“War is a series of catastrophes which result in victory” – Albert Pike
Arthur Koestler once said, “The most persistent sound which reverberates through men’s history is the beating of war drums” and a commonly cited statistic is that between 3500 B.C. and the late 20th Century, there have been at least 14,500 wars, killing no less than 3.5 billion people, and only 300 years out of five millennia where somebody wasn’t getting the boys together to go out and stomp some heads in the name of queen and country. This is of course a fairly horrific track record, and it seems that even more ancient, pre-literate societies distinguished themselves by being relatively accomplished, despite their lack of materials engineering degrees, at large scale violence (archaeologists like to point out all the mass graves they find filled with brutally massacred folks), and the only reason we don’t know as much about them is that they thought writing was for wimps and had to travel longer distances to find another population to slaughter, scalp, or enslave. In short, very little has changed in human history despite all our intellectual and technological advancements, advancements that we usually stumble upon in the service of making bigger guns and more spectacular ways to wipe out our fellow humans, preferably from out of range (as the old saying goes, “the pen is mightier than the sword, especially at distances greater than three feet and at high velocity”). The ever-stoic soldier throughout history has always had to console himself, as the rocks, or arrows, or bullets, or artillery are whistling by his head, that no matter how bad things on the battlefield get, you can only die once, for as philosopher George Santayana said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. But what if this is not an entirely accurate sentiment? After all, if we were to imagine that any event could leave a scar upon reality, etching its brutality and horror onto the landscape of our existence, what more traumatic occurrence could we point to than brother scything down brother amidst the chaos of the battlefield. From the 490 B.C. Battle of Marathon in Greece to the 685 A.D. Battle of Nechtansmere in Scotland, the moans of the dead and dying, the clash of swords, and the thunder of marching troops are heard for years after by those with the misfortune to live nearby. One such eternal phantom battle, doomed to be refought again and again, was the 1642 A.D. Battle of Edge Hill in southern Warwickshire, the first full scale clash of the Royalist and Parliamentary armies in the bloody First English Civil War.
The first great battle between the Royalist and Parliamentary forces was fought in October, 1642, near the small town of Kineton, in the south of the county, and on the plain below Edge Hill, from which the battle derives its name. The Royalist troops had arrived from neighbouring villages, and had mustered in large numbers early on the morning of Sunday, 23rd October, on the heights of Edge Hill. The line extended from its right on Bullet Hill to its left at the ‘Sun Rising,’ and was well protected on flanks and rear, with the plain, then open country, a hundred feet below the cliff. The King rode along the lines ‘clad in steel, and with a star and garter on, a black velvet mantle over his armour, and a steel cap covered with velvet on his head’ and addressed his officers in his tent with, ‘Come life or death, your King will bear you company.’ Lord Lindsay offered up his quaint, brief prayer: ‘O Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be to-day! If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me! March on, boys!’ About two o’clock the royal forces prepared to descend the steep face of the cliff to attack the Parliamentarians on the field below. Prince Rupert led the cavalry on the right, Lord Wilmot on the left, while the centre was entrusted to General Ruthven and Sir Jacob Astley, with the King and his pensioners in the rear. The ground was wet and miry, but the day fair overhead. About three o’clock the sound of two cannon fired by the Roundheads rolled and echoed along the lofty cliff, and the battle had begun. The King’s left cavalry charged towards Battle Farm (since so called), where Essex had planted some guns, and were repulsed. Prince Rupert, on the right wing, charged down the hill towards Kineton with better success, and drove back Sir James Ramsay and his troops by his impetuous charge, but Rupert, with his characteristic rashness, rushed on to the plunder of the baggage-waggons at Kineton, while the rest of the Royalist troops were losing the day. The Parliamentary left wing was routed, but the right wing stood well, and the centre held its ground and advanced. When Rupert returned it was too late. John Hampden had arrived from Stratford, opened fire on Rupert’s troops, drove him to retire in great confusion, and to throw away his beaver and feather that he might cease to be a mark. The royal army was in great danger; it was severely pressed on its left and its front. The King was within half a musket-shot of the enemy, and the ground from which Rupert had driven Ramsay had been regained. Both armies had suffered severely, but the Parliamentarian troops had held their ground, while the Royalists had retired to their more comfortable quarters. Although the success was doubtful, the Parliamentarians seem on the whole to have had the advantage, for their horse on the field were victorious, and their infantry superior. The slaughter was very great, and has been variously estimated from one thousand to five thousand (Timmins, 1889, p8-10).
