The Headless Horseman of the Staffordshire Moorlands is one of the best known pieces of folklore in the region, but where did it come from? Tracing the story of the horseman back through 650 years of local history by way of Victorian ghost sightings and Arthurian literature, we uncover the shocking true story of murder that lies at the heart of the spectres inspiration.
All of our local myths and legends have their origins. Travelling from distant parts on the roads of social migration, some will have morphed away from their original state into new regional variations. Others, born from the morality tales of our common past, have survived the erosion of the centuries primarily due to their ability to adapt into popular tropes of the fireside, providing us with all manner of haunted ruins and bogey men in the process.
Yet there are sometimes to be found other, altogether more opaque entries in our collections of folklore. These are stories that may initially present themselves in such a fantastically supernatural light that the idea of them belonging to actual history at first appears incredulous; and yet upon closer inspection, we may well discover that the details contained within them are so remarkably local that they conspire to suggest something else entirely. The remnants of long-lost folk memories. One such tale, and the one that had captivated me personally ever since I first heard it in the Roebuck pub in Leek in late 2006, is that of the Headless Horseman; the demonic jewel in the crown of Moorlands folklore.
Stories concerning the spectre that has been reputed to ride the old roads between Leek and Warslow to the abject terror of the locals have everything you could want from a local legend; horror, haunting and even eyewitness accounts. For me though, the real draw of the legend has always been the suspicion that it contained within it traces of something more.
Today, it is without doubt the most well-known legend of the Moorlands. This is largely thanks to the regularity with which it appears in the local press around Halloween, but also too perhaps due to the profile of the wider horseman tradition having found itself raised in recent years courtesy of its appearances in popular entertainment. From Tim Burton’s Hollywood blockbuster Sleepy Hollow to a fondness for the character in the video game industry and Japanese Anime, as characters of legend go, the headless horseman has most definitely been enjoying something of a day in the sun.
No matter where such examples of the horseman appear however, be them in folklore or entertainment, the vast majority will owe their aesthetic to a single figure of Irish mythology. With its black horse, skull encrusted carriage and whip made of human spine, the Dullahan has inspired a plethora sympathetic kin. Yet however trivial some of those characters may seem to be, their most striking trait - the missing head - is a signpost to the truly ancient nature age of the figure’s origin.
A commonly held belief amongst many ancient cultures was that the head was a cradle of the soul; the vessel in which the spirit of the individual resides.The Dullahan therefore represents a creature of the otherworld, wandering the earth in a kind of pre-Christian purgatory; its appearance said to forewarn ill fortune for all who see it.
Now at first, I totally understand that all this talk of ancient mythology may seem quite far removed from our headless rider of the moors, but on consideration, it provides an integral part in understanding what makes our own phantom so unusual. In almost all stories associated with the horsemen tradition, wherever they are found across the British Isles, the severed head is either carried beneath an arm or is in the process of being searched for; yet it does not receive a single mention in relation to the Moorlands legend. The weapon too, variously a whip, sword or axe, is typically carried aloft as the spectre charges about the landscape. But again, with the Moorlands phantom, the weapon it is not noted upon at all. Even the death carriage, a central feature in so many horseman tales that were doing the rounds throughout the nineteenth century - the time in which our own tale was at the height of its popularity - is found to be absent.
In reality, beyond its general association as a harbinger of doom, there is really nothing to connect our legend with the wider horseman tradition at all.
Whilst this lack of traditional motif is intriguing, it is the nature of the details that appear in place of the tradition that really serves to strengthen suspicions as to the nature of our own phantom’s origin; specific, colloquial details that point towards the creation of a legend entirely contained within the Moorlands itself. Details that we can study, courtesy of them having being recorded for posterity thanks to the diligent reporting of one local man more than 160 years ago.
During the mid-eighteenth century, John Sleigh had enjoyed a successful legal career. Registered at the Inner Temple, London, his life as a Barrister would afforded him the opportunity in later life to indulge his passions, one of which included local history. Still available today, although likely to set you back up to £1000.00 for an original edition, Sleigh’s 1862 History of the Ancient Parish of Leek is a vast work touching on every topic relevant to the area from geological speculations of the landscape to the origins of its historical buildings. As such, it provides a goldmine of material for anyone looking to inquire into the region’s past.
The creation of such comprehensive regional tomes was very much in vogue during the period, and alongside aside the more prosaic details contained within them, a section on the more curious traditions of the local population was often a highlight. Thankfully Sleigh’s work is no exception, and it his reportage on the rural customs of the Staffordshire Moorlands that provide us with a number of accounts concerning the local folklore of the time. It is in his introduction that the horseman gets its first specific mention in print;
"Ghostly legends and superstitions, still retain their sway over the minds of the denizens of those moorland wilds, more especially, the headless rider, who haunted the moors between Leek and Warslow…attested by so many credible living witnesses, that to doubt then would be worse than heterodoxy."
