THE SECRET OF A
Above the fireplace in the Old Oak Room at Carbrook is a carving. It depicts the figure of a
medieval priest stepping upon the figure of a naked woman; with the curious distinction that
the woman appears to have grown a tail. The accepted explanation is that it is a nun who has
fallen into disgrace by succumbing to fleshly temptation and the motto associated with this
carving is: “ Wisdom trampling upon ignorance”
It does not however explain why such a carving is present in so secular a house. But it might
just explain why one of it‟s many ghosts is that of a monk. The remarkable thing about this
carving is that it holds within it a terrible truth, with the dreadful irony that in this carving
wisdom did indeed trample on ignorance, but also upon innocence, and it is the figure of the
monk, in fact, a priest, that haunts what were the old kitchens today.
The manor at Carbrook was, in those days, possessed by the Blunt family. They were in fact a
quite charitable house, and were particularly endeared of the church. So much so, that the Lord
of the Manor paid for and built nearby a convent house to which women of Holy orders could,
if they so wished, retire for purposes of meditation and solitude. However, it was also
necessary for a priest to be attached to the convent, in order to perform those offices of the
church to which women were not admitted. For the sake of propriety and for the goodness of
their Christian consciences, the Blunts made provision for the ministering priest of the convent
to be lodged in rooms at Carbrook manor itself.
It occurred that one year, the incumbent priest, Father Robert was becoming too old and frail to
carry out his duties for much longer and it became prudent to find him some successor. By
what means Father Ettienne De Lille became this successor no one at that time knew, but it was
with his arrival that evil and eventually tragedy first entered Carbrook.
The background of this man only emerged after his own well deserved death at the hands, one
would hope, of Divine providence, which facts bear horribly on our story. He was, as seems
apparent, a Frenchman. He had only recently been sent to England and no one was aware of
his character. In France, the church had fallen into the depths of decay; immorality and
overindulgence were common and nowhere more so than amongst members of the Holy orders.
Tales of licentiousness amongst nuns and priest were not only well known, but even heard with
a wry grin.
Father Ettienne began his career of lechery whilst still a novice at the age of fifteen, when he
became the lover of no less a personage than an abbess who, perhaps because of her more
mature years decided to add a little spice to her life. In this she certainly inspired the young
priest who in a short time was embarked upon a series of conquests of his own, as he continued
his education on travels around France. In some of the more dissolute establishments the
young ladies were very keen on acquiring his services indeed. Not because he was particularly
good looking, although he was certainly not ugly, but because of a quality he had which in
ordinary men would be considered a failing. In all his exploits he had never fathered a child.
This of course, to women in Holy orders could be perversely described as a blessing, and one I
hasten to add, that father Ettienne was very eager to bestow.
Such was the insatiable background of this man who, by whatever circumstances arrived in
England when he was about twenty eight years old. England however had not gone the way of
France and he was to be somewhat disappointed that the business of the church in this country
was, by and large still carried out as if under the eyes of God, and such approaches as he did
attempt came very close to having him severely punished indeed. So much so that afterwards
he restricted his attentions to more secular maidens. But he always retained his desire for the
forbidden and still cherished the thought, though he did not anticipate the opportunity
occurring whilst he was in England.
This then, was the man who came to minister at Carbrook. He performed his religious duties
well enough and kept himself out of trouble. His secular interests he confined to the
surrounding villages where he became a popular visitor with some, whilst his particular
disability meant that neither he or his paramours had to face any `small` complications.
And so it went on for about eighteen months, during which time he became a popular and
trusted figure both at Carbrook and the nearby convent house. Then one day he happened to be
at the convent when a new arrival came by. She was a young woman of about fifteen, recently
orphaned and given over to the convent by uncaring relatives.
Her name was Alison, and it was her great misfortune that not only was she rather backward,
which brought great sympathy for the poor child, she was breathtakingly beautiful. Before
long of course the outside world would not see the soft fair hair which now framed her pretty
face, nor would they see the graceful figure beneath a novices habit. But her eyes, they could
not be hidden, of a bright pale blue. It was remarked that if were possible to see the face of an
angel, then this is what it would be like. Had she been a bright girl she must have been safe
from the desires she sparked in the priest, alas the trusting soul was not.
Given his now trusted position, it did not take Father Ettienne long before he became her
personal tutor in things spiritual and he spent increasingly longer time with her. He even made
comments to the Mother Superior that although she was not a particularly bright girl she was
making good progress in her schooling, a result he declared, of close personal instruction. The
Mother Superior even commended the priest on his devotion to this „poor innocent child‟.
Little did she know that in his lessons Father Ettienne was not only paying scant regard to the
commandments, but adding some interpretations of his own, biding his time. Eventually, so
corrupted were his teachings that the young girl would do whatever he asked of her and,
believing it was righteous and Godly, do it gladly.
Eventually, when he considered that he had prepared his ground well, he procured some tablets
of new clay and finding his way to the Mother Superior‟s room engaged her in some
conversation. When she left him for a short time to attend to some other business, which she
often had to do, he quickly made impressions of her keys, which were the only set for the
dormitories amongst which he had contrived to place Alison in a cell of her own.
In the meantime the lessons continued, life went on as normal, and some miles away, a
locksmith was busy making someone a set of new keys. A few days later the keys duly arrived,
fetched for him by a boy called Jacob, whom the priest had taken into his confidence and who,
not infrequently, he had to reward most generously as his private and it must be said, secret
messenger. That night father Ettienne made his way, with the keys to the Convent House.
Unlocking the door to the dormitory corridor he made his way silently to the young novices
cell, and stepped inside.
Such were the depths of depravity to which this man was sunk. The cynical seduction of an
innocent and trusting child. Worse still, he even had the girl enthusiastically welcoming what
she honestly believed was a sacred mission, and so frequent, to bring a new messiah into the
world. But father Ettienne of course, could afford to smile at his own deception. If anyone
was to father a new messiah, it certainly could not be him!
I believe it must have been the devil who played the trick on Father Ettienne. God would have
foreseen the consequences and prevented them, but some months later the priest was sat in
conversation with the Mother Superior, when one of the sisters burst in upon the room in great
distress; in the bathhouse it was discovered that sister Alison was pregnant ! The Mother
Superior looked aghast at the priest, who, fearing he was discovered, the blood drained from
his face. The shock of him being responsible for this was so impossible to take in, that as he
attempted to rise, he fell into a dead faint.
His luck however was still in. Far from giving the impression of guilt, his genuine shock at his
loss of impotence had been mistaken as shock at the grave sin this apparently innocent girl had
committed. For a while he even tried to convince himself it must be the doing of someone else,
but try as he might, he had guarded her too closely and there was no escaping it. When he had
recovered the Mother Superior suggested that they both question the girl. Fearing however,
that with him present she may innocently betray him, the priest protested that as he had been so
close a tutor, the investigation should be handled by the Mother Superior. He feared, he said,
to look upon the face of such betrayal!
When questioned by the Mother Superior, sister Alison could not have known into what
dangerous waters she was stepping. She believed of course, that the priest would make known
what a miracle this was. Father Ettienne however, had already decided she was nothing more
to do with him and he would preserve himself at whatever cost. When sister Alison committed
the blasphemy of saying that she was conceived of God and that the child would be the second
coming. The Mother Superior sent to the Papal legate at York.
The priest knew now that the stakes in this particular game had risen greatly. Summoning
Jacob he gave him a purse of money, instructing him to get the set of keys in his room and hide
them well, then to take himself where he would out of the way, and not return for three weeks.
The boy was used to not asking questions and did as he was told.
The delegation that arrived at the convent a few days later, must have astonished young sister
Alison. Abbot Thomas Fenwick of Dale Abbey was appointed the Papal examiner; with him
came Abbot John Thurgood of Kirkstall and Abbot Francis Hyde of Darley. There also came a
body of soldiers under the command of Sir Robert Wilmot, representing the interests of his
Grace the High Sheriff of the County of York.
Father Ettienne had been in England long enough to know the reputations of these men.
Abbots Thomas and Francis were known to be open minded and fair men, so the priest‟s plan,
which he was now formulating, would be dependent on the mind of Abbot John, who was
predisposed towards seeing the hand of the Devil in all sins. It would not take long, he
reasoned, for the Abbots to get a hint that sister Alison would describe her Holy visitor as a
man, or came in the form of a man, which they would suspect anyway and that they would
reason that he was the only possible candidate for the pregnancy.
In supposing that the Abbots would come to this conclusion he was correct. Before the
afternoon of that first day, the priest was brought before the examiner and it was put to him, all
be it reluctantly, that he was responsible. The Priest asked if sister Alison had named him as
so. Abbot Thomas replied that as such she had not, in fact she had said nothing, but that in any
case he was the only man within the convent precincts and she indeed had never left them.
“But my Lord Abbot,” said the priest, “ the sister has said she received this visitation in her
cell, at night. The dormitories are locked and the only keys are with the Mother Superior.
Even if I had the wish for this most disgraceful of acts, how should I accomplish it?”
The Mother Superior indeed confirmed that at night the convent was secured and that she
always had the keys about her. In her view it was not only unlikely that Father Ettienne was
responsible, but impossible. The facts of this particular matter were confirmed by Sir Robert
Wilmot, who declared that a search of the priest‟s chambers had discovered nothing to
incriminate him. This left the examiners frustrated, but the evil priest was not safe and never
could be, particularly if in future the young nun ever gave out that it was he who had told those
blasphemous lies to her. So he then set in motion the most cruel part of this whole shameful
“I see my Lords, that it appears that we do not have any apparent agency.”
