Spooky Stuart ghost stories

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story, and the Stuarts loved them as much as anyone. However, enjoyment can very quickly turn to apprehension when the ghost – far from being a benign nun, a fair Grey Lady or a lost piper – becomes a sinister harbinger of doom. 

In these accounts of two spooky Stuart tales shared by historian and author Josephine Wilkinson, the ghosts crossed the narrow boundary that separates entertainment from prophecy – but were their dire warnings heeded?

English statesman George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, c1620. (Photo by Hulton A

English statesman George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, c1620. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628) was a favourite of King James VI and I. Born into minor nobility, he was known as handsome and charming. After a meeting with the king in 1614, he rose quickly through the court and was rumoured to have been a lover of the monarch. Using his power to raise the position of those close to him, Buckingham became unpopular with the nobles and parliament of the time, who resented his influence over the king.

Though rumours swirled that Buckingham had been involved in the king’s death in 1625, Buckingham continued to hold power in the court of James’ son, Charles I. Following an attempt by parliament to impeach Buckingham in 1626 and a later failed military campaign while in command of Charles I’s army in La Rochelle, Buckingham was assassinated at the age of 35 in 1628, by a discontented naval lieutenant, John Felton. 

But according to an account written by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, which was begun in 1646, Buckingham had received an earlier warning about his impending death…

 

The ghost with a message for George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham

There was a man who had spent part of his youth in the same parish where Sir George, the father of the Duke of Buckingham, had lived. He cherished fond memories of old Sir George, who had always treated him kindly.

By February 1628, the man, who was now in his fifties and renowned for his honesty and discretion, was employed as an officer in the wardrobe of King James VI and I at Windsor Castle. One night, at about midnight, his peaceful rest was disturbed by a distinguished-looking gentleman who suddenly appeared by his bed, pulled aside the heavy curtains and fixed his eyes upon him.

“Do you know me?” the visitor asked, but the wardrobe master was too terrified to answer. The spirit asked again whether he remembered him. Of course, he remembered him; it was old Sir George, still wearing the very clothes he used to wear. 

“You are Sir George,” he stammered out, to which the spirit answered that he was right. The ghost then demanded a service from him: he was to take a message to his son, the Duke of Buckingham, and tell him that “if he did not do somewhat to ingratiate himself to the people, or, at least to be able to abate the extreme malice they had against him, he would be suffered to live a short time.”

The ghost, having said its piece, vanished, leaving the man alone in the silent darkness. However, once recovered from the initial shock of the unsettling experience, he managed to persuade himself that it had been nothing more than a bad dream. Turning over, he slept soundly until morning.

The next night, the wardrobe master received another visit from Sir George. This time, the spirit seemed rather less friendly than it had been the first time. It asked him if he had done as he was asked, but the man had to admit that he had not. At this, the ghost reprimanded him sharply and warned that he would enjoy no peace of mind, but would always be harassed until he did as he had been asked. The man promised to obey but, upon waking up in the morning, he believed himself once again to have been the victim of a vivid dream. In any case, how could a man of his lowly standing gain access to the duke and, even if he were admitted into his presence, how could he expect the duke to believe his story? Although the man could not shake off a feeling of disquiet, he dismissed the idea of obeying the ghost’s command and going to the duke.

A short while later, old Sir George appeared again to the wardrobe master. This time the spirit was clearly very angry with him. The man, trembling with fear, summoned the courage to tell the ghost that he had been putting off obeying his command because he thought it would be too difficult to gain access to the duke since he had no friend who could introduce him. Moreover even if he could secure an audience, he would never be able to make the duke believe who had sent him and why. He feared he would be thought mad, or else he would be seized by the duke’s enemies and made to abuse him, thereby placing himself in very grave danger.

The spirit merely replied at it had done before, that the man would never find peace until he did as he had been told; and therefore, he should get on with it. The ghost then assured him that access to the duke was known to be very easy, and that very few had to wait any length of time to see him. In order to give his message credence, the ghost gave him some information that only the duke would know, and that he was to tell no one but the duke, who would then believe everything he had to say. The ghost then repeated its threat before leaving the man alone.

This time, the cold light of day brought no comfort for the wardrobe master. Convinced now that the ghostly appearances had been no dream, but were real, he made his way to London and the court. Here, he encountered Sir Ralph Freeman, a lawyer who had married one of Buckingham’s relatives. The man told him, though without going into detail, what had happened to him. Sir Ralph knew the wardrobe master to be a sober and upright man and he was inclined to believe his extraordinary story. The man added that he had much to tell the Lord of Buckingham, but that he required privacy. Sir Ralph promised that he would speak to the duke on his behalf.

