The English Civil War casts a long shadow across Oxfordshire. With Oxford claimed as a Royalist stronghold, the conflict divided communities and even families across the county. With so much blood being spilled on Oxfordshire soil, it's unsurprising that so many tales of ghosts and hauntings from across the county are associated with the Civil War. Here are seven of my favourites.
The ghost on horseback who haunts the village of Towersey near Thame is said to have been a cavalier who was killed while fleeing a nearby battle during the Civil War. He was hiding in a nearby barn when his horse neighed, alerting the villagers to his presence.
The villagers clearly supported the Parliamentary cause. They dragged the man out of the barn and either shot or beheaded him before burying his body in an unmarked grave at St Catherine's Church. His ghost is said to be seeing following the route from the barn where he was discovered to his final resting place in the churchyard.
The headless horseman has become something of a local icon in Towersey. The local Morris dancers use a headless horseman as part of their logo!
During the Civil War, Woodstock Manor (now Blenheim Palace) was a prized location for both sides in the conflict. By autumn 1649, the Royalist forces had abandoned the property and it fell into the hands of the Parliamentarians, who took great pleasure in converting King Charles's bedroom into a kitchen and the former Royalist council rooms into a brewery!
However, their time at the Manor was troubled by the activities of a poltergeist that became known as the 'Royalist Devil', who seemed to object to the Parliamentary presence at Woodstock. In October 1649, a shadowy spectre resembling a large dog was witnessed entering the manor. For weeks after this, furniture and logs were thrown about, walls were shaken, windows broken, servants were showered with ditch water and loud noises described as 'dismal thunderings' were heard.
Eventually the Parliamentarians could stand it no longer and fled the Manor. Some have suggested that local pranksters opposed to the Parliamentary cause could have been responsible for the haunting, but it remains one of Woodstock's most enduring supernatural tales.
The ghost of Francis Windebank is said to haunt the path known as Dead Man's Walk, which runs along the southern side of Merton College, Oxford. Windebank was a colonel in the Royalist army, though one who seemed to have prioritised pleasure over his military duties. He was attending a ball at Bletchingdon Park when the house was surrounded by Parliamentary forces.
Francis Windebank surrendered, and the Parliamentarians allowed him to leave and return to Royalist-controlled Oxford. However, the Royalists took a dim view of him not having stood up to the enemy. He was court-marshalled and sentenced to be executed.
According to two differing accounts, his sentence was either carried out against the wall outside the town hall, or in the Fellows Garden at Merton College. His ghost can be encountered either walking the length of Dead Man's Walk, or wandering the gardens of Merton College.
The headless ghost who haunts the churchyard of All Saints Church in Faringdon has caused some debate. Everyone agrees that there is a headless ghost; what they disagree about is who he is and how he lost his head!
The ghost is a man dressed in 17th century costume who was said to be often seen walking past the north wall of the church adjacent to Faringdon House for many years until a priest was able to 'lay' his ghost using bell, book, and candle.
One of the most frequent ideas about the ghost's identity is that he is a descendant of the Unctons, a local noble family. During the Civil War, Robert Pye Uncton senior found himself defending Faringdon House for the Royalists against Parliamentary forces led by his own son, Robert Pye Uncton junior!
During the battle, a cannonball is said to have demolished the spire of All Saints church. Some have speculated that if one of the warring Unctons got in front of said cannon, it could account for the ghosts missing head!
Froggledown Lane (sometimes called Frogwelldown Lane) is a bridleway running between Yarnton and Bladon in West Oxfordshire. Its claim to fame is that it was the scene of one of the most audacious military maneuvers of the Civil War, and it has ghosts to prove it.
In June 1644, the King Charles's army was holding the city of Oxford by a thread. Enclosed on almost all sides by Parliamentary forces that greatly outnumbered his own, the King was running out of options. Just when it looked like all hope was lost, the King settled on a risky plan: he would attempt to secretly move his entire army out of Oxford and away to safety under cover of darkness.
Against all the odds, his gambit worked. The Royalist forces managed to find a route west out of Oxford, past Yarnton and down Froggledown Lane to Bladon where they could cross the River Evenlode. By the time the Parliamentary forces realised they had left the city, the entire Royalist army had already passed Burford and was on its way to Evesham and safety.
It is said that if you go to Foggledown Lane on the 3rd June, the anniversary of the Royalist retreat, you will hear the ghostly sounds of an entire army in retreat: the stamping of thousands of boots, the thud of many hooves and the whispering of the soldiers as they pass by.
The grounds of the grand mansion called Bicester House is said to be haunted by a lady in white who was murdered by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War. The woman was left in charge of the house when she heard news that Parliamentary forces were heading towards Bicester.
Knowing the soldiers habit of looting, she acted quickly and gathered up all the valuables she could carry and dropped them in a nearby pond with the intention of collecting them when it was safe to do so.
Unfortunately for the women, the Parliamentary soldiers did not do a good job of hiding their dismay at the lack of loot. They took out their frustration on the woman, murdering her in cold blood.
The woman in white is said to still be seen on the anniversary of her murder, wandering the grounds of the house and the nearby streets looking for her hidden treasure!
Obadiah Walker was one of many Oxford men who suffered as a result of their allegiances during the Civil War. When Parliamentary forces besieged and took control of Oxford in 1646, Walker was Master of University College and a loyal Royalist.
Like many Royalist academics, he was expelled from his university position but thankfully spared his life. In spite of this, he stayed loyal to the Royalist cause, and after the Restoration he became advisor to James II. This also ended badly for Walker. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he attempted to flee England alongside the King, but was captured and returned to Oxford.
Again, his life was spared but his spirit was broken. He spent his final years living off what charity the college would provide him in his old digs, Room 1, staircase 8.
It is this room at University College that his dejected spirit is said to still haunt.
Yet another headless haunting from the Civil War is the ghost of Archbishop William Laud, who is said to haunt the library at St. John's College, Oxford.
Like Obadiah Walker, Laud was a Royalist who was captured by the Parliamentary forces. But unlike Walker, the Parliamentarians did not let Laud off so easily. Laud was accused of treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where the aged Laud was kept for many months while parliament tried to agree on what to do with him. Eventually they settled on a sentence: beheading.
After his execution, Lauds body was returned to be buried in the chapel at St. John's College, but it is the library of the college where his ghost walks. It is said that his headless ghost can be seen bowling his own head across the library floor!
It was a challenge to whittle down Oxfordshire's many Civil War hauntings to make this short list, and some great ghosts did not make the cut. Some which didn't make the short list include:
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