Destroyed during the Reformation, the once rich and influential Cistercian catholic abbey on the Furness peninsula, part of modern-day Cumbria, now lies in ruins. The sandstone remnants, now almost 1,000 years old, are a popular tourist attraction. Over its long history many rumours emerged regarding the contents of its vaults, including suggestions that both the Holy Grail and the crown jewels lost by King John in the mud of the Wash resided there.
Rich and influential, the Cistercians controlled much of the trade in the area for long periods of history, including a near monopoly on trade and mining on the Isle of Man. At least one of the kings of the old Kingdom of the Isles was buried there. Even after its destruction, many believed that the rubble concealed the entrances to vaults that contained much of the abbey’s horded wealth.
In the years since Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of monasteries and Furness Abbey was left abandoned, many visitors have reported encounters with ghosts and spirits that wander the grounds.
Many accounts suggest that some of the former members of either the Congregation of Savigny that founded the abbey, or the Cistercians that it later passed to, continue to haunt the grounds. Most stories refer to the figures of monks being seen wandering the grounds and ruins, the bulk of which today is protected by Grade I listing by Historic England. One particular monk has been reported repeatedly, sometimes walking slowly across the grounds towards the gatehouse before disappearing into a wall. Other times he is seen ascending the remains of a stone staircase.
Another frequently sighted spirit resembling a monk is one on horseback, often riding at speed below an arch close to the remains of the abbey’s tavern. One account came from a then 16-year old boy who claimed to have seen a hooded man on horseback close to the West Gate in 1980. The witness is now a well-respected doctor in Australia and remains adamant about what he saw as a teenager.
Sometimes the ghost is said to be missing his head, giving rise to the suggestion that he is the spirit of a monk killed by Scottish soldiers during the First War of Scottish Independence. Others believe it is the ghost of Alexander Banke, the 36th Abbot of Furness. Greedy and ruthless, Banke was summoned to court at least eight times on charges of fraud, usually related to the dishonest seizing of land or fisheries from locals. One of these disputes, with villagers from the hamlet of Sellergarth, resulted in his brothers amongst the order usurping him as abbot. Two years later he ruthlessly took back control, throwing the conspirators into cells beneath the abbey and destroying Sellergarth by legally seizing control of the land and tearing down the houses.
In 1988, Barrow photographer Roy Chatfield visited Furness to photograph the ruins. In one shot of the West Tower, what appears to be a white figure can be seen. Chatfield swore that the figure had not been visible through his camera, only noticing it on getting the film developed. While Chatfield seems to have believed the figure to be a monk, others have suggested he captured the abbey’s well known ‘White Lady’ on film.
The White Lady
As with the ghosts of monks reported at Furness, there is some confusion surrounding the White Lady and her identity, as well as whether the name refers to a single ghost or two distinct entities. One theory is that the White Lady is some form of guardian spirit, watching over one of the rumoured treasures still buried beneath the abbey. Her appearance heralded by lights being extinguished, many late-night visitors to the ruins were warned to avoid the interior of the Belfry Tower, for fear the White Lady would slam closed the iron door, trapping them inside.
One man in the late 1970s reported the White Lady walking alongside him for several several minutes, close to the West Gate. Able to see right through the apparition, the man’s hair stood straight up in fear, and he refused to ever pass through the West Gate again.
Another account, from a local woman in 1957, described driving close to the ruin late at night when her rear view mirror was filled with light, as if from the headlights of a car behind her. When moving the mirror failed to stop the dazzling light she turned around to look for a car following her, only to find the White Lady sitting on her back seat. Turning back to the road, the light vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and the apparition was gone.
Possibly the origin of the White Lady, or another ghost entirely, is the story of a squire’s daughter that, many years after the abbey fell into ruin, would meet her lover in the grounds during a secret affair. When unknown to her the young man was lost at sea, she would continue to visit the site every day in search of him. A path in the grounds known as ‘My Lady’s Walk’ is said to follow the route of her frequent search.
Now converted to a cafe, the cottage housing the former custodian of the grounds is located a short distance to the south of what remains of the main abbey structure. A Grade I listed building, it retains some of the original roof timbers, the oldest woodwork on the abbey site.
The cottage, believed to have originally been a mill, was damaged in a fire in 1996. Firefighters that attended the blaze reported a young girl calling for help from one of the upstairs windows. On later searching the the building, no sign of the girl or her body was found.
Some time later the cottage was visited by a psychic, who later alleged that they were unaware of the story of the sighting. On entering the cottage, the medium claimed to sense the presence of a child’s body beneath the floor in the corner of the cottage, although there is no record of any attempts to follow up on the claim.
Feature Image: The ruins of the Abbey, specifically the former Chapter House. Image: Visit Lancashire