The Mistletoe Bride is a haunting short story by one of Britain’s finest living authors, Kate Mosse, who was inspired by a traditional English folk tale. Mosse describes how as a little girl she first came across the story of the ‘Mistletoe Bride’ in a book that her parents had – Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. In the book several places in Britain claimed to be the historical setting for the story – Skelton in Yorkshire, Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, Marwell Old Hall in Hampshire, Castle Horneck in Cornwall, Exton Hall in Rutland, Brockdish Hall in Norfolk and Bawdrip Rectory in Somerset. While the time and place is uncertain, the story, concerning a young bride who suffocates in an oaken chest, is always the same and is generally regarded as being founded on fact. However, its popularity can be laid at the door of the 19th century songwriter Thomas Haynes Bayley, who set the story to music and published it as The Mistletoe Bough in 1844. It was an instant hit and became one of the most popular Victorian and Edwardian Christmas music hall songs. The enduring nature of this particular story has led many to wonder how much truth there actually is to it or whether it instead taps into something more primal – fear of change, loss of innocence or awareness of the fragility of life?
The legend of the Mistletoe Bough is a ghost story which has been associated with many mansions and stately homes in England. The tale tells how a new bride, playing a game of hide-and-seek during her wedding breakfast, hides in a chest in an attic and is unable to escape. She is not discovered by her family and friends, and suffocates. The body is allegedly then found many years later in the locked chest and by that time is just a skeleton in a wedding dress. The origin of the tale, and why the mistletoe plant in particular is referenced, has always been unclear – although it has often been associated with both pagan ritual and fertility (hence the custom of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas). The tale first appeared in print in the form of a poem by Samuel Rogers entitled Ginevra, in his book Italy, published in 1823. In notes on this work, Rogers states “The story is, I believe, founded on fact; though the time and the place are uncertain. Many old houses lay claim to it”. The popularity of the tale was greatly increased when it appeared as a song in the 1840s entitled The Mistletoe Bough written by T H Bayley, with music by Sir Henry Bishop. The song, with its solemn chanting, proved very popular in English households, especially at Christmas.
Long before Mosse wrote The Mistletoe Bride, a short story, Ginevra or The Old Oak Chest: A Christmas Story by Susan E Wallace was published in 1887 and another more famous tale, written by no less than Henry James, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (click to read!), was published in 1868. The song is also played in Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean, after the scene involving the capture of George Somerset’s handkerchief from the tower. Film versions of the story include a 1904 production by the Clarendon Film Company, directed by Percy Stow; a 1923 version made by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, directed by Edward J Collins; and a 1926 production by Cosmopolitan Films, directed by C C Calvert. For a time the Percy Stow film version of the story was screened at the British Film Institute with a new specially commissioned score by Pete Wiggs from the band Saint Etienne. The story of the Mistletoe Bride is also recounted in the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film Rope, where it is described as being the favourite tale of the main character, Brandon Shaw. Whether true or not, there is clearly something about the legend of the Mistletoe Bough which has resounded across all the years since it was first told.