“It is said that the best way to be converted to a belief in ghosts is to make the personal acquaintance of one . . .”A. A. Clinnick, Old Cornwall, 1931
Accounts of a village parson bravely pitting his wits against evil spirits from the underworld or doing battle with pesky ghostly apparitions is not unique to Cornwall I am certain, but the tales of these daring acts seems to be particularly prevalent in the south west. My research has gathered together the stories of roughly a dozen parsons in Cornwall who were known as ghost layers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Men who cast out demons and performed exorcisms of places or people haunted by the dead – Cornwall’s exorcists.
These accounts are completely fascinating in so many ways, of course on one level they are delightfully ghoulish stories to be told by candlelight at Halloween, but they also give us incredible insight into the lives of Cornish people hundreds of years ago – their worries and fears, their foibles, their way of thinking. Above all, however, I think it is the representation of the clergymen themselves that fascinates me the most. They are portrayed as these darkly powerful men, often with supernatural, otherworldly abilities. For them there appears to have been a very fine line between their actions as a Christian minister and the world of the occult and the dark arts. These clergymen were sometimes referred to as ‘conjuring parsons’ aligning them as much with magic and mysticism as with the church.
Parson Thomas Flavell, the Cornish rebel with Second Sight
“Earth, take thine Earth, my Sin let Satan havet
The World my goods; my Soul my God who Gavet;
For from these four – Earth, Satan, World and God –
My flesh, my sin, my goods, my soul, I had.”The strange Inscription on a brass plate marking the grave of thomas Flavell
The Reverend Thomas Flavell was the vicar at Mullion Church for around forty years, until his death on 26th October 1682, aged 77 years. He was a staunch Royalist, described as a ‘man of singular courage and boldness’ who during the Civil War vowed to give up shaving until the King was returned to his throne. Consequently he had a very long beard! He is also said to have incited his Cornish congregation to rebel against the Parliamentarian forces in 1648.
“Thomas Flavell, Vicar of Mullion, who – following in the footsteps of an earlier generation of West Cornish rebel“The Gear Rout”: The Cornish Rising of 1648 and the Second Civil War, Mark Stoyle, 2000
clerics – put himself at the head of his parishioners and led them into battle. Flavell (whose participation in the rising has gone unnoted by past scholars) was clearly a remarkable man. A renowned exorcist and layer of ghosts, his own shade is said to have troubled the parish of Mullion long after his death. As late as the nineteenth-century, the spot where his spectre had finally been laid to rest was still pointed out to the curious: some measure, perhaps, of the local reputation that Flavell had enjoyed during his life-time.”
Flavell was said to have been turned out of his house by Cromwellian forces and forced to flee with his wife, Ursula, and their many children. He was eventually allowed to return to his parish and resume his duties as vicar and was said to have had a ‘distinguished career’ in the church. But beyond rebellion one incident in particular cemented his place in Cornish history.
Flavell was a well known ghost-layer and apparently a powerful one, who was summoned to settle restless spirits all across West Cornwall. He charged a substantial fee for his work, five guineas, which equates to about £100 in today’s money, a huge sum for a poor family. On one occasion he was asked to exorcise a ghost that had defied all other attempts and because of the large sum of money involved the two men who had hired him decided that they wanted watch Flavell in action. Neither told the other that they were going to be there however . . .
“On the night of the ceremony they were posted behind different gravestones, each wholly unconscious of the presence of his friend. At the appointed hour Flavel [sic] arrived, armed with a heavy whip and a book of divination. Crack went the whip and both the spies started in fear! Each caught sight of the frightened face of the other and in dread alarm at what seemed a ghostly appearance ran as though for life, leaving the vicar to settle accounts in his own fashion with the spirit.”Ghost-Layers & Ghost-Laying, Rev R Wilkins Rees, 1898
Flavell was said to keep a library of books on the ‘Dark Arts’ which helped him to do battle with evil and is also credited with having ‘second sight’, the ability to see the future or distant events without being present. This power is one that has several other parson ghost layers are said to have been gifted with but given the period, it seems a problematic, even dangerous ability for someone to admit to. The Pendle witch trials had occurred less than 30 years previously but I suspect that his gender and the cloak of respectability that being a ‘man of God’ gave him protected Flavell from any accusations of witchcraft.
There is another fascinating account which has been held up by many champions of the powers of these parson ghost-layers as proof of his marvellous skills. Apparently Flavell was in church one morning taking a service when his servant entered the study at his home and foolishly opened one of his book on ‘the black arts’. Somehow by doing so this servant managed to release a whole legion of evil spirits. Flavell was immediately alerted to what was happening by his second sight and, leaving the startled congregation behind, ran to the vicarage. The poor servant girl was still in the library, cowering with fear and being tormented by the forces of evil. Flavell immediately grabbed the book she had opened and began reading passages of it backwards, at the same time striking the air with his stout walking stick. The spirits apparently vanished. Later marks on the servant girl’s body were held up as further proof of what had occurred.
