Hidden Histories

The Haunting of Capt. Henry Bell: A Miracle or Madness?

Monday, 10/6/08

Almost no one today has heard of Capt. Henry Bell, an English military officer, well-known in aristocratic circles, who traveled throughout Europe in the early 17th-century, and is described by official British records as having, "no equal in Christendom as a brave and experienced soldier."

Capt. Bell was an unusual man, living during the reigns of King James I & Charles I of England, with whom he was closely associated, and who is described as having a firm "knowledge of Latin," and was particularly fluent in High German or 'Dutch,' as a result of his residency in Germany for many years.

Though Bell served in a number of military capacities for the Crown, he also was the 'Surveyor of Lead' for a time, but eventually found himself deep in debt, incarcerated in the famed 'Tower of London,' where he languished for a number of years, contributing unexpectedly to the spread of the 'Reformation,' and all because of a Ghost!

In 1626, Capt. Bell made the acquaintance of a Mr. Casparus Van Sparr, during a time when the works of the famous Christian reformer, Martin Luther, were 'banned & burned' throughout Germany. Sparr, having cleared off an out-building on his grandfather's property, found a book, "lying in a deep obscure hole, being wrapped in a strong linen cloth, which was waxed all over with Bee's wax...whereby the Book was preserved," a book "hid for many years, imprison'd under ground, till (to a miracle) it was brought forth, and sent over into England..."

The above mentioned book, having lain underground for some 52 years, and at the request of Van Sparr, was brought from Germany to England by Capt. Henry Bell, who promised to translate it, one of the works of Martin Luther, in this case, a volume known as the Colloquia Mensalia or Divine Discourses at his Table, first published in 1566.

Captain Henry Bell would later recount the following (in his own words and archaic spelling):

"Then about six weeks after I had received the said Book, it fell out, that I being in bed with my wife, one night between twelv and one of the clock, she being asleep, but my self yet awake, there appeared unto mee an antient man, standing at my bed's side, arraied all in white, having a long and broad white beard...who taking mee by my right ear, spake these words following unto me; Sirrah! Will you take time to Translate that book which is sent unto you out of Germany? I will provide for you, both place and time to do it: And then he vanished away out of my sight."

As one would imagine, Capt. Bell was "affrighted" and "fell into an extreme sweat," stating how he "never did heed nor regard visions nor dreams." He wife awoke to whom he related his experience, and though in shock at the time, the visit of the apparition and its words to him, soon lost their urgency. He states that, "Whereupon I took the said Book before mee, and manie times began to Translate the same, but alwaies I was hindered therein..."

However, the statement made by the spectral visitor, soon proved to come true.

Not long after the above visitation, Capt. Bell found himself a Prisoner of the famed, 'Star Chamber,' for some ten years, five of which he states: "I spent...translating...the said Book: insomuch as I found the words very true which the old man in the foresaid Vision did saie unto mee. 'I will provide for you both the place and time to Translate it."

Eventually Captain Henry Bell's translation of Martin Luther's Colloquia Mensalia would indeed be published in London, England, in 1651, but not until a Spirit of the 'nether-world,' would visit in the 'dead of night,' a much surprised individual, who did not believe, in "visions nor dreams."

Because of Capt. Bell's incarceration, he would remark while in prison, that 'by reason whereof my wife and two young infants miserably were destroyed." He continually stated his innocence of any wrong doing, being willing as he said to "rot in prison" if guilty, but since he was "guiltless," he would petition to have his cause "brought to a legal hearing."

The 'life & times' of Captain Henry Bell could fill a volume, but it might be pertinent when you commemorate Halloween during this month of October, take some time to reflect on the fact, that such things as ghosts, spirits or spectral visitations and their belief are nothing new, and some have even played significant roles at times, in important historical events or publications.

{The reason for Capt. Henry Bell's imprisonment are laid out in the Calendar of State Papers: Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles I: 1636-1637 (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1867): 433; as are biographical facts regarding his career in other volumes of the same series, available at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania}