Copped Hall: An architectural phoenix


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aerial view of Copped Hall and grounds. Via Copped Hall Trust.

Aerial view of Copped Hall and grounds. Via Copped Hall Trust.

In 1165 Henry II granted two acres of land to the Fitzaucher family in an area known as Waltham. The Fitzaucher family who served the king as royal huntsmen built the first house on the property.

The house which encompassed a timber framed hall with service rooms became known as ‘La Coppedehalle’ or Copped Hall. The actual name of Copped Hall was first recorded in 1258. There are different views on the name’s meaning; some say it was from the two pinnacles/turrets on the medieval building coped with lead; others that it was because the hall was built on a hill or peak as ‘cop’ or ‘copp’ was the old English word for the top of a summit; and another view is that the ‘cop’ was referring to the height of the house (about 300 feet) above sea level[1].

Example of a 13th Century timber framed hall. Landmark Trust.

Example of a 13th Century timber framed hall. Landmark Trust.

By 1303 the estate had expanded to include 60 acres of parkland, 100 acres of arable farmland and 20 acres of meadow lands. By 1337 the house had passed into the ownership of Sir John Shardlow who in 1350 gave the hall and its land to the Abbots of Waltham in exchange for other properties.

So began a fascinating history of a hall and the people who owned it. From a refuge of abbots to a Tudor prison to one of most important houses in Essex to a burnt out shell to a project of love, Copped Hall has seen many changes and hopefully its story will continue for many years to come.

“A Mansion of Pleasure and Privacy”[2]

Waltham Abbey was at the time that Copped Hall came into its possession one of the most important Augustinian Houses in England. The first church was a wooden structure of which nothing remains. It was believed to have been built on the site in 610AD during the reign of Saebert, King of the East Saxons.

By JohnArmagh - Own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Waltham Abbey. By JohnArmagh – Own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Two ‘events’ had a profound impact on the Abbey and shaped its future. The first was in around 1025 when Tovi (Tofig) the Proud, a loyal follower of Cnut, had a prophetic dream of a large black flint crucifix buried on top of a hill on his Somerset land[3]. The crucifix was found and brought to Waltham which became known from then on as ‘The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross’. The Abbey became a famous centre of healing and both it and the village grew wealthy from the large number of visiting pilgrims. The second was in 1066. Harold II had stopped to pray at the Abbey which he had rebuilt, refounded and patronised before continuing onwards to Hastings. It is claimed that as he lay dying on the battlefield his last request was for his body to be buried at Waltham Abbey[4]. His body has yet to be found.

As the Abbey prospered as a centre of learning, the Forest continued to be a popular royal hunting location. Copped Hall became a retreat or resting place of retirement for Waltham’s abbots which allowed them the privacy they needed to entertain their guests in a suitably luxurious environment. It is claimed that Henry III, Richard II and Henry VIII were among those who took up the abbots’ offers of hospitality.

The Henry VIII Connection

Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that Henry VIII visited Copped Hall on a number of occasions whilst it was in the possession of the Waltham abbots in order to discuss religious matters.

Legend has it that on the 19 May 1536, the day of the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry was at Copped Hall. The story recounts how it was whilst he was taking a walk among the yew trees with his courtiers that he heard the sound of the signalling cannons which heralded her death[5].

Unfortunately even the esteem which Henry had for Waltham and despite the best efforts of its last abbot, Robert Fuller who surrendered the abbey to the King in 1537 could not save it. On the 23 March 1540, the Abbey of Waltham became the last abbey in the country to be dissolved.

Although in theory, Copped Hall, now a three storey brick built building, became a royal property, Henry VIII never lived there instead he leased the manor to Sir Anthony Denny in 1541.

A Royal Prison

Queen Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary.

Queen Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary.

Mary Tudor’s strict adherence to the Catholic religion caused a deep and irreparable rift between her and her brother, Edward VI. During his short reign, January 1547 to July 1553, Mary was banished from Court and a close watch was kept on her actions and movements.

For at least two of these six years Mary was kept a virtual prisoner at Copped Hall which she referred to as her “poor howse[6]. Despite the obvious danger and choosing to ignore a warning not to have mass performed either at the Hall or at her other Essex property, New Hall in Boreham, Mary made Copped Hall a centre of Catholicism.

It is also believed that the future Elizabeth I was also briefly imprisoned at the Hall. Eventually the Hall and the other Essex Mansions did eventually pass to Elizabeth.

Sir Thomas Heneage and a Shakespearean First

Thomas Heneage. Image from Coppend Hall Trust.

Thomas Heneage. Image from Coppend Hall Trust.

In August 1564 Elizabeth granted the estate of Copped Hall to one of her favourite and most trusted courtiers, Sir Thomas Heneage.

Heneage begun his political career as a MP for Stamford in 1553. He continued his rise to eminence as a MP for a number of other boroughs including Arundel and Essex. He was eventually awarded the position of Gentleman of the Privy Chamber at the Elizabethan Court and knighted in 1577. It was rumoured that Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester was deeply jealous of Elizabeth and Heange’s flirtatious friendship. Elizabeth was never the easiest monarch to serve and there is evidence that Heneage fell in and out of royal favour but she did honour him with a state visit at Copped Hall in 1568.

When Heneage took ownership of Copped Hall, the building was in a terrible condition and Heneage decided to completely rebuild it, albeit on the same site. He employed the architect John Thorpe to design the new Hall. Thorpe’s design was unusual for the time in that he created a U-shaped building which only partly enclosed the courtyard. The main building was two storeys high with a single storey corridor connecting the main block to the wings. To the south of the main building was a formal garden area. The most impressive feature of Heneage’s Hall was a 174 feet long, 24 feet wide and 23 feet high[7] gallery which occupied the entire top floor of the East Wing (the gallery was destroyed in a hurricane in 1639).

Copped Hall in the time of Thomas Heneage. Image from the Copped Hall Trust.

Copped Hall in the time of Thomas Heneage. Image from the Copped Hall Trust.

Although I have read differing accounts on its location i.e. either the formal garden or gallery, what they do agree on is that the first performance of ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’ took place at Copped Hall on the occasion of the wedding of Heneage to his second wife, Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton on the 2nd May 1594[8]. The wedding celebration must have been a magnificent event with many influential and wealthy guests attending. Shakespeare more than likely was in attendance and possibly also Francis Walsingham of whom he was a close friend.

Oberon and Titania by William Blake. Image via Wikimedia.

Oberon and Titania by William Blake. Image via Wikimedia.

Heneage died on the 17 October 1595 and he was buried in the Old St Paul’s Cathedral. His grave along with many other was destroyed during the Fire of London. The estate passed to his only daughter Elizabeth by his first wife, Anne Poyntz. Elizabeth divided the estate and sold Copped Hall. In 1623 the Hall became the property of Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex.

Lord Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex: A ruthless financier

Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex. Image via Wikimedia.

Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex. Image via Wikimedia.

Cranfield was the son of a London merchant. He began his career as a merchant’s apprentice to the importer/exporter Richard Sheppard whose daughter, Elizabeth he married in 1599. The success of his own business enabled him to join the Merchant Adventurers in 1602 and eventually he came to the notice of some powerful men including Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton who became Cranfield’s first patron. Cranfield’s entered royal service in 1605, he rose quickly and in 1621 was made Lord Treasurer[9].

As Treasurer Cranfield had two main aims, to amass as much money for himself as possible and to reform royal finances i.e. to raise revenues and somehow to curb James I flamboyant spending. Cranfield was noted as being ruthless in financial matters[10] and his punitive measures led to him making a number of powerful enemies including another of his patrons, the Duke of Buckingham. Using Cranfield’s opposition to a proposed war with Spain as an excuse, his enemies accused him of “bribery, extortion, oppression and other grievous misdemeanours”[11]. In 1624, Parliament found Cranfield guilty and he was stripped of his office, fined £50,000 and sent to the Tower. Still in James I good books, Cranfield was finally exonerated and after a year released from the Tower.

Despite being pardoned he never returned to politics and instead retired to his country estate and political obscurity, living at Copped Hall until his death on the 6th August 1645. The Hall passed to his sons and eventually to his daughter, Frances’ son, Charles Sackwell, 6th Earl of Dorset in 1674.

Charles Sackwell: A rapier wit and forgivable rogue

Charles, 6 Earl of Dorset by Kneller. Image via Wikimedia.

Charles, 6 Earl of Dorset by Kneller. Image via Wikimedia.

Sackwell was a renown Royal courtier and wit and a close friend of Lord Rochester and Sir Charles Sedley. Sackwell’s antics often got him into trouble for instance, Charles and his brother, Edward along with thirteen others were arrested for the robbery and murder of a tanner by the name of Hoppy[12]. Charles and his friends were acquitted on the grounds of mistaken identity i.e. they had thought Hoppy was a highwayman. In general he was popular and well-liked despite his behaviour, Rochester remarked to Charles II that “he did not know how it was my Lord Dorset might do anything, yet was never to blame[13]. Sackwell was also credited by Pepys of having been responsible for taking Nell Gwyn away from the theatre and the two having “kept merry house at Epson[14] before she became the mistress of Charles II. Although a favourite of Charles II, Sackwell was never popular with James II whose mistress Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester he lampooned. On James II ascension Sackwell retired from court spending more time at his country properties including Copped Hall.

Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely. Image via Wikimedia.

Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely. Image via Wikimedia.

Copped Hall continued during Sackwell’s ownership to play host to royal guests including Charles II and James II. The Hall also acted as a shelter for royalty. For instance in 1688 Anne’s support for the proposed overthrow of her father, James II and the plan to replace him with her sister Mary and Mary’s husband William of Orange led her in fear to flee Whitehall. Copped Hall was one of the stops she made on her way to Oxford “On the following morning she set out to Epping Forest. In that wild track Dorset possessed a venerable mansion, which has long since been destroy’d. In his hospitable dwelling, the favourite resort of wits and poets, the fugitives made a short stay[15]. On another occasion, after a failed Jacobite kidnap plot in 1696 was thwarted, William of Orange came to the Hall for a rest and refuge.

A New Era: The Conyers Family


Edward Conyers. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

By the time Copped Hall passed into the ownership of Edward Conyers in 1739 it was in a terrible condition due to storm damage and the neglect of the previous occupier, Thomas Webster. Conyers, a wealthy MP and landowner, already owned the Manor of Epping and by buying Copped Hall he reunited the estate which had been previous split up by Heneage’s daughter. Unfortunately Edward Conyers did not live long enough to enjoy his purchase as he died only three years later.

His son, John decided to abandon the old Hall and build a completely new house in a slightly different position. In the mid-1740s, he hired the architect John Sanderson to make the necessary plans and in 1758 the new Georgian mansion was completed. There is a record that shortly after John Conyers’ death, the Hall was burgled and a quantity of plate was stolen. The stolen goods were traced to Brick Lane in Shoreditch and the thief, Lambert Reading was caught and sentenced to death [16].

John Conyers II inherited the house from his father and added his own mark by refurbishing the rooms with the help of the architect James Wyatt. It is not completely certain if it was under John Conyers II or his father (more likely the latter) but at some point the great Lancelot Brown was hired to redesign the grounds and gardens. The new garden plan included an impressive four metre walled garden in which fruit, vegetables and flowers were grown.

Under the Conyers the hall earned the title of the premier house of Essex and was “celebrated as one of the principal ornaments of the country[17]. The Conyers also turned their attention to the Hall’s estate which had long been neglected by building small tenant cottages, each of which had a small portion of garden allocated to them and also by providing the tenants with a supply of firewood. According to reports this had a civilizing effect on the barbarians and cleared the surrounding forest of an infestation of deer and wood stealers[18].

A Victorian Palladian Mansion

Unfortunately the Hall’s golden age did not last long. Under John Conyers II son, Henry John Conyers the house again fell into disrepair. Henry was obsessed with hunting spending over £100,000 on his hobby[19] but had no interest in the house and gardens. On his death, the estate passed to his eldest daughter, Julia who continued to live at the Hall with her husband until his death. She eventually sold the Hall to George Wythes, a wealthy railway magnate in 1869.

Foxhunting. Image via George Glazer Gallery.

Foxhunting. Image via George Glazer Gallery.

Wythes younger grandson, Ernest James Wythes who had raised his social position by marrying into the aristocracy inherited the house in 1887. He felt he needed a house which was grander and more suitable to his new status. So he commissioned the architect Charles Eamer Kempe to extend and embellish the house, build a huge conservatory and create a new Italianate architectural garden full of statues, temples, gates and ornate fountains. The estate was so wealthy that in 1900 Wythes employed a huge staff which included 27 house servants and 31 gardeners despite the house only being occupied part of the year[20].

Copped Hall in its Victorian Heyday. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

Copped Hall in its Victorian Heyday. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

An unfortunate accident

During World War I many of the Hall’s male servants went off to war and sadly did not return. In order to keep the estate going, Land Girls were recruited to farm the land and to help produce the much needed food for the war effort. The Hall itself was handed over to the Army and was used as a barracks for wounded soldiers.

Accounts on how the fire started differ. Some say it was a staff member who accidently dropped a lighted cigarette whilst on the roof of the Hall watching Zeppelins being destroyed over Grays in Essex and others that it was started by a careless soldier. The most probable explanation is that the fire was a result of an electrical fault[21]. Whatever the cause, the fire started on a Sunday morning in 1917 in the south west corner of the Hall. Gardeners and house staff tried to put out the fire by passing buckets of water through the open windows and using hoses but the situation was extremely tricky due to the windy conditions which helped the fire spread. Rare books were thrown out of the windows into buckets, paintings were grabbed and Ernest concentrated on saving his valuables from the wall safe[22]. Even with the assistance of the Loughton Fire Brigade the fire continued to burn until late on the Monday evening.

Detail of stately home on fire c1940s. Image source unknown.

Detail of stately home on fire c1940s. Image source unknown.

By the time the fire was extinguished the house was no longer safe to be lived in. The Wythes moved to Wood House, a small lodging on the estate where they continued to entertain influential and powerful figures such as Winston Churchill. Although the Wythes maintained the gardens the house was left to decay. The move which was supposed to be temporary eventually became the Wythes permanent home and they lived there until Ernest Wythes’ widow Aline died in 1952. The estate was then sold and what was left of the building stripped of its timberwork; the staircases were removed; and railings, gates, statues, steps sold and dispersed to other stately homes both in England and abroad. Even some of the ancient trees were uprooted and the conservatory dynamited[23]. With the M25’s construction which cut off part of the estate, the fate of Copped Hall seemed sealed.

