I have always been fascinated by the sheer number of legends attached to many of our ancient churches and ecclesiastical buildings.
Every ruined abbey and nunnery it would seem, has a spectral monk and ghostly nun originating no doubt from the turbulent days of the dissolution of the monasteries. In many pre-reformation churches, there are carvings of strange demoniacal figures that serve as fascinating reminders of the conflict between the early Christian church and belief in the old pagan gods.
When Christianity was first introduced to Britain in the sixth century, many churches were built on the site of existing pagan temples. This practice was instigated by pope Gregory, who in a letter to Abbot Mellitus in AD 601, writes: "I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed."
This was done in the hope that people would continue to frequent their traditional places of worship and gradually convert to the new Christianity. Of course, this did not happen overnight, the process took many centuries, but the church by adopting and Christianising many of the pagan festivals and traditions eventually won the battle for hearts and minds. Problems arose, however, when priests attempted to build new churches away from old places of worship. This often resulted in the foundation stones of the new church laid during the day being destroyed or moved at night by persons unknown to a traditional place of worship.
In Lincolnshire the best example of a church moved by night is St. James & St. John`s, Dorrington. The story goes that a Saxon named Totchi tried to build a church near the playgarth, (the village green) using the stones from an existing pagan temple which stood on a hill about half a mile away from the village. However, during the night all the stones the builders had laid that day were mysteriously moved back to the hill top. Undaunted, the builders moved the stones back to the village only to find that the next morning the stones had again been moved back to the hill. And so it was again on the third day. And that is why, according to the legend, Dorrington church stands on an isolated hill top so far from the village.
An inhabitant of Dorrington told the late Lincolnshire folklorist, Ethel H Rudkin that there was a "glacial erratic similar to Drake Stone at Anwick (which is situated outside the south gateway of Anwick Churchyard) close by and it is likely that the ancient stone is incorporated into the foundations of Dorrington church. Evidently the influence of the old religion was strong in the locality, as the name "Dorrington" means "Daronwy town" Daron being the pagan god of thunder. The Playgarth in pre Christian times was the place for ritual dances of which the dance round the Maypole was the last to survive into modern times.
The location of Dorrington church made it an important meeting place for witches and warlocks. One notable witch, " Mrs H" was often said to be seen running around the graveyard in the shape of a hare, and a curious legend says that if you look through the keyhole of Dorrington church at midnight on St. Thomas eve, you will see the Devil playing marbles.
(Above) a sculptured frieze depicting the Last Judgement. above the east window of Dorrington church.
Another church built on a place of former pagan worship is All Hallows church, Horsington, (now gone) where it used to be said that on All Hallows Eve, 31 October, at midnight, twelve blue lights rise from a mound where the old church used to stand, and divide themselves into groups of three.
Three went to Bucknall, three to Stixwould and Waddingworth and three to a barn at the back of the old rectory at Horsington which served as a church until a new one was erected in the village.
The legend possibly derives from a folk memory of the November 1st fires lit on the site of All Hallows Church in pre-Christian times to mark the beginning of the new year. In many cultures 1st of November had an altogether darker significance, as this was when the spirits of those who had died in the year moved on to their appointed place.
At Glentham Church there is an old superstition that says if you drop a pin in the keyhole of the church door, then run seven times around the church without stopping, you will meet the Devil.
There are numerous variations on this particular legend. For example in the church yard of St. Thomas a Becket, Digby, can be found the tomb of Robert Cooke, a wealthy Eighteenth century squire locally renowned for his generosity and wild parties. Indeed such was Cooke's reputation for revelry that when he died at the age of seventy two, it was said that he continued to party beyond the grave.
To hear the ghostly squire all you have to do is to run backwards twelve times around his table shaped tomb and if a party is in full swing you can hear the chink of glasses and the sound of merrymaking. It's worth pointing out however, that there are two Robert Cooke's buried side by side, so for the benefit of those wishing to eavesdrop on the old squires spectral party, listen at the tomb of the older Robert Cook.
The tiny medieval church of St. Peter's Markby, near Alford, is the only surviving thatched church in Lincolnshire. Legend says, though I do not advise putting it to the test, that if you run around the church three times at midnight, then hammer a nail in the door, a ghost will appear, and with it hundreds of nails previously hammered into the door, each nail signifying failed attempts to exorcise the ghost.
Lincolnshire's best known legend, that of the Lincoln Imp, the tiny grinning stone gargoyle situated in the Angel Choir of Lincoln Cathedral is so well known that I hardly need to repeat it here. Less well known is the following legend recorded in "County Folklore V" (1908); Attached to the two magnificent rose window in Lincoln cathedrals known as "The Eyes of the Church":
"A native of the city of Lincoln has just mentioned to me that two of the circular windows,
the "Dean's Eye" to the north and the "Bishops Eye" to the south, in the cathedral have the legend of the master mason and the apprentice attached to them. The elder man designed and built a window of great beauty but his subordinates work. the "Bishops Eye" proved to be so much finer in conception and execution that besides himself with jealousy, the master flung himself from the scaffold on which he was standing and perished on the floor below. Certain dark stains are still pointed out as the traces of his blood. On being cross questioned the person narrating the story adds that she is not quite clear as to its tragic conclusion, the master either committed suicide or murdered the apprentice in his rage. Either way there was death by violence, and the marks of a man's life blood, which will never wash out are visible, although it is said they "look a good deal more like furniture polish than real blood."
The legend of the master mason and the apprentice is also attached to an elaborately carved font in St James, Frieston, near Boston, and the skilfully carved Prentice pillar in the Fifteenth century chapel at Rosslyn, West Lothian, Scotland.
The recurrence of themes, as the reader will have no doubt observed is typical of numerous tales associated with many religious buildings countrywide. For example, the winds blowing round Boston Stump said to have been raised by the Devil after a fight with St Botolph, echo a similar tradition attached to Lincoln cathedral and other churches on the continent.
In all probability, legends such as these originated from itinerant peddlers and tradesmen, who spread their stories by word of mouth. It seems that in certain locations, some of these tales have taken root with subtle alterations for local character and colour.