under local pressure he exorcised the skulls and they were bricked into their niche. The have not been seen since that time. This case is by far the most published of all the screaming skulls stories.

The writing down of these stories was done during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the skulls have not yet been dated. and their origins are not known. The screaming skull at Wardley Hall was believed to be a catholic relic, several other sites have similar histories to this, in the catholic north.

Most seem to be a form of guardian for the house. Located by windows, stairs, and chimney stacks, entry points were spirits are said to be able get in to a house. They also kept bad luck out of the house, and surrounding land. Not surprising it was thought that bad luck rushes in, when the skull is taken out of the house.

Charles G Harper in his book Haunted Houses (which also covers several of our stories) lists houses with “Lucks” in them. If the lucks are broken then the families luck is forever lost. Eden Hall has a painted glass cup (taken from the fairies by a butler), Workington Hall a agarth cup, Muncaster Castle has a Venetian glass bowl, the Dundas of Arniston have a Venetian goblet. All of these need to be carefully looked after. However Burrells Green’s brass dish luck and Woodsome Hall’s trumpet are less of a worry.

Relic, guardian luck, or just plain ghost, screaming skulls all make fascinating  stories. There are more cases are out there waiting to be found.


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