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The Botathen Ghost

The legend of Parson Rudall and the Botathen Ghost will be recognised by
many Cornish people as a local remembrance of their boyhood.

It appears from the diary of this learned master of the
grammar-school–for such was his office, as well as perpetual curate of
the parish,–“that a pestilential disease did break forth in our town in
the beginning of the year A.D. 1665; yea, and it likewise
invaded my school, insomuch that therewithal certain of the chief
scholars sickened and died.” “Among others who yielded to the malign
influence was Master John Eliot, the eldest son and the worshipful heir
of Edward Eliot, Esquire of Trebursey, a stripling of sixteen years of
age, but of uncommon parts and hopeful ingenuity. At his own especial
motion and earnest desire I did consent to preach his funeral sermon.”
It should be remembered here that, howsoever strange and singular it may
sound to us that a mere lad should formally solicit such a performance
at the hands of his master, it was in consonance with the habitual usage
of those times. The old services for the dead had been abolished by law,
and in the stead of sacrament and ceremony, month’s mind and year’s
mind, the sole substitute which survived was the general desire “to
partake,” as they called it, of a posthumous discourse, replete with
lofty eulogy and flattering remembrance of the living and the dead. The
diary proceeds:

“I fulfilled my undertaking and preached over the coffin in the presence
of a full assemblage of mourners and lachrymose friends. An ancient
gentleman who was then and there in the church, a Mr Bligh of Botathen,
was much affected by my discourse, and he was heard to repeat to himself
certain parentheses therefrom, especially a phrase from Maro Virgilius,
which I had applied to the deceased youth, ‘Et puer ipse fuit cantari

“The cause wherefore this old gentleman was thus moved by my
applications was this: He had a first-born and only son–a child who,
but a very few months before, had been not unworthy of the character I
drew of young Master Eliot, but who, by some strange accident, had of
late quite fallen away from his parent’s hopes, and become moody, and
sullen, and distraught. When the funeral obsequies were over, I had no
sooner come out of the church than I was accosted by this aged parent,
and he besought me incontinently, with a singular energy, that I would
resort with him forthwith to his abode at Botathen that very night; nor
could I have delivered myself from his importunity, had not Mr Eliot
urged his claim to enjoy my company at his own house. Hereupon I got
loose, but not until I had pledged a fast assurance that I would pay
him, faithfully, an early visit the next day.”

“The Place,” as it was called, of Botathen, where old Mr Bligh resided,
was a low-roofed gabled manor-house of the fifteenth century, walled and
mullioned, and with clustered chimneys of dark-grey stone from the
neighbouring quarries of Ventor-gan. The mansion was flanked by a
pleasaunce or enclosure in one space, of garden and lawn, and it was
surrounded by a solemn grove of stag-horned trees. It had the sombre
aspect of age and of solitude, and looked the very scene of strange and
supernatural events. A legend might well belong to every gloomy glade
around, and there must surely be a haunted room somewhere within its
walls. Hither, according to his appointment, on the morrow, Parson
Rudall betook himself. Another clergyman, as it appeared, had been
invited to meet him, who, very soon after his arrival, proposed a walk
together in the pleasaunce, on the pretext of showing him, as a
stranger, the walks and trees, until the dinner-bell should strike.
There, with much prolixity, and with many a solemn pause, his brother
minister proceeded to “unfold the mystery.”

