“Tis now, replied the village belle, St. Mark’s mysterious eve, And all that old traditions tell, I tremblingly believe; How, when the midnight signal tolls, Along the churchyard green, A mournful train of sentenced souls In winding-sheets are seen. The ghosts of all whom death shall doom Within the coming year, In pale procession walk the gloom, Amid the silence drear.”
On this date curious people would wait up on the 24th of April, St. Mark’s Eve to see who would die in the Parish. The details varied a little according to location, but the basic idea was that you sat in a church porch and the spirits or wraiths of those who were to die that year ahead would be seen as ghosts. The watchers had to remain silent from when the church clock struck 11pm until the clock struck one, and a procession of the dead predicted that year would appear either leaving or entering the church. In some places such as Yorkshire, the observer would have to be there for three days in a row and then only would be able to see it.
It was widespread custom, but particularly noted in north of England, although Briggs in their Folklore of the Cotswolds is wrong when they note it was found no further south than Northamptonshire (it was recorded in Oxfordshire). In East Anglia those who would die stay in the church and those who would survive would be seen in other places it was the other way around. Ethel Rudkin (1936) in Lincolnshire folklore records:
“On St Mark’s Eve all those who are going to die, or to be married, can be seen by anyone who watches in the church porch at Midnight, as they come into the church in spirit on that night.”
Let us hope they could tell the difference! Another method recorded was according to Chamber’s 1894 Book of Days involved:
“ riddling out all the ashes on the hearth-stone over night, in the expectation of seeing impressed upon them, in the morning, the footstep of any one of the party who was to die during the ensuing year. In circles much given to superstition, great misery was sometimes created by a malicious or wanton person coming slily into the kitchen during the night, and marking the ashes with the shoe of one of the party.”
A colourful account translated by Steve Roud Book of Days (2008) from its broad Yorkshire is by Richard Blakeborough in 1898:
“I never watched myself, but one James How used to watch the dead go in and come out at Bon’inston church every St. Mark’s Eve as it came around. He had to; he was forced to it, he couldn’t help himself…ate, and he saw the spirits of all of them that were going to die that year, and all of them dressed in their natural clothes, or else how would he have known who they were? They passed close to him, but none of them gave him a nod, or anything of that sort.”
A noted account is given about a Liveman Rampaine, household chaplain to Sir Thomas Munson, Burton Lincolnshire to Gervase Hollis, a noted writer who records:
“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. Then they conferred their notes, and both of them could very well remember the circumstances of every passage. Three of the apparitions they well knew to resemble three of their neighbours; but the fourth (which seemed an infant), and the fifth (like an old man), they could not conceive any resemblance of. After this they confidently reported to every one what they had done and seen; and in order designed to death those three of their neighbours, which came to pass accordingly.
Shortly after their deaths, a woman in the town was delivered of a child, which died likewise. So that now there wanted but one (the old man), to accomplish their predictions, which likewise came to pass after this manner. In that winter, about mid-January, began a sharp and long frost, during the continuance of which some of Sir John Munson’s friends in Cheshire, having some occasion of intercourse with him, despatched away a foot messenger (an ancient man), with letters to him. This man, tramling this bitter weather over the mountains in Derbyshire, was nearly perished with cold, yet at last he arrived at Burton with his letters, where within a day or two he died. And these men, as soon as ever they see him, said peremptorily that he was the man whose apparition they see, and that doubtless he would die before he returned, which accordingly he did.”
Of course waiting up late especially for many rural people who would have laboured all day would be tiring and so tales tell of people falling asleep are noted. This would be an unwise action as it is said that anyone who did would die as well! The practice would appear to have been frowned upon by the church, perhaps the tradition told in Yorkshire that anyone who did watch must do so every year of their life is a way of discouraging. As Blakeborough again notes this may have been to comfort the watcher:
“But them as does it once have to do it. They hold themselves back. They’re forced to go every time St. Mark’s Eve comes around. Man! It’s a desperate thing to have to do, because you have to go.”
Understandably, such a custom was also ripe for abuse. Kai Roberts in their Folklore of Yorkshire (2013) tells of a woman Old Peg Doo who every year used to watch at Bridlington Priory and charge her neighbours for the information. Of course finding out that you were one of these wraiths would have been quite disturbing so much that it must have caused the death of the person predicted a self fulfilling prophecy! As Chamber’s 1894 Book of Days notes:
“It may readily be presumed that this would prove a very pernicious superstition, as a malignant person, bearing an ill-will to any neighbour, had only to say or insinuate that he had seen him forming part of the visionary procession of St. Mark’s Eve, in order to visit him with. a serious affliction, if not with mortal disease.”
An account in Lincolnshire Notes and Queries by a J. A. Penny in 1892-3
“As Martin by Timberland over the river, I was told that many years ago there was an old clerk who church watched and once when a farmer grumbled at the rates he said ‘you need not trouble for you’ll not have to pay them’ nor had he, for he went home and died within three months of the shock.”
Of course there was also a bizarre final realism for the observer as Richard Blakeborough once again notes:
“Whah! at last end you see yourself pass yourself and now you know your time’s come and you’ll be laid in the ground before that day twelvemonth.”
Sometimes as Chambers notes it would be common to scare people on the day, he notes:
“A poem from Whittlesford Cambridgeshire in 1826, describing the tale of when in 1813, four or five villagers would watch at the church to see if the ghosts appeared. His friends played a joke on them by hiding in the church, ringing its bell and scaring them and sending their scattering and in one case causing one of them falling into an open grave.”
The church became very strict on the custom and it is noted as early as in 1608, indeed the earliest record of the custom, when a woman was excommunicated at Walesby, Nottinghamshire for:
“watching upon Sainte Markes eve at nighte in the church porche by divelish demonstracion the deathe of somme neighnours within the yeere”
The tradition appears to have died out by the 1800s across the country as rational thought sadly took over. However, there was at least one survival into the 20th century in Oxfordshire as a report in the Oxford Times recorded the event in the north of the county. So next St Mark’s eve perhaps…or perhaps not…you’ll want to watch.