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Vampires in British Folklore

Updated on February 1, 2015
Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna writes about folklore, magic, history and legends, focussing on British, Irish, Germanic, and Celtic cultures.

Le Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones (1897)
Le Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones (1897) | Source

Vampires in fiction have enjoyed great popularity, ever since Bram Stoker was inspired by Ireland's cholera epidemic of 1832, and penned his novel Dracula.

Prior to his birth, his mother had lived through horrific scenes of this outbreak in her home in Sligo, Ireland, and the young Bram would sit, darkly enchanted by her gruesome tales from before his birth [1]. Scenes of gaunt, half dead creatures with bloodied lips were described, along with tales of the dead rising from the grave.

The more rational explanation for these terrible sights was that there were so many dying from this epidemic, they were hastily buried for fear that their bodies would infect the living. Not all of them were fully deceased; instead being in a deep coma, awakening at some point and clawing their way out of the ground.

In 1897, "Dracula" was published, and the Victorians soon discovered the dark romanticism of a creature of the night more at home in the folklore of eastern Europe. With his home in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, Count Dracula travelled west to England, landing in a storm at Whitby on the north east coast, to follow his love of ages, Mina Harker. It was a tale that shocked, disturbed, and enchanted generations, and was to pave the way for countless more tales on the theme of the vampire. Gothic horror was born.

The vampire captured the imagination of the public, and soon the legends spread thanks to popular media. From the naïve cruelty of Nosferatu of 1922, to the slick and seductive Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice; vampires soon became firm favourites in horror to a worldwide audience. They inspired gothic glamour and vampish fashions, but their early origins were a far cry from the sleek and groomed aristocracy of the night.

Although rare, vampires did appear in British folklore, and they were as much feared as their counterparts in the far east of Europe. Prior to Bram Stoker's novel, folklore told of the dead that refused to stay within their graves. Whispered tales form the villages told of a fear of unnatural forces and undeath. These creatures brought with them nights of terror, and spread misfortune and disease. It is quite possible that some of these tales inspired Stoker with the lore he created around his infamous anti-hero, Dracula.

The Vampire's Grave, South Shields

William Brockie was born in Scotland in 1811. A poet and scholar, he entered into journalism and spent much of his life in north England. He spent much of this time studying and recording folk customs, and in 1886 published "Legends & Superstitions of the County of Durham".

Located about 50 miles north of Whitby, the site of Dracula's arrival on English shores in Bram Stoker's novel, County Durham is found on the north east of England, only a short distance from the Scottish borders.

Brockie recorded a rather grim tale from South Shields, with a precaution made to prevent a corpse from rising from the grave:

"In Mile End Road, South Shields, at the corner of a garden wall, on the left hand side going northward, just adjoining Fairless's old ballast way, lies the body of a suicide, with a stake driven through it. It is, I believe, that of a poor baker, who put an end to his existence seventy or eighty years ago, and who was buried in this frightful manner, at midnight, in unconsecrated ground. The top of the stake used to rise a foot or two above the ground within the last thirty years, and boys used to amuse themselves by standing with one foot upon it. The practice of driving a stake through the body of a suicide originated in the days when a belief in vampires prevailed. It was done to prevent the fiend from entering into the dead carcase, and reanimating it." [2]

It was believed that the soul of a suicide could not enter heaven, and often their troubled spirits were believed to be the cause of mischief until the ghost was laid by the local vicar or exorcist. Clearly the locals were concerned with the suicide victim rising up from the grave in full, with the folklore around this site describing the person buried there as not just a suicide, but also a vampire. The identity of this man was never recorded.

Used with kind permission by Lady Amaranth
Used with kind permission by Lady Amaranth | Source

William of Newburgh and the Undead

The earliest accounts in British folklore about creatures that show vampiric type behaviours were recorded in 1197 by William of Newburgh, a Canon of an Augustinian Priory in Yorkshire [3]. The dead were dying, but not staying down. Instead they took to plaguing the living, and dire steps were taken to make sure their menaces were ended.

According to his records, terror stalked the people of Melrose, Scotland, in the 1190s. A hedonistic friar who had served as a chaplain to the household of a local noble woman, died, and was buried in the local cemetery. But death would not stop him from desiring the pleasures he sought in life. Each night he would leave his grave and return to the noble woman's home, appearing in her bedchamber to mutter and moan. Naturally, this was a terrifying ordeal for the noble woman, and so she sought the help of the friars from Melrose Abbey. Agreeing to the task, the friars set forth for the graveyard, accompanied by two strong laymen from the Abbey.

