Forget stockings and presents and candy canes this Christmas. What about a bottle of bone discharge from the body of the “right jolly old elf” himself?
The miracle of manna, it’s called. Manna is the name of the sweet-smelling liquid supposedly coming out of the bones of Saint Nicholas, the gift-giving, 4th-century Greek bishop on whom the legend of Christmas Eve’s busiest man is based. It’s a liquid that apparently has robust healing powers. Every May 9th, the “Santa Manna” is removed by priests from St Nick’s tomb at the Basilica of St Nicholas in Bari, put in glass bottles and sold to pilgrims. It is then consumed as a drink or poured over an injured body part.
Firstly, eww. Secondly, for real?
The original mince pie scoffer earned a reputation in the 4th century for secret gift-giving. Legend has it that he famously helped a poor man with three daughters, who couldn’t afford a dowry for them to get married. Nicholas delivered 3 bags of gold coins to the poor man by dropping them down the chimney (so that he couldn’t be seen). One of the daughters had just washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, so the bags of coins ended up falling in the stockings.
Mmmm. Sounds familiar.
This week I’m getting in the spirit of Halloween by investigating the mysterious Meon Hill, on the edge of the Cotswolds in Warwickshire. It’s a place of Satanic legends, phantom black dog sightings, alleged witches and shadowy pitchfork-wielding killers. Anyone fancy pitching a tent there on October 31st?
Meon Hill is nestled between the sleepy Cotswold villages of Mickleton, Upper Quinton and Lower Quinton. An 8th century legend says that it was actually formed by the Devil. Frustrated by the growth of Christianity, the Devil chucked a large clod of earth at the recently built Evesham Abbey, intending to destroy it. However, the bishop spotted him and prayed for the clod of earth to miss its target. It did, landing and forming Meon Hill.
Another legend from Celtic Welsh folklore says that Meon Hill is haunted by the phantom dogs of Arawn, king of the ‘otherworld’. For centuries, numerous sightings of stray black dogs have been reported in the area. Black dogs are said to be nocturnal apparitions, bringers of death and agents of the Devil (think the Rottweilers guarding Antichrist Damien Thorn in The Omen).
But it’s what happened on 14th February 1945 — Valentine’s Day of all days—that really put Meon Hill on the map. This is when 74-year-old Lower Quinton farm labourer Charles Walton was murdered on its slopes.
Walton’s murder was brutal, gruesome and unusual. He was killed with his own instruments. His head was smashed in with his walking stick. His throat was cut with the trouncing hook he’d been using to trim hedges, which was found buried in his neck. And he was impaled and pinned to the ground with his own pitchfork.
There was a conspicuous further detail: a cross-shaped symbol was carved into his chest.
The vanishing crew of the Mary Celeste is one of the biggest maritime mysteries in history. The Bermuda Triangle’s been blamed before, but is usually dismissed because the ship’s route didn’t pass anywhere near it. Could it be that whatever’s been swallowing ships and planes in the Triangle… moves?
On November 7th 1872, the cargo ship Mary Celeste set sail from New York City to Genoa, Italy, carrying 1701 barrels of raw commercial alcohol. The captain was 37-year-old Benjamin Briggs. His wife Sarah and 2-year-old daughter Sophia were with him, along with a crew of 7, making a total of 10 people on board.
On December 4th 1872, the Mary Celeste was discovered adrift near the coast of Portugal by the British Empire vessel Dei Gratia. It was still under sail, but not a single soul was on board.
The reason this empty ‘ghost ship’ has become so famous is that there were no real clues as to where the crew had gone and why. The ship was still stocked with 6 months’ worth of food and water. The cargo of alcohol was intact (but for a handful of barrels that were thought to have leaked). And everybody’s personal belongings, including valuables, were undisturbed.
Henry VI, the real ‘Mad King’ of England
One of the main inspirations for the plot of Game of Thrones is the Wars of the Roses, a late 15th-century dynastic struggle that was fought between the houses of Lannister and Stark—no, sorry, Lancaster and York. The wars began during the reign of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen—no, sorry, the Mad King Henry VI, whose mysterious death in 1471 continues to befuddle historians…
Henry VI was king during the final years of the Hundred Years War between England and France. The war concluded with a French victory in 1453, which caused Henry to go completely bananas. For more than a year, he suffered hallucinations and was unresponsive to everything around him, including the birth of his son.
Historians believe that he may have been suffering from a form of schizophrenia. It’s also possible that he inherited the illness from his grandfather, Charles VI of France, who experienced intermittent bouts of insanity in the last 30 years of his life (as did his own mother, Joanna of Bourbon).