Seizing the bait Abbot John said,
“In what manner do you mean Father, „apparent?‟”
“I mean,” and here he deliberately stumbled over his words, attempting humility, “with
humble respect my Lords.... perhaps what she has told us...... though so unlikely!...... may be
“What? Impossible!” shouted Abbot Thomas “And you Father may consider yourself lucky if
you don‟t answer for blasphemy yourself !”
“True,” said Abbot John, calmly interceding. “Such a Godly visitation is not possible. But we
have demonstrated that no man here seems to have been able to commit the deed. This being
the case, we must look at the only other explanation.”
He turned to the Mother Superior,
“Perhaps we should question sister Alison on her faith.”
Having once sown the seed, it did not take long for Abbot John to seriously consider whether
or not the father of the child could have been a demonic spirit having human form; in these
days such things were firmly to be believed. If so, she had been consorting with the Devil and
by the laws of the church would be unable to answer truthfully, questions put to her on the
faith. The priest was careful to add that he was sure she was perfectly schooled in her creed.
At least she was when he last tutored her.
You will not be surprised to learn that when she was questioned, because of the corrupted
lessons given to her by the priest in order for him to seduce her, she not only failed this
examination, but declared things clean contrary to scripture. The result was inevitable. She
was formally charged with the offence of diabolism, in having had intercourse with the Devil
via the agency of an incubus. Would she confess her sin and save her soul? Have the evil
within her cast out and be cleansed by the Holy Church? Sister Alison was convinced of her
mission and her duty to God as she had been taught. She did not say a word. There was only
Two days later a stake stood on the common. Tied to it, standing on a small wooden platform
some three feet from the ground was a confused and distressed sister Alison. Soldiers busied
themselves throwing the last branches onto the pile of fire wood gathered around the base.
Others were keeping back the crowd of onlookers who had gathered.
Sat on chairs under an ornate canopy were her judges and with them, father Ettienne. His face
was set like stone as he looked upon the pleading pale blue eyes of the girl he had brought to
this. She was thinking that surely he must save her. But he was determined, even if her tears
fell like a stream that this was to be the end of it. Never a word did she say, though her eyes
begged him for herself and her child. For her part, she would never betray their secret, to the
end she believed that this was God‟s will, so thoroughly had he beguiled her.
But still her eyes pleaded. He tried to look away but could not. He became impatient with Sir
Robert who was to give the order for at least the mercy of strangulation. As a soldier climbed
up the rickety ladder leaning against the stake, still her eyes were pleading, still, even as the
rope was pulled tight around her throat. The priest‟s face kept it‟s stony silence even as the
soldier pulled more tightly and slowly, it seemed to take an age, her tearful eyes closed at last.
For a moment the soldier who had done this did not move but seemed in some way dazed. He
then crossed himself and came down the ladder. Later, for reasons he explained to no man, the
soldier gave up arms and vowed he would never take another life. But on that day, the ladder
being taken down, the rest of the soldiers set fire to the pile of wood. The crowd either cheered
or groaned and as the smell of the burning reached the judges, father Ettienne turned and
walked away from the noise of the mob.
Father Ettienne knew that now he was not only guilty of rape, (for what other word would do?)
and blasphemy, but also for the taking of two wholly innocent lives. For once his conscience
raced. The only evidence that could ever come to light again was the set of keys he had had
made. He decided that he must discover where the boy, not yet returned, had hidden them. He
rushed straight to his rooms and searched from top to bottom but the boy had done a good job.
He did not anticipate the speed of the proceedings and would have to wait another two weeks
before his return.
But the time did not pass quietly for him. On the night of the burning, whenever he tried to
sleep the smell of the fire came to him, the noise of the mob, and each time he tried to close his
eyes he fancied that he could always see her face, her beautiful, innocent accusing face. Night
after night the image became stronger until eventually he would wake from his troubled
slumber and see her standing there, at the foot of the bed. But her look was strange. She had
the same stony expression that the priest had worn on the day of her death, though the blue
eyes still shone brightly. It seemed that in death she had at last found the wisdom and
knowledge she had been denied in life and worse, the face that Father Ettienne saw seemed to
know he had betrayed her.
As the days went on so the ghost became stronger. He would open a door, there she was.
Look up from mass, there she was; always over his shoulder or around the next corner. One
night in particular, he thought that he could bear her taunting face no longer. In his dream, if
dream it was, he chased after her out of Carbrook and pursued her all the way over the green
fields to the water mill on the far bank of the gently winding river.
