The Castle that gives you the Chills

Since we started “chasing castles’’, we have visited several haunted castles. Unfortunately, we have not seen any ghosts yet, but I think we got the closest yet when we visited Chillingham Castle (see our Chasing Castles review).

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Chillingham Castle has three stories to tell. Each of them is completely different and appeals to different visitors and that’s what makes this place so special. Firstly, you have the “real” historic heritage of the castle which is rich and gory at the same time. Next, you have the story of its revival and its interior which is mainly the story of a very eccentric baronet named Humphry Wakefield who bought Chillingham in 1982 and decided to save it. Today, the very bizarre and quirky interior of the castle is directly influenced by him; indeed, he still lives in the castle today. And finally, you have the ghosts…

Chillingham started as a monastery which was turned into a fortified manor in the 12th century by the Grey family (do you like Earl Grey tea?). It was a clever thing to do because at the end of the 13th century, William Wallace (also known as Mel Gibson) attacked the town and the castle. The town was damaged, but the castle survived and became the base of no other than King Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots”, who rode north to deal with Wallace.

Being the base of King Edward, Chillingham Castle became the place where Scottish prisoners were brought for interrogation and thousands met their violent end here. This is, of course, the main source of the haunting of the castle and you can read more about it in my Chillingham Castle stories.

It was time to extend Chillingham and turn it into a proper castle and this was done during the 14th century. During that period, the curtain wall was raised and the castle was surrounded with a deep water-filled moat. The entire region was in a constant state of warfare between the Scots and the English and Chillingham was an important stronghold. At the beginning of the 16th Century, the Scots, led by King James IV, invaded again with a massive army of 60,000 soldiers equipped with catapults. Chillingham surrendered and had to wait until Henry VIII’s best “general”, Thomas Howard, would beat the Scots and kill their king in the battle of Flodden. The Grey family fought under Howard and their castle was retrieved to them.

When James VI of Scotland became also James I of England, the hostility between the Scots and the English mellowed and, like many other castles, Chillingham started its evolution into a lavish stately home. The new King passed through Chillingham and to prepare for this visit, a set of luxurious staterooms were built.

During the Civil War, the Grey family were staunch Parliamentarians, but for some reason, right at the end of the war, King Charles I stayed in Chillingham Castle before he was imprisoned. Later, one of the Greys (not the Chillingham Branch) became the second person to sign Charles’s death warrant. He was probably on his way to be executed during the restoration of the monarchy, but luckily for him, he died in 1657 three years before it happened.

During the end of the 17th century, the Grey family reached its earldom with a Ford Earl Grey becoming the first Earl of Tankerville. Ford was a very interesting character:  in his life he managed to go on trial for seducing his wife’s younger sister; he managed to be sent to the Tower of London after he tried to assassinate King Charles II and his brother, future James II. He escaped from the Tower and his death sentence and fled to France with his young sister-in-law. He then participated in a rebellion against King James II, was sentenced to death, but managed to survive after giving evidence against all his friends. And try to guess Ford’s ultimate fate? He became the Prime Minister.

When the male line of the Greys ended, the castle moved through marriage to the Bennet family who embarked on a massive face lift of the building and the grounds. The famous Capability Brown was employed to work on its landscape,but sadly nothing survives of that today. A few years later another renowned gardener, Jeffry Wyatville, arrived in Chillingham after landscaping the gardens at Windsor Castle.

Unfortunately, like many other castles, Chillingham started to deteriorate and it was empty for a few decades in the 20th century before Humphry Wakefield, 2nd Baronet, bought it in 1982. He is a descendant of the Grey family and according to him, when he got the castle it was a, ‘’Roofless, floorless wreck of a castle”. The castle was not restored traditionally. Humphry is an antique specialist who managed several antique dealing companies and when he bought the castle, he filled it up with many of the artefacts he has collected during his many travels.

Chillingham Castle is open to the public and is associated with the HHA. For more information Chillingham Castle official website

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Ghosts, History and Quirkiness

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Chillingham Castle in the last week of August. Since Chillingham Castle is privately owned, I was curious to see how it was presented to its guests. From my past experience, I knew that visiting a private castle could result in anything, ranging from attending a historic house to a visit to a theme park. I am happy to say that in the case of Chillingham, a new category was formed.

There are actually three different types of visit to Chillingham Castle possible and you make your mind up about which one you wish to take. Firstly, you have the historic castle. This castle has such a fantastic history: Edward I used it as his base when he fought William Wallace; James I passed in it on his way to his coronation, whilst his son King Charles I had his time in it when he tried to escape to Scotland at the end of the Civil War. The castle was one of the main strongholds of the Grey family so the gallery of characters who lived in it is fascinating. Next, you have the haunted castle. If you check the castle website, you would immediately realise that this is the unique selling point of the castle. Whilst many castles claim to be haunted, there is a particular reason to believe that if ghosts exist, Chillingham would be their preferred place, and this is thanks to the third type of visit to the castle possible, a visit I call the “Humphry Wakefield” visit.

Humphry Wakefield, the 2nd Baronet, was the person who decided to “save” Chillingham in 1982 after it had been empty for decades and almost ruined. The restoration of the castle was done in such a way that the castle today is not going to collapse, but it is not the perfect kind of restoration. In fact, it is possible to decide that the castle is haunted just by your first look at it. Sir Humphry did not only restore it from the outside, but he also filled it with artefacts he collected through his life and that’s why I have named the third type of visit in his honour because the result is one of the quirkiest places I have ever visited. To be honest, I think that you should really visit the castle three times because there is a big difference between each one of the types of experiences I have described to be had there. Alas, for most visitors, I realise that this is just not possible, and that makes the visit more intriguing.

You can start the visit by trying to focus on one of its aspects, but you will end up drifting off in other directions, especially when you stop to talk with one of the guides here, as every chat with them seems to end up with a ghost story! By now, after visiting so many castles, I can make my mind up quickly regarding the quality of each visit, but in the case of Chillingham, I am still puzzled with unanswered questions. There are things I think should have been done differently in the castle, mainly the way they exhibit the history of the building. After the visit, I still had to do a lot of research just to get the bigger picture of all of the events that took place in it. But then again, Chillingham Castle probably should not be presented as a “traditional” castle or else it would not be in a class of its own, right?

We ended up visiting for a few hours without encountering any ghosts. If you are looking to improve your odds, you could take an evening ghost tour at the castle, and if you are really brave, you can even sleep in the castle or participate in a ghost hunt that is guided by a medium. Spooky.

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