The Phantom Rebel
In Search of the Headless Horseman of the Staffordshire Moorlands
The Headless Horseman of the Staffordshire Moorlands is one of the most well 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 medieval murder that lies at the heart of the spectre’s inspiration.
All of our local myths and legends have their origins. Travelling from distant parts on the roads of social migration, many will have long since 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 bogeymen 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 signs of something else entirely; the remnants of long-lost folk memories.
I believe that one such tale, and one that has captivated me ever since I first heard it in the Roebuck pub in Leek in late 2006, is that of the Headless Horseman of Butterton; the spectral, if somewhat sinister, jewel in the crown of Staffordshire Moorlands folklore.
Today, the horseman represents the best known legend of the region, and it's been that way for the better part of 100 years, with an annual ‘hunt’ for the spectre having been established as a tradition of the Leek May Fair by the early 1930s. Modern familiarity however, is primarily provided courtesy of the regularity with which the old tales of the phantom appear in the local press around Halloween, and it is these tales, collected by local antiquarian John Sleigh in the 1860s, that provide the first real seeds of distinct fascination regarding the horseman of the Moorlands.
Headless riders, wherever they are found in our collections of lore and legend, tend to share a group of relatively well defined common characteristics that owe a heavy debt to a figure of Irish mythology known as the Dullahan. The stuff of nightmares, this is a creature that carries its head in one hand while the other holds aloft a whip made of human spine, as it charges around the landscape on a skull-encrusted carriage, foreshadowing ill fortune for all who see it. It is in this image that we find the genesis of those classic horseman motifs of legend.
When there is notable deviation from this archetype to be found, it is almost always that the head is missing, and this, in turn, is usually accompanied by that most popular raison d'être of the headless horseman being a restless spirit, forever searching for a head that was severed in battle.
Yet our horseman, beyond its general association as a harbinger of doom, not only fails to share any of these expected characteristics, it also appears to lack any origin story at all. These observations, when placed together with the lack of any similar horseman legends being present in the neighbouring boroughs and regions, conspire to suggest something quite remarkable; that the legendary horseman of Butterton may have been born wholly within the folk-psyche of the local community.
As to the search for how and why this might be, there is surely no better place to start than with the details of those accounts collected by John Sleigh more than 160 years ago.
Having enjoyed a successful legal career during the mid-eighteenth century, registered at the Inner Temple, London, Sleigh was able to indulge many of his passions in retirement, one of which was a serious interest in 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 of Sleigh’s writing, and alongside the more prosaic details contained within them, a section on the curious traditions of the local population was often a highlight. Thankfully Sleigh's work is no exception, and it is his reportage on the rural customs of the Staffordshire Moorlands that provide us with several accounts concerning the local folklore of the time, his introduction to which introduces the horseman as a key feature of the topic;
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 them would be worse than heterodoxy.
Sleigh's use of the word heterodoxy sets a firm foundation for the accounts that follow, as it implies that whatever his personal perception of the legend, he found the manner of the witnesses he encountered to be nothing but sincere. Three distinct accounts are then provided, drawn from his research around the area, the first of which is a formal recording of the most popular local tale concerning the horseman, and the one most often recounted in the area today;
A man returning from Leek, perhaps somewhat market fresh sees before him, a little beyond Leek Edge, a 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 the horseman, who then sweeps the farmer across the countryside in a rollercoaster ride 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 go on to see him to perish just a few days later.
The second entry in the collection concerns the story of a young man who seems to have had repeated encounters with the phantom during return trips from a neighbouring village, and relays the events of an occasion when he was joined on his journey by an inquisitive friend;
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 informant's 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 one found to have several 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 the face of the earth, until the crack of doom release him from his terrestrial wanderings.
