As part of a larger project I’m working on, I have spent the past few weeks reading stories about seventeenth-century apparitions. In general, they are not a very scary bunch, but they are anxious, because they’ve definitely got a role to play, in quite a theatrical sense. Ghosts either have a message for those they appear before–generally a warning–or they themselves have suffered a violent death and thus their appearance is a “wonderful token of their disquiet”. The English Civil War is a golden age for ghosts: fourteenth-century rebels Wat Tyler and Jack Straw appear to warn the rebellious Parlementarians along with the more recently-deceased King James. Only the slain (by either the Royalists OR his former commander Oliver Cromwell’s agents) Colonel Rainsborough has personal reasons for being so anxious. At the end of the interregnum, Cromwell himself appears, just after his own fateful death. All of these revolutionary ghosts are easily-recognizable in their top-knotted shrouds or “winding sheets” (so this is great material evidence for burial customs, yes?), and they have a lot to say.
There are some non-political, non-celebratory ghost appearances too, wonders, signs and portents to those that who see them as well as the larger community. Sometimes their appearance is very personal, but it always seems to be a public concern. In Strange and True News from Long-Alley in More-Fields, Southwark (1661) we read about the wonderful and miraculous appearance of the Ghost of Griffin Davis at the house of Mr. Watkins in Long-Alley; to see his Daughter Susan Davis, taking her by the hand at Noon-day and in the Night uttering such terrigle groans and hideous cries, that many neighbors have been too frightened, they are daily forced to remove their lodgings, with the several speeches between them, and how she and the maid were both flung down stairs by him….lots of details but we never really get WHY the ghost of Mr. Davis is so very agitated. His story is combined with that of the very popular Powel ghost as well as that of Jane Morris, a Wakefield widow who was alive but ghostlike in her behavior. The ghosts of the later seventeenth century don’t seem to have the same missions as their counterparts from earlier eras (and they have lost their shrouds) but they are still anxious. By the end of the century, if not before, ghosts turn up in ballads, rendering them slightly less serious but still not the satirical characters they will become a century later.
The just reward of Rebels, or the life and death of Jack Straw, and Wat Tyler … whereunto is added the Ghost of Jack Straw. London: printed for F. Couls, I. Wright, T. Banks, and T. Bates, 1642.