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February 8, 2023 by Mark Knight
(10 minute read).
The image is of Roger the Poitevin from a stained glass window in Lancaster Cathedral Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 4.0
Caring for and conserving our cultural heritage is more than just looking after the tangible remains of our shared past, such as buildings and monuments. It is also about our stories and songs, our dialect and dance, our folklore and folktales, our myths and mysteries. The following story takes us back to the crossover period between the end of Anglo-Saxon England and the beginning of the Norman period, and tells us something about the beliefs of the people from that time.
When Abbot Geoffrey of Burton (d.1150) was writing the Life and Miracles of Saint Modwen between 1118 and 1135 he depended heavily on earlier texts for her life in general but for the stories of her miracles in Burton he collected local oral tales. Amongst the oddest of these concerns the haunting and eventual wholesale movement of a village due to an infestation of vampires. Our understanding of vampires has been changed by modern popular culture from a word that describes shape-shifters – people who can transform their bodies between human and non-human forms (transmogrification) – to that of sometimes elegant blood-drinking aristocrats. Transmogrification is a fairly common theme in north-European folklore and there must have been many more tales like this in the past. This one has survived because it was written down by Geoffrey as it concerns the abbey itself and occurred somewhere around the year 1090 when another Geoffrey, Geoffrey Malaterra was abbot. Bearing in mind that the story was written by the abbot and has a particular bias, the outline of the tale goes as follows:
Two peasants living in Stapenhill and under the administration of Burton Abbey absconded to the village of Drakelow, then in the ownership of Nigel de Stafford, liegeman of Earl Roger the Poitevin. They wished to live under the lordship of de Stafford rather than the abbot. These two men spoke evil words and laid false accusations against the abbot and stirred up the lord Nigel against him. They also took the crops they had grown from their storage barn to Drakelow. Geoffrey Malaterra, having gone barefoot to pray for guidance at the shrine of Modwenna, ordered that their crops be seized by the monastery. The charges that the men brought against the abbot are not recorded, but they were enough to anger Nigel to the point where he was so incensed that he threatened to kill the abbot. Lord Nigel sent his men, along with the two peasants, to take back the misappropriated crops, along with whatever else was stored in the monk’s barns in Stapenhill. [Here the story becomes confusing; some versions have a battle at the black pool by the River Trent which supposedly occurred between large numbers of Nigel’s men who were defeated by either a small number of monks or 10 knights representing the monks, the Drakelow men being soundly beaten and Nigel’s steward, Drogo killed, although he is alive later. Oral stories have this natural ability to change or vary].
The next day “at the third hour” [around 9 o’clock in the morning] the two peasants had just sat themselves at the table to eat when they were both struck down dead. They were buried the following day in wooden coffins in Stapenhill churchyard. That same evening, before sunset, the two dead men arrived in Drakelow, carrying their wooden coffins, and spent the evening and night walking the paths and fields of the village, terrifying the inhabitants by banging on the walls of their houses and exhorting them to join them and follow, shouting “Come with us!” “Move!” and “Follow on!”. This continued night after night for some time, with the undead vampires shifting between the shapes of men, bears, dogs, and other animals, horrifying and terrifying the villagers and the lord Nigel and his retainers.
Next came something worse; the village of Drakelow was struck by plague, which ravaged the village, killing many of the populace. Three men survived; Drogo, who was lord Nigel’s reeve, and two others. Seeing that one of his villages had been devastated, Nigel went to the abbey a chastened man, and prayed to the abbot and to Modwenna that they might lift the curse upon Drakelow. He restored the looted grain and more besides. The reeve Drogo was sent to found a new village, which he did, and called it Gresley. The two other men were struck with an ailment that left them bed ridden.
The shape-shifting vampires continued to harass the locals still and eventually the villagers vowed to confront the problem directly. They went to the graves of the two peasants and opened the coffins, to find that the linen covering their faces was soaked in fresh blood. They took out the bodies, hacked off their heads and placed them back in the coffins between their knees. They “cut out their fleshy hearts” reburied the bodies and carried the men’s hearts back to Drakelow, where at “the place called Dodecrossefora“ the villagers built an enormous pyre, and casting the hearts into the flames continued to load wood onto the fire all day. Eventually, the heat from the flames grew so hot that a great cracking sound was heard, and the hearts burst asunder. As they did so, an evil spirit in the form of a great crow was seen to rise from the flames and fly away.
Seeing the great bird fly off, the two sick peasants arose, and gathering their wives, children, and belongings they left Drakelow for Gresley. Drakelow was left waste and empty and was considered cursed for many years, with people giving thanks to Modwenna for saving them.
Nigel de Stafford’s family adopted the name Gresley instead of Drakelow, despite the family seat remaining at Drakelow for many centuries, along with a later mill and outlying farms.
The village of Drakelow itself, considered cursed, was never refounded.
