Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Roman Ghosts of York

The Treasurer’s House takes its name from the fact that it was built to be the home and office complex belonging to the Treasurer of York Minster. It is appropriate, therefore, that it lies in the shadow of the Minster. The house stands in Minster Yard at the northern end of College Street, just east of the Minster. It is now owned by the National Trust and is open most days of the year.

In the 13th century when the house was first built, the minster was no mere cathedral but a monastery owning vast estates as well as the mother church for all of northern England. Vast sums of money poured in from the farms, mills and weirs that the Minster owned, then flowed out again to give relief to the poor, educate churchmen and as tribute to Rome. The Treasurer’s House was a hive of activity as teams of monks, clerks and support staff pored over the accounts, counted the money and kept meticulous records. The house has been much altered since those days, and today almost nothing of the medieval structure can be seen above ground. Below ground level, however, the 13th century house is almost intact. The foundations and cellars are pretty much as they were when the monks worked here.

And it is in the cellars that the ghosts lurk.

Among those who lived or worked in the Treasurer’s House, the cellars had always had something of an odd reputation. Nobody was ever willing to talk to outsiders about what went on down there, but many people knew that it was not a place to linger alone. One person who did not know this was a young apprentice plumber by the name of Harry Martindale. It was 1953, and the Treasurer’s House was having modern central heating installed. Harry was tasked with checking over the joints of pipes installed by his more experienced colleagues, which was why he went down into the cellar - alone.

Harry was intent on his work when the incident began. He was up a short ladder so that he could check piping that was running along just below the cellar ceiling. He heard a muffled trumpet blast, but took no notice. He thought perhaps a band was nearby practising. The trumpet came again, nearer this time. Again Harry ignored it. Then a horse stepped out of the solid wall right in front of Harry’s eyes. Thunderstruck and terrified in equal measure, Harry fell off his ladder and tumbled to the floor. As he scrambled to get away from the figure of the horse, Harry could not tear his eyes from the apparition.

The horse continued to emerge from the wall into the cellar. On its back was a man in a long cloak and a helmet with a feather crest on it. Behind the horseman came a dozen or more men on foot. As Harry gradually recovered from his shock, he was deeply relieved to see that the ghosts paid him not the slightest bit of attention but marched on as if he were not there. The men on foot carried large, round shields with long spears slung over their shoulders and short swords hanging from their belts. They had what looked like kilts, dyed a dark green colour, and mail shirts. One of them carried a trumpet that was long, straight and battered as if from long years of hard use.

As the men marched across the cellar, Harry realised that he could not see them from the knees downward. Then the horsemen came to a spot where a hole had been dug into the floor. Harry could now see the horse’s legs almost down to the hooves. They carried shaggy hair around the fetlocks, similar to those on a modern shire horse. As the men on foot passed the hole, Harry could see their legs down to the ankles. They were wearing leather sandals attached by straps that ran criss-cross fashion up to the knees. The men marched on, giving out an aura of dejection and despondency, until they vanished into the wall opposite.

As soon as they were gone, Harry leaped to his feet and bolted up the stairs to the ground floor. Running desperately to find his foreman, Harry bumped into the curator of the museum that occupies the house. The curator took one look at Harry’s pale face and said “Oh. You’ve seen the Romans then.” He took Harry aside, calmed him down and then asked him to dictate a detailed description of what he had seen. The curator then showed Harry other accounts of the ghosts in the cellar.

Most of these other reports match the experience of young Harry Martindale almost precisely. One that is slightly different was recounted by a young lady attending a fancy dress party back in the days when the house was a private residence. During the party the guests were given time to explore the house. The lady chose to venture down the stairs to the cellar. She went to enter one of the various rooms, but suddenly a man stepped out from the shadows to bar the open doorway. He was dressed in a mail shirt and had on his head a plumed helmet, just like those seen by Harry and others. The figure said nothing, but glared at the girl and held his spear out to make it clear that she was not welcome. After hesitating for a few seconds, the woman retreated back up the stairs. She asked her host who the curmudgeonly guest in Roman armour might be, but there was no guest wearing Roman armour. The incident is usually put down as a sighting of the ghosts, thought on this occasion the spectre did not behave as usual.

The description of the figures given by Harry was rather more detailed than those recounted by other witnesses and has led to some detailed investigations. Excavations have shown that a Roman road runs underneath the Treasurer’s House leading from what had been a gate in the fortress walls to the east toward the headquarters building that stood where the Minster nave is now. The ghosts follow the route of this former road precisely. Even more interestingly, the surface of the road is about 18 inches below the cellar floor, and some three inches lower than the bottom of the hole that was there in Harry’s day. The ghosts are, of course, seen only from the knees up so it would seem that they are marching along the surface of the old road that existed when they were alive.

The description given by Harry of men in mail shirts with round shields does not match that of Roman soldiers shown in most books. However, the armour thought of as typical for Romans - with large oblong shields and armour made up of strips of metal - was used only by the legionnaries who formed the backbone of the Roman army. Rather more numerous were the auxiliaries recruited from tribes within the Empire and, in later times, the mercenaries recruited from tribes outside the Empire.

The description given by Harry seems to match most closely auxiliaries of the later 3rd or 4th centuries. This was a time when the Roman Empire was in decline with a falling population, collapsing economy and reducing population. The climate, which had been rather warmer than it is today for around 300 years or so, was cooling making it more difficult to grow crops, especially in Britain. And the barbarians were becoming older and more aggressive. The collapse of Roman power in Britain was not far off.

No wonder the ghosts seem so dejected.

This is an extract from Haunted York  by Rupert Matthews


  1. Great sighting r.I.p harry so sad glad you told us of your experience you'll b forever remembered :-)

  2. The only ghost story that I actually believe!