"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Phantom Choir of St. Albans: A Christmas Eve Ghost Story

1805 engraving of St. Albans

One of the great (and now, sadly, lapsed) Christmas traditions is the telling of ghost stories.

On one particular year, a British teenager took this pastime to a whole other level. He didn't read about a Christmas Eve haunting.

He experienced one.

On the night of December 24, 1944, 16-year-old Basil Saville's thoughts were not on holiday cheer. He was not looking out for Santa Claus, but for bombs. The world was at war, and Saville was one of a team of "fire-watchers." His job was to spend the night guarding the great Abbey of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, keeping an eye out for enemy bombers and making sure the Abbey and its fire-fighting equipment were in good order.

On this particular night, Saville was left to patrol the Abbey alone. Being inside a vast, ancient church lit only by moonlight would be an eerie enough experience for most people, but the teen took it in stride. He had spent his life attending the old edifice, so it felt nearly as familiar as his own home. However, an unfamiliar feeling of unease began to creep upon him. Although he did not see or hear anything, he had a nagging sense that he was not alone.

When Saville reached the 15th century "watching chamber," this strange feeling grew more intense. Worse still, he realized this feeling was not unfounded. When he shone his flashlight into the chamber, he saw two hooded figures staring in his direction. When he dashed up into the loft, he saw nothing but two monks' habits lying on the floor.

Saville did his best to convince himself that his imagination had merely been playing tricks on him and continued on his tour. As he was climbing the staircase which led to the roof, he suddenly heard the tolling of one of the Abbey's bells.

The teen nearly fainted from the shock. All of the Abbey’s bells...had been put into storage on the ground floor. He had just passed one on his way to the staircase.

What was he hearing?

He managed to work up the courage to open the belfry door. The tolling had ceased. And the belfry was empty.

After taking a few minutes to pull himself together, Basil began heading downstairs, unaware that the venerable Abbey had a few more Christmas Eve surprises in store. The church organ began to play. Saville noticed a candle flickering in the organ loft.

"Put that light out!" he yelled to...whatever was up there. As he moved closer, he could see the pages of a music book turning and the organ keys being pressed. By invisible fingers. Then, from the direction of the high altar, a phantom choir began to burst into song. As the stunned boy ran towards the high altar, he suddenly saw a procession of monks, led by their abbot, leaving the altar and passing into the Saint's Chapel. Saville followed them into the chapel, only to find it dark and empty. When he went up to the organ loft, he found an old, yellowed music book and a spent candle. So perhaps he wasn't going mad after all. The book was a copy of "Albanus Mass," an early 16th century work that Robert Fayrfax had written especially for the Abbey.

When he returned to the vestry, Saville rejoiced to see that one of his fellow fire-watchers had arrived. He probably had never been so happy to have company in his life. Saville told his colleague about the night's experiences. However, when the pair went to the organ loft, the candle and book had vanished. Same with the monks' habits Saville had seen in the watching chamber.

That spectral Christmas Eve mass remained the most memorable night in Saville's life. Many years later, he told paranormal researcher Betty Puttick, "I'm not psychic or anything like that, and I've never seen anything like it either before or since. People may not believe me, but I know it happened."

For some years, Saville, fearing he'd be mocked, kept his story to himself. It was not until 1982, when a newspaper published his account as part of a roundup of Christmas stories submitted by readers, that his strange tale became public.

Saville, it turns out, was hardly the only one to see and hear phantom church services in the Abbey. There were reports from the 19th century of people hearing a ghostly organist during the night. Numerous people have seen the ghosts of Benedictine monks in and around the church.

Robert Fayrfax had been organist and director of the Abbey choir for many years. He is acclaimed as one of the greatest English musicians of his time. In 1921, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Fayrfax's death, his "Albanus Mass" was performed in the Abbey for the first time since the great composer's death.

Well, performed for the first time by living musicians, at any rate. One Frank Drakard told Betty Puttick of a conversation he had had with Canon Glossop, who lived near the Abbey, the morning after the concert.

"Did you enjoy the Fayrfax music last night, Canon?" Drakard asked.

"Yes," the Canon replied. "But you know, Drakard, I had heard it before." He went on to explain that, on more than one occasion, he had heard that very music coming from the Abbey in the middle of the night, at times when he knew there was no human choir inside.

The monks and musicians of St. Albans clearly loved their church, and see no reason to leave it just because they happen to be long dead.

1 comment:

  1. A startling but benevolent and, in musical terms, very pleasant, Christmas ghost visitation.


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