Skull History

Background History

The Stanley family had settled in Lancashire towards the end of the fourteenth century, but our story concerns James Stanley, the Seventh Earl of Derby (born at Knowsley in 1607) who led an horrific assault by Royalist troops on Bolton in May 1644.  The background to this is as follows:- The significance of the religious divide within the county was emphasised by the crisis of the mid 1600’s. Most Catholic gentry were firm supporters of the King, while as a rule dissenters and nonconformists adhered to parliament side. The civil wars of 1642-50 thus divided the county geographically as well as politically: the north and west were strongly royalist under the leadership of James Stanley, The Earl of Derby, the south east faithful to parliamentary cause. Skirmishing in Lancashire began even before war was formally declared in late September 1642 and in the autumn of that year the royalists’ unsuccessfully besieged Manchester. During the early spring of 1643 the two sides fought to secure the strategic north-south road and its key towns Warrington, Wigan, Preston and Lancaster—and by midsummer all four centres had fallen to parliament after fierce fighting. Only two Lancashire strongpoint’s — Lathom House and Greenhalgh Castle near Garstang—still held out for the king, but in late May 1644 the royal armies under Prince Rupert swept through the county from the south. Parliamentary forces abandoned the siege of Lathom in panic and on 28 May the royalists captured the besieged town of Bolton, which they ransacked and plundered. Rupert also took Wigan and Liverpool before he headed for Yorkshire in late June, only to meet crushing defeat by parliament at Marston Moor in early July. As a result the royalist gains were soon lost—Liverpool fell once more to parliament in November 1644, and by the middle of 1645 only Lathom House, heroically defended by the Countess of Derby against overwhelming odds, stood out. It finally surrendered in December 1645. War broke out again in 1648. In early August a great royalist and Scottish force under the Duke of Hamilton marched slowly southwards from Carlisle, via Hornby and Lancaster. Cromwell led his armies swiftly through the Ribble valley from Yorkshire and on 17 August attacked the royal army on Ribbleton Moor outside Preston, putting them to flight and chasing them down the main road to Warrington where 4.000 were captured. The battle of Preston, the decisive engagement of the second part of the Civil War, put an end to Charles I’s  hopes and led directly to his execution in January 1649. In August 1651 Prince Charles invaded from Scotland and was joined by Lord Derby, who had returned from exile in the Isle of Man. On 25 August, at Wigan Lane between Standish and Chorley, Parliamentary forces defeated the Lancashire Royalists. James Stanley was later captured and sent to trial by a Court Martial at Chester. The prosecution claimed that he had disregarded the Act of 12th August, 1651, which made it illegal for a person to have any dealings with Charles Stuart – the pretender Charles II. The Earl was found guilty and was condemned to be executed by the severing of his head from his body at Bolton on Wednesday 15th October. The venue was a calculated piece of publicity since he was held to have been largely responsible for the indiscriminate slaughter during the siege of the town in 1644.The savagery of the events at Bolton, which relative to its size possibly suffered greater loss of civilian lives and more physical destruction than any other English town.

Shortly after noon on the 15th October, the Earl arrived at Bolton but, because the scaffold was not ready, he waited at a nearby house which tradition says, was the Man and Scythe Inn where the chair in which the Earl sat is still kept. The scaffold was not ready because the people of the town refused to carry the timbers needed, for they were grieved that the Earl should die in their town. When at last he went to the scaffold the onlookers cried and prayed. The headsman approached; the Earl kissed the axe and gave a few coins to his executioner in order for him to make a clean, swift cut. One report gives his last words as: “Blessed be God’s name for ever and ever. Let the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen.” Then he lifted his hand as a signal and the axe fell.

The Axeman Cometh…

The life and death of James Stanley are well documented, but what of the headsman?

His skull is said to be behind the bar at the Pack Horse Inn but can this be confirmed? 

If the Whewell name goes back to the early seventeenth century it should be easy to trace its origin. However, the two common dictionaries of surnames – Bardsley’s and Reaneys’s – contained no reference whatsoever. But in Lower’s “Patrionica Britannica, from 1860, the name “Whowall” appears with a note, “probably the same as Whewell“, which says “Probably from Whewell Grange, Staffordshire, where conspirators from the Gunpowder Plot took refuge in 1605“. So did the name originate in the Midlands and travel to Lancashire, or vice versa?