These are the accounts from which our modern perception of the legend is drawn and however fanciful they may seem at face value, it is in the context of such tales that the lack of any embellishment or traditional paraphernalia should be noted as genuinely striking. It is an exception that sits in sharp contrast to the detail that is found in its stead; names, places and the definite, 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 is a genuine historical reference, with records attesting to a Reverend Reed being present at St Lukes in the nearby village of Onecote during the 1830s. 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 William Hambleton - given to be a member of Butterton Parish Council - gives his own take on the exorcism story and places it specifically at 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, the deceased farmer’s cart had taken to veering around the farmyard by means of ‘unseen propulsion’.
Leek Edge, Onecote, Waterhouses and Warslow are all locations which firmly place the legend within the culture of the rural community and mark Sleigh's accounts as being distinctly removed from the day-to-day influences of the nearby market towns of Ashbourne and Leek. Both towns were undergoing something of a metropolitan transformation during the mid-nineteenth century following the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, and it is difficult to imagine how tales of the horseman would have remained absent from community gossip (which would result in the creation of additional lore) in such comparatively large population centres, if the origin of the phantom belonged to any kind of drifting, migratory process. Instead, the reports leave little doubt that the origin of the legend does indeed belong to the history of the Moorlands, and to a time far more distant from us than that in which they were recorded by Sleigh.
Given that the accounts included in Sleigh's work were likely collected in the field sometime shortly before its publication in 1862, we can say with some certainty that by the year 1860, not only was the legend entrenched in local folklore but that, crucially, as there is no historical element attached to the horsemen, all traces of origin myth had long since had chance to become detached.
Therefore, assuming that a local person of 70 years old in 1860 could have conceivably heard the horseman legend from a grandparent, it is logical to assume that in the years of their grandparents youth, say around the year 1770, any sense of origin story was already missing, as if it were present in the tale at that point, it would surely have made it to the years of Sleigh's work in the field. From circa 1770 then, we must move back again, and as we do, we traverse a period of political turmoil that was packed full of opportunities for potential myth-making around the image of a headless rider.
In the late autumn of 1745, the Moorlands would play host to Bonnie Prince Charlie and an estimated 7000 Jacobite soldiers who passed through the region as they marched from Scotland with the intention of re-claiming the throne for the House of Stuart. After leaving the Moorlands, and deciding to turn back when they reached Derby only to find that their anticipated support had failed to materialise, the Jacobite army would retreat to Scotland, once more passing through the region in a journey that would eventually lead to their slaughter at the Battle of Culloden the following spring. There are various accounts of local militia forces having come into conflict with the Jacobite army as they made their way through the area, and yet none of them have resulted in a horseman legend.
The same too can be said of the period in the mid-1600s when the English Civil War caused significant upheaval across the area. Plenty of local legends were born from the conflict, including massacres at Bagnall and sieges in Biddulph, but yet again, a headless horseman is not to be found anywhere amongst the relatively well-attested folk history of the conflict across the region. And so, as we travel on this timeline we must arrive at the likelihood that the legend of the horsemen, so entrenched in local lore by the 1700s, has its origin before the Civil War.
It was after reaching this point in my research, as I considered next steps, that something hit me. There was of course, another headless horseman tethered to the area. A character that had come into existence almost five hundred years before Sleigh's collected accounts were first published. However unlikely a connection it seemed to me at first, it was something that I simply could not ignore.
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 court. It's a mammoth piece of work, literally and intellectually, and whole books have been written in its study. There's no way my description here will do it anything like justice, but the key details tell of how one New Year's Day at Camelot, before the feast, King Arthur asks his knights to entertain him with tales of adventure. No sooner as he asked this when a large figure dressed in green appears on horseback and rides into the court. He wears no armour but carries aloft an axe in one hand and a sprig of holly in the other, offering the King and his nobles the chance to take part in a game that seems impossible for them to lose.
If any man is brave enough, he says, he will allow them to strike him once without retaliation; on the condition that a year and a day later, he 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 challenger and swiftly decapitates him. The Green Knight however, non-plussed, responds calmly, picking up his severed head and reminding Gawain that, as agreed, he will see him again a year and a day later.
