Amy Investigates – What happened to the Ghosts of St Crux?
York is said to be a hotspot for paranormal activity. Ghost merchants sell their wares on the Shambles, while tour guides induce fear as part of their fee. I was ambling along this ancient, cobbled artery one day, pondering Porter Biggleswade’s ghost-hunting shenanigans, when I stopped at the former site of St Crux Church (Holy Cross). The medieval church has long since been replaced by a small church hall, but ghostly rumours still haunt this ancient site.
St Crux is one of seven York churches cited in the 1085-86 Domesday book. A Goliath of a building usurped its more modest predecessor in 1424, making it the largest mediaeval parish church in the city. One may expect such a building to be infallible, but this certainly wasn’t the case – its foundations proved to be its Achilles heel, and it required constant maintenance as a result. That didn’t deter further building work however, and an Italianate-styled tower crowned with urns and a cupola was constructed on its north-west corner in 1697.
It is hard to imagine Pavement being part of St Crux’s burial ground. Parishioners were buried there until 1769, when York Corporation purchased the land. An alternative burial site was found on Hungate and consecrated in 1770. Unfortunately, money raised from selling the land didn’t stop the building from deteriorating and it was closed to the public for safety reasons in 1881. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings petitioned for funds to restore this threatened relic, but their appeals fell on deaf ears. (Yorkshire Gazette 8th April 1882). Architect Mr Fisher was tasked with helping to save the church and a public meeting took place in November 1883 to discuss fundraising opportunities (York Herald 6th November 1883). This resulted in a bazaar being held in the Victoria Hall where the rebellious Sir Thomas Percy, seventh Earl of Northumberland unwittingly lent a hand, or rather his helmet for the display, as his decapitated corpse was no longer in need of it (York Herald 22nd October 1884). Regrettably for St Crux, the various schemes failed to canvass the necessary funds, and the once revered tower was taken down in 1884. The rest of St Crux then languished for a further three years before being dismantled. A section of the fifteenth century north aisle wall was given a reprieve and remains in situ along with parts of the felled Goliath re-used in the 1888 parish hall. Some funerary monuments also found refuge in the newly built hall, but did that stretch to the ghosts said to haunt the site?
These phantoms include a supernatural congregation allegedly stumbled upon by an unsuspecting police officer. Accounts of the latter have him down as a sensible, no-nonsense sort of chap, and certainly not the type to indulge in flights of fancy, but that didn’t make him immune to the paranormal, apparently. It was night, and the man was patrolling the streets alone, keeping a beady eye out for wrongdoers. As he ambled through York, his concerns fixed solely on the living, he was surprised to hear a funeral march escaping St Crux. His amazement was entirely reasonable, the church had been closed for six years and was soon to be demolished.
The officer paused. Had he stumbled across a trespassing organist tickling the keys while he still could, or was an illicit funeral being conducted under the protection of nightfall? The man glanced around, expecting to see a hearse and carriages lurking in the shadows, but he detected none. Steeling himself, the officer edged towards the church. The music started to fade as the door opened to reveal the darkness within. We do not know how long the officer was standing there before the silence was interrupted by an invisible congregation exiting the church. The witness heard murmuring and footsteps, and even felt the ladies’ skirts sweeping against his legs. One account has the stricken officer fleeing from the scene during the invisible exodus, while another has him tarrying until the last mourner has gone before seeking help from a colleague. Returning, the men were greeted by a now silent church with its doors firmly locked. There must have been much scratching of heads!
The protagonist is presented as a level-headed man of the law, presumably to make the tale more credible, yet we only have the storyteller’s word for this. The officer may have chanced upon an organist exploiting the empty building, or the music may have come from a different building entirely. It is possible that he was a victim of his own imagination, or even partial to a tipple on a chilly night, which resulted in him hallucinating the whole affair. Or maybe the rumour wasn’t so innocent, perhaps he enjoyed pranking his colleagues and he made up the ghostly tale to scare them. Unfortunately, as with so many of these antiquated rumours, lack of detail makes it impossible to verify.
The mourning party appears to have a been a one-off occurrence, unlike the obligatory spectre donning a sombre cloak. This shrouded form used to slip from the church to tail passersby. Apparently flexible with her route, she would stalk them along Fossgate or Colliergate before melting away. Very accommodating, I hear you say, yet, like so many of these spectral accounts’ specifics remain frustratingly light. Hearsay fails to offer the most basic of particulars such as when she was first sighted, or how regularly - she may have been a routine haunting or preferred the ad hoc approach. We are also offered little with regards her physical appearance due to the temerity of her cloak, so we cannot assign her to a particular period. She might be a former member of the congregation, but it is also possible that she pre-dates the demolished church and its predecessors, and her connection is with the site rather than any ecclesiastical link.
While little is known about this cloaked lady, she is not the only female said to have once haunted this spot. A second woman, this one with a taste for music, would emerge from St Crux when York’s Waits walked past and trail them towards Goodramgate before evaporating. Cities and towns were once patrolled by Waits – mediaeval musical bands tasked with various civic duties. These tasks included acting as night watchmen, playing music to mark the hour, and adopting the role of a musical alarm clock, on wintery mornings. York’s Waits were abolished in 1836 when the police took up the mantel of guarding the streets, so this rumour must have been circulating before then. We do not know if she gave up haunting after York’s Waits disbanded, or whether she found other musicians to follow. York isn’t short of talented buskers, so she wouldn’t be left wanting!
