William, Canon of Newburgh, a priory of Black or Augustine Friars, near Goxwold, in the. East Riding of Yorkshire, is one of the most veracious and highly-esteemed of English Church historians. Speaking of his history, compiled in the reign of Richard I., or immediately after, the Rev. Joseph Stevenson, M.A., of University College, Durham, who translated this and other works of the kind, says: – “Both in design and execution, it is worthy of the approbation which has generally been awarded to it. In criticism, William of Newburgh was in advance of his age.” He tells a good many stories, however, in perfect good faith, as literally true, which we more sceptical moderns can only regard as old wives’ fables.
Among the prodigious things recorded by Canon William are accounts of several dead men who wandered about after burial. One of the cases occurred at Berwick-upon-Tweed. In this town a certain man, very wealthy, but, as it afterwards appeared, a great rogue, fell sick, died, and was buried. Whether he died under the ban of excommunication, and was consequently refused burial in consecrated ground, we are not told, but the probability is that that was the case. For “after his death he sallied forth (by the contrivance, as was believed, of Satan) out of his grave by night, and was borne hither and thither, pursued by a pack of dogs with loud barkings.” It was natural that this hideous apparition should strike terror into the neighbours. Night after night, the hell-hounds hunted the poor defunct sinner up and down the deserted streets, running him aground in his tomb as soon as daylight peeped out, but only to renew the chase again after dark. The consequence was that no one dared to be found out of doors after dark, for each dreaded an encounter with this “deadly monster” — this vampire, werewolf, ghoul, lemur, or lycanthrope, who was doubtless cursed, like all his kind, with a ravenous appetite for human flesh, bent upon doing every manner of mischief to the living, biting every person that came in his way, and either worrying them to death or driving them stark mad. The historian goes on to say that “the higher and middle classes of the people held a necessary investigation into what was requisite to be done, the more simple among them fearing, in the event of negligence, to be soundly beaten by this prodigy of the grave, but the wiser shrewdly concluding that, were a remedy further delayed, the atmosphere, infected and corrupted by the constant whirlings through it of the pestiferous corpse, would engender disease and death to a great extent, the necessity of providing against which was shown by frequent examples in similar cases. “They, therefore, resolved that the horrible carcase” should forthwith be dug up, cut limb from limb, and reduced into “food and fuel for the flames.” Ten young men, “renowned for boldness,” either volunteered or were hired to perform the disgusting task. As soon as this bad been done, says William, “the commotion ceased.” He adds that a statement was currently believed in the place, that” while the monster was being borne about (as it was said) by Satan, it told certain persons whom it had by chance encountered, that as long as it remained un-burnt the people should have no peace.” But a pestilence arose soon afterwards, in consequence as our historian thinks, of this vampire affair; and it carried off the greater portion of the inhabitants of Berwick. “Never did it so furiously rage elsewhere,” says William, “though it was at that time general throughout all the borders of England.”
Another vampire case that came under William of Newburgh’s notice occurred at Melrose, on the south bank of the Tweed. The chaplain of a certain illustrious lady, whose name he does not give, “casting off mortality, was consigned to the tomb in that noble monastery.” He had been a very worldly man, excessively secular in his pursuits, and so addicted to the vanity of the chase as to be designated by the infamous title of “Hundeprest,” or the Dog-Priest. His small respect for the sacred order to which he belonged, was signally punished on his passing into the other world. For, issuing from the grave at night-time, and being prevented by the holy inmates from injuring or terrifying anyone within the monastery, he wandered beyond the walls, and hovered chiefly, with loud groans and horrible murmurs, round the bed-chamber of his former mistress. The lady, driven nearly frantic by his repeated nocturnal visits, demanded with tears that prayers more earnest than usual should be poured out to the Lord in her behalf. As she was a liberal donor to the Church, the holy fathers felt it their bounden duty to do all they could to relieve her. And so two stout-hearted friars and two powerful young laymen were deputed to mount guard at night over the cemetery where the miserable priest lay buried. They were well furnished with arms, and animated with courage, “safe in the assistance which each afforded to the other.” Midnight passed by, and no monster appeared; whereupon three of the party went away to the nearest house for the purpose of warming themselves, as the night was cold. We must tell the rest of the story in the ingenuous old Austin Friar’s own words : –
As soon as the fourth man was left alone, the devil, imagining that he had found the right moment for breaking his courage, incontinently roused up his own chosen vassal, who appeared to have reposed longer than usual. Having beheld them from afar, the monk grew stiff with terror, by reason of his being alone; but, soon recovering his courage, and no place of refuge being at hand, he valiantly withstood the onset of the fiend, who came rushing upon him with a terrible noise; and he struck the axe which he wielded in his hand deep into the monster’s body. On receiving this wound the monster groaned aloud, and, turning his back, fled with a rapidity not at all inferior to that with which he had advanced, while the admirable man (the friar) urged his flying foe from behind, and compelled him to seek his own tomb again; which, opening of its own accord, and receiving its guest from the advance of the pursuer, immediately appeared to close again with the same facility. In the meantime, they who, impatient of the coldness of the night, had retreated to the fire, ran up though somewhat too late, and, having heard what had happened, rendered needful assistance in digging up and removing from the midst of the tomb the accursed corpse at the earliest dawn. When they had divested it of the clay cast forth with it, they found the huge wound it had received, and a great quantity of gore which had flowed from it in the sepulchre. And so, having carried it away beyond the walls of the monastery, and burnt it, they scattered the ashes to the winds.
The belief in vampires has been long current in many parts of the world, and still is entertained in several nominally Christian countries, particularly among the nations of Sclavonian race, and such as are in immediate contact with them, like the Bulgarians.