Saturday, 30 July 2011

The Ghosts of Princethorpe, Warwickshire

The ghosts of Princethorpe are an enigmatic bunch. There are local legends in plenty to explain them, but no recorded history. Perhaps the stories are just legends.

The ghosts themselves rarely appear together, though one man claimed to see them acting out a scene of violence and murder. The most active is a phantom priest. Dressed in a long black cassock, the man walks gently among the woods west of the village bothering nobody. Seen less often, but rather more dramatic, is the ghostly nun. She runs as if upset or angry about something. Like the priest, she is seen in the woods but she has occasionally appeared in nearby fields as well. The most exciting ghosts are those seen least often. A troop of armed men wearing helmets and breastplates marches up from the village to the same woods where the other ghosts roam.

Local legend has it that the ghosts date to the days of Queen Elizabeth I. In those days the Pope and the Catholic King of Spain intrigued endlessly to oust the Protestant Elizabeth and replace her with a reliably Catholic monarch. The mighty Spanish Armada was the most open and violent attempt, but there were frequent plots to murder the queen or to foment rebellion. Fanatical Catholics, usually priests recruited from English families, were sent to England to arrange the plots.

The hapless Catholics of England, the vast majority of whom far preferred an English Protestant on the throne to a foreign Catholic, were caught in the middle. Their religion might be tolerated and they were free to conduct services in private, but their priests were suspected of treachery and hounded by the government.

It seems that a Catholic priest from abroad came to Warwickshire to minister to the spiritual needs of the local Catholics. He sanctified marriages, conducted baptisms and performed funeral rights for those who had died since a priest last came that way. Of course, he had to stay out of sight of officialdom, so he holed up in the woods. A loyal former nun, living as a lay person in Princethorpe, brought him food supplies and directed him to wherever his services were needed.

But the government came to hear of the priest roaming Warwickshire and, fearful he was a religious fanatic planning what we would now call a terrorist outrage, sent armed men to arrest him. The nun managed to warn the priest of the approaching force, but the soldiers overtook the pair. In the ensuing struggle the nun was killed, while the priest made his escape. He fled abroad, never to return except in spectral form.

The local catholic community, however, survived. In the 19th century an order of French nuns opened a house in Princethorpe. It is now a catholic school of fine reputation and impressive buildings.

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