They kept watch all night, and were about to give up. Only one friar remained on watch whilst his companions had returned inside to warm themselves. It was at this moment that it is said that the Devil caused the corpse to rise from it's grave. The deceased friar rushed at his living brother with a feral snarl. In one swift movement, the brave friar brought his axe up and drove his axe into the undead fiend. Chasing it to its tomb, the friar followed the moaning ghoul and noted how the grave opened of its own accord to allow its owner to return to safety, before closing up again before the friar could pursue further.

In safety of daylight, the friar and his companions exhumed the corpse. Dragging the now lifeless body from its tomb, it was noted that the corpse had been bleeding heavily. Was this caused by the axe blow, or by something else? The body was taken to Melrose Abbey, where outside the walls it was burned, with the ashes spread in the winds. The dead friar troubled the living no more.

Le Vampire, lithograph by R. de Moraine (1864)
Le Vampire, lithograph by R. de Moraine (1864) | Source

A similar tale was recorded by William from a castle named Anantis. There is no building in modern records that bears this name, and it is thought that he could have meant Annand in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, or Alnwick in Northumberland.

The tale goes that Castle Anantis was home to a wicked man. It seems his wife was not much better, as she had taken a lover. Her angry husband, spying on the pair, fell and was terribly injured. A priest was sent for to give him his Last Rites, but he refused to repent and receive the Eucharist.

He died shortly after, and despite being given a Christian burial, would not rest. Each night he would take to roaming, followed by a pack of barking dogs. The locals would not venture from their homes, as it was said that if they drew his attention they would be beaten black and blue.

His presence brought plague, and a terrible illness swept the lands where he roamed. Local officials and the priest were called in to decide how best to deal with this horror, but the locals could not wait for them to take action.

Two young men from the village snuck out one morning and dug up the corpse. They found that it was covered only by a light covering of earth, with its shroud torn to shreds. The face was grotesquely bloated and covered with blood. They struck the corpse with their spade and it gushed blood like a fattened leech. Continuing to hack at the body with their spades, they smashed the rib cage apart and tore out the heart which they ripped to pieces. The body was thrown onto a fire. After this the plague ceased, and the wicked man was seen no more.

William's account does not record what became of the wife and her lover.

Illustration of the Beast of Croglin Grange
Illustration of the Beast of Croglin Grange | Source

The Beast of Croglin Grange

In the historic county of Cumberland, which now forms part of Cumbria, comes a particularly disturbing tale. It appeared in Augustus Hare's "The Story of my Life" in 1900, whereby the author tells us how it was told to him at a dinner party in 1874 by Captain Edward Fisher [4].

The tale was told about how Croglin Grange had been owned for centuries by Captain Fisher's family, but they decided to let it out to tenants as the property was deemed too small for the Fisher family's needs.

Two brothers and their sister became the tenants who settled down in their new home. It was not until the following summer that things took a turn for the sinister.

On a particularly hot night, the sister found the heat stifling and could not sleep. She opened the shutters of the window and peered out into the night. Slowly she became aware of two lights amongst the trees that separated the garden lawn from the churchyard nearby. They appeared to be getting closer and eventually emerged from the trees.

The woman was struck by horror as she realised that these were the eyes of "a definite ghastly something" drawing closer each moment. Although she wanted to flee, she found that her terror froze her to the spot as the glowing eyes grew nearer. Finally she was able to turn to the bedroom door, and hastily began unlocking it. Her panicked attempts at escape were interrupted by the noise of scratching upon the window. Turning back towards it, she saw a hideous brown face with flaming eyes glaring in at her. She rushed from the window back to bed, but the scratching continued.

The noise suddenly ceased, but was then replaced by a pecking sound as the lead of around the window pane was being peeled away. A pane of glass did indeed then fall inwards, and the account tells us;

"Then a long bony finger... came in and turned the handle of the window, and the window opened, and the creature came in; and it came across the room, and her terror was so great that she could not scream, and it came up to the bed, and it twisted its long, bony fingers into her hair, and it dragged her head over the side of the bed, and - it bit her violently in the throat."

As the teeth sank into her neck, the woman was able to scream. The blood-curdling noise alarmed her brothers who immediately came to her rescue, breaking down the door to reach her. One stayed with the sister, whilst the other chased the creature back to the graveyard, where it disappeared amongst the tombs.

The woman survived, and suffered no ill effects, save the expected emotional trauma. She recuperated in Switzerland, and as they had leased Croglin Grange for seven years, decided to return. One of the brothers moved into a room close to her bedroom, and made sure his pistols were handy.

The next spring, in March, the sister was awakened by the familiar scratching sound on the glass. Looking to the window, she was alarmed to see the same hideous face glaring through the top pane. Her brothers were quick on the mark this time, and chased the creature away before it could enter. One of them shot his pistol, the bullet striking the fiend in the leg, but it again escaped, appearing to scramble into a vault.

