I moved to York nearly ten years ago and am still to tire of the place. One of my favorite haunts is the York Museum Gardens, which hosts some impressive symbols of the city’s past. The hospitium, observatory and the Yorkshire Museum quietly keep St Mary’s Abbey company. The latter, whilst ruinous, is still a significant reminder of York’s long ecclesiastical history. The Benedictine order built a church here in the 11th century, which was succeeded by the abbey two centuries later. Perhaps the order was keen to establish if it could tolerate the locals before committing to such an extensive building program. Whatever it's motive, the abbots had great wealth and power until the arrival of Henry VIII. The abbey suffered, like so many, under the king’s dissolution of the monasteries – what remains merely hints at its former glory.
It is hardly surprising then that a Black Abbot is rumored to haunt the site. Ancient coffins sprouting like weeds ‘decorate’ the flowerbeds; perhaps he is a displaced former occupant who roams the ruins, lamenting being evicted for a second time. While sightings aren’t restricted tonight, one could forgive him for favoring the quieter hours, especially as he shows no interest in the living. No sounds, smells, cold spots, or any other phenomena are associated with this solitary form. He is not mischievous or malicious, but apparently content to go about his business while the living undertakes theirs. He is seemingly little more than a video, flashing snippets of his daily routine.
It is curious that reported sightings of the Black Abbot are few, yet the rumor persists. The abbey’s romantic state certainly lends itself to fanciful notions, especially when framed with the British climate. Who wouldn’t feel uneasy at the sight of monumental masonry emerging from a cold November mist? Yes, I quite agree, it really is the perfect setting for a specter. One can only wonder at his contemporaries. Did they also chance upon him while stealing a quiet moment, or is he a modern phenomenon?
Of course, ghostly monks are not exclusive to York. Glimpses of robed men have been reported throughout the British Isles. Prestbury near Cheltenham is one such place, where a Black Abbot claims the churchyard, but will also brave the High Street on occasion. Maybe it is our very own shadowy form taking a holiday! Borley Rectory in Essex, which caught the attention of the famous ghost-hunter Harry Price, is also no stranger to hauntings of a religious nature. Destroyed by fire in 1939, and demolished five years later, the rectory is said to have been built on a Benedictine monastery. An ill-fated love affair between a monk and nun resulted in the monk being executed, and the nun bricked up alive. A grisly tale indeed! Witnesses spoke of the ghostly pair haunting the property, while poltergeist activity also plagued the building.
Back in Yorkshire, the Black Monk of Pontefract is the stuff of legends. This shadowy figure tormented the family of four who moved into 30 East Drive in the 1960s. Foul smells, flashing lights, and the sound of heavy breathing were the least of their worries, for this ghostly intruder also had a talent for flipping furniture and slashing pictures. Some believe it was the ghost of a monk who was executed near the property for rape and murder. What a relief then that our own Black Abbot isn’t prone to bouts of anger.
Sightings of monks at random spots may reveal former religious sites. The ‘lost’ church of All Saints in Fishergate, York is such a place. Abandoned during the dissolution, it was rediscovered and excavated in 2007. Roman and medieval burials were exposed, along with ten mass graves dating to the English Civil War. Remains buried in the apse are thought to be those of an anchoress who lived at the church during the 15th century. This site gave me an idea for a case for ghost-hunter Porter Biggleswade in ‘The Haunting of Delavere Hall’, while she also sees the ghost of a young boy at St Mary’s Abbey in my latest book ‘The Ghosts of Kings’ (www.porterbiggleswade.com). York’s ghosts are an endless source of inspiration!
Part of St Mary’s abbey’s defensive wall survives, its scale a reminder of the greatness of the place. St Mary’s Tower is set into the wall at the corner of Bootham and Marygate, and I filmed here recently for ‘Anna and Amy Investigate’. Anna, who is paranormally sensitive, sees a ghostly figure by the tower outside the abbey’s grounds. Known endearingly as Anna’s ‘Woman in White’, we are investigating whether she fled York Asylum (now Bootham Park Hospital) to seek refuge at the tower. I would be interested to know if anyone else has ever seen her, either within the tower, or the abbey grounds.
One may assume every ruined abbey has a ghostly monk, for they certainly offer the perfect cocktail of history, atmosphere, and rumor to fuel the imagination. Yet, it is strange that I haven’t come across any further accounts of disembodied chanting, or shadowy groups praying in the nave. Isn’t it odd that the Black Abbot is the only monastic figure sighted at the abbey when so many have graced the site over the years? What makes him stay?