Copped Hall Reborn

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s the house remained largely forgotten, an architectural skeleton in the Essex countryside. Some of the only visitors were groups of local teenagers (my mother being one of them) who would visit the house at night looking for ghosts.

Copped Hall today. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

Copped Hall today. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

It was Alan Cox, an architect who had grown up in the area, who became the house’s saviour. In an interview with the Telegraph he said he recollects that Copped Hall was hauntingly wonderful, a “poignant statement. It is the height of a particular cultural period, yet it transcends the era in which it was built[24]. In the 80s, Cox began a nine year campaign to save the house and gardens, a difficult task since the land was a developer’s dream being close to the M25, London and Stanstead Airport. In 1986 Cox set up a group including influential people which successfully lobbied organisations such as Save Britain’s Heritage and the Georgian Group to prevent a proposed development, the first of three. In 1992 the Conservators of Epping Forest bought the parkland and in 1995 the Copped Hall Trust purchased the mansion, stables, outbuildings and gardens. For full details on the Trust, the Friends work and the restoration project you can visit the Copped Hall Trust website

The aim of the Trust is to restore the house and gardens to their former Georgian grandeur and create an educational and community centre for the local area. On my first visit to Copped Hall, I was lucky to see the roof which had just recently been installed as well as the first few steps of the marbled staircase. I also explored the fantastic cellars and strolled through the gardens which had once been the preserve of Royalty and the wealthy, had an encounter with bees in the incredible walled garden and saw the site of the first Hall. The house and gardens are stunning and have a wonderful warm and positive feeling about them. I really hope that I will see the complete restoration of the mansion but a house which originally took only six years to build will take many more years to rebuild. Luckily the love, dedication, determination and sheer hard work of the volunteers and Friends will ensure that Copped Hall will one day rise fully formed from the ashes and this house with its incredible history will once more claim its rightful status as one of the premier houses in Essex.

Copped Hall. Image via Diamond Geezer blog.

Copped Hall. Image via Diamond Geezer blog.


  1. The history of Waltham Abbey
  2. Waltham Abbey Church,
  3. Waltham Abbey Church,
  4. Copped Hall Trust,
  5. Copped Hall,
  6. Copped Hall,
  7. Copped Hall,
  8. Copped Hall, Epping,
  9. Folklore of Essex, Sylvia Kent, January 2009
  10. Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest
  11. Jennifer Potter, Past Historic, Future Perfect,
  12. St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society,
  13. Excursions in the County of Essex, Thomas .Kitson Cromwell, 1819
  14. Sir William Petre, Secretary of State
  15. The Conyers Family of Walthamstow and Copped Hall
  16. Old Bailey Online,
  17. Jacobite assassination plot 1696,
  18. Thomas Heneage,
  19. Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset,_6th_Earl_of_Dorset
  20. Lionel Cranfield,


[1]  Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest

[2] Waltham Abbey Church,

[3] Waltham Abbey Church,

[4] Waltham Abbey Church,

[5] A view of Epping Forest, Nicholas Hagger
[6] ibid
[7] Waltham Abbey Church,
[8] Excursions in the County of Essex, Thomas .Kitson Cromwell, 1819
[9] Lionel Cranfield,
[10] ibid
[11] ibid
[12] Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset,_6th_Earl_of_Dorset
[13] ibid
[14] ibid
[15] Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest
[16] The Conyers Family of Walthamstow and Copped Hall
[17] Excursions in the County of Essex, Thomas .Kitson Cromwell, 1819
[18] ibid
[19] The Conyers Family of Walthamstow and Copped Hall
[20] Copped Hall,
[21] Copped Hall,
[22] Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest
[24] Jennifer Potter, Past Historic, Future Perfect,


Thomas Skelton: the murderous jester of Muncaster Castle


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Evil Clowns

Coulrophobia – the fear of clowns.  From fictional phantoms such as Stephen King’s Pennywise to serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s alter-ego Pogo the Clown, and even the current trend for ‘killer clowns’ sweeping the US and UK,  clowns have developed a somewhat sinister reputation of late.  Their painted faces and over-sized clothes intended to convey innocent humour can, to some people, appear both uncanny and disturbing.   But evil killer clowns are not an entirely modern phenomenon – if the stories about Thomas Skelton, the last jester of Muncaster Castle – are to be believed.  Thomas Skelton is thought by some to be the original Tom Fool from Shakespeare’s King Lear, but his  ‘Last Will and Testament’  may hint at a much darker side to this comedian.

My personal favourite, Twisty the Clown from American Horror Story: Freak Show.

My personal favourite: Twisty the Clown, from American Horror Story: Freak Show.

Who was Thomas Skelton?

Thomas Skelton is famous for being the last jester of Muncaster Castle, a stately pile near the village of Ravenglass, Cumbria, in the north-west of England.  We know this because he is the named subject of a famous full length portrait that hangs in the castle.  The picture depicts a ruddy-faced middle-aged man, dressed in jester’s motley, holding a staff of office in one hand, and a document written in doggerel, attested to be his will, hangs beside him.

Thomas Skelton last jester of Muncaster Castle. Image via BBC website.

Thomas Skelton last jester of Muncaster Castle. Image via BBC website.

That a portrait was painted of a family retainer must indicate that he was a beloved family servant.  His attire is masterfully comic – his patchwork robe, staff of office and scroll and mock privy seal all act to parody the pompous badges of office of high officialdom, and rather than listing his titles and achievements the scroll offers up what purports to be Tom Fools last will and testament. He even mocks the noble gallant, with the name of his lady pinned into his hatband, aping the fashions of the day, whilst wearing his jesters motley.

Interestingly, the portrait at Muncaster Castle isn’t the only portrait of Tom Skelton. EW Ives in his article for the Shakespeare Survey [1] focuses his research on a second portrait, purchased by the Shakespeare Society in 1957 from the Haigh Hall Collection of the Earls of Crawford and Balcarres. It is by examining this portrait and the text of the will, that EW Ives has attempted to pin-point exactly when and where Tom Fool lived.

Dating Tom Fool

Thomas Skelton's Will

Thomas Skelton’s Will

Ives uses references to well-known local individuals named in the will, cross checked with burial records from Wigan, to build a picture of the movements and the dates for Tom Skelton.  He proposes that although Tom Skelton was originally the jester at Muncaster Castle, upon the death of Lord Pennington, Tom accompanied the young heir when he was sent to live with his relatives, the Bradshaugh’s, at Haigh Hall in Wigan.  At Haigh Hall, sometime between 1659 – 1665, a portrait of Tom was painted. Sir Roger Bradshaw’s wife was a Pennington, and may have known Tom Fool as a child. Ives suggests that when the heir reached his majority and wished to return to Muncaster, he wanted to take the portrait of the much-loved jester with him.  As Tom Fool had been a well-loved family servant, at both Muncaster castle and Haigh Hall, a copy of the portrait was commissioned to remain at Haigh Hall (possibly completed in the 1680’s) while the original returned with the heir to Muncaster. Ives states that there is no evidence that Skelton returned to Muncaster after 1659, while the young heir was away, so it would seem likely Tom died at Haigh Hall [2].

The current incumbent of Muncaster Castle, Peter Frost-Pennington, confirms that evidence for Thomas Skelton’s life in the historical record is hard to find.  He was, after all, just a servant, even if he was one esteemed enough to have his likeness captured in oils.  Frost-Pennington keeps his margins wide quoting ‘1600 give or take 50 years’ [3],  a possible references to him comes from a letter dating to the reign of Henry VIII, while another could put him as far back as the late fifteenth century.  However if the research by EW Ives is correct, then unfortunately Tom Skelton could not be the model for Shakespeare’s Tom Fool in King Lear which dates from about 1605/6.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“King Lear and the Fool in the Storm” by William Dyce (1806–1864) (c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A Killer Sense of Humour

There were two mains types of fool or jester,  the natural fool – one with a physical or intellectual disability; and the artificial fool – an entertainer or comedian. Fools and jesters were often part of a royal court or noble family and by virtue of their position could often speak harsh truths to their ‘betters’ in the guise of drollery.  Shakespeare often uses the fool as the voice of common sense and wisdom, in Twelfth Night the jester is remarked to be ‘wise enough to play the fool’ [4] It is not clear from the scant historical record, or the portrait, which kind of fool Tom Skelton was, but whether natural or artificial, some of his favourite antics have come down to us.

Mr Claypole from Children's TV Series Rent-a-ghost.

Mr Claypole from Children’s TV Series Rent-a-ghost.

Like many fools and jesters, Tom was a valued and trusted servant of the Pennington family, entertaining them with a mixture of practical jokes and wit.  He is famed for such clownish antics as cutting off a branch while he sat upon it; greasing up banisters on the staircase to annoy guests, then when asked who was responsible, quipped that he thought ‘everyone had a hand in it’.  

However things take a more sinister turn in the anecdotes relating to Tom Skelton reported in ‘The Remains of John Briggs a compilation of tales and essays’ published in the Westmorland Gazette and Lonsdale Magazine in 1825.

Briggs relates what purports to be oral tradition surrounding a murder committed by Thomas Skelton at the behest of one Sir Ferdinand Hoddleston, of Millum Castle. It all began when Helwise, the lovely daughter of Sir Alan Pennington of Muncaster Castle, had disguised herself as a shepherdess and attended the May Day festivities in order to meet her secret lover, Richard the Carpenter.  Wild Will of Whitbeck, a local ruffian, had fancied his chances but was rejected by Helwise.  To to get his revenge on the lovers he spilled the beans to Sir Ferdinand (yet another wannabe suitor for Helwise).

May Day by William Collins, Wikimedia.

May Day by William Collins, Wikimedia.

Angered at losing out to a humble carpenter, Sir Ferdinand went to Muncaster Castle bent on informing Sir Alan Pennington of his daughter’s low connection.  However as chance would have it, first he met with Tom Fool, aka Thomas Skelton, and had the following conversation in which Tom recounted a nasty trick he played on ‘Lord Lucy’s Footman’.  This seems to have given Sir Ferdinand an idea of Tom’s homicidal potential…

“‘he asked me’ said Tom, ‘if the river was passable; and I told him it was for nine of our family had just gone over. – They were geese’ whispered Tom; ‘but I did not tell him that.-the fool set into the river, and would have drowned, I believe, if I had not helped him out'”. 

Briggs goes on to recount that Tom also had a personal grudge against Dick the Carpenter –

“‘[..]I put those three shillings which you gave me into a hole, and I found them weezend everytime I went to look at them; and now they are only three silver pennies.  I have just found it out that Dick has weezend them.’
‘Kill him Tom, with his own axe, when he is asleep sometime – and I’ll see that thou takest no harm for it.’ Replied Sir Ferdinand.
‘He deserves it, and I’ll do it,’ said Tom.
And the next day while the unsuspecting carpenter was taking an after dinner nap, and dreaming probably of the incomparable beauties of his adorable Helwise, Tom entered the shed, and with one blow of the axe severed the carpenters head from his body. ‘There,’ said Tom to the servants,’I have hid Dick’s head under a heap of shavings; and he will not find that so easily, when he awakes, as he did my shillings.'”

Detail of Holofernes by Carravagio.

Detail of the beheading of Holofernes, by Caravaggio.

The conclusion of this unhappy tale was that heartbroken Helwise entered a nunnery, while the vengeful Sir Ferdinand met a bloody death fighting the Earl of Richmond (Henry Tudor) at Bosworth Field [5].  Which frankly, seems to place this tale much to early to be attributed to the seventeenth century Tom Skelton.

Other tales claim that Tom Fool would sit under a chestnut tree outside Muncaster Castle, watching travelers go past.  Should any traveler ask him for directions, they were at risk of being misdirected to dangerous quicksands near the River Esk [6]. May people consider that his will makes oblique reference to this murderous pass-time.

‘But let me not be carry’d o’er the brigg,
Lest fallin I in Duggas River ligg;’ [9]

Some tales even have Tom recovering the bodies, decapitating them and burying them under tree trunks.

Death from the Medieval Scapini Tarot. Image from SheWalksSoftly website.

Death from the Medieval Scapini Tarot. Image from SheWalksSoftly website.

All of this would seem to paint a picture of an evil and conscienceless individual.  But is there more to this than meets the eye?  The north-west of England was for hundreds of years,a remote and dangerous place.  Blood feuds, rough justice and robbery with violence were part and parcel of everyday life.  Could these local folk tales and stories have elided themselves onto half remembered anecdotes of the jolly japes and crude practical jokes of Thomas Skelton?  In the Middle Ages there was a tradition in the Tarot of showing death in the garb of the Fool, death having the last laugh (of course) and some traditions also associate the Fool with the trickster and with vice [7&8].  Could these earlier darker traditions, coupled with bloody local legends have become associated with the portrait of Tom Skelton.  Once the immediate family who knew him died out, the portrait, with its slightly menacing air could easily have attracted macabre tales in a similar way that some Screaming Skull legends may have developed.

The punchline…

Tom Skelton was the last jester of Muncaster Castle, and probably of Haigh Hall as well.  Jesters fell out of fashion with the restoration of Charles II to the throne (and I can’t imagine the puritans would have had much use for Jesters either!)  During his lifetime Skelton appears to have been a much valued family retainer, so much so that not one but two portraits were commissioned of him.  Even now, his legend as an entertainer has been revived, and Muncaster Castle hosts an annual Jester Competition in honour of Tom Skelton.

But was Tom Skelton the original Tom Fool from Shakespeare’s King Lear? Well probably not, the dating evidence seems to be against it. And more pressingly, was Skelton an evil killer clown?  His troubled spirit is said to haunt Muncaster Castle to this day – his heavy tread and the sound of a body (the unfortunate carpenter?) being dragged up the stairs have been reported by several witnesses…is he doomed to walk the earth for eternity re-living his heinous crimes? On that, I will leave you to make up your own mind.

If you want to view the portrait of Thomas Skelton you can visit Muncaster Castle, they even offer paranormal ghost tours so you might even get to meet him….


Sources and notes

BBC Cumbria, ‘Muncaster Castle jester competition reveals dark past’ [3]

Bob, ‘The History of the Fool’

Briggs, John, The remains of John Briggs, Kirkby Lonsdale, Foster, 1825 available via   [5]

Ives, E.W. ‘Tom Skelton – A Seventeenth-Century Jester’ , Shakespeare Survey 13, 1960 (partial article available via Google books)  [1] [2]

Jadewik, ‘A Little Bit of Tom Foolery’, the Witching Hour, 2011 [1] [2]

Jones, Paul Anthony, ‘Tom Skelton: The Serial Killer Court Jester’, 2015, [6]

Lipscombe, Suzannah, ‘All the Kings’s Fools’, History Today, 2011

Mason, Emma, ‘Playing the fool: Tudor jesters’, History Extra, 2015

Past Presented, ‘Tom Skelton’s Foolish Will’ (includes full text of the will) [1] [2] [9] [8] [4][8]


Part Two: The Mysterious Brown Lady of Raynham Hall – sightings


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In part two of the Mysterious Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, Miss Jessel examines sightings of her wandering spirit, and considers whether the famous Country Life photograph, believed by many to provide proof of the existence of ghosts, can be taken at face value.  To read part one, click here The Mysterious Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, part one: who was she? 

A Debut Performance


The first attested appearance of the Brown Lady at Raynham Hall was during a Christmas gathering in 1835 held by Lord Charles Townshend. Lucia C. Stone and Colonel Loftus were amongst those invited. One evening after a game of chess, the men decided to retire to bed. On the way to their bedrooms they noticed the outline of a woman wearing an old fashioned brown dress standing in the doorway of one of the rooms. Suddenly she disappeared into thin air. The following evening Loftus saw the same figure again but this time he managed to study her appearance more closely. According to Loftus she appeared to be a genteel woman with an aristocratic bearing but to his horror her eyes seemed to have been gouged out “dark in the glowing face[1].

The Captain and the Ghost

Interest in the Brown Lady began to grow as Stone and Loftus’ story circulated and more and more people reported having seen her. In 1836, the author and Royal Navy captain, Frederick Marryat visited Raynham as part of a hunting party. A sceptic, Marryat was determined to prove that the haunting had been a trick by local smugglers to keep strangers away. He asked to be put in the room which contained the painting of the woman who Loftus was convinced he had seen.

Frederick Marryat by John Simpson. Source Wikimedia.

Frederick Marryat by John Simpson. Source Wikimedia.

The first two nights passed without incident and he was given no opportunity to use the gun which he kept hidden under his pillow. On the evening of the third night just as he was changing for bed he heard a knock on the door. Two of the company had come to ask Marryat’s opinion on a new gun recently arrived from London. After examining the gun, the men decided to accompany Marryat back to his room and joked that he should take the gun with him to protect himself from the Lady[2].

0a591598aa23534476b7fd8a67222447_godfried-schalckenThe three men were making their way along the dark and gloomy corridor when suddenly they saw the figure of a melancholy woman carrying a light approaching them. Thinking that it was one of the ladies in their party, the half-dressed Marryat for the sake of modesty hid himself in the space between the double doors of one of the bedrooms. The two other men joined him. As she approached, Marryat recognised her as the woman from the portrait in his bedroom. Never a man to cower in fear, he kept his finger firmly on the trigger intending to confront her and demand an explanation for her presence. Before he could do so, the apparition stopped in front of where Marryat and the others were concealing themselves. She turned to face him and “grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner…[3]. Marryat shot and the woman vanished, the bullet lodging in the door across the way. A shaken Marryat never tried to challenge the Brown Lady again.

Captured on Camera

Over the following 100 years numerous witnesses claimed to having seen or felt the presence of the Brown Lady at the Hall including in 1926 when Lady Townshend and her son saw the Lady on the staircase.

The Brown Lady, captured by Cpt Provand for Country Life in 1936.

The Brown Lady, captured by Cpt Provand, first published in Country Life in 1936.

Ten years later on the 19th September 1936 the Country Life photographer Captain Hubert C. Provand and his assistant Indre Shira were taking pictures for an article. They claim that they had already taken a photograph of the staircase when Shira noticed a strange mist like essence coming towards them. Gradually the vapour solidified to form the figure of a woman. Shira instantly gave directions to Provand who quickly took the cap off the lens whilst Shira pressed the flash trigger[4]. Together the two men claimed to have captured on film definitive proof of the existence of ghosts. The image appeared in the 26th December 1936 edition of the magazine and again in the 4th January 1937 edition.  The image is considered one of the most famous ghost photographs ever taken and the negative is still held in the Country Life archives[5].

A Ghostly Image or Clever Fake?

This might just be a fake.....

This might just be a fake…..

Since the photograph of the Brown Lady was taken, the image has come under intense scrutiny. At the time the paranormal investigator, Harry Price, interviewed both Provand and Shira and concluded that the men had not conspired to deceive the public and that the photograph was genuine[6].

Since then many other theories have been put forward to explain the image including that the photographers smeared grease on the negative, that it was due to double exposure, that it was the movement of a person (living) on the stairs who was captured during the exposure and that light accidently got into the camera.

Investigators John Fairley and Simon Welfare claim that on examining the image they could discern a pale line above each stair-tread which indicates that one picture has been superimposed over the other. Others agreeing with Fairley and Welfare have suggested that the image looks like a standard Virgin Mary statue and that on close study you can see that the hands of the woman are clasped in prayer, that the dress is typical of the v-shaped garments carved in those statues and that even the pedestal on which the statue stands can be clearly seen[7].

Many others even today believe that the photograph is genuine including Lord Raynham who is convinced that Dorothy’s spirit does remain in the house “she isn’t there to haunt the house but she is still there I know she’s there and I’m glad she’s around”[8].

Is the Brown Lady an angry, suffering spectre whose miserable life has bound her to the house which became a prison or a loving spirit staying in the home where she lived a happy life or simply a tale to titillate visitors? I again leave it to others to decide.

Dorothy Walpole’s Wandering Spirit

Raynham Hall is not the only place where the spirit of Dorothy has been seen. The ghost of a young Dorothy has been seen occasionally at Sandringham House whilst a Royal guest claimed to have been visited by a terrifying vision. A young George IV whilst staying at Houghton awoke in the middle of the night to see the ghost of the Brown Lady at the foot of the bed. It is claimed that the Prince of Wales left the Hall immediately declaring that he would “not spend another hour in the accursed house, for tonight I have seen that which I hope to god I never see again[9].

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole.

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole.

Other Ghostly Residents of Raynham Hall

The ‘camera shy’ Brown Lady has not been seen since the photograph was taken in 1936 but other apparitions have including the ghosts of a cocker spaniel, two children and the Duke of Monmouth.

The Duke of Monmouth, the housewife's favourite...

The Duke of Monmouth, the housewife’s choice…

An elderly spinster claims to have been visited by the Duke of Monmouth whilst she was spending a night at Raynham and found the experience both flattering and agreeable – the mind boggles![10]

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!


Florence Marryat, There is No Death, 1917

Henrietta Hobart, Duchess of Suffolk: Letters from 1712 to 1767 with historical, biographical and explanatory notes

William Coxe and Horatio Walpole: Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole – Volume I, 1808

M. Townshend, Townshend – Townshend: 1066-1909, 1909

John Harold Wilson, Court Satires of the Restoration, 1986

Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014

Raynham Hall,

The vast history of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Whartons of Winchendon,

Raynham Hall,

Dorothy Townshend,

The Brown Lady,

Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton,,_1st_Marquess_of_Wharton

Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend,,_3rd_Viscount_Townshend

Raynham Hall,

Gothic Literature,


[1] Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[2] ibid

[3] Florence Marryat, There is No Death, 1917

[4] Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[5] Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[6] The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[7] ibid

[8] The vast history of Raynham Hall,

[9] The Brown Lady,

[10] Raynham Hall,




Part one: The Mysterious Brown Lady of Raynham Hall – who was she?


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This is a two-part post, examining the history, legend and paranormal sightings of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.  Part one examines the historical basis of the legend.


Raynham Hall in Norfolk is one of the oldest buildings in the county and has been the home of the Townshend family for nearly 400 years. Built in 1619 by Sir Robert Townshend and believed to have been designed by Inigo Jones, the Italian style palatial mansion originally sat in an estate of 7000 acres[1].

The Hall is also the setting for one of the most famous hauntings in England as well as a photograph which for many people proved the existence of ghosts.

Witnesses have reported seeing the ghostly figure of an aristocratic lady wearing an old-fashioned brown dress at various locations in the house but in particular in the upstairs corridor, on the grand staircase and in one particular bedroom.

The Legend of the Brown Lady

The Brown Lady, captured by Cpt Provand for Country Life in 1936.

The Brown Lady, captured by Cpt Provand for Country Life in 1936.

The Brown Lady is believed to be the spirit of Dorothy Townshend, the second wife of Lord Townshend, sister of the famous Whig politician and first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and aunt of the prolific writer, historian and politician, Horace Walpole.

The story goes that Dorothy fell deeply in love with the young Lord Charles Townshend who returning her feelings asked her father, Robert Walpole, for her hand in marriage. Robert who was also Townshend’s guardian refused to give his permission afraid that people would think that he was using his guardianship for his own self-interest.

Heart-broken, Charles shortly afterwards married Elizabeth Pelham, daughter of the 1st Baron Thomas Pelham of Laughton. Elizabeth died in 1711 leaving Charles a widower with five surviving children. He was eventually reunited with Dorothy and the two married in 1713.

What Charles did not know was that during the time they had been apart, Dorothy had an affair with the notorious Lord Wharton (father of the infamous Philip, first Duke of Wharton, founder of one of the earliest Hell-fire Club’s). When Charles eventually found out, he flew into a terrible rage. Locking Dorothy in her rooms, he forbade her from ever seeing her children again. Dorothy remained imprisoned for the rest of her life until her death in 1726 reportedly from smallpox[2].

Variations on a theme

Other versions differ slightly, in particular when it comes to Dorothy’s death. One story purports that she died of a broken neck after falling or being pushed down the stairs whilst another insists that the funeral in 1726 was a sham and that Dorothy died years afterwards.

Whatever the truth behind the manner of Dorothy’s death, the one point these stories all agree on is the belief that Dorothy never really left Raynham and that her spirit wanders the Hall looking for the children she was so cruelly separated from.

A Gothic Nightmare or a Misjudged Marriage

otranto1933-correctionWith the publication of Horace Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’ in 1764, Britain fell in love with a new genre of literature – the Gothic novel. Early gothic stories included elements of ancestral curses, rambling castles with hidden passages and supernatural elements. The gothic fever which gripped the nation was insatiable and new writers emerged on the scene such as Ann Radcliffe, author of the ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) “who introduced the brooding figure of the Gothic villain…a literary device that would come to be defined as the Byronic hero[3]. Later during the Victorian period the gothic genre developed culminating in some of the most famous books ever written such as Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte); Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) and Dracula (Bram Stoker). These together with novels such as The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins) and The Rose and the Key (Sheridan Le Fanu) which tapped into a growing fear amongst women of being locked away by ruthless mercenary male relatives and a fascination with the supernatural may have contributed to the rise of the Brown Lady legend.

Image via Gutenberg Press.

Image via Gutenberg Press.

Gothic elements abound in the Brown Lady tale; there is the violent husband; the beautiful wronged woman locked away; the charming but devious villain who defiles a virtuous young woman; the manipulative wife who helps her husband in his schemes; an old house; a suspicious death.

Was there any truth in the stories and rumours surrounding Dorothy Walpole life and death or were various strands of the story twisted and moulded into a gothic tale? Does the historical evidence support the legend? Is it possible that the greatest politician of the era would have allowed his sister to be locked away or possibly murdered without batting an eyelid? Was Charles Townshend really so cruel and despotic? There are so many questions unanswered.

Introducing The Principle Players…

Lady Dorothy Townshend (née Walpole)

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole

Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Walpole was born on the 18 September 1686 at Houghton Hall in Norfolk to a wealthy landowning family. She was the thirteenth child of Mary Burwell and Colonel Robert Walpole, a Whig politician who represented the district of Castle Rising.

Little is known about her early life but at some point she fell in love with her father’s ward, Charles Townshend. As previously mentioned, her father turned down their request to marry[4]. Dorothy would have been about 10 or 11 years old at this point. Although that seems really young to us now, in the 17th century the legal age for marriage was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy. In practice even if a match was made at such an early age, consummation of the marriage did not occur until a few years later.

Houghton Hall. Image by Lenora.

Houghton Hall. Image by Lenora.

Raised in a family deeply involved in politics, it is highly probable that she mixed with important Whig politicians and their families including Lord Wharton. The story of Dorothy’s affair with Wharton is seen as the catalyst for the events that followed with some even suggesting that the relationship may have been resumed after Dorothy’s marriage to Townshend. Although the evidence does suggest that Dorothy did have a mild flirtation with Wharton whether or not the relationship went any further will never be known.

Two years after the death of Townshend’s first wife in 1711 Dorothy finally got her wish and with the permission of her brother, Robert Walpole, married her first love Charles Townshend in a magnificent ceremony at Raynham Hall. During their thirteen years of marriage they had seven children with six reaching adulthood.

Not much is known about their marriage but in 2009 in an interview given by Lord Raynham to BBC Norfolk he refuted the idea that Dorothy had been ill-treated “People said that Dorothy was locked away and badly treated, but in the 1960s we uncovered paperwork and medical reports suggesting she had a happy life and was much loved[5].

Most of what we can gather about Dorothy’s personality and life can be found in the remarks made by her contemporaries when they heard about her death from smallpox. One commentator describes her as an elegant and accomplished woman with engaging manners whose death is a great loss to her husband and family[6] and who used her influence to keep the peace between her husband and her brother. Another stated that she was “generally and justly lamented for her uncommon merit and the accomplishments that adorned her mind as well as her person[7]. Lastly in a letter to Mr Walpole, Lord Waldegrave expresses his sadness at Lady Townshend’s death and recalls how on a trip to Hanover where she accompanied her husband as part of the king’s party she acted “with so much good humour, into the ways of the country, that she pleased everybody to admiration[8]. It is really hard from these comments to see this Dorothy as the same Dorothy who was so violently abused that she was locked away and possibly murdered.

