If you have visited St Mary’s Churchyard and immersed yourself in the atmosphere here it's probably left you wanting to learn more about this incredible place. Here are 5 secrets of St Mary’s Churchyard in Whitby.
Whitby’s Parish Church, St. Mary’s, high on the East Cliff was founded in 1110. Some parts of it date back to Norman times, the early 12th Century. It has been modified and extended over the centuries without being completely rebuilt.
The lovely interior is essentially 18th Century and an excellent example of pre-Victorian furnishing. That interior contrasts dramatically with the fortress-like exterior which fits well with the North Sea setting which can be wild and stormy at times. The location of the Church is close to the ancient Whitby Abbey and both receive a significant number of visitors each year.
Here are 5 secrets of St Mary’s Churchyard that you may not have known.
1. There are tombstones marked with a skull and crossbones
There are numerous tombstones at St Mary's Churchyard, many of them weathered by the elements, covering several centuries. Ordinary folk, sailors and fishermen all have their final resting place in St. Mary’s. Its location at the top of 199 Steps means that it was quite an effort to carry a coffin up to its final resting place although wealthy families could use a horse and carriage to go up the track parallel to the steps.
Have you ever seen the skull and crossbones on the tombstones at St Mary's Churchyard and wondered who they belong to? We certainly have. There is actually a lot of conflicting information on who these graves could possibly belong to.
Some people believed one could be the grave of Dracula, but we know for a fact that there is no record of a Count Dracula ever being buried in St Mary’s Churchyard. Vlad Tepes, a 15th Century Prince, who the character of Dracula is inspired by is buried near his home in Transylvania, Romania at Lake Snagov. Dracula means son of a dragon and Tepes was known for his cruelty which included torturing and impaling enemies on stakes.
We have also seen suggestions that they were pirates, as well as suggestions that the skull and crossbones were a warning to grave robbers that those buried here had the plague. Most commonly the belief is that they were freemasons.
Documented in the book ‘Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths on the Yorkshire Coast‘ there is also a suggestion that the graves belonged to two men that were shot by French Privateers, but again there is no evidence that can fully prove who these graves belonged to.
2. Many tombstones are left unnamed
Several of the tombstones are engraved ‘’in remembrance of’’ rather than ‘’here lies.’’ That is an indication that many sailors and fishermen were lost at sea and their bodies never recovered. John Storr was the coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat in 1861 when a storm hit the area. The lifeboat was launched 6 times to help the crews of boats in trouble but the final time, all but one of the lifeboat crew perished. Storr’s gravestone is up against the door of the Church. Erosion and landslips have led to several graves slipping off the cliffs with bones subsequently found at their base. Storr’s tombstone memorial has been saved even if his remains have never rested there.
3. There are benches to rest coffins on
While climbing up the 199 steps you have probably stopped to rest on one of the small benches on the way up the staircase to rest and admire the view. It’s a welcome respite but what many people don't know is that these benches were used to rest coffins on.
During the 19th century, St Mary’s Church was open for burials in their churchyard. A tradition was to have the body carried up the steps which would have been extremely challenging. So, a series of benches were installed on the 199 steps to give the pallbearers a place to rest coffins on their journey up.
4. William Scoresby and….Humpty dumpty is buried there…
St. Mary’s Churchyard is a fascinating place. Many cemeteries everywhere are treasure troves for historians. St. Mary’s is no exception but it also includes legend and folklore as well as true stories.
Far less sinister than our previous stories is that you can find the grave of the Arctic explorer William Scoresby here. He was responsible for the invention of the crow’s nest for ships and the Scoresby Chair is in St. Mary's parish church next to Whitby Abbey.
There is a mix of fact and fiction in the Graveyard. One tombstone close to the Church is Humpty Dumpty. It is not the egg but a canon of the same name. Folklore also suggests that Tom Thumb is buried here but time has worn away inscriptions so the mystery continues.
The Huntrodds Family’s original inscription on the grave has been lost over time. A new one replaced it and some say that it reveals a hidden message or code because of the unusual use of punctuation, spacing and wording.
5. It's the home of a few ghost stories
A story goes that widows and families of the lost souls who died at sea would often find that the graves would be visited on the third night of their burial by the Barguest Coach, witnesses to the haunting sight have said the coach is pulled by headless horses and the passengers on the coach are the skeletal remains of sailors which come to pay their respect to the deceased seaman. After the soul of the dead sailor is aboard the Barguest Coach the coach sets off again, riding through the graveyard and then driving off into the darkness towards the sea. The graveyard can be an eerie place at night, dare you to wander up the 199 steps and risk catching sight of the Barguest Coach? Be warned, only for the extremely brave!