“A singular infelicity,” he declared, “had befallen young Master Bligh,
once the hopeful heir of his parents and of the lands of Botathen.
Whereas he had been from childhood a blithe and merry boy, ‘the
gladness,’ like Isaac of old, of his father’s age, he had suddenly of
late become morose and silent–nay, even austere and stern–dwelling
apart, always solemn, often in tears. The lad had at first repulsed all
questions as to the origin of this great change, but of late he had
yielded to the importunate researches of his parents, and had disclosed
the secret cause. It appeared that he resorted, every day, by a pathway
across the fields, to this very clergyman’s house, who had charge of his
education, and grounded him in the studies suitable to his age. In the
course of his daily walk he had to pass a certain heath or down where
the road wound along through tall blocks of granite with open spaces of
grassy sward between. There in a certain spot and always in one and the
same place, the lad declared that he had encountered, every day, a woman
with a pale and troubled face, clothed in a long loose garment of
frieze, with one hand always stretched forth, and the other pressed
against her side. Her name, he said, was Dorothy Dinglet, for he had
known her well from his childhood, and she often used to come to his
parents’ house; but that which troubled him was, that she had now been
dead three years, and he himself had been with the neighbours at her
burial; so that, as the youth alleged, with great simplicity, since he
had seen her body laid in the grave, this that he saw every day must
needs be her soul or ghost. ‘Questioned again and again,’ said the
clergyman, ‘he never contradicts himself; but he relates the same and
the simple tale as a thing that cannot be gainsaid. Indeed, the lad’s
observance is keen and calm for a boy of his age. The hair of the
appearance, sayeth he, is not like anything alive, but it is so soft and
light that it seemeth to melt away while you look; but her eyes are set,
and never blink–no, not when the sun shineth full upon her face. She
maketh no steps, but seemeth to swim along the top of the grass; and her
hand, which is stretched out alway, seemeth to point at something far
away, out of sight. It is her continual coming; for she never faileth to
meet him, and to pass on, that hath quenched his spirits; and although
he never seeth her by night, yet cannot he get his natural rest.’

“Thus far the clergyman; whereupon the dinner clock did sound, and we
went into the house. After dinner, when young Master Bligh had withdrawn
with his tutor, under excuse of their books, the parents did forthwith
beset me as to my thoughts about their son. Said I, warily, ‘The case is
strange, but by no means impossible. It is one that I will study, and
fear not to handle, if the lad will be free with me, and fulfil all that
I desire.’ The mother was overjoyed, but I perceived that old Mr Bligh
turned pale, and was downcast with some thought which, however, he did
not express. Then they bade that Master Bligh should be called to meet
me in the pleasaunce forthwith. The boy came, and he rehearsed to me his
tale with an open countenance, and, withal, a modesty of speech. Verily
he seemed ‘ingenui vultus puer ingenuique pudoris.’ Then I signified to
him my purpose. ‘To-morrow,’ said I, ‘we will go together to the place;
and if, as I doubt not, the woman shall appear, it will be for me to
proceed according to knowledge, and by rules laid down in my books.'”

The unaltered scenery of the legend still survives, and, like the field
of the forty footsteps in another history, the place is still visited by
those who take interest in the supernatural tales of old. The pathway
leads along a moorland waste, where large masses of rock stand up here
and there from the grassy turf, and clumps of heath and gorse weave
their tapestry of golden purple garniture on every side. Amidst all
these, and winding along between the rocks, is a natural footway worn by
the scant, rare tread of the village traveller. Just midway, a somewhat
larger stretch than usual of green sod expands, which is skirted by the
path, and which is still identified as the legendary haunt of the
phantom, by the name of Parson Rudall’s Ghost.

But we must draw the record of the first interview between the minister
and Dorothy from his own words. “We met,” thus he writes, “in the
pleasaunce very early, and before any others in the house were awake;
and together the lad and myself proceeded towards the field. The youth
was quite composed, and carried his Bible under his arm, from whence he
read to me verses, which he said he had lately picked out, to have
always in his mind. These were Job vii. 14, ‘Thou scarest me with
dreams, and terrifiest me through visions’; and Deuteronomy xxviii. 67,
‘In the morning thou shalt say, Would to God it were the evening, and in
the evening thou shalt say, Would to God it were morning; for the fear
of thine heart wherewith thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine
eyes which thou shalt see.’