The immediate significance of this poem in relation to the Moorlands horsemen legend is not necessarily found in the detail of the encounter itself, but rather in the distinct regionality of the poem's authorship and the locality of the rematch. Experts in the field of medieval literature including Poet Laurette, Simon Armitage, unanimously agree to the poem having been written in a variation of Middle English known as North West Midlands; a dialect that was used almost exclusively across the region of the Moorlands and its neighbouring Cheshire borders. Furthermore, consensus on the location of the rematch - a place known in the poem as ‘The Green Chapel’ - is believed to be found near to the modern Cheshire-Staffordshire border at Swythamley, in the moss-covered chasm of rock found there, popular with ramblers and dog-walkers, called Ludschurch.
Irrespective of however famous the poem may be today, that its origins and inspiration come from the very same area as that in which our horseman legend finds its home is of little contention. As such, it would seem that two separate stories featuring a headless rider had come to find themselves rooted in the very same landscape, and - presuming my 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 - at a very similar time.
Upon this realisation, I suddenly found myself working pieces of a jigsaw I didn't even release I had. If there was a genuine connection to be found, something solid, it would most likely emerge from considering the identity of the poem’s author. After all, at that 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 sufficient knowledge of the Arthurian tradition. With the poem 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; the author was surely connected to a local religious institution, and that major religious institution of the time was Dieulacres Abbey.
I would need to access a history of the Dieulacres, and I would be looking for a figure whose life and death contained specific characteristics connected to the horseman. Giving serious thought to the specific criteria that I would be searching for, I would need not only a victim that was beheaded, but also a perpetrator who could carry out such an act with impunity. This was a detail that would account for the absence of any antagonist having remained connected to the story of the spectre.
A tether to some kind of journey across the landscape would also be advantageous, as it is both a central theme of the nineteenth century accounts collated by Sleigh and a prominent feature of the poem in the lead up to Sir Gawain's rematch. The lack of detailed back story to the horseman legend would also suggest that any suitable victim would likely not be lifted from the nobility of the area. Rather, they would likely be a figure connected to the day-to-day lives of its peasantry and common folk.
Most importantly of all though, I would be looking for an event of such seismic impact to both the rural and ecclesiastical population of the time that the idea that it would not have left a considerable mark on the oral history of the area would be simply incredulous.
And finally, if such an event was to have a connection to the poem, it must have taken place before the year 1400. Armed with a copy of Michael Fisher’s 1984 book Dieulacres Abbey and access to various court records of the period, it was time to dive in.
Throughout the Middle Ages, religious houses and their brethren were hugely influential characters in the lives of those that lived alongside them. From agriculture to education, healthcare to justice, their hand was to be found wielding influence in virtually every aspect of day-to-day life, and so was the case in the Staffordshire Moorlands.
It can prove difficult to picture now, as all that remains of Dieulacres Abbey is the repurposed masonry of a nearby farmhouse and a few lonely lumps of stone in a field beside the suitably named Abbey Inn restaurant, but the Moorlands was once home to one of the most powerful religious houses in all of England.
Founded around the year 1214, Dieulacres had an unusual beginning even by the standards of the thirteenth century. Cistercian monks, originally located at Poulton in Cheshire, had been relocated to Leek following the ghostly dream of a powerful local figure, Ranulph de Blondeville, Earl of Chester. In his dream, the Earl is said to have been visited by his grandfather, who told him that moving the Poulton monks to a new site at Leek would provide a lasting solution to the increasing threat posed by raiders streaming into their current lands from the other side of the Welsh border. Translating as ‘may God prosper it', Dieulacres soon proved very aptly named. Ranulph himself was a leading adviser to King John - the very man who had granted a market charter to Leek in 1207 - and therefore a figure of considerable power; which he busily got to work putting to use on behalf of the new religious house.
Dieulacres’s lands were vast, taking in not only its share of Staffordshire and Cheshire but reaching far beyond with estates in Lancashire too, and they soon provided it with a seriously healthy economic bandwidth. With the whole enterprise overseen by its Abbot, and backed by the influence afforded by its close-knit Royal relationship, the success of its endeavours within the industries of wool, timber, and general farming, served to feed an increasing ambition for expansion over the following century.
