The Southwell Vampire – a social context

Since the publication of the report on the deviant burial – or the Southwell Vampire as it has come to be known – there has been a widespread interest from the local, national and international press. There is even a soft toy available through! So, I felt it might be worth offering a bit more background information on the subject.

The question many people are asking is ‘why should the UK have a ‘vampire’ burial – surely that’s more akin to Eastern Europe?’ Some years ago I spent a lot of time researching the vampire myth and published this through Reaktion Books in 2008 (From Demons to Dracula: the creation of the modern vampire myth). In this study I looked at the history, archaeology, folklore, literature and alleged cases of vampirism throughout Europe. What I found was that almost every culture in every period of history had a being that we today would know as a vampire.

Until the 19th century literature of people such as John Polidori, Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker, a vampire did not wear a cape, have fangs, drink blood or turn into a bat. The earlier vampire started life as a demonic being, evident in the Classical World of Greece and Rome and subsequently took on a more corporeal form in the Early Medieval period. By the time William of Newburgh wrote his work History of English Affairs in the twelfth century, ‘vampire’ sightings were, it would seem, not uncommon.

The Southwell Vampire fits into this picture in the early ‘revenant’ phase (a term coined for the physical vampire-being rather than the earlier spirit version). Currently, the whereabouts of the skeletal remains are unknown, but as I have argued in my current report there is a good case to suggest they are still ‘in situ’ in the ground where they were discovered. General archaeological practice is to leave any objects or artefacts that continue beyond the edge of the trench in place – for example if you discovered a sword but a part of it continued beyond the limit of your trench it would be left in situ until you excavated that ‘context’. If you did not excavate that context, by rights it should remain in the ground. This allows archaeologists to understand the chronology and relationship of objects and structures, thus allowing a more accurate picture to build up. Charles Daniels commented that he could not recover the metal nail from the right shoulder as it was outside of his trench. That would suggest part of the burial itself lay outside of his trench, and that he did not remove the skeleton either.

To this end we cannot obtain radiocarbon dates for the burial, but Daniels wrote how he found pottery dating to AD550 in the immediate area of the burial. This fits with more widespread examples of Anglo-Saxon deviant burials – the practice is very rare in later cemetery sites from AD700 onwards. This gives us a date of between AD550-700. However, deviant burials have been discovered from the periods both before and after this. The Iron Age bog body known as Old Croghan Man discovered in Ireland in 2003 had had hazel rods inserted through his upper arms, and one of the three people buried in the famous prehistoric ‘triple burial’ at Dolní Věstonice in the modern day Czech Republic had been staked to the ground. This latter burial is some 25,000 years old. Recent discoveries in Bulgaria, Greece and America suggest this was going on for hundreds of years, right through the Medieval period and beyond. Some skeletons had been staked, others buried face down, some had large rocks placed on top of them and others (such as the recent discovery from Ireland) had stones placed in their mouths. This is almost certainly linked to folkloric practices from Eastern Europe where the belief is that the soul can leave the body at night whilst a person is sleeping. It leaves via the mouth, and returns in this manner. One could therefore imagine the belief that the spirit of a dead person could also return in this way and reanimate the corpse. Placing a rock in the mouth would prevent this.

Other methods highlighted are the practice of placing iron nails either in the corpse or alongside it when buried. A vampire burial from the Greek island of Lesbos had metal spikes driven into the throat, pelvis and ankles – the similarities to Southwell are clear. Another burial from Lesbos, found in 1999 at Taxiarcus, also had iron nails included in the burial but these were placed by the side of the body rather than in it. It seems the presence of the iron nails was enough to prevent the dead from rising. In Romania, home to the vampire in many Western minds, iron nails are worn as an amulet around the neck in order to ward off the vampire-being. The use of silver is a much later Hollywood addition.

There is a final twist in the tale of the Southwell vampire. It seems he was not the last person to be buried in the town who the locals feared might return to plague the living. In 1822 one Henry Standley was found guilty of the murder of John Dale, a hawker from Flask in Staffordshire. Standley was locked up at the house of correction at Southwell, but was discovered dead in his cell. He had committed suicide by hanging. A newspaper report in the Stamford Mercury dated 15th February 1822 tells how his body was buried near the crossroads at the bottom of Burgage Green in Southwell and a stake (the same one used in the murder the paper alleges) was driven through his body. Burial of suspected vampires at crossroads is again quite common, the theory being if they were to reanimate they would not know the way back to the village. And within folklore, suicides are at great risk of becoming vampires in death.

This seems a curious event to occur – was the threat of the dead rising from the grave really prevalent in society in the 1820s? Since the mid seventeenth century, tales of East European practices of digging up suspected vampires, cutting off their heads, staking the bodies and removing the heart had been filtering through into British society. Travellers and returning soldiers brought these tales of horror and superstition to fascinated audiences, and these tales later influenced poetry and literary offerings.  Just three years before the case of Henry Standley, a tale called The Vampyre had been published in the New Monthly Magazine and credited to be a work of Lord Byron. It was not. It was actually written by a little-known author, John William Polidori, who had served as Byron’s personal physician during his stay at the Villa Diodati, Switzerland a couple of years earlier. In this book, Polidori created a vampire very different to the vampire of old. His vampire, Lord Ruthven, was suave and aristocratic and drank the blood of young females, and I have recently put forward the case that this was meant to depict Byron himself. So, wider society would have known about the vampire being and from this point onwards we have more famous literary offerings such as Varney the Vampire (1847) and Carmilla (1872), culminating in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in 1897. The vampire topic could well have been more prevalent in Southwell as Lord Byron lived there, at Burgage Manor, between 1803 and 1807, a stones throw from where Henry Standley would later be buried.

In 1813, Byron published his poem The Giaour (The Infidel) in which we hear:

But first on earth, as vampyre sent,

Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent,

Then ghastly haunt thy native place,

And suck the blood of all thy race.

As the Anglo-Saxon deviant burial and the nineteenth century case of Henry Standley suggest, the vampire was indeed haunting Byron’s ‘native place’ at Southwell.


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4 thoughts on “The Southwell Vampire – a social context

  1. Pingback: Vampire Skeleton Rediscovered in Britain | Christ School International

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