Watching for the Nearly Departed on St. Mark's Eve Apr 24, 2020 9:36:25 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Apr 24, 2020 9:36:25 GMT -5
Watching for the Nearly Departed on St. Mark’s Eve
‘Tis now, replied the village belle,
St. Mark’s mysterious eve,
And all that old traditions tell
I tremblingly believe;
How, when the midnight signal tolls,
Along the churchyard green,
A mournful train of sentenced souls
In winding-sheets are seen.
The ghosts of all whom death shall doom
Within the coming year,
In pale procession walk the gloom,
Amid the silence drear.
– James Montgomery, “The Vigil of St. Mark.”
The feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist is April 25th and as recently as the early 20th century, on the night before, a few brave souls in the British Isles still participated in a nightmarish ritual more horrifying than anything Halloween has to offer. In the dead of night, these courageous individuals would leave their homes, make their way to the church and wait either on the porch or outside near the main entrance, confident that at midnight, a procession of the shades of those destined to die within the coming 12-month period would glide past them into the house of God.
Why this gathering of the nearly departed took place on the Eve of the Feast Day of St. Mark, patron saint of lions, lawyers, notaries, opticians, pharmacists, painters, secretaries, interpreters, prisoners and those bitten by insects, is lost in the mists of time. However, British author and folklorist Jacqueline Simpson is of the opinion the practice dates to the 17th century, a time when the average life-expectancy was under 40 years and 12 percent of children didn’t live to see their first birthday. Childhood diseases and accidents took their toll as did influenza, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, typhus, smallpox and the plague. The Great Plague of London occurred in 1665 and there had been a major outbreak in the capital city in 1603, as well as scattered epidemics throughout the country. Nevertheless, some are convinced “church watching” started long before the 1600s, citing a 1608 record indicating a church in Walesby, Nottinghamshire, excommunicated a woman for “watching upon Sainte Markes eve at nighte in the church porche by divelish demonstracion the deathe of somme neighnours within the yeere.” It is likely the practice predated the 17th century by decades, possibly centuries.
Still, only those with a profound sense of curiosity, thrill-seekers and the few who reveled in the power such knowledge could bestow left their beds in the dead of night in hopes of discerning which of their friends, relatives and neighbors would be cut down by the scythe of the Grim Reaper in the year to come.
While the particulars of the ritual varied, basically, all that was necessary – other than nerves of steel – was that one be at the church by 11 p.m., remain silent, and wait for the parade of those marked to meet their maker in the near future.
Washington Irving, best-known for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” traveled to England in 1815 and while there, launched his writing career. Two of his works, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveler, are satirical and whimsical combinations of fact and fantasy and the latter centers on the Bracebridge family of Aston Hall near Birmingham in the West Midlands, where Irving visited.
In his tale entitled “St. Mark’s Eve,” Irving recalls a pleasant supper at the Hall during which the conversation turned to the supernatural. A parson in attendance that night regaled his companions with the story of an old superstition still practiced by some country folk in remote locations. According to the clergyman, “if any one would watch in the church porch on this eve, for three successive years, from eleven to one o’clock at night, he would see, on the third year, the shades of those of the parish who were to die in the course of the year, pass by him into church, clad in their usual apparel.” One elderly woman who claimed to have seen the procession “was an object of great awe for the whole year afterwards, and caused much uneasiness and mischief.” Another observer, “an old man ... of a sullen, melancholy temperament” had kept two such vigils, but died shortly after the third “very probably from a cold that he had taken, as the night was tempestuous.” Nonetheless, village gossip held “that he had seen his own phantom pass by him into the church.”
Similar incidents are recorded in old journals and diaries throughout Britain. One such report tells of a young Lancashire clergyman who had heard that on a certain night of the year, the souls of all for whom death was beckoning could be seen entering the local church. Curiosity got the better of him and he consulted an elderly village man rumored to be blessed with “second sight” and asked what measures he should take to gain such forbidden knowledge. Reluctantly, the old fellow instructed him to wait near the door of the church on the Eve of St. Mark and at the midnight hour, that which he sought would be revealed. On the appointed night, the minister made his way to the church and by the time the clock struck 11, he was comfortably seated on the porch, eagerly awaiting that which he wasn’t meant to see. When the clock commenced striking 12, he saw from the gate several wraiths of differing ages slowly making their way toward him. Terrified, he hot-footed it to the vicarage, jumped into bed and pulled the covers over his head, so horrified was he by what he had witnessed. Afterwards, he grew morose and his once inspirational sermons conveyed but doom and gloom. It seems that among the phantoms passing by him into the church that night was his own specter and within a few months, he was dead.
