Greyfriars Kirkyard: Covenanters, Bloody MacKenzie and things that go bump in the night.


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

Edinburgh is a city rife with duality, it is a city where surgeons shake hands with murders, superstition vies with enlightenment and the cruel compete with the sentimental. And in a city like Edinburgh, the dead, like the poor, will never be far away. Greyfriars Kirkyard crouched behind the Grassmarket, protected by high walls and overlooked by the tall tenements of Candlemaker Row, is famous as the resting place of the great and the good: from Buchan to Greyfriars Bobby. But those walls also encompass darker tales: of plague pits, resurrectionists and the brutal suppression of religious dissent.

Mary Queen of Scots and a surfeit of bodies

King Death.

From the 1400’s to the 1500’s the Kirkyard was a Franciscan convent garden situated on the outskirts of the town; however by the mid sixteenth century pressure on the existing burial ground at St Giles led Mary Queen of Scots to make a gift of the land for use as a cemetery [1]. This was in 1562 and was not a moment too soon, as plague ravaged the city in 1568 and many of its victims ended up in plague pits in the Kirkyard. To further add to its grisly history, the severed heads of criminals executed on the Grassmarket were displayed at entrance of Greyfriars Kirkyard closest to it. As the body-count rose, so too did the ground level[2]. It is worth remembering that as with most old cemeteries, there are a lot more bodies than there are visible monuments…so tread carefully, because every step is likely to be over someone’s grave.

Tenements and Grave Monuments back to back.

The pale gold Dutch-barn-style church that visitors see today looks timeless but it is not the original Greyfriars Kirk. A late Gothic-style church was begun on the site in 1602 and took nearly twenty years to complete. The old kirk didn’t have much luck; it was damaged during the Civil War and partially destroyed in 1718 when the town’s gunpowder supply, which some bright spark had decided to store in the church tower, blew up. Eventually a new kirk was added to the surviving old kirk, but ill-fortune dogged that too, and a fire in 1845 destroyed the remaining old kirk and damaged parts of new. All seems peaceful now, although if you look closely you can still see some remaining scorch-marks on the brickwork, a reminder of its eventful past[3].

Greyfriars Kirk

The National Covenant of Scotland

One of the most tragic elements of the history of Greyfriars, and one with potentially long lasting psychic consequences, is its link to the doomed Covenanter movement of the seventeenth century.  An old legend about the conversion of Scotland to Christianity claims that there was a covenant between God and the community of Scotland before the first king, Fergus, began his reign (c310AD). To many Scots this cemented the idea that Scotland, not England, or even Rome itself, was the first true Godly Kingdom; it reinforced the belief that no king could stand between the Scots and their covenant with God. In England, the King was the head of the Church but traditionally in Scotland the Kirk had no such figurehead. This would prove a sticking point between the Scottish Covenanters and King Charles I [4].

King Charles I. Image source unknown.

Charles I, despite his Scottish birth, critically misread the mood of the Scots when he and Arch-Bishop Laud introduced the Authorised Prayer Book in1637, it was an attempt to bring the reformed Catholic Church, epitomised by English Episcopalianism, to Scotland, and it was required that the book be read out in Scottish Kirks. This was not a wise move by the king. Described as ‘This Popish-English-Scottish-Mass-Service-book’ by John Row, a minister at St Giles [5] its attempt at introducing a national church, with the king as its head, served only to inflame calls for Scottish religious independence.

On 23 July 1637 the reading of the Authorised Prayer Book in Scottish Kirks led to the Prayer Book Riots, in which stools were hurled at the Dean and Bishop of Edinburgh in St Giles, and the Bishop designate of Argyll was shouted down at Greyfriars Kirk for trying to introduce popery by the backdoor.

The Prayer Book Riots in Scotland, 1637. Image source Wikipedia.

Charles I and Arch-bishop Laud were attempting to introduce an Arminian inspired version of the church across Britain. The Arminian view considered that the Church of Rome was a true church even if misguided. In short, Charles and Laud wanted to introduce a reformed Catholic Church across England and Scotland. This was a red-rag to a bull for Scottish Presbyterians, as Simon Schama wrote: ‘The mere notion that the Church of Rome was not actually the abominable institution of the Antichrist, sent them into a paroxysm of wrath.’ [6] Something had to be done to protect the godly church in Scotland from the corrupt and popish church that Laud and his bishops were trying to impose on Scotland.

Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Image source Wikipedia.

The King, far removed from his Scottish roots, would not renounce Arch-bishop Laud, Bishops in general, or his idea of what the church should be, and tensions were running high. In fact, Charles thought much of the resentment was being fanned by France, rather than local sentiment, and made it clear he would treat such views as traitorous. The ground was ripe for religious rebellion.

On 28 February 1638 before the pulpit in Greyfriars Kirk, the National Covenant was signed. Prayers were offered, Psalms sung and sermons delivered. The New Jerusalem was to be in Scotland. Over the next days and weeks the covenant was displayed and signed by multitudes, rich and poor, young and old, men and women alike. Simon Schama notes that such was its importance to the national psyche it became almost a measure of patriotism– to be a true Christian and a true Scot you must sign the covenant [7].