Lord Charles Townshend (2nd Viscount Townshend)

Charles Townsend, 2nd Viscount Townsend by Godfrey Kneller.

Charles Townsend, 2nd Viscount Townsend by Godfrey Kneller.

Charles Townshend was born on the 18 April 1674 and succeeded his father to the peerage at the early age of thirteen. He was educated at Eton College and then at King’s College at Cambridge and as he grew up became deeply involved with the Whig cause. In November 1708 he was promoted to Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard and helped to negotiate the Treaty of Utrecht. He was favoured by George I and his standing with the king only increased when the policies he formed helped to crush the Jacobite Rising in 1715 resulting in him being given the position of Secretary of State for the Northern Department. With the exception of a brief period when he fell out of favour with the king, he held the position of Secretary of State for the rest of his political life and remained at the forefront of politics until differences of opinion with Sir Robert Walpole led him to abandon politics and retire to his estate at Raynham Hall, where he lived until his death in 1738[9].

In the story of the Brown Lady, Charles Townshend is portrayed as a violent man who had trouble controlling his temper. A description of Townshend the politician states that he “was frank, impetuous and overbearing, long accustomed to dictate in the cabinet and fond of recommending violent measures[10]. The picture that emerges of Townshend is of a wily, determined and intractable man who could be ruthless when he had to be  – but that could describe any politician, no man could reach such a powerful position in that tumultuous climate by being a soft pushover.

On his retirement from politics, Townshend became heavily involved in agricultural developments. He became the champion of turnips as a new winter fodder crop for cattle and introduced large-scale turnip production on his estate. As a result he was given the name of ‘Turnip’ Townshend.

Raynham Hall, seat of Charles Townsend. Image via Wikimedia.

Raynham Hall, seat of Charles Townsend. Image via Wikimedia.

Again the evidence from contemporary sources contradicts the image of an abusive and evil husband. He is described as having retired with a “most unsullied character for integrity, honour and disinterestedness, and gave several striking proofs that he could command the natural warmth of his temper” and that his hospitality endeared him to his neighbours and the dignity of his character earned everyone’s respect[11].

The question is would Robert Walpole have allowed his sister to marry a man with such an unpleasant character? Possibly, Walpole himself had a difficult relationship with his first wife and is known to have treated her badly, and the marriage did cement an alliance between two exceptionally powerful men and two important families. It is also more than likely that Walpole held a traditional view of a woman’s place i.e. the husband was responsible for his wife and that no one else had the right to interfere in their personal affairs. It is interesting that Townshend’s jealously of Walpole rising above him led to a permanent rift between the two only after Dorothy’s death. It might be that the loss of their intermediary left no-one to hold the now fragile alliance together, (often families fall apart when an important member dies). There is no evidence that their arguments were caused by Walpole blaming Townshend for his sister’s death and would have Walpole allow his sister to be held prisoner for years? It seems unlikely but then again no-one knows what goes on behind closed doors.

Lady Lucy Wharton

Lady Lucy Wharton by Godfrey Kneller. Private Collection.

Lady Lucy Wharton by Godfrey Kneller. Private Collection.

Lucy Wharton was the second wife of Lord Thomas Wharton and heiress to the vast Rathfarnham estates in Ireland. She was the daughter of Adam Loftus, 1st Viscount Lisburne, a man who was described as hot-tempered, a compulsive gambler and a heavy drinker[12].  Worth £5000 a year, Lucy married Wharton shortly after the death of his first wife, Ann in 1685.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (who had an affair with Lucy’s son, Philip) was not a fan of Lucy describing her as well suited to Lord Wharton, “unfeeling and unprincipled; flattering and fawning, canting, affecting prudery and even sanctity, yet in reality as abandoned and unscrupulous as her husband himself[13].

Not only did both Lady Wharton and her husband turn a blind eye to each other’s affairs but Lady Wharton was not above helping her husband to seduce innocent girls “his character was so infamous, and his lady’s subservience so notorious, that no young woman could be four and twenty hours under their roof with safety to her reputation”[14].

One of the stories about Dorothy is that somehow Lady Wharton was responsible for entrapping her at Raynham Hall. The origin of this story may stem from an episode which occurred during Dorothy and Wharton’s brief flirtation before her marriage when Lady Wharton lured her to the Wharton’s London residence knowing that it would ruin the girl’s reputation. Apparently Robert Walpole heard a whisper that something was in the air and stormed over to the house and removed his sister by force.

Eventually Lord Wharton became tired of his wife and banished her to a small brick tower in the garden of his mansion at Winchendon in Buckinghamshire[15]. So in a strange way she was banished to some sort of gothic residence but not as a prisoner!

Lord Wharton

Honest Tom Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton.

Honest Tom Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton.

Lord Thomas Wharton was born in August 1648 to a wealthy and powerful family. Wharton was a clever and distinguished Whig politician and virulently anti-Catholic. He sided with the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II, in his campaign to be named as his father’s heir in place of the Catholic James II and was instrumental in William, the Dutch Prince of Orange being crowned as king rather than as a consult to Mary. He was also behind the Hanoverian accession and involved in the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland. Despite his decadent ways and occasionally falling out of favour (i.e. Queen Ann disliked him intensely especially after the Barrington Affair when he along with some friends broke into the church and relieved and defecated on the altar and pulpit), he somehow always managed to rise to the top.

Wharton was a libertine, a brilliant swordsman, a debaucher and when he needed to be a manipulative liar. He was sarcastically nicknamed ‘Honest Tom’ as it was believed that no one could trust him “of all the liars of his time he was the most deliberate, the most inventive, and the most circumstantial”[16].


In 1673 he married Ann, granddaughter of Anne St John, the Dowager Duchess of Rochester. It comes to something when probably the most notorious libertine of the age, the Duke of Rochester actually tried to prevent his beloved niece from marrying Wharton. Ann was bookish, clever, a poet and a writer, completely different from Wharton. Neglected by Wharton, in favour of his numerous mistresses, she died in intense pain and misery from syphilis. It is rumoured that Wharton refused to tell Ann that he was infected.

Wharton’s mercurial character was one that aroused deep hatred in some, admired by others and definitely not a man to offend. To the Tories he was almost a satanic figure. Jonathan Swift, whose deep animosity towards Wharton increased when Wharton passed him over for preferment, wrote a number of pieces on the ‘diabolical’ Wharton and called him “the most universal villain I ever knew[17].

Wharton died in 1715 and left his son by his second wife, Philip as his successor. Swift’s wish that “May it please god to shorten the life of Lord Wharton, And set up his son in his place[18] eventually came true but if his hope was that the son would somehow atone for the father he would have been sadly disappointed as Philip earned a reputation which equaled and maybe surpassed that of his father as the founder of the Hellfire Club.

In many ways Wharton does fit the image of the Gothic villain; dynamic, charming and dangerous but then again being a drinker, gambler and libertine in the 17th century was like wearing flared trousers in the 70s, nearly everyone was doing it. Was Wharton worse than others – maybe, maybe not! It is probably best to leave the last word on Wharton to an anonymous source who wrote,“A monster, whom no vice can bigger swell, Abhor’d by Heaven and long since due in Hell”[19].

So was Dorothy the tragic victim of a vicious plot? – I leave it to people to draw their own conclusions!


In part two of the Mysterious Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, Miss Jessel will examine evidence for the sightings of her wandering spirit, and will consider whether the famous Country Life photograph, believed by many to provide proof of the existence of ghosts, can be taken at face value. 


Florence Marryat, There is No Death, 1917

Henrietta Hobart, Duchess of Suffolk: Letters from 1712 to 1767 with historical, biographical and explanatory notes

William Coxe and Horatio Walpole: Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole – Volume I, 1808

M. Townshend, Townshend – Townshend: 1066-1909, 1909

John Harold Wilson, Court Satires of the Restoration, 1986

Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014

Raynham Hall,

The vast history of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Whartons of Winchendon,

Raynham Hall,

Dorothy Townshend,

The Brown Lady,

Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton,,_1st_Marquess_of_Wharton

Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend,,_3rd_Viscount_Townshend

Raynham Hall,

Gothic Literature,


[1] Raynham Hall,

[2] The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[3] Gothic Literature,

[4] Dorothy Townshend,

[5] The vast history of Raynham Hall

[6] William Coxe and Horatio Walpole: Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole – Volume I, 1808

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Raynham Hall,

[10] M. Townshend, Townshend – Townshend: 1066-1909, 1909

[11] ibid

[12] John Harold Wilson, Court Satires of the Restoration, 1986

[13] The Whartons of Winchendon,

[14] The Brown Lady,

[15] Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014

[16] The Whartons of Winchendon,

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] ibid



Strawberry Hill Gothick: the art of gloomth and the beauty of horror


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Strawberry Hill – a dream of gloomth

Strawberry Hill from the south.

South View of Strawberry Hill.

Miss Jessel and I recently had the opportunity to coordinate our haunted schedules and take a trip to Twickenham to visit one of the most unusual and, to my mind, beautiful houses in England.

Strawberry Hill is a unique building in English architecture – one that fits nowhere comfortably.  It is not a castle, nor a venerable ancestral seat, nor yet is it a picaresque folly or a classic English Villa.  What is, is drama, theatricality, the promise of dark mysteries and unfolding horror….In short, Strawberry Hill is as idiosyncratic, affected and inspired as the extraordinary man who created it.  A man who, saturated as he was with the gloomth and venerable barbarism he made fashionable, let his Gothic architectural masterpiece inspire his Gothic literary masterpiece…and thereafter spawn a whole genre of Gothic literature and popular culture.

Horace Walpole (1717 -1797): connoisseur, writer, art critic and gossip

Horace Walpole by Image by Joshua Reynolds, 1756. Image Wikimedia.

Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds, 1756. Image Wikimedia.

It is hard to read any history or biography concerning the eighteenth century without coming across some usually acerbically witty observations from Horace Walpole.  A voluminous correspondent, writer and art critic, he was deeply concerned with recording events around him, seeing on the spot observations as valuable tools for historians.  From the Coronation of George II to the Cock Lane Ghost, Walpole was there to offer his spiky comments to his correspondents and to posterity.

He was born in 1717 into the powerful elite of eighteenth century society. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was, in all but name, Britain’s first Prime Minister.  This is proved extremely beneficial for Horace, as his father ensured he never had to work by granting him 3 lucrative sinecures.  His mother, Catherine Shorter, whom he is said to have taken after, was from a family of eccentrics.

Walpole's parents (the frame is a 3D photocopy of the original).

Walpole’s parents, hanging in the Blue Bed Chamber (the origial frame was re-created on a 3D printer).

Like most of his contemporaries Walpole rounded off his formal education with a Grand Tour to the continent.  From 1739 -1741, accompanied by his friend, the poet Thomas Gray, he traveled to Italy.  Temperamentally very different: Gray liked to spend hours studying historical sites, while Walpole preferred living it up and partying on down, they soon fell out [1].  This tour, and its cultural influence was to have an important impact on his later ideas for Strawberry Hill as he endeavored to re-create the ‘gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals’ at home.

English tourists on the Grand Tour, 18th Century image. Source BBC.

English tourists on the Grand Tour, 18th Century image. Source BBC.

Horace Walpole by Rosalba Carriera. Source Wikipedia.

Horace Walpole, by Rosalba Carriera. Source Wikipedia.

By 1747, Sir Robert had been in his grave for two years, leaving Horace, his youngest son the lease on a London property and enough money to begin looking about for a country retreat. Nothing as grand as Houghton Hall where he had grown up, but something more bijou and compact. A bachelor pad, but with enough space for the chi-chi little house parties that Walpole was so fond of throwing.  It had to be somewhere fashionable, after-all Walpole was a man of taste and refinement, and it had to have good transport connections to the capital with its social and political scene.

At that time Twickenham was being what we would now call gentrified.  By the time Walpole went house-hunting, Twickenham’s rustic cottages had been transformed into stylish English Villa’s (such as the classically elegant Marble Hill, home to Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, and long-suffering mistress of George II)  and real estate was in seriously short supply. Walpole was lucky though, and snapped up the last vacant plot – Chopp’d Straw Hall – from one Mrs Chenevix, a luxury ‘toy’ woman (think uber-posh geegaws for the very rich, rather than Barbie dolls and teddy bears for the proletariat).  This image of the house as an exquisite toy seemed to tickle Walpole and he often referred to his home in those terms:

“It is a little play-thing of a house that I got out of Mrs Chenevix’s shop, and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw.”

He was to spend the next fifty years adding and elaborating on the original house – as Maev Kennedy wrote, Walpole achieved a:

‘spectacular conjuring trick [..] [a] miniature medieval castle wrapped around a modest little country house.’ [2]

How not to build English Villa – throwing away the rule book


Plate showing ‘the five orders’ from a book by da Vignola. 16th Century. Source Wikipedia.

From Palladio to Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington, by the eighteenth century the prevailing architectural fashion was Classical: symmetrical, ordered, regulated by the ‘noble rules’ and harking back to the roman country villa [3].

When Walpole chose to buck the trend and go Gothick, he was not the first. Vanbrugh and William Kent had been earlier trailblazers.  Where he was different was in using actual architectural examples to create a new Gothic building.  He was not adding a sympathetic extension, or restoring an existing Gothic building like Vanbrugh and Kent had done.  He was taking research and turning it into a reality, twisting the invariably Classical  English Villa into something more organic, more irregular, dramatic, more English.  And it was completely at odds with the dominant Classicism of the day.  As Michael Snoddin, curator at the V&A commented:

“The most striking external feature of Strawberry Hill was its irregular plan and broken picturesque silhouette.” [4]

It must have seemed shocking to his neighbors!


Yet, despite its oddity, it also fitted with the sensibility of the eighteenth century perfectly, the Picaresque movement was popular at the time, and the very nature of eighteenth century style was very feminine – think Rococo curves.  It also tapped into the growing interest of Antiquarians in the Medieval past of Britain, whilst not omitting modern conveniences, as Walpole was at pains to point out:


The Tribune, where Walpole displayed his most valued treasures.

