Do you believe in ghosts? Since we started our special project to visit every castle and stately home in Britain, we have travelled to dozens of supposedly haunted places. Suddenly the question of belief in the paranormal becomes relevant…
Personally, I love a good ghost story and I must admit that encountering a ghost or two in one or other of the castles we have visited has become a sort of obsession of mine (and a nightmare for my wife!). Unfortunately for me, no ghost so far has bothered to present themselves to me on one of our visits, but we have definitely heard many a chilling ghost story or two along our way.
Funnily enough, most of the houses that claim to be haunted are privately owned. It seems that ghosts prefer to haunt residences that need to sell tickets rather than homes that belong to a government organisation or trust. Furthermore, many homes that claim to be haunted seem to be by a “celebrity” ghost, which makes a spooky story even more appealing. To do so, they sometimes bend the rules of haunting. Hever Castle is a great example of this.
This beautiful castle is located in Kent and is famous for being the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the most famous wife of King Henry VIII. There are claims that the ghost of Henry’s executed wife still haunts the castle and being the first executed queen in the history of England is definitely a reason to come back as a ghost. However, personally I would expect Anne’s ghost to haunt the Tower of London where she was executed and not Hever.
Next, we have Oxford Castle. The official website of the castle claims that the place is haunted by Empress Matilda. Matilda was an English princess who fought a bloody war in the 12th century against her cousin, King Steven. This war lasted almost 20 years and is known as “The Anarchy” or the 19 years of winter. In one of the early stages of the war, Matilda found herself stranded at Oxford Castle during a snowy Christmas.
Steven’s forces laid siege to the castle and waited for supplies to run out. But Matilda was not planning to surrender easily. One night, she dressed in white and lowered herself down from one of the towers (apparently it is the only tower of the castle that is still standing today). Camouflaged against the heavy snow, she managed to sneak away from Steven’s forces and into freedom. As you can see, Matilda has no reason to haunt Oxford Castle. Furthermore, she died 20 years after that night and it happened in France.
These two examples are quite extreme. In other castles and stately homes, the ghost stories make a bit more sense. One of the best ghost stories is about the oldest ghost in England and it is connected with Ludlow Castle that sits in the west county of Shropshire. The ghost’s name is Marion de la Bruyere and she lived in the castle at the same time as Empress Matilda. Marion’s story took place during “The Anarchy’’ and she had a lover, a knight called Arnold. When the war broke out, they found themselves on two different sides. It did not stop them from meeting up and Marion would lower a leather ladder from her window in one of the towers to enable Arnold to climb up to her room.
One night, Arnold tricked Marion. She let him climb the ladder up to her, but he made sure the ladder stayed attached to the window allowing soldiers from King Steven’s army to follow Arnold and climb into the room to surprise the garrison. Marion was enraged and she took Arnold’s sword and stabbed him. She then stepped over to the window and threw herself out of it. For hundreds of years afterwards, numerous locals claimed to see a ghost of a lady dressed in white falling from the tower. Others just report loud screams heard in the middle of the night.
If you are looking for more of a “modern” ghost, you can visit Longleat, one of the most impressive stately homes in England (which we will talk much more about in the coming months). Longleat arrived to the Thynne family during the 16th century and is still owned by this same family. The house ghost at Longleat is known as the grey lady (sounds like something from Harry Potter world, right?). The lady’s name was Luisa Carteret who married the heir of Longleat in 1733. Coming from a rich family, Luisa brought with her own servants, including one footman who was known to be her “favourite”.
The footman felt privileged compared to his peers and he showed this supposed preference off. Society did not take well to this and according to the stories, Luisa’s husband, the 2nd Viscount, was informed that his wife was having an affair. A few days later, the footman disappeared. Luisa was anxious to find him, but it seemed like he had vanished from the face of the earth. A hundred years later when some works were being done on the basement, a skeleton was found dressed as a footman. Was it the viscount who killed him? Or perhaps a jealous servant? By now Luisa was dead and already supposedly haunting Longleat. According to those who claim to have seen the ghost, she can mainly be spotted on the top floor of the house where the servants used to sleep, still searching longingly for her footman.
As I already mentioned, so far I have not experienced any direct encounters with ghosts during our castle chasing, but the closest I have come was probably at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. Being close to the border with Scotland forced the local barons to build a series of castles to protect the border and Chillingham was one of them. There are two reasons why I say that I have come close to having an encounter with a ghost at Chillingham Castle. One was connected to its bloody history and the other reason was the state of the castle today.
Let us start with the history of Chillingham Castle. The castle was the ancestral seat of the Grey family. This family delivered generations of soldiers and politicians to society, one of them in the 19th century lending his name to the famous Earl Grey tea. During medieval times, the purpose of the castle was to stop the Scottish from invading England. Such an invasion occurred in the 13th century and was led by a man called William Wallace (you may remember him played by Mel Gibson in the 1995 film “Braveheart”). Wallace’s men sieged the castle, but it withstood their attack. The town nearby did not and it was sacked and razed to the ground. These were the days of King Edward the first, one of the most famous Warrior-Kings of England. He raised his army and took the long trip north, choosing Chillingham Castle as his headquarters.
Edward wanted to meet Wallace for one final definitive battle, but Wallace hid from Edward and used guerilla warfare against the English king. It was now time for plan B. The English soldiers started to catch hundreds of Scottish people young and old and brought them to Chillingham for interrogation. This brings us to the story of John Sage, the head torturer of King Edward. It is not clear whether Sage was a real person or just some sort of mythical character like Robin Hood. According to the stories, he was a soldier in the king’s army until he got injured in the leg, lending him the nickname “Dragfoot”. Now it was time to develop a second career and Dragfoot was in charge of torturing the Scottish prisoners in an attempt to learn where Wallace was hiding. A few hundred Scotts people died in Chillingham during this time and their mass graves were discovered during excavations around the castle.
Eventually, Wallace did meet Edward who went on to beat him in the battle of Falkirk. Wallace managed to escape and was captured a few years later. John Sage himself (if he ever existed) did not manage to leave Chillingham and according to the stories, he was caught by a group of Scotts who tortured and hung him near the castle gates. Today, the guides at Chillingham claim that Sage still haunts the castle and you can mainly feel his evil presence in the castle’s great hall (there are plenty of other ghosts in Chillingham, such as the “Blue Boy” and the guides will be happy to tell you all about them).
The second reason why Chillingham was almost the castle where I encountered a ghost relates to the way it looks. The castle was a ruin and empty for almost a century before it was saved by Humphry Wakefield, 2nd Baronet, a descendant of the Grey family. He decided to rescue the ancient castle, but he did not manage to fully finish the job and the castle still feels a bit chilling. Add that to the fact that Wakefield filled the castle with his creepy antique collection and you have the perfect atmosphere for a haunted castle.
If you visited Chillingham Castle and could not find a ghost, you can improve your chances next time by staying the night there. And if you are really daring, you can spend an evening on a ghost hunt with a local medium (but be careful to avoid John Sage).
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