The Signing of the Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, by William Allan 1838. City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

On the surface the document maintained the Kings Peace, but under the condition that the king could be lawfully challenged if he broke the covenant. Schama also points out that Covenanters did not see their demands as threatening to the King as such, with the proviso that if the King should threaten them in their religious freedom, then they would take up arms [8]. This was unlikely to go down well with the autocratic Charles I.

National Covenant of 1638.  source National Library of Scotland.

Later in 1638 the Glasgow Assembly went even further and broke the links between the Scottish Church and English government. The die was cast and the King would have to take decisive action.

So began half a century of unrest, punctuated by Civil War, regicide, the protectorate and finally the restoration of a king in exile. In fact Charles II was assisted on his return by the Scottish Covenanters, on the proviso that he agree to leave Presbyterianism well alone in Scotland. However, Kings have short memories once their crowns are secure, and he soon went back on his word and began persecuting the Covenanters. The scene was set for the final tragedy that was to play out in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Covenanters Prison

Fast forward to1679, following the final defeat of the Presbyterian Covenanters at the battle of Bothwell Brig on the 22nd June, around twelve-hundred Covenanter prisoners were marched in disgrace to Edinburgh. Declared rebels and traitors they faced execution or at best, transportation to the colonies to work as indentured slave labour. However, many had much worse suffering to endure in the months ahead.

The Covenanters Prison.

Today, the visitor can view the prison through locked gates – a wide grassy avenue is flanked by unremarkable family vaults of pale stone; however things were very different in the seventeenth century. Inner Greyfriars yard covered about 3 acres, with high walls and only one gate (not the current gates that visitors see) [9]. Facilities to house and accommodate the prisoners were non-existent – they were effectively penned up in the open air for upwards of four months and given a miserly ration of 4oz of food per day. Vulnerable to exposure, malnutrition, disease and despair many died during their internment, especially as the year turned towards winter. The conditions in the Covenanters Prison were so harsh that it has been called the first concentration camp [10].

Location of the Prison in Inner Greyfriars Yard. Source Early Modern Commons website.

Such a huge influx of people created a logistical nightmare in Edinburgh; this is why Inner Greyfriars Yard, as it was known then, was used as an overflow prison. Estimates vary as to how many prisoners were held here, certainly the number reduced over time. Dr Mark Jardine’s view that there were initially1184 prisoners housed in Greyfriars Yard and Herriot School (next to it) seems compelling, it is based on the evidence of how many penny loaves were issued as rations to the prisoners (1184 on 1 July, one for each prisoner).  The numbers rapidly reduced during the summer as many were released after being, often forcefully, encouraged to swear the Kings Peace, an oath of loyalty to the King that some hardcore Covenanters called ‘the black bond’. Added to this, others of course would have died from the terrible conditions, or been executed or transported thereby further reducing numbers as time went on [11] [12]. It must have felt like a bitter irony for the Covenanters to have been imprisoned next to the place from which their movement first took wing.

Eventually judicial fate met those who remained and many were executed on the Grassmarket. By Mid November only around 250 prisoners remained in Greyfriars. They were condemned to transportation, and having survived the privations of the Covenanters Prison, they must surely have felt some relief. However, fate, proved to be merciless when the ship carrying them, The Croune, sank off the Orkneys, and of the 250 or so chained prisoners only 60 or so made it back to dry land alive [13] [14].

The Covenanters Memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

The Killing Time and Bloody MacKenzie

Sir George MacKenzie. Image source Wikipedia.

Presbyterian historians refer to the period of persecution during the reign of Charles II until the Glorious Revolution in 1688, as The Killing Time. During this time, countless Covenanter ministers were forced out of their livings, ordinary people were fined if they didn’t attend the King’s church and torture and extortion were routinely used to break the spirit of the Covenanters. Unable to practice their religion in public, Covenanters resorted to meeting in fields in ‘conventicles’ but that soon became perilous, with a death penalty for any preacher caught in the act.

The Sanquhar Declaration of 1680 brought matters to a head, Covenanters renounced allegiance to Charles II, in response to this treasonous behaviour, the Scottish Privy Council went all out against the Covenanters allowing field executions of those in arms or refusing to swear loyalty to the King. The Oath of Abjuration, as it was called, was, in itself, designed to offend, thereby revealing hardened Covenanters for summary execution.

Margaret Wilson, one of the Wigtown Martyrs. Executed by high tide in 1685. Source Wikimedia.

Sir George MacKenzie (1636/8-1691) is a name that has become synonymous with the persecution by the crown of the Covenanters, earning him the epithet Bluidy Mackenzie. He persecuted them from the bench, while John Graham of Claverhouse earned the name Bluidy Clavers for his summary field executions.
But Sir George Mackenzie wasn’t entirely evil. As an essayist he was enlightened in his views against the persecution of witches, and one of his lasting legacies was the Advocates Library, later the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh. In fact, during the 1660’s when Mackenzie was a budding lawyer, he actually defended a number of Covenanters. Things changed from 1677 though, when he was made Lord Advocate – the king’s representative in Scotland.