Drakelow comes from Old English and means ‘Dragon Mound’ and was first recorded in 942CE in a land grant by King Edward as ‘Dracan Hlawe’. Dracan is easy to translate but the word hlawe is more complex. It is the root of several English words; hill, lowe and law. Hill is readily apparent and the pronunciation is remembered in the lowland Scots word for hill, remembered in names like Dundee Law, or North Berwick Law. A ‘lowe’ is one of the names for a tumulus, barrow or burial mound. The connection to law is more circumspect; law was kept as an oral code in pre-literate society and justice doled out at the moot or meeting. Moots were often held at barrow mounds, as these were recognised in pre-Christian England as gateways to the otherworld, or places where treasure was guarded by a non-human keeper – often a wight or dragon. The moot took place and justice was dispensed by the law-giver from the hlaw.
Dodecrossefora is more difficult to translate and problematic to locate geographically. My translation of the word is: ‘in front of the mound by the crossroads.’ Dod (pronounced dodd-eh) meaning a mound or bare round hill. Crosse (pronounced cross-eh) meaning a crossroads or perhaps a wayside cross by the burial mound; and fora meaning ‘in front of’ or ‘by’. The location of this is now lost but may have been at a crossroads on a boundary as far from habitation as possible, a recognised place for burials of suicides and criminals and any others whose burial in a Christian graveyard was forbidden. In this case they buried the hearts of the vampires by, or in, the dragon mound at the crossroads. Crossroads, like burial mounds, are liminal, in-between places, and precedents for later interments in these and prehistoric burial mounds are not uncommon. No maps exist of road layouts from this period and several possibilities might be suggested. No trace of the burial mound exists today, and many road layouts have certainly changed since 1090.
An important aspect of this tale is what happened to the bodies of the peasants who became vampires. Their bodies were exhumed, their heads cut off and replaced in the coffins between their knees and then their hearts removed and burned on a pyre. This removal of the head and its placement between the knees of the body has equivalents at other burial sites in England and these are known as deviant burials. This post-mortem treatment of the body is usually associated with burials of transgressors or criminals, or in this case, the undead. What is especially interesting in this story of the Drakelow vampires is that we not only have a description of the removal of the head and its subsequent deposition, which we sometimes see in archaeological remains, but the additional information that the hearts were removed and burned. As far as I know, this is the only contemporary, or near contemporary, written evidence that gives any kind of description of a post-mortem decapitation and removal of the heart and its subsequent disposal. This is not something that would be visible in the archaeology and begs the question as to whether all deviant burials were treated this way – whether the removal and burning of the heart was a common way of dealing with society’s outsiders, presumably to prevent them either troubling the living or perhaps from entering the afterlife, or both. I cannot find any specific reference to the word vampire in Geoffrey of Burton’s story itself and this may be a later assignation due to the apparent drinking of blood as observed when the coffins were opened and the bloody linen over the corpses’ mouths was noted. There is, however, a clue in a reference that would have been known to the villagers from the story of Beowulf. When Beowulf slays the blood-drinking monster, Grendel, he decapitates him so as to prevent him from returning to haunt the living. Grendel himself is depicted in the epic poem as a blood-drinker and corpse eater but a specific word for vampire is not used.
So what on earth are we to make of this tale, confused as it is by time? The most obvious answer is that Drakelow was visited by a deadly plague, which seems to have coincided with an ongoing dispute between Nigel de Stafford and Geoffrey Malaterra. Superstition seems to have had a strong part to play in the tale; Geoffrey Malaterra attributing his actions and success to the intercession of God, acting through his saint, Modwenna, in not only bringing de Stafford to beg for forgiveness but in success in battle. Modwenna is credited with guiding Geoffrey Malaterra’s actions, with the harsh justice visited on the Drakelow villagers in the form of a virulent plague, and also in their relief and the casting out of the demon.
We have only the version of the story written by Geoffrey of Burton to follow, which he had collected from oral tales and to which, however deliberately or inadvertently, he gave his own particular twist. Geoffrey was especially concerned with building the reputation of Modwenna, whether acting as the scourge of God or attributing the defeat of demonic forces to God acting through her, specifically to increase her prestige and therefore her reflected glory as a holy saint whose relics were kept at Burton Abbey.
Remote as we are from the events of the time, it is not possible to really understand or explain the vampires themselves in rational terms. As for the evil spirit that was seen when the vampire’s hearts were burned on the pyre, even today, carrion birds of the corvid family are associated with bad luck and considered chancy creatures of ill omen. We can only guess that the demon in crow form was either a smoke shape in the form of a crow, or an actual crow that flew over the fire at the opportune moment. The only other explanation we have is that the story relates factual events, and that vampires and demons exist.
You pays your money, you takes your choice…
Dr Mark Knight
Cultural Heritage Officer
Transforming The Trent Valley Partnership
 https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED12293 Accessed 29th Jan 2023
 https://bosworthtoller.com/search?q=fora Accessed 28th Jan 2023
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