This article was first published in the October 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine
Historic houses are ideal settings for ghost stories. Their creaking floorboards, dark corners and long histories of life and death create an especially eerie atmosphere. It’s no wonder that Britain’s most celebrated ghost story writer was a medieval historian called MR James who blended horror and history to create chilling masterpieces.
Here we introduce you to phantoms of all shapes and sizes, from the apparition of Queen Isabella who is said to wander around Nottingham Castle mourning for her murdered lover, to a demon drummer who spooked the inhabitants of Mompesson House to the footprint of a Protestant preacher at Smithills Hall that some have seen fill with blood on the anniversary of his execution.
You may of course think that such tall tales are utter nonsense, but fear not because all the houses we’ve visited are of great historic interest aside from their associated mysteries. So you can revel in their stories and ignore the spooks!
1) Mompesson House, Salisbury
Explore a perfectly formed Queen Anne house that has been the set for a film – and for some more sinister ghostly happenings
Some houses have artistic beauty, others have location, but Mompesson House has both. More a home than a stately manor, it’s considered England’s finest example of Queen Anne domestic architecture and overlooks Salisbury’s Choristers Green, and the Cathedral’s gothic spire.
Mompesson was originally built to be lived in rather than to inspire awe, with rooms that are both elegant and intimate. If it looks somewhat familiar, it may be because it was used in the film Sense and Sensibility (1995).
The house was built in 1701 by Thomas Mompesson and his son Charles (possibly to designs by Wren), but its most splendid features, the ornate plasterwork and barley twist staircase, were added in 1740 by Charles’ brother-in-law Charles Longueville. Other highlights are the walled garden and exquisite Chippendale furniture. Much of the house bears the stamp of the characterful Barbara Townsend, who lived there for nearly a century until her death in 1939.
You can see her silver tea service, including a tilting kettle with its own gas burner, which she used to entertain her many friends and family in the crimson drawing room. Tea was served in cups that Barbara painted herself, and you can see her other watercolours around the rooms.
The house has sinister connections with a ghost known as the Demon Drummer. In around 1660, after the Civil War had ended, Thomas Mompesson’s cousin John Mompesson is said to have been disturbed by a ragged vagrant drumming loudly in the street, in his home at Tidworth, north of Salisbury. Mompesson had the instrument impounded and its owner put in custody. The bailiff had the drum delivered to Tidworth, and that’s when the trouble started.
On his return from a trip to London Mompesson found his wife in anguish, reporting nocturnal commotions, accompanied by the regular beating of a drum like those used in the Civil War. The same happened night after night for three years, and the disturbance was so great that a Royal Commission was appointed to look into it. On moving to Mompesson house, taking the drum with them, the family continued to be disturbed by the noise.
The owner of the drum had been arrested for stealing and while in jail boasted that “I have plagued him, and he shall never be quiet till he hath made me satisfaction for taking away my drum”. His reward was to be tried for witchcraft, but he was acquitted.
In the 1950s Dennis Martineau, Mompesson’s last owner, who left the house to the National Trust, produced a brass drummer boy’s badge which he had found under the floor of the room where the drum was thought to have been kept.
2) Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon
An array of menacing ghosts are said to haunt the ramparts and ruins of eerie Berry Pomeroy Castle
Berry Pomeroy Castle. (Brian Buckle/Julie Mowbray)
An unnatural bluish light emanated from a window of the ruined castle, a window into a chamber that had long since lost its floor and was therefore impossible to reach. That’s never happened to me at Berry Pomeroy Castle but it is one of the paranormal sensations said to occur there. Some reckon it to be the “most haunted castle in Britain”. Though there are many pretenders to that title, the lonely location of this magnificent ruin does lend it a spooky air.
In the Domesday Book the manor of Berry is said to be in the hands of one Ralph of la Pommeraye. The estate stayed with the Pomeroy family until the 1540s when Edward Seymour who was Lord Protector of England, acquired it. The first recorded reference to a castle at Berry comes in 1496. From modest beginnings as a defended residence, it was enhanced to become a courtyard mansion by the mid-16th century. Yet, by the 18th century it was a romantic ruin.
