Skulking in the woods

Two of Skulking Dudley's descendants lying in St Peter's Church, Clopton
Two of Skulking Dudley's descendants lying in St Peter's Church, Clopton

Even though I have no truck with ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night, I can’t resist telling you a famous Northamptonshire ghost story that so frightened the locals that the Bishop came to perform an exorcism!

It concerns the village of Clopton that lies off the main road between Thrapston and Oundle. You enter the parish by a long straight road that crosses the River Nene over, according to a sign, an unsafe bridge. A good start you might think! The parish spreads as far as the boundary with old Huntingdonshire.

In AD 960 it was known as Cloptun but by 1227 it had become Clapton and remained so right up to the 19th century when it suddenly became Clopton!

The Dudley family had lived there since 1100, becoming Lords of the Manor and rising to such prominence that on August 1, 1660, William Dudley was created Sir William Dudley, Baronet, by Charles II.

The ghostly tale concerns a man whom history and legend have dubbed Skulking Dudley, SD for short. In truth no one really knows who he was, but he does have Skulking Dudley Coppice named after him on the edge of the village! His story is well-known among the locals and is referred to in many accounts, but no one has come up with a proper name for him.

Anyway, SD was a member of the Dudley family who lived in the original Manor House. The house has virtually disappeared under extensions and so on, but the original gatehouse is still standing. He was a cantankerous sort of chap and he seemed to pick fights for no reason at all.

In October, 1349, that SD squabbled with Richard de Hazelbere of Barnwell. One version of the story says that he decapitated him straight off and celebrated his victory.

The second version says that SD had a row with one of his harvesters who cut of his master’s head with his scythe.

The third version I was told last week by Peter Scott, who was making the churchyard hedge look magnificent, is that Dudley was a coward and he feigned sickness, so his daughter put on his armour and prepared to fight.

Just before Hazelbere could deliver a fatal slash, he saw through a chink in her armour and realised she was a she and not a he! He took pity on her and they married and lived almost happily ever after, except that Hazelbere finished the job and decapitated SD. I like the romance of this version!

SD came regularly to haunt the village, skulking back and forth from the moated house to the coppice.

It all ended in 1905 when the villagers could put up with it no longer and they petitioned the Hon Edward Carr-Glyn, Lord Bishop of Peterborough who, with 21 local clergymen all carrying lighted candles, rid the parish of the headless ghost.