Parson Robert Jago & his demon groom
No spirit walking the earth could resist the spells laid upon him by Jago . . . many a night wanderer has been put back into his grave, and so confined that the poor ghost could never again get loose.”Popular Romance of the West of England, Robert Hunt, 1881
According to Robert Hunt the Reverend Robert Jago was able to converse with the ‘invisible world’ and the people of Wendron, where he was the vicar in the 17th century, believed him to have supernatural powers. Hunt wrote that the whole community was frightened of Parson Jago. They believed he had second sight and would use his powers to see if they were behaving themselves! He was able to instantly pick out a thief in a crowd and any guilty person felt instantly compelled to confess their sins the moment he looked at them. It seems to me that Jago ruled over his parish with a fist of iron, perhaps creating this terrifying persona to keep his congregation in line.
The most famous story about Parson Jago is also the most bizarre. He is said to have had spirits which waited on him and were in effect his servants. These ghosts were invisible to everyone until the clergyman commanded them to appear.
The parson rode far and wide over the moorland of his parish. He never took a groom with him, for the moment he alighted from his horse he had only to strike the earth with his whip and up came a demon-groom to take charge of the steed.”
As for his ghost-laying skills, Jago reportedly exorcised a ghost who had been haunting a local farmer. Close to Wendron there is a crossroads on a road called Rowes Lane. The crossroads was supposedly the final resting place of a man called Tucker who had taken his own life. ( Sadly victims of suicide weren’t allowed to be buried in consecrated ground at that time.) According to the story the lane was haunted and avoided by local people after dark but the farmer, coming home drunk from market, decided to walk down it and began shouting ‘Arise, Tucker!’. This he did several times and eventually Tucker’s ghost appeared and from then on would not leave the farmer alone. Jago was sent for and was able to lay the spirit on Tucker to rest with ease.
The first record I have found of Robert Jago as the vicar of Wendron dates from 1641. He was there until his death in 1685, after which his son, also called Robert, and then his grandson John Jago were the vicars of Wendron. In 2006 a single leaf folio entitled The Original Exorcist – Rev. Robert Jago dated 1682 was sold at Mullocks Auctioneers in Church Stretton, I would love to know what the document contained!
Parson Richard Dodge & the Headless Horses
There are a number of common methods that the ghost-layer parsons seemed to use. They supposedly conducted their exorcism ceremonies in Latin because it was the language that ‘struck the most audacious spirit in all the world with terror’. Many of them carried whips or walking sticks for protection or as weapons. They used books containing dark, mystical knowledge, not for mere mortals like ourselves. Often they would banish the offending ghost to some strange place or into another form such as an animal or an inanimate object, or curse them with some Sisyphean task.
Reverend Richard Dodge was the vicar at Talland Church near Polperro from 1713 to 1747. He was known as a powerful ghost layer who had encountered the Devil himself. He was said to be able to send a troublesome ghost ‘to the depths of the Red Sea’ with just a nod of his head. This was a trick also attributed to Parson Singleton who was said to have bound the ghost of Mrs Baines of Chapel Street in Penzance to spin ropes out of sand for a thousand years or until she had made one long enough to stretch from St Michael’s Mount to St Clement’s Isle at Mousehole.
Dodge’s meeting with the Devil is supposed to have occurred at Blackadon. The vicar was called in to help his fellow ghost layer Parson Abraham Mills, vicar of Lanreath, who was having some problems vanquishing a phantom coach with headless horses. Dodge went to his friend’s aid and the two men kept a vigil overnight on the moor. When the ghostly coach appeared Mills was knocked to the ground insensible and Dodge saw the coachman, the Devil himself, standing over him. Such was his power however that at the mere sight of our parson the demon cried “Dodge is come! I must be gone!” The coach, headless horses and all vanished never to be seen again.
A lovely aside to this story is that some local people now believe that Parson Dodge was in league with the local smugglers and that he cultivated some of his ghostly stories to keep prying eyes from seeing the contraband goods being moved along Bridle Lane, a road leading from Talland beach to the church.
Parson William Woods & the Demon Crow
The parson changed the Evil One into the shape of an animal and then belaboured the infernal beast lustily with his hunting whip until it ran away howling . . .Notes from ‘an Old Celt’, Penzance, 18th Dec 1878, Cornish Telegraph
Parson Woods was the vicar of Ladock Church, but he was also an occultist and astrologist as well as revered in the area as a skilled exorcist. He is reputed to have carried an ebony walking stick with a silver knob that was engraved with a pentacle. The stick also decorated with a silver band around the shaft onto which was etched mystical figures and planetary symbols.
According to Alex Langstone, Woods was well respected in his community and his advice was sort on everything from physical ailments to social problems or spiritual ones. Woods is said to have been very popular with the youngsters in his parish, he encouraged the playing of hurling and was the keeper of the silver ball. He was also instrumental in keeping the tradition of Cornish wrestling alive, he quoted as saying:
“A knowledge of the science of wrestling is as necessary as that of boxing to give one a ready means of self-defence. Besides, it is a respectable exercise from antiquity . . . The Cornish should be proud to excel in this exercise, for the remembrance of the great Corinous from whom they are said to derive their pedigree!”
