, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A border stronghold with a bloody history

Chillingham castle_cc_sm

In North Northumberland, within sight of the Cheviot Hills, lies the medieval stronghold of Chillingham Castle. Tucked away on the outskirts of the village of the same name, it is remote and forbidding in aspect. Wild cattle still live in these parts, descendants of the beasts that once roamed the ancient forests of Britain. This was once a lawless land, subject to violent cross border raids during the constant bloody warfare between England and Scotland. It seems peaceful now, but that peace may be deceptive.

View of the Cheviots from Chillingham Castle. Image by Lenora.

View of the Cheviots from Chillingham Castle.

A brief history of Chillingham Castle


Image believed to be Edward I. Source Wikimedia.

Originally a monastery, its strategic location meant that by 1298 King Edward I (1238 -1307) was using the fortress as a staging post for his wars against the great Scottish military commander William Wallace. Known as Edward Longshanks for his imposing height, his brutal Scottish campaigns quickly earned him the sobriquet ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – although ultimately he failed to subdue his northern neighbors.

Things remained turbulent on the borders of England and Scotland and in 1344 King Edward III issued a license to Sir Thomas Grey to crenellate and further fortify the already stalwart castle, turning it into a full quadrangular edifice. The walls, in places, were 10 feet thick.  Such imposing defenses were necessary – in 1537 the castle was besieged again, this time not by the Scots but by another powerful Northern family, the Percy’s, during the ill-fated Pilgrimage of Grace.

The Courtyard of Chillingham Castle.

The Courtyard of Chillingham Castle.

In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England (Edward Longshanks must have been spinning in his grave). His reign heralded a more peaceful co-existence between the two warring nations  and as the seventeenth century progressed warfare and border rieving began to wane. In 1617 King James even stayed at Chillingham on one of his trips between his two kingdoms. In a more peaceful age there was little need for the bleak fortifications of an earlier era, the moat was filled and famous architect Inigo Jones redesigned the North and South fronts. Long galleries, a banqueting hall and a library were added for less martial pursuits. By the eighteenth and nineteenth century the castle was a romantic relic – with gardens landscaped by Capability Brown and Sir Jeffrey Wyatville. Sir Walter Scott found inspiration in the castle (and its wild cattle) in his 1819 novel ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’.

The fall and rise of Chillingham Castle

The Grey Tomb, St Peters Parish Church. Image by Lenora.

The Grey Tomb, St Peters Parish Church.

The Grey and Bennet families had lived in the castle from the 15th century – the magnificent Grey Tomb in the nearly St Peter’s Parish Church testifies to this long-standing association.  However, by the twentieth century the castle, like so many other grand houses of Britain, was falling into decay.

During World War II the military was billeted at the castle and caused much structural damage.  Even going so far as to strip out the ancient wood panelling.  It would seem that final nail had been driven into the coffin and the Tankervilles ceased to resided in their ancient ancestral home. The castle seemed likely to go the way of many a great house after the War, if not to be demolished outright, then to linger on as a ruinous shell of a once glorious past.  Until, that is Sir Humphrey Wakefield came across the castle and in 1982 and decided to purchase it.  His wife could trace her ancestry back to the Grey family – nevertheless despite this family connection, apparently she had more sense than to live in the very dilapidated until a lot of work had been done to improve it!

Eccentric decor abounds in Sir Humphrey's Castle.

Eccentric decor abounds in Sir Humphrey’s Castle.

Since then the indomitable Sir Humphrey has set about restoring the castle (and stamping his own idiosyncratic style upon it – more a glorious homage to the Ghosts of Motley Hall than National Trust wannabe – and all the better for it!) and it is now open to the public, it is even possible to stay in apartments in the castle. These days one of Chillingham’s primary claims to fame, is that is it purported to be one of the most haunted castles in Britain and consequently prospective ghost hunters can take part in highly entertaining ghost tours and more in-depth all night vigils.

The Ghosts of Motley Hall. ITV 1976-1978.

The Ghosts of Motley Hall. ITV 1976-1978.

Famous and infamous ghosts of Chillingham Castle

13_detail from the Grey Tomb

Detail from the Grey Tomb.

Leonora, Countess of Tankerville, had always felt a connection with the spirit world. Even before she had ever visited Chillingham Castle she received a precognition that one day she would be its lady. One morning, whilst staying in France, she dreamed that she was walking up to the castle when a young man approached her saying ‘I have come to walk with you until my brother George is ready.’ Soon George (a recent acquaintance) arrived and the young man disappeared. Leonora went on to marry George, Earl of Tankerville. Later she was able to identify the young man in her dream from a photograph – he was her husband’s brother and he had died two years previously in Afghanistan.

