Albion, Art, Folk Tale

Hand of Glory


Let me tell you the tale of the Hand of Glory… a tale much older than I that my grandfather told me long ago…

It is not a myth… though its truth may be obscure… one Hand even survives to this  day, found in the wall of a house and now kept in the museum at Whitby…

It is a gory relic of a bygone age in a time and place not so very far away…

The hand of glory must first be made… there are many recipes, but all involve the cutting of a hand from a man hung on a gibbet… usually the left hand, or the one that committed the murder…

It should, according to some, be wrapped in part of the winding sheet… but all agree it must be pickled in strange substances and salt…it is not a quick process.

It is told that you must place it at a crossroads, or in the porch of a church and watch by it through the night… and if you survive the horror and fear till morning, the hand is yours. Place a candle in its grasp… between the fingers… and while the candle burns none in that place who sleep shall stir… and none who wake shall sleep.

It is a tale known well in the north and there are several instances of the hand of Glory being used for nefarious deeds.


One such tale tells of the Spital Inn … a lonely, wild place even today.. a place of moorlands and isolation where travellers seek the shelter of the inn on wild nights…

“This inn of Spital on Stanmore was kept, in the year 1797, by one George Alderson. He, his wife, and son managed the business of this lonely hostel themselves, with the help of a maid named Bella. The inn was a long, narrow building, and turned one end towards the great high road which crossed Stanmore on its way from York to Carlisle. The lower story of the house was used as stabling, for the stage coaches changed horses at the inn and brought all the last news of the day. The upper part of the solid stone building was reached by a flight of ten or twelve stone steps leading up from the road to a stout oaken door, and the windows, deeply recessed in the thick walls, were strongly barred with iron.

One cold October night the red curtains were drawn across the windows, and a huge log fire sputtered and crackled on the broad hearth, and lighted up the faces of George Alderson and his son as they sat talking of their gains at the fair of Broughton Hill; these gains, representing a large sum of money, being safely stowed away in a cupboard in the landlord’s bedroom.

Mrs. Alderson and Bella sat a little way off spinning by firelight, for the last coach had gone by and the house door was barred and bolted for the night. Outside the wind and rain were having a battle; there came fierce gusts which made the old casements rattle and stirred the red curtains, and then a torrent of rain swept smartly across the window, striking the glass so angrily that it seemed as if the small panes must shatter under its violence.

Into the midst of this fitful disturbance, only varied by the men’s voices beside the hearth, there came a knock at the door.

“Open t’ door, lass,” said Alderson. “Ah wadna keep a dog out sik a neet as this.”

“Eh! best slacken t’ chain, lass,” said the more cautious landlady.

The girl went to the door, but when she saw that the visitor was an old woman she opened the door wide and bade her come in. There entered a bent figure dressed in a long cloak and hood; this last was drawn over her face; and, as she walked feebly to the armchair which Alderson pushed forward, the rain streamed from her clothing and made a pool on the oaken floor. She shivered violently, but refused to take off her cloak and have it dried. She also refused the offer of food or a bed. She said she was on her way to the north, and must start as soon as there was daylight. All she wanted was a rest beside the fire. She could get the sleep she needed in her armchair.

The innkeeper and his wife were well used to wayfarers, and they soon said “Good-night” and went to bed; so did their son. Bella was left alone with the shivering old woman. The girl had kept silence, but now she put her wheel away in its corner and began to talk. She only got surly answers, and although the voice was low and subdued, the girl fancied that it did not sound like a woman’s. Presently the wayfarer stretched out her feet to warm them, and Bella’s quick eyes saw under the hem of the skirts that the stranger wore horseman’s gaiters. The girl felt uneasy, and, instead of going to bed, she resolved to stay up and watch.

“Ah’m sleepy,” she said, gaping, but the figure in the chair made no answer. Presently Bella lay down on a long settle beyond the range of the firelight and watched the stranger while she pretended to fall asleep.

All at once the figure in the chair stirred, raised its head, and listened; then it rose slowly to its feet, no longer bent, but tall and powerful-looking. It stood listening for some time. There was no sound but Bella’s heavy breathing and the wind and the rain beating on the windows. Then the woman took from the folds of her cloak a brown withered human hand; next she produced a candle, lit it from the fire, and placed it in the hand. Bella’s heart beat so fast that she could hardly keep up the regular deep breathing of pretended sleep; but now she saw the stranger coming towards her with this ghastly chandelier, and she closed her lids tightly. She felt that the woman was bending over her, and that the light was passed slowly before her eyes, while these words were muttered in the strange masculine voice that had first roused her suspicions:

Let those who rest more deeply sleep;

Let those awake their vigils keep.

The light moved away, and through her eyelashes Bella saw that the woman’s back was turned to her, and that she was placing the hand in the middle of the long oak table, while she muttered this rhyme:

O Hand of Glory shed thy light;

Direct us to our spoil tonight.

Then she moved a few steps away and un-drew the window curtain. Coming back to the table she said:

Flash out thy blaze, O skeleton hand,

And guide the feet of our trusty band.

At once the light shot up a bright livid gleam, and the woman walked to the door; she took down the bar, drew back the bolts, unfastened the chain, and Bella felt a keen blast of cold night air rush in as the door was flung open. She kept her eyes closed, however, for the woman at that moment looked back at her, and then drawing something from her gown she blew a long shrill whistle; she then went out at the door and down a few of the steps, stopped and whistled again, but the next moment a vigorous push sent her spinning down the steps on to the road below.

The door was closed, barred, and bolted, and Bella almost flew to her master’s bedroom and tried to wake him. In vain. He and his wife slept on, while their snores sounded loudly through the house. The girl felt frantic. She then tried to rouse young Alderson, but he slept as if in a trance. Now a fierce battery on the door and cries below the windows told that the band had arrived.

A new thought came to Bella. She ran back to the kitchen. There was the Hand of Glory, still burning with a wonderful light. The girl caught up a cup of milk that stood on the table, dashed it on the flame and extinguished it — in one moment, as it seemed to her, she heard footsteps coming from the bedrooms, and George Alderson and his son rushed into the room with firearms in their hands.

As soon as the robbers heard his voice bidding them depart they summoned the landlord to open his doors and produce his valuables. Meanwhile young Alderson had opened the window, and for answer he fired his blunderbuss down among the men below.

There was a groan, a fall, then a pause, and, as it seemed to the besieged, some sort of discussion. Then a voice called out, “Give up the Hand of Glory, and we will not harm you.”

For answer young Alderson fired again, and the party drew off. Seemingly they had trusted entirely to the Hand of Glory, or else they feared a long resistance, for no further attack was made. The withered hand remained in possession of the Aldersons for sixteen years after.

This story was told to my informant, Mr. Atkinson, by Bella herself when she was quite an old woman.”

Source of the legend: Thomas and Katharine Macquoid, About Yorkshire (London: Chatto and Windus, 1883)


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