“I was much pleased with the lad’s ingenuity in these pious
applications, but for mine own part I was somewhat anxious and out of
cheer. For aught I knew this might be a _daemonium meridianum_, the most
stubborn spirit to govern and guide that any man can meet, and the most
perilous withal. We had hardly reached the accustomed spot, when we both
saw her at once gliding towards us; punctually as the ancient writers
describe the motion of their ‘lemures, which swoon along the ground,
neither marking the sand nor bending the herbage.’ The aspect of the
woman was exactly that which had been related by the lad. There was the
pale and stony face, the strange and misty hair, the eyes firm and
fixed, that gazed, yet not on us, but something that they saw far, far
away; one hand and arm stretched out, and the other grasping the girdle
of her waist. She floated along the field like a sail upon a stream, and
glided past the spot where we stood, pausingly. But so deep was the awe
that overcame me, as I stood there in the light of day, face to face
with a human soul separate from her bones and flesh, that my heart and
purpose both failed me. I had resolved to speak to the spectre in the
appointed form of words, but I did not. I stood like one amazed and
speechless, until she had passed clean out of sight. One thing
remarkable came to pass. A spaniel dog, the favourite of young Master
Bligh, had followed us, and lo! when the woman drew nigh, the poor
creature began to yell and bark piteously, and ran backward and away,
like a thing dismayed and appalled. We returned to the house, and after
I had said all that I could to pacify the lad, and to soothe the aged
people, I took my leave for that time, with a promise that when I had
fulfilled certain business elsewhere, which I then alleged, I would
return and take orders to assuage these disturbances and their cause.

“January 7, 1665.–At my own house, I find, by my books, what is
expedient to be done; and then, Apage, Sathanas!

“January 9, 1665.–This day I took leave of my wife and family, under
pretext of engagements elsewhere, and made my secret journey to our
diocesan city, wherein the good and venerable bishop then abode.

“January 10.–_Deo gratias_, in safe arrival at Exeter; craved and
obtained immediate audience of his lordship; pleading it was for counsel
and admonition on a weighty and pressing cause; called to the presence;
made obeisance; and then by command stated my case–the Botathen
perplexity–which I moved with strong and earnest instances and solemn
asseverations of that which I had myself seen and heard. Demanded by his
lordship, what was the succour that I had come to entreat at his hands?
Replied, licence for my exorcism, that so I might, ministerially, allay
this spiritual visitant, and thus render to the living and the dead
release from this surprise. ‘But,’ said our bishop, ‘on what authority
do you allege that I am intrusted with faculty so to do? Our Church, as
is well known, hath abjured certain branches of her ancient power, on
grounds of perversion and abuse.’ ‘Nay, my Lord,’ I humbly answered,
‘under favour, the seventy-second of the canons ratified and enjoined on
us, the clergy, anno Domini 1604, doth expressly provide, that “no
minister, _unless he hath_ the licence of his diocesan bishop, shall
essay to exorcise a spirit, evil or good.” Therefore it was,’ I did here
mildly allege, ‘that I did not presume to enter on such a work without
lawful privilege under your lordship’s hand and seal.’ Hereupon did our
wise and learned bishop, sitting in his chair, condescend upon the theme
at some length with many gracious interpretations from ancient writers
and from Holy Scripture, and I did humbly rejoin and reply, till the
upshot was that he did call in his secretary and command him to draw the
aforesaid faculty, forthwith and without further delay, assigning him a
form, insomuch that the matter was incontinently done; and after I had
disbursed into the secretary’s hands certain moneys for signitary
purposes, as the manner of such officers hath always been, the bishop
did himself affix his signature under the _sigillum_ of his see, and
deliver the document into my hands. When I knelt down to receive his
benediction, he softly said, ‘Let it be secret, Mr R. Weak brethren!
weak brethren!'”

This interview with the bishop, and the success with which he
vanquished his lordship’s scruples, would seem to have confirmed Parson
Rudall very strongly in his own esteem, and to have invested him with
that courage which he evidently lacked at his first encounter with the

The entries proceed: “January 11, 1665.–Therewithal did I hasten home
and prepare my instruments, and cast my figures for the onset of the
next day. Took out my ring of brass, and put it on the index-finger of
my right hand, with the _scutum Davidis_ traced thereon.

“January 12, 1665.–Rode into the gateway at Botathen, armed at all
points, but not with Saul’s armour, and ready. There is danger from the
demons, but so there is in the surrounding air every day. At early
morning then, and alone,–for so the usage ordains,–I betook me towards
the field. It was void, and I had thereby due time to prepare. First, I
paced and measured out my circle on the grass. Then did I mark my
pentacle in the very midst, and at the intersection of the five angles I
did set up and fix my crutch of _raun_ (rowan). Lastly, I took my
station south, at the true line of the meridian, and stood facing due
north. I waited and watched for a long time. At last there was a kind of
trouble in the air, a soft and rippling sound, and all at once the shape
appeared, and came on towards me gradually. I opened my parchment
scroll, and read aloud the command. She paused, and seemed to waver and
doubt; stood still; then I rehearsed the sentence, sounding out every
syllable like a chant. She drew near my ring, but halted at first
outside, on the brink. I sounded again, and now at the third time I gave
the signal in Syriac,–the speech which is used, they say, where such
ones dwell and converse in thoughts that glide.