12 soldier

Adapted from an image of WWI officer.

Leonora went on to have several strange experiences during her time living in the castle. From highly personal encounters, such as when she had a vision of an officer friend only to  discover that he had died many miles away, at the very moment he appeared to her; and the dramatically historic, such as when she witnessed a tense Tudor tableau taking place before her eyes. She recorded her experiences in a pamphlet published in 1925, which can be read on the Chillingham Castle Website.

Leonora believed that we all had the capability to tap into the spirit world, but that to do so an individual needed to cultivate understanding of those sense and discipline.  Over the years she is not the only person to have had a close encounter with the supernatural at Chillingham castle.

The Blue Boy/The Radiant Boy

The Blue Boy. Adapted from the Gainsborough painting.

The Blue Boy. Adapted from the Gainsborough painting.

The radiant boy is a phantom that was reputed to haunt the pink bedroom. His pitiful cries could be heard at the stroke of midnight, and he would appear as an orb or halo of blue light, often close to a passage leading to a tower. The glowing figure was then supposed to manifest itself as a little boy dressed in blue. This apparition has been linked to the bones of a child found walled up in the castle. It was during renovation work in the early 20th century this grisly discovery was made. Remnants of mouldering blue fabric were discovered along with the skeleton. After the bones were reburied with due ceremony, the phenomenon appeared to cease. However, recent visitors have claimed to have observed a blue orb in the pink room…

Lady Mary Berkeley

Image purports to be of Lady Mary Berkeley. Public domain(?)

Image purports to be of Lady Mary Berkeley. Public domain(?)

Another famous ghost is that of the tragic Lady Mary Berkeley (died 1719). She was the wife of Lord Grey of Wark and Chillingham (1655-1701). She was abandoned by her faithless husband who ran off with her sister, Henrietta, causing quite a scandal (an account of which is provided in the sources section below). The heart-broken Lady Mary was left with her baby, wandering the halls of the castle, longing for the return of her errant husband. He never returned – and she, apparently never left. Even today visitors to the castle have reported the rustle of silk accompanied by an unearthly chill, which has been interpreted as indication Lady Mary has passed by on her sad vigil. She is said to be buried just beyond the castle in the tiny medieval church of St Peter’s in the village of Chillingham.

The White Lady in the pantry

A thirsty ghost once importuned a footman guarding the family silver, in the white pantry. The unfortunate man was accosted by a wispy lady in white, begging for a drink of water. As he turned to obey her wishes, he suddenly recalled that the pantry was locked (to protect the silver) and that it should have been impossible for anyone to gain entry….on turning back to her, he found she had vanished. It has been suggested that the lady could have been the victim of poisoning…hence her search for water.

The White Lady from The Ghosts of Motley Hall. ITV 1976-1978.

The White Lady from The Ghosts of Motley Hall. ITV 1976-1978.

John Sage/John Dragfoot

The Iron Maiden. Image by Lenora.

The Iron Maiden.

One possibly modern addition to the ghostly pantheon of Chillingham is one John Sage, also known as John Dragfoot. A prominent figure in the ever popular ghost tours, he is purported to be a sadistic ex-soldier turned torturer from the days of King Edward I. The tale of John Sage is very detailed and very bloody – replete with devious and cruel tortures, kinky sex and eventual retribution. However the jury remains out as to whether he is a recent invention for the benefit of the tourists or whether he is based on any real person.  It would be interesting to find out if there is any mention of this person in the historical record or local lore.

The castle does indeed have a wonderfully well stocked dungeon – and the addition of a demoniacal evil torturer certainly creates a vivid picture of the horrors such devices could inflict on human flesh. However, I seem to recall reading somewhere (although cannot locate the source) that the devices in the dungeon are not originally from the castle and the chambers were not actually used as dungeons (I may be wrong, but perhaps someone has further information on this…?)

Many other phenomena have been reported at the castle: disembodied voices in the chapel, phantom monks on the Devil’s Walk and malevolent presences lurking in dark chambers…whatever your view of the supernatural, Chillingham Castle certainly has an extensive history of strange phenomena contained within its blood soaked ramparts.