This system, enabled via a series of outlying religious sub-centres or ‘granges’, was in turn marshalled by the brethren that worked from them known as the Conversi. They were an organisation that would manage the holy resources of the land in practical terms, and held a ruthless dedication to their cause that could not help but ruffle feathers as they continually looked to push for further opportunities. Such an appetite for expansion was always bound to cause conflict, not least in the areas where the interests of other similarly inclined religious lands bordered its estates; the Abbeys at Croxden and Hulton being two particularly recurrent examples according to Dieulacres’s records.
It is thanks to one such recorded dispute between the neighbouring granges of Wincle and Swythamley on the Cheshire border that we find our first definitive connection to the poem. A large area of woodland known as Back Forest was an integral part of the Swythamley estate, and it is within this woodland that the reputed location of the Green Knight's rematch, Ludschurch, is to be found.
The picture painted in both legal and ecclesiastical records as the years progress is one of a local society dominated by the affairs and whims of Dieulacres and its partners, with locals having to bend to their will while continuing disgruntlement grew in response. Such was the combustibility of the touch paper seemingly ready to be lit at Dieulacres come the 1300s that a number of Royal allowances were granted to its Abbot by way of assistance in the management of the local population, not least amongst them, the right to administer the death penalty.
Within one hundred years of its foundation, Dieulacres had become an economic powerhouse that dominated the world around it, its only serious competition being provided by the similarly ambitious, but relevantly distant, Burton Abbey in the south of Staffordshire. Yet the continual growth of Dieulacres could not go on forever, and like so many similar institutions throughout Europe, it would find its ambitions heavily checked by the destruction laid bare to the country during the Black Death of the fourteenth century. The shortage of labour that came in the wake of a pandemic in which around a third of Europe’s population are estimated to have died, meant that the level of wages that workers could demand grew unprecedentedly, and as those governing the country made attempts to restrict earnings as a result via punitive legislation, resentment amongst the people began to build even further.
It was as Dieulacres looked to repair its infrastructure in line with such measures that circumstances conspired to see the appointment of a man who would go on to become the most feared and unscrupulous leader in the Abbey's history; Abbot William Lichfield.
It is impossible to discover much by way of detail as to Lichfield's life and history before his appointment at the Abbey, but it is safe to say both his temperament and outlook appear to be in keeping with the nature of the client kingdom Dieulacres had come to represent. It is not, I should point out, my deliberate intention to paint these holy houses in a negative light, but the facts of the record attest that these were as much institutions of business as they were houses of God. This was an age where men of means could rule with little worry of recourse and the King, at this point the teenage Richard II, was in no place to bring any sense of order to proceedings for a range of reasons; not least the continuing difficulties of the Hundred Years War. As such, the power now placed in the hands of the barons and abbots was effectively absolute.
It should surprise none that in the mire of this upheaval, a scent of rebellion was in the air right across the country, and it was something that Abbot Lichfield was acutely aware of locally. So much so, that in the late 1370s he would find justifiable cause to take an extraordinary decision; the employment of his own private army, stationed at Dieulacres.
By this point, the brethren at the Abbey had become a kind of monastic-mafia, and their chosen means of doing business would only go from bad to worse. Lichfield wasted little time in putting his new men to work, and records show that sometime in 1379, Hugh, Earl of Stafford was appointed by Royal Commission to specifically investigate the conduct of the Abbot Lichfield following a plethora of reports concerning him and his retinue.
The Royal Commission reads;
One William, Abbot of Dieulacres, desiring to perpetrate maintenance in his marches and oppress the people', had kept a band of 21 retainers 'to stay with him . . . to do all the mischief they can to the people in the county of Stafford and that they have lain in wait for them, assaulted, maimed, and killed some, and driven others from place to place until they made a fine with them.
How the Earl of Stafford came to hear of these crimes is, I believe, connected to the sheer scale of outrage that followed one particular event during 1379 that cuts to the very heart of our quest, and acts as the key signpost in our search for an origin to the horseman legend; the brutal murder of John de Warton.