Sleigh’s use of the word heterodoxy sets a firm foundation or the accounts that follow, as it implies that whatever the reality of the legend, he found that the manner of the witnesses he encountered to be sincere. Three distinct accounts are then provided, drawn from Sleigh’s research around the area, the first of which being a formal recording of the most popular local tale concerning the horseman; and perhaps the one still best known in the Moorlands today;
"A man returning from Leek, perhaps somewhat market fresh sees before him, a little beyond Leek Edge, a neighbour on horseback, whom he hails for a request for a ‘lift’ homewards. No sooner, however, has he mounted behind him than to his horror finds that his companion is the goblin horseman.The discovery comes too late for away springs the horse, covering at a bound, fields, trees, hedges and ditches…the luckless wight at one moment feeling his feet brushing through the topmost twigs, and the next borne with whirlwind swiftness over the heath. In the upshot, he is found deposited at his own door, helpless and groaning, and so maimed and bruised that death in a few days puts an end to his sufferings.
In this initial report, a farmer is returning home from the market in Leek, drunk, when he mistakes a figure on the road ahead for a neighbour. Alas, it is in fact the horseman, who then sweeps the farmer across the countryside in a rollercoaster ride of over hedges and bushes before dropping him, dazed and confused, at his front door. The injuries inflicted upon him in the process are gravely serious, and he dies from them just a few days later. The account sets a tone, from which we will see, those that follow take their central themes of journey and surprise; details that will prove vital in connecting the dots later on.
The second telling concerns the story of a young man who seems to have had repeated encounters with the phantom during return trips from a neighbouring village; which I reproduce here in its totality due to the sheer joy of the antiquity of language contained within;
"Again a young swain from the neighbourhood of Waterhouses, visiting his sweetheart some three to four miles away, is so frequently joined in his expeditions with the phantom as to become familiarised with it to such a degree that, to adopt our informants expression, ‘they used to walk, agen’ one another.’ Mentioning to a friend what he was in the habit of encountering, he was induced to consent to his accompanying one night. By and by the horseman makes his appearance: ‘He’s here!’ ‘Where?’ whisper’s the friend, not having the gift of double sight - ‘Gi’s thee hand,’ and as soon as palm touched palm, the young man shrank back, affrighted on perceiving the ghastly stranger at his side."
The third and final account in Sleigh's work is an entry that is found to have a number of local variations; the story of a husband trying to deny his knowledge of the phantom to his wife, before conceding and confessing all;
"On another occasion, a rustic having to fetch the howdy wife from Warslow was unceremoniously joined on the road by the apparition. His horse trembled violently, the dog yowled and he himself broke out into such profuse perspiration that it settled in the shape of a heavy dew on the outside of his overcoat. On his arrival, the woman perceiving by his wild and disordered looks that he had had no ordinary journey, closely questioned him as to the nature of it, which at first he was unwilling to admit. She, however, consented to return with him, and they reached home without further molestation. On the following day the horse dropped down dead between the plough-sticks, and the dog, too, sickened and died. Ultimately seven clergymen, headed by the Rev John Reed, an old ‘familiar,’ were called in ‘to speak to and lay’ this betenoir of the moors; when he confessed that he was one of the four evil spirits cast out of Heaven and condemned to roam over he face of the earth, until the crack of doom release him from his terrestrial wanderings."
However fanciful these retellings may seem at face value, as mentioned earlier, it is in the context of such tales that the noted lack of embellishment or traditional paraphernalia is most striking - and again, I reinforce the point - it is an exception that sits in sharp contrast to the detail that are then found to be present; names, places and the clear metre of the local landscape.
Tantalisingly, the figure of Rev. John Reed that appears in relation to the apparent exorcism in the third account appears to be a genuine historical reference, with records attesting to a Reverend Reed being present at St. Lukes in the nearby village of Onecote during the 1830’s. It is an inclusion made all the more noteworthy when we see that a Reverend Reed is also mentioned in a secondary report concerning the horseman and what appears to be some form of similar exorcism.
Published in October 1880 by local newspaper The Sentinel as part of an article entitled Up and Down The County, a man named as William Hambleton - stated to be a member of Butterton Parish Council - gives his own take on the exorcism story and places it specifically to a farm on Douse Lane in the village of Onecote. Having first confessed to how he is “sure there’s something in it” due to how many people he has met that claim to have seen the horseman, Hambleton tells of how the Reverend and his band of clergy were called to a farm on Douse Lane following sightings of the spectre and reports that in their wake, a deceased farmers cart had taken to veering around the farm yard by means of “unseen propulsion.”
