As last the final few eves before Christmas approach, the dark hours around a warm fire should rightly be filled with good tall tales. Allow me, then, to indulge myself by recanting and explaining the curious legend of the day the devil visited Danbury church and carried half it of back to hell with him.
The year was 1402; Henry IV sat on the throne of England, the Scots made war against Englishmen in the north, and a man called William Goodfather was parson of a small parish church in the flourishing village of Danbury. A long way from that small country church, at the Benedictine monastery in St. Albans, a monk called Henry de Blaneford was busy compiling a chronicle of the history of his times, and he heard a tale of Danbury and these dark events of 1402:
The church was still a grand medieval Catholic building, decorated with the rich reds and golds of grand frescoes depicting the faces of martyred saints, the peace of God’s heaven, and the savage depths of infernal hell. All these muddles of faces and scenes would glint in the candlelight and flicker in and out of focus amid smoke and incense.
It was in such a space that during one Catholic mass in 1402 that William Goodfather was stood in his pulpit trying to give a sermon to the congregation of Danbury. Among them sat men like Richard Grey, a teenage nobleman, and Sir Gerard Braybrooke, a newcomer to the village. Much of this one of William’s fine sermons, however, was lost to the listeners owing to a great storm clattering across the sky outside.
The long Latin sermon would usually be lost on the local farmers anyway, spending their time instead gazing at the ferocious painted faces and scenes around the walls, but that day the images were picked out particularly as each spark of lighting and rumble of thunder drowned out the tiresome words of God’s sermon with the terrible roar of God’s heaven.
In one moment, Henry de Blaneford hurriedly records in his chronicle, there was a terrible cry of thunder, unlike anything the villagers had ever heard before. The candles were in one breath extinguished and with a great flicker of mad lightning the figure of a spectral monk appeared before the congregation. William’s sermon had been interrupted by this horrible vision, but in the same instant this ‘appearance of the Devil’ was gone.
Then came, to the true horror of the people, the sound of cracking stone and the whimpering of wood under too much strain. The grand spire of the church, which had stood decked in glimmering glazed tiles pointing high up to the kingdom of God, began to shift on the top of the church tower. It splintered, falling with a mighty crash that upset the rest of the roof beams. One by one, the carvings and paintings in the ceiling high above the nave sprung to life, as the entire structure gave way and fell inwards.
By now the congregation had fallen into chaos, the terrible monk lit up by the lightening had frightened off half, and now the stout remainder were fighting their way out at the doors. In minutes the crashing of stone and tile, splintering of wood, and smashing of windows had seen the church turned half to rubble. We know at least that William the parson survived, as did Richard Grey and Sir Gerald, two noblemen caught up in a country church on the wrong day, but how many did not survive isn’t recorded.
Still, the story was told first between farmers, then between villages, and finally reaching all the edges of East Anglia, of the day that the devil’s phantom monk came to church. A small fortune was spent rebuilding the church, and barely a stone remains in the nave that likely saw that day in 1402. It is, however, one of the oldest recorded ghost stories that I know that isn’t some fantastic myth or famous tale. It is simply a ghost story surrounding an event that almost destroyed the centre of a simple rural community over 600 years ago.
Merry Christmas, well-wrapped reader!