“She was at last obedient, and swam into the midst of the circle, and
there stood still, suddenly. I saw, moreover, that she drew back her
pointing hand. All this while I do confess that my knees shook under me,
and the drops of sweat ran down my flesh like rain. But now, although
face to face with the spirit, my heart grew calm, and my mind was
composed. I knew that the pentacle would govern her, and the ring must
bind, until I gave the word. Then I called to mind the rule laid down of
old, that no angel or fiend, no spirit, good or evil, will ever speak
until they have been first spoken to. _N.B._–This is the great law of
prayer. God Himself will not yield reply until man hath made vocal
entreaty, once and again. So I went on to demand, as the books advise;
and the phantom made answer, willingly. Questioned wherefore not at
rest? Unquiet, because of a certain sin. Asked what, and by whom?
Revealed it; but it is _sub sigillo_, and therefore _nefas dictu_; more
anon. Inquired, what sign she could give that she was a true spirit and
not a false fiend? Stated, before next Yule-tide a fearful pestilence
would lay waste the land and myriads of souls would be loosened from
their flesh, until, as she piteously said, ‘our valleys will be full.’
Asked again, why she so terrified the lad? Replied: ‘It is the law; we
must seek a youth or a maiden of clean life, and under age, to receive
messages and admonitions.’ We conversed with many more words, but it is
not lawful for me to set them down. Pen and ink would degrade and defile
the thoughts she uttered, and which my mind received that day. I broke
the ring, and she passed, but to return once more next day. At
even-song, a long discourse with that ancient transgressor, Mr B. Great
horror and remorse; entire atonement and penance; whatsoever I enjoin;
full acknowledgment before pardon.

“January 13, 1665.–At sunrise I was again in the field. She came in at
once, and, as it seemed, with freedom. Inquired if she knew my thoughts,
and what I was going to relate? Answered, ‘Nay, we only know what we
perceive and hear; we cannot see the heart.’ Then I rehearsed the
penitent words of the man she had come up to denounce, and the
satisfaction he would perform. Then said she, ‘Peace in our midst.’ I
went through the proper forms of dismissal, and fulfilled all as it was
set down and written in my memoranda; and then, with certain fixed
rites, I did dismiss that troubled ghost, until she peacefully withdrew,
gliding towards the west. Neither did she ever afterward appear, but was
allayed until she shall come in her second flesh to the valley of
Armageddon on the last day.”

These quaint and curious details from the “diurnal” of a simple-hearted
clergyman of the seventeenth century appear to betoken his personal
persuasion of the truth of what he saw and said, although the statements
are strongly tinged with what some may term the superstition, and others
the excessive belief, of those times. It is a singular fact, however,
that the canon which authorises exorcism under episcopal licence is
still a part of the ecclesiastical law of the Anglican Church, although
it might have a singular effect on the nerves of certain of our bishops
if their clergy were to resort to them for the faculty which Parson
Rudall obtained. The general facts stated in his diary are to this day
matters of belief in that neighbourhood; and it has been always
accounted a strong proof of the veracity of the Parson and the Ghost,
that the plague, fatal to so many thousands, did break out in London at
the close of that very year. We may well excuse a triumphant entry, on a
subsequent page of the “diurnal,” with the date of July 10, 1665: “How
sorely must the infidels and heretics of this generation be dismayed
when they know that this Black Death, which is now swallowing its
thousands in the streets of the great city, was foretold six months
agone, under the exorcisms of a country minister, by a visible and
suppliant ghost! And what pleasures and improvements do such deny
themselves who scorn and avoid all opportunity of intercourse with souls
separate, and the spirits, glad and sorrowful, which inhabit the unseen

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