The morning after, the brothers rounded up as many as they could muster, and broke into the vault which the creature had disappeared into.

"A horrible scene revealed itself. The vault was full of coffins; they had been broken open, and their contents, horribly mangled and distorted, were scattered over the floor. One coffin alone remained intact. Of that the lid had been lifted, but still lay loose upon the coffin. They raised it, and there, brown, withered, shrivelled, mummified, but quite entire, was the same hideous figure which had looked in at the windows... with the marks of a recent pistol-shot in the leg; and they did - the only thing that can lay a vampire - they burnt it."

Whilst this tale is terrifying, it should be noted that it bears many similarities with the Victorian penny dreadful of 1847, known as "Varney the Vampire" written by James Malcolm Rymer.

The Vampire's Grave, Malew
The Vampire's Grave, Malew | Source

An Immortal Terror

It seems that the fascination with vampires isn't going to go away. Legends continue, with new tales appearing as time marches on. Wild imaginations fuel most of these stories, but some too are based on strange happenings; a corpse that appeared to breathe during its wake, a reputation of a wicked person giving rise to stories of their evil powers after death, even through to fear of a strange place or odd person.

On the Isle of Man can be found The Vampires Grave. Located in Malew, folklore tells how for generations the grave has been known by this name. The legend goes that during the wake, when the funeral guests were paying their respects, the corpse began to cough. A stake was hastily driven through its heart to make sure it would not come back to life. One can only hope the victim really was dead at the time.

Children's superstitions also give rise to new legends and folklore. Over generations, their stories are passed down to their children, and playground lore often gives rise to new tales.

In Buckfastleigh, Devon, lived a rather nasty chap by the name of Richard Capel. He died in 1677, and stories arose about how the hounds of Hell gathered around his house and began baying for his soul as he lay dying at home. In a bid to save his soul, the man was buried deeply beneath the south porch of the local church. An altar-tomb was placed over this, which featured a small square chamber with iron grille that faced the church porch. It was recorded as lately as the 1990s how the local children would dare each other to place their fingers in the key-hole to feel Capel gnaw at them. Crosses of twigs have been left on top of this structure, and it is known by the local children as the Vampire's Tomb.

Another recent tale comes from Birmingham. Children would avoid a certain house on Cheverton Road, describing it as the home of the Cheverton Road Vampire. At night, some would even cross the road to avoid it. The explanation was for certain to be perfectly innocent. Some poor fellow, perhaps a little pale and gaunt looking, may have had nocturnal habits. Avoiding daylight in this manner so, he had given rise to a new local legend.

Whilst imaginations run riot, I can see no end to the legend of the vampire taking flight across Britain. Best to lock those windows, lest one come tapping at your glass...

Christopher Lee, famously cast as Count Dracula
Christopher Lee, famously cast as Count Dracula | Source

With thanks to Lady Amaranth for permission to use her image in this article.

Sources

[1] Independent.ie

[2] Legends & Superstitions of the County of Durham, William Brockie - ISBN 978-1293749340

[3] The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, Westwood & Simpson - ISBN 978-0141007113

[4] The Story of my Life, Augustus J. C. Hare, ISBN 978-1499673685

© 2014 Pollyanna Jones

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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Wow Pollyanna. What an amazing hub. I have always been a fan of the weird and wonderful, vampires included. You have one a great job here, I can't wait to read more of your hubs.Voted up.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you Jodah, I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed it. Thanks for taking the time to comment! There are so many strange stories in the folklore of the British Isles and Ireland, and I too love to learn all about them. I'm really looking forward to being able to share what I discover in my Hub articles.

    • Brian Langston profile image

      Brian Langston 2 years ago from Languedoc Roussillon

      A wonderful and gripping spooky hub again Polly. Feel free to pinch the photo of the British Museum vampire hunters kit from my Twitter page to add to your brilliant illustrations. Voted up and will be shared shortly....after sunset!

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Many thanks, Brian! It appears that there was quite a vampire craze among our Victorian ancestors...

    • Randy Horizon profile image

      Randy Hirneisen 2 years ago from Philadelphia

      Interesting hub on vampires and well written. Another great hub written by you. Thanks.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks Randy!

    • wildbluefrontier profile image

      Nathan M 2 years ago from Tucson

      I had heard of Varney the Vampire, but had never read any of these stories before. Interesting that vampire lore goes back that far.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
      Author

      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      It surprised me that they only really took off in their modern form in the 19th Century. I am sure the Victorian tourists brought a lot of strange and inspiring stories back home from Europe.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 23 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      I come from the North East of England but I didn't know about the County Durham connection. I don't suppose we'll ever get tired of vampire stories - all those fangs and stakes through the heart. Great stuff. Voted up.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 23 months ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you! Funny how so many of these are from "up north"!

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