The ancient hill-forts and groups of barrows strung out along the crests of the Purbeck Hills are the setting for repeated sightings of phantom armies, according to tales which apparently originated in the seventeenth century and were revived strongly in the twentieth. Several accounts, including the earliest one, mention Flowers Barrow, a promontory fort just south of Lulworth Castle.
The first time the phantoms were sighted, in December 1678, they were initially assumed to be real living soldiers, and caused great alarm. A local squire, Captain John Lawrence of Creech, together with his brother and four workmen who had been out digging clay, thought they could see ‘a vast number of armed men, several thousands, marching from Flowers Barrow, over Grange Hill’ (a distance of at least five miles (8 km)), and could hear ‘a great noise and clashing of arms’.
They roused the inhabitants of nearby hamlets and cottages; in all about a hundred people declared they could see a host of foot soldiers and horsemen. Messengers were sent to nearby Wareham, where the militia was called out and the bridge barricaded; Lawrence himself rode to London to warn the Privy Council of a possible Popish uprising. But as no attack came, and no material trace of the passage of the Grange Hill army was ever found, it was concluded that it could only have been a vision.
In modern local belief, as recorded in the 1930s, the phantoms are firmly identified as ancient ghosts – usually Romans, but occasionally prehistoric warriors. According to Marianne Dacombe’s informants in Lulworth in 1935, ‘on certain nights a phantom Roman army marches along Bindon Hill to their camp on King’s Hill; the thud of the tramping of horses and men is plainly heard, and their indistinct forms seen as the fog drifts. On those nights no rabbits run and no dog can be induced to go near.’ The following year, another writer spoke of ‘an army of skin-clad folk’ coming down from Flowers Barrow, and there are further references in books from the 1970s, some of which claim that the phenomenon is an omen of coming war, or that it occurs chiefly in wartime.