Ghostly legions: the Ancient Roman spooks of Cheshire
ALAN MURDIE descends the cellar steps to relive a famous tale of ghostly Roman soldiers
Yorkshireman Harry Martindale (19352014) provided us with what is arguably the most significant and celebrated British apparitional sighting of the 20th century. 2018 marks the 65th anniversary of his famous 1953 sighting of a group of Roman soldiers passing through the cellars of the Treasurer’s House in York. Called by ghost hunter Richard Felix “The best ghost story in the World” in the decades since it has been told, cited and anthologised numerous times, over the last 44 years since it came to public notice via a book, Ghosts of an
Ancient City (1974) by John V Mitchell. It is a very simple but highly impressive ghost story. Harry Martindale was training as a heating engineer and plumber. Early in 1953, aged 18, he was sent down into the ancient cellars of Treasurer’s House, a charming building constructed by Thomas Young, Archbishop of York, between 1562 and 1568. This stood on the site of an earlier house occupied by the mediæval treasurers of the city. Restored by its last private owner between 1897 and 1930, it was presented to the National Trust in 1930.
Working in the cellar, Martindale was perched atop a short ladder when he suddenly heard a musical note echoing from the walls, like the blast of a trumpet. Suddenly he was astonished to see a white horse come through the wall, ridden by a helmeted Roman soldier. Following it were a column of armed legionaries. Shocked, he fell from his ladder as these figures passed him by. “I didn’t count – I was in no state to count,” he said, “but I would say there were at least 20” (interview, The Y-Files (1999) available on YouTube). The figures looked completely lifelike, but each was cut off at the knees by the level of the flagstones. These were not finely turned-out imperial soldiers marching in triumphant conquest, but a pale, ragged and exhausted-looking band. He noticed the shields they carried were round, not rectangular in design as typically portrayed in history books, and he absorbed the fact some wore green tunics. Crossing the cellar, the figures disappeared into the opposite wall. Hastening out of the cellar as quickly as possible, Martindale emerged upstairs whey-faced and badly shaken, to be given a knowing look by one of the museum staff, who said: “You’ve seen the Romans haven’t you?” Martindale took two weeks off from work to recover. He learned later that the same figures had been seen periodically since the 1930s. The single figure of a Roman soldier had also supposedly appeared one evening, being mistaken for a guest at a fancy dress party!
Perhaps understandably, Martindale quit plumbing, joining the police force and becoming a well-respected local officer. For many years he didn’t tell his story beyond a small circle of family and friends for fear of ridicule, until he shared it with John Mitchell who was writing his book on the ghosts of York. Replete with curious anecdotal details, his account contained what seemed like hallmarks of a genuine experience. Mitchell arranged for local historians to quiz Martindale about his sighting. The conclusion was that the ghosts dated from the later Roman Empire, involving local auxiliaries rather than regular troops. Archæological information pointed to the house standing upon the route of a Roman road serving the garrison of ‘Eboracum’, as York was known before the Vikings. Even more remarkably, later archæological finds indicated they were equipped with round shields. These facts, along with Martindale’s authoritative presence, brought a reassuring plausibility to the whole sighting.
Martindale was the type of ghost witness who typically dissolves all doubts in the mind of the ghost-inclined researcher. His demeanour was of a straightforward, unflappable, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, not given to fanciful imaginings. He impressed and convinced numerous listeners, writers and broadcasters over the years, from Ian Wilson ( In Search of Ghosts, 1995) to Tom Vernon ( Fat Man on a Roman Road, 1983). Such a solid and apparently unimaginative witness seemed to confer a measure of solidity upon such ethereal and insubstantial phantoms, condensing them into almost tangible form, fulfilling the deep desires of many who yearn for corporeal evidence of an incorporeal spirit realm.
The acute potency of Martindale’s story put it at the heart of the successful ghost walking industry flourishing in York since the 1970s. As I wrote in 2008 [ FT234:16], ghost walks, tours, lectures, “eerie evenings” and weekend breaks have become an established feature of the local tourist trade, with York promoted as “The most haunted city in England”. The inspiration for this can be traced directly back to a special ‘Ghost Hunting Weekend’ held over 8-10 February 1974. This was an initiative by John Mitchell, supported by the Ghost Club.