No fewer than a thousand men died on the field that day and thousands were wounded. Most were raw recruits with little or no combat experience, except for officers on both sides of the conflict that had fought for the Dutch and Swedish armies in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648 A.D). Oliver Cromwell, who arrived too late to participate in the battle is said to have complained to pro-Parliamentary Deputy-Lieutenant John Hampden, responsible for the levying of troops from Buckinghamshire that fought at Edge Hill, that even though the Parliamentarian troops took the day, “Your troops, are most of them old decayed servingmen and tapsters, and such kind of fellows; and their troops are gentlemen’s sons, younger sons, and persons of quality. Do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows will be ever able to encounter gentlemen that have honour, and courage, and resolution in them?” (Russell, 1833, p92) Cromwell was kind of a jerk, similarly evidenced by the fact that after his death from natural causes in 1658, his corpse was dug up, hung in chains, and beheaded. He pissed a lot of people off. According to contemporary sources, the Battle of Edge Hill continued to be fought by phantom cohorts, night after night, long after the armies had retired from the field. Just about one year after (January 23, 1643) the Battle of Edge Hill, a curious tract appeared, entitled “A Great Wonder in Heaven, showing the late Apparitions and Prodigious Noyses of War and Battels, seen on Edge Hill, neere Keinton in Northamptonshire. Certified under the Hands of William Wood, Esquire, and Justice for the Peace in the said Coiintie, Samuel Marshall, Preacher of Gods Word in Keinton, and other Persons of Qualitie” describing bizarre spectral replays of the battle that were attested to by reliable witnesses (note, I standardized the spelling from the original, so as not to give anyone Shakespearean seizures from trying to read phrases like “in the very place where the battell was strucken, have since, and doth appeare”).
Edge-Hill, in the very confines of Warwickshire, near unto Keynton in Northamptonshire, a place, as appears by the sequel, destined for civil wars and battles; as where King John fought a battle with his Barons, and where in defense of the Kingdom’s laws and liberty, was fought a bloody conflict between his Majesties and the Parliaments forces; at this Edge-Hill, in the very place where the battle was struck, have since, and doth appear, strange and portentous Apparitions of two jarring and contrary Armies, as I shall in order deliver, it being certified by the men of most credit in those parts, as William Wood, Esquire, Samuel Marshall, Minister, and others, on Saturday, which was in Christmas time, as if the Saviour of the world, who died to redeem mankind, had been angry that so much Christian blood was there spilt, and so had permitted these infernal Armies to appear where the corporeal Armies had shed so much blood;—between twelve and one of the clock in the morning was heard by some shepherds, and other country-men, and travellers, first the sound of drums afar off, and the noise of soldiers ,as it were, giving out their last groans: at which they were much amazed, and amazed stood still, till it seemed, by the nearness of the noise, to approach them; at which too much affrighted, they sought to withdraw as fast as possibly they could; but then, on the sudden, whilst they were in these cogitations, appeared in the air the same incorporeal soldiers that made those clamors, and immediately, with Ensigns displayed, Drums beating, Muskets going off, Cannons discharged, Horses neighing, which also to these men were visible, the alarum or entrance to this game of death was struck up, one Army, which gave the first charge, having the Kings colors, and the other the Parliaments in their head or front of the battles, and so pell mell to it they went; the battle that appeared to the Kings forces seeming at first to have the best, but afterwards to be put into apparent rout; but till two or three in the morning in equal scale continued this dreadful fight, the clattering of Arms, noise of Cannons, cries of soldiers, so amazing and terrifying the poor men, that they could not believe they were mortal, or give credit to their ears and eyes; run away they durst not, for fear of being made a prey to these infernal soldiers, and so they, with much fear and affright, stayed to behold the success of the businesses, which at last suited to this effect: after some three hours fight, that Army which carried the Kings colors withdrew, or rather appeared to flee; the other remaining, as it were, masters of the field, stayed a good space triumphing, and expressing all the signs of joy and conquest, and then, with all their Drums, Trumpets, Ordnance, and Soldiers, vanished; the poor men glad they were gone, that had so long staid them there against their wills, made with all haste to Keinton, and there knocking up Mr. Wood, a Justice of Peace, who called up his neighbor, Mr. Marshall, the Minister, they gave them an account of the whole passage, and averred it upon their oaths to be true. At which affirmation of theirs, being much amazed, they should hardly have given credit to it, but would have conjectured the men to have been either mad or drunk, had they not known some of them to have been of approved integrity: and so, suspending their judgments till the next night about the same hour, they, with the same men, and all the substantial Inhabitants of that and the neighboring parishes, drew thither; where, about half an hour after their arrival, on Sunday, being Christmas night, appeared in the same tumultuous warlike manner, the same two adverse