Sunday, 9 May 2010

Eldritch Goings On: Saint Mark's Eve



Saint Mary's Church in Newchurch in Pendle, as spooky a place as any to hold the Vigil of the Eve of Saint Mark.



One of the most intriguing English superstitions was the Vigil of the Eve of Saint Mark. Those of gothic sensibilities take note.

On April 24, the night before the feast day of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the morbidly curious gathered on the church porch between the hours of 11:00 pm and 1:00 am, in hope of seeing the ghosts of all who would die and be buried in the churchyard that coming year. It was believed that those who would die earlier in that year appeared first, following by those who would die later in the year.

Robert Chambers (1802-1871), prolific writer of reference books, recorded this lore in his massive encyclopaedia, Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, now accessible online.

Chambers cites an account written by Gervase Hollis, colonel to Charles I. Hollis professed to have heard the tale from a minister, Liveman Rampaine, the household chaplain to Sir Thomas Munson, of Burton in Lincoln.

In the year 1631, two men (inhabitants of Burton) agreed betwixt themselves upon St. Mark's eve at night to watch in the churchyard at Burton, to try whether or no (according to the ordinary belief amongst the common people) they should see the Spectra, or Phantasma of those persons which should die in that parish the year following. To this intent, having first performed the usual ceremonies and superstitions, late in the night, the moon shining then very bright, they repaired to the church porch, and there seated themselves, continuing there till near twelve of the clock. About which time (growing weary with expectation and partly with fear) they resolved to depart, but were held fast by a kind of insensible violence, not being able to move a foot.

About midnight, upon a sudden (as if the moon had been eclipsed), they were environed with a black darkness; immediately after, a kind of light, as if it had been a resultancy from torches. Then appears, coming towards the church porch, the minister of the place, with a book in his hand, and after him one in a winding-sheet, whom they both knew to resemble one of their neighbours. The church doors immediately fly open, and through pass the apparitions, and then the doors clap to again. Then they seem to hear a muttering, as if it were the burial service, with a rattling of bones and noise of earth, as in the filling up of a grave. Suddenly a still silence, and immediately after the apparition of the curate again, with another of their neighbours following in a winding-sheet, and so a third, fourth, and fifth, every one attended with the same circumstances as the first.
These all having passed away, there ensued a serenity of the sky, the moon shining bright, as at the first; they themselves being restored to their former liberty to walk away, which they did sufficiently affrighted. The next day they kept within doors, and met not together, being both of them exceedingly ill, by reason of the affrightment which had terrified them the night before.


The manuscript goes on to explain how the men did indeed claim to witness the deaths occurring in their community, including that of an infant newly born. These traditions were most prevalent in the North and West of England, and it was believed that, before the vigil, watchers should fast and circle around the church before taking up position.

John Keats’s poem, The Eve of Saint Mark, delves into this folklore.

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