The Tower of London
With almost 950 years of history, the Tower of London is the scene of myriad bloody tales, having been both a prison and place of execution. Anne Boleyn, the doomed second wife of Henry VIII, was beheaded here in 1536, charged with treason. Her ghost has been seen walking around the Church of St Peter ad Vincula, where she is buried, with her severed head tucked under her arm. Anne has also been spotted in the White Tower. In 1864, a guard challenged a ghostly figure near where Anne had been imprisoned – only his colleague’s corroboration of the spectral vision saved him from being charged with fainting on duty.
Perhaps the Tower’s most famous past inhabitants are the two missing Princes of York – the sons of Edward IV, who were kept here by their uncle, Richard III, but never seen or heard from again. Many maintain that Richard ordered their deaths. Their true fate remains a mystery, but sightings of two young boys in white gowns have been regularly reported for years.
Not all the castle’s ghosts are human. For much of its history, the Tower of London was home to the Royal Menagerie, where leopards, lions and even an elephant were kept. In 1816, a sentry claimed he saw a ghostly bear charge towards him. He tried to spear it with his bayonet, only to find that his weapon went straight through the apparition. The guard is said to have died of shock a few days later.
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Borley Rectory, Essex
This dwelling has often been referred to as the most haunted house in England and has even had a mention in the survival horror videogame series Silent Hill. From phantom coaches driven by headless horsemen to creepy unexplained footsteps, this house seems to have it all.
Built in 1862, the building was subject to a persistent rumour about being haunted by a nun who had been bricked up alive in the walls of a nearby convent after falling in love. It was said that the nun roamed the rectory, and locals reported seeing strange happenings around the area, including a floating nun. Weird whisperings and bells ringing by themselves were also reported and these stories attracted the attention of the media and paranormal investigators. Psychic researcher Harry Price visited Borley in 1929, and subsequently took out a year-long lease on the rectory in 1937; he documented vases throwing themselves on the floor as well as spirit messages communicated through mirrors. Two years later the rectory was gutted by fire, and was eventually torn down in 1944.
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Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London
As well as being the oldest theatre site still in use in London, the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane holds the prestigious title of being the most haunted theatre in the world. Its most famous inhabitant is the Man in Grey, a phantom who appears in a tricorn hat, powdered wig and long grey coat. A skeleton with a knife through his heart was discovered in the 1840s, buried in the spot where the ghost reportedly vanishes. The floating head of Joseph Grimaldi’s famous clown, in whiteface make-up (Grimaldi was the father of modern clowning) has also been seen, apparently helping struggling actors through their performances. Another, the so-called Helping Hand ghost, has been known to prod actors into the correct position on stage.
Some who tread this hallowed theatre’s boards still report hearing their name being called by an unknown voice, feeling a tug on their jacket or a mysterious gust of wind. Any performance graced with the presence of a ghost is supposed to receive good luck.
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Culloden Battlefield, Scotland
The Battle of Culloden took place nearly 275 years ago but, according to locals, if you listen closely you can still hear the clash of swords and the cries of the doomed rising from the moor. Often cited as the last battle to be fought on British soil, the 1746 encounter was a final attempt by the Jacobites to reinstate a Stuart monarch to the throne.
For more than 50 years after the so-called Glorious Revolution, which had placed William III and Mary II in power, supporters of the deposed James II and VII had been fighting to restore him – and later his descendants – to the throne. Their efforts came to a bloody end at Culloden, where Jacobite troops, led by Charles Edward Stuart, were brutally defeated by Hanoverian forces loyal to King George II. More than 1,500 Jacobite soldiers were killed.
On 16 August, the anniversary of the battle, the spirits of the valiant solders who lost their lives in 1746 are said to return to the battlefield to replay the bloody conflict. A defeated Highlander has also supposedly been seen walking amongst the bodies of his fallen comrades.
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Jamaica Inn, Cornwall
Sitting on the desolate Bodmin Moor, Jamaica Inn is a veritable haven of horror. The 18th-century coaching inn was a favoured haunt for smugglers and pirates, and found wider fame after Daphne Du Maurier’s 1936 novel of the same name. The menacing sound of horses’ hooves on the cobbles outside are said to be heard even when the courtyard is empty, while previous occupants of the inn have reported hearing strange whisperings in a foreign tongue, believed to be old Cornish, as well as footsteps creaking along the corridors.
According to one local legend, there was once a visitor to the inn who had been summoned out into the night, leaving his ale unfinished. His body was found on the moor the following day, the cause of his death a mystery. Then, in 1911, a story emerged of a figure who had been seen sitting outside the inn, never uttering a word to anyone. Many believed it was the ghost of the dead man, coming back to finish his pint.