The remnants of the early defences and later more sumptuous inner accommodation are worth exploring. However, beware, as some visitors have apparently felt unreasonable fear just by arriving at the Gatehouse. Cameras have failed to take pictures and car engines have cut out on approach.
But what of the ghosts? There is the White Lady, supposedly Lady Margaret Pomeroy, who is said to progress terrifyingly along the rampart walk. You might also encounter a blue lady or a black hound. If not, relax and enjoy the scenic location and Elizabethan remains.
3) Blickling Hall, Norfolk
Rumours abound that Anne Boleyn haunts the courtyard of Blickling Hall, which has many other less chilling attractions
Blickling Hall. (Alamy)
Dominating the flat farmland of Norfolk, Blickling presents an arresting facade to the visitor, the rounded gables of its stable blocks eerily reflected in the shape of the adjacent hedges. The graceful Jacobean bricks are not what they seem in other ways too. The Hall, though begun in its present form by James I’s Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, Henry Hobart, in 1618, obscures a Tudor core which is reputed by some historians to be the birthplace of Anne Boleyn.
A headless Anne is said to haunt the courtyard every year on the date of her execution, though as she died in London and there is as much evidence for her birth being in Kent as at Blickling, this ghost may well be as lost as it is fanciful.
One well-known resident there was Sir John Fastolf (immortalised by Shakespeare’s character Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV), whose delicate fireplace carved with angels enlivens the brown drawing room. But the real treats are its ceilings.
The spectacular pendanted plaster of the long gallery depicts moral lessons drawn from Henry Peacham’s 17th-century emblem book Minerva Britannia, while a bolder, less ornate intertwining of pendants and motifs can be found in the south drawing room.
In complete contrast, above Fastolf’s fireplace, you can gaze on colourful, writhing birds and serpents painted on strips of canvas by a friend of the then-owner, the 8th Marquess of Lothian, whose Victorian wheelchair sits among the paintings and furniture of the great hall.
4) Ham House, London
Perhaps the finest preserved Jacobean residence in Britain, Ham House offers a glimpse of what life was like in a Stuart royal palace – it also has a resident regal phantom
Ham House, London. (The National Trust/Jack Watkins)
A recent resident National Trust house manager was so troubled by spooky goings-on at Ham House – footsteps on the stairs, handprints on the chapel altar rail – she called in an exorcist. The ghost is said to be Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale, and following a ghost tour, run regularly through autumn and winter, is an excellent way of learning more about the house and this intriguing, slightly sinister figure of Restoration politics.
The best approach to the house and grounds is via the bucolic riverside path from Richmond, past the grazing cattle of Petersham Meadows. The house rises up through a clearing in the trees, a splendid, tall chimney-stacked, red brick pile, with niches in the walls bearing sculpted heads of Roman emperors and Stuart kings.
First built in 1610 by Thomas Vavasour, a naval captain during Queen Elizabeth’s I reign who became a courtier of King James I, it subsequently passed to William Murray, childhood playmate and member of the inner court of Charles I. It was Murray, created First Earl of Dysart during the Civil War, who commissioned most of the first floor State Rooms, opening from the resplendently martial great hall and great staircase, with its wood-carved armorial balustrades.
Loyal “Little Will Murray” acted as messenger between the King and Queen Henrietta Maria when the Civil War broke out, but on his death, Ham descended to his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart, who later became Duchess of Lauderdale. She was a woman of great beauty, wit and ruthless ambition – “a violent friend, but a still more violent enemy”. Thought to be a member of the Sealed Knot, a secret society working for Charles II’s restoration, her lavish tastes were matched by those of her second husband, John Maitland, First Duke of Lauderdale, a member of Charles II’s “Cabal Ministry”. They married in 1672 and a joint portrait by Peter Lely hangs in the hall gallery. The couple spent extravagantly on the property, adorning it with fine furniture, textiles and tapestries, now so delicate that many of the rooms are kept dimly lit to preserve fabrics.
Antiquarian-minded family descendants showed prescience in recognising the historic significance of Ham and its furnishings, so that it was spared from any kind of modernisation. The house is especially significant since it echoed on a smaller scale the style and tastes of the Stuart royal palaces. The National Trust acquired the house back in 1948.
