Were vampires buried with a stake through their heart?

There are very few historical accounts of vampirism in Great Britain and where these stories do occur, the solution is never a stake

Vampires-3-8039305

William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum, written in the 12th century, records two instances of people apparently rising from the dead, the first of which he describes as being a “serious nuisance”. One was dispatched by placing a charter of absolution on the corpse’s chest. The other body was chopped into pieces and burnt.

Advertisement

The idea of ‘staking’ the undead to pin them to their grave originates as a medieval southern Slavic practice associated with vampire epidemics. In these cases, exhumed bodies were considered to be unnatural, because they were undecayed, bloodied or apparently fatter than in life – and hence not truly dead. This is today usually attributed to a poor grasp of the processes of decay.

In Britain, it was not vampires but suicides that were buried with a stake through their heart. Those who had sanely killed themselves (i.e. not when mentally ill) were guilty of a ‘felo de se’ – a crime against the self, or self-murder – and this deserved punishment.

Their bodies were often dragged through the town and then buried without Christian rites in an unconsecrated place – usually a rural crossroads. For good measure a stake was then driven through their heart. Crossroads burials were only abolished by Act of Parliament in 1823. Yet, suicide technically remained a crime in the UK up to 1961, and doctors dealing with suicides were meant to inform the police.

Advertisement

Answered by Justin Pollard, author of Secret Britain: the Hidden Bits of Our History (John Murray, 2009). He is a question writer for the panel show QI on BBC One.