Armies, fighting with as much spite and spleen as formerly: and so departed the gentlemen and all the spectators, much terrified with these visions of horror, withdrew themselves to their houses, beseeching God to defend them from those hellish and prodigious enemies. The next night they appeared not, nor all that week, so that the dwellers thereabout were in good hope they had forever departed; but on the ensuing Saturday night, in the same place, and at the same hour, they were again seen with far greater tumult, fighting in the manner afore-mentioned for four hours, or very near, and then vanished, appearing again on Sunday night, and performing the same actions of hostility and bloodshed; so that both Mr. Wood and others, whose faith, it should seem, was not strong enough to carry them out against these delusions, forsook their habitations thereabout, and retired themselves to other more secure dwellings; but Mr. Marshall stayed, and some other; and so successively the next Saturday and Sunday the same tumults and prodigious sights and actions were put in the state and condition they were formerly. The rumor whereof coming to his Majesty at Oxford, he immediately dispatched thither Colonel Lewis Kirke, Captain Dudley, Captain Wainman, and three other Gentlemen of credit, to take the full view and notice of the said business, who, first hearing the true attestation and relation of Mr. Marshall and others, staid there till Saturday night following, wherein they heard and saw the fore-mentioned prodigies, and so on Sunday, distinctly knowing divers of the apparitions or incorporeal substances by their faces, as that of Sir Edmund Varney, and others that were there slain; of which upon oath they made testimony to his Majesty. What this does portend God only knoweth, and time perhaps will discover; but doubtlessly it is a sign of his wrath against this Land, for these civil wars, which He in his good time finish, and send a sudden peace between his Majesty and Parliament (Nugent, 1860, Appendix H, “A Great Wonder in Heaven…”).
So, not only did the Warwickshire locals report an ongoing ghostly battle, but a committee of King’s commissioners (and reliable “gentlemen of credit”) dispatched by King Charles to investigate the claims “saw the same sight that had terrified the country-side; and not only so, but as the phantom armies swept by them they recognized the faces of many friends and foes who had fallen in the day of battle. There was Sir Edmund Verney, now the ghostly guardian of a ghostly standard, and there were the Lords Stewart and Aubigny of the King’s party; and the Lord St. John, and brave young Charles Essex of the Parliament’s, and many another (Hunt, 1899, p140-141). Lord George Nugent-Grenville, 2nd Baron Nugent (1788-1850 A.D) stated in his memorial to John Hampden that, “A well supported imposture or a stormy night on the hill-side might have acted on the weakness of a peasantry in whose remembrance the terrors of the Edge Hill fight were still fresh; but it is difficult to imagine how the minds of officers, sent there to correct the illusions, could have been so imposed upon” (Ingram, 1884, p65). Ralph Shirley (1865-1946), the leading British pioneer in the publication of occult and mystical literature remarked on the phantom Battle of Edge Hill, noting that “Of this battle, fought on October 22, 1642, the first apparition was seen on the Christmas evening following, and, of all occult happenings in history, none is better authenticated” (Shirley, 1914, p52).
Perhaps we are not always so fortunate as to escape the ravages of war, even in death. It seems likely that our “civilized” modern gods likely emerged not from animistic nature worship and the veneration of a mother goddess, but from war gods, whose awesome power was no doubt felt when the first hominid extended his combat effectiveness by using a stick as a club. English Statesman Stanley Baldwin once observed, “War would end, if the dead could return”, thinking that if only those who died for our causes could communicate the pointlessness of the endeavor, perhaps we would think twice about the next war. Maybe they do, and we’re just not listening
Hunt, Wray, d. 1897. Essays. London, 1899.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes And Family Traditions of Great Britain. London: W.H. Allen & co., 1884.
Nugent, George Nugent Grenville, baron, 1789-1850. Memorials of John Hampden, His Party and His Times. 4th ed., London: H. G. Bohn, 1860.
Russell, Michael, 1781-1848. Life of Oliver Cromwell. New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833.
Shirley, Ralph, 1865-1946. Prophecies And Omens of the Great War. London: W. Rider, 1914.
Shirley, Ralph, 1865-1946. The Angel Warriors at Mons: Including Numerous Confirmatory Testimonies, Evidence of the Wounded and Certain Curious Historical Parallels. London: Newspaper Publicity Co., 1915.
Timmins, Samuel. A History of Warwickshire. London: E. Stock, 1889.
There is no god except a god of fear.
Lucky, too, since otherwise I’d be out of business.
In some ways the Civil War is a perfect one to trigger ghosts, real or imagined. A conflict in which religious differences played a huge part on all sides, and during which the very foundation of society seemed to have been thrown into turmoil. To adapt Voltaire’s comment on God, if ghosts from that war did not exist then it would have been necessary to invent them, just to help people cope.
It does seem that the more horrific the battle, the more likely one is to hear about its ghosts. Interestingly, the most common references to Edge Hill that I ran across doing research were in relation to the “Angels of Mons”, supporting the suggestion that such things were not uncommon on the battlefield.