“In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinement in luxury.  The designs of the inside and outside are strictly ancient, but the decorations are modern.”

There was almost a national pride in the resurgence of the style – something that would become more pronounced in the 19th Century when the Victorian’s enthusiastically embraced the Gothic style of architecture.  Walpole certainly appreciated that England’s Medieval heritage needed to be preserved, and this is typified in his method of using actual examples of medieval decoration and interior design.  His preferred period was the Perpendicular period of 1330 – 1550, and this is evident at Strawberry Hill [5].

According to Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi:

“Horace Walpole used new materials, had amazing ideas, but utilized these to reinvest the past with excitement.  Both Georgian and Victorian Gothic architecture grew from a style which recalled the past but which was also the epitome of modernity.” [6]

Hence the term Strawberry Hill Gothic, or Gothick with a ‘k’ was coined,  to distinguish this modern Gothic from true Gothic style.

Tromp L'oeil detail in the Entrance hall, from Prince Arthur's tomb at Winchester.

Detail of the Entrance hall wallpaper, a design taken from Prince Arthur’s tomb at Worcester cathedral.

My Fellow Goths

The Stunning Long Gallery

The Stunning Long Gallery

Although Walpole was the driving force behind Strawberry Hill, he also deferred to and acted upon the decor and design suggested by his Committee of Taste, his ‘fellow Goths’.  Membership varied over the years but the two most prominent members were John Chute, who specialized in early buildings, antiquarianism, and heraldry; with Richard Bentley influencing interiors, furniture and decoration.


Together Walpole and his Committee created a theatrical experience using a range of techniques: use of light (the windows are slightly larger than might be expected), the absence of light (blue glass and stained glass give a wonderful Gloomth to many of the rooms), use of vivid colour and rich gilding (one can only imagine how gorgeous the Long Gallery must have looked by candle-light – with its gilded fan vaults ablaze and casting eerie shadows on the walls).

Many of the rooms are vivid hues – the Blue Bed Chamber, the Rich Red of the Long Gallery, the purple of the Holbein Room. – while some rooms are muted – the entrance hall and staircase, the trunk-ceiled passage setting a more sombre scene.  Whereas today, the sheer peacockery of the place removes any sense of dark mystery or foreboding, in the eighteenth century the impression would have been quite different.

The Glorious Gloomth of the Library.

The Glorious Gloomth of the Library.

As Chalcraft and Viscardi note, Walpole used illusion to create a mood for each room – nothing is quite what it seems. Plaster, wood and paint imitate stone carvings, giving, as Sally Jeffrey observed, an almost illustrated delicacy to the building reminiscent of its academic sources [7]. Throughout the building, the vistas are carefully planned, the visitor moves through the house in a particular way,  the design and layout is immersive, intended to alter the mood of the viewer, or focus their attention on a particular object or scene.  Today, the house is sparsely furnished, but in Walpole’s day it was crammed with the six thousand objects he had collected, each placed for maximum impact and each with its own story to tell.

From darkness into the light. Planned vistas in Strawberry Hill.

From darkness into the light. Planned vistas in Strawberry Hill.

No surprise then that the house has always attracted visitors, Walpole was even occasionally run out of his own home by the massed hordes of upper crust sight-seers, and he would retreat to a cottage nearby.  However, oh the whole he seemed to have rather enjoyed the attention, even going so far as to create rules for visitors and issuing the very first country house guide in 1774, for their edification.

Walpole's rules for visitors to Strawberry Hill.

Walpole’s rules for visitors to Strawberry Hill.

 The Castle of Otranto

Of course, the fame of Strawberry Hill also lies in it being the inspiration for the tale cited as the first ever Gothic Horror story – The Castle of Otranto.

On 9th March 1765 Horace Walpole wrote to the Rev William Cole:

” I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour.  In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate…” [8]

Staircase and Lantern. Image by Lenora.

Staircase, designed by Richard Bentley and inspired by Rouen cathedral, and the supposed setting of Walpole’s dream.

And so the Gothic Horror Genre was born. The story is rather like the house itself, which is not quite what it purports to be.  in 1764 Otranto was launched onto the reading public as an ancient Italian Tale, discovered in a remote library and translated by the antiquarian William Marshall.  Once its warm reception had been assured, subsequent editions named Walpole as the author.

Unfortunately, rather like the house itself, the tale has lost some of its sense of dread and mystery over the years, leaving a theatrical, slightly breathless melodrama in its stead: death by gigantic helmet, portraits coming to life, a rotting corpse hermit with a message from beyond the grave and swooning maidens aside, the tale does lay out the standard tropes enthusiastically adopted in later Gothic tales.  There is a cursed noble family, a long-lost heir, a doomed highborn beauty.  Earthly moral peril and otherworldly threat create dynamic tension and heighten the drama.

Mario Praz, in his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition, despite acknowledging The Castle of Otranto  to be the first of its genre, sees it as a rather weak example of  Gothic horror, noting somewhat dismissively that like Strawberry Hill itself, Otranto was merely – ‘Rococo in Gothic disguise’.  [9]


Walpole’s source of inspiration? Carceri series, by Piranesi. Image public domain, via Wikimedia.

Despite the modern criticisms, in the Eighteenth century the tale was a ‘best seller’. The popularity of the Castle of Otranto may seem to be a paradox in the Enlightened eighteenth century.  However, the century that prided itself on the rational and scientific progress was also a century that saw more and more people becoming urbanized and losing their connection to the countryside in the wake of ‘progress’.  Almost as a counterbalance to things becoming to rational and to classical, there was a growing interest in the picturesque and in Britain’s medieval past as people yearned to rediscover and reconnect with the chaos of nature.

In literature De Sade and in art Piranesi tapped into and exploited this desire for primordial chaos and destruction.  As Praz explains, a sensibility grew up where horror became a source of delight – charm and repulsion were combined and “the ‘beautiful horrid’ passed by insensible degrees into the ‘horribly beautiful'” [10]

Walpole can be seen in his creation of Strawberry Hill  and his writing of The Castle of Otranto successfully tapping into the zeitgeist of the mid-eighteenth century and in doing so became both a fore-runner of the Gothic  literature so popular later in the century and of the Gothic architectural style so beloved of the Victorians.

The armory from the staircase.

The armoury from the staircase.  A great plumed helmet, reminiscent of Otranto, can be seen in the middle arch.

So, despite Walpole’s fears that ‘My buildings are paper…and will all be blown away in ten years after I am dead’ both of his great works, Strawberry Hill and The Castle of Otranto, have survived the centuries to become culturally significant landmarks.

Strawberry Hill today

After Walpole’s death in 1797, Strawberry Hill suffered a checkered fate with some sympathetic and some not so sympathetic custodians.  Sadly, the famed collection was broken up and sold in the 1840’s.

The Waldegrave Wing.

The 19th Century Waldegrave Wing.

Restoration, and hand woven bedsheets.

Restoration in progress – hand-woven sheets are laid out on the table.

By 2004 Strawberry Hill was listed as endangered by the World Monument Fund.    But, thanks to the Strawberry Hill Trust the house was saved.  The Trust are restoring the house to the state it was when Horace Walpole lived in it, so the colours are vivid and the textiles fresh.  The visitor may sometimes have difficulty telling what is ‘real’ and what is a reconstruction, but the overall effect is glorious and I feel sure Walpole would have approved.

It is the 300th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s birth next year, and as part of the celebrations the Trust planned to try to reunite Horace Walpole’s lost collection with Strawberry Hill.  Bringing together hundreds of items from all over the world is a huge undertaking, and now it looks like this won’t happen until 2018.  However, it should be well worth the wait.

To find out more about visiting Strawberry Hill, you can find their website at:

To find out more about the Walpole Collection, visit the Lewis Walpole Library:


 Sources and notes

Images:  By Lenora unless otherwise stated. [1]

Chalcraft, Anna and Viscardi, Judith, 2011, ‘Strawberry Hill Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle’ Francis Lincoln Ltd [5] [6] [7] [and most quotes from Horace Walpole]

Fairclough, Peter, ed. and Praz, Mario, 1986, ‘Three Gothic Novels’, Penguin [8] [9]

Jeffery Sally, ‘Architecture’ in Ford, Boris, Ed, 1995, ‘The Cambridge Cultural History of Britain Vol 5 Eighteenth Century Britain’, Cambridge University Press [3] [7]

Kennedy, Maev, 25 Feb 2015, ‘Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s fantasy castle, to open its doors again’ , The Guardian. [2]

Walpole, Horace, republished 2016, ‘A Description of Strawberry Hill’ The Strawberry Hill Trust. [4]




Blogger recognition award 2016


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Blogger recognition award 2016


Well, what can I say! Thank you Angry Scholar for the nomination!  P.S. Jeff,  I nicked the logo from your website,  love the way the image was saved with the name ‘bra readjusted’, has a sort of comfy, yet supportive feeling about it – rather like the feeling of receiving a Blog Recognition Award nomination ;0)


Scenes at Haunted Palace upon hearing of the nomination. Oh Ok, really it’s one of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python illustrations, all giphied up by some techie person from t’internet.

For those of you, like me, who may be unfamiliar with the world of Blog Awards and Nominations, here are the ‘rules’ for this one:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  2. Attach the award to the post.
  3. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
  4. Give a piece of advice or two to new bloggers.
  5. Select 5 other bloggers you want to give the award to.

Here goes.  First up: thank you, Angry Scholar!!!

I’ve been a fan of the Angry Scholar Blog for some years now.  Erudite and witty, it covers folklore, horror and gaming.  Fab site – go follow it!

How The Haunted Palace Blog began…

800px-Turner_Alnwick_Castle BW

‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

[…]         Quoth the Raven “stop pratting around and write a blog about history and the supernatural, and maybe base it on some references to Edgar Allan Poe, ‘cos he’s, like, super-cool.”’

skull and ratOK so that is not really what happened, I love history, folklore and the supernatural, in short, anything a bit dark or macabre.  I also have a fondness for Edgar Allan Poe, and The Haunted Palace as a title for a blog seemed to work. After all, a palace has many rooms, so I could get away with writing pretty much anything I fancied.  It was nice (and kind of surprising) that other people wanted to read it as well.  After a little while, I also persuaded my good friend, the excellent Miss Jessel, to become a regular contributor.  And the rest, is as they say history. (Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?)

To those just starting out, the best advice I can give, is the most cliched.  Write about what you love.  It doesn’t necessarily matter if you don’t know everything about a subject – because you end researching things more anyway when you begin to blog.  Plus, if you stick to subjects you are really in to, you won’t run out of ideas, you won’t get bored, and you won’t get hung up on how many followers or readers you have.

My second piece of advice is to Never. Ever. Write about the Highgate V@mpire  Not Ever.

My Nominations for the Blogger Recognition Award 2016

Multo (Ghost) Wonderful blog dedicated to ghosts in folklore, myth and literature.

Story Smitten Enticing extracts and snippets from the author’s Paranormal Mystery Thrillers.

Ed Mooney Photography Moody and evocative black and white photography of Irish Ruins (with plenty of history and folklore as well).

Madame Guillotine the Blog of author Melanie Clegg, who describes herself as ‘an authoress of novels of POSH DOOM, history geek, Versailles obsessive, Paris lover, historical fiction writer,‘ the site that made me want to start a blog.

Echoes of the Past Photo Blog of keen photographer Lynne, from my favorite part of the world, North Norfolk.

So there you go, that is my contribution to the Blogger Recognition Award 2016.

Lenora and Miss Jessel at The Haunted Palace Blog.

creepy girls


The end of the affair: have the remains of Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck finally been discovered?


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Thanks to Lenora, I have learnt that some bones have been found at Hanover Castle which are believed to be the remains of Count Philip Christoph von Konigsmarck. As a postscript to my earlier piece on the Konigsmark Affair, I have summarised the newspaper report as best I can (my apologises for any inaccuracies in my summary).

The original article by Isabel Christian and Simon Benne appeared in Hannoverlche Allgemeine on 26/27 August 2016.  To read the article in full, in the original German, please click on the link given below:-

Leineschloss. Image via Wikipedia.

Leineschloss. Image via Wikipedia.

During renovation work at the German Parliament on the 11th August 2016, construction workers found the remains of a human skeleton. The German Public Prosecutor’s Office now suspect that the remains could be the bones of Count Philipp Christoph Königsmarck whose disappearance over 300 years ago at Leine Castle in mysterious circumstances made it one of the most puzzling unsolved murder cases of the 17th century. The initial examination carried out at the Hanover Medical School (MHH) revealed that the bones may be several hundred years old. But it is also possible that the remains are of another unidentified individual. In the middle ages, a Franciscan monastery existed on the present site of the Landtag. Later, the Welfs had their family vault beneath the chapel of Leine Castle. The building was damaged in the war and when the ruins were later incorporated into the State Parliament in 1957, royal coffins were found in the crypt’s mausoleum.  So it is more than possible that the bones could belong to a friar or were simply missed when the other bones were removed and reburied after the war.

Professor Michael Klintschar, Director of the Institute for Legal Medicine at the MHH, is cautious about the finds saying that their initial examination was at the request of the police and their remit was to verify whether or not the bones were over 50 years old. Based on their findings they can confirm that the bones are far older than 50 years old but for now can’t draw anymore conclusions.

Further investigation needs to be carried out and so the remains will be taken to the Institute for Historical Anthropology at the Georg Albrecht University in Göttingen, Germany where they will be examined using the latest forensic technology. Scientists from different disciplines will be brought together to work on this important project. Thomas Schwark, Director of the Historical Museum said that it will be sensational if the bones turn out to belong to Königsmarck, as the Königsmarck affair has captured the imagination of so many people including authors, historians and song writers. The museum director of the Schloss Herrenhausen, Salazar has also confirmed that if the bones are genuine a Königsmarck exhibition would be considered.


A Dangerous Liaison: The Murder of Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck


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A Scandalous Family


The Dashing Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. Residenzmuseum Celle 20160708.

