Oxford’s Eeriest Ghosts
It feels like just one of those ancient clichés, yet the seemingly age-old saying “things that go bump in the night” is probably less than 100 years old.
Not without its fair share of wannabe authors wishing to take credit for its gloriously evocative invention, its most obvious originator is widely regarded to be a traditional Scottish prayer:
“From ghoulish and ghosties, And long-leggedy beasties, And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!”
Whatever the truth of its origins, it has certainly come to form an integral part of the supernatural lexicon, doubtless by very virtue of its seemingly benign but unsettling allusion. We can be grateful that in Oxford, we are lucky enough to enjoy more than our fair share of ghastly spectres and otherworldly spirits, which is why the challenge to unearth some of our county’s more ghoulish ‘inhabitants’ has proved so deliciously gleeful.
Having set the stage, then, let us revel in some of Oxfordshire’s most diabolical hauntings…
Spooky St Giles
The headless spectre is the cliché of any gothic tale worth its weight in ectoplasm, shuffling around old castles or crumbling manors where history and time weigh on the environment like moss on a gravestone. As Oxford’s history stretches back into time as one of England’s oldest cities, it can boast of its own cranially challenged phantom. William Laud was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of his death, executed on Tower Hill in London on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. He was beheaded in 1645, accused of ‘subverting Protestantism’. Educated at St John’s College and former chancellor of the university, his bones are buried under the altar of the chapel in his alma mater. But of course, it doesn’t end there – on certain nights his ghost is said to be seen roaming the halls, especially in the library, where his eerie torso has been witnessed carrying a candle and kicking its own severed head across the floor.
Shiver indeed, for on any given night, frequenting the numerous darkened market towns of Oxfordshire can be eerily transportive, as bygone eras creep out of the shadows and stones. Finding yourself alone at night in Faringdon is no different; only you might not be alone with those thoughts. The Coaching Inn is one spot for ghostly sightings – stained in the blood of history, it boasts, amongst other things, an underground tunnel which leads to a nearby church, rooms which were once prison cells, and a fireplace where a young boy was supposedly killed by his mother. It shouldn’t surprise, then, to learn that ghosts of the boy and his murderous mother are rumoured to prowl the inn. Not far away, All Saints’ churchyard is said to be haunted by Hampden Pye, a navy man who was decapitated at sea in the 17th Century by a cannonball. His body lies within the hallowed grounds in which he roams.
The expanse and beauty of Port Meadow gives way across the Thames to the ruined abbey of Godstow, which sits like a wilting flower. Its collapsed walls and missing roofs do little justice to the once elegant and spiritual home of St Thomas’s chapel and the Nunnery. A sacred place, it is said a shadow now lingers over the site. Indeed, come every May 1st, phantom singing can apparently be heard drifting across from the now derelict chapel.
But that’s not its only ghost: the spectre of Rosamund Clifford reportedly haunts the grounds as well. Clifford, who died in 1176, was the renowned beauty and mistress of Henry II, who retired to Godstow. Her tomb was located within the chapel, but was banished outside the grounds by the Bishop of Lincoln after Henry II’s death. That tomb was later destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries, perhaps unsettling Rosamund’s spirit along with her bones.
Creepy Clifton Hampden
If “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, the resident spectre of The Courtiers house can attest to that. Supposedly one of the most haunted places in Oxfordshire, it’s all thanks to the love-rat ways of Sarah Fletcher’s husband, a naval captain, who tried his hand at polygamy and attempted to also marry a wealthy heiress. It is said that Sarah, who clearly had a flair for the dramatic, burst into the church mid-ceremony and brought the whole thing to a scandalous halt. Her husband then disappeared to sea, never to be heard from again. For heartbroken Sarah, it was clearly too much, and she hung herself from the couple’s four-poster bed. Today it’s claimed that if you see her – and you surely will – but ignore her too, she will either scream and shriek like a Banshee or hang limp and lifeless from the bed.
Scary St Ebbe’s
Reassuringly, not all apparitions wander between this life and the next, looking for lost limbs or loved ones. In fact, many believe those who were particularly unkind while living are cursed to spend eternity in the body of an animal, and this certainly seems to have been the case at The Black Drummer Inn in Oxford. No longer standing, it once occupied a prime location on St Ebbe’s Street where guests complained of being kept awake by the sounds of a squealing pig. Initially this sounds like an amusing haunting, but the spirit was extremely malevolent and would often destroy luggage and even bite those that entered its room. Thankfully it was driven out of the hotel when a local gentleman unearthed a suspect corpse, hacked it to pieces, and (nothing to suggest an overreaction here) set it ablaze.
Beastly Broad Street
A black page in Oxford’s history book is the burning of the Oxford Martyrs in 1555. Among others burnt at the stake in the heresy trials which raged across the country in the time of Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor were bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer (the Archbishop of Canterbury) who were tried for their alleged Protestant heresies at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the University of Oxford’s official church on the High Street.
They were found guilty and sentenced to be burnt at the stake (Cranmer months later).
A cobbled cross now marks the spot on Broad Street just outside Balliol College where they were killed, and scorch marks can still be found on the heavy wooden doors of the college (now located inside).
300 years later, a permanent Victorian stone memorial was erected at the south of St Giles to memorialise their sacrifice and martyrdom. But as you might expect, the intensity of this fiery execution has left certain ‘spiritual’ bruises and at dusk, especially in autumn, phantom flames with shadowy figures behind can briefly be seen on Broad Street.
Baleful Banbury Road
He doesn’t have a Christian name, which is odd since his crimes were so dreadful – instead of being beheaded, Napier was torn limb from limb, with each appendage then sliced into handy fillets that were scattered across the city. Just how fiendish his crimes were have dissolved since his reign of terror in the 16th century, but it has been claimed over the intervening centuries that having recovered most of his body, his headless torso can be spotted flitting in and out of the shadows along Banbury Road – even during daylight hours – in search of his head.
Restless Radcliffe Infirmary, Woodstock Road
The famous Radcliffe Infirmary is of course now closed, but toward the end of the 90s, a story started to leak out about a particularly eerie apparition. Home in its later years to the pioneering Oxford Eye Hospital, the Radcliffe made history when penicillin was first tested on patients there in January 1941.
Fast forward nearly 60 years and several patients supposedly complained their beds were being ‘bumped’ during the night – hard enough to wake them. A few spoke of feeling a ‘presence’. This, however, was not news to the nurses, who told them that the room they were in was haunted by an old lady who would sit by their bedsides as if to offer comfort. They also added that the room’s heating system was also broken and that even after repairs, the system would break again within the day.
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