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Of tangled webs and maybe-ghosts

Every picturesque ruin need a ghost or two, preferably with an intriguing and gripping backstory. Rarely do people who die peacefully in their sleep or due to an overconsumption of cake become ghosts. No, ghosts tend to be the impressions left behind by people who came to a violent end. Really good ghost stories also have an ingredient of heartbreak. After all, if you can’t have a Happily Ever After you’re entitled to do some haunting, right?

Whitby Abbey (English Heritage)

Whitby is a town in Yorkshire that is famous for two things: it has impressive ruins and it features prominently in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Today’s post is NOT about Dracula—a vampire is a vampire is a vampire is NOT a ghost, no matter how unhappy and violent Dracula’s death might be. I am no fan of Dracula, but I am rather intrigued by Vlad Tepes, the 15th century Rumanian ruler who has gone down in history as being so cruel his enemies called him Count Dracul. I guess that’s what you get when you have your enemies impaled and left to die a slow, agonising death. Right: neither here nor there…

Whitby Abbey is an ancient place. Founded long before the Norman invasion, it was ransacked by the wild Norsemen and brought back to life by the Normans. By then, Whitby Abbey already had a ghost: St Hilda. Hilda, or Hild, lived in teh 7th century and was related to Northumbrian royalty. She came to religious life relatively late, being a woman grown before she took her vows. Her royal connections ensured she ended up top-dog in the double monastery in present-day Whitby (at the time called Streanaeshalch…something of a tongue-twister)  and there she established a centre of learning and worship.

Why Hilda chooses to return now and then to ghost through the ruins is a bit unclear: she died in her bed after years of illness but given the spontaneous bell-ringing that occurred at her passing one must suppose her soul flew right up to heaven. Maybe she suffers from moments when she longs for her old home and pops by to reassure herself it’s still there. If so, she’s gravely disappointed. The ruins at Whitby have nothing to do with St Hilda’s original buildings. No, the graceful arches and striving pillars are the remains of the Norman abbey, built in the 13th century.

constance Hildegard_of_bingen_and_nuns (1)There is another ghost legend associated with Whitby. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Constance de Beverly. Behold a young nun, a woman of a passionate nature who likely did her best to conform to the life of a nun but who was helpless when Cupid sent an arrow her way. And so Constance fell in love with a handsome knight, broke her vows of chastity and experienced a few days of bliss until her sins were discovered. The other nuns decided Constance’s behaviour was unacceptable. To properly teach her a lesson, they bricked her up alive. According to the legend, poor Constance screamed and begged, tearing at the walls with her bare hands in a desperate attempt to escape her tomb. And then one day, the screaming stopped. Constance had died but took her revenge by haunting the buildings in which her sister-nuns lived.

Very sad, isn’t it? Also, extremely doubtful. You see, the abbey at Whitby was a monastery around the time of Constance’s death. The abbey housed monks, not nuns, and even if there’s a smidgen of truth in the sad, sad story of Constance, it can’t have happened at Whitby. Still, the locals insist that the “grey lady” still flits through their town, bloodied hands held aloft. Maybe the ghost lived long before there were knights, maybe she was an Anglo-Saxon nun who fell in love with a fellow monk  – and was horribly punished for her transgression.

Now, the story of Constance and her handsome knight is not only a legend. In the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott wrote Marmion, a poem that tells the story of Constance and her love for the handsome if false Marmion. Constance’s love interest has his sight set on another lady, Clara (albeit he happily enjoys Constance’s favours when he feels an urge). This does not make Constance a happy bunny but she managed to deceive herself into thinking that if she helps Marmion dishonour Clara’s fiancé, he will come back to her and forget all about Clara. Not so. Instead, Marmion abandons Constance to face the opprobrium of her sister-nuns, and just like in the legend, Constance is walled up alive—but in Lindisfarne.

Constance The_Trial_of_Constance_de_Beverly_LACMA_AC1993.233.1
The Trial of Constance de Beverly by T E Rosenthal (And no, I have no idea why she’s dressed the way she is)

I am happy to report Marmion does not go on to live a long and happy life. All that deception comes back to bite him in the nether parts, hence those famous lines “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.” Clara flees his attentions by entering a convent, the disgraced fiancé returns home to claim his bride, and Constance has, in a final act of revenge, handed her abbess documents that prove just how nefarious Marmion is. Before all this catches up with him, Marmion dies at Flodden. Clara and the love of her life go on to live happily ever after and nobody remembers poor Constance.

I can’t help but wonder if Scott was inspired by the legend at Whitby or if it was his poem that helped embellish the legend of Constance of Beverly who was walled up in the Whitby Abbey. Whatever the case, the story lives on—and until I meet that “grey lady” myself I am not in a position to report what the truth behind it all might be. That said, these days we all know that truth is very, very relative, right?


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