The Swedish Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck was born on the 4 March 1665. The Königsmarcks were of Brandenburgian extraction with an intriguing history of their own. Philip’s grandfather was Field Marshal Hans Christoff von Königsmarck who is best remembered for the part he played in the unsuccessful Battle of Prague in 1648[1]; his elder sister Maria Aurora later became the mistress to Augustus II the Strong of Poland; his other sister Amalia Wilhelmina was a ‘noted dilettante painter’[2], amateur actress and poet and; his brother Karl Johann became notorious as the architect behind the assassination of Thomas Thynn, the husband of his alleged lover Lady Elizabeth Percy in 1682.

At the court of Charles II

Evidence from the period reveals that by the age of 16 Philip Christoph was well-established at the court of Charles II. The court of Charles II infamous as a centre of hedonism, decadence and promiscuity, a place where “court life…often turned on the intrigues of lovers and the machinations of mistresses” and “favour depended more on a ready jest and brazen effrontery than on talent or political ability[3] must have been a fascinating place to grow up in. Philip who was described as dashing, charming and handsome would have fitted in perfectly and it is easy to surmise that he must have been extremely popular with the ladies of the court. His acceptance into the inner court circles meant that he had gained the favour of the king and would be one of the first to hear any pertinent gossip and political news.

Hieronymus Janssens, Charles II Dancing at a Ball at Court, c. 1660, RCIN 00525.

Charles II Dancing at a Ball at Court, c. 1660, Hieronymus Janssens, RCIN 00525.

The assassination of Mr Thynn

On the 12 February 1682 Thomas Thynn was killed whilst riding in his carriage along Pall Mall. His assailants Christopher Vratz, John Stern and Charles George Borosky were soon after arrested along with Karl Johann von Königsmarck who was believed to have orchestrated the murder. Königsmarck was assumed to be the lover of the wealthy heiress Lady Elizabeth (Bette) Percy who had been forced by her family into marrying Thynn – a man she considered odious. At the time of the murder Lady Bette had escaped to Holland and was living in The Hague. It was generally believed that Königsmarck was seeking to free Bette from her marriage and then claim her for his wife.

Thomas Thynne. Image source unknown.

Thomas Thynne. Image source unknown.

The evidence suggests that Philip must have been aware of his brother’s intentions. The two shared a friend and aide in Frederick Hanson who also acted as Philip’s guardian whilst he was in England. Hanson ran errands for Karl including checking daily for news about the ship on which Borosky was travelling, purchasing a sword for Borosky and even finding out for the Count about the legal implications of killing Thynn in a dual[4]. At his brother’s trial Philip confessed that Karl had returned secretly to London ten days before the murder as well as confirming that a bill of exchange for one thousand pistols had been sent to England. Although when questioned he supported his brother’s claim that the money was for the purchase of horses for the siege of Strasburg he also admitted that only one had been bought so far[5]. It will never be clear if Philip played any active role in Thynn’s murder but it is also really hard to believe that he was not covering for his brother.

A fateful meeting

Sophie Dorothea, Princess of Hannover by Henry Gascard

The beautiful Sophie Dorothea, Princess of Hannover by Henry Gascard.  Image source Wikipedia.

The scandal of the murder, trial and subsequent suspicious disappearance of his brother might have been the reason behind Philip leaving England shortly afterwards. It may have been that feelings were running high against the Königsmarck brothers and it was advised that Philip would be better off out of harm’s way. In any event Thynn’s murder was a turning point in Philip’s life leading to his first meeting with the 16-year-old Sophia Dorothea of Celle.

It is not surprising that they were attracted to each other, Philip was handsome and Sophia was beautiful with thick dark hair, an ivory complexion, an attractive figure and a flirtatious, charming and vivacious manner[6]. They had little reason to believe that their brief and innocent flirtation would have such far-reaching consequences for both their futures.

A tempestuous marriage

George I, Elector of Hanover

George I, Elector of Hanover. Image source Wikipedia.

About five years later, Philip and Sophia were reunited. In the interim Philip had made a name for himself as a soldier and Sophia had married her cousin George Louis, heir to the Principality of Lüneburg.

Sophia’s marriage was extremely unhappy. On being told whom she was going to marry she reportedly screamed “I will not marry a pig snout”[7], threw his miniature across the room and fainted. He was equally unimpressed by his future bride. He considered it an insult to marry a woman who had been born out-of-wedlock. Sophia’s background was complicated.

Her father, George William had fallen in love with his mistress the beautiful Eleonore d’Esmier d’Olbreuse despite being promised in marriage to Princess Sophia, daughter of the Palatine King of Bohemia. Determined not to marry Princess Sophia and refusing to give up Eleonore he agreed to renounce his claim to the Duchy of Hanover and hand it over to his ambitious younger brother Ernest Augustus. In return George William promised never to marry, meaning that any children he had would be illegitimate and would therefore have no claim to the Duchy. For a time, George William adhered to the agreement but in the end increasingly concerned about his daughter, Sophia’s legal status he decided to try to remedy the situation and in 1666 (a year after Sophia’s birth) he declared that his morganatic marriage to Eleonore was in fact legal and recognised by the church and law of the land. This announcement alarmed the rest of his family but as no male offspring was forthcoming, the marriage and Sophia’s legitimisation were accepted[8].

Eléonore d'Olbreuse,

The Glamorous Eléonore d’Olbreuse, Image source Residenzmuseum Celle.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that Princess Sophia had been in love with George William. The anger she felt at being thrown over affected her feelings and behaviour towards her niece, Sophia Dorothea, despite the fact that she did not actually like her own son. She famously said about him “George Ludwig, the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, and who has round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them.”[9] George Louis seemed to go out-of-the-way to make Sophia Dorothea’s life miserable. He constantly berated her for her lack of etiquette and breeding, was physically abusive and flaunted his extremely ugly mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg in her face.

It was in this hostile environment that a lonely and unhappy Sophia Dorothea was reunited with her former admirer Philip Christoph von Königsmarck on the 1 March 1688.

A love affair

The Meeting. JH Fragonard. Frick Collection NY.

The Meeting. Jean-Honore Fragonard. Frick Collection NY.

The renewal of the relationship seems at first to have been facilitated by Sophia’s brothers-in-law who appear unlike their brother to be fond of their sister-in-law. They saw that Philip’s visits cheered her up and so helped to arrange their meetings.

It was only in 1690 after Philip returned from fighting in the Peloponnese in the service of Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover that the relationship seems to have intensified. In order to separate them, Philip was sent to join the Hanoverian Army in their war against Louis XIV, probably on the orders of Sophia’s father-in-law. Any request for leave was constantly turned down leaving no opportunity for Philip to return and see Sophia. In the end in desperation Philip left without permission and made his way to Hanover. He was absent for six days and on his return he was punished and exiled[10].

On hearing of his wife’s supposed affair, alleged indecent behaviour and the forbidden visit of Philip, George Louis flew into a violent frenzy. Confronting her they argued with Sophia retaliating by insulting him over his mistress. Seething with anger he grabbed at Sophia hitting her until she was covered in bruises and tearing at her hair pulling it out by the roots. She only survived because their servants finally managed to drag him off her.

‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’

-William Congreve

With Philip banished, Sophia’s position became even more precarious. Treated as a prisoner, she was constantly watched, probably by her lady-in-waiting, the scheming, petty and unpleasant Countess Clara von Platen who was at the time the mistress of Elector Ernest Augustus. Unfortunately Clara had also had a brief affair with Philip and was deeply jealous of Sophia[11].


The vindictive Countess Clara von Platen. Image source Wikimedia.

In June 1694, Philip received a message to come and meet with Sophia at Leineschloss Castle. The note Philip assumed had come from Sophia but it could just as well have been written by Clara on behalf of the Elector and George Louis.

What happened over the night of the 1/2 July 1694 is not known but one version is that Philip was prevented from leaving, trapped and attacked after having seen Sophia. Despite being outnumbered and fighting valiantly he was inevitably overpowered. As he lay dying Clara got her chance for one last act of humiliation and revenge by grinding her heel into his mouth[12]. She then arranged for his body to be deposed of. His final resting place is unknown to this day; his body could have been thrown into the River Leine[13] or as some claim hidden in either the palace latrines or under the corridor floorboards and then covered in lime.


Assassins. Image Source: The Draftsman’s Contract. 1982. Dir Peter Greenaway.

On discovering that her brother was missing his sister Maria Aurora asked Elector Frederick Augustus I to help find Philip and if dead to help with any inheritance issues[14]. She sounds a bit cold and no records remain to indicate that she kicked up much of a fuss. Maybe she found out what had happened and decided it was in her best interest to stay quiet. There is an unlikely rumour that George Louis boasted about the murder as well as the more plausible rumour that two of the murderers eventually confessed to their crime.

The Princess of Ahlden

 Ahlden Castle in Celle . Image source Wikimedia.

Ahlden Castle in Celle (c1654). Image source Wikimedia.

The day after the murder, George Louis accused Sophia of malicious desertion – giving credence to the argument that she had intended to leave with Philip. Whether or not she had planned to leave is unknown. If the note Philip received was from her then it is possibly that Sophia had asked him for his help; if the note was from Clara then any decision to leave would have been made by Sophia on the spur of the moment but it is also equally likely that Sophia was never going to leave and that the letter had been forged in order to give legitimacy to George Louis next move.

Sophie Dorothea and her children. Image source Wikimedia.

Sophie Dorothea and her children. Image source Wikimedia.

Sophia was sent to Ahlden Castle in Celle where she remained a prisoner for the next thirty years. Forbidden from seeing her two children and her father and with her marriage dissolved she spent the rest of life in isolation until her death on the 13 November 1726. All traces of her were removed from Hanover. It was as if George Louis was trying to erase Sophia from existence. On her death George refused to allow any sign of mourning, appropriated all her property which she had left to her children and kept her body for six months in a casket in the cellar of Ahlden refusing to allow her to be buried[15].

She did get a sort of posthumous revenge. While she lay dying, bedridden and in extreme pain she sent a letter to George, now George I of England cursing him. Terrified, he remembered a warning given to him by a gypsy i.e. that he would die within a year if he did anything to cause the death of his wife. Strangely enough he did die seven months later during a trip back to his beloved Hanover, four weeks after he had finally agreed to Sophia being buried at Stadtkirche alongside her parents.

A platonic relationship or torrid affair?

The Lovers. Image source Prometheus Art dealers.

The Lovers. Image source Antiques Atlas website.

The numerous love letters held now in the archive at the University of Lund have often been cited as being definitive proof of the passionate love affair of Philip and Sophia. The authenticity of this collection of letters is now being questioned with some experts believing they were forged in order to blacken Sophia’s name[16]. If the letters are fakes then a shadow of doubt could be cast on the question of the nature of their relationship. Were they lovers or did they share a deep and close platonic friendship? Did Sophia commit adultery or did their relationship remain unconsummated? Sophia, herself was surprisingly evasive on the subject. When given the chance to be reinstated as the wife of George I of England (as he later became) she answered “If what I am accused of is true, I am unworthy of his bed, and if it is false he is unworthy of mine”[17].

History’s great romance

Nobody who knows me would ever accuse me of being a romantic but I do hope that Sophia did have a loving relationship with Philip as she deserved some happiness after being married to George I. As Philip’s remains have never been discovered, the last few moments of his life will always be shrouded in mystery. Whether true or not the relationship between Philip and Sophia is seen as one of history’s great love stories with Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck memory living on in folklore as a tragic romantic figure who risked everything for love.


Tragic lover, Sophia Dorothea. Image source The Peerage website.


Tragic lover, Philip. Image source The Peerage website.


[1] Hans Christoff von Königsmarck:

[2] Amalia Königsmarck:

[3] Lord Rochester and the Court of Charles II:

[4] Nigel Pickford: Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn, 170

[5] Ibid, 223

[6] Sophia Dorothea

[7] Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

[8] George William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg:,_Duke_of_Brunswick-L%C3%BCneburg

[9] Sophia Dorothea

[10] Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

[11] Who Murdered Konigsmarck?:

[12] ibid

[13] Philip Christoph von Königsmarck:

[14] Maria Aurora von Königsmarck: Königsmarck

[15] Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):

[16] Philip Christoph von Königsmarck:

[17] Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):


Philipp Christoph, Count Of Konigsmark:

Clara Elisabeth von Platen:

Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):

Hans Christoff von Königsmarck:

Amalia Königsmarck:

Lord Rochester and the Court of Charles II:

George William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg:,_Duke_of_Brunswick-L%C3%BCneburg

Sophia Dorothea

Maria Aurora von Königsmarck:

Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

Nigel Pickford: Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn, 2014





Screaming Skulls – folklore, fact and fiction


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Screaming Skulls – a very British Tradition


Screaming Skull, 1958, director Alex Nicol. Wikimedia

Tales of screaming skulls punctuate both the folklore and the ghost literature of the British Isles. From benevolent guardian spirits bringing luck to the household to vengeful spirits tied to a location for all eternity, promising doom and destruction should their mortal remains ever be disturbed. England, is dotted with many manor houses and farmsteads with such tales -but what is their origin?  Are they comparatively recent – many tales cite the seventeenth century for their origin – or do they have more ancient antecedents?  The tales were both relished and embellished by the Gothic-loving Victorians and later writers – how much influence have those literary tales of screaming skulls had in shaping the living folk tradition?

How to spot a screaming skull

So, what exactly is a screaming skull and what are their defining characteristics?

Firstly the term screaming skull, with all its supernatural and dramatic connotations, is unsurprisingly the product of literature. In folklore they are categorised as guardian skulls – the embodiment of the luck of a household or family – which, frankly, sounds a lot less sensational and a lot more, well, protective.

David Clarke in his PhD thesis on Head Cults [1] proposes the following characteristics, common to most traditions:

  1. A Dwelling place has a human skull which has been kept for hundreds of years in an important part of the house, in a specially made wall niche, on a prominent windowsill, or beside a hearth;

  2. The origin of the skull in unclear, but in oral tradition the date when it took up residence is often placed outside living memory, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, usually as the result of violence, for example murder or execution;

  3. Under no circumstances must the skull be removed from its resting place in the building, this being emphasised in all the stories as the most important theme;

  4. If the skull is disturbed then outbreaks of paranormal, poltergeist-like phenomena will plague the residents of the house until the skull is replaced in its favourite place.

Three tales of screaming skulls: Anne Griffiths, ‘Owd Nance’ of Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire

Burton Agnes Hall. Image by Lenora.

