Traditionally, there are several ways to lay ghosts. Some require their bones to be found and buried; some are laid by prayer and Masses; others, who cannot rest because of some injustice done or suffered, vanish once this has been put right. Medieval Christians regarded them as souls undergoing punishment for sin, who could find peace through the prayers of the living.
Folk legends recorded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries frequently describe a form of ghost-laying which is both religious and aggressive. These stories are set in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century; the ghosts are the stubborn, malevolent spectres of local evildoers (often gentry) which disturb a whole community until a parson, or more often a group of parsons, confronts them and eventually subdues them by fierce and unceasing Bible-reading and prayer. The parsons usually hold lighted candles, which the ghost will try to extinguish; only men of the strongest faith can keep their candles burning and never falter in their prayers, a process which is often called ‘reading down’ the ghost.
The purpose of this ritual is not to obtain entry into Heaven for the ghost, but to keep it bound to a specific spot on this earth. Generally this is somewhere local, but sometimes it is the Red Sea. The ghost may be set an endless task, for example making ropes of sand, emptying a lake with a small perforated shell, or stripping a hill of grass at the rate of one blade a night. Alternatively it may be physically confined, often by being ‘read down’ into smaller and smaller forms and imprisoned in a bottle, snuff-box or boot, which is then thrown into a pool or river or buried under a boulder.
Theo Brown, the only folklorist who has examined stories of this type in detail, believed that the idea of ghosts bound in confinement on this earth, or condemned to repetitive or impossible tasks, replaced belief in Purgatory, forbidden at the Reformation; close comparison with traditions from Catholic countries would be required to test this interpretation.
A tale of haunting and exorcism in Wilcote is recorded in several versions in the 1920s, the restless spirits being those of the fifteenth-century Sir William and Lady Wilcote, buried in NORTH LEIGH church. Violet Mason was told by some members of North Leigh Women’s Institute, who had been compiling a book on their village history, that the ‘Lord and Lady’ (as they were locally called) used to drive up and down Wilcote Avenue in a spectral coach and four, while others told her:
They used to drive round the sky above Wilcote, and I was told by Mrs — how her father used to tell her they went round and round over North Leigh too, and they got so strong they could be seen in full daylight, and all the people were terrified of them. But twelve clergymen laid their spirits in North Leigh church.
Another story is that a ‘very wicked Lord of Wilcote’ used to toll the bell of Wilcote church in the night. The rector, who used to come over for Sunday and slept in a little room with an outside staircase, very courageously got up and went into the church to question the ghost. The answer was that he could not sleep in his grave so long as the clapper remained in the bell; the clapper must be thrown into the pond and the bell buried in the wood. Another version says that the bell was recast and the clapper thrown in the pond. For a long time there was a belief that something terrible would happen if the ponds were cleaned. Some years ago it was decided to clean them. Most untoward things kept on hindering the work, but it was done at last. However, the clapper was not found, nor did anything terrible happen.
Katharine Briggs, collecting folklore here in the 1960s and ’70s, found one informant who had heard from her grandmother that the Wilcote ghost had been laid by seven or twelve clergymen, one standing in the middle and the rest in a ring around him. They asked, ‘Why troublest thou us?’ and the ghost replied, ‘I shall haunt as long as the clapper and the bell hang together,’ so the bell was melted down and the clapper thrown into the pond. Another informant spoke of ‘ghosts which are supposed to have happened in Wilcote woods’: in her version the spirit to be laid was in dog form, and she took the clapper to be not part of a church bell, but the wooden instrument used for scaring birds:
At one time of day they got a newly-born baby and clappers and a priest and there were two small ponds, and they said a prayer over the baby, they threw one clapper into one pond and one into another to lay a big black dog, and if all these should return together, they say the ghost will reappear.