Reverend Woods was the vicar at Ladock for more than forty years from 1704 to 1749. One of his most famous encounters happened at his own church. A demon took the form of a crow with coal-black plumage and fiery red eyes. The bird was exceedingly cunning and would annoy the parson by persistently perching on the church tower. During services it would make strange, hideous noises upsetting the congregation and, heaven forbid, induced the children to laughter! Apparently after several attempts to rid himself of this menace the poor clergyman was driven to despair.
At last he came up with a plan, it was well known (apparently) that evil spirits couldn’t stand the sight of innocent children, so the vicar arranged for twelve infants from the village to be brought to the church for baptism. He paraded the babies and their mothers beneath the belfry door so that the demon crow could see them. At first the plan seemed to have no effect, until some of the infants began to cry and then the evil spirit was dislodged and “with a screaming noise, louder and more hideous than that produced by the dozen children, the bird took to its wings and disappeared, never again troubling the church”.
Not entirely sure what I think of this story . . . Crow annoys vicar, is scared away by crying babies . . .
Parson William Rudall & his magic circle
“In the West Country, particularly in Cornwall, there was a tradition of conjuring parsons, clergymen who practiced the binding of demons and the ‘laying’ of ghosts. In the West Country . . . a magic circle was known as a ‘gallitrap’ and making such circles to trap and command spirits was the work of the conjuring parson.”Magic in the Landscape, Nigel Pennick, 2013
The story of this parson is confused by the fact that his name has a number of variations. Rundle, Ruddell, Rudall, I’m not entirely clear which is correct but let’s go with Rudall.
William Rudall became the vicar at Launceston in 1663 and a couple of years later in the summer of 1665 while attending a funeral at South Petherwin he was asked by a man called Bligh if he could talk to his son who had become ‘morose and silent’. Rundall agreed to meet the boy at their home at Botathan Farm.
It transpired that the lad was being terrified by the ghost of a former neighbour of theirs, Dorothy Dingley. He told Rudall that she would appear to him on his way to school each day as he crossed a field known as Higher Brown Quartils. According to Rudall’s own diary he returned to Botathan and he even spoke to Dorothy himself. He was able to ascertain that she was haunting the spot because of “a certain sin”. Rudall wrote that he took some time to prepare himself to lay the spirit and then returned to the field on 12th January 1665. He wrote:
“At early morning then and alone, for so the usage ordains, I betook me toward the field . . . First I paced and measured out my circle on the grass. Then did I mark my pentacle in the very midst, and at the intersection of the five angles I did set up and fix my crutch of rowan. Lastly I took my station south . . . I waited and watched for a long time. At last there was a kind of trouble in the air, a soft and rippling sound, and all at once the shape appeared and came on towards me gradually. I open my parchment scroll and read aloud the command. She paused, and seemed to waver and doubt . . . then I rehearsed the sentence again sounding out every syllable like a chant. She drew near my ring but halted on the brink. I sounded again . . . She was at last obedient and swam into the midst of the circle . . . All this while I confess that my knees shook under me and the drops of sweat ran down my flesh like rain. But now, although face to face with the spirit, my heart grew calm and my mind composed. I knew that the pentacle would govern her and the ring must bind until I gave the word.”From the Diary of William Rudall
There are a number of things I find fascinating about this description, firstly how vivid it is and secondly how close Rudall’s actions seem to out and out witchcraft.
Parson John Richards & his Whip
Many of our fearless parsons seem to have carried either a walking stick or a whip in order to “do battle” with these pesky spirits. John Richards, the curate at Camborne from 1778 to 1816, was no exception. Richards was considered an expert in the field of ghost laying and was said to always carry a whip with him.
One evening two miners were coming home from work late and as they took a short cut through the graveyard of Camborne’s parish church they were startled to find Parson Richards in the South Porch. He was vigorously waving his whip and evidently infuriated to be interrupted as he was in the process, he said, of laying the ghost of Lord de Dunstanville. Enraged at having his concentration broken the story goes that Richards forgot the exorcism entirely and, whip raised, chased the terrified miners all the way to Crane Castle on the coast – roughly three miles away!
Above are the stories of eight of Cornwall’s parson ghost layers. There are several others that deserve a mention, including Parson Polkinghorn who cursed the spirit of Wild Harris to count blades of grass, Parson Samuel Gurney of Warleggan feared for his supernatural powers, Parson Corker the devil-driver of Bosava and the Methodist minister John Wesley who is said to have laid a random ghost to rest while on a visit to St Agnes.
Where the banished spirits went after the work of our indominable conjuring parson’s is not entirely clear. As well as being banished to the depths of the Red Sea these men could apparently ‘seal up’ a ghost in a room or even in a tree. Rev. R Wilkins Rees suggested that a ghost “might be laid for any term less than a hundred years” in any place that was convenient such as an old oak, the pommel of a sword “or a barrel of beer, if a farmer or simple gentleman, or a butt of wine, if a county magistrate, a squire or a lord.”
Whatever your beliefs in the afterlife there can be no doubt that the existence of demons and ghosts was very real to our ancestors. As a consequence the powers of their parsons was equally real to them too, it is therefore little wonder then that their names and deeds are still remembered hundreds of years after their deaths.