A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
The Stately Ghosts of England
Most of Britain’s best ghost stories come from the huge family estates that are scattered over the countryside. These are the great houses built by the aristocracy over the years. It is here the spirit world tends to congregate, probably because the houses are big and have been lived in for centuries. Few, if any, of Britain’s aristocracy lack a family skeleton or two, ready to come out of the closet and do some haunting. Most of the Stately Homes of England have at least one resident ghost. Woburn Abbey, the home of the Russell family, has an unearthly Abbott who was hanged from a tree outside the front entrance for speaking out against Henry VIII’s treatment of the church. Apparently he’s still hanging around. Salisbury Hall, once owned by Winston Churchill’s mother, is haunted by the ghost of Nell Gwynne, King Charles II’s famous mistress. It’s also said that Winston himself drops in, from time to time, to enjoy a cigar. Beaulieu, the home of Lord Montagu, has a noisy troop of medieval monks who regularly go about their business, both in the house and around the grounds.
Some ghosts are not so benevolent. They have their origins in a violent past where legend and tales of bloodshed have more than a passing basis in truth. Consider this story, from the time of Elizabeth I, about Littlecote Manor. One night Mrs. Barnes, the local midwife, was summoned to the house. She was directed to a chamber where she found an expectant mother, concealed by a hood. Frightened, Mrs. Barnes nevertheless helped deliver the baby, a boy. When she presented him to the man waiting in the next room, he seized the child from her and threw it into the fire! I’m told both mother and son still haunt Littlecote.
Other ghosts have neither rhyme nor reason for their existence, nor purpose to their haunting. At Sawston Hall, the appearance of a rather pretty female ghost is always accompanied by giggling. At Yarnton, the family is “warned” that the ghost is walking by a particularly sweet smell that precedes him. At Mannington Hall, the ghost of what is believed to be the original owner only appears when someone is reading in the library.
Nothing shows how prevalent are the Stately Ghosts of England better than a letter which a newspaper mailed to the current owners of the historic homes of Britain. It asked, first of all, if their houses were haunted and, secondly, if the newspaper could investigate the phenomenon. Of all the letters mailed, there were only two negative replies!
The Scariest Place on Earth
If ghosts exist anywhere, they’re in the Tower of London. The place is so crowded with other-world spirits that it’s a wonder there’s room for the tourists. The imposing center of British power was begun by William the Conqueror as a fortress and has been in use ever since, most recently as a place for Queen Elizabeth to stash the family jewels. Its main function, over the years, was as a prison. At one time, the place even had a torture chamber, complete with all manner of “persuasion” devices, including the famous rake, whereby ruling sovereigns could literally go to any lengths to get what they wanted. Normally, they did.
The Tower of London is a catalogue of violence, mayhem and murder. Needless to say, it’s restless with the spirits of those who came to bad and bloody ends there. Almost everyone who has been around the Tower (either as a member of the staff or as a sentry guarding Queen Elizabeth’s baubles) has at least one story about its ghostly residents, so it’s no wonder they show them a healthy respect. For example, one part of the Tower is called “Northumberland’s Walk” because the chances of meeting the Earl of Northumberland, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh’s, are so good the guards travel in pairs.
Sir Walter himself has made dozens of appearances, including one recently where he was seen leaning in a doorway, smoking. The image was so real the guard on duty called the Officer of the Watch who saw Sir Walter also. It seems that, historically, the prisoner Raleigh was on such good terms with his guards that he would stop in, at night, for a chat and a drink. Regardless, Charles I didn’t like him, and he cut off his head.
Many people have seen two little boys in the courtyard of the Tower. These are the ghosts of Richard III’s nephews, playing in their dressing gowns as little boys will do. Richard had them drowned in vats of brandy when their royal presence became inconvenient.
Anne Boleyn is one of the most persistent of the Tower ghosts, appearing in several locations, both with and without her head. Similarly, Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for exactly 10 days, has appeared, looking rather lost and confused. The most frightening phenomenon, however, is the ghost of the Countess of Salisbury. At her execution, she refused to place her head on the block and ran shrieking through the Tower, pursued by her axe-wielding executioner who hacked her to death, when he caught her. Apparently, this sinister scene has been re-enacted, more than once.
This is only a quick look at the best-known stories, but it’s safe to say that, on any given night, the Tower of London, filled with ghostly images from its 900-year history, may indeed be the scariest place on earth.
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