On January 1, 1091, an army of the dead came to Normandy. For one priest, it would be a night that he would never forget.
The medieval world believed in ghosts and spirits – there are countless stories from the Middle Ages how people were visited by the dead. While people would naturally be frightened if they came across a ghost, rarely would the ghost itself come to haunt or torment the living. Instead they often appeared to those people that they knew while they were alive, and usually wanted something from them.
The concept of purgatory was fully realized in the medieval period – that when a person dies their soul doesn’t automatically go to Heaven or Hell. The Roman Catholic doctrine believed that even if the soul was not condemned to Hell, it still needed to be purified before entering Paradise. This would be Purgatory, where the souls would get tortured and punished for their sins.
The living world could help the dead in getting out of Purgatory – mainly by praying for their souls. By the late Middle Ages it was a popular practice for people to leave money in their wills to hire priests that would perform Mass for their souls.
Many of the ghost stories from the Middle Ages involve souls that were in Purgatory, but contacted their living relatives to ask for them to do something that would help relieve their suffering and assist them in entering Heaven. These could range from paying a debt, fulfilling a vow, or just making sure they were being prayed for.
One of the strangest stories to be written down in the Middle Ages comes from the pen of Orderic Vitalis, a twelfth-century monk. From the abbey of Saint Evroult in Normandy, Orderic wrote his Ecclesiastical History, offering one of the best accounts of the Anglo-Norman world up the year 1141. Orderic wrote about the reigns of the kings William I to Stephen, the political events that happened locally and abroad, and even about the news coming from his own monastery.
At one point in Book Eight of his Ecclesiastical History, Orderic pauses from discussing the warfare between William Rufus and his rebellious count Robert of Belleme, and states, “I am sure that I should not pass over in silence or consign to oblivion something that happened to a priest in the diocese of Lisieux on January 1st.” Orderic explains that the priest was named Walchelin, and “he was a young man, strong and brave, well-built and active.” On the night of January 1, 1091, he was returning home after a visiting a sick man at the far end of his parish. He was travelling along the road, far from from any homes, when he heard the sounds of a great army coming towards him.
Walchelin believed that these were the soldiers of Robert of Belleme, and he decided it would be best for him to hide behind the trees and let the army pass by. Orderic relates what happened next:
But a man of huge stature, carrying a great mace, barred the priest’s way as he ran and, brandishing the weapon over his head, cried out, ‘Stand; go no further.’ The priest obeyed at once and stood motionless, leaning on the staff he was carrying. The stern mace-bearer stood beside him without harming him, waiting for the army to pass by.
Walchelin stayed at the side of the road as he watched thousands of people walk by. First came the peasants, who were carrying across their necks and shoulders their clothes, animals, furniture and other worldly goods. To the priest they seemed to be a mob of people who were carrying off the plunder from an attack.
Then came hundreds of women, riding side-saddle on horses, but the saddles were marked with red hot nails. As the women rode, they would jump off their saddles and into the air, and then land back on the nails, leaving them burned and stabbed. After them came a crowd of priests, monks, even bishops and abbots, all dressed in black cowls and groaning and lamenting as they passed by. “Next followed a great army of knights in, which no colour was visible save blackness and flickering fire. All rode upon huge horses, fully armed as if they were galloping to battle and carrying jet-black standards.”
What scared Walchelin so much was that he recognized many of these people – they were his neighbours and fellow clergy, but they had all died in recent years. There were even people that Walchelin and others thought to be good Christians, even considered saints. But they were here too, walking with this army of the dead.
The worst of this group were those being carried on biers, suffering terrible punishments:
On the biers sat men as small as dwarfs, but with huge heads like barrels. One enormous tree-trunk was borne by two Ethiopians, and on the trunk some wretch, tightly trussed, was suffering tortures, screaming aloud in his dreadful agony. A fearful demon sitting on the same trunk was mercilessly goading his back and loins with red-hot spurs while he streamed with blood. Walchelin at once recognized him as the slayer of the priest Stephen, and realized that he was suffering unbearable torments for his guilt in shedding innocent blood not two years earlier, for he had died without completing his penance for the terrible crime.
As Walchelin watched them pass by he realized this was Hellequin’s Army, which apparently had been a folktale for many years (although Orderic Vitalis is our earliest writer to talk about them). Throughout the twelfth-century this legend would spread around around Western Europe. Walter Map (1140-c.1210) explained that they got their name from ancient Briton king named Herla, who made a deal with a Dwarf king. The dwarf gives him a small dog, and tells Herla and his companions that they cannot dismount from their horses until the dog jumps off of Herla’s arms, otherwise they will be all turned to dust. Herla soon realizes the dog will not leave his arms, and so he and his companions are doomed to wander the Earth as a kind of undead.
