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The Cannibal of Crowthorne
Crowthorne is a quiet, picturesque village in the county of Berkshire, akin to many others in southern England. But at 10am every Monday morning, the peace is shattered by the testing of a siren belonging to the Broadmoor maximum security psychiatric facility.
Broadmoor Hospital is located on the eastern edge of the village and houses some of the most dangerous men in the UK; the sirens are there to warn that an inmate has escaped. There is good reason for this precaution – the siren was installed in 1952 after a patient broke out and murdered a child.
The hospital opened in 1863, and was first known as the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. It was here that the child-murderer, Victor Gorenhoff, was held throughout the year 1901 as preparations were made for his trial at Reading Crown Court. It was during this period of incarceration that newspapers began to refer to Gorenhoff as the Cannibal of Crowthorne.
As winter turned to spring, and spring to summer, Dr Stephen Conrad – an alienist at Broadmoor – and Professor Albert Longden – an expert in English folklore and paganism – struggled to determine whether Gorenhoff was truly mad in a legal sense according to the M’Naghten Rules.
Conrad and Longden had begun a series of conversations with Gorenhoff as soon as he was transferred to Broadmoor, and they were convinced that by speaking to him they could unravel the “meaning” to the murders he had committed and thereby determine to what extent Gorenhoff’s crimes had been driven by his delusional nature.
As mentioned in Part 6, Longden’s historical research had revealed a curious link between Gorenhoff’s crimes and a local landmark known as Mother Ludlam’s Cave, a place that had been rumoured to be the haunt of a witch for more than 500 years.
The Leper King
Longden continued to examine the prolific records left by Brother Thomas of Bath, a Cistercian monk from the 14th century who lived his entire adult life at Waverley Abbey, which is close to Mother Ludlam’s Cave. It was a series of events late in Brother Thomas’s life that caught Professor Longden’s eye, and he worked diligently on the monk’s testimony, translating it from the original Chaucerian spellings and syntax into modern English.
According to Longden’s notes, on the 15th of November, 1387, Brother Thomas wrote: ‘There came today a group of monastic knights to the abbey, having travelled north from Portsmouth. They were 32 in number and brought with them two carts loaded with wooden chests and iron lockboxes.
‘They flew curious pennants of crimson cloth upon which was stitched a crouching white figure from whose head grew stag antlers. When asked what this design meant, the knights said that it was an image of their patron, the Sanctus Pallidus (the Pale Saint) who was venerated by the Roman Church in the eastern lands and was known as a healer of disease, distempers and damaged bones.
‘These warrior-monks had the appearance of men accustomed to long periods of travel – they wore knee-high boots, clothing of worn leather and hooded capes, all of which were ragged and patched. Their faces were bearded, and they had the dark, watchful eyes of men accustomed to violence.
‘Most curious of all was their leader or preceptor, a man named Kernan Haustvald. He wore at all times a mask of leather tightly-tied to his face, which he explained hid wounds he had received in battle; but it was possible on occasions to glimpse welts and cysts on his lower jaw and neck that indicated some disease of the skin; and I never saw the man without gloves, nor any other part of his body bared.’
Upon learning the name of Kernan Haustvald, Dr Conrad asked Gorenhoff if this was the “master” he claimed to serve.
Gorenhoff quailed at mention of the name but refused to answer any questions on the subject, seeming suddenly panicked, nervous, and distracted. Dr Conrad noted that “his eyes flickered constantly towards the barred windows of his cell, and as dusk grew, so too did his agitation”. Thinking of Brother Thomas’s description of Haustvald’s skin condition, Longden put one final question to Gorenhoff: Was Haustvald the Leper King?
Gorenhoff hesitated, then answered with a nod.
Conrad and Longden discussed the case as they dined that evening. Conrad was worried that Gorenhoff was spinning them a tale, using scraps of historical knowledge to lend credence to his tale of having been “ordered” to commit the crimes. Longden explained he thought that impossible. Not only was the information he himself had discovered locked away in rare books and museum libraries, there were also the lexical difficulties presented by the medieval English in which Brother Thomas had written.
