Ghostly le­gions: the An­cient Ro­man spooks of Cheshire

ALAN MURDIE de­scends the cel­lar steps to re­live a fa­mous tale of ghostly Ro­man sol­diers

Fortean Times - - Contents -

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 [1925] 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.

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