With the Jubilee not long past I thought that this would be the ideal time to look at the long and storied history of Britain’s royal ghosts and hauntings. The most difficult part is knowing where to begin – one thing that this country does not have is a shortage of tales of blue-blooded phantoms and faders. There is the ghostly lantern-carrying groom of Althorp in Northamptonshire, the spectral limping priest of Amersham, the blood-curdling screams of Edward II in Berkeley Castle, the decapitated head of Charles I seen floating around Billingham Manor, the various phantom coaches of Norfolk, the duelling knights with fiery swords at Blofield, the disguised queen at Borthwick Castle and the crazed laughter of Queen Isabella at Castle Rising. Royal ghosts haunt the New Forest, Hampton Court Palace and St James’s Park. Windsor Castle, one of the main royal residences, is also one of the most haunted. It somehow seems fitting that a royal line with a history as long, colourful and often lurid as that of the British Isles should boast so many ghost stories. But is there a deeper, darker reason for the prevalence of malevolent spirits in relation to the British Crown?
At the royal estate of Althorp several entities have been observed. Seen only the once (though the exact date is not known), a horse groom appeared standing over a bed, a bright lamp in one hand – this was exactly two weeks after his death. Another ghost, that of a child, was seen several times prior to World War I, and a local gentleman named Jack Spencer (who died in 1975) was seen attending a party in the building a few months after his death. Finally, an old servant has been reported visiting bedrooms at night if lights have been left on in Althorp. The phantasmal limping priest of Chenies Manor House, Amersham, was seen dragging one of its feet while traversing the floor, though it was more frequently heard than seen. Some have named the figure as Henry VIII, rather than a priest, who stayed here with Anne Boleyn and, several years later, Katherine Howard. Allegedly murdered on the orders of his wife Queen Isabella, the anniversary of King Edward II’s death is marked by his screams echoing around Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. After his father’s death, King Edward III held his mother Isabella at Castle Rising in Norfolk for twenty seven years for her suspected involvement. Rumoured to have lost her sanity towards the end, people have heard her laughter and screams on cold winter nights. More recently, witnesses have reported the eerie sounds of children playing and singing nursery rhymes in the vicinity.
Norfolk, the county in which the royal estate of Sandringham is situated, seems to have been a particularly popular place for tales of royal hauntings over the years. At Blickling Hall it is said that, to mark the anniversary of the death of Henry VIII’s ill-fated wife Anne Boleyn, a coach pulled by four headless horses pulls up on the driveway, with a decapitated Anne on a seat, her head in her lap. After Anne’s headless white ghost arrives, it is said then to climb out, before inspecting each room of the Hall (the place of her birth and childhood). On the same date, her father Sir Thomas Boleyn is said to drive a team of headless horses in this area, cursed to cross twelve Norfolk bridges (including those at Aylsham, Coltishall and Wroxham). Sir Thomas is evidently leading quite a busy afterlife, given that he is also said to be one of the two knights who returns once a year to duel at Blofield church, the other being Sir Thomas Paston. The shades of the two men battle with burning swords, and Lady Anne watches from a nearby carriage, pulled by (needless to say) more headless horses.
The disguised queen at Borthwick Castle is Mary Queen of Scots, who left the castle in 1567 dressed as a boy in order to escape her enemies – her ghost here remains clothed in this way. Each Christmas, the tormented shade of the hapless haunts both the mansion and the grounds surrounding the building at Bradgate Park where she was raised as a child. The gallery at Hampton Court Palace is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, who was executed for adultery at the age of just 19. She is said to have run down the gallery to beg the King to spare her life, but was caught by guards, and dragged away screaming. Interestingly, in 1999 two women fainted in exactly the same spot in the gallery, just 30 minutes apart. At Windsor Castle, the ghost of Henry VIII has been seen wandering the corridors and his footsteps and agonized groans have been heard by many visitors. A later king, Charles I, has appeared on several occasions in the same castle with his head intact, despite the fact that he was beheaded during the English Civil War. He has been seen in the library as well as the Canon’s house, looking remarkably like the portraits painted of him. The ghost in the New Forest is that of William II, who succeeded his father, William the Conqueror in 1087. William’s was one of the most mysterious royal deaths – he was found dead in the New Forest in Hampshire on August 2, 1100 with an arrow through his heart. Just who killed him and how he came to die remain a mystery which historians are still trying to solve nine centuries later. It has been suggested that it was a simple accident – one of his knights aimed at a deer and missed – though one more sinister theory blames a twelfth century witch cult, with the unfortunate king serving as a sacrifice. Whatever the explanation, though, it is pretty clear that William’s ghost was, and still is, furious about the whole affair.
Built by Henry VIII, St James’s Palace remained one of the principal residences of the Kings and Queens of England for more than three hundred years. Its most famous haunting, however, dates from the first half of the 19th century. In the early hours of 31 May 1810, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and brother to George IV and William IV, was awoken from a deep sleep at around 2am by what he at first thought was a bat fluttering around his chamber. The next thing he knew, he was subjected to a ferocious attack, as a sharp bladed weapon began slashing at his padded nightcap and gown. As he attempted to deflect the blows, his hands and wrists were cut, and in desperation he screamed for help. A valet by the name of Cornelius Neale rushed to assist, and found the Duke’s regimental sabre, covered in blood, lying on the floor by the door. A doctor was summoned, and as his wounds were being treated, Cumberland asked for his other valet, Joseph Sellis to be sent for. Two servants went to rouse him, but as they approached his room, they were startled by a strange gurgling sound from within. Opening the door, they found Sellis lying dead on his bed. His throat had been cut back to the spine and his head almost severed from his body. A hastily convened inquest concluded that the dead valet had, for reasons unknown, attempted to murder his master, and in remorse had returned to his room to committ suicide. According to court gossip, however, it was Cumberland who had murdered Sellis for any number of reasons – perhaps to silence him for discovering that he was having an affair with Sellis’s wife, Sellis’s daughter or Cumberland’s other valet. Whatever the truth, there are occasions when the old palace has settled at night when the ghost of Sellis has been seen walking the corridors, a gaping wound across his throat, the sickly sweet smell of fresh blood trailing in his spectral wake.
It is interesting that so many of the ghost stories connected with the royal family have their roots in conspiracy theories and murderous plots. Perhaps this says something about the suspicions people naturally have about hereditary rulers with absolute power. It is notable, in any event, that there are far fewer ghost stories about British monarchs after the Stuart era, when royal power diminished rapidly in favour of elected politicians. Of course, there are plenty of tall tales to tell about British politicians, but that’s a matter for another time…