Recently, prestigious estate agents Strutt & Parker announced the sale of the historic Kirklees Estate, a seven-hundred-and-fifty acre property in West Yorkshire, for offers in excess of seven million pounds. In their brochure the property is described as “a unique agricultural, sporting and residential Estate with excellent opportunities for development” and there is extensive mention of its distinguished heritage, with the estate home to an Iron Age or Romano-British enclosure, the remains of a medieval nunnery and a number of Grade 1 Listed 16th Century buildings. However, rather less is made of what some might argue is the estate's most saleable asset: the scheduled ancient monument known as Robin Hood's Grave.
A narrow band of Green Belt land located between the Heavy Woolen District and the Calder Valley, with the M62 motorway scything across its western flank, Kirklees perhaps seems an incongruous place to boast the burial place of England's most legendary outlaw. However, the association between this area and Robin's death arguably predates more familiar aspects of the myth such as Sherwood Forest.
It is generally accepted by medievalists that the Robin Hood legend originated in a region of West Yorkshire known in the Middle Ages as Barnsdale, corresponding to the area between Pontefract and Doncaster today, roughly fifteen miles from Kirklees. Meanwhile, two surviving medieval ballads record that in old age, the ailing outlaw travelled to Kirklees Priory to have his blood let by a female relative (variously given as his cousin or aunt) who served as Prioress there. Despite Robin's trust in his kinswoman, she treacherously left him to bleed to death for the harm he has done to the Church and he was subsequently buried nearby. In later, romanticised versions of the tale, Robin selected the site of his own grave by loosing an arrow from the window beside his deathbed.
The monument known as Robin Hood's Grave at Kirklees today has sometimes been dismissed as an 18th Century folly, due to a reconstructed epitaph and enclosure built during that period.
However, written references to a physical grave on the estate date back much further, beginning with a mention by seminal antiquarian John Leland in the 1530s—predating the dissolution of the Priory. Similarly, whilst the original gravestone is today so ravaged by the elements and vandals as to be unrecognisable, earlier sketches of the design suggest a style consistent with tombstones in the 13th and 14th Centuries. Although without new textual or archaeological evidence coming to light it is probably impossible to divine the origin of the site, it is certainly something more than a mere folly.
For the past four-hundred-and-fifty years, the Kirklees Estate has been owned by the Armytage Baronets and for most of that time, the family were keen to exploit their association with the grave of such a popular hero. However, in the Twentieth Century and the development of the land from landscaped parkland into a modern agricultural concern, their attitude changed. The public were consistently refused access and the monument itself left to decay. Today, the grave is in a lamentable state: a mass of twisted railings and crumbling stonework mouldering away beneath a canopy of yew trees.
In the 1980s, a local woman named Barbara Green founded the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society (YRHS) and following the Armytage family's persistent refusals to permit their organisation to visit the grave, they began to campaign increasingly for public access to the site and better preservation of its monuments. As the years wore on and their demands went on being ignored, the controversy grew ever more acrimonious, with regular heated exchanges in the local press, mass trespasses and accusations of conspiracy. However, things really took a bizarre turn when rumours of a vampire stalking the grave began to circulate and garner attention in the national—and even international—media.
If Barbara Green and the YRHS hoped that media interest in the Kirklees Vampire might attract attention to the plight of condition of the grave and public access to it, they were sadly mistaken. The press largely portrayed them as cranks and relations with the Armytage family soured further. A request from Manchester's International Society for the Advancement of Irreproducible and Lycanthropy Research to exorcise and even exhume the grave was dismissed by Lady Armytage as “macabre”. Attempts by the YRHS to persuade the Church of England to conduct a blessing ceremony at the site were also rejected amidst a media storm, causing a great deal of embarrassment for the Church.
All the while, paranormal experiences in the vicinity of the grave began to grow more frequent, albeit primarily amongst those already predisposed to believe in the supernatural. The site increasingly became a popular local destination for “legend-tripping”and these visits, often conducted illicitly and under cover of darkness, proved fertile ground for anomalous experiences. Seán Manchester claims to have held a vigil at the grave himself in April1990 during which he encountered and combated a demonic wraith. However, some sources dispute that he ever visited Kirklees at all and anybody familiar with Manchester's self-consciously Gothic accounts of his own exploits will appreciated why such scepticism is warranted.
Today, Manchester denies that he ever postulated vampiric activity at Kirklees and distances himself from the whole affair, despite having penned a chapter entitled “The Kirklees Vampire” in a tome called “The Vampire Hunter's Handbook”. Besides a predilection for rewriting his own past, this volte-face owes much to his falling out with Barbara Green in the late '90s, as a result of the self-publication of her overly confessional book about the hauntings at Kirklees, “Secrets of the Grave”. This was shortly followed by the appointment of Manchester's nemesis, David Farrant as Patron of the YRHS. As Farrant had shown no interest in Robin Hood prior to the role, it seems like a deliberate snub for Manchester and made Kirklees a new battleground in their intractable feud, which still generates thousands of heated words on the web every day.
In recent years, access to Robin Hood's Grave has become somewhat easier, with open days organised annually by Calderdale Heritage Walks, although the YRHS have been conspicuously excluded from this process. Still people trespass to the site, however, and still people report uncanny experiences in the area. Arguably this situation will persist until the mystique of the site is reduced by proper public access. It is to be hoped that whoever becomes the first new owner of the Kirklees Estate in almost five centuries recognises the tourist potential of its Robin Hood connection and provides such a change. This will not only return an important part of England's folkloric heritage to the people, but hopefully put an end to the hysteria and rancour which has tainted so much discussion of it.
For more information on the history of Robin Hood's grave at Kirklees and its associated controversies, the book “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood's Final Resting Place” can be purchased from Amazon.