Douse Lane sits perfectly within the geography covered by the reports in Sleigh's work - namely the villages of Warslow and Waterhouses - a rural area in the east of the Staffordshire Moorlands where the county’s boundaries weave betwixt with those of the neighbouring county of Derbyshire. This area, whilst giving an initial focal point for the horseman reports, also firmly places the legend within the rural community, away from the growing metropolitan transformation of Leek in the mid-nineteenth century. This is important, as it gives real substance to the hypothesis that the horseman legend is not migratory and is genuinely local in its inspiration.
Throughout human history stories have been shared between people. Originally, no doubt most of these stories will have been specifically designed to keep people safe, passed on between generations and often in very literal terms. Over time however, as mentioned at the start of this piece, when different communities have had cause to meet or migrate these tales would find brand new audiences. As they did, details would change, locations alter and whole new legends would arise quite removed from the root of their original tale. It is the process by which much folklore survives, adapting to new environments. It is, for example, how there has come to be so many reports of “grey ladies” reported to haunt ruins in different regions even when the living version of the spectre had no historical connection at all to the location in question. In the Moorlands, key movements of people - and therefore their associated folklore - have found sponsorship on numerous occasions across its history, but two major instances stand out.
Although markets had been in existence during the eleventh century, between 1200 and 1349 the number exploded across England from around 50 to over 2000, in acknowledgement of the access they gave to unprecedented revenue for the authorities of the towns in which they appeared. Leek benefited early in the boom thanks to King John granting the town its charter in 1207; a mural in celebration of which is present today in the town’s Butter Market. The establishment of a sanctioned market meant that for the first time, interactions between communities otherwise relatively distant to one another became a regular occurrence, with the exchange of gossip likely to have been as much of an attraction as the trade itself. A further period of socio-economic migration would wash through the area as part and parcel of the changes brought by the arrival of the industrial revolution over five hundred years later, and with it would come stories and legends from areas much further afield than anything that had reached the Moorlands before.
Both of these events would have undoubtedly seeded new strains of folklore in Leek and its surrounding villages - and therefore it is striking that the horseman legend should not find itself present in surrounding regions too. Rather, it further suggests that the legend has always been a legend specific to the Staffordshire Moorlands.
There are a number of additional accounts concerning the horseman in existence and whilst they all offer their own fascinations, they tend to either be variations on those already recounted here or - as in the case of William Ferm of Bottomhouse, who is said to have dressed as the horseman to aid his work as a highwayman in the area before being hanged at Stafford - find no place in historical record at all.
What we do have however, thanks to Sleigh’s work, is strong evidence that there is something more to the Moorlands legend than pure myth making. I am not suggesting the reports should be taken as real eyewitness testament to the existence of a phantom rider, but I think their ability to qualify the depth of the horseman legend is beyond doubt. So, with such observations made, we are left to ponder the question of just where did our horseman legend come from? Apologies in advance, but it’s unavoidable I’m afraid. In order to move back through time as we look for clues as to the origin of the Moorlands horseman, we’re going to need a little maths! Given that the accounts included within Sleigh's work were likely collected in the field sometime shortly before its publication 1862, we can say with some certainty that by the year 1860 all traces of origin myth had long since faded away.
Therefore, assuming that a local person of 70 years old in 1860 could have conceivably heard the horseman legend from a grandparent, it is perhaps acceptable to assume that in the years of their grandparent’s youth - say around the year 1770 - any sense of origin myth was still missing, as surely if it were present in the tale at that point it would have made it to the years of Sleigh’s work relatively intact. From 1770 then we move back again and across a period of political turmoil that would surely have been packed full of opportunities for potential myth making around a phantom rider.
In the autumn of 1745 the Moorlands famously played host to Bonnie Prince Charlie and an estimated 6000 men, who passed through the region as the young pretender marched towards London from Scotland with the intent of claiming the crown for the House of Stuart. I say famously as it is an event that has left a lasting imprint on the area, particularly in the town of Leek itself, with numerous Inns - and in fact even the rectory of St. Edwards Church - holding dear to a number of stories connected to his men from the time in the town. A short while later, having turned back from Derby and undertaking a retreat that would eventually lead to the slaughter at the Battle of Culloden the following spring, his army again made its way across the Moorlands. Yet none of this has found itself in any way associated to the horseman legend.
The same can be said too of the period in the mid 1600s where the English Civil Wars caused significant upheaval across the area with various siege’s taking place throughout the Moorlands, the most noteworthy perhaps that of Biddulph Hall, where the parliamentarians called for the infamous “Roaring Meg” cannon to be brought north from Stafford to join the endeavour. Plenty of legends were born from the conflict, and yet a headless horseman - of which there may have well been a few actual examples - is not one of them, not even by way of providing a perfectly acceptable raison d'être; the rider lingering on in search of his head lost in battle being such a common theme found elsewhere. And so, as the timeline aligns we arrive a notion which suggests the roots of our legend may well predate the Civil Wars; the year 1643 being the date of the first major action in the region. Far from a dead end, it was while considering this timeline and weighing up further options for study regarding the local history of the area that something suddenly hit me. It was connection that does not appear to have been made before, but one that held real relevance in light of the journey back through time in search of an origin to the horseman legend.
