The Ghosts Soldier On: Five Civil War Hauntings in Oxford
So, usually vampires and witches are more my speed, but I must confess—seeing as it’s Halloween and all—to a low-level obsession with ghosts.
There’s just something about a good ghost story, amirite?
Well, as it so happens, Oxford has those a plenty. I went a-diving through the internet to dig up a few interesting ones just for you, and unsurprisingly there were quite a few. Particularly, there were a lot centring around one period of British history.
Did you know that Oxford was once the capital of England?
Apologies to those poor souls who attended school in Ol’ Blighty, and are now being forced to dredge up bad memories of their truly dreadful primary school history teachers!
Let’s rewind to the English Civil War… It’s 1642, and King Charles I has just got himself in a sticky situation with his parliament. Why? Because he wanted money, but according to his agreement with the parliament, he had to ask their permission to use taxpayer money. Then the Scottish attacked, and parliament (sympathising with the Scottish desire for religious freedom) didn’t give Charlie the money to fight them off.
So he had them arrested, which went badly. London chased him out, and he hopped on over to Oxford, where he lived in Christ Church College until 1646. New College became storage for ammunitions, St. Peter’s College was the royal mint, and Christ Church’s great hall served as the parliament meeting place.
Eventually, Charles left Oxford, and after various machinations and back-and-forths, found himself tried for treason and beheaded. But that wasn’t the end! Rumour has it that his spirit continues to wonder Oxford, along with several of his loyal supporters…
The much-lauded William Laud
Laud’s ghost sure does get around. After being exorcised from Merton College’s library, he’s popped up in St. John’s, where he has reportedly been seen playing bowling with a rather unusual ball…
William Laud was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Charles I in 1633, and was correspondingly an avid supporter of the king. This saw him arrested in 1640 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Like other denizens of the tower, he met a bloody end via beheading in 1645. His body was brought back to St. John’s College, where he’d been a student and fellow, for burial.
Eyewitness accounts say that he can be seen in the library, kicking and throwing his severed head. Obviously, none of these sightings have been linked to stress during exam time.
Oh Francis, oh Francis…
Colonel Francis Windebank was a promising young man, recently married, when he met his end in 1645. Loyal to the king, he had enlisted as a royalist colonel when the war broke out. He was appointed governor of Bletchingdon Hall, a country home near Oxford—by all accounts a rather boring position for such an up-and-coming man. To liven things up, he threw a ball. The parliamentarians got wind of the affair and attacked the house, whereupon the good colonel (sensibly, some might argue) surrendered in order to protect his new wife and daughter.
The royalists, finding this to be not in keeping with their ethos, court marshalled him. He was found guilty of treason, and executed by firing squad against the length of the town wall behind Merton College. This is where his ghost can be found to this day, wandering knee-deep in the ground. Why not on ground level? Because at some point the Oxfordians raised the level of the path.
Interestingly, on a totally unrelated note, this stretch of pathway is called Dead Man’s Walk. It used to be the route of medieval Jewish funeral processions.
Obadiah Walks Again
Every time I hear the name Obadiah, I think of Iron Man. Oh, wait, you’re here for the ghost stories. Right!
Obadiah Walker is, according to official University College sources, one of their most famous Masters*. He was initially a fellow from 1635 to 1648. After some bother with the parliamentarians, he was deprived of that position—politicians, honestly—only reinstated again in 1660. So, I suppose that one thing remains consistent in the UK over centuries: no one can ever make up their minds. He became Master in 1676, advising the King on matters in Oxford.
So caught up in his worship of King James II (successor to the unlucky Charles I) was he that he made public his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Unfortunately, Jamie was deposed in 1688 and fled to France. Walker tried to follow him, but was picked up in Kent. Like many before him, he landed up in the Tower of London, though he dodged the death penalty. He spent the last years of his life back in Oxford, though without his former job, and eventually died miserably in University College, which he still haunts to this day.
*Master, in this case, refers to the position of head of the college, not to the degree.
A Wandering Spirit
Another ghost that’s doing the rounds… King Charles I’s ghost seems to be popping up everywhere. Eyewitness accounts have put him in Painswick Court House (Gloucestershire), Chavenage House (also Gloucestershire), and Christ Church College (Oxfordshire). Oxford eyewitnesses say they’ve seen him both with and without the head that he lost during his sticky end in 1649, though fortunately, he doesn’t seem inclined to play football with it. Will this restless spirit ever find peace? Hey, maybe he just really likes holidaying in the Cotswolds!
He’s also been seen causing havoc in the Bodleian Library. Denied the right to take books out in 1645, he can now be seen in the Upper Reading Room, pulling books out at random and reading a single line.
Bonus: A Cavalier Attitude
It’s Halloween and, okay, the last one was kind of a cop-out. Here, have another story!
The Old Bank Hotel is, you guessed it, an old bank. We’re so creative at naming things in England. (Oxford, from Oxnaford, literally “place where oxen cross the river”.) The bank has been through a few incarnations: stately home, mercers and drapers, bank, hotel… But this isn’t a story about urban reinvention and capitalism.
During the Civil War, this was the home of a young lady name Prudence Burcote, Puritan and supporter of Oliver Cromwell and his parliamentarians. To her misfortune, she discovered what every romance novel protagonist can tell you: the heart cares not for politics or religion. She fell in love with the most terrible sort of all, a royalist cavalier. Allegedly, her displeased parents banished her from the family home. She stayed with her lover until his royal duties drew him away, whereupon she returned to her parents’ home to await him… only he never returned.
The story goes that Prudence died of a broken heart. Today, she still roams the building, waiting for her lover.
For all manner of supernatural stories: https://www.darkoxfordshire.co.uk/
Lots of pictures: https://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2018/08/ghostly-oxford.html