Lancaster Priory and the Headless White Lady

The Ruskin Library that really looks like the entrance to a Spyro boss fight and me, pointing convincingly.

A while ago, I travelled up to Lancaster University’s ‘Gothic Spectacle and Spectatorship’ conference to present a paper on female mediumship in the gothic. It was an absolutely cracking conference and the university was deceptively modern but far too full of optimistic young people for my liking. The day after the conference (whereby I presented a paper in a new dress that I didn’t realise barely covered my dignity) I booked a late train home and spent a few hours enjoying Lancaster itself. Even on a damp, drizzly day, it was like walking through a chocolate box; the city is stunning. As I was visiting on my own, I don’t have quality tourist photos, but let it be known that I was wandering around the priory graveyard with a massive rucksack and the refreshed look of someone who spent two days on a university halls’ mattress. I make exhaustion work for me.

Lancaster Priory and the Parish Church of Lancaster are located right next to a medieval castle, on top of a hill overlooking the city. The current church sits on the site of a priory that was founded in 1094 and still retains an unusual and dark interior, with medieval decorations sitting alongside Saxon artefacts, 14thcentury choir stalls, misericords and a King’s Own Memorial chapel that is stacked to the rafters with battle honours and old regimental standards. In nooks and glass-fronted cabinets around the building sit ancient crusaders’ coffins, Viking ornaments and part of a Jacobean ‘three decker’ pulpit.

One of my favourite memorials within the priory is that commemorating the short life of Sibyl Wilson who died aged 6 in 1773. Produced by the Fisher Brothers of York, it is a scene rich with neoclassical motifs; a likeness of Sibyl, attended by her parents (her father’s military successes clearly on display) with a cherub flying above holding a laurel wreath; a sign of victory over death. 

Following her death, portraitist George Romney painted Sibyl and her mother Ann, which can be seen today at the Yale Centre for British Art.

George Romney, Ann Wilson with Her Daughter Sibyl, c.1776, Yale Center for British Art. © Yale Center for British Art

In 1807, a runic cross was discovered in the priory’s churchyard and was deemed to be Anglo-Saxon in origin. Inscribed with the runic phrase ‘Pray ye for Cunibals Cuthburuc’, the cross was deemed to be of enormous historical importance and was moved to the British Museum in 1868, with a modern replica left at the priory.

There are also striking cross slabs (medieval grave markers) bolted to the priory walls as you enter the building.

Outside, the churchyard has been partially cleared over the years, but many grave slabs and the occasional substantial memorial remain. In fact, the area surrounding the priory is so dense with ledgers that you could be forgiven for thinking areas had been deliberately paved. There are thousands of unmarked graves within the priory grounds and there have even been instances of theft, where slabs, disturbed by wet weather were taken for free masonry, much to the upset of ancestors.[1]

The large, wide steps to the priory are made entirely of headstones.

One of the remaining large memorials is the late 18thcentury memorial to the Rawlinson family. Lurking on the fringes of the perimeter, it features a hefty sandstone base with cast iron railings and a central plinth with long-eroded inscriptions. The original monument was topped with a large urn, yet the lid has gone and only the base remains.

However, within the plot lie the remains of 

Henry Rawlinson (d.1786), 

MM and FE Hesketh (d.1793), 

Edward Fleetwood Hesketh (d.1795),

Maria Hesketh (d.1801),

Abraham Rawlinson (d.1829),

William Lindow (d.1786),

Abigail Lindow (d.1791),

Ellen Ainslie (d.1791). 

The monument came under scrutiny recently, following BLM protests around the world and the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. 

Operating out of Lancaster, the Rawlinsons monopolised the West Indian slave trade within the area. According to Lancashire Museums,

‘In 1756 at least 8 of the 17 vessels returning from the West Indian and mainland American colonies during that year were Rawlinson owned.’

Abraham Rawlinson

For several years, they imported high quality mahogany into Lancaster for use by fine furniture company, Gillows. (Gillows would go on to become Waring and Gillows in a merger of 1897; their furniture continues to be regarded as some of the finest quality available.) However, by the 1760s, the family had bought the Goyave Plantation in Granada and soon moved into active slave trading with Liverpool-based enterprises. This company, Abraham Rawlinson Jr. & Co., would thrive with Abraham Rawlinson (M.P. for Lancaster 1780-90) repeatedly opposing any movements towards the abolition of the slave trade. As highlighted by Lancashire Museums online, Rawlinson’s political reasonings for maintaining slavery at the cost of sugar prices and blaming such decisions on the financial greed of the public at large is a very familiar approach, even today.

In his words, written in his letter-book for 1792 “the people in England want to lower the prices of sugar and yet continue presenting petitions from all quarters to Parliament to procure the abolition of the slave trade. Many have left off the use of sugar, for the purpose of putting a stop to the slave trade. If the custom become prevalent of eating and using nothing that has been touched by slaves, we may soon expect to see people in the state of their first nature, naked in the field, feeding like Nebuchadnezzar upon grass. What wonders their philanthropy or Enthusiasm will produce is unknown.”[2]

Abraham died in 1803, four years before the slave trade was finally abolished in Britain.

However, the most stunning and fascinating memorial left in the churchyard is an enormous chest tomb, topped with a full-size likeness of a reclining woman. Even more striking is that the effigy is headless. The surrounding cast iron railings have not survived the years and the strange ramshackle nature of the once-grand memorial makes for a disconcerting and compelling experience. Personally, I spent a little too long in the rain, staring at the headless grave as nearby churchgoers monitored me with distant, if increasing, concern.

The mid 19thcentury grave belongs to Ann Rothwell (although no names remain on the grave today) who was the wife of William Talbot Rothwell. There are so many local legends surrounding the grave, but very little hard information, making tracing them on censuses virtually impossible. 

However, Ann Rothwell’s headless effigy was the source for a typically tragic ‘white lady’ story. In an attempt to delay her husband’s execution, Ann climbed the clock tower, desperately hoping to stop the clock striking. In her haste, she lost her balance and fell from the tower, dying instantly. Other variations to the legend are that she was cleaning the clock face when she fell to her death, or that she was deliberately pushed, or fell – rather brutally – onto the railings below. However her fate was in reality, the image of the draped woman in the churchyard has lit imaginations ablaze for centuries.

While we don’t know how she died, we also don’t know how she lost her head. However, thankfully, the head remains safe in the priory’s archives. After a failed fundraising bid to reattach the head in 2015, Ann remains headless, but still impressive, in her churchyard.

Sadly, I didn’t have time to explore all of the Priory’s treasures before I had to leave, but a return visit is high on my list, although hopefully with far better weather, some serious knitwear and a tripod in hand.


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