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Jamaica Inn is said to be named because the chief ‘import’ stashed there by smugglers was rum, brought from Jamaica. (Image by Alamy)
Chillingham Castle, Northumberland
With a name like Chillingham, it’s not surprising that this 13th-century castle boasts paranormal activity. Multiple ghosts are said to be in residence, including an eerie white figure in the inner pantry, begging for water. The silver of the castle used to be stored in that room. One night, a footman guarding it came across the apparition and, believing her to be a guest, the man went to fetch her a drink. But then he suddenly remembered that he was locked in the room; no one else could possibly have entered.
Creepy voices have also been heard whispering throughout the chapel, whilst in the dungeon, a trap door in the floor reveals the bones of a child in the vault below. And, of course, the torture chamber is full of gruesome implements, including a stretching rack and an iron maiden.
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Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon
This romantic ruin in Devon is supposedly one of the most haunted castles in Britain. Built in the 15th century, it was the home ofEdward Seymour, Lord Protector to Edward VI and brother of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. Abandoned in the 17th century, the picturesque ruin was beloved by Victorian visitors.
Two ladies are believed to haunt the castle. The Blue Lady apparently calls passers-by for help before luring them to their deaths – legend says that she mourns for her child, the result of an incestuous relationship with her father. St Margaret’s Tower is also home to the spectral White Lady, rumoured to be the spirit of Lady Margaret Pomeroy. Imprisoned by her jealous sister, Margaret starved to death in the castle’s dungeon and an evil presence has reportedly been felt nearby.
Pomeroy’s Leap, on the castle ramparts, is where two brothers are said to have taken their own lives – leaping to their deaths on their horses to evade enemy capture while the castle was under siege. Their spine-chilling screams and whinnying horses have been reported by many who stand at this spot. As recently as 2018, visitors to the castle claim to have captured photographs of the ghostly riders.
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The Tudor mansion within the walls of Berry Pomeroy Castle was to be one of the stateliest piles in all England – but it was left unfinished. (Image by Getty Images/RF Creative)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey
A favourite haunt of Henry VIII (and many monarchs after him), Hampton Court is allegedly home to a host of ghostly characters who stalk its grounds. A mix of Tudor and Baroque architecture, the palace boasts more than 200 years of royal history and has plenty of spooky stories to tell.
Two of Henry VIII’s wives are believed to be spending their afterlife terrifying visitors to this former royal residence. Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, died soon after the birth of their son, the future Edward VI. Legend has it that she appears as a wraith, carrying a lit taper on the stairs leading to the room where she died in 1537.
The Haunted Gallery is now so named because Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, is said to have run down it in terror after she was arrested for treason in 1541. She failed to attract the attention of the King and was beheaded in 1542, aged just 19. Her anguishing cries and frightening presence have been reported by visitors and staff alike. This part of the palace is where the most supernatural occurrences have been reported – two female visitors in separate groups fainted here on the same spot on the same day in 1999.
In 2003, CCTV footage captured a ghostly skeletal figure in a hood flinging open a fire door after hours, with staff still none the wiser as to who it was or how it happened.
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The Skirrid Mountain Inn, Monmouthshire
Although the current inn near Abergavenny dates from the 17th century, local legend states that there has been a public house here for centuries. Supposedly it was a popular spot for supporters of the 15th-century Welsh revolt led by Owain Glyndwr against Henry IV.
Spooky stories say that the inn was used as a court of law by the infamous 17th-century Judge George Jeffreys, commonly known as the Hanging Judge. Hangings were apparently carried out from an oak beam over the inn’s staircase, with markings from the noose still said to be visible. The victims of these hangings are said to haunt the inn, along with Jeffreys himself, looking for his next target. The inn lies at the bottom of Ysgyryd Fawr, an isolated peak in the Black Mountains. This ancient mountain has its own mythology – known locally as the Holy Mountain, a lighting strike or earthquake is supposed to have caused an almighty landslide at the same time as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
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Treasurer’s House, York
Originally the medieval home of the treasurers of York Minster, the Treasurer’s House still retains its 12th-century masonry but the majority of this grand house dates from the 16th century. Its basement, however, hides a more ancient secret. The house was built directly over the main Roman road leading out of York – Roman column bases can still be seen. In 1953, apprentice heating engineer Henry Martindale was installing a boiler in the basement when he experienced something that stopped him in his tracks. The sound of trumpets rang out, and a legion of Roman soldiers walked out of the wall. Henry claimed to have seen about 20 soldiers, complete with swords, helmets and horses. He reported that these men looked tired and weary and carried round shields. At this time, archaeological research suggested that Roman soldiers only used rectangular shields, so his story was discredited. More recent finds, however, have shown that the soldiers stationed around York in the 4th century AD may have indeed carried round shields. Many other sightings of these Roman soldiers have been reported, perhaps doomed to walk this particular road for eternity.
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Emma Slattery Williams is Staff Writer on BBC History Revealed.
This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed