Memento Mori & Folklore: The Rather Grim Habit of Keeping Skulls

Updated on July 27, 2018
Still-Life with a Skull, Philippe de Champagne (1671)
Still-Life with a Skull, Philippe de Champagne (1671) | Source

Now and again, you will come across accounts of an old house in Britain that is home to a skull.

These macabre ornaments were not hidden, but displayed with great pride in the houses that they belonged to.

Each skull has its own story of its origins and purpose, and these stories generally fall under two themes. The first is that the skull is a protective charm for the dwelling and/or family that resides there. The second is that the skull has a significance being where it is, and that dire things will happen should any attempt be made to move it.

These skulls have been of great interest to folklorists and those interested in the paranormal over the years, with all sorts of theories and ideas about the reasons and origins of this behaviour being presented. Some ideas are more plausible than others; with a fair few ideas out there that are just dubious. Are they really a relic from the days of ancestor worship? Or even from the supposed Celtic head collecting cults?

Burton Agnes Hall and its Ornamental Pond
Burton Agnes Hall and its Ornamental Pond | Source

Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire

One such house that is home to a skull is Burton Agnes Hall. Located near Driffield in Yorkshire, the Hall at was built by the Griffiths family during Queen Elizabeth I's reign. The three sisters who had commissioned the manor were eager to see the house completed. Sadly not all of them survived to see it built. The youngest of the sisters met an untimely end according to this tale;

"One day, when wandering alone in the park, Miss Ann was murderously attacked and robbed by an outlaw, who seriously wounded her. This brought on a fever of which she died. Before her death she grieved incessantly that she would never see the grand structure complete, and made her sisters promise to remove her head to the new grand Hall, where it was to be placed on a table. This they agreed to do, but after her death they buried her without fulfilling the compact. Nothing happened until they took up their abode at Burton Agnes. Then strange moanings and weird sounds made the sisters' lives a burden to them. No servants would stay; so at last after two years they cause the body to be dug up and decapitated, and placed the now fleshless head upon the table." [1]

Over the generations, any attempt to remove the skull was met with strange happenings. A maid who tried to prove it was all superstitious nonsense, threw the skull into a cart outside the Hall. It is said that immediately after, the Hall shook so violently that paintings fell off the wall. Once the skull was placed back on the table, tranquillity was restored.

The skull was regarded as an item that was bound to the Hall's luck, and so in the 17th Century, a niche was made in one of the walls into which the skull was placed. It was bricked up to keep it hidden and safe.

It remains there to this day. Staff, and family who dwell there still, know precisely where it remains. Although rumours point to it being located behind a wooden panel in one of the Hall's numerous bedrooms, none will ever give its secret away.

Higher Farm, at Chilton Cantelo near Yeovil
Higher Farm, at Chilton Cantelo near Yeovil | Source
Brome's Skull
Brome's Skull

Chilton Cantello, Somerset

On a high shelf in the hallway of Higher Farm sits a rather grim ornament; a human skull facing the doorway. It is said to belong to Theophilus Brome, who passed away in 1670 aged sixty-nine. He himself requested that his head be placed here, and the account from "The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset..." states that;

"There is a tradition in this parish that the person here interred requested that his head might be taken off before his burial and preserved at the farmhouse near the church, where a head, chop-fallen enough, is still shown, which the tenants of the house have often endeavoured to commit to the bowels of the earth, but have a often been deterred by horrid noises portentive of sad displeasure; and about twenty years since (which was perhaps the last attempt), the sexton, in digging a place for the skull's repository, broke the spade into two pieces, and uttered a solemn asserveration never more to attempt an act so evidently repugnant to the quiet of Brome's head." [2]

It would appear that the author's rambling sentences are mirrored in the full title of the source book, but it makes for a fascinating read and good addition to any folklorist's library!

Why would anyone want their head cut off and stored in a farmhouse? The local lore around this is that Theophilus Brome fought in the English Civil War (1642–1651) in support of Oliver Cromwell as one of the "Round Heads". After driving the Royalists to defeat, the Parliamentarians had King Charles I was executed, and Britain was set to be ruled instead by a government. Things didn't quite go to plan, and after Cromwell's death there was a restoration of the monarchy.

Brome was disturbed to see how some of the deceased who had fought in support of Cromwell were exhumed and decapitated by those who sympathised with Charles I. Their severed heads were sent to the Tower of London to be displayed as traitors. Not wishing to share their fate, he arranged for his head to be cut off after his death and be kept safe in his home, the farmhouse where it remains to this day.

Recent owners, the Kentons, viewed the skull to be benevolent and provide a protective force for the dwelling, so long as it was not handled too much. [3] Considering the farm offers Bed and Breakfast accommodation, why not spend the night there and discover for yourself what the presence of this skull brings to the property?

Chapel-en-le-Frith viewed from Cowlow Lane below Castle Naze.
Chapel-en-le-Frith viewed from Cowlow Lane below Castle Naze. | Source

Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire

A similar story to the skull of Chilton Cantelo comes from Tunstead Farm near the village of Chapel-en-le-Frith, in the picturesque Peak District.

Known as "Dickie", it is said that the person whose head it was, had been brutally murdered. Allegedly the skull of Ned Dickson, one story describes how the poor fellow was killed by his cousin over a dispute as to who owned the farm. His ghost haunted Tunstead Farm, and only ceased to roam when his skull was removed from his grave and brought into the farmhouse. The identity of the skull's owner is also rumoured to be a woman named Dickie, who was an heiress to the farm and its lands; also murdered.

The broken skull remained in the farmhouse for generations; first appearing in written folklore in 1807 in John Hutchinson's "A Tour Through The High Peak of Derbyshire."

"Having heard a singular account of a human skull being preserved in a house at Tunstead, ... and which was said to be haunted, curiosity induced me to deviate a little, for the purpose of making some enquiries respecting these natural or supernatural appearances. That there are three parts of a human skull in the house is certain, and which I traced to have remained on the premises for near two centuries past, during all the revolutions of the owners and tenants in that time. As to the truth of the supernatural appearance, it is not my design either to affirm or contradict: - Though I have been informed by a credible person, a Mr Adam Fox, who was brought up in the house, that he has not only repeatedly heard singular noises, and observed very extraordinary circumstances, but can produce fifty persons, within the parish, who has seen an apparition at this place. He has often found the doors opening to his hand - the servants have been repeatedly called up in the morning - many good offices have been done by the apparition, at different times; - and, in fact, it is looked upon more as a guardian spirit, than a terror to the family: - never disturbing them but in a case of an approaching death of a relation or neighbour, and shewing its resentment only when spoken of with disrespect, or when its own awful memorial of mortality is removed. For twice within the memory of man, the skull has been taken from the premises, once on building the present house on the site of the old one, and another time when it was buried in the Chapel church yard; - but there was no peace! - no rest! - it must be replaced! - Venerable time carries a report, that one of two heiresses residing here was murdered, and declared in her last moments, that her bones should remain on the place forever." [4]

The family living in the farmhouse at the turn of the 20th Century had the skull positioned on a windowsill overlooking the land. It's alleged powers became legendary in the 19th Century when it caused an entire railway line to be diverted. It would appear that Dickie was disgruntled by plans to have the line built over his (or her!) land, and caused a new bridge to sink into a marsh. The railway was diverted, with part of the route still known as Dickie's Bridge in memory of this event.

Fed up with people coming to take a look at the skull, Dickie disappeared some time in the 20th Century. It is thought that the owners buried it in the garden. As to what Dickie thinks of this, we shall see.

Collection of human skulls used for mediumship & magical other rituals, Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, Cornwall
Collection of human skulls used for mediumship & magical other rituals, Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, Cornwall | Source

Theories on the Skulls

The three examples above represent just a taste of the legends associated with these morbid mementoes. A recent study by David Clarke and Andy Roberts [5] identified 27 such occurrences throughout the British Isles. Whilst the circumstances around the skull being brought to a house vary, all carry one common theme; that the skull must not be removed.

Due to many of the skulls no longer being in situ at the locations which folklore records, it is not possible to study them. Forensic investigation would certainly help age the skulls and determine the age and sex.

There are several ideas circulating as to why this practice occurred in the first place. Skulls were kept in some instances by medical students or artists, and by the morbid Victorians as memento mori (remember that you must die!). They could also be finds brought back to the houses from local archaeological sites. There was a great interest in digging up burial mounds at one point, and looting their contents. A skull would have made a fabulous souvenir in the mindset of the day.