It was so vivid he could hear the clanking of the great water wheel itself and the rumbling of
the gears, he dreamed that she ran inside, but when he followed after he was dazzled by a
blinding flash of light and he suddenly awoke with a terrible cry. This dream, or rather
nightmare, came to him every night in succession. Before long this agony took it‟s toll on him,
along with the constant torture of guilt, people hearing him cry out at night began to think he
was going mad. He imagined that people would discover the truth.
At sudden moments after the apparition of the girl appeared to him, “revenge “ he thought, “the
keys, the keys, I must have the keys!”
Jacob returned a day late but in the meantime, passing through the surrounding country, had
heard of the events. He was horrified about what had happened to the girl and could not have
imagined how this had come to pass. He was also wondering what plans the priest might have
for him, he who was the only one to know where evidence lay against him, but the boy‟s
knowledge of the keys could just as easily incriminate the lad himself. He satisfied himself
that the priest would realise this. But knowing what mischief the keys had done, and perhaps to
salve his own conscience for his unwitting part in it, he had already made his mind up that he
would never reveal their hiding place to anyone, ever.
But he did not yet know the degree to which the priest had become deranged. So he did not
feel too concerned when he saw the figure of the priest come walking towards him as he
approached the house. As he drew nearer though, some instinct caused him to stop, a feeling
that all was not well. His instinct was right, for of a sudden the priest began to rush forward
screaming, his face livid.
“Where are they?” he demanded .
When Jacob saw the state of the priest he then began to fear for his safety,
“Where are they ?!” the priest repeated.
“You‟ll never find them.” said the boy.
With that, all reason finally left the priest, Jacob must die! He pulled from his robes a heavy
dagger and instantly made a grab for him, but the lad was too quick and flew off, terrified, in
the direction of the river. With the now mad priest, slipping and cursing in his furious pursuit,
he headed for the water mill on the far bank. Fast as he was, as he raced over the footbridge
his pursuer was nearly on him, rounding the corner and just out of sight of the priest the boy
dashed into the half light of the water mill in an effort to lose him. He hid among the sacks of
grain piled against the side of the mill nearest the wheel, the noise of the wheel covering his
panting breath as he waited, hoping for the madman to race past and miss him.
But he was not missed. Suddenly, from where he was hidden he was able to see the figure of
the priest framed against the door. He was trapped. Looking desperately around him he
noticed that there was a small opening above him which led out onto the platform of the wheel
itself, if he could get to that, then perhaps he could jump to safety. Scrambling up the pile of
sacks, he made for it; there was a cry as the priest saw him and leapt in pursuit, but he was out
on the ledge.
The wheel was turning only slowly but he saw to his misfortune that the great gears turning the
mill were too large an obstacle to jump across whilst on either side fifteen feet below were
rocks that would shatter his legs, too late, now the priest was on him. Jacob decided he had a
better chance if he could dodge the blows and somehow dive back into the mill and make
another run for it. They circled each other, but the lad slipped and came to his knees against
the wall, just near the opening.
Cruel luck; the priest raised his dagger to strike, but at that very moment, in between them
Jacob thought he could see something shimmering just in front of him, it felt cold but not
threatening, at least not to him, for it seemed to move towards the priest. The priest reeled back
with a cry, and, missing his footing on the ledge slipped feet first into the giant gears. The
apparition then turned towards the boy; he was still not afraid, but he thought he saw faintly,
within the light, the image of a beautiful girl, carrying in her arms an infant, just for a second
or two. She seemed to smile, then was gone.
His amazement was cut short by long scream from below and he went and looked over the
edge of the platform at the trapped priest, who in turn, was staring up at him, his eyes tortured
with madness and rage. His was not an easy death; as I have said, the wheel was only turning
slowly, and only slowly was the priest being pulled in and crushed alive between the massive
gears. He looked up at the boy,
“Where ?” he said, the pain strangling his voice, “where? “repeated the priest,
“You should have looked in the kitchens” said Jacob “ but soon they‟ll be gone for good.”
He stood there silently, but watched as the blood from the priest‟s crushed body fell into the
river below. Then, when it seemed that life was about to expire, he shouted down at the priest,
“ I saw her! I‟m glad. She‟s not in the place you‟re going to!” then left him: to the mercy of
Jacob never told anyone exactly what he knew, let alone what he thought he saw. It was only
when he was on his own death bed as an old man that he confessed his story. But the other
people involved had died before him and many carvings were made then and for many years
afterwards, of church standing triumphant, over fallen sinners. Nobody repeated an old man‟s
dying story that he believed „good‟ Father Ettienne was killed by a vengeful ghost. But I
believe the story of a dying man, he has nothing to gain but salvation and I am sure that Jacob
rests in peace.
And as for the ghost of a priest that still walks abroad at Carbrook? If you do happen to go
there and chance to see the hooded figure in the old kitchens I would not be too disturbed; he is
after all, merely looking for his keys.