The Screaming Skull of Ffagnalt Hall
‘And scarcely had she slept, when waked by fingers dripping wet.’
‘Scenes and Little Known Stories’ Margaret Butler Clough (1861)
The legend of a house cursed by the presence of a skull, its continued existence in the property guaranteed by the threat of horrors if ever removed is a fairly common one in the British Isles - but curiously not in Wales. To my knowledge, Ffagnalt Hall at Rhesycae on Halkyn Mountain is the only place in Wales to own such a myth.
Originally a 15th century manor, now a farm, the house lies close to the boundary between the ancient parishes of Halkyn and Cilcain, and it might well be that this is significant. Within the house are the remains of a skull - now no more than the cranium and the bridge of the eye sockets, but kept safely and securely away from harm, for reasons that will become apparent.
The origins of the myth of the curse at Ffagnalt Hall are lost, and the earliest record we have of that curse is through the writings of Margaret Butler Clough. In 1861, her work, ‘Scenes and Little Known Stories, Chiefly in North Wales’ was published in order to raise funds for the preservation of Bistre Parish Church. One of the ‘Little Known Stories’ was entitled, ‘The Vengeance of the Skull’. In actual fact, the story does not mention Ffagnalt Hall by name, but was clearly referring to the place, given the acknowledged presence of the skull at the Hall and references to nearby Chester. It is clear that the tale was well established in the area, and that Butler Clough, whose husband Charles was Vicar of Mold, Archdeacon of St Asaph and saviour of the Mold Gold Cape, was intimately connected to the area. She would have been well aware of many of the myths of the area.
It is perhaps also worth noting at this point, a possible connection of the tale to later fiction. Many who have studied Carrie’s War (1973) by Nina Bawden, perhaps in school History (it remains an excellent and evocative depiction of the evacuation of children during World War Two) or English lessons, will no doubt remember the curse of Druid’s Bottom. Carrie, the sister of Nick, both evacuated to Wales during the Second World War throws an apparently cursed skull into a horsepond at Druid’s Bottom, and witnesses the house burning down - an event she attributes to her angry act. Is it possible that Bawden was influenced by Butler Clough’s luridly gothic tale? Nina Bawden was evacuated to Aberdare in South Wales during the War, but interestingly spent her summers in Shropshire - I like to think of Bawden coming across the tale as a child and using it as the basis for her excellent story.
Our tale, written in a sort of verse, relates a story of the skull in which a maid, Anne is her given name, is hired to fulfill the direction of the mistress of Ffagnalt Farm in keeping the place entirely dust free, other than the,
‘Yonder book-case high, there stands a strange old bone, that place to clean you must not try, but let the dust alone.’
Of course, it transpires that the maid begins to believe the source of dust and thus the bane of her daily chores, is a malicious sprite inhabiting the bone, and promptly throws the skull into a horsepond, thinking that since the skull is hidden away from sight, no one will notice its absence. It does not take long for the curse to manifest itself, and that very evening a wild shriek awakens everyone in the household. Searching for the source of the commotion, the farmer, his wife and the farm hands on site, find the maid in the horsepond, clutching the skull and declaring,
‘The Dead Man’s curse hath come upon me.’
The skull is returned and the maid recovers - slowly, and with terrible memories that continue to pain her, it seems.
Margaret Butler Clough came by this tale, she claims, ‘by persons who knew both the old mansion and the maid, who is, however, no longer young. So, we can fairly date the tale to the first half of the 19th century. And it is Clough that presents us with the origin story of the legend.
The skull, it seems, is that of Dafydd ap Owain Gwynedd, who she claims married Emma, sister of Henry I of England, but we shall come back to that. The tale as she tells it, describes, ‘our Cymric Dafydd’ as a man sought by the English, ‘a hunted fugitive - a price on his head,’ seeking refuge with his kin, a cousin and her husband at Ffagnalt Hall. While his cousin is devoted, her husband however, sees an opportunity for fortune, and promptly poisons the prince. Dafydd, realising the treachery and sensing his own impending death, lays down his curse in grand tradition.
‘Now harken ye, who share the guilt - so long as I’m away, so long shall evil haunt ye all, and plague ye everyday. But when my head once more shall cross the traitors threshold o’er, then shall my vengeance be appease and haunt the house no more. Long as it stands in honoured place - so, long shall legends tell the story of your line’s disgrace, and of my dying spell. And I will rest in holy ground; but if ‘tis moved, then my spirit shall return again, unto the haunts of men.’
While the traitor gained his ‘golden fee’, for the head of Dafydd, which was placed above the gates of nearby Chester, the curse of the absent skull fulfills itself. The traitor is abandoned by all and is, curiously, trampled to death by, ‘wild cattle in their play’ before his home at Ffagnalt, which seems an entirely horrible way to go, as ways go. However, the traitor’s heir avoids the curse by recovering the skull from the gates of Chester and returning it to the Hall...where it still resides.
It is unknown where the association with Dafydd ap Owain Gwynedd (1145-1203) originated, but there are obvious problems with this connection. In truth, Dafydd had greater issue with his own family, his brothers and nephews than with Henry II, (not Henry I), whose half-sister, Emma, he married in 1174. Dafydd had become Prince of Gwynedd in the year of his marriage through a period of internecine warfare, killing or imprisoning his brothers. He was driven east of the River Conwy in 1175, by his brother Rhodri, and imprisoned by his nephew, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth after the Battle of Aberconwy in 1194. Dafydd was released in 1198, after the intervention of Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury no less. Dafydd died in happy English retirement in 1203. Hardly, then, the ‘hunted fugitive’ of Clough’s tale. Still, I can’t help wonder if, in fact, the tale has become confused, as tales spoken of, rather than written, often do. I can’t help but wonder if the ‘Cymric Dafydd’ of the tale is not ap Owain Gwynedd, but rather ap Gruffudd - a more likely candidate for English ire, and thus a gathering of myth and legend.
There are some who believe the Screaming Skull of Ffagnalt Hall is the lingering evidence of the presence of a Celtic head cult in north east Wales. And there are other related curiosities in our area, notably in the Llandegla area, which could perhaps be linked to this belief. Consider also, the tales from the Mabinogion and Sir Gawin and the Green Knight, both of which have considerable connections with the north east of Wales, and is it possible the skull of Ffagnalt Hall is connected? Still, it is tremendously difficult to come to any substantive conclusions on the issue - we are on surer ground to say that the head was, to Celtic peoples, a revered symbol (and surely still is, to many people) - and remains so to this day.
The Skull of Ffagnalt Hall remains safe within its case. A myth of course, a tale to amuse and entertain...but, as far as I know, no one has shown any inclination to remove it since Anne was ‘waked by fingers dripping wet’ and terrored for her temerity.