Peter Underwood, then President of the Ghost Club, was justly proud of this role. To commence the first weekend, on 8 February 1974, he hosted a special “Talk and Discussion on Ghosts” at St William’s College near York Minister within a room known as “the House of Laymen”. Recalling this some nine years later in his book No
Common Task (1983), Underwood reported his lecture proved not without incident, when the latch of a door to the hall was twice lifted by itself. Chris Martin, director of tourism for York, told the Northern Echo: “It was absolutely true that during the lecture I saw and heard a heavy latch on the door into the room open a couple of times. I thought
it might be someone trying to get into the room, but when I opened it there was nothing there. It was most curious…”
It proved a good omen for the intrepid group, assembled from around the UK, Belgium, France and the USA, to set off the next morning, accompanied by Mitchell and Martin to explore haunted sites around York. Refreshed by coffee and lunch, they then boarded a coach into the Yorkshire Dales for Bolton Abbey (“Black-cowled Augustinian Canons have been seen”) and Fountains Hall (haunted by “a blue lady”).
Returning to York at 6pm, there followed a 15-minute reconnoitre of the Cock & Bottle Inn (“supposedly haunted by the 17th century Duke of Buckingham”) ahead of a ghost hunt scheduled for later that night. Before this, they fortified themselves with a “Yorkshire Neet Banquet”, a mediævalthemed feast of Yorkshire food and drink at the Viking Hotel between 8pm and 11pm, and were entertained by a costumed folksinger. Duly primed by the disembottled, they returned to face the disembodied after closing time, waiting up until past midnight at the Cock & Bottle for the shade of the Duke of Buckingham and listening out for “strange noises” heard by the landlord and his wife. Sunday morning saw forays to “various haunted settings” before sherry and luncheon at the Windmill Restaurant followed by another walking tour by Mitchell to several more sites. At the end, attendees were presented with a special kit of brochures and sketches as souvenirs.
Hopes that people would enjoy themselves were more than realised. Participants were enthused, being filmed at various stages by the BBC Nationwide programme. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” said the youngest of the party, 12-year-old Alistair Johnson of Edinburgh. “This was better than school any day. Even if I did see something I don’t think I would be too frightened”. Several people reported feeling “something not of this world”. Having proven there was interest, weekend breaks and shorter tours all followed, evolving into the regular walking tours of today.
Amid all of this, the Roman soldiers haunting the Treasurer’s House remained the centrepiece and story par excellence on the tours. In later years Martindale led walks himself when off-duty. Like so many others over the years, as part of an awed audience, I heard his unique experience direct from him on one such walk, on an overcast but unforgettable evening in early October 1981. Numerous listeners, writers and broadcasters were captivated and convinced over the years, as was I.
Doubtless a most impressive police witness in a court room, his credibility was boosted by the unspoken assumption that being a police officer he was better equipped than average members of the public in making detailed observations and gathering evidence tested in judicial proceedings. As I said, Martindale was in all respects perfect for convincing audiences who already wanted to believe.
Since the mid-1980s I have had much work in courts and tribunals, seen many hundreds of people testifying to disputed facts under oath and have interviewed many more people, either working as a lawyer or as a psychical researcher. On balance, and watching filmed interviews with him subsequently, I feel that Martindale was recounting an experience he believed he had undergone. It is therefore with a certain guilt, almost a feeling of heresy, that I point out certain weaknesses in uncritically accepting such testimony.
His story of seeing Romans is weak in corroboration. Save for a sighting at the Treasurer’s House claimed in 1957 (but not reported until many years later), other claimed sightings all appear to be secondor third-hand; and to my knowledge no
Martindale was in all respects perfect for convincing audiences who wanted to believe
independent records have emerged of any other sightings published prior to 1974.
One man who reported hearing Martindale’s story before 1974 was the Lord Mayor of York, Councillor Ian Gillies, who had worked alongside him at the police in Acomb; members of the Martindale family also vouched for his experience being genuine. ( The Press, 25 Oct 2015). But simply to repeat a story is not to corroborate it, “otherwise it is only necessary… to repeat [a] story some 25 times in order to get 25 corroborations of it’. (R v Whitehead  1 KB 99).
One possibility is that Martindale suffered a hallucination in the cellar, after falling from the ladder in a state of automatism. Another is that he had told the story so many times that he convinced himself (appearing like Alex Campbell, the water bailiff who claimed to have spotted the Loch Ness monster numerous times). Once in print, his story became part of him and he could not then bring himself to contradict it. However, a single witness is not necessarily to be disbelieved for want of corroboration, and no proof exists to support either of these suggestions.