Sir Ralph was as good as his word and he approached Buckingham who, having been assured that the wardrobe master was a man of good character, agreed to see him. He told Sir Ralph of his plans to go hunting early the next morning and, should the man care to be at Lambeth Bridge by five o’clock in the morning, he would grant him an audience for as long as necessary.

On the following day Sir Ralph duly presented the wardrobe master to Buckingham, who received him with all the cordiality for which he was renowned. The two men walked together for an hour, while Sir Ralph kept watch from a distance. Although Sir Ralph could not hear what passed between the duke and the wardrobe master, he noticed that on occasion, Buckingham became greatly agitated. When the man returned, he explained to Sir Ralph that when he mentioned the secret pieces of information that were to gain him credence, the duke’s colour had changed, and Buckingham swore that the wardrobe master could only have known what he did if the devil had told him, for the information was so secret that only he and one other knew them, and the other knew better than to speak of them. 

Later, Buckingham mounted his horse for the hunt, but he could not enjoy the exercise. Instead, he spent the morning riding aimlessly, lost in worried thoughts. Before the morning was out, the duke went to see his mother, the Countess of Buckingham who lived in Whitehall, and the two of them remained shut up together for two or three hours. Their conversation was agitated to say the least, and the noise of their discourse disturbed those in the rooms adjoining theirs. When Buckingham finally emerged, it was noticed that he was troubled and angry, which appeared strange because mother and son normally got on remarkably well. For her part, Buckingham’s mother was found in tears and overcome by emotion.

When, a few months later, the countess was told that her son had been murdered, she showed no surprise, but received the news as if she had anticipated it. Curiously, considering how close she had been to her son, Clarendon asserts that the countess did not express the sorrow that would be expected from a mother at the loss of her favourite son.

 


King Charles I. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) 

A ghost appears to Charles I

This account can be found in John Mastin’s The History and Antiquities of Naseby, published in 1792.

In June 1645, shortly before the battle of Naseby, Charles I with an army of less than 5,000 foot and a similar number of horse, mustered his men at nearby Daventry to prepare for the battle that would be fought the following day.

The battle would see Charles I’s royalists face Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army for the first time, and is seen by many as a key battle in the English Civil Wars. 

Shortly after everyone had settled down for the night, a tremendous clamour was heard coming from the king’s chamber. When his servants rushed in to see what had caused it, they found Charles sitting up in bed looking very agitated, but nothing could be found that would account for the noise they had heard. Charles, his voice shaking, said he had seen an apparition of Lord Strafford, whom he had executed four years before. After reproaching the king for his cruelty, Strafford had told him he had come to return good for evil. The spirit continued, saying in no uncertain terms that Charles must not fight the parliamentary army that was at that time quartered at Northampton, because he would never be able to conquer it by arms.

The following day, Charles announced that he had changed his mind and would not go to battle after all but instead would march northwards. He knew the parliamentary forces were sparser in the north and, with the help of the discontented Scots, he might fare better. However, the king’s nephew, the courageous Prince Rupert, berated Charles so that he resolved to go ahead with the battle notwithstanding the ghostly warning.

That night, Charles’s sleep was disturbed again by the ghost of Lord Strafford. This time, the spirit was angry that Charles appeared to have ignored his counsel. The ghost assured the king that this was the last time he would be permitted to offer advice and that if Charles continued in his resolve to fight, he would be undone.

Charles wrestled with his fears and, finally summoning up his courage, made the firm decision to ignore once again the advice the spirit had given him; he would march into battle at Naseby as planned. 

The battle proved to be the disaster the ghost had predicted for the royal forces. Moreover, Charles would never again be able to muster an army large enough to defeat the enemy. He was often heard to say that he wished he had “taken the warning and not fought at Naseby.” (Mastin, p.191) 

Few who heard him understood what Charles meant by this, but he had given express instructions to those in whom he had confided that the affair of the ghost of Lord Strafford was always to remain a closely guarded secret. The story, however, was related to Mastin by a man who claimed to have been a soldier in his majesty’s horse.

Josephine Wilkinson is the author of Richard III, the Young King to Be, Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Favourite Mistress, The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn, The Princes in the Tower and Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen. She is currently writing a biography of Louis XIV.

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