Conrad agreed to continue his study of Gorenhoff, while Longden set himself to translate further passages from the annals of Waverley Abbey in the hope of catching Gorenhoff out in some lie.
Two days after the Knights of the Pale Saints arrived, Brother Thomas wrote: ‘These warrior-monks belonged to an old and venerated crusading order (or so they claimed) that had spent more than 180 years fighting to bring Christ’s word to the pagans of the deep eastern forests around the Baltic Sea, having participated in the Livonian Crusade and helped to establish the crusader state of Terra Mariana.
‘Despite these claims, there was to my mind nothing monkish about them. Preceptor Haustvald and his followers did not pray the Breviary with the rest of the abbey and refused all offers of food and accommodation. Instead, they set up a number of tented marquees (such as are used by generals at war) in a field beyond the Abbey and prepared their own victuals.
‘There was also an old woman with them, a lean, gristly crone who wore a hooded robe made from scraps of crudely-stitched cloth and carried a thin staff of bog oak. She walked most times with her face shrouded by the hood; but the one occasion I did a catch a glimpse of her visage, I found both eyes were covered in white-grey cataracts. Despite this, she seemed able to see perfectly and stared at me with great insolence and contempt.
‘When the abbot asked who she was, Haustvald claimed she was naught but a pagan slave, brought with them due to her skill in herblore and in setting broken bones.
‘But that night, at Matins [around 01:00] I saw lights burning in the tented encampment and the wind carried with it the sound of murmured voices engaged in some ritual chant – a chant that was clearly led by a woman’s voice.’
Brother Thomas continued to observe the knights, but their secrecy prevented him from discovering anything of note – except that the pagan woman was often referred to as “Mother Ljudmilla” by the knights.
The Desecration of Heolstor Hollow
This situation changed in January, when a poacher came to the monks of Waverley with a disturbing tale. He had been hunting in the forest and had seen tall, bearded men with rushlights heading into the cave of St Mary’s Well (as Mother Ludlam’s Cave was formerly known) in the dead of night. He also claimed a fellow poacher had encountered a strange woman walking the woods during the day, collecting poisonous toadstools with a reaping-hook. When the man approached her, she had screamed at him in an unknown language and begun to gesticulate with her hands. Fearing she was about to lay a curse upon him, the man fled.
At first light, Thomas and a number of other monks went to St Mary’s Cave and found ‘a great number of footprints in the mud outside that led onwards into the rocky depths’.
The cave was once far deeper that it is today – rockfalls have now closed off the interior chambers – but in 1387, Brother Thomas wrote: ‘There is a grotto at the back of the cave known as Heolstor Hollow. It is filled with flowstone and dangling stalactites and on its north side lies a rockpool filled with water from the River Wey; but the underground source that once fed this has been closed off, for the pooled water is stagnant and scummed with algae that grows out and across the floor.’
Examination of the grotto revealed a number of side chambers connected by low tunnels. It was in one of these that Brother Thomas discovered ‘hanging from chains a cauldron of beaten copper in which there was a stinking pool of water and fatty residue’.
Beyond this, chalk symbols were drawn upon the floor in a circle; in the centre of this lay the body of a hunting hound nailed to a Cross of Lorraine in the precise same manner as Gorenhoff had placed the bundled bones of his victims. The hound’s stomach had been cut open and was filled with six cloth packages, smeared with tallow. Inside the packages were rolls of flayed human skin.
Brother Thomas hurried back to the abbey and reported the matter to the Abbot. Then he began a letter to William of Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester and a former Lord Chancellor during the reign of Edward III.
Two days later, though, the knights began to pack their tents away. Brother Thomas wrote, ‘Whether their departure was caused by my findings in the cave, I cannot say. When I asked where they were headed, they would not say. But I later discovered they had purchased land in the Crondall Hundred close to a freshwater lake known as La Flete.’
This information caught Longden’s attention: the lake known as La Flete in the 14th century had later provided a name for the town that had grown up around it: Fleet.
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