George Whewell is alleged to have lived in the Turton area, and there are three possible sites of his home, “Whewell’s Farm” in Cadshaw Valley, “Whowell’s Farm” in Broadhead Valley and “Old Butterworth’s” on the slopes of Turton Heights, which had a datestone of 1667 with initials G:W. This stone was later built into New Butterworth’s Farm. How the skull of the axeman came to the Pack Horse Inn remains a mystery but it has been here since the late 1800’s when the Butterworths became residents. Is this a coincidence, or was there some connection with this Butterworth family, New Butterworth’s Farm and George Whewell?

A correspondent writing in the Bolton Evening News in 1874 claimed to have met a descendant of George Whewell who explained that the family home was Whowell’s farm north of Edgworth, but that some spelled the name Whewell. He remembered hearing stories at home in his childhood about Headsman Whowell. His family left the farm in 1829 and tradition says the skull was brought to the Pack Horse because George was a regular at the pub. Whowell’s Farm was about 4 miles away, and there would have been without doubt a pub or two between. In some publications, George Whewell (Whowell) is referred to as Jack; but when Mrs Hilton was landlady at the inn in 1980, she was visited by a gentleman from Virginia, USA, by the name of Alfred Whowell who claimed that the headsman was, in fact, Alex or Alfred Whowell, and there had never been a George in the family. He also pointed out that there is a plaque on a wall inside the ‘Man and Scythe’ with the initials A.W. and the date 1636. As the date is fifteen years before the execution there is a dubious connection, and the headsman was but a farmer; a plaque in his honour seems a bit unusual.

Tradition says if the skull is removed from the pub, strange things will happen; this was the subject of a story “The Executioners Skull” by Teddy Ashton (pen name of writer Charles Allen Clarke) and written sometime between the two world wars. The story involves a customer called Siah Slopp, a Holcombe man, who got a little drunk and stole the skull as a joke. Later that night the landlord heard a banging on the door, and Siah was there with the skull, pleading with him to take it back. When I geet whum,” he said, “I put th’ skull on th’ dresser an’ went to bed. Aw at once I were wakkened up by summat hittin’ me on th’ nose. I sit up an’ I seed summat bobbin’ up an’ deawn like a giant moth of a ghostly blue colour, sheinin’ like phosphorus an’ wi’ two greit blazin’ red een… I seed that it were a skull, that very skull I’d been sich a foo as to bring away… an’ there coom a bloodcurdlin’ voice saying, ‘Tak me back to wheer I should be, or I’ll tormen thy sowl eaut o’ thee’ ” So he did take it back. The landlord told this tale to three customers who had hiked up to Affetside, who were unconvinced, and one of them decided to test the story for himself. He too stole the skull, and this time he and his two friends were confronted on the road by a ghostly headsman wielding a very solid-looking axe – Tak that skull back or I’ll chop thy silly yead off,’ cried the ghost. ‘If ‘ave to ax thee again I’st axe thee wi’ this’. Even headless axemen, it seems, were not above the occasional pun. The spectral figure followed the trio back to the Pack Horse, and as soon as they handed back the skull to the landlord, it disappeared. Yo needn’t have any fears that th’ ghost ull follow yo any mooar,’ they were told. ‘Yo’re safe neaw it’s geet its skull back. Let this be a lesson to yo.’ The story is an imaginative piece of writing, but it is on record that the skull was removed at one time for a short while. Captain Thomas Hardcastle JP took some members of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, led by a Mr Redford, to see the skull, but they were informed that the previous tenant of the inn had taken it away with him. Was it returned to its ‘home’ because of ghostly happenings?

The date of this event is not clear, so the brave ex-landlord who dared to defy tradition cannot be identified. Skulls are believed to have strange powers – until well into the 17th Century it was thought the skull was the location of the soul – and many are preserved in various parts of the country. How the skull got there in the first place is not exactly clear, but nobody has ever tried to steal it again. On the contrary, on very festive evenings, somebody buys it a pint of Hydes Best! On a final note, when a photographer moved the skull to get a good shot, he found his flash would not work due a failed new battery.

Coincidence?..   Who knows…

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