There are several tales about Hellequin’s Army, or Hellequin’s Hunt, some of which involve King Arthur or other medieval legends. Church writers apparently associated this ghostly ramble with Purgatory, offering a horrific example to the living on what awaits those who sinned when they died.
As Walchelin continued to watch the medieval horde pass before his eyes, he said to himself, “I have heard many who claimed to have seen them, but have ridiculed the tale-tellers and not believed them because I never saw any solid proof of such things. Now I do indeed see the shades of the dead with my own eyes, but no one will believe me when I describe my vision unless I can show some token to living men. I will catch one of the riderless horses following the host, quickly mount it and take it home, to compel the belief of my neighbours when I show it to them.”
He tried to grab the first riderless horse he saw, but it bolted away before Walchelin could reach it. Another steed came along:
The horse stopped for the priest to mount, breathing from its nostrils a great cloud of steam in the shape of a tall oak-tree. The priest put his left foot in the stirrup and, seizing the reins, placed his hand on the saddle; immediately he felt an intense burning like raging fire under his foot; and an indescribable cold struck into his heart from the hand that held the reins.
Walchelin was very frightened, but one of the knights told the others not to harm the priest. He identified himself as William of Glos, and he spoke about how his sins in life were punishing him in his death:
“But most of all usury torments me. For I lent my money to a poor man, receiving a mill of his as a pledge, and because he was unable to repay the loan I retained the pledge all my life and disinherited the legitimate heir by leaving it to my heirs. See, I carry a burning mill-shaft in my mouth which, believe me, seems heavier than the castle of Rouen. Therefore tell my wife Beatrice and my son Roger that they must help me by quickly restoring to the heir the pledge, from which they have received far more than I ever gave.”
As Walchelin heard more about this knight’s sins and his demands, he decided not to help him:
“It is not right to declare such things. In no circumstances will I carry your orders out to anyone.” The knight in a terrible rage then put on his hand and seized the priest by the throat, dragging him along the ground and threatening him. His victim felt the hand that held him burning like fire, and in his great anguish cried out suddenly, ‘Blessed Mary, glorious Mother of Christ, help me!”
Just then another knight appeared, waving a sword in his right hand and saying “Wretches, why are you murdering my brother? Leave him and be gone.”
This new knight came to Walchelin and revealed himself to be his brother Robert, who died in England. But Walchelin did not recognize him, or believe him, even after Robert revealed things that only his brother would know. Finally the dead knight exclaimed: “I am amazed by your hardness and obstinacy. I brought you up after both our parents died, and loved you more than any living person. I sent you to schools in France, kept you well-provided with clothes and money, and in many other ways furthered your progress. Now you have forgotten all this and disdain even to recognize me.”
It was only then that Walchelin believed him, and the two brothers talked for a while. Robert explained:
“After I last spoke to you in Normandy I left for England with your blessing; there I reached my life’s end when my Creator willed, and I have endured severe punishment for the great sins with which I am heavily burdened. The arms which we bear are red-hot, and offend us with an appalling stench, weighing us down with intolerable weight, and burning with everlasting fire. Up to now I have suffered unspeakable torture from these punishments. But when you were ordained in England and sang your first Mass for the faithful departed your father Ralph escaped from his punishments and my shield, which caused me great pain, fell from me. As you see I still carry this sword, but I look in faith for release from this burden within the year.”
Finally, as the last of Hellequin’s Army went by, Robert said, “I cannot speak longer with you, my brother, for I am compelled to hasten after this wretched host. Remember me, I beg: help me with your prayers and compassionate alms. In one year from Palm Sunday I hope to be saved and released from all torments by the mercy of my Creator. Take thought for your own welfare: correct your life wisely, for it is stained by many vices, and you must know that it will not be long enduring.”
Once the ghostly army had gone, Walchelin fell ill for a week, but he slowly recovered and told the local bishop of what he saw. Orderic Vitalis reveals that he himself had heard this story from Walchelin himself, and even saw the scar on his face caused by the evil knight. Walchelin would live for at least another fifteen years.
Orderic sums up this event by writing, “I have recorded these things for the edification of my readers, so the just men may be encouraged in good, and the vicious may repent of evil.”
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, Vol.4 , edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1973)
The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis, by Amanda Jane Hingst (Notre Dame, 2009)
Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, by Jean-Claude Schmitt (Chicago, 1998)