Halloween isn’t big in the UK in the same way as it is in the USA – quite a few of us are not that fussed. Last year I had a grand total of 0 (zero) trick-or-treaters. I bought a pack of sweets from the shop across the road just in case and ate them myself. NEVERTHELESS I present to you who do celebrate All Hallows Eve with a creepy tale from the Middle Ages, which is very Walking Dead or White Walker in tone.
When I was teaching Undergrads though I always put up a Halloween-themed source for them to read if they wanted to, although I couldn’t ever shoe-horn it into our seminars.
I’m using the same quotes reproduced in the Medievalists.net article, which is free to view.
The source I used was from Orderic Vitalis’ Ecclesiastical History (Book 8, which is found in volume 4 of Majorie Chibnall’s translated edition.) Orderic was a twelfth-century monk whose major work covers the reigns of William I (aka William the Bastard or William the Conqueror, both epithets he bore in his lifetime) up to Stephen. His History goes up to 1141.
All the links I’m using are free-to-view/open access articles. There’s a bibliography at the bottom and recommendations of other blogs to follow.
In Book 8, Orderic pauses his narrative on the war between William Rufus (William II of England) and the rebellious Count Robert de Belleme, saying,
“I am sure that I should not pass over in silence or consign to oblivion something that happened to a priest in the diocese of Lisieux on January 1st.”
Orderic claims to have met the priest, Walchelin, and got the tale from him in person.
He describes the priest in question as a young man, well built, active, strong and brave.
While Walchelin was brave, he was also smart.
On that January night in 1091, Walchelin was on his way back from visiting a sick man in his parish when he heard a great army approaching him on the road. He immediately assumed it was a big army of Count Robert’s, and not wishing to get in the way of such a multitude (not mention the fact Count Robert was in full rebellion against King William, and you didn’t want to get mixed up in that mess) Walchelin decided to hide in the trees at the side of the road and let them pass.
Orderic relates what happened next:
But a man of huge stature, carrying a great mace, barred the priest’s way as he ran and, brandishing the weapon over his head, cried out, ‘Stand; go no further.’ The priest obeyed at once and stood motionless, leaning on the staff he was carrying. The stern mace-bearer stood beside him without harming him, waiting for the army to pass by.
Walchelin stayed on the side of the road and watched as thousands of people passed him by.
First came a multitude of peasants, seeming to the priest like a mob carrying off plunder after an attack, laden with clothes, animals and other worldly goods.
Then came hundreds of women riding on horseback. The saddles were embedded with red hot nails, and as the women were bounced on the saddles they were stabbed and burned.
Then came a crowd of monks, priests, bishops and abbots, all cowled entirely in black and lamenting loudly as they passed by.
“Next followed a great army of knights in which no colour was visible save blackness and flickering fire. All rode upon huge horses, fully armed as if they were galloping to battle and carrying jet-black standards.”
What terrified Walchelin most was that he recognised some of these people. He could pick out his own parishoners, his neighbours and his friends in the clergy, all of whom had died. There were even deceased people that Walchelin had believed to be good Christians, and yet they too were walking in this army of the tormented dead.
Some were being carried on biers, and these were suffering the worst of the punishments:
On the biers sat men as small as dwarfs, but with huge heads like barrels. One enormous tree-trunk was borne by two Ethiopians, and on the trunk some wretch, tightly trussed, was suffering tortures, screaming aloud in his dreadful agony. A fearful demon sitting on the same trunk was mercilessly goading his back and loins with red-hot spurs while he streamed with blood. Walchelin at once recognized him as the slayer of the priest Stephen, and realized that he was suffering unbearable torments for his guilt in shedding innocent blood not two years earlier, for he had died without completing his penance for the terrible crime.
Walchelin realised he was witnessing Hellequin’s Army, or Herlewin’s Army, a folktale that must have been prevalent in this area for some time but is not recorded except for here by Orderic. Another medieval chronicler, Walter Map (1140-c.1210), mentions this tale in his own work. Walter was writing mainly about England and Wales, but this tale seems to have been of interest to him, and he had been educated in the University at Paris as was usual for churchmen of his day. [He also wrote about revenants and vampires, so if you’re interested follow this link to an open access article by Jason Nolan on academia.edu.]
Walter’s origin story is that Herla, king of the Britons, made a deal with the Dwarf King. The Dwarf King gives Herla a small dog to hold and tells him that neither he nor his companions can dismount from their horses until the dog jumps down out of his arms, or they will all be turned to dust. Herla eventually realises the dog is never going to jump down, and they are doomed to wander the Earth eternally.
This folktale is very similar to the Wild Hunt folklore, some of which appears in Arthurian tales, which is always led by either a female or male leader or sometimes both in partnership [Hutton, 2017:125]. Church writers associated this with Purgatory, while others, like Walchelin, were skeptical.