It has be argued by Bruce Lenman and J Mackie in their book A History of Scotland, that as Lord Advocate, Mackenzie was responsible for executing King Charles II’s policy regarding suppression of the Presbyterian Covenanters, therefore Mackenzie effectively had no choice but to execute government policy. He and Bluidy Clavers may have acted entirely within law in their dealings with Covenanters – although I doubt the Covenanters felt that justice was being served to them [15].

It is easy to romanticise the persecuted Covenanters, fighting to preserve their religious independence and perhaps Scotland’s independence as well; however they did not speak for all Scots – many highlanders, after all, were Catholic. And to modern eyes, they can be viewed as hard-line religious extremists, ready to bring down the government in order to impose their austere religious ideology. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between, with most ordinary people simply wanting the freedom to choose how they worshipped their God. What is not in doubt is the terrible suffering endured by the people immured in Greyfriars by order of their King, and such suffering may well have left a permanent imprint…

Flowers left at the Covenanters Prison gate.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist

The Black Mausoleum, Bluidy MacKenzie’s final resting place.

Mackenzie died in 1691 and somewhat tactlessly, was interred in his elegant mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard, within spitting distance of the Covenanters Prison. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing in 1897, reported the evil reputation that Mackenzie and that part of Greyfriars Kirkyard had acquired:

‘When a man’s soul is certainly in hell, his body will scarce lie quite in a tomb however costly, sometime or other the door must open, and the reprobate come forth in the abhorred garments of the grave’ . He went on to report a local children’s game: ‘Fool hardy urchins [thought it] a high piece of prowess to knock at the Lord Advocate’s Mausoleum and challenge him to appear. “Bluidy Mackenzie, come oot if ye dar”’ [16]

The doors to the Mausoleum.

One such foolhardy urchin, in the form of a homeless man looking for shelter one stormy night in 1999, took the dare and got more than he bargained for. Breaking into the Mausoleum he found an underground chamber containing the coffin of Bluidy Mackenzie. Perhaps thinking it contained valuables, he tried to break into it, but in the darkness he stumbled and fell into an open pit filled with the bones of plague victims. The terrified man burst screaming from the Mausoleum, just as a grounds man, walking his dog, approached it. The combined terror is thought by some, to have amplified the dark energies held within the tomb, and given rise to what has become known as the Mackenzie Poltergeist (see Jan-Andrew Henderson’s The Ghost That Haunted Itself, for more on the Pheromone Theory.)

Interior of the Mausoleum, showing the entrance to the crypt.

Since then the phenomena around the mausoleum and the Covenanters Prison has escalated, visitors have reported being pushed and scratched and feeling nauseous to the point of passing out. The death of popular local Spiritualist Colin Grant, following an exorcism at the Mausoleum and prison, in January 2000 added a tragic dimension to the growing legend of the poltergeist.

Grant believed there were many spirits  trapped there in pain, plus ‘something else as well, something much stronger.’ [17]The local tour company City of the Dead, who hold keys to the Covenanters Prison, have reported many such instances that would support this view – after all, the poltergeist is undoubtedly good for business! Having been on one such tour, I can certainly attest to the eerie feeling walking into the Covenanters Prison on a dark night. During that tour I took some photographs which are below, and there were some interesting anomalies. Lots of orbs, especially in the Prison, and what may be either Pareidolia (the human desire to see faces where there are none) or just possibly, a misty face above a grave stone. I leave you to be the judge.

The Black Mausoleum

Nightime shots at Greyfriars Kirkyard

I have to admit that not being an expert on paranormal investigation, or external physical causes of light anomalies in photographs, I am yet to be convinced that ‘orbs’ are evidence of spirits.  However, I do find them fascinating and have captured some previous images at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, and now at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

Conditions at the time:

  • Early March
  • Dry and cold
  • No visible insects
  • Early blossom on the trees – loose petals could have caused some anomalies
  • Although the graveyard was very dark, lights from surrounding buildings could have created anomalies
  • Building work on the Kirk during the day could have created dust in the atmosphere

Pareidolia or paranormal? On the right, hovering above the gravestone, a misty face?

Detail of above, area where a face may, or may not, be discerned.


Is that an orb, inside the doorway of this vault?

Inside Covenanters Prison: two, maybe three, orbs in the vault of the roof? (the tomb itself is of later date).

Inside the Covenanters Prison – orbs hovering above the vaults?

Not much happening here – house lights in the distance, perhaps another factor in the light anomalies?

No orbs, but evidence of early blossom in the trees which could have contributed to the anomalies.

Bloody MacKenzie’s mausoleum by night. Unfortunately, no orbs here – does that mean the poltergeist is not at home………?

Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard is open to the public.  You can also do nigh-time tours of the Kirkyard and enter the Covenanters Prison with City of the Dead Tours.

Sources and notes

All images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.

Forde, Matt,   [1] [2]

Hayden, Gary, [10] [16]

Henderson, Jan-Andrew, ‘The Ghost That Haunted Itself’, 2001, Mainstream Publishing [2] [13] [17]

Jardine, Mark, [9] [11] [14]

Schama, Simon, ‘A Hisory of Britain:The British Wars 1603-1776’, BBC [4] