Ghost Hunters – Spirits of the Civil War

This is a bit of a strange episode. It has various intriguing accounts (mostly first hand) of people who say they've seen apparitions on Marston Moor. Let us charitably overlook the fact that no-one who lives there can escape knowing a lot of stories about the history and the putative ghosts, so might have some expectations about what they might see on a dark and stormy night. But the second half of the programme seems disjointed with the first - the academics talk of survival of consciousness beyond death. I don't think anyone was suggesting that the figures on the moor were conscious entities. It would have been a better time to discuss apparitions. But there we go. I like Ronald Huttons evocatively gruesome storytelling and the first person accounts of the soldiers. So I don't mind.

Narrator: These gently rolling fields so typical of the British countryside, are just a few miles from the city of York. This innocent looking landscape is soacked in blood. Beneath it lie thousands of human bones. 350 years ago these fields were the setting for the bloodiest battle ever to be fought on British soil: the battle of Marston Moor. Fought between the soldiers of the king, Charles the first, and the men of Cromwell’s republican army. It was the British equivalent of the Bosnian civil war. Both armies were cut to ribbons. Whole companies, regiments even, were wiped out. The ground was littered with the dead and the dying. Then on the following day the scavengers moved in to strip the bodies and tip the corpses into mass graves. Those graves have never been located. Marston Moor remains the final resting place for thousands of unquiet dead.

Dr. Ronald Hutton, Historian: What happens at Marston Moor is that Prince Rupert sets up a trap whereby the enemy opposite are going to come down from their high dry hill, come over a ditch and a bank and attack his army in the mud of the moor on the far side. It doesn’t happen that way because the enemy opposite know they’re going to get into trouble if they come off their hill and the enemy’s ready. So they wait until the whole day has gone by and the evening has come. Prince Rupert gets tired of waiting and thinks there’ll be no battle and knocks off to have his supper. So do his troopers. That’s the moment when the Parliamentarians decide to attack. They can see camp fires going up which indicate the enemy eating their supper – they’re off their guard. And they can also see the Royalist reinforcements marching up behind – they can’t wait for those people to get there. And therefore the Parliamentarians attack after a thunderstorm of rain. When everything’s soaking wet and the enemy’s at their lowest ebb, they plunge in. After that nothing is left as night falls except to surround the Royalist infantry and kill them or accept their surrender.

Narrator: The Civil war that raged across this country for several years witnessed several bloody battles as Englishman killed Englishmen.  But Marston Moor stands out as a field of slaughter. When the footsoldiers were trapped in the heart of the battle and cut to pieces by the wheeling cavalry, no quarter was given. Famous regiments were cut down to the last man.

Ronald Hutton: The crack regiment from York, the famous white coats - The crack regiment of the Royalist General of the north, Lord Newcastle, fights to the death. It’s offered mercy again and again but it refuses to take it. It’s Colonel was shot from his horse. And many men closed muskets and pikes together inside a hedged enclosure. And that’s their cemetery. They fight on and on and on, shot down from all sides. And until there are about a handful remaining. And those are taken prisoner as they fall wounded upon the field. A moon comes out, lighting up the whole ghastly scene – the plunging horses, the screaming and falling men, the pikes waving like poles in a beanfield in a high wind. And ever and again the puffs of musket smoke coming up from the hedged and entrenched musketeers, as the lead shot whistles and plunges again and again into human bodies. The country people are brought in and they dig deep pits. They count 4200 bodies slung into one group of pits alone. It’s very unusual to sustain that amount of carnage on a battlefield in the Civil War. You’ll remember this is an old-fashioned war with no antiseptics, no antibiotics, no anaesthetics, so that for every person dying in the field you can reckon maybe two or three dying of their wounds later. We’ll never know the butcher’s bill – maybe 8000, maybe more as a result of that day.

Narrator: Over 5000 men lie buried in nameless ditches here. The farmers ploughing the fields have turned up all kinds of fragments of weapons, buttons and buckles and so on. But no-one has so far discovered the mass graves. This pond is thought to be one of them. But ever since that hot July day in 1644, there have been stories of men in Cavalier or Roundhead clothing, apparently seeking to escape from the carnage.

Sue, Landlady: Well there are many legends associated with the battle. One of them is the Roundheads marching up Bloody Lane. Whether or not they do, they’re supposed to be only seen the top half of them, and you can hear the clank of the armour and the sort of noise of the battle, sometimes. Again there’s the headless horseman. He rides across the ridge, erm – different people have seen different things, but basically it’s all Cavaliers and Roundheads!

Dorothy, Local resident: People will never go along the road the night of the battle, the 4th of July 1644, the anniversary of that is considered a time when you see ghosts, because so many people have seen, erm, civil war soldiers going up and down that lane, which is [?] lane between the two villages of Marston and Tockworth. And I do believe it because so many things have happened in the vicinity of Long Marston. People even to this day are seeing things.

Sue: I think you’ve got to  be a little bit of a sceptic, because locals tend to colour everything rather a lot to make it sound better! But over the years they tend to open up and they come out with varied and colourful tales, but out of all of them you can pick out the few that tend to crop up all the time. So I don’t disbelieve in them.

Ronald Hutton: Living alongside an old battlefield is often a very uncomfortable experience. Especially as this battle, in English terms, wasn’t that long ago. It was a particularly bloody battle. Horrible things happened there. Whole regiments were wiped out on the spot. And somehow or other that whole landscape is rich with thousands of human bones. Unreclaimed, lost bones, wandering souls. And so it’s not surprising that whether or not there’s objective truth in paranormal phenomena, people in that area will see and hear things at night. The Moor is a tainted place and has a ghastly reputation. It’s a graveyard of unquiet dead of those who died screaming, those who never wanted to die in that place. And above all those who died three hundred or more years ago, without Christian burial, with no prayers said over them to help them – which was a great comfort to people in that age. Not only did they die in horrible agony, many of them, but they died in the spiritual agony from knowing that nobody was going to whisper a few things to help God take them. Their chance of going to heaven was dramatically reduced.

Narrator: Similar sightings continue to the present day, often seen by people who have absolutely no knowledge of the battle or its location. One man for example, an Italian, has very little knowledge of English history. But one night he was returning home on his motor bike when he narrowly missed two figures limping along the edge of the road known as Bloody Lane. His name is Pierro Prizzi.

Pierro, Local Resident: One night when I finished work I was coming back to York with the motorbicycle. When I arrive on the bend of this road just about 50 yards up from here, is two people they was standing in the middle of the road. At the time I thought it was two people dressed like a party dress. At the time I thought it was two drunks, you know, just finished the party and was going home. To try to avoid them I scrape all on the footpath, and I just managed to stand up, I nearly crashed. And I’m stopping there. And when I turned there was nobody standing. But I think it was the shock of the thing, I got this imprinted to me, the two people in my brain. It was a light like a floodlight from a theatre. It was the two people, the light it was inwards. But a very very brilliant light. It was the colour, I was able to distinguish the colour of everything. One person he was hanging to another person more or less. One he was standing, the other one he was hanging [indicates perhaps an arm on the other’s shoulder]. He was with the 17th century boots, the trousers was 17th century. It was blue, very very dark blue trousers, with this white shirt all hanging out. And the other one he was standing and looking towards… it was just a house in front of him but he was looking like that [hand to brow] very very intense like if he was seeing something. He was looking towards Marston.

Narrator: For people to see and hear the events that took place on a battlefield many years earlier is by no means an uncommon claim. There are stories of such happenings from all over the world and from all ages. In America for example, the sites of many of the bloodiest battles of the civil war. The battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia is one such place, where Sheridan’s army inflicted a major defeat on the confederate forces, when all seemed lost. Strangely similar, indeed, to Marston Moor. Many visitors claim to have heard the  sounds of the battle: bugles, the shouts and screams of men, the firing of muskets and canon coming from nowhere around them as they stood in the sunlight where the soldiers fought. Indeed hearing the sounds is a remarkably common report. There are extraordinary stories from various modern battlefields – Dieppe, for example, Corregidor. And some people claim the sounds of the muskets, even the high emotions of the battle still hang over these farmers fields from 350 years ago.

Vanessa, Local Resident: Well I don’t walk on the Moor any more. I really can’t bear the depressive feeling, erm, it’s a very tense feeling. I feel as if I can’t get off of the moor. I can’t get back up to the road. Um. It’s a very heavy feeling. It’s a feeling of, um, of great disaster. Which obviously it was, but it’s very oppressive. And I certainly cannot go any further down the moor than the original musketeer ditch line. I can’t go past that. It’s, it’s frightening.

Narrator: Many people in the Marston area claim to have seen the soldiers from the 17th century – rarely in groups, sometimes a horseman, most frequently one or two men together, one perhaps supporting the other. They seem them not as wraithlike figures but as solid bodies moving along the lanes beside the old battlefield.

Jon, Local Resident: I’ve been at my brother’s house at Long Marston, which is just up that way. And I was cycling back about midnight, I got somewhere near the monument and something caught my eye that was over here on the ridge. And I didn’t look at first, I carried on cycling for a bit. And then I stopped, because it was in my head you know, that I’d seen something that seemed odd. So I looked up to the ridge, and somewhere round about there I saw someone riding a horse, or walking a horse, you know, sat on the horse. And, er, I looked and I thought – god what’s somebody doing out this time of night on a horse? And then I sort of realised it wasn’t somebody sat on a horse riding, it was something else, and I don’t know – I didn’t know what I thought at the time. I was like mouth open, you know, staring at it! It was a moonlit night, and it was clear. I could see it but it wasn’t like – you know if you saw a person on a horse in moonlight it would be very distinct, casting a shadow. But it didn’t look like that. It was sort of dull and faded. Erm… I looked at it for about a minute, a minute and a half, and, I just decided that was it, I’d seen enough! Jumped on my push bike and cycled off as quick as I could. Um, I kept it pretty much to myself. I told my mum. She was quite interested in it. I didn’t tell anybody else. I didn’t think… it was one of those things where if you go in the pub and say ‘oh I saw a ghost last night’ – the whole pub’s rolling round laughing. So, er, I didn’t say anything. But it sticks in my head as clear as if it were yesterday, as if I’d seen it last night.

Vanessa: I was walking along one evening, watching the sun setting over there, and noticed some people walking along the top ridge of the field towards Cromwell’s Clump. Then all of a sudden I saw a horse and rider come galloping over the ridge, and diagonally down the field. And it was a dark horse, the rider on it was dressed in a sort-of terracotta plantpot-coloured outfit. Any more description than that I really didn’t see. But it was moving at some rate and it would have, it seemed to me that it was going to collide with the people walking up to the ridge. Anyhow, the horse galloped diagonally across the field to where there was a hedge. I didn’t know where the horse was going to go, but as it reached the hedge it actually just dispersed. It was just like a , a ball of dust dispersing. And it was just an amazing… there was an amazing feeling. I knew that there was something wrong, and went back to the monument and waited for the two people who were walking across the top to come back to the monument and asked them if they’d seen this horse, because it had gone straight past them. And they said no, there’d been no horse, no rider. They’d seen nothing. And it was then that I realised that I’d seen something that had no explanation.

Sue: Well I have a friend who works in Wetherby and I see her quite regularly and we happened to be talking one day about Marston Moor, and she sort of questioned me. And I said – well why the interest? She says, well we were driving back late one night across the moor, and erm, she says ‘I saw somebody crouching in the ditch. I thought he had fancy dress on. And I pointed him out to my husband, who couldn’t see it. And I said, well he’s there! And he said ‘He’s not there!’ I said ‘He is, look!’ She said By that time we were past, and she said ‘I never thought any more of it, I just thought it was my imagination, until we started talking about this.’ I said well it was possibly an apparition, because at the end of the battle or towards the end of the battle, a lot of the soldiers both Cavaliers and Roundheads, hid in ditches and bushes all around, trying to escape the troops afterwards. So I said, it’s a possibility it could be an apparition from there hiding from the hedge bottom. He might have been killed there.

Jim, Local Resident: October 73, middle evening time I was sitting in the house. There was the dog and myself. The dog started growling and sort of whimpering, which was a bit unusual for him, because if there was anybody around or cars pulling up he used to bark noisily. So I came to the back door which was (before this was rebuilt) just over there. And I looked across the Moor. Somebody was leaning on the gate. So I walked round the drive and started approaching this gate. This one’s been replaced but it was in the same sort of position. Somebody leaning on it like this. It just disappeared in front of me, and I felt very uneasy. All the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I went back into the house and got a torch and had a good look around up and down the road, in the side field, and couldn’t see anybody around. And um, the strange thing was that the dog who would usually be sort of out and run off, if there was anybody visited he’d be straight to them, jumping up and barking – he’d disappeared back into the house and was behind a chair whimpering and his hackles were up.

Narrator: So what is happening in these extraordinary sightings? Soldiers seen limping from a battlefield 350 years after they’ve died. Can they all be dismissed as hallucinations, seen as they are by different people at quite different times? Hallucinations in any case is simply a vague and slippery word used to describe something we can’t explain. Do we have here yet another example, where some people believe moments of powerful emotion, the anguish of violent death are trapped in the rocks and stones to be replayed at some later time for those who are keen enough to hear.

Archie Roy, Prof. of Astronomy: To make sense of it we have to step outside the materialist reductionalist idea of what a human being is. Of very complicated electrochemical physical mechanism, with the mind and the personality seated in the brain’s operations. And that when the brain dies and is destroyed, then that is the end of it. If those cases of apparitions, of information given that was not in any person, any living person’s mind – are authentic, then it would appear that there is a part of a human being that can operate independent of time and space. I’m sure of that. And may even be able to operate independent of mortality.

Dr. Peter Fenwick, Consultant Neuro-Psychiatrist: The question of survival of mind after death is one of the oldest problems that we have. I think that if you’re going to enquire into that, a very good model to look at is the near death experiences. And we’ve looked at a large number of near death experiences. I’ve had over 2000 experiences given to our unit. And if you look at these there’s a common feature. And the common features are as follows – when the brain is so disrupted that it can’t support consciousness, consciousness can occur. So that is a really difficult problem for science. The second question is that these people report subjectively a continuation of consciousness in such a way, and with such similarity between all the accounts, as to lead one to believe that that might be exactly what’s happening. So the hypothesis that there is a potentiation of consciousness after brain death, I think is on the scientific table, and I think we just have to accept that.

David Fontana, Prof. of Psychology: Psychologists generally and neurosurgeons, are very intrigued with the idea is the mind the brain, is the mind just the workings of the brain. Or is the mind working through the brain – that is, is the mind non-physical, and normally works through the brain rather like a driver works through a car. And you can’t find the mind in the brain any more than you can find the driver in the engine of the car. At the moment in terms of the kind of evidence that we have, it’s impossible to decide one way or the other.  Now if you like to take the view, as some people do, that the mind is separate from the brain and usually operates through the brain, you could say that when the brain dies the mind survives, and it is that which is actually operating here.

Narrator: An important point that is often overlooked when the paranormal is concerned is that it doesn’t take a whole battalion, so to speak, of paranormal happenings, to challenge and put in question the received wisdom. If just one of these happenings is established or authenticated it challenges our view of what survives a human being after his worldly death.

Archie Roy: If we accept that even a small fraction of these cases that have been investigated and accepted as authentic by societies such as the Society for Psychical Research, are actually true, that these things actually happened, then they must tell us something about human nature, about human personality. When you do investigations you find that a lot of people have those experiences, and as I say, even if only a percentage of them are telling the truth, then they mean something.

Narrator: Professor Archie Roy is by no means alone in believing we’ve gone well beyond the time of asking ‘if’ these events are happening. Science, he argues, must now move on to grapple with the implications of their occurrence.

Archie Roy: You’ve got to start saying ‘supposing this is true, what does it mean’. And I think we have come to the stage – oh, quite a few years ago, with respect to psychic phenomena. We have to say, supposing the findings of various branches of psychical research are true, what does it mean for human personality? And I think we have to take that leap. We have to try desperately to give reliable theories of process. Now they’re the only things that will give us fresh observations to make, and the only things that will persuade people to take the subject seriously.