Was the Cauld Lad murdered after all?

An old book is shedding new light on a popular Wearside legend.

As a lowly stable lad at Hylton Castle, Roger Skelton could never have imagined that his death would fascinate Wearsiders for more than 400 years.

But the youngster's untimely end gave rise to the ghostly tale of the Cauld Lad o' Hylton – a local legend which has endured down the generations.

The popular version of the story tells how Roger had his head chopped off by Sir Robert Hylton, after falling asleep and failing to get his master's horse ready on time.

But an old book owned by Wearside Echoes reader Marilyn Ditchfield, called The History of Durham Volume II, reveals a very different twist to the tale.

The book, published in 1857, records details of an inquest into the death of Roger on July 3, 1609, when he was "found lying there dead" in the castle grounds.

The inquest was told that a local gentleman, Sir Robert Hylton of Hylton, had been cutting the grass that day when a dreadful incident occurred.

While swinging his scythe, Sir Robert accidentally hit Roger, who was standing behind him, striking him "upon the right thigh" with the blade. The "accident of misfortune" caused a "mortal wound one inch long and two inches broad," from which Roger bled to death within an hour.

The injury, according to the findings of the inquest, was caused "by accident and not otherwise" – a fact backed by witness statements.

Although Sir Robert faced a charge of manslaughter for Roger's death, he was granted a free pardon in September, 1609, reveals the book.

However, the "scything accident" story doesn't ring true for John Coulthard, chairman of the Friends of Hylton Dene group.

"Why would a man like Sir Robert be mowing his own grass for one thing?

"Surely he would have had servants to do that," he said.

"I think I'll stand by the original story, when Sir Robert chopped off Roger Skelton's head. Perhaps the accident story was actually a cover-up."

John, whose group helps to investigate the history of the castle, as well as protect the surrounding dene, added:

"A lot of these legends are changed as they are passed down through the years; you've only got to look at the story of Robin Hood to know that.

"But I just can't imagine the Baron scything his own grass, that just doesn't ring true. Maybe he just told the trial that to get himself freed.

"Nobody really knows what happened all those years ago, but why would Roger Skelton haunt the castle if it had just been an accident?"

* Which version – if any – do you believe? Write to the Echo's Letters Page at Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland SR4 9ER.

The tale favoured by historians...

Although mystery surrounds the exact origins of the Cauld Lad o' Hylton ghost, local historians favour the following tale.

It was back in the early 17th century that Roger Skelton was employed by Sir Robert Hylton as a stable boy at Hylton Castle.

Legend has it that the young lad often felt dreadfully cold in the castle, so took to sleeping in the stable with the horses to keep warm.

Tragically for Roger, his passion for taking cosy naps at odd times of the day and night was to cost him his life.

It was on July 3, 1609, that Sir Robert gave orders for his horse to be made ready for an important journey, but young Roger fell asleep instead.

Angered by the delay, Sir Robert visited the stable and found his servant napping. Infuriated by the sight, Sir Robert chopped off Roger's head with a sword.

Roger's remains were quickly discovered and Sir Robert was charged with murder. He was tried, and acquitted, of the crime.

Although Roger had no relations to cause a fuss, the killing caused a local scandal and Sir Robert was forced to seek a pardon from King James 1.

But servants soon reported ghostly sightings of Roger, who walked the castle corridors muttering "So cauld is the poor Cauld Lad o' Hylton."

Plates and dishes would be also be thrown around the kitchen by his ghostly hand, while tools would be piled on the ground – all muddled and out of order.

After several years of suffering at the whim of the Cauld Lad, staff eventually decided to try and rid the castle of his ghostly presence.

A local wise woman was consulted for help, who suggested the ghost was just looking for somewhere to get warm and rested.

That night, before retiring to bed, the servants set out a green wool cloak and hood beside the kitchen fire, as a present for the ghost.

The brave butler and a cook then hid themselves and, a little after midnight, the Cauld Lad appeared, throwing the cloak over his shoulders.

As he pulled the hood over his head he laughed and sang out: "Here's a cloak, here's a hood. The Cauld Lad o' Hylton will do no more good."

Although the Cauld Lad never returned to play pranks after that night, his ghost continued to haunt the castle for many more years.

Indeed, even at the beginning of the 20th century it was said that people could still hear the unearthly cries of tragic Roger Skelton.

From baronial home to ruin

The family of Hylton, who gave the castle their name, have been associated with the area since the 12th century.

* The first authenticated Hylton – then known as de Hilton – was Romanus, who was alive in 1157. The line of Hylton descent was unbroken until 1746.

* Some historians believe the Hylton family took over the land after the Norman Conquest of 1066, developing a community for several hundred people.

* The castle is recognised as one of the most fascinating remains of medieval military architecture in the North East.

* It was built by William de Hilton, who lived from 1376 to 1435, and was probably finished in about 1400.

* It was originally part of a larger complex of buildings, the others being made of wood, and the original site dates back to at least the mid-12th century.

* When William died, the site was described as having a hall, four chambers, a chapel, two barns, a kitchen and a stone house called the Yethouse.

* The buildings were not referred to as The Castle for at least the next 100 years; however the phrase eventually slipped into common use.

* The remains of a formal Elizabethan garden were uncovered by Channel 4's Time Team experts back in 1994 – a first for Tyne and Wear.

* Other discoveries at the site include the remains of a medieval building, which was probably used as a banqueting hall and accommodation for visitors.

* Expensive imported ceramic floor tiles have also been unearthed, indicating the huge wealth of the Hylton family.

* Wings were added to the north and south of the castle by the last Baron and his father, and the interior was extensively altered at the same time.

* When John Hylton, the last Baron, died in 1746, his nephew, Sir Richard Musgrave, took the name of Hylton – but never lived at the castle.

* The property was bought by the Bowes family, ancestors of the late Queen Mother, in 1755, but they left it to decay.

* It was eventually bought by Sunderland man William Briggs in 1863, who demolished the wings and turned the interior into a Victorian house.

* Following this disastrous reconstruction, the castle passed into the ownership of Wearmouth Coal Company and later the Ministry of Works.

* Today, English Heritage is responsible for the castle.