The north east of England is a land steeped in history and features a high concentration of ancient sites and ruins. And naturally where there are crumbling, tumbling stones, the visible remnants of where our ancestors used to live, in the shadows of their histories thrives folklore. For example, if one travels across Wearside, not far from the great city of Sunderland, you will find an impressive Gothic edifice, Hylton Castle. And naturally as you'd expect from any ruined castle worth its salt, it has a famous ghost, the Cauld Lad of Hylton.
However as is often the case with tales that have been told over many generations, there are several differing accounts of Hylton Castle's supernatural resident. But while many of the differences in the stories are merely changes in the minutia of the tale, some versions cast an interesting light of the evolving nature of local ghost stories and folklore. The usual version of the Cauld Lad's tale goes like this...
At the beginning of the 17th century, in the employ of the then Baron of the estate, Sir Robert Hylton, was a stableboy called Roger Skelton. According to many tellings of the tale, Roger often complained of being 'cauld' (that 'cold' to you folks unfamiliar with the Mackem dialect), and took to sleeping in the hay in his master's stables, which were warmer and cosier than the servants' quarters. However one day, young Roger overslept and didn't get his master's horse ready on time. The Baron flew into a terrible rage - some accounts claimed he struck the boy with a riding crop causing a head injury that would result in his death a few days later, but others say he hurled a pitchfork at the lad, slaying him on the spot. And more violently still, in some quarters it is alleged that the Baron's wrath was so great, he lopped Roger's head clean off his shoulders.
Some versions claim that Roger's crime was dallying with the Baron's daughter, but whatever the circumstances of his death, the baron sought to hide his deed by concealing the body in a well or pond. But all the tales agree that the Baron would not go unpunished. Now it's said a few months later the body was discovered and that Sir Robert was put on trial for the slaying of the stable lad. However a servant testified that young Roger had died in an accident and so the Baron but walked away from court a free man.
But there are other Powers besides the law of man, and soon Hylton Castle was a troubled place. Pots were smashed, pans were thrown, the kitchen often trashed. Strange noises were heard, cries and wailing, and most sinister of all, a shape of a body, made from ashes from the fire would be found on the floor. Roger, the cauld lad, had returned to haunt the castle it seemed.
A cook held a vigil one night to see who was causing the trouble and saw the spectre of a shivering, naked boy, wailing "I'm cauld! I'm cauld!". And so, this enterprising fellow and his wife procured a warm cloak and left it out the troubled spirit. The next night they held vigil again and saw the spectre happily take up the clothes proclaiming: "Here’s a cloak and here’s a hood, the Cauld Lad of Hylton will do no more good". And with that the ghostly lad vanished, never to be seen again...
...Or so that version of the story goes. A shorter version of the tale states that the Baron never should trial but suffered nightly hauntings until young Roger's corpse was discovered and given a proper burial in holy ground. But others claimed the Cauld Lad was never laid to rest; M.A. Richardson writing in 1843 reports that the Cauld Lad was still being seen, and furthermore was seen singing the following song which implies the spirit would never find rest -
* - "Woe is me, woe is me" in Mackem!
And indeed reports of ghostly wailing continued into the 20th century.
So then is there any truth to this tale? And what are we to make of the Cauld Lad's cryptic final remarks? Well, according to an 1857 tome The History of Durham Volume II there indeed was both a Roger Skelton and a Sir Robert. Indeed it is recorded that on 3rd July 1609, a servant boy Roger Skelton was found dead in the castle, with murder suspected and a inquest was held. The investigating authorities ascertained that the lad had been struck by a scythe wielded by Sir Robert Hylton, the 13th Baron of Hylton, who was charged with manslaughter. However the trial found that the boy's death had been an "accident of misfortune" - apparent the Baron had been mowing the grass in the castle grounds and accidentally struck the boy who was stood behind him, in the leg, causing a "mortal wound one inch long and two inches broad". Presumably the blade had hit an artery for they were unable to stop the bleeding and poor Roger bled to death within an hour. And hence Sir Roger was granted a free pardon by order of Bishop James on the 6th September 1609.
So then, considering the historical record it would seem at first that the tale of the Cauld Lad originates in a local scandal. Much like the truth behind the Babes in the Wood, it would appear that a ghostly legend sprang up around a suspect death implicating a local authority figure. Indeed it is interesting to note that several versions of the tale have a faithfully old servant testifying to an accident being the cause of the boy's death, allowing the murderous master to walk free. And local historians have questioned the version of events given in court - why exactly would a wealthy nobleman be doing his own mowing being a key question. Certainly it does seem a trifle suspect! Hence the tales of ghostly troubles that appeared, reflect that the local populace had similar questions and did not perhaps have much faith the court's findings. Therefore local folklore was bringing the Baron a form of justice that the courts did not, and ensured his perceived crimes were not forgotten.
However as regular readers of these articles will know, nothing is ever quite as it seems in the world of folklore. Our first clue is in the mysterious rhyme the Lad leaves us with: why does a troublesome spook, who appears to be behaving very much like a classic poltergeist, claim to be ceasing to do good? Well, a further clue lies in the method of his laying to rest which suggests the Cauld Lad may well date back further than the death of Roger Skelton. For traditionally a gift of clothes was away to rid a house of a very different species of supernatural resident... Yes, that's right rather than a folk rite for ridding one's home of a ghost, the giving of garments was a way to free a dwelling from a household faery.
Looking at various tellings of the tale, some do mention that the Cauld Lad could be helpful as well as troublesome, such as doing household chores, and servants would leave out bread or cream to gain his good offices. Now such caprice is integral to faery behaviour and appeasement in this way an age-old way of placating the fair folk, and in this regard the Cauld Lad appears to be behaving like a traditional brownie or house elf. Indeed the tale of the haunting of Hylton Castle appears in many collections of faery lore, most notably being retold in English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs in 1890 where he is identified as a brownie, defined by Jacobs thus - "a Brownie is a funny little thing, half man, half goblin, with pointed ears and hairy hide".
Doing some further digging into old tomes, the earliest tales of the Cauld Lad appear in The Histories and Antiquities of the County Palatinate of Durham by Robert Surtees, in Volume III published in 1820. According to Surtees -
Our respected North-Eastern antiquarian goes on to note that some "with an admixture of English superstition" have identified the Cauld Lad as the spectre of Roger Skelton and notes the historical court case detailed above as the likely origins of the ghostly variant.
What is interesting here is that in this earliest surviving recorded account, is that Surtees first and foremost identifies the Cauld Lad story as an example of faery lore, and then adds the ghost version as supplementary account. Hence here in 1820, we have we have two separate folkloric traditions side by side. However as the nineteenth century progress the second version supercedes the first, for example with Richardson presenting the legend as a tale of a restless spirit. And notably the Caul Lad being more presented as a spectre is occurring roughly in parallel with the rise in popularity of ghost stories in literature at the same time. However the elements of his original faery nature still remain in many versions of the tale as we have seen above.
As always in the field of folklore, given the increasing sparseness of written sources the further back you travel in time, it is difficult to be definitive, but it would seem that the Cauld Lad legend has its roots in older faery lore. Whether the Cauld Lad's tale changed later as ghost stories become a popular literary genre or whether his story is the result of older local legends of brownies and house-elves fusing with a tale of a murdered lad's spirit returning it is impossible to say. However certainly the mix of faery and ghostly lore we find in his story does reflect the evolving nature of folklore, and how over the centuries different mythological beings capture the popular imagination.