In recent years it has restored the delightful Cherry Garden, with its dwarf box hedges and statue of Bacchus.
5) Nottingham Castle, Nottingham
Famed for its links to Robin Hood and Edward III, Nottingham Castle is said to be haunted by a distraught queen
Nottingham Castle. (Rupert Matthews)
Nottingham Castle has featured in numerous movies and television shows. However, it’s not the original medieval castle of Nottingham, which was unfortunately largely destroyed after the Civil War. What stands there today are the outer walls and main gateway of the original, plus a sumptuous 17th-century mansion that was built later and which now contains a museum and magnificent art gallery.
The castle stands on a sandstone crag, which dominates the city and the River Trent, offering panoramic views over the surrounding landscape. The rock is riddled with interesting caves and passages. It was through one of these that a group of young noblemen crept on 19 October 1330 to join the teenage King Edward III in a violent coup that overthrew the rule of his scheming mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer the Earl of March. The tunnel, known as Mortimer’s Hole, and other caves are open to the public.
It was this coup that led to the best known haunting of the castle. Mortimer and his guards were overwhelmed in a violent brawl fought through the castle rooms, and Queen Isabella fled the bloodshed. She was found next morning dressed only in her nightgown cowering in a wooden shed. Mortimer was promptly executed and Isabella went into retirement. The ghostly white lady who is said to wander the castle grounds weeping and wringing her hands is held to be the phantom of Queen Isabella.
Outside the gates stands Ye Olde Salutation Inn, c1240, said to be haunted by a highwayman.
6) Gwydir Castle, Conwy
This Tudor castle has links to the Welsh kings and Charles I. Look out for the ghostly figure of a wronged woman
Gwydir Castle. (Image courtesy of Gwydir Castle)
Gwydir Castle is a Welsh treasure. Situated in the tranquil vale of Conwy, this Tudor courtyard house dates back to c1500, although it was later altered and extended. The building is so redolent with history that it’s hardly surprising it has a reputation for being haunted. Ghostly activity is said to include a torch-lit procession on the terrace, an Elizabethan lady wandering the garden in a yellow dress, and the sound of children crying. There’s even a phantom dog. It’s interesting to note that a canine skeleton happened to be found in the cellar a few years ago.
Gwydir was once the home of the Wynn family, powerful baronets descended from the Welsh kings, and over the years the house had a stream of prominent visitors. Charles I is said to have stayed in 1645. However, after the First World War the castle was sold and the building fell into disrepair. It was rescued from ruin in the 1990s by a couple who made it their home – and set about restoring it to its former glory.
Today you’ll find atmospheric rooms, vaulted ceilings, wood panelling and stone walls. Flames flicker in fireplaces and every so often the mournful cry of a peacock drifts in.
The most haunted area is thought to be an upstairs passageway, where people claim to have seen the ghost of a young woman – and smelt a terrible stench. The story is that the girl was a servant, seduced and murdered by one of the Wynn family – who then walled up her body.
7) Glamis Castle, Angus
Stories of ghosts and ghouls abound at Glamis Castle, thanks to a secret chamber that is rumoured to harbour the darkest of secrets
Glamis Castle. (Nigel Wilkes)
Secret rooms are not particularly unusual in castles. Many have them – eerie confines created within thick stone walls. More often than not they were boltholes in times of attack.
The clandestine chamber at Glamis Castle, childhood home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, is an altogether more sinister place and the source of many a paranormal tale. Although its existence has never been in doubt, few have actually seen the covert recess. The secret room is located to the rear of the building, the only clue a single, bricked-up and barred window barely visible over a stone parapet.
Glamis Castle began life as a royal hunting lodge. The oldest part of the building, the main keep, dates back to the 14th century, when Robert the Bruce gifted the land to Sir John Lyon whose family have lived at Glamis ever since. However much of the present structure dates from the 17th century when the castle was altered and extended. Legend suggests the secret chamber served not so much a refuge but more as a prison. Among its first occupants were the Ogilvie family, who sought sanctuary at the castle. Lord Glamis took them in but, unbeknown to them, his loyalty lay elsewhere and they were locked up and left to rot. Their spirits, however, are said to have lived on to haunt the Lord and his castle.
