Monday, 22 November 2010

A ghostly duel in York

At the south end of  Tower Street you will see a tree-shaded stretch of grass known as St George’s Field. In centuries past this patch of land formed part of a much larger meadow that filled the area outside the city walls and between the Foss stream and the River Ouse. Much of the area is now covered by a car park, but before the land was properly drained in the early 20th century, it tended to be boggy and marshy throughout the winter - and muddy even in the summer after rain. It flooded often and was never built upon. It made a convenient meeting point for duellists, lovers and others who wanted to be away from prying eyes within the city.

It floods still, though not so often, and the city council has deemed it useful for nothing except being covered in asphalt to serve as a car park. Maybe they are right. The ghosts, however, have another use for it.

So far as the phantoms are concerned, St George’s Field is still an open meadow dotted with trees. They come back time and again about their own business, ignoring the humans and their motorised contraptions that dominate the scene today.

The first of the ghosts here is a gruesome, but unusual figure. This is Baron Stafford, who came from one of the oldest and proudest families in England. The family descends from a minor Norman knight who fought at the Battle of Hastings with William the Conqueror and was granted Stafford Castle and surrounding lands by way of thanks. Over the centuries the family has been promoted through the ranks of nobility to be earls, dukes or marquises, lost their titles through rebellion, rebuilt their fortunes, passed through the female line, lost titles again, regained them and gone through periods of penury and affluence. Through all this, however, they have managed to hang on to both Stafford Castle and the title of Baron Stafford - a quite remarkable feat.

In 1694 one of these Staffords came to York on business, but got into a quarrel with a local gentleman. The details of the argument have been lost, but they were considered serious enough by the two men to be the cause of a duel. At this date the duel was - officially at least - illegal in England. In earlier centuries the duel had been considered a better option than a blood feud which might claim the lives of dozens, but there had been too many scandals for it to survive. More than once a highly skilled swordsman had challenged a man with less ability over a mere trifle with the intent of murdering him and there had been instances of seconds tampering with guns. By he 1690s a duel between consenting adults of approximately equal ability was unlikely to attract the attentions of the magistrates, but anyone duelling still risked a charge of attempted murder. That was why the Stafford duel was fought on St George’s Field at dawn.

The fight was short and fatal. Stafford received a rapier thrust through the chest just minutes into the fight. He could not believe it, staring in bewilderment at the spreading blood stain on his shirt before he dropped to the ground. He was dead in seconds.

It is this fatal duel that is replayed time and again in spectral form on St George’s Field as the cold light of dawn creeps up over the city. What makes this haunting so peculiar is that only Stafford is seen, the other participants in the duel have not returned. So the ghost of the nobleman is seen apparently dancing around thrusting his sword at some invisible opponent, parrying non existent thrusts and finally receiving his death wound from a weapon that none can see but himself. As in the real duel the phantom Stafford stares for a moment at the wound, then collapses. And then the ghost vanishes.

This is an extract from Haunted York by Rupert Matthews

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