David Clarke and Andy Roberts did liven up their study by suggesting that the display of skulls is an unconscious folk memory continued; that it is a follow-on of the Celtic practice of displaying severed heads. The whole idea of the Celtic head-hunters is not widely accepted however, which was advocated in the 1960s by Ann Ross. Ronald Hutton, folk historian, has questioned whether the gathering of heads happened at all.

What is known, certainly in British witchcraft, is that a human skull can provide protection and power, and can bestow the person which possesses the skull with the wisdom and guidance of the spirit of the person to whom the skull belonged. It is possible that some of the skulls were kept for this purpose, if not for mediumship, at least as lucky talismans.

Sources

[1] Country Folk-lore Volume VI - Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning East Riding of Yorkshire, Eliza Gutch - ISBN 978-1445521589

[2] The History And Antiquities Of The County Of Somerset: Collected From Authentick Records, And An Actual Survey Made By The Late Mr. Edmund Rack. Adorned With A Map Of The County, And Engravings Of Roman And Other Reliques, Town Seals, Baths, Churches, And Gentlemen's Seats, John Collinson & Edmund Rack. - print on demand, ASIN B00AWL44X6

[3] The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, Westwood & Simpson - ISBN 978-0141007113

[4] Hutchinson's Tour Through the High Peak of Derbyshire - Primary Source Edition, John Hutchinson - ISBN 978-1295518012

[5] Heads and Tales: The Screaming Skull Legends of Britain, Fortean Studies (3), Andy Roberts & David Clarke - ISBN 978-1870870825

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Pollyanna Jones

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      • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

        Pollyanna Jones 

        3 years ago from United Kingdom

        FlourishAnyway, thank you! It would be rather unsettling to have a relative remain with the home in this way (if indeed it is one!).

        Janderson, just headed over. Looks like you had a great trip in Rome. Thanks for the read!

      • janderson99 profile image

        Dr. John Anderson 

        3 years ago from Australia on Planet Water

        This is even weirder - see Skeleton Displays in https://hubpages.com/travel/Touring-Rome-Italy-Ver...

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        3 years ago from USA

        What a macabre and weird habit. I was very entertained by this. I wonder what type of character would request that his skull would be left in a doorway. That's one way to be remembered for all eternity. Sharing and pinning this!

      • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

        Pollyanna Jones 

        3 years ago from United Kingdom

        Thanks for reading AliciaC! It is rather odd, I love writing and researching the stranger things going on in the British Isles :-)

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        This is very interesting as well as spooky! Thanks for describing the strange and definitely rather grim habit of keeping skulls.

      • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

        Pollyanna Jones 

        3 years ago from United Kingdom

        Thank you handmanbill! Yes, I'm trying to publish a few spookier Hubs at the moment. ;-)

      • handymanbill profile image

        Bill 

        3 years ago from western pennsylvania

        That's an interesting read. Great for the time of year.

      • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

        Pollyanna Jones 

        3 years ago from United Kingdom

        Thank you pstraubie48, yes, it certainly is a bit macabre to say the least! There are lots of fascinating and strange things to discover in British folklore and history, and I love sharing them with people. Hope one of those angels finds its way to you! x

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        3 years ago from sunny Florida

        Very interesting and thorough article. I am just glad that this is not a 'tradition' that our family has begin. I would think it a bit macabre to have the head of a loved one laying around in plain view.

        Angels are on the way ps

      • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

        Pollyanna Jones 

        3 years ago from United Kingdom

        Spiffing Carolyn! It had the desired effect then! ;-)

        Thank you AudreyHowitt!

      • AudreyHowitt profile image

        Audrey Howitt 

        3 years ago from California

        Creepy, cool and fascinating!

      • CarolynEmerick profile image

        Carolyn Emerick 

        3 years ago

        Firstly, I just have to say that your title made me burst out laughing, hahaha. Ok now to go on and actually read it :D

      • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

        Pollyanna Jones 

        3 years ago from United Kingdom

        Thank you watchtime! I am focussing on a handful of spooky themes in British folklore in the run up to 31st October. It's great fun researching them.

      • watchtime profile image

        watchtime 

        3 years ago

        great prelude to Halloween! nicely done.

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