Nor do I think his story was manufactured for the 1974 book and subsequent walks. From my experience of authors of local ghost books, such individuals earnestly labour for years, frequently for little material reward, collecting stories and experiences to produce their often personal and highly idiosyncratic works. Seldom do they knowingly resort to invention; they don’t need to. Every locality in the British Isles, whether a teeming metropolitan district or sparsely populated countryside, is crammed with unrecorded experiences, stories and traditions awaiting a fascinated and dedicated scribe. The problem is an excess of material, not any lack.
Undoubtedly, a factor encouraging uncritical acceptance of Martindale’s account by many researchers is its appeal for those who adopt alternatives to the unquiet spirit theory of ghosts (why would 20 spirits march continuously through a cellar, for a millennium and half?). For many researchers its attractions lie in the anecdotal detail of the figures being partly cut off by the floor. This seems consistent with two favourite notions as to the origins of hauntings, the so-called ‘stone-tape’ or ‘recording’ theory and also the ‘time-slip’ hypothesis of ghosts. A detail of a figure being cut off at knee level may be accounted for by the rise in the ground level by around 15in (38cm) over the centuries. Martindale initially viewed his three-dimensional apparitions from above, astride a ladder positioned in the mid-20th century, a viewpoint only possible from a structure erected over 1,000 years after the time of origin. It is suggestive of a replaying of a scene from nearly 2,000 years earlier, but framed and perceived with a material screen provided by the fabric of the more recent historical environment.
The problem with these theories as science is that neither is testable, since both lack any identified basis for the postulated mechanisms involved. Inherent with both are the questions of precisely where and how such holographic images are being stored. Why would only the figures be transmitted across the centuries, not their surroundings as well?
Assessing such experiences is made difficult by lack of comparable cases. The majority of apparitions reported are human forms but involve individual figures, not groups and complex replays. Ghosts identified as Roman are especially rare, and despite the publicity attached to Martindale’s story there has been no flood of similar experiences, re-enforcing its exceptional and aberrant character. Personally, I have only obtained two such reports, one from a gentleman who contacted me and the second from a lady writer whom I traced after finding a reference to her sighting in a locally published ghost book. Both were nowhere near either York or Hadrian’s Wall.
In 2001, I was telephoned by a Cambridgeshire man who told of seeing a dozen or so ghosts of Roman soldiers on a hillock near Orwell, Cambridgeshire. His story was that back in 1985 he had been driving past the hillside when his attention was caught by a dozen or so Roman legionaries, spread out in a line walking down towards the road. They appeared completely life-like, and his immediate reaction was that he was seeing costumed actors participating in film-making. He looked towards the road ahead and then back to the hillside only to now see it devoid of any figures. Two weeks later he was travelling the same route and saw the same figures. He told me he remained intrigued by his experiences and that periodically he travelled along the same stretch of road, as much as once a fortnight, hoping to glimpse them again – but never had. “They looked as though they were simply ambling along, as though they were on their way to a brew up” (not that Romans drank tea).
Of course, I asked him a selection of the usual questions that one typically puts to witnesses who identify ghosts as Roman (such as “Do you like movies about gladiators?”, “Do you know any Latin?”, “Have you studied Roman history?” etc). But it was his comments about films and tea that made it clear he was viewing his experience through a prism of modern cultural conceptions. And this seemed particularly pertinent, coming not long after the film Gladiator (2000) had been released. Could the experience of seeing ghostly Roman legionaries be shaped by their depiction in cinema?
Could ghostly legionaries be a product of some kind of social hallucination? This is an interesting question that I owe to discussions with Tony Percy, a psychical researcher who worked with the late Tony Cornell (1923-2010) of the Cambridge University and UK Societies for Psychical Research, and folklore expert Jeremy Harte. Independently, both advance the idea that social and cultural elements, particularly images drawn from cinema and media, are aiding and abetting the creation of experiences of Roman soldiers in York and other places. Drinking my own pint of ‘Centurion’s Ghost’ beer, and recalling St Paul’s advice in his Letter to the Romans (12, 3) “to think soberly”, I think the time has come to consider this possibility in more depth. To be continued...
Harry Martindale returns to the cellars of the Treasurer’s House to retell his story.
Ghost walks remain a mainstay of York’s tourist trade.
Ghostly Roman legionaries in an illustration from Look and Learn #737, 28 Feb 1976.
The Treasurer’s House, York, scene of Harry Martindale’s ghostly 1953 encounter.