While cloaked females’ attentions lay beyond St Crux another apparition’s concern remained firmly within. There are accounts of a pallid-looking peeping Tom, standing outside the church and peering in. Of course, it is entirely possible that this chap wasn’t a ghost at all, but some half-starved individual seeking comfort from a cruel world. Parishioners glancing at the window were probably shocked by this wane form and assumed it to be of an incorporeal nature. That was probably easier to accept than the reality of deprivation.
A second pale male said to have haunted St Crux did so within the confines of the building. People strolling by would sometimes catch sight of this tall, sallow figure staring blindly from beyond the pane. What people assumed to be a ghost, however, could easily have been a parishioner with a pasty countenance, who enjoyed watching the world go by. Perhaps he was hoping to capture sight of the ghostly peeping Tom! It would only take one witness to misinterpret what they had seen to sew the seed for paranormal activity. And, with hearsay’s habit of fostering expectation suddenly anyone who spied this face then supposed it to be supernatural. Presumably, any face would suffice if pale enough.
Not all the spirits associated with St Crux are nameless. Sir Thomas Percy, seventh Earl of Northumberland (and former owner of the helmet mentioned above) is the church’s most infamous phantom. Famed for upsetting Elizabeth I through his treasonous streak, she had him beheaded on Pavement in 1572. The earl’s body was interred in an unmarked grave at St Crux, and his head used to ornament Micklegate Bar as a warning to aspiring dissenters. One account has a loyal servant stealing the earl’s head, which he buried at Holy Trinity on Goodramgate, while another involves an untrustworthy domestic exhuming said head to claim a reward. A third version involves it being stolen and given back to the earl’s wife. She must have been thrilled!
Whatever happened to the earl’s earthly remains hasn’t affected his ghostly form apparently. His headless body is said to haunt several sites, including tripping over headstones in Holy Trinity’s graveyard. This decapitated apparition has also been spotted staggering along the Shambles towards St Crux, in search of his unmarked grave, although one could argue that his time would be better spent seeking his head.
While these anecdotal sightings have not been validated through empirical means, I’m also curious to know how the ghost has been recognized without the benefit of a head. Witnesses do not offer any distinguishing features in which to identify the earl, they simply assume it is him. Surely this headless form could be any number of prisoners whose pates decorated Micklegate Bar. If I’m wrong, however, and this really is the ghostly earl searching for his noggin, perhaps the next witness should mention his wife, well providing he can still hear without ears that is.
It is intriguing that the church’s burial ground on Hungate is overlooked by the paranormal. This quiet, little spot nestled between St Saviour’s Church and Lady Hewley’s almshouses lends itself to a ghostly tale or two, yet only cars and the odd pile of bricks now show any interest. 19th century burials have been exposed during various excavations, but there is no evidence of this if you walk past the site today. Perhaps Ms Mirabella Metcalfe, who was buried there in 1843, has taken umbrage at the lack of interest and now refuses to haunt this site. If she does have a change of heart however, along with the skill to move matter, she could always use the bricks to signal her displeasure. Car owners may think twice about parking on graves if their windows are vandalised.
And what of the church itself? Has a local ever chanced upon the shadowy Goliath making a reappearance? This magnificent form come back, albeit fleetingly, to reclaim its former spot. A fanciful notion, I hear you cry, and yet it would not be the first time a former house of God has materialised in the gloom, as Porter Biggleswade well knows:
‘On reaching King’s Square Porter was amazed to find a church obstructing her path. The building had been demolished many years ago to create the piazza, yet evidently its memory lived on. The door resisted when Porter tried it, but a low light was shining from within. Figures loomed above her, imprisoned in lead.
She was searching for another door when the sound of something being dragged made her pause. The nomad slowly emerged from the Shambles, tugging a sack filled with the spoils of excess. His occupation of rummaging through bins was a familiar sight to the residents of York.
Porter watched the man shuffle through the church, but when she tried to follow, she found herself rebuffed. Forced to walk round the building, Porter waited for him on the far side instead. The man’s sack clanked as he re-emerged.
The streets were no friend to an old man’s joints; he took an age to struggle down three steps. Catching his breath, he dragged his treasure down a snickelway and was gone.
Porter turned back to photograph the anomaly. Ghostly buildings were a rare phenomenon, yet clearly residual energy lingered here. Perhaps the anniversary of some event had triggered its appearance.’
(Shadows in the Mist by Amy Flint).
Phantoms haunted St Crux and its surrounds long before it was demolished, although the church in its latter years was the perfect setting for ghostly intrigue. Time and neglect had reduced it to a cold, empty shell, shrouded in an atmosphere of unease. It seems inevitable therefore that ghostly tales were inspired by this sad sight, which then pervaded a city’s psyche. One can only speculate about the facts behind the tales as we are not privy to the original accounts. Stories have a habit of becoming distorted over time, and even if we did have a so-called reliable record, we must remember how individuals interpret and recollect things differently – no one memory is the same. This makes eye-witness testimony notoriously unreliable especially with believers more inclined to adopt a paranormal slant to their experiences, much to the chagrin of skeptics.
If you ever venture down the Shambles to the former site of St Crux, take a moment to enjoy this tranquil little spot. You may catch movement out of the corner of your eye, but the phantom is likely to be a low branch caressed by the breeze. Scrutiny of St Crux sees its ghosts falling short, but their absence doesn’t detract from their appeal. Perhaps Mr Fisher returns in quieter moments to lament a project long lost, but it seems more likely that ghostly folklore haunts St Crux rather than ghosts themselves.