Grand Theft Horse-o
Walchelin confesses that he had never believed people when they claimed to have witnessed the Army (or Hunt), and so decides to try and grab the reins of one of the riderless horses to prove his story to everyone he tells. This is a brave thing to do, but goes about as well as you would expect.
He tries to grab one but it bolts. He soon spots another and has more luck with it:
The horse stopped for the priest to mount, breathing from its nostrils a great cloud of steam in the shape of a tall oak-tree. The priest put his left foot in the stirrup and, seizing the reins, placed his hand on the saddle; immediately he felt an intense burning like raging fire under his foot; and an indescribable cold struck into his heart from the hand that held the reins.
(I don’t know if GRRM has cited this as one of his inspirations, but that part is especially White Walkerish.)
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t taken well by the army. Walchelin is immediately accosted by four of the undead knights in black, who try and stop him stealing the horse. He is protected by another undead knight, who tells the others not to harm the priest. This knight identifies himself as William of Glos, and tells Walchelin how his sins in life are tormenting him in death:
“But most of all usury torments me. For I lent my money to a poor man, receiving a mill of his as a pledge, and because he was unable to repay the loan I retained the pledge all my life and disinherited the legitimate heir by leaving it to my heirs. See, I carry a burning mill-shaft in my mouth which, believe me, seems heavier than the castle of Rouen. Therefore tell my wife Beatrice and my son Roger that they must help me by quickly restoring to the heir the pledge, from which they have received far more than I ever gave.”
But Walchelin, appalled by the sins he hears from the dead man, decides not to help him:
“It is not right to declare such things. In no circumstances will I carry your orders out to anyone.” The knight in a terrible rage then put on his hand and seized the priest by the throat, dragging him along the ground and threatening him. His victim felt the hand that held him burning like fire, and in his great anguish cried out suddenly, ‘Blessed Mary, glorious Mother of Christ, help me!”
Brother, Where Art Thou
Another dead/undead knight swoops in to the rescue, brandishing his sword and yelling, “Wretches, why are you murdering my brother? Leave him and be gone.”
This new knight identifies himself as Walchelin’s own brother Robert, who died in England. But Walchelin neither recognised him nor believed him, even after Robert told him things only his brother could possibly know.
Finally, Robert exclaimed:
“I am amazed by your hardness and obstinacy. I brought you up after both our parents died, and loved you more than any living person. I sent you to schools in France, kept you well-provided with clothes and money, and in many other ways furthered your progress. Now you have forgotten all this and disdain even to recognize me.”
At this, Walchelin believed him, and the two brothers spoke for a while together.
Robert’s explanation as to why he is with the Army is also a message of hope that his torments are not forever:
“After I last spoke to you in Normandy I left for England with your blessing; there I reached my life’s end when my Creator willed, and I have endured severe punishment for the great sins with which I am heavily burdened. The arms which we bear are red-hot, and offend us with an appalling stench, weighing us down with intolerable weight, and burning with everlasting fire. Up to now I have suffered unspeakable torture from these punishments. But when you were ordained in England and sang your first Mass for the faithful departed your father Ralph escaped from his punishments and my shield, which caused me great pain, fell from me. As you see I still carry this sword, but I look in faith for release from this burden within the year.”
Sadly, their conversation was cut short, and as the last of Hellequin’s Army passed by, Robert had to leave his brother and go with them. Robert’s parting plea to Walchelin (which was apparently heeded, unlike the plea of the Evil Knight who had attacked him earlier), was to keep praying for Robert’s soul and to repent of his own sins:
“I cannot speak longer with you, my brother, for I am compelled to hasten after this wretched host. Remember me, I beg: help me with your prayers and compassionate alms. In one year from Palm Sunday I hope to be saved and released from all torments by the mercy of my Creator. Take thought for your own welfare: correct your life wisely, for it is stained by many vices, and you must know that it will not be long enduring.”
After this, the Army passed by, and Walchelin fell ill for a whole week. His recovery was slow and gradual, but he did get better and tell the local bishop what he had seen. (At the time, Gilbert Maminot was the Bishop of Lisieux). Orderic reports that he heard the story from Walchelin himself and saw with his own eyes the scar on Walchelin’s face caused by the Evil Knight.
Walchelin himself lived for at least a further fifteen years.
“I have recorded these things for the edification of my readers, so the just men may be encouraged in good, and the vicious may repent of evil.”
Those interested in why ‘Ethiopians’ are part of an undead army wandering through the countryside of what is now Northern France might be interested to read the Public Medieval series on Race and Racism in the Middle Ages.
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, Vol.4 , edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1973)
The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present, Ronald Hutton (Yale University Press, 2017)
The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis, by Amanda Jane Hingst (Notre Dame, 2009)
Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, by Jean-Claude Schmitt (Chicago, 1998)