"1573. Tho. Maule fd hunge on a tree by ye wayeside after a druncken fitte April 3. Crowners Queste in churche porche April 5. Same nighte at midd nighte burried at ye nighest crosse roades wi a stake yn him, manie peopple frome Manesfeilde."
This old English shorthand entry in 1573 parish records of the 13th century church of St Michael's, Pleasley, Derbyshire, by the crossroads (now roundabout), states that a man who was found hung after a drunken fit was buried a few days later following the inquest in the church porch. The body was staked to the ground at the nearest crossroads at midnight. Many people from Mansfield watched the event.
This unusual burial in 16thC Pleasley, near St Michaels church by the crossroads, was the God-fearing way of dealing with a person deemed to have taken their own life. It was regarded as self-murder as the word suicide had not been coined until the 17th century. All classes of people at this time believed self-murder to be a diabolical crime instigated at the bequest of the devil and as such were believed to have dangerous spiritual consequences. The spirits of self-murderers were considered to be restless, wandering and malevolent, their tormented souls unable to repent the ultimate sin and therefore could not be buried on hallowed ground within churchyards but had to be staked to the ground buried at the crossing point of four roads!
Impaling the body was likely the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula novel, portraying night hunting vampires seeking out the blood of the living and was probably very close to our pagan ancestors’ fears, however, burials at the crossing of four roads is more mysterious.
Some historians believe the crossroad burials began as a pagan ritual to confuse evil spirits, preventing them from finding their way back to earth. While more plausible, some believe the cross of the road is relevant to the Christian crucifix or even the pre-Christian Celtic cross.
Records of midnight burial rituals, staking the body to the ground in unmarked graves at the crossing of four roads are evident from the 10th Century continuing until 1823 when it was outlawed. However, it was commonplace in 16th century Tudor England during Protestant Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church. The mid 16th century was also the height of witchcraft paranoia when public burnings, hangings, duckings and displays of torture were always well attended. It is estimated that 200,000, mainly poor & elderly women, were either burnt, hung or drowned as a consequence of practising witchcraft or at least being accused. Everything from crop failure to sour ale was blamed on these unfortunate people who were deemed to be in league with the devil to overthrow Christianity.
The witchcraft paranoia of the time of Thomas Maule's death lead to a rather hasty inquest and burial the same night. How could anyone know that Thomas Maule hung himself as a consequence of a drunken fit unless they had witnessed it firsthand, moreover, how could they not investigate the suggested self-hanging by a man believed to be drunk. Why was his burial a public spectacle attended by "many people from Mansfield"? The crowd were unlikely to be paying last respects when we know that self-murderers were deemed possessed by the devil. Maybe Thomas Maule was victim of the Puritan's purge who believed that 'Wine was from God but the drunkard was from the devil'.