Look Back with Little: Mysterious moments at two times of civil war

South East view of the old St Mary's Church, supposed site of the Earl of Pembroke's execution
South East view of the old St Mary's Church, supposed site of the Earl of Pembroke's execution

With the season of Hallowe’en just past, now is a good time to look back on two sets of circumstances that can be regarded as not a little spooky and at the very least shrouded in an element of mystery: both involve soldiers fighting in civil wars.

In his History of Banbury published by the Banbury Guardian in 1958, William Potts includes an incident that in his estimation needed to be chronicled. This concerned the Earl of Pembroke who was in charge of a Yorkist royalist force during the Wars of the Roses.

On July 26, 1469, Pembroke’s force encountered a body of insurgents at Edgcote near Banbury. Shortly before the battle Pembroke had been joined by Lord Stafford and a body of archers. Together they were quartered in Banbury but a disagreement about lodgings – Pembroke turned Stafford out of an inn in which he was already quartered – led to Stafford withdrawing his archers from the battle leaving Pembroke exposed with a diminished force. The Earl, his brother Sir Richard Herbert and ten others were captured, brought to Banbury and beheaded according to tradition in the South porch of the old St Mary’s Church.

This raises the question of who carried out the execution. Potts quotes from a History of Craven by Dr Whitaker who maintains that John de Clapham, a servant of the Earl of Warwick, was personally responsible for the death of Pembroke and his brother.

The site for the execution has been challenged by another chronicler who prefers Northampton. However an inscription upon a tomb in the Herbert Chapel at Abergavenny in Wales sent to Potts by Canon A J Jones, former vicar of Banbury, states clearly ‘Beheaded at Banbury 1469’.

Sightings of ghostly figures in armour milling around the spot and cries of distress have been reported by people working night shifts in the post office telephone exchange in the 1950s.

The second story which is better known and decidedly spooky concerns the first battle of the 17th century Civil War. This took place on land at the foot of Edge Hill and deserves to be remembered at this time because of a recent re-enactment by the Sealed Knot.

In 1967 Brigadier Peter Young wrote one of the most exciting accounts of this inconclusive battle between the forces of King Charles and Parliament. Chapter 17 is called appropriately ‘Of Apparitions’. Although he never experienced images from the battle his concluding sentence says ‘yet England has no more haunted battle field that that which lies in the Vale of the Red Horse’.

Significantly it was a mere three months after the battle that Thomas Jackson, a London printer, published a pamphlet about ‘the Late Apparitions and prodigious noyes of War and Battels seen on Edge Hill’. First to experience these were members of a mixed group of shepherds, countrymen and travellers who between 12 and 1 o’clock in the morning had heard ‘First the sound of drums afar off, and the noise of soldiers, as it were giving their last groans.’ According to the pamphlet the spectres went on to refight the battle lasting three hours. The terrified observers hastened to Kineton where they related their experience to William Wood a JP and his neighbour Mr Samuel Marshall the minister.

A second pamphlet followed a few days later ‘The New Yeares Wonder’ told much the same story but with different witnesses adding that on January 4, 1642/3 townsmen in Kineton were awoken in the middle of the night by ‘the dolfull and hydious groanes of dying men’. The few brave enough to peep out of their windows saw ‘armed horsemen riding one againe the other and so vanished all’. Since then there have been others laying claim to psychic experiences at the site.

So far as Banbury is concerned neither Edgehill nor Cropredy Bridge battles were of great significance to the town. The two sieges of the castle, which ultimately ousted the Royalist garrison, were far more important but do not seem to have led to tales of subsequent hauntings.