Also known as 'the Just Devil of Woodstock' or 'the Royalist Devil of Woodstock'.
But by the stories which I tell,
You'll heare of terrors come from hell,
And fires, and shapes most terrible
Woodstock Manor House lay within the royal manor of Woodstock in Oxfordshire. Previously known as Woodstock Palace and once one of the favourite homes of the Plantagenet kings, it had remained in the possession of the crown for centuries. During the English Civil War, or more specifically after the deposition and execution of Charles I in January 1649, it was simply yet another example of crown property now appropriated for the good of the Commonwealth.
The new owners therefore decided to carry out a survey of the former king's assets and on the 13th October 1649, a team of Parliamentary Commissioners arrived at Woodstock Manor to carry out the required survey of the property and took up residence in the building. The commissioners were able to carry out their work unmolested for three whole days, until one night when they were made to feel somewhat uncomfortable by the sound of something knocking at their bedroom door and the appearance of a phantom beast which they said "to be a dog, yet they described it more to the likeness of a great bear", which paced about their room for half an hour before disappearing under the bed and chewing away at the mattress.
The following night their sleep was again disturbed when their beds were gripped by unseen hands and the poor commssioners found themselves thrown up and down in the air as the bed was violently shaken. Almost every night for the following fortnight the commissioners found themselves subject to a similar campaign of nocturnal harassment; they heard the sound of footsteps pacing the house, chairs and tables were overturned and other sundry household objects hurled around various rooms, ink bottles were smashed; candles simply refused to stay lit and appeared to go out of their own accord; bedclothes were flung from their beds as the occupants slept and pans of water and worse emptied over their heads.
Naturally, being civil servants the commissioners detailed each and every incident and appeared to have persevered with their allotted tasks with a commendable fortitude despite the distractions afforded by these various goings on.
But on the night of the 29th October, events took a turn for the worse when the house shook with a series of loud explosions and windows shattered, causing the servants to rush around the house in terror. However one of whom, named as 'Giles Sharp', displayed a certain resolve, grasped his sword and attempted to run through what he took to be a malevolent spirit. The spirit turned out to be one of the commissioners in his nightshirt, simply disturbed by the fracas, who fortunately survived the attempted assault unscathed.
Perhaps the mysterious devil had exhausted itself with its exertions as the following day the commissioners were permitted an untroubled night's sleep, but on the following night the 'devil' was back to his old tricks again. There sounds of phantom footsteps and knocking on doors returned, stones appeared and were thrown around the rooms and a series of loud explosions rocked the house once more. The noise was apparently so bad that it even frightened the local poachers and induced them to flee home in terror. Amidst all this tumult, one of the commissioners reported catching sight of a hoof kicking out the flame of his candle. Intent on tackling the beast, he reached for his sword, only to have it knocked from his hands and then found himself laid out cold with a blow to the head.
At this point the commissioners decided that they'd had enough and left Woodstock for good declaring that “all the fiends of hell had been let loose on them”. Of course more modern commentators would have considered these events as paranormal phenomena and evidence of poltergeist activity, but to the mind of a seventeenth century Puritan it was clear that these events bore the handiwork of the devil himself.
That might have been that, except in 1660 a local minister and schoolmaster named Thomas Widowes published a pamphlet on the whole affair and disclosed that there was a rather more simple explantation for the events at Woodstock Manor House. No devil or poltergeist was responsible for the experiences of the commissioners, rather it was all the work of one all to human individual.
The guilty party was named as one Joseph Collins of Oxford, commonly known as 'Funny Joe', who had adoped the alias of 'Giles Sharp' and succeeded in gaining a position as a servant to the commissioners. (And the same 'Giles Sharp' who had displayed such a cool head when he had attempted to despatch the supposed 'spectre' with his trusty sword.)
As his name suggests 'Funny Joe' appears to have been something of a practical joker, apparently skilled in the construction of trick candles that refused to light and in the appropriate use of gunpowder. It all been a rather elaborate hoax contrived by 'Funny Joe' with the aid of two friends, much assisted by his knowledge of the existence of a secret trapdoor in the ceiling of one of the bedrooms. (Joseph Collins seems to have been previously employed at the estate and therefore may well have had prior knowledge of the house's secrets.)
What no one knows is why Funny Joe decided to launch his campaign of terror against the Cromwellian commissioner; in particular whether he was motivated by Royalist sympathies or a simple desire to cause mischief.
The tale of the Devil of Woodstock was later to inspire Walter Scott who included a version of the incident in his novel Woodstock; or, The Cavalier. In Scott's novel, a band of Royalists similarly conjur up a ghost to scare away their Parliamentarian opponents.
Walter Scott was to include in the novel an introduction explaining the historical origins of the Woodstock devil, and included within an appendix to this introduction, a copy of a poem entitled The Woodstock Scuffle (from which the quotation at the head of this article is taken) and a a large extract from Thomas Widowes' pamphlet whic went under the title of The Just Devil Of Woodstock; Or, A True Narrative Of The Several Apparitions, The Frights And Punishments, Inflicted Upon The Rumpish Commissioners Sent Thither To Survey The Mannors And Houses Belonging To His Majestie, (from which the quotations in the body of the write-up are taken.
For Woodstock; or, The Cavalier by Sir Walter Scott see
For other sources used see;
- Tim Healey Vanbrugh’s great vision
- Martin Jeffrey The Royalist Devil of Woodstock