There was of course another headless horseman connected to the area, albeit one firmly associated with fiction, and medieval fiction at that. A character that had come into existence almost five hundred years before Sleigh’s collected accounts were first published.
An Arthurian Possibility
Written in the late-fourteenth century, recent years have seen the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight become one of the most studied literary works associated with King Arthur and his fictional court of Camelot. In the piece, we lean of how one New Year’s Day at Camelot, before the feast, King Arthur asks his knights to entertain him with tales of adventure. At this request, a large green knight suddenly appears on horseback and rides into the palace. He wears no armour but carries an axe in one hand and a spring of holly in the other, offering the king and his nobles the chance to take part in a game which seems impossible for them to lose. If any man is brave enough, say’s the Green Knight, he will allow them to strike him once without retaliation…on the condition that a year and a day later, the knight will be allowed to return the favour.
Sir Gawain, the nephew of the King and the most eager of the group, asks for the honour of striking the Green Knight and subsequently takes off his head, to which the beheaded knight responds by picking up his severed head and holding it aloft before then reminding Sir Gawain that he will see him again a year and a day later as agreed at a location known as the Green Chapel.
A great journey is undertaken by Sir Gawain in his search for the location of the rematch, and plenty of adventures are had along the way before the story concludes. Seriously, its a monster piece of work - whole books have been written in its study - but the primary significance of this poem in relation to the Moorlands horsemen legend is in the locality of its authorship.
At a glance, the idea of there being anything like a relevant connection between a regional legend and a popular work of Arthurian literature may seem a leap too far - yet the circumstance of the poems creation strongly suggest the complete opposite. Experts in the field of medieval literature - including Poet Laurette Simon Armitage - unanimously agree to the poem having being written in a variation of Middle English known as North West Midlands. It is a dialect that was in use almost exclusively across the region of the Moorlands and its neighbouring Cheshire borders. Furthermore, consensus on the Green Chapel itself, the intended site of the beheaded knights chance of revenge, is that it’s real world location is in fact at Swythamley; the exact spot being the mystical moss-covered chasm of earth near the Moorlands border with Cheshire known as Ludschurch.
A very real contention is therefore presented that irrespective of however famous the poem of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight may be today, it’s origins and inspiration come from the very same area as that of which our horseman legend calls home; almost to the postcode. As such, we arrive at a point from which it appears that two separate stories featuring a headless rider have found themselves connected in the same landscape. Furthermore, presuming the hypothesis that it would take several centuries for the horseman legend to embed within the folklore of the Moorlands whilst also shedding any associated foundation myth was correct, the two legends could also have been created at a similar time.
Upon this realisation I suddenly found myself working pieces of a jigsaw I didn’t even release I had in front of me. Pieces may I add, that were seemingly conspiring to fall into place. If there was a traceable connection to be found though, something solid beyond circumstance, it could only emerge from considering the identity of the poem’s author. After all, at that period of time there could not be too many people in the local area capable of writing to a professional standard, let alone to do so whilst also having a sufficient knowledge of the Arthurian tradition. With the poem having being penned in the late-fourteenth century, to my mind there was only one vocation at that time that could have provided an author with the requisite levels of education, free time and means to create such a work locally; the author was surely a brother of a religious institution. The major religious institution of the time connected to the area being Dieulacres Abbey, that is where I would next take my search.
I would need to access a history of the Abbey in search of a connection. Given that the brethren of religious houses were the keepers of record for events during the period in question, I held hope that if such a connection existed, it may actually prove possible to find. I would be looking for a figure whose life and death contained specific characteristics connected to the horseman; my feeling being that both the legend and the poem may have been inspired by a single event or character. Giving serious thought to the specific criteria what I would be searching for, I would need not only a victim that was beheaded (clearly) but also a perpetrator who could carry out such an act with impunity; a detail that would account for the absence of any antagonist having remained connected to the legend. A tether to some kind of journey would also be advantageous, it being both a central theme of the nineteenth century accounts of the legend collated by Sleigh and a prominent feature of the poem in the lead up to Sir Gawain’s rematch with the Green Knight.
Additionally, the lack of detailed back story to the horseman legend would suggest that any suitable victim would likely not be lifted from the nobility of the area - they being the ones who tend to write the history books - but rather, they would likely be a figure connected to the day to day lives of its peasantry and common-folk. Most importantly of all however, I would be looking for an event of seismic impact to both the rural and ecclesiastical population of the time. A story of such gravity that for it not to have inspired a local legend would have been incredulous in the context of the times - and least we forget, if such an event was to have also have connection to the poem, it must have taken place before the year 1400.