Although the location of the church where the young minister encountered his own soul is unclear, such occurrences were recorded in numerous villages.
An incident similar to that experienced by the young clergyman is said to have taken place at the Church of All Saints in Monkokehampton, a Devonshire village approximately seven miles north of wild and mysterious Dartmoor. One St. Mark’s Eve, a village man, known for his disdain for what he dismissed as nonsense, decided to wait at the church and see if the wraiths of those not long for this world would deign to visit. Not only did the dead-to-be manifest, he was among their number! Within a month, the daredevil was carried into the church for the last time.
One noteworthy account, which mentions the household of Sir Thomas Munson, occurred at the Church of St. Vincent (above) in Burton, Lincolnshire. The incident was documented by Gervase Hollis, who was told the tale by Mr. Liveman Rampaine, minister at Great Grimsby:
“In the year 1631, two men (inhabitants of Burton) agreed betwixt themselves upon St. Mark’s Eve at night to watch in the churchyard at Burton, to try whether or no (according to the ordinary belief amongst the common people) they should see the Spectra, or Phantasma, of those persons which should die in that parish the following year. ...
“About midnight, upon a sudden (as if the moon had been eclipsed), they were environed with a black darkness; immediately after, a kind of light, as if it had been a resultancy from torches. Then appears, coming towards the church porch, the minister of the place, with a book in his hand, and after him one in a winding-sheet, whom they both knew to resemble one of their neighbors. The church doors immediately fly open, and through pass the apparitions, and then the doors clap to again. Then they seem to hear a muttering, as if it were the burial service, with a rattling of bones and noise of earth, as in the filling up of a grave. Suddenly a still silence, and immediately after the apparition of the curate again, with another of their neighbors following in a winding-sheet, and so a third, fourth, and fifth, every one attended with the same circumstances as the first.
“These all having passed away, there ensued a serenity of the sky, the moon shining bright, as at the first; they themselves being restored to their former liberty to walk away, which they did sufficiently affrighted. The next day they kept within doors, and met not together, being both of them exceedingly ill, by reason of the affrightment which had terrified them the night before. Then they conferred their notes, and both of them could very well remember the circumstances of every passage. Three of the apparitions they well knew to resemble three of their neighbors; but the fourth (which seemed an infant), and the fifth (like an old man), they could not conceive any resemblance of. After this they confidently reported to every one what they had done and seen; and in order designed to death those three of their neighbors, which came to pass accordingly.
“Shortly after their deaths, a woman in the town was delivered of a child, which died likewise. So that now there wanted but one (the old man), to accomplish their predictions, which likewise came to pass after this manner. In that winter, about mid-January, began a sharp and long frost, during the continuance of which some of Sir John Munson’s friends in Cheshire, having some occasion of intercourse with him, despatched away a foot messenger (an ancient man), with letters to him. This man, tramling this bitter weather over the mountains in Derbyshire, was nearly perished with cold, yet at last he arrived at Burton with his letters, where within a day or two he died. And these men, as soon as ever they see him, said peremptorily that he was the man whose apparition they see, and that doubtless he would die before he returned, which accordingly he did.”
Approximately 25 miles north at Haxey on the Isle of Axholme, one St. Mark’s Eve, two men camped out at the ancient Church of St. Nicholas, founded in 1091. One fell asleep, but the other was wide awake when the ghastly assembly passed and lo and behold, one of the wraiths was none other than his dozing companion, who was dead and buried by April 24th of the following year.
Another Lincolnshire account – this one at Holy Trinity Church in Martin – was recorded by J. A. Penny in Lincolnshire Notes and Queries: “At Martin by Timberland over the river, I was told that many years ago, there was an old clerk who church watched and once when a farmer grumbled at the rates he said, ‘You need not trouble for you’ll not have to pay them’ nor had he, for he went home and died within three months of the shock.”
Of note, in some old Lincolnshire records, the spirits of those who are scheduled to die weren’t the only ones marching into the church on St. Mark’s Eve, they were joined by those fated to wed in the coming year. In 1936, Ethel H. Rudkin, author of Lincolnshire Folklore, wrote: “On St. Mark’s Eve all those who are going to die, or to be married, can be seen by anyone who watches in the church porch at Midnight, as they come into the church in spirit on that night.” Unfortunately, how those watching were able to tell the difference isn’t explained.
While the majority who waited at church doors on St. Mark’s Eve did so out of curiosity or for a lark, there were others who had less than noble intentions. In the East Riding of Yorkshire, one such individual was Old Peg Doo, who watched at Bridlington Priory – one of the great monastic houses of England prior to the Dissolution – and sold information concerning what she had allegedly witnessed to her neighbors. While there were those who would shell out a few shillings to ascertain if they were on Saint Peter’s list, an unscrupulous cunning man or woman could make much more by pedaling a spell or remedy to prevent the illness or accident that would cause one’s death. Additionally, the superstition could afford those with a malicious bent the opportunity to even the score with an enemy, as noted by Steve Roud, who wrote: “It may readily be presumed that this would prove a very pernicious superstition, as a malignant person, bearing an ill-will to any neighbor, had only to say or insinuate that he had seen him forming part of the visionary procession of St. Mark’s Eve, in order to visit him with a serious affliction, if not with mortal disease.”
There also are reports of the practice in the resort town of Scarborough, 20 miles north of Bridlington. Although there are no extant records of the particulars, legend has it that on occasion, a few fearless souls made their way up the hill leading to Scarborough Castle on the night of April 24th, stopping at St. Mary’s Church (above) to await the phantom parade. Those familiar with the lives of the Brontë sisters may recall that Anne, the youngest of the three sisters who wrote Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is buried in St. Mary’s churchyard.
In 1826, a resident of Whittlesford, Cambridgeshire, recalled an amusing incident that occurred April 24, 1813, when four or five villagers arranged to meet at the Church of St. Mary and St. Andrew to await the procession of spirits. Unbeknownst to the watchers, a local prankster learned of their plans and was hiding in the belfry. As the clock struck midnight, the rapscallion slowly tolled the bell, i.e., the passing bell that signifies a death in the community. The thrill-seekers, frightened out of their wits, scattered in all directions. The half-moon offered little light and one of their number ended up stumbling about among the tombstones and falling headfirst into an open grave.
The church frowned upon attempts to predict the future as evidenced by the aforementioned excommunication of the Nottinghamshire woman, but this alone didn’t seem to be much of a deterrent. Abject fear kept all but the bravest and most skeptical away from churches on St. Mark’s Eve, but for those who still weren’t discouraged, it was said that anyone who watched was required to do so every April 24th for the remainder of his or her life, as noted by Yorkshire folklorist Richard Blakeborough in 1898. “But them as does it once have to do it. They hold themselves back,” he wrote. “They’re forced to go every time St. Mark’s Eve comes around. Man! It’s a desperate thing to have to do, because you have to go.”
As recently as 1909, just a little more than a hundred years ago, a death divination in Freeland, Oxfordshire, was reported in The Times. As the church clock struck 11, a group of young people gathered in the churchyard and silently awaited the ghastly procession. In the same article, it was noted that Freeland children often ran around the church 11 times, but never 12, because to do so meant death within the year.
O ‘tis a fearful thing to be no more.
Or if to be, to wander after death!
To walk as spirits do, in brakes all day,
And, when the darkness comes, to glide in paths
That lead to graves; and in the silent vault,
Where lies your own pale shroud, to hover o’er it,
Striving to enter your forbidden corpse.
– John Dryden.
Sources: Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, edited by Robert Chambers, 1864; Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances ... by William Shephard Walsh; Supernatural England by Eric Maple; Haunted Churches of England: Ghosts Ancient and Modern by Graham J. McEwan; Daniel Smith, CornwallLive, April 22, 2019; Colton Kruse, Ripley's, April 24, 2018; In Search of Traditional Customs and Ceremonies: St. Mark's Eve, April 30, 2014; Ellis Jones, VICE, April 23, 2010; Ben Johnson, Historic UK; The Spirit of the English Magazines, Volume 5, April to October 1819; Lincolnshire Notes and Queries by J. A. Penny; Folklore of Yorkshire by Kai Roberts; The English Year by Steve Roud; Catholic Online; British Listed Buildings; St. Mary's with Holy Apostles Church; Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Freeland, Oxfordshire; and Find-a-Grave.