Burton Agnes Hall. Image by Lenora.

I have to admit that my first introduction to Screaming Skull folklore came from a Misty annual in the 1980’s- and it resulted in me pestering my dad until he took me to Burton Agnes Hall.  I still have the old guide-book and one solitary grainy old photograph I took at the time (see above) as well as a lingering sense of disappointment that I didn’t get to see the infamous skull itself, which is walled up in a secret location within the hall.

Anne Griffiths, by Geehearts.

Anne Griffiths, by Geehearts (Burton Agnes Hall).

Folklore has it that the three Griffiths sisters, Frances, Margaret and Catherine (known by her baptismal name as Anne), caused Burton Agnes Hall to be built during the closing years of the reign of Elizabeth I.  Just before the hall was completed, the youngest sister, Anne, was returning from a visit to a family in a nearby village when she was attacked and left for dead by a gang of ruffians.  Brought back to her beloved hall, her dying wish was to remain there after death; she claimed to her sisters that she would not rest ‘unless I, or part of me at least, remain here in our beautiful home as long as it lasts’[2]. She pressed her sisters to agree that once she had died, they would remove her head and keep it on a table in the hall.  However, unsurprisingly, they buried her intact in the local churchyard.

Shortly afterwards, strange things began to happen within the Hall, loud crashes and bangs were heard, poltergeist activity erupted in the depths of the night. The family was terrified and recalling their broken promise to Anne, they set out to make amends.  The coffin was duly opened and what they found shocked them – Anne had preempted them. Although her body remained well-preserved, to their horror they found that her head was now detached and bare of all flesh – only a grinning skull remained.   Anne had her will in the end, and her skull was set upon a table in her beloved hall. Peace reigned once again at Burton Agnes Hall…..well, for most of the time – it is said that Anne, also known as Owd Nance, still walks in October, the month of her supposed demise, and her presence is often felt in the Queens Chamber at Burton Agnes Hall, to this very day.

The Vengeful Slave of Bettiscombe Manor, Dorset

fig443_Bettiscombe Manor2

Bettiscombe Manor. Image source: British website.

Bettiscombe Manor is the ancestral home of the Pinney family, and is built on very ancient ground.   The story goes that one Azaiah Pinney was due to be hanged drawn and quartered for his part in the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.  A swift bribe ensured he was instead whisked away to the colonies, to be an indentured servant in the Caribbean.  Clearly being a man of sterner stuff, Azaiah eventually became a rich plantation owner on the Isle of Nevis.  Many years later a descendant of Azaiah,   returned to Bettiscombe in the company of a negro slave.


The Bettiscombe skull beneath the gaze of a Pinney. Image from

The slave, used to tropical climes, was not much taken with the wind and rain-swept Dorset landscape and was soon on his deathbed.  His dying wish was that his remains be returned home for burial and added to this entreaty was a warning not to fail him ‘if his wish were to be ignored, then the house would have no peace.’ [3].  Well, the canny Pinney family were not about to go to the expense of repatriating the remains of a negro slave, and the man was duly buried in the local churchyard.

Soon the dark chambers of Bettiscombe were disturbed by unearthly screams and unexplained happenings, something was terribly amiss.   The broken promise was recalled and the unfortunate slave’s remains dug up.  His bones were brought to the hall and at once the disturbing phenomena ceased.  Only his skull now remains, and was set in a niche in a chimney up in the attic.  Should anyone be foolish enough to try to remove it from its favourite resting place –

‘it is said to scream and cause agricultural disaster if taken out of the house and also causes the death, within a year, of the person who commits the deed.’ [4]

 A rake or a martyr – Wardley Hall near Manchester

Old Postcard of Wardley Hall.

Old Postcard of Wardley Hall.

Two stories exist to explain the mysterious skull of Wardley Hall, and they could not be more different.  The first claims that in the reign of Charles the II, one Roger Downes was a notorious rake and libertine.   One night in 1676, Downes was walking on London Bridge with some acquaintances, when he boasted that he would attack the next person he met – he was as good as his word, killing an innocent tailor.  Unfortunately for the young blade, his next intended victim, a Thames water man, was no pushover and not only got the better of Downes, but succeeded in decapitating him and tossing his body into the Thames.  In a macabre twist, his severed head was returned to his sister at Wardley Hall (one can’t help imagining her reaction upon opening the parcel…).

Rakes duelling. Image source uncertain.

Rakes duelling. Image source uncertain.

The head was duly buried but then the boisterous bachelor took haunting the hall in order to convey his displeasure at being displaced.  Consequently his skull found a permanent resting place in a niche on the stairs – and harmony returned to Wardley.

However in 1799 when Roger Downes coffin was opened – his head was found to be firmly attached to his body!

The alternative origin story of the Wardley Hall skull, is that is belongs to one Father Ambrose Barlow, a Catholic Martyr – and this is the view of the Catholic Church.  Wardley Hall is now the home to the Catholic Bishop of Salford.  Perhaps this is why the story of the libertine Roger Downes exists – as cover for the real provenance of the skull as a Catholic relic?

Skull of St Ambrose

Skull of St Ambrose.  Source: Visit Salford website.

During the seventeenth century, what with the Reformation and the gunpowder plot,  it was not such a good thing to be seen to be a Catholic.  However, certain parts of the country still held enclaves, Lancashire being one.   Ambrose Barlow was said to have been conducting a Catholic Mass on  Sunday 25th of April when a mob, lead by a protestant preacher, carried him off to gaol.  He was hanged, drawn and quartered on 10 September 1641.  As was the custom, his head was displayed (as a warning to the others) and was set upon a spike in Manchester.   Eventually the head was saved from this ignominious fate by a Catholic sympathizer and returned to Wardley Hall, to be revered as a holy relic.  It was lost for a time, then rediscovered in the 1740’s and the screaming skull legend swiftly began. In 1782 Thomas Barritt wrote:

‘From time out of mind the occupiers of Wardley Hall have had a superstitious veneration for the skull, not permitting it to be removed from its place on the topmost step of the staircase.  There is a tradition that if removed or ill-used, some uncommon screaming and lamenting is heard, and disturbances take place in many parts of the house.’ [5]

In order to ensure that the skull was secure in its tenure, its continued presence was even a condition of the lease [6]. All of which shows how quickly Skull legends could arise, as Clarke notes, the thirty years between the rediscovery in the 1740’s to the recording of the account in 1782, is hardly ‘time out of mind’!

From Guardian Skulls to Screaming Skulls

The origin of the skulls is often lost in the mists of time, and as the Wardley Hall Skull demonstrates, there may even be conflicting stories associated with them within the oral tradition.  Tradition places the origin for most of them as between the fifteenth and seventeenth century – with the Civil War being oft cited.

The Screaming Skull and other Mysteries by Peter Haining

The Screaming Skull and other Mysteries by Peter Haining

As far as written accounts go, it would seem that the phenomenon was first recorded by Antiquarians in the seventeenth century.  Further accounts were recorded in the eighteenth century, but it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that Screaming Skull legends became part of the popular culture. Writers such as Judge Udal’s 1872 work ‘Notes and Queries’ first brought the Bettiscombe skull to popular attention and inspired a number of other writers to follow suit.   Often these accounts were inaccurate (three sisters did not build Burton Agnes Hall, and it is even doubtful as tp whether Anne Griffiths actually existed) and rather on the dramatic side, emphasizing the supernatural phenomena associated with the skulls.  It was from these accounts that the ‘classic screaming skull’ story became fixed in the public imagination and in the literature. Including that of F Marion Crawford whose supernatural tale ‘ The Screaming Skull’, published in 1911, was inspired by the Bettiscombe Skull.

Earlier accounts had focused on the Skulls apotropaic qualities, their protective magic or ‘luck’ for a certain location or family, later tales focused on a more purposeful and romantic ideal of vengeful spirits of those who died violently. Such examples as those at Burton Agnes Hall and Bettiscombe Manor fit the ‘classic’ mold perfectly, with their wronged spirits tied to a place for eternity – and their noisy disapproval if anyone should dare to move them.  It has been noted by Gillian Bennett that once these tales were recorded, they became fixed and immutable, unlike the living oral tradition that had been repeated and elaborated on for many centuries.  Nevertheless because these artifacts do indisputably exist, they still form part of a living folk tradition.  Examples of this can be found at the Pack Horse Inn, Bury, Lancs, where Skull behind the bar (origin unknown) has, in recent years, developed a reputation for being cursed and causing supernatural events.

Celtic stone head. Image via Wikimedia.

Celtic stone head. Image via Wikimedia.

In 1996 Clarke recorded a gazette of 32 English Guardian Skull legends, noting that although many were missing, and 7 (including the Burton Agnes skull) had been walled up, 10 remained on display.  Such visible reminders of our own mortality coupled with their link to supernatural phenomenon make them a magnet for stories and legends.

However, considering that the actual evidence for supernatural events, and the famed screaming, is relatively hard to pin down, it might be that the skulls do represent some earlier tradition.  Possibly not stretching back to Celtic head cults as has been suggested (Jennifer Westwood cited in Clarke) –  there is little surviving evidence for Guardian/screaming Skulls in Celtic regions of the British Isles (baring outliers) [8].  Nevertheless such an early origin cannot be entirely discounted – Mysterious Britain also cites some evidence of ancient Celtic traditions surviving in remote communities. In addition to this, two of the skulls, Dickie of Tunstead Farm and the Bettiscombe Skull have been dated to prehistory, and are likely female not male.  Clarke has suggested that it is possible some remnant of a Guardian Skull/Genius Loci concept lingered in certain parts of England.  He cites evidence in that many areas where the legends occur, place names have Celtic origins. And he points to the specific places skulls are often displayed – facing doors, on window sills, at hearths or rafters.  Liminal places and entry points for  malevolent spirits.

It is also hard to ignore the veneration of skulls and bones in Christianity as demonstrated in the reverence for saints relics, a more acceptable form of ancestor worship to the Church, perhaps.

An alternative, could be more metaphysical than supernatural.  Many of the Skulls are said to date from the sixteenth century.  In the late Elizabethan and Jacobean world there was a flowering of metaphysical contemplation of mortality and the vanities of life, both in art and literature.  Could some of these skulls represent Memento Mori from the Jacobean Cult of Melancholy?  The skull was certainly a popular emblem at the time. Is it possible, that once the the original contemplative purpose of the skull was forgotten, stories and legends of a more supernatural bent grew up around these objects?  People have long been fascinated with human skulls, as the seat of the soul and offering a possible link to the other world.

By Philippe de Champaigne - Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain,

‘Vanitas’ c1671 by Philippe de Champaigne – Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

What ever their true origin, and it could well be a blend of ancient and more modern traditions, the Screaming Skull remains an evocative element of British folklore.

For a classic take on the screaming skull legend in literature, you can read F Marion Crawford’s ‘The Screaming Skull’, inspired by the screaming skull of Bettiscombe Manor….

Sources and Notes

Clarke, David (1999) The head cult : tradition and folklore surrounding the symbol of the severed human head in the British Isles. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield. <> [1]-[5] and [7] [4] [8] [6] – F Marion Crawford 1911

Clandestine Marriages: Five tales of abduction from the 17th and 18th centuries


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Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe. Wikimedia.

Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe. Wikimedia.

Nowadays the idea of anything being clandestine suggests something having an unsavoury, grubby and secretive undertone but in the 17th and 18th centuries many couples preferred to have a clandestine marriage. Tens of thousands of couples from all walks of life were legally and respectably married in clandestine ceremonies.

Clandestine marriages were recognised in Canon Law as long as the ceremony was performed by an ordained clergyman. A clandestine marriage had a number of advantages over an official marriage for instance it did away with the need for publishing banns and buying a licence making the ceremony cheaper and quicker, the betrothed couple were not restricted to marrying in their own parish, if need be the date could be backdated to cover an unplanned pregnancy and couples could be married away from the public eye as well as interfering relatives. This type of marriage could be especially convenient for foreign couples who had just moved to England and as yet were not registered in a parish or soldiers and sailors on limited leave[1].

A number of places became well-known centres for clandestine marriages including All Hallows Church in Honey Lane, St Pancreas in Soper Lane, Mayfair Chapel (which tried to encourage business by having as a centrepiece the supposedly embalmed corpse of the wife of the parson[2]) and the notorious area of the Fleet.

Under The Rules of the Fleet

Strangely enough the Fleet Prison was one of the most popular settings for clandestine marriages in the 17th and 18th centuries and whereas elsewhere this type of marriage was seen as perfectly reputable, Fleet marriages were often viewed with suspicion.

Prior to the law of 1711 (which closed a quirky loophole in the law) marriages took place in the prison chapel. The prison was well set up for the celebration of nuptials with the happy couple able to enjoy a range of facilities including a tap-room, coffee-house, public kitchen and eating room and even a sports area which had been built to accommodate the hundreds of visitors the prison attracted each week[3]. As with all prisons at the time bribery was rife and anyone willing to pay could do as they pleased. This ensured that the prison wardens and clergy for the correct fee would obligingly look the other way if the marriage was in any way dodgy.

The Fleet Prison. Image Wikimedia.

The Fleet Prison. Image Wikimedia.

When the prison was finally banned from holding marriages, business just moved outside its walls to an area which for some bizarre reason fell beyond the jurisdiction of the church but was still classed as being under ‘the Rules of the Fleet’. This unsavoury neighbourhood which had sprung up allowed prisoners to live in lodgings outside the prison compound as long as they paid the keeper a fee for loss of earnings[4]. The taverns and coffee houses such as the Bull and Garter, The Great Hand and Pen and The Star took full advantage of the new business opportunity and turned themselves into extremely profitable ‘marriage houses’ (half the marriages in London took place in the Fleet)[5]. These marriage houses used any means possible to encourage business and some even had their own in-house clergyman such as Dr Gainham who could be found at the Rainbow Coffee House[6].

Touts were employed to harass and persuade visiting couples to pop into their marriage house for a quick ceremony and even single gentlemen were approached – I guess that there must have been a pool of potential wives that you could marry at short notice!

It is not surprising then given the character of the place, the booming marriage industry and the fierce competition amongst around 80 disgraced clergymen at a loose end and living in the area, that everyone involved was prepared to turn a blind eye to unwilling participants or repeat customers.

