I love ghost stories. And I mean ghost stories, rather than horror stories. If truth be known I am the world’s most squeamish person. I really do hate the sight of blood, which is the only reason why I haven’t seen Sweeney Todd yet. Anyway, enough of my foibles. I have been looking for an excuse for posting an excerpt from our book Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story, by Peter Marshall, for ages, but so far haven’t been able to come up with one. So, today I am posting it for no other reason than I really loved this book of literary detective work, and I hope you will too. Enjoy!
October, 1634. Susan Leakey, widow, of Minehead in the County of Somerset, lies in a chamber in the house of her son, Alexander, a once-prosperous merchant and ship owner of the town. She knows that the bed she is lying in will be her deathbed, and she prepares herself for the coming and inevitable end. With effort, she declares before witnesses what her will is for the disposal of her worldly goods, the burial of her mortal body, and the destiny of her immortal soul. Death comes for Mother Leakey in the first days of November, and on the fifth, a day when the nation is as usual celebrating its deliverance from the treason of Gunpowder Plotters, she is buried in accordance with her wishes in the graveyard of the parish church of St Michael’s. During the ceremony, as the earth is cast upon her body, comforting words from the Book of Revelation are ordained to be read to the assembled mourners: ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. Even so sayeth the Spirit, that they rest from their labours.’ But for this particular old woman there was to be no blessed rest, no smooth passage to the life eternal. Instead, the household and neighbourhood she left behind her were soon to be thrown into confusion, convulsed by rumour, revelation, and reports of revenance—the return of the dead to haunt the places, and unsettle the plans, of those still living on this earth.
Although it was unsought for, and unwelcomed when it came, the ghost of Mother Leakey was not entirely unexpected. The mistress of the house where Susan spent her last weeks was Alexander’s young wife, Elizabeth, and—in the way of such things—there had been friction between the two women of different generations required to live under the same roof. From her sickbed, Susan had threatened her daughter-in-law that ‘she would come again after her death’. Elizabeth was a quick-witted person, and not easily cowed or intimidated. She snapped back: ‘What, will you be a devil?’ The reply was an ill-omened one. ‘No, but I will come in the devil’s likeness.’
The first sign that Mother Leakey’s spirit was not at rest came about six weeks after the burial, in mid-December 1634. ‘There was a knocking and noise in the chamber and about the bed, which went away like a drove of cattle.’ After this ominous portent, all was quiet until about the anniversary of Susan’s death the next year, when a much more shocking event took place. Alexander’s nephew, the 14-year-old John Leakey, was staying with his relatives in the house. The boy fell ill, ‘and died of a languishing disease’. But this tragedy was not, it seemed, any natural event, nor yet a straightforward expression of an inscrutable divine will. In the time of his sickness, John complained ‘that he could not be quiet for his grandmother’. As the boy lay dying, he cried out that ‘he saw the devil’. Some that viewed the body were able to discern black marks spaced around the dead child’s neck.
Thus far, there had been signs and forebodings, but no visible manifestation of a troubled spirit. One evening towards the end of March 1636, however, Elizabeth Leakey went up to her chamber to bed, a book (she remembered) clasped in her hand. There she beheld something in the shape of her mother-in-law, sitting in a chair ‘in her full proportion, and in her usual apparel’. Elizabeth was understandably ‘much astonished’ at this sight, and for a quarter of an hour she simply stared at the apparition, unable to speak to it, until it finally vanished from her sight with a mighty groan. Downstairs in the kitchen, the maidservant heard the noise and rushed up to ask her mistress if all was well, but Elizabeth held her counsel. She did the same an hour or so later when her husband returned home from work. As they lay in bed together, Elizabeth’s sighs prompted Alexander to ask what was ailing her, but she said nothing. Elizabeth knew her husband to be a ‘fearful’ man, and she reflected that it was perhaps kinder to keep silent: it was, after all, his mother who had made this aberrant appearance. There was, however, one person in Minehead in whom she was prepared to confide. A day or two later, the curate, the Reverend John Heathfield, was visiting the house, and Elizabeth told him all. She asked him what the strange apparition might mean, and requested him to seek out expert theological advice, to ‘put the case to some divines’. Heathfield was a man of sense. This vision, he told her, ‘was nothing but her fancy’. The Leakeys had worries and burdens to bear; undoubtedly, ‘her head was troubled with her crosses’. He said nothing to anyone else about the matter, though; at least, not until after the ghost had revealed itself to him also.
On 16 October 1636 (Heathfield was quite certain about the date), the curate attended a great christening feast at the home of one of his parishioners, and on the way back he decided to call in at the house of his friend Alexander Leakey. There may well have been more drinking, for at about nine in the evening, Heathfield opened the kitchen door and ‘went forth to make water’. As he turned to come back in again, he found the apparition of old Mrs Leakey standing within four feet of him. She was, as before, in her usual apparel, ‘to wit, in a black gown, a kerchief, and a white stomacher [an ornamented covering for the chest and bosom]’. Heathfield was able to see ‘the shape of her face and very countenance’ by the light thrown from a candle upon the table within the kitchen. The minister was, it hardly needs saying, ‘much affrighted’ and he left the house in a hurry.