The secret room also figures strongly in the story of Earl Beardie, a fearsome character who enjoyed drinking and gambling. Legend has it he took on the Devil at cards but lost and was condemned to play for eternity. It is said the chamber was sealed to prevent his ghost wandering at will but over the years there have been numerous reports of visitors hearing raucous card playing.
A much more believable, although no less unsettling account links the secret room to the first son of the 11th Earl, born horribly deformed in 1821. The child was said to have died, but many believe that he lived out his days in the chamber to avoid embarrassment, and continued to haunt the castle long after his death.
The secret room is not the only source of ethereal goings on at Glamis. The chapel and clock tour are rumoured to be the favourite haunts of Lady Janet Douglas, burned at the stake, accused of being a witch in 1537, while the ghost of a black servant boy who died of hypothermia as a result of neglect is said to sit by the door of the late Queen Mother’s sitting room.
It is also said a phantom woman with no tongue wanders the grounds. Perhaps she has all the answers to the ghostly secrets of Glamis – she just can’t tell anyone.
8) Smithills Hall, Bolton
This historic house reflects changes in religion, industry and fashion over hundreds of years and has a ghostly imprint
Smithills Hall. (Rachel Bellerby)
Smithills Hall was taken over by the Radcliffe family in 1335. The Bower and Solar Rooms were added in the 15th century. The wealthy Barton family acquired the Hall by marriage in 1485, and Andrew Barton built a chapel and the Withdrawing Room with its intricately carved Flemish linen-fold panelling.
Robert, Andrew’s son, was a justice of the peace during the Marian persecution (when Protestants were repressed under Queen Mary). George Marsh, a Lancashire Protestant preacher, was interrogated in the green room. Marsh refused to recant and, after imprisonment at Lancaster and trial at Chester, he was burnt as a heretic on 24 April 1555. According to legend, as he left the Hall, Marsh stamped his foot so hard to re-affirm his faith, that a footprint was left in the stone floor. On the anniversary of his death, it’s said to suffuse with blood.
Prosperous bleachers, the Ainsworth family bought Smithills in 1801, and renovated and rebuilt the Hall into a grand country residence. You can explore the great hall where lords, ladies and servants ate and slept. Spot the rebus (picture puzzle) in the Tudor Withdrawing Room and the Alms Hole in the medieval kitchen. Lift the shutter to see George Marsh’s “Footprint of Faith”.
The recently restored west wing displays the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by Smithills’ Victorian owners. Make time for a walk around the Hall’s formal gardens and Smithills Country Park to enjoy the scenery.
9) Micklegate Bar Museum, York
The severed heads of criminals were once fixed on the Bar as a warning to others. Little wonder the site is said to be haunted
Micklegate Bar. (© Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo)
Many of us have experienced that sinking feeling on realising we’ve lost an important item. Imagine the horror of Sarah Brocklebank, daughter of the York gatekeeper, who, in 1797, lost the keys to the city of York, causing her father to lose his job. She is said to haunt the Micklegate Bar, in an endless search for the keys.
Micklegate Bar, which now houses a museum, has been an entrance to York for over 1,000 years, and in medieval times, was used as a place for the severed heads of traitors and criminals to be displayed as a warning to others.
The Bar has had many uses over the years. These are explained to museum visitors through models and illustrated displays. Over the years, the building has been used as a holding bay for plague victims, a toll point and a home to families involved in the security of the city walls. The museum’s most unusual display must be the replica heads of those unfortunates whose real skulls were hung on the bar for years at a time, with many eventually being stolen as gruesome souvenirs.
There are three floors to explore, with plenty of information about the people who have lived, worked and been imprisoned here. Display boards explain York’s history, from its early days as a Roman outpost, through the city siege in the Civil War, to the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, who, like other royals before her, passed under Micklegate Bar on her way into York.
Entries written by: Clare Hargreaves, David Musgrove, Nick Jackson, Jack Watkins, Rupert Matthews, Rebecca Ford, James Carron, Sue Wilkes and Rachel Bellerby.