The Ghosts of Mersea Island
Who wants to go out when the moon is full and stand in the gloom near a barrow to listen to the clash of swords? Many people would love the chill up the spine that this adventure might give.
If one believes local legend, such a thrill is available on Mersea Island, which is just off the Essex coast in eastern England.
This story starts with Viking attacks on England. Their murderous ways lasted for many decades before some gave up their pirating trade and settled on British soil.
Some of the Viking invaders wintered on Mersea Island and spent their summers plundering along the coast. In one such raid they attacked a nunnery about ten kilometres (six miles) to the east.
Channel 4’s Time Team retold the legend in a February 2005 episode: “two Viking marauders captured a lonely nun called Osyth [sometimes noted as Osith or Osgyth] and they chopped her head off. But they say she then picked up her head, carried it back to her nunnery and died there.”
According to Britannia.com, at the place where Osyth’s head “fell to the earth, a fountain bubbled up which, for many years afterwards, had a wonderful power of curing diseases.” The miraculous healings led to her being made a saint.
However, accounts of Osyth’s life bring up an inconvenient chronological problem. She is said to have died in about 700 CE, almost a century before the Vikings began their adventures in 793. Never mind, let’s proceed as if we are Fox News and not let facts get in the way of a good story.
Local Vicar Resurrects the Story
In the 1880s, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was rector of a church in East Mersea. He doesn’t seem to have enjoyed his residency overmuch calling the locals “dull, reserved, shy, and suspicious.” He added that “I never managed to understand them, nor they to understand me.”
That aside, it is from the good vicar that we get the story of what happened after the raid that cost Osyth her life and led to her beatification. Whether his yarn is a product of his fertile imagination or the result of scholarly research is not revealed by sources. The objective observer might lean towards the former.
(Rev. Baring-Gould was a man of many accomplishments. He spoke six languages, wrote more than 100 books, including 30 novels and a mammoth 16-volume Lives of the Saints, collected folk music, wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers” among other hymns, and found the time to father 15 children. But that’s another story.)
According to the Vicar of East Mersea, the two Viking brothers seized Osyth’s beautiful sister and took her back to their lair. But soon, the green-eyed snake of jealousy raised its head and the brothers’ love for one another turned to hatred as each wanted their captive for his own.
Swords were drawn, and recounts Rev. Baring-Gould, “They fought, and smote, and hacked one another till their armour was broken and their flesh was cut off, and their blood flowed away, and by nightfall they were both dead.”
Their companions dragged their boat ashore, secured the woman in the hold, and placed a dead brother on each side of her. They raised an earthen barrow to cover both the living and the dead.
Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson, the authors of the Penguin Book of Ghosts, write that today “When the new moon appears, the flesh grows on their bones, and the blood staunches, and the wounds close, and breath comes back behind their ribs ... and if you listen at full moon ... you can hear the brothers fighting.”
When the moon wanes so does the duellist’s armour, flesh, and blood, which all falls away until the next new moon.
The Marching Centurion
Just after the beginning of the Christian Era, the Romans occupied Britain and set up their provisional capital in Camulodunum (today’s Colchester). Mersea Island is nine miles (14 km) southeast of Colchester and was used as an outpost garrison by the Roman Army. There is a causeway, called the Strood, which connects Mersea Island to the mainland coast of Essex. At high tides, it is under water.
On nights in October, it’s said you can see half a centurion patrolling the Strood. Why only half? Because he is marching on the original Roman road, which has been buried by subsequent accretions of road-building materials.
Numerous people have reported seeing him as he marches up and down the causeway.
Drivers have reported the centurion suddenly appearing in their car’s headlights and giving them a terrible scare when they think they have hit a pedestrian. Others say they have seen nothing but have heard footsteps following them. If the walkers stop, the footsteps stop; if they start walking again so does the mysterious ghost.
According to Visit Mersea Island “There are even reports of the terrifying sound of soldiers fighting with swords and men marching next to heavy carts along the Strood. Even scarier is that these sounds are also reportedly heard when the tide is covering the Strood!”
The Burial Mound
Just south of the Strood, on the island itself, there is a burial mound. It’s thought to be Roman from about 100 to 120 CE. It was excavated in 1912 and found to contain “a lead box with a wooden lid. The box contained an urn of green glass containing cremated remains (Mersea Museum).”
Clearly, the burial was of a high-status individual and some have suggested the ghostly centurion is guarding the final resting place of this person.
- In the late 1940s, my family lived on Mersea Island and my father told the story of a couple of friends of his. They had been out at night in a row boat on the stretch of water near the Strood. Suddenly both saw the centurion. Terrified they both rowed away at such a speed that they could have towed a water skier.
- Strangely, there are no reports of sighting the Strood centurion prior to 1904.
- People who want to take the fun out of good stories have an explanation for the ghosts of Mersea Island. The many inlets and creeks around the area were used by smugglers bringing in tobacco, liquor, silks, sugar, nutmeg, and anything else the government’s revenue agents might be interested in. The theory is that the smugglers invented the ghostly hauntings as a way of scaring people away so they could engage in their trade at night without being observed.
- “Do You Believe in Ghosts? Have You Heard About the Roman Soldier Who Walks the Strood?” Visitmerseaisland.co.uk, undated.
- “West Mersea Barrow.” Mersea Museum, undated.
- “Sabine Baring-Gould.” Cyberhymnal.org, undated.
- “The Penguin Book of Ghosts.” Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson, Allen Lane, May 2008.
- “Mehalah.” S. Baring-Gould, Blackmask.com, undated.
- “Lost Centuries of St Osyth, St Osyth, Essex.” Time Team, February 2005.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor