Friday, 14 March 2008

Some Dorset Folklore - the Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe

Mexican craft skulls in Los Angeles! I didn't want to scare anyone away with a photo of a moldering skull . . .

One of the Dorset legends which was familiar to me when I lived in Dorset was that of the famous Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor. The legend associated with this skull states that if the skull is removed from the house, great disaster will befall both house and occupants.

The skull was said to be that of a Negro Slave, brought home from the Indies by Azariah Pinney, who had taken the wrong side in the English Civil War, escaped execution by the notorious "Hanging Judge" Jeffreys, being banished to the West Indies instead. On his deathbed, the slave begged that his body be taken back to his homeland for burial or a terrible fate would befall Bettiscombe. Azariah agreed to this request, but following the slave's death, renagued on the agreement and had the slave buried in Bettiscombe churchyard.

However, no sooner was the slave buried there, than dreadful shrieks and screams of a spectral nature, and poltergeist activity within the house, led to the body being exhumed and returned to the attics of Bettiscombe. Now only the skull remains. In the 19th century, a disbelieving owner threw the skull into the pond in the grounds, but for days following this deed, screams and tremors shook the house and it was retrieved and replaced in its resting place.

Above: Panorama of Pilsden Pen area. However, in the 1960s the skull was carefully examined by a pathologist, who concluded that it was NOT the skull of a Negro male, but a European woman's skull of about 20 years old at time of death, and it was between 3 and 4,000 years old, thus dating from the Bronze Age. Its fossilised condition was believed to have been caused by it being submerged in the bottom of a nearby well. Since Bettiscombe is at the foot of Pilsden Pen, which was an Iron Age hillfort, it is quite possible that the skull was deliberately placed there in a ritual context. In the Iron Age (and before and dare I add also since) - watery places such as wells, lakes, rivers and springs were believed to be liminal areas where a pantheon of gods and goddesses could be contacted or placated.

Now, here's a strange thing. I was looking for books on Dorset for a post over the weekend, and my hand drew out "Tales of Dorset" by Olive Knott. This is a book I haven't looked at for many a long year, a 1976 reprint of 3 little books published in the early 1950s and speaking of people and events of 50 years earlier. Even stranger was when I was flicking through the pages, from back to front as I always do, and the word Pinney jumped off the page. I found it in association, not so much with Bettiscombe Manor, but with a house called Racedown, which John Frederick Pinney, Azariah's cousin, had built in the mid-18th century. Azaria even lived there with John for a couple of years before his death. Both cousins were buried side by side in Wayford Church. Racedown became connected with the Wordsworths (William and his sister Dorothy) who lived there for nearly 2 years from September 1795 onwards, and it was here that Wordsworth wrote two of his poems, "The Borderers" and "Guilt and Sorrow". Letters which were kept from that time resurfaced in the mid-Victorian period, and included a fascinating paragraph:
"One June day a tall, pale-faced young man leapt over the gate into the meadow and ran down to the house." It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1797, Coleridge invited the Wordsworths to come and stay at Nether Stowey with him and they left Racedown forever. The rest, as they say, is history . . .

Another strange thing - also in the same book was an article about a Dorset place I was going to research and write about next week . . . It would seem I have perfected the technique of dowsing with my hand . . .

5 comments:

Pixiedust said...

OOhh I enjoyed that story about the Dorset skull. I love stories like that. Do you have any good ones associated with my home county of Hampshire?
xx

Bovey Belle said...

It's my home county too pixiedust, and yes, I can manage quite a few Hampshire ghosty stories! I grew up in So'ton but was glad to get away :)

I'll do some research when I'm back from collecting our eldest daughter from Uni - I'm away overnight tonight.

solsticedreamer said...

yes i have heard this! thanks for posting it~have you heard of the ghost monkey at althelhampton house in puddletown?
a good book, if you can get it is 'mysterious dorset'

Dawn said...

Thank you so muh for coming to visit today - it is so much fun to have new visitors - I have a brother and his family in Manchester, and have met other blog friends over there in the UK.

Speaking of the twins, I can only imagine what it will be like when they're 2 and above - and with 2 older sisters. What fun and games ahead!

Cookie Sunshine said...

This was a great story! I really enjoyed it.

Cookie