The Dungeon at Chillingham Castle

The Dungeon at Chillingham Castle

Chillingham Castle Ghost Tour

On Halloween, Bonnie and I took a late night trip to Chillingham Castle for the famous ghost tour. We were lucky enough to get Graham Burney as our Paranormal Investigator, (Graham is the founder and Lead Investigator of the Chillingham Paranormal Team and Head Ghost Guide), he and his associate gave a fabulously creepy and eventful Halloween tour. A balance of gory history and paranormal investigation – it was not for the faint hearted! (No, really, I mean it: people were coming over all peculiar and having to leave because they were so spooked by all the things that were going on!)

It is said that the dismembered bodies of witches once festooned this tree.

It is said that the dismembered bodies of witches once festooned this tree.

Our tour began outside the castle, we processed along the Devils Walk and Graham regaled us with dark tales of monks and witches hanged and dismembered in trees. Walking amidst the dark boughs of trees it was easy to believe that spirits and orbs lurked in the arboreal depths of night.

It is said that this is a portrait of a witch who both curses and protects Chillingham Castle.

It is said that this is a portrait of a witch who both curses and protects Chillingham Castle.

The tour took in the dungeons, with a vivid account of how many of the torture devices were employed, and the character of John Sage was introduced in all his bloody in-glory.  Throughout the tour, which included the Edward I chamber, the banqueting hall and Chapel, Graham led the group through various paranormal experiments and seances with varying results. From dark shadows, whispering voices, eerie whistling, growling ghosts to violent crashing noises.  Even a drunken ghost that took a rather shine to Bonnie and after growling in her ear used his spectral powers to make her derriere go icy cold…from the sublime to the ridiculous (???) – we had them all.

By the end of the tour, there had been scares aplenty and a lot of laughter.  Whether you believe that a ghost tour on Halloween night, in a wonderfully creepy old castle, is pure entertainment – or may in fact hold the key to more esoteric things, is of course entirely up to you.  However, skeptic or believer, the Chillingham Castle ghost tour is well worth experiencing and I will definitely be going back for the all night vigil at some point in the new year! (Details of how to book on the Chillingham Castle ghost tours and vigils can be found via the links below).

The truth about orbs…..?

During the whole event I took multiple photos – then some ‘control’ photo’s back where we were staying (and later in my garden at home). The photo’s showed what some may consider to be orbs.  However, as Graham and his colleague on the tour explained, orbs can usually be viewed with the naked eye as well and I can confirm that I didn’t see any orbs without the aid of the camera. (Well, to be fair I was staring at the viewfinder a lot of the time!)

There is much skepticism about the nature and cause of orb images – are they dust, insects, reflections of moisture in the air?  It has also been noted that they are more likely to appear on digital than film photographs, and recently debunked photographs have highlighted some of the idiosyncracies of modern I-phone photographic technology (see the link to The Independent article, in the sources below).

  • For all of the photo’s below I used the flash (if I had thought better of it, I would have tried some without).
  • It was quite a mild night for October, with some moisture in the air.
  • There were definitely some insects flying about.
  • It is likely that inside the castle there could have been dust.
  • I did not observe any orbs without the use of the camera.

On the other hand, I take a lot of photo’s, and I have never had any orb-like images quite like this appear before….

I leave you to draw your own conclusions…

Chillingham Castle by moonlight_sm

Chillingham Castle by full moon. The ‘orbs’ here are caused by the moon’s reflection.


Devils Walk_Orbs_1

Along the Devils Walk, something in the mid/top left?

Devils Walk_Orbs_2

Along the Devils Walk, again, a noticeable ‘orb’ this time on the right.

Devils Walk_Orbs_3

Several less distinct ‘orbs’ on the right.

In the Woods_Orbs_4

In the woods, just past the hanging tree. Possibly something by the tree trunk on the right, and along the path?


In the chapel, not easy to see but several indistinct ‘orbs’ in the top left hand corner of the roof.

Control photo_1

‘Control’ photo – taken on the same night at the YHA, 6 miles away. Possibly an indistinct ‘orb’/insect?

Control photo_2

‘Control’ photo taken during heavy fog, showing the effect of a flash on moisture in the air.


All Image by Lenora, unless otherwise attributed.



http://www.chillingham-castle.com/GhostsPg.asp?S=3&V=1&P=35 [Lady Tankerville’s ghostly experiences at the castle]

https://www.facebook.com/graham.burney.5?fref=ts [Graham Burney – lead paranormal investigator at Chillingham Castle]

http://epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/LadyBerkeley.html [the debauching of Henrietta Berkeley]


http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/ghost-of-the-grey-lady-at-hampton-court-how-image-aliasing-allows-iphone-cameras-to-photograph-10069536.html [How image aliasing debunked the Grey Lady of Hampton Court]