Haunted by the Headless Earl….!
This marvellous illustration is called Headless Horseman Speedy by Jonake920
I love a ghost story on New Year’s Eve, and so here is one to send some shivers down your back. No, it is not a sample of my fiction-writing—well, not quite—but is actually said to have happened back at the end of the 14th century.
It began on Friday, 21 September 1397, the Feast of St Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, when Richard Fitzalan, 4th/11th Earl of Arundel, was executed at the Tower. At least, that’s when the eerie part of the tale commenced, but of course there had been events beforehand. Briefly, King Richard II was son and heir of Edward, the Black Prince, who died before his father, King Edward III. So, at the age of ten, Richard succeeded his grandfather. From the outset he was belittled and ruled by his uncles, especially John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. This was all very well when Richard was a child, but as he grew up, the reins were pulled remorselessly, and he was constantly constrained by tutors, guardians…and uncles!
He began to form friendships with the young men of his class, and their extravagance—plus the dazzling titles and honours he heaped upon them—caused resentful, disapproving rumbles among the older nobles, eventually resulting in the outright opposition of five aristocrats in particular.
Arundel is on the left.
They were called the Lords Appellant, and included Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, with whom Richard had never got on. They were chalk and cheese, and it has to be conceded that Arundel was tactless and could be unfeeling, such as when he arrived late at the funeral of Richard’s queen, and then asked to leave early. Much as I like Arundel, and I do, I’m on Richard’s side for thumping him one and drawing blood! Arundel was one of the wealthiest lords in the land, a gallant, hot-tempered, popular man, but he simply did not like Richard II.
The Appellants were ruthless with Richard’s friends and supporters, and much blood was shed. The shackles around Richard were tightened, and—not unreasonably—he resented it. He bore malice, and bided his time. Eventually the day came when he could reassert himself and take a bloody revenge.
The royal net closed around them, and they were eliminated one by one—including Richard’s own uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Plus, of course, the Earl of Arundel, who did not go meekly or fearfully. He was not a man to take anything lying down. A successful admiral, whose exploits had gone down very well with the populace, Arundel was the one aristocrat the commons lauded, so when he was misled by Richard into coming to court, where he was immediately arrested for treason, the people did not like it. To them it was a shabby trick by a shabby king. An increasingly unbalanced king at that, for by this late period of his reign, Richard was undoubtedly ill in some way, mentally, not physically. Well, that is my opinion, anyway, and he has my sympathy.
But so does Arundel, who was brought before the king in a special hall that had been purpose-built at Westminster Palace. There Arundel was confronted by a court that included lords who had now formed a new set of Appellants, to appeal against the original Appellants. The charge was treason.
Richard, his long-awaited moment of revenge upon him at last, was seated in splendour on a throne, with a considerable number of his infamous Cheshire archers massed around him. Arundel was clad in scarlet robes, with a belt around his waist, and the first order from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who led the prosecution, was to have both his robe and belt removed, to signify his disgrace.
Arundel protested that he was not a traitor, and that the king had previously granted him a full pardon for all that had gone before, but Richard now revoked it. It was a shocking and shameful move, and what followed was a grotesque parody of the earlier court that had condemned Richard II’s friends.
But if the king thought he would intimidate Arundel, he was very much mistaken. Richard Fitzalan was the very personification of chivalrous courage, and he got the better of every verbal exchange with John of Gaunt and the king, much to their fury. I will not go into details. Suffice it that Arundel had been pardoned, and was therefore in the right. Richard, having wrongfully revoked that pardon, was in the wrong. Arundel was found guilty of treason and condemned to immediate execution.
Richard II accompanied by his Cheshire archers
Treated cruelly by Richard’s Cheshire archers, the earl was trundled ignominiously through the streets of London toward the Tower, with crowds of people lining the way, cheering him and cursing his enemies. His hands had been bound, and he asked if they could be freed so that he could distribute the gold in his purse to the people. His bonds were loosened, but not freed. He maintained his dignified, courageous composure all the way, not showing any sign of weakness or fear. ‘…no more shrinking or changing colour than if he were going to a banquet…’
“Sharpen well your axe,” he instructed the executioner, then knelt, ready for death. The executioner raised the axe, and….and this is when a strange and miraculous thing was said to have happened, because as the earl’s head was severed with one stroke, his body rose of its own accord and stood there. A great hush fell over the awe-struck gathering, the archers fell back, terrified, and a priest recited the Lord’s Prayer. Arundel’s blood-stained, headless body remained there, only falling when the last Amen was uttered.
“A miracle!” someone cried. Someone else shouted that Arundel was a true martyr, and the word was taken up. There was a great furore as the brutal archers scrambled to put the earl’s head and body in a rough coffin on a cart, and took it away to the Church of Augustinian Friars in Bread Street.
Arundel was laid to rest as hastily as possible, but if Richard thought that would be the end of it, he had another shock awaiting. The people began to flock to the tomb, and more miracles were said to have taken place. A cult came into being, and there were calls for the earl to be sanctified. Such were the crushes of pilgrims at the church that the friars could hardly keep control.
Then a new, even more astonishing story began to circulate…that Arundel’s head had re-attached itself to his body. This reached Richard, who was already unnerved by the public’s disapproval of what had been done to the earl. He was suffering terrifying nightmares, in which Arundel’s ghost came to berate him.
The tenth night after, Richard woke again in a sweat, his heart pounding with dread, and could bear it no more. He had to know if the earl’s head was indeed attached again. He sent for his nephew, Thomas Holland, Duke of Surrey, and instructed him to go to the church and have the tomb opened. Holland obeyed, although with a sinking heart, because he too had heard of the miracles. He had no wish to anger the Almighty by tampering with the grave of a man who might soon be a saint.
What Surrey found was that, yes, the earl’s head was re-attached to his body, but it had been sewn in place. Who would do such a thing? Who would dare? And how? For the tomb had not be tampered with. The wild claims were dashed, and Richard issued a proclamation that quashed the whole story. He hoped.
The king was still afraid, and still beset by nightmares and visions. He ordered Arundel’s body to be removed from the tomb and buried elsewhere, anonymously, beneath paving. No one knew where Richard Fitzalan had been finally laid to rest. Gradually the adulation subsided, although no one forgot the gallant Earl of Arundel. Least of all Richard II, who remained haunted by him until the day he died. Which was sooner than his expected span, because two years later Richard’s throne was usurped by his Lancastrian cousin, son of the by then dead John of Gaunt. Richard himself died mysteriously at Pontefract Castle and his body was brought south to London.
The usurping cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the new Duke of Lancaster, had been one of the original five Appellants but survived to tell the tale. While Gaunt still lived, Richard did not dare to do too much to Gaunt’s son and heir, but the moment the old duke died, Richard banished Henry and seized the immense Lancastrian estates. Henry came back to England with an army, and Richard was captured without much trouble. Henry then “obliged” Richard to hand over the crown before being imprisoned at Pontefract. Henry then became became King Henry IV, the first monarch of the House of Lancaster.
(viscountessw: No, I do not necessarily accept that anything supernatural really happened when Arundel was beheaded, but it was widely believed at the time. And if it did happen, what a heart-stopping sight it must have been. Small wonder that a cult grew around the miraculous and popular Richard Fitzalan, 4th/11th Earl of Arundel.)