James Lloyd visits the hamlet of Boughton Malherbe (“borton mallerby”), home to a church, a rectory and a terrifying apparition.
Boughton Malherbe is a hamlet four miles south-east of Maidstone, in Kent. It is mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon charter from around the year 1020 and takes its surname from the Norman family who had acquired it by the reign of King John. From them it was inherited in the fifteenth century by the Wotton family.
In 1574, Thomas Wotton entertained in the Rectory of Boughton Malherbe (of which he was the patron) a most uncivil guest. He and Justice of the Peace George Darrell were charged with interrogating Mildred Norrington, a seventeen-year-old servant girl from the village of Westwell, near Ashford. She was dragged into the Rectory struggling with superhuman strength and screaming in a deep and throaty voice that growled and cursed in languages that she could not have known. Mildred Norrington was possessed.
It took four men to hold her down, as the demon within her spat and snarled at them. They demanded to know his name. The reply seemed clear enough:
“Satan! Satan!” Its voice bellowed like a snorting bull.
Wotton and Darrell continued to question her, or rather it, asking what it wanted to do and for how long it had tormented her. After much nonsense in tongues (and, presumably, some head-twisting), it explained that it had been attacking her, on and off, for the past two years, throwing her into fits and filling her head with suicidal thoughts. It had tried to make her drown herself in a pond and now it threatened to tear her apart. Given how violently she struggled, the men thought it might be close to achieving that. After much further interrogation, interspersed with intense praying and readings from Holy Scripture, the Power of Christ compelled the beast to reveal its true identity and its purpose in trying to harm the girl.
It was not a demon after all but the ghost of a monk. He had been conjured by an elderly witch named Alice, who lived in Westwell and used him to carry out her evil bidding. In between diabolical operations, she would confine him, like a genie, to a bottle hidden in the wall of her house. Alice had developed a dislike of Mildred Norrington, complaining, in the monk’s words, that the girl did not “love” her (interpret that however you please), so she had sent the monk to kill her.
With the ghost finally complying, Wotton and Darrell realized that they were winning the war against it. They prayed long into the night, abjuring the ghost to leave the young innocent, until, as dawn broke over the Rectory, Mildred emitted a bloodcurdling groan, as though heaving her own bowels out through her mouth and disgorged a curdling black mass. Before the exorcists’ astonished eyes, the phantasm resolved itself into a hunchbacked and hooded figure, who walked out the room, slamming the door behind him so firmly that the wall cracked. If you go to the Old Rectory of Boughton Malherbe today and ask to see the upper room, you can still see the crack in the wall.
The chances are you might also see the monk. Within fifty years of the exorcism, it became apparent that the ghost had not passed on to Heaven (or to Hell) but had become trapped in the house. He was reported several times over the succeeding centuries. One rector is reputed to have been so intrigued by the legend of the haunted room that he would test it by inviting vagrants to spend the night in it. They had had enough of his charity by the following morning. The ghost was last seen in 1938, when the rector’s wife saw him in a mirror while she was adjusting her hat.
The above narrative is the story found in guidebooks or websites about the ghosts of Kent. The real explanation for the ghostly monk of Boughton Malherbe the present author will not presume to provide but the dramatic narrative that has been press-ganged by ghost hunters into performing that service is a mangled version of what is actually a perfectly true and perfectly explicable incident.
The account is preserved in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584. Scot lived in Smeeth, just under four miles from Westwell. A Kentish squire and Member of Parliament, Scot was sceptical about witchcraft, believing that one day it would be as discredited as the tales of Robin Goodfellow and Hob Goblin had become in his own generation. He wrote his book as an expose of the legerdemain that performers used to trick people into thinking that they had magical powers, something that is still done uncontroversially today for entertainment but which was taken semi-seriously in the fractious atmosphere of Elizabethan England. The state might have gone Protestant but the mass of the people remained Roman at heart and missed the smells, bells and purgatory of the old religion. It was an atmosphere that was easily exploited for mischief, mischief that Scot believed was feeding the fear of witchcraft.
According to his narrative, Mildred Norrington was treated not at Boughton Malherbe by the lord and the magistrate but at her master’s house in Westwell by two local vicars, who took her possession completely seriously. Alice, Scot reveals, was Mildred’s own mother, who had had her child out of wedlock. The demon (for demon it apparently was – Scot mentions no monk) was driven out and the witnesses signed a written statement of their experience.
Subsequently, Mildred was brought before Wotton and Darrell not at the Rectory but at Wotton’s seat of Boughton Pace and not to be exorcised but because they suspected her of fraud and were concerned that her lies might send her mother to the gallows. When the seriousness of what she had done impended on her, she cracked and admitted that she had been acting the whole time. She was a natural ventriloquist and had created the deep, demonic voice herself.
It is not hard for us now (indeed, it was not hard for Scot then) to understand why Miss Norrington pulled off this dangerous charade. An adolescent, a servant and a bastard in an age when people avoided admitting illegitimacy, her performance won her the attention of the most powerful men in her limited world, forcing them to treat her with respect and fear. She would probably be gratified to learn that, while nobody now bothers to remember the name of the Vicar of Westwell who treated her (Roger Newman), she herself has entered into the folklore of Kent, her act preserved, in suitably distorted, Gothic form, in the legend of Boughton Malherbe.