Fleet Street Marriage. Via Wikimedia.

Fleet Street Marriage. Via Wikimedia.

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753

The passing of the Marriage Act proposed in 1753 by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke and implemented the following year put an end to clandestine marriages. From then on it was illegal to get married without bans or a licence, girls under the age of 21 had to get the permission of their parents or guardians and the marriage itself had to take place in an Anglican church (Jews and Quakers were exempt). Verbal and written contracts were no longer accepted as legal evidence of marriage. Couples had to register their marriages in a parish’s register and the signatures of the bride and groom had to be witnessed[7].

Lord Hardwicke. Image Gretna Green Website.

Lord Hardwicke. Image Gretna Green Website.

This Act would have appealed to Daniel Defoe and other like-minded individuals who believed that prior to this “a gentleman might have the satisfaction of hanging a thief that stole and old horse from him, but could have no justice against a rogue for stealing his daughter” [8] and who had to confine his daughters to their chambers to prevent them from being abducted by “rogues, cheats, gamesters and such like starving crew…”[9].

It took six days for the new legislation to be passed as there were influential opponents of the law who believed that all that was needed was a tightening up of the current system and better record keeping. The politician Henry Fox was concerned that the delay which publishing banns and obtaining a licence created might even ruin some women. He believed that some rogues would convince their intended wife to compromise herself and then drop her before they got to the altar. The Act was also accused of being used to protect the insular nature of the aristocracy by barring new blood and commoners from entering its hallowed circle and some worried that the law would prevent children from being legitimised[10].

The downside of the current system was the few but distressing cases of forced marriages of young girls in particular heiresses and the numerous cases of bigamy which came up regularly at the Old Bailey. Although these cases gave weight to the necessity of the Act, the MP Charles Townshend questioned those who regularly spouted these examples. He believed that the legislation was an overreaction and asked his peers to consider that although forced marriages were scandalous and “a public evil. But how rarely do such infamous marriages happen, especially with respect to those that are under age”[11].

How often did these sorts of marriages really occur is difficult to gauge. Forced marriages did happen but in reality Charles Townshend was correct and these incidents were rare. Nevertheless the damage and distress they caused their unfortunate victims should not be underestimated.

The notion that an unscrupulous and undesirable suitor could persuade or force a wealthy young heiress into an unsuitable marriage against the wishes of her family generated a high level of paranoia amongst the aristocratic and wealthy classes. Older relatives trying to pre-empt and restrict inappropriate behaviour in their female offspring recounted to them cautionary tales of the perils of abduction and impulsive marriages.

eighteenth century painting

The Bolt by Fragonard.

Elizabeth Malet

Elizabeth Malet by Peter Lely.

Elizabeth Malet by Peter Lely.

“Here, upon my [Samuel Pepys] telling her [Lady Sandwich] a story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away.”[12]

The abduction of the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Malet on the 26

May 1665 scandalised London and infuriated King Charles II who quickly signed a warrant for the arrest of Lord Rochester. Sent to the Tower and later to sea, it seems that Rochester’s had not abandoned his matrimonial plans as in January 1667 he again ran off with Elizabeth (this time with her consent). They married in a clandestine ceremony at Knightsbridge Chapel against the wishes of her father, John Malet.[13]

Bridget Hyde

Bridget was the daughter of the acknowledged beauty Mary Hyde and the wealthy Sir Thomas Hyde. On the death of her father shortly after she was born, Bridget became an heiress worth £100,000 and a pawn in her relatives’ tug of war game.

NPG 5568; The Family of Sir Robert Vyner

The Family of Sir Robert Vyner (Bridget is on the far left). Image NPG 5568;

In 1674, Mary became seriously ill and Bridget now aged about twelve was sent to stay with her mother’s sisters, Susan and Sara in Hertfordshire.  Her aunts had not done quite as well in their marriages as their successful sister, marrying two brothers of the name Emerton who worked as bailiffs on the Hyde estate[14]. Aware that Bridget’s step-father, Robert Vyner was hoping to marry Bridget to the son of Lord Danby (in return for a cancellation of his debts which were the result of lending money to Charles II) and afraid for their own livelihood, Bridget’s aunts decided to marry her to her cousin, John. Probably presenting the marriage in the form of a game, Sara and Susan convinced Bridget to go through the ceremony which was conducted by the morally challenged priest, John Brandling. When Vyner found out about the marriage he was furious seeing all his plans falling apart. Determined not to be bested by his wife’s deceitful relatives, Vyner took the case to the Ecclesiastical Court to have it declared null and void. In the meantime Bridget returned to her step-father’s care but her estates were awarded by the Court of the King’s Bench to Emerton. The case lasted six years!

Lovelace Abducting Clarissa Harlowe - Louis Edouard Dubuf

Lovelace Abducting Clarissa Harlowe – Louis Edouard Dubuf

For some reason, Bridget seemed to attract trouble like a moth to a flame. Whilst the legality of her marriage was being debated she became the subject of a second marriage plot. One fateful night, Vyner invited a man known as Henry Wroth to dinner at his house in Ickenham. On finishing his dinner Wroth repaid his host’s hospitality by pulling out a gun and absconding with Bridget. Wroth with his ‘unwilling bride to be’ headed towards Richmond where he had a ferry waiting for them. Vyner pursued and Wroth was arrested. Bridget was unharmed except for losing an amber necklace and a hankerchief[15].

In 1680 the Ecclesiastical Court finally came to a decision and announced in favour of Emerton (possibly due to the key witnesses being unable to testify as they had been excommunicated) [16]despite the fact that the marriage was conducted without the consent of the Bridget’s guardian, Vyner or even Bridget herself. The story did not end there as Danby was still determined that Bridget would eventually marry his son. For the next two years Danby and Vyner entered into negotiations with Emerton. All Emerton had ever really wanted was financial compensation in order for him to renounce the marriage. Thinking that things were progressing far too slowly, Viscount Dunblane decided to matters into his own hands and eloped with a this time willing Bridget to St Marylebone Church (another notorious location for clandestine marriages). The Ecclesiastical Court ever mindful of their own interests, suddenly decided that the marriage with Emerton was not legal!

Although it is sad that even after all this, Bridget did not have the fairy tale ending she deserved (as in a few years Dunblane had run through all his wife’s fortune forcing her “to part with all her plate”) she did in a way finally get the man she wanted as shortly after their marriage it was reported “The Lord Dunblane is dancing with his mistress day and night, and she dotes on him.”[17]

Pleasant Rawlins

Contemporary pamphlet from the abduction trial. Source Heineonline.

Contemporary pamphlet from the abduction trial. Source Heineonline.

In 1701, the seventeen year old heiress, Pleasant Rawlins was arrested for an imaginary unpaid debt of £200 trumped up by a Haagen Swendsen, a German adventurer whose advances Pleasant had previously rebuffed.

Seized under false pretences, Pleasant was taken first to the Star and Garter in Drury Lane and then moved to The Vine in Holborn where Swendsen’s accomplice, a Mrs Baynton convinced Pleasant that she would be incarcerated in Newgate if she refused to go through with the marriage. Now more afraid of being murdered by her captors than worried about imprisonment, a terrified Pleasant reluctantly agreed to the union and was married to Swendsen in the Fleet Prison.

When Pleasant’s horrified family finally found out what had happened to her, Swendsen and Mrs Baynton were arrested and the marriage ruled illegal. Swendsen was found guilty and hung but a pregnant Baynton escaped the death penalty[18].

Mary Wharton

The Honourable James Campbell of the Clan Campbell was an officer in the Royal Scots Army and the British Army, politician[19] and unsuccessful kidnapper. In November 1690 Campbell conspired with Sir John Johnson to abduct the thirteen year old daughter of the late Philip Wharton (cousin of Lord Wharton) worth £1500 and heiress to Goldsborough Hall in North Yorkshire from outside the home of her mother in Westminster.

Image by Hogarth.

Image by Hogarth.

Her aunt and cousins who had been in the coach with Mary testified in court that after having returned from dinning with a Mr Archibald Montgomery in Soho they saw a coach drive hurry past them. On stopping, three men jumped out and in the process of forcing Mary into the six horses coach knocked the footman down and pushed one of her cousins into the gutter. Mary was taken to Watson the coachman’s house where despite being in tears and protesting she was coerced in to marrying Campbell. Disturbingly evidence from the Old Bailey trail also suggests that she tricked into sleeping in the same bed as Campbell by his female accomplice, Mrs Clewer[20] (whether or not Mary was raped by Campbell can’t be ruled out but is not inevitable as often girls married before their 14th birthday would sleep in the same bed as their husband on their wedding night but actually consummate the marriage a few years later).

The next day Campbell compelled Mary to write a reassuring letter to her aunt telling her that she was happily and safely wed and that they would soon visit. Whilst Mary and Campbell were having breakfast, Mary felt ill and was taken to an apothecary where her family finally found her and removed her from Campbell’s clutches by order of the Lord Chief Justice.

Although Johnson was convicted of abduction and sentenced to death, Campbell escaped due to a plea of ignorance of English law. Apparently in Scotland at the time abduction was a conventional method of obtaining a wife and he was falsely led to believe by Johnson that such practices were also accepted in England. Even though his excuse was accepted as reasonable by the powers that be it does sound a little dubious to me.

The marriage was annulled on the 20 December of that year and Mary later married her guardian, the son of her aunt. Hopefully after undergoing such a horrible ordeal Mary went on to have a happy and successful life.

Sibble Morris

The evidence given in the case of Sibble Morris is particularly disturbing and heart-breaking and does clearly reveal how vulnerable young girls could be.

On the 5 March 1728, Sibble Morris and her maid Anne Holiday were paying a second reluctant visit to a Mrs Hendron. On the way they met two acquaintances of theirs, Kitty Pendergrass and Peggy Johnson who told them that Mrs Hendron was not at home and was instead visiting a house in New Round Court in the Strand. They convinced Sibble to accompany them there. On arrival they all entered the house and made their way to a shuttered candle lit room filled with a number of people including a Mr Richard Russel (who Sibble had met only once on the previous visit to Mrs Pendergrass’ house and whom she believed to be a wealthy merchant) and a clergyman.

Frightened and wanting to leave both Sibble and her maid were pulled into the room and the door closed behind them. Mrs Pendergrass told Sibble that it was no use screaming as no-one would hear her. Despite the fact that the girl was young only about 16 years old, was in a near faint and had to be held up throughout the ceremony and could not speak, the clergyman seemed not to notice anything amiss. Even when questioned in the trial he maintained his innocence and stated that he was under the impression that he was marrying a gentleman to a servant and that she was just overcome by the whole situation.

After the ceremony, “Hendron and others dragg’d her [Sibble] up Stairs to a Bed-Chamber, which was also shut up with Shutters, and Kitty Pendergrass and Peggy Johnson, pulled off her Cloaths by Force, Hendron holding her Hands; and that one Mrs. Rigy was there present while all this was done, that they forc’d her into Bed, and that Hendron held her down in Bed”[21] and waited until Russel joined them.

Futile Resistance by Fragonard.

Futile Resistance by Fragonard.

It was only on the following Thursday that Sibble’s father heard about the marriage from a man who had pretended to be a friend of Russel. On hearing the devastating news Mr Morris confronted his daughter, who in her distress admitted that it was due to fear and shame that she had not told him what had happened. Mr Morris refused to speak to Russel who on hearing that a warrant for his arrest had been issued, fled.

Throughout the trial, Sibble maintained that she had never at any point agreed to the marriage. Russel’s female accomplices were found guilty of aiding and abetting a kidnap and rape and sentenced to death but the incompetent, oblivious and brainless clergyman (if you can believe he really did not know what was going on) was let off[22].

To love, honour and OBEY!

What did Hardwicke’s law really achieve? Girls were still forced to marry men they abhorred and detested just now they did it with their parents or guardians’ blessing. The main objective of the Act was never the welfare of vulnerable young girls but the protection of a family’s property by placing complete control on where it would be bestowed in the hands of the heiress’s parents or guardian. Girls lost any power or control they may once have had over their own lives and became just a pawn in their family’s dynastic game of chess. Any chance of escaping their family’s clutches and marrying their own choice of husband was now cut off (although the long shot of Gretna Green was still available).

In an ironic way if one of the aims of the Marriage Act was to protect women it did so by imprisoning them within their families and making them even more vulnerable to forced marriages then before.

The ambitious mother and the obliging clergyman by Charles Dana Gibson.

The ambitious mother and the obliging clergyman by Charles Dana Gibson.


Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester:,_Countess_of_Rochester

Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys

Georgian London: http://www.georgianlondon/post/494612709431/fleet-marriages

Marriage among Londoners before Hardwicke’s Act of 1753: when, where and why?

Fleet Prison:

The Fleet Prison:

From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753,

Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom

Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde

Nigel Pickford, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne, 2014

Naomi Clifford: Two 18th-century bride abductions

James Campbell (of Burnbank and Boquhan):

John Johnson, William Clewer, S – C -, Grace Wiggan, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 10th December 1690:

Mary Hendron, John Wheeler, Margaret Pendergrass, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 1st May 1728.

Guardian Shorts: A Marriage Proposal by Sophie Ward

The History of Parliament:

Jacqueline Rose: Godly kingship in restoration England: The politics of the royal Supremacy, 2011


[1] Georgian London: georgianlondon/post/494612709431/fleet-marriages

[2] Marriage among Londoners before Hardwicke’s Act of 1753: when, where and why?

[3] ibid

[4] Fleet Prison:

[5] Full text of “The history of the Fleet marriages [electronic resource]

[6] ibid

[7] From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753,

[8] Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom

[9] Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde:

[10] From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753,

[11] ibid

[12] Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys, Entry on the 28 May 1665

[13] Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester:,_Countess_of_Rochester

[14] Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde:

[15] ibid

[16] Nigel Pickford, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne, 2014

[17] ibid

[18] Naomi Clifford: Two 18th-century bride abductions Naomi Clifford

[19] James Campbell (of Burnbank and Boquhan):

[20] John Johnson, William Clewer, S – C -, Grace Wiggan, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 10th December 1690:

[21] Mary Hendron, John Wheeler, Margaret Pendergrass, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 1st May 1728.

[22] ibid