Henry VI was a Lancastrian. It was during his breakdown that the rival House of York gained power, after years of growing discontent throughout England. In 1460, civil war broke out. Three major battles culminated in Henry being kicked off the throne by Edward of York, who became Edward IV. By this point, Henry’s madness had returned. Apparently, at the Second Battle of St. Albans on 17th February 1461, Henry was singing and laughing hysterically as the battle raged around him.
John White returns to Roanoke to find the colony missing
Born August 18th 1587, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in America. However, she was also part of the ill-fated Roanoke Colony, which mysteriously disappeared around the time of the Spanish Armada and thereafter became known as the “Lost Colony”…
In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I instructed Sir Walter Raleigh to establish an English colony in an area of North America to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories… to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy.”
Raleigh’s initial voyages discovered Roanoke Island on the eastern coast of North America. His first attempt to establish a colony failed, but in 1587, he dispatched a second group of colonists led by John White. They arrived on Roanoke Island on July 22nd 1587. A few weeks later, Virginia Dare — John White’s granddaughter — was born to White’s daughter Eleanor and her husband, London tiler and bricklayer Ananias Dare.
Tensions were high between the colonists and several Native American Indian tribes. One colonist, George Howe, was murdered by Indians while fishing. John White ordered a retaliatory attack, but ended up killing or wounding a bunch of friendly Croatoan Indians by mistake.
Madeleine McCann, aged 3, and how she might have looked aged 9
In May 2007, Madeleine McCann disappeared. A few days later, Dutch shop assistant Anna Stam had a disquieting conversation with a little English girl called “Maddie”, who came into her shop and claimed the woman she was with had snatched her…
On 3rd May 2007, the still unexplained disappearance of Madeleine McCann sparked the same kind of obsessive media coverage as Princess Diana’s death. The 3-year-old was on holiday in Portugal with her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, and her two younger siblings, and vanished from their apartment while the parents dined at a nearby restaurant with friends. The apartment was unlocked, but the McCanns checked on the children throughout the evening. Then Kate McCann discovered at 10pm that little Maddie was gone from her bed.
Initially the Portuguese police believed Madeleine had been abducted. However, after misinterpreting a British DNA analysis of the McCanns’ holiday apartment, they came to believe that Madeleine had died in the apartment, so suspicions fell on the parents. It was said that Madeleine had died in an accident, and Kate and Gerry McCann had covered up the incident by getting rid of the body. Even though the McCanns have now been exonerated of any involvement in Maddie’s disappearance, some conspiracy theorists continue to point the finger at the parents.
The quaint little English village of Woolpit in Suffolk is home to a mysterious legend. In the 12th century, two nameless children showed up there out of the blue. They spoke an unknown language, ate only raw beans and their skin was green. Were they aliens? Demons? Time travellers? Sick children suffering from chlorosis?
One day, during the reign of King Stephen (the one who fought a war with his cousin, Empress Matilda, and got an honourable mention in my Game of Thrones article two weeks ago), the villagers of Woolpit found two children—a young brother and sister—beside one of the pits they used for catching wolves. They wore unfamiliar clothing but looked human, apart from their green skin. They were taken in by a local landowner called Richard de Calne and initially refused all food. When they came across raw beans, they hungrily tucked in. Eventually they learned to eat food other than raw beans and started to lose their green pallor.
The brother didn’t last. He was sickly and frail. The children were baptised, then the boy died. His sister, however, adjusted to her new life and learned to speak English. That’s when she told people her story. She and her brother had come from a place called ‘St. Martin’s Land’, where the sun never shone, the light was like twilight and all the inhabitants were green. Just before arriving in Woolpit, they’d been herding their father’s cattle and had followed them into a cavern. They heard the sound of bells, saw a bright light and suddenly found themselves in the wolf pit.
The disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic, is to this day the most famous unexplained disappearance in US history. But could a secret briefcase be the key to what happened to her?
In July 1937, during an attempt to fly around the world, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. Their fate is — officially at least — unexplained. I say that because there are a number of eyewitnesses who claim to know exactly what happened to them.
An eyewitness to their execution?
In 1990, the NBC TV series Unsolved Mysteries showed an interview with a woman from the Pacific island of Saipan. Saipan was a Japanese-controlled territory in 1937, but the US took control of it after defeating the Japanese at the Battle of Saipan in 1944. This woman claimed to have witnessed Earhart and Noonan’s execution by Japanese soldiers.
One of the popular Amelia Earhart conspiracy theories is that she was a spy for the American government. Her round-the-world flight was just a cover; she was actually flying a secret mission to photograph Japanese military installations in the Pacific. Wherever she landed or crashed (and her plane has never been recovered to determine this), she and Noonan ended up being captured by the Japanese on Saipan and were executed as spies.