Like any long-established town, Bury St Edmunds has more than its share of supernatural myths and legends. While we may view many of these with more than a hint of scepticism, a fascination with the supernatural has been an intrinsic part of British life for centuries.
In this short article, I shall introduce some of the main ghost ‘sightings’ connected to our town, and the locations where these spirits are said to walk the earth to this day…
As you might expect, the town’s oldest and most famous building comes complete with a fair number of ghostly tales. It is claimed that a procession of monks walk the graveyard bordering the Abbey on winter nights. Moreover, in the 1960s, one Enid Crossley, described as ‘a spinster’, claimed to have seen the ghostly figure of a monk in her apartment in Cathedral Cottages on the Abbey grounds. In fact, sightings of spectral monks appear to be a regular feature of Bury mythology, with another said to traverse Abbeygate Street before disappearing through the wall of a former butcher’s.
Currently being reconstructed following a fire, the distinctive domed bar plays host to the most well known of Bury’s spirits, the infamous ‘Grey Lady.’ Said to have been a medieval nun who was executed for a romantic tryst with one of the Abbey’s monks, rumours that she can sometimes be seen climbing the stairs have been a feature of Bury life for centuries. Marion Thomas, pub landlady until 2002, claimed that the cellars were an eerie place to visit at night, that things would regularly be moved or tinkered with, and that a strange presence could sometimes be felt there. It is worth mentioning that the legend of the Grey Lady is not, however, intrinsic to the Cupola, and sightings have also been claimed in the neighbouring Nutshell and the Theatre Royal, where a former manager was said to put a programme out for his otherworldly guest. Her spectral lover has also been reported, both here and in the nearby Nutshell, although whether this is a separate sighting in itself, or a continuation of the sightings of monks, is now lost to legend.
Aside from the Grey Lady sightings mentioned above, Britain’s smallest (and seemingly most supernaturally crowded) pub has two legends of its own. The unusual mummified cat hanging above the bar, believed to have originally been found 300 years ago during the renovation of a nearby building, is rumoured to be cursed. For many decades, staff have avoided touching the desiccated corpse, as it is claimed to bring bad luck. Adding to the legend, a group of airmen from nearby RAF Honnington once stole the macabre curio as a drunken prank, only to return it soon after following a series of mysterious mishaps and a narrowly avoided collision. Finally, the ghost of a young boy, alternately claimed to have drowned in a bathtub or, more eerily, in ‘mysterious circumstances’ has been sporadically reported.
Across the other end of town, the long, winding Eastgate Street plays home to another of the town’s most enduring ghost legends, an unknown soldier and nurse in Victorian attire. Legend has it that, like the Grey Lady before him, the Unknown Soldier died as a result of a romantic liaison. In this case, the soldier, returning from the Crimean war of the 19th century, was shot dead by the disapproving father of the nurse to whom he lost his heart (and life). Compounding the poor girl’s misery, the father was then hung for his crime! Although the only reported sighting of this unfortunate couple dates back as far as 1935, it is said that, on the 20th October each year, the spirits are seen walking towards the overgrown area known as the Glen before a gunshot rings out.
Now a delightful museum, this ancient building has a dark history as a workhouse and goal for the town’s ne’er-do-wells, or at least those considered so by the town’s wealthy and privileged. In fact, it is host to possibly Bury’s oldest recorded ghost tale when, in 1328, it was stated that an unnamed woman saw ‘a most horrible devil’ in its cellar. More recently, it is claimed that, following the 1828 hanging of the notorious Red Barn murderer, William Corder, the gaoler is said to have taken possession of his skull as a ghoulish memento. Soon after, the goal was said to have rang with ghastly shrieks, strange laughter and odd apparitions until the shaken guards buried the skull in an undisclosed location. While Corder’s apparition hasn’t been sighted for many years, a replica of his death mask, a book believed to be bound in his skin, along with various other items of Corder’s, remain to fascinate lovers of the macabre.
Of course, all these stories can be taken with a pinch of salt. The Grey Lady in particular appears in so many tales across Bury St Edmunds, and in so many forms, that she is probably the conflation of a variety of legends, rumours and fireside tales that have been passed on through countless generations of Bury St Edmund’s citizens. Whatever the reality, however, these supernatural myths are indelibly linked to the culture and heritage of one of Britain’s most beautiful and vibrant market towns, and will continue to send a shiver down the spine of tourists and townsfolk alike for generations to come.