In her Folklore of Hertfordshire (1977), Doris Jones-Baker records the tradition that in Kensworth, south-east of Dunstable, the path running over Bury Hill to the church is haunted by both a witch and a headless milkmaid. No reason is given for either haunt.

In former times, reasons were possibly never required. A witch might well have been assumed to linger after death from sheer malevolence, and formerly there was no need to explain why a ghost had no head. Whereas Peter Haining in his Dictionary of Ghosts (1982) says, ‘Such phantoms are almost invariably people who were beheaded,’ this is not borne out in British tradition, in which most headless ghosts did not end their lives by decapitation. Sir Thomas Boleyn of BLICKLING HALL, Norfolk, was not beheaded yet rides round in his phantom coach with his head beneath his arm. There are numerous other examples.

The headlessness of ghosts is a stereotype of popular ghost-lore – at bottom, a shorthand way of talking about apparitions, like ghosts being dressed in white, or, as Daniel Defoe put it in The History and Reality of Apparitions (1727), ‘dressed up … in a shroud, as if it just came out of the coffin and the churchyard’. When in the nineteenth century a Norfolk countrywoman described the phantom dog Shuck (see SHERINGHAM, Norfolk) as headless but with saucer eyes, this was not peasant illogic but a traditional way of indicating briefly that this was a bogey, just as it was in the seventeenth century when Richard Baxter wrote:

Simon Jones, A Strong and healthful Man of Kederminster (no way inclined to … any Fancies) hath oft told me, that being a Souldier for the King in the War against the Parliament, in a clear Moon-shine Night, as he stood Sentinel in the Colledge Green at Worcester, something like a headless Bear, appeared to him; and so affrighted him, that he laid down his Arms soon after, and returned home …



Haunted England : The Penguin Book of Ghosts – Written by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson 2005, 2008