Screaming Skulls

Ghosts in skulls are said to haunt a number of places, particularly in England. While the skulls might not be physically attached to bodies, they seem to be emotionally attached to houses where they wish to continue to live in spirit. When the skulls are removed from the house, either through burial or some disposal effort, the skulls protest with Hauntings and Poltergeist activity.

Many so-called screaming skulls belong to victims of religious persecution during the 16th century Reformation incited by King Henry VIII or from Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. Other screaming skulls are from people who lost their heads in various violent episodes, such as murders.

The victims share a common wish, however, often expressed on their deathbeds, which is to be buried within the walls of the house; otherwise their spirits will not rest in peace. When their wishes are ignored with burials in a grave or vault, they reportedly protest with unexplained happenings and strange noises, such as bangs, crashes and moans. Usually, a house’s occupants make the connection between the disturbances and the burial, and disinter the skull for placement within the house, atop a staircase, beam or table. One screaming skull resides in a home encased in glass.

Trouble ensues any time someone tries to rid the house of the skull. People have taken drastic measures, such as throwing the skulls in moats, lakes or rivers. They have tried to break them up, burn them, grind them to dust, or bury them in quicklime or in the walls of mountains. Nothing works.

Sometimes, it is said, the skull will settle for simply terrifying the villain with an inexplicable reappearance in its original place. More often, the skull allegedly will take its revenge by bringing the person some type of bad luck, even death to him or a relative. Violent storms or fires may destroy the property. Or, crops may fail and cattle may dry up or die.

Some of the most famous screaming skulls are:

The Wardley Skull

This screaming skull belongs to Wardley Hall, located a few miles outside Manchester, England. The skull, which dates from the reign of Edward VI, is associated with both an improbable legend and a likely tale.

The legend involves Roger Downes, a dissolute member of the family who owned the house at the time of the English Civil War. One day while in London drinking and carousing, Downes vowed that he would kill the first man he would meet. A poor, hapless tailor chanced by and Downes thrust his sword through him. Downes was arrested and tried for the murder, but his influence at court enabled him to go free.

Comeuppance was soon at hand, however. Shortly thereafter Downes was crossing London Bridge in a drunken and rowdy state. He attacked a watchman with his rapier. The watchman fought back and was strong enough to successfully sever Downes’ head from his body with one blow of his weapon.

The watchman and his friends sent the head to Wardley Hall. Later, the skull was placed in an aperture in the wall above the house’s main staircase, but not before several unsuccessful efforts allegedly were made to get rid of it by burning or drowning. Subsequent efforts to move the skull met with violent responses such as destructive storms.

But such a colorful story was discounted because the last Downes of Wardley, oddly enough named Roger and also a rake, was buried in the family vault with his head intact. Rather, the skull was more likely to be that of Dom Edward Ambrose Barlow, identified in the History of Wardley Hall, Lancashire by H. V. Hart-Davis and S. Holme.

It seems that before the English Civil War and its religious persecutions against Catholics, Francis Downes owned Wardley Hall. He and his wife were devout Catholics and they dangerously allowed Mass to be celebrated in the Hall’s chapel. Barlow, a Benedictine monk who had successfully eluded authorities for 24 years, met his fate on Easter Sunday 1641 while offi ciating at neighboring Morleys Hall.

Barlow was seized, arrested, tried and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. His head was impaled either at a Manchester church or Lancaster castle. Downes secretly removed it and took it back to Wardley, where he hid it so well that all trace of it was lost until the mid- 18th century.

At that time, Wardley was owned by Matthew Moreton, who found the skull in a box that had accidentally fallen out of a ruined wall. A servant later thought it was the skull of an animal and threw it into the moat. That night, a terrible storm broke out, and Moreton theorized that it was the skull screaming for its place to be restored in the house. Moreton drained the moat and recovered the skull.

The Bettiscombe Skull

A screaming skull that takes its name from an old farmhouse near Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, and is tied to a local legend. The skull traditionally was thought to be long to a slave from the West Indies brought to Bettiscombe Manor to serve Azariah Pinney in the 17th century.

The slave was either the victim of, or the perpetrator of, a murder. On his deathbed he stated that his spirit would not rest and would haunt Bettiscombe until his body was taken back to his homeland. Contrary to his wish, he was buried on English soil in Bettiscombe churchyard, and he thereafter fulfilled his warning by haunting the place in protest. Screams were heard from the grave, and unexplained noises were heard in the farmhouse. The noises were silenced only when the body was dug up.

Renewed attempts to bury it brought about the same noisy reactions. This procedure was repeated so often that the skeleton was lost and only the head remained. The skull finally came to rest on a winding staircase leading to the roof of the house.

The myth was shattered, however, when Professor Gilbert Causey of the Royal College of Surgeons concluded that the skull belonged to a prehistoric woman in her early twenties, perhaps a sacrifi cial victim meant to bring prosperity to an earlier dwelling built on the site. In spite of this pronouncement, the skull remains at Bettiscombe Manor as insurance against the professor’s possible misdiagnosis.

The Burton Agnes Skull

This screaming skull is associated with the North Yorkshire home built in 1598 by three sisters of the Griffith family. One sister, Ann, had a fateful meeting with robbers on a road near her home. One of the robbers struck her when she refused to part with a ring once belonging to her mother. Hearing her cries, villagers rescued the beaten woman and carried her home, where she died five days later. Ann’s dying wish was that her head should be buried in the walls of her home, which was called Burton Agnes.

Instead, the family buried her under the old Norman church on the grounds. Shortly thereafter, strange noises were heard in the house. The sisters suspected that it was Ann pleading to come home. They had her coffin opened. To their astonishment, the body was completely intact while the head had become severed; the skull was grinning.

The parish priest recommended that the head be removed and taken back to the house. This the sisters did, whereupon all noises stopped. The noises did not reoccur until the house passed by inheritance to the Boynton family, who had the skull removed.

Once again, Ann made it clear that she was not to be banished from Burton Agnes. The skull again was subdued only when it came to rest on a table in the hall. Years later, another inheritor bricked the skull up somewhere behind the paneling; it still has not been found. Even though Ann’s wish was finally honored, she reportedly makes a ghostly appearance around the anniversary of her death.

Tunstead Farm Skull

An imperfect skull named “Dickie,” probably that of a woman, haunts a farmhouse, Tunstead Farm, near Chapel- en-le-Frith, England. According to one legend, a girl was murdered at some unknown date in the room where the skull is kept. Another legend says that Ned Dixon, an ancestor of the farmhouse’s owners, was murdered in the room. The house also is said to be haunted by a woman’s ghost, which appeared in the late 19th century to herald the death of the tenant’s daughter.

Dickie is said to function as an unworldly guardian of the house. It has been said to sound noises and knockings at the approach of strangers. Some of these disturbances, including the rattling of farm tools in the barn, has been so severe that temporary hired help have complained and even fled the premises. Dickie also has sounded warnings upon the birthing or illness of farm animals, or upon the imminent death of a member of the family.

Like other screaming skulls, Dickie resents relocation. Once it was stolen and taken to Disley. An ensuing racket at both Tunstead Farm and Disley was so unendurable that the thieves gladly returned it. Similar disturbance broke out after the skull was buried in consecrated ground.


  • Hole, Christina. Haunted England. London: B. T. Batsford, 1940.
  • Maple, Erie. The Realm of Ghosts. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1964.
  • Whitaker, Terence. Haunted England. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1987.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley  – September 1, 2007

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