Corpse Roads

Great Britain in the 15th and 16th Centuries was a place of many small parishes, some very rural and isolated.  Most of these villages did have their own church or chapel but they were linked to Mother churches or Minsters, which at this time were the only churches to have burial rights.

Increasing pressure for autonomy from outlying villages led officials at these Mother churches to be concerened over loss of control and income. Corpse roads were instituted, connecting outlying locations and their mother churches.

These corpse roads, death or Ley roads, usually went in straight lines from the parish to the mother church, which would seem to harken back to an age of pagan belief that a spirit can only travel in straight lines.

Corpses were transported long distances, often over difficult terrain, usually the coffin would be carried but sometimes the deceased would have the luxury of horseback.


Coffin stones at Frank's Bridge, Kirkby Stephen

Coffin stones at Frank's Bridge, Kirkby Stephen










Distinguishing features of a corpse road, would be that it went in more or less a straight line with resting places or coffin stones along its way (shown above at Frank’s Bridge in Kirkby Stephen).  Sometimes markers such as crosses or stones marking the distance would be present and can exist to this day.  Many seem only to be a footpath now with little or no evidence to support their previous purpose.



Boundary marker on corpse road at Whinlatter

This boundary marker (we presume for the forest) is situated on a corpse road which passes over Whinlatter in the Lake District.






Fields crossed by corpse roads often had names like “Church-way” or “Kirk-way Field”, which can give a clue to the location of the old corpse road. These paths through fields were never ploughed.

According to the Encyclopaedia of Superstitions (E &,V M Radford, Hutchinson, 1948: edited and revised by Christina Dole, 1961). “A very widespread belief, still far from extinct, is that if a corpse is carried over private land, its passage establishes a right of way for ever… but this has no actual foundation in English law”.

A great number of superstitions and Ghostly tales are linked to these roads… If you know of any, then send the details to us via the comments link below.

There is no official record of these roads but an interesting website belonging to The Society of Ley Hunters has compiled data from around the UK and further afield.

Historical Geographer, Paul Hindle, lectures on the subject of old maps, roads and tracks, and the Lake District. Limestone landscapes & caves, and towns & roads in medieval England.

For those interested in reading more; the following books may be of interest.


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