There are quite a few stories around of haunted churches or cathedrals, especially in England. The story of the Veiled Lady of Langenhoe, south of the city of Colchester in Essex, UK, is unusual for several reasons–not the least of which is that only one Rector of Langenhoe ever reported the phenomena.
Langenhoe’s church of St. Andrew is no more; badly damaged in an earthquake that rocked the island of Britain in 1884, it was repaired but never structurally stable thereafter. Abandoned in 1955, it was torn down seven years later. There are those who say that the decision to tear it down had less to do with its instability than with a series of paranormal events recorded by the Rev. Ernest A. Merryweather.
Rev. Merryweather came to Langenhoe in 1937, from a parish in the North of England. The odd events in his new parish began with a bang, literally; he recorded in his journal that he was in the church, alone, on September 20 of that year when the great doors at the building’s west front suddenly slammed shut, unassisted by him or by the wind.
Twice in the month of October that year, Merryweather recorded that a small traveling case, in which he carried his vestments and books, locked on its own when left setting in the vestry, and could only be unlocked after he left the church. The first time this happened, he had a witness; the second, he was alone.
Thereafter, things were quiet for some years, particularly during the war years of 1939-1945. No sooner was peace declared in 1945 than odd things began happening again, this time involving flowers with which church and altar were decorated at various seasons of the year. Again, the first time, there were witnesses; a parishioner and her daughter were arranging flowers when they were called out of the sanctuary for some other task. When they returned mere minutes later, the flowers had been removed from the vase and were found lying on one of the pews. Several times after that, flowers simply disappeared altogether after being placed in the church; other times, blossoms would appear on the altar and in the pews, seemingly out of thin air, when no one was in the church at all.
Sometime in the fall of 1947, the oddities were ratcheted up considerably, when the rector, visiting at the nearby manor house of Langenhoe, was given a tour of the rooms by the then owner. The lady led him into an upstairs bedroom, remarking as she did so that she had a particular dislike for the room, which had, to her, a strangely chilling atmosphere. She went back out into the hall. The rector walked over to a window which faced the front lawn of the manor, and stood looking at the view, turning around to get the shock of his life; he was, he recorded in his journal, embraced by an indisputably female form, a passionate clasp that lasted only a few seconds. This tactile experience, oddly, was just that: no apparition, smell or sound accompanied it.
In 1948. during the summer months, Merryweather and the entire congregation heard odd thumping noises coming from the vestry every time he gave Holy Communion. More than once he and a couple of parishioners investigated, only to find no source for the sounds. By November, the thumping sounds had stopped, but he had another odd experience; he saw his biretta (a square cap sometimes worn by Anglican or Catholic clergy) rotating, completely untouched, on a makeshift hatstand.
That same day, when his biretta spun under its own power, Merryweather heard voices inside the church, at a time when he knew no parishioners were in the area. Determined to make sure the local toughs weren’t in the building playing tricks, he armed himself with a knife and went into the sanctuary, only to have the knife torn from his grasp to the accompaniment of a female voice that came seemingly from nowhere: you are a cruel man, the invisible woman whispered. Merryweather said later that, after some thought, he could localize the sound to the church’s tower.
More dramatic phenomena followed during Advent that year: coughing behind a sealed-up door, once a private entrance for the local manorial family; a small bell, usually kept on the communion table, ringing on its own; and a phantom rifle shot which seemed to come from inside the church. For some months thereafter, the bell rang unassisted on a number of occasions, and lamps were seen swinging on their own.
Some of these odd occurrences surely must have been related to movements in the old church’s damaged and ill-repaired structure. On August 21, 1949, however, Merryweather was confronted with something that could not be laid to structural instability. He was celebrating Communion when he happened to glance up and see a young woman–no older, he would later estimate, than about thirty years old–walking down the aisle of the church nearest the old tower, from there crossing to the choir and then vanishing out the southwest corner of the building, straight through the stone wall. She was, he recalled, wearing some kind of head covering that obscured her face.
The auditory phenomena, meanwhile, expanded to knockings and footsteps. The lock on the vestry door was found smashed one morning; before a locksmith could be summoned, the door was found to have locked itself again.
In September of 1950–thirteen years, almost, to the day after the west doors shut on their own–, the sanctuary was suffused, wildly out of season, by the scent of violets. A few days later, Merryweather heard the beautiful voice of a young woman singing what resembled Gregorian chant in the empty church, followed by the sound of a man’s heavy footsteps walking up the aisle. A week later, two workmen, working on the lawn, told Merryweather they too had heard the singing and footsteps inside the church, but were unable to get inside the locked building to investigate. Merryweather himself heard the singing again and was prepared to swear the voice was singing in French!
On Christmas Eve, the good reverend saw another apparition: a tall, well-built man in a tweed suit, walking up the nave toward the chancel. vanishing when he reached the pulpit.
In late January, a woman’s handprint showed up on the door of the rector’s study. The powdery print stayed on the door panel for nearly two weeks, and was observed by his housekeeper and her daughter as well as by himself.
In the summer of 1951, Rev. Merryweather saw the apparition of the veiled woman for a second time. She vanished through the bricked-up private manorial entrance as he watched. A few minutes later, he heard phantom voices: two or three people carrying on a conversation in those irritating low voices that one knows for human, but with the words indistinguishable. At length, there came the sound of a deep sigh, after which the voices ceased.
And there were more noises: bangs, pops, rattlings, footsteps. Once an unlit candle suddenly flamed up and then went out.
That year–1952–Rev. Merryweather recorded the last of the apparitions he would see at Langenhoe. In late October, while reading a psalm in front of the altar, he got the feeling someone was behind him. Turning, he confronted a young woman–not the same one he had seen twice before–standing some distance away. She was wearing a cream-colored dress and had a pale, lovely oval face and blue eyes. They looked at each other in silence for a few minutes, then she vanished.
Merryweather did some research and learned that there was a tradition that a former rector of the church had had a secret sweetheart among the women of the congregation, whom he had murdered, although whether the episode with his knife or the phantom rifle shot was connected with that legend he was never able to learn. The man in the tweed suit may have been the ghost of the murderous rector. The identity of the second girl ghost, he was never able to establish, except that she seemed in form not to resemble the veiled lady.
There’s a possibility that the young murdered girl–whichever of the two phantoms she was–may have met with her lover in that second floor bedroom at the manor house, which would seem to explain her passionate embrace of Rev. Merryweather in that room.
But all of it remains speculative, with no documentation to support any of the legends. After the old church was abandoned in 1955, the reports of paranormal activity died out.
My source for the story of the Veiled Lady of Langenhoe is David Knight’s 1984 book Best True Ghost Stories of the 20th Century. Some internet sources identify Langenhoe’s legendary murder victim as a seventeenth century heiress named Arabella Waldegrave, but be forewarned: that name is also attached to the legends of a long-destroyed and much better known haunted place just down the road a piece from Langenhoe: the infamous Borley Rectory.