A blog by Jack Price
The term ‘cavalier’ is an interesting one. It comes from the Italian ‘cavaliere’ and the French ‘chevalier’, meaning horseman, and William Shakespeare uses ‘cavaleros’ to refer to overbearing swashbucklers. Primarily, though, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, ‘cavalier’ is ‘A name given to those who fought on the side of Charles I in the war between him and Parliament’ and specifically ‘a 17th cent[ury] Royalist’.
So the word went from one that referenced horse-riding to describing an entire political and social attitude, and – intriguingly – it has now come to be shorthand for the court fashions of the early Stuart era (c. 1600-1650). When one thinks ‘cavalier’, the associated image is of long flowing hair, brightly coloured clothing with elaborate trimmings, lace collars, magnificent cloaks, and plumed hats. Ideas related to them serving Charles I may be attached to this image, but it is the fashion aspect that overwhelms the imagination.
The Black Country has quite a few ghostly apparitions that have been seen donning the attire of a cavalier, and this should come as no surprise, given the region’s role in two events that took place during the first half of the seventeenth century – ‘The Cavalier Age’, if you will. The first event is the Gunpowder Plot, or, more correctly, the last stand of the Gunpowder Plotters at Holbeche House in Kingswinford. The second is the English Civil Wars, in which the Midlands more widely played a central role. These two events form the origin of the Black Country’s cavalier spectres…
One site reputedly haunted by a cavalier ghost is the cairn which stands where Bentley Hall, demolished in 1929, formerly stood. Bentley Hall was a Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War, and was the seat of Colonel John Lane, the brother of heroine Jane Lane, who travelled with the fleeing Charles II to Bristol and ensured his safe passage out of a hostile, Parliamentarian-ruled England. A ghost called Charlie (I wonder where that came from…) has been sighted around the cairn on numerous occasions. Wearing full cavalier dress, he is described as jovial and as having a penchant for the ladies; he is only seen at dusk or midnight, apparently peering over an invisible wall at the top of the hill and, when able, doffing his hat to get the women swooning. Sightings of Charlie peaked in the 1960s, when even a local reverend was numbered among his witnesses (although he later claimed the sightings were fabricated), but Charlie had been known when Bentley Hall still stood. Andrew Poulton-Smith reports that in 1888, a Miss Bennett, in the employ of a Mrs Walker, was told the ghost of a tall, friendly cavalier could be sighted in the grounds of the hall, but only by women. Philip Solomon also records that Bentley is the location of a laughing cavalier, also sighted near the cairn. Whether this is also Charlie is not made clear, but Solomon does state that a young couple standing near the railings on the hill were alerted by eerie laughter and, turning around, saw a cavalier on horseback slowly fade into nothing.
A cavalier ghost has been reported to haunt the area between Holbeche House and Himley Hall. When the Gunpowder Plotters arrived at Holbeche House on 7 November, 1605, they had a stock of gunpowder they had taken from Hewell Grange and subsequently soaked whilst fording the River Stour. Leaving the gunpowder in front of an open fire to dry it off, the plotters only succeeded in igniting it, injuring several of their number and alerting Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, to their location. The following day, the sheriff and his men mounted a siege, and the majority of the plotters were quickly killed or captured (and later executed). It has since been reported that the cracks of old pistols and muskets have been heard ringing out in the night around Holbeche House, but the most famous ghost associated with the siege is that of Gideon Grove. The historical evidence is cloudy, but Grove was supposedly groom to Stephen Lyttleton. He attempted to escape during the firefight and rode off towards Wombourne, but the sheriff’s men, mistaking him for a conspirator, followed him in close pursuit. The chase soon entered Himley Wood, where Grove and his horse found themselves stuck and sinking into a swamp. Grove called for help, but was met by musket-fire. Ever since, there have been reports of a dark rider thundering down the lanes of the area (particularly the Bridgnorth Road), the sounds of the horse’s hooves abruptly stopping as the phantom enters the woods. One witness described the apparition as wearing a cocked hat, a dark blue velvet coat, and thigh-high riding boots.
Himley Hall played a minor role in the English Civil War – on its way to the Battle of Naseby, Charles I’s army camped in the grounds of the estate on 16 May, 1645. Richard Symonds, travelling with the army, later reported that one soldier was hanged for mutiny after attempting to desert. The spirit of the executed man has since been said to wander the park at night, and has been spotted moving silently through the trees by a number of fishermen making use of the Hall’s all-night fishing permits. On the Himley Road alongside the Hall, too, motorists have reported the figure of a cavalier dashing across the road in front of them. Wearing long boots, the apparition suddenly disappears into the grounds of Himley Hall, explicably passing through a fence that has no gaps.
Another haunt of a cavalier spectre is the A456 Hagley Road, not too far from the Badger’s Sett public house. Andrew Homer tells of a police officer who, returning home from work around 01:00am one night, spotted a figure wearing the full attire of a cavalier running across the dual carriageway. The figure halted on the central reservation but, as the officer approached, launched itself directly in front of the car. Fearing he had hit the man, whom he presumed was wearing fancy dress, the officer stopped his car and began looking for the body, only to find absolutely nothing.
The final location I will mention is Barnett Lane, in Kingswinford. A hardware store on the road has been visited numerous times by a figure wearing a cocked hat and a smouldering cloak (linking him, perhaps, to the last stand at Holbeche House). Sometimes the apparition is seen standing in the corner of the shop; sometimes his face is seen peering through a display on the wall. Another sighting of a similar figure was made by a young couple walking down the lane. They were passed by a gentleman they assumed to be wearing fancy dress; bidding him good evening, he responded likewise before disappearing through a hedge which, upon investigation, had no gap through which the man could have feasibly passed.
This is just a small handful of tales I have come across while researching the region’s seventeenth-century history: surely the Black Country is also host to a number of other cavalier spirits. Most of them have links to the siege of Holbeche House and the English Civil Wars, reminding us again and again of the crucial role the Black Country has played in national history. Though the spectres must certainly instil fear – not least in those drivers whom they launch themselves in front of – the cavalier ghosts of the Black Country do not seem to be malevolent, all the odder given the horrible circumstances they all would have likely met their end (or did, in the case of the executed soldier, the Catholic conspirators, and Gideon Grove). So, if you hear the hooves of a horse galloping down a dark lane at night, or hear laughing behind you as you admire the view from atop a hill, just think that you may be having an incredibly unique experience with a part of our region’s illustrious past, one that may be very fleeting and never repeated.