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Was medieval England a vampire hotspot?

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

British vampires

Many believe, (fellow paranormal writers included) that the vampire myth originated with Vlad the Impaler, the historical figure whose violent treatment of enemies merged with local legend to inspire Stoker’s monster.

I’ve even seen statements by fellow bloggers, who boldly quote that “there were no vampire accounts before the 15th century”.

Lazy writing and a lack of research is rife on the internet, and you’ll notice that many sites publish the same accounts, sometimes word for word as they have no skill or patience to create their own content.

If they did their research, they would find plenty of accounts throughout history that have vampiric connections and William of Newburgh, an English historian and chronicler of the 12th century, is a prime example.

Newburgh spent many years travelling medieval England collecting stories of interest for his chronicle, the Historia de rebus anglicis. Although he gained plenty from his travels, it’s interesting to note that he includes four stories with vampiric similarities.

Newburgh was obviously intrigued by these, as he chose to include them despite having an abundance of material. Did he believe the witnesses of these accounts and view these creatures as a real threat?

His first report takes place in Buckinghamshire, which he investigated after hearing from friends and receiving validity from the archdeacon of the province.

A man had died and was laid to rest in his tomb but somehow returned the following night to his wife’s bed, terrifying her as she awoke to find him climbing onto her body with the full force of his weight.

This horrifying event was repeated the second night, so by the third, the widow had surrounded herself with companions for protection. The dead man returned as expected but this time he was driven away by her entourage who fought hard to defend her.

The creature then appeared to his brothers who were staying nearby, but they, “following the cautious example of the woman, passed the nights in wakefulness with their companions, ready to meet and repel the expected danger.”

Being driven away, he moved on to the animals outside who were defenceless against him, their screams and anguish were heard throughout the night.

The creature terrorised the inhabitants of the local area for the following weeks, causing the community to form a local watch, which patrol the neighbourhood at night. Unable to prey on sleeping villagers, he then “began to wander abroad in daylight, formidable indeed to all, but visible only to a few; for oftentimes, on his encountering a number of persons, he would appear to one or two only though at the same time his presence was not concealed from the rest.”

Desperate for help, the community turned to the Clergy, and this is how the archdeacon recorded the story which then passed on to William of Newburgh.

The archdeacon, at a loss on how to resolve the matter, asked the Bishop of Lincoln for guidance;

“The bishop, being amazed at his account, held a searching investigation with his companions; and there were some who said that such things had often befallen in England, and cited frequent examples to show that tranquillity could not be restored to the people until the body of this most wretched man were dug up and burnt.”

The bishop, uneasy with the indecency of digging up a body to burn, instead wrote a letter of absolution to the archdeacon with instructions to lay it within the tomb on the breast of the corpse.

British vampire stories

The archdeacon and a group of men, following the instructions of the bishop, arrived at the burial place and opened the tomb. The corpse lay untouched by decay and remained in the same position as it was at the time of burial. The archdeacon placed the absolution onto the corpse and sealed the tomb – after doing this, the creature was never seen again.

William of Newburgh adds another report from the North, this time the town of Berwick was the location for an undead encounter; “In this town a certain man, very wealthy, but as it afterwards appeared a great rogue, having been buried, after his death sallied forth (by the contrivance, as it is believed, of Satan) out of his grave by night, and was borne hither and thither, pursued by a pack of dogs with loud barkings; thus striking great terror into the neighbors, and returning to his tomb before daylight.”

After a number of fearful weeks, the Berwick locals assembled ten of their bravest men to deal with the creature. The men pulled the carcass from it’s tomb, cut it limb from limb and burnt the remains in a powerful fire.

Newburgh states, “Being burnt, tranquility appeared to be restored to them” and goes on to summarise;

“It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony…were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome”

Newburgh adds two more accounts which can be read in full within his Historia de rebus anglicis (History of English Affairs) but worth mentioning here as the actions of these “Vampires” follow a similar pattern. Newburgh gained both accounts from eyewitness statements.

One tells of a priest who fell from grace in life, returning to terrify residents near his place of burial at Melrose Abbey. Rising from the grave at night, the creature was unable to enter the religious sanctum but visited and attacked the nearby village. Seeking help from the Monastery, the locals persuaded four monks, armed and courageous through God, to keep guard at the burial site. After a few hours with no sighting of the creature, three of the monks left to take shelter in a nearby house.

Soon afterwards, the creature rose and attacked the remaining monk who, in the skirmish, was able to inflict a deep wound to the monster’s body. Hearing the noise, the other monks return to join the battle and the creature retreated to its tomb. Under the protection of dawn, the monks returned to the tomb and removed the body, which still leaked a disgusting residue from its wound. Dragging the corpse into the confines of the monastery, the monks burnt the creature and the horror ceased.

The final account takes place at Alnwick castle, which Newburgh refers to as Anantis in his writings.

It tells the story of a jealous husband who lived in the castle, maybe a member of the de Vesci family who would have owned it at the time, although Newburgh chooses not to mention this connection. The husband, convinced that his wife is having an affair, hides amongst the beams of her bedchamber and witnesses her cavorting with a young lover.

Falling from the beams, and badly injuring himself in the process, the man picked up an infection from his injuries and as he lay dying, a monk was called to hear his sins.

Again, this information was passed on to Newburgh from a religious authority – the monk who attended the man. The husband refused to confess his sins and succumbed to his injuries, but nevertheless received a Christian burial.

Newburgh reports that the man was unable to rest in peace and roamed the night as a dangerous creature;

from his grave at night-time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster. But those precautions were of no avail; for the atmosphere, poisoned by the vagaries of this foul carcass, filled every house with disease and death by its pestiferous breath.”

Newburgh tells us that the town, which was once densely populated, became deserted. The inhabitants were killed by the creature and those that survived fled the area. The monk, needing help to fight the beast, recruited two brothers whose father was killed in one of the attacks.

Armed for protection, the group took spades and went to the cemetery to end the curse;

“…they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. This being torn piecemeal, and the body now consigned to the flames, it was announced to the guests what was going on, who, running thither, enabled themselves to testify henceforth to the circumstances.”

Is there any truth to these accounts?

And are these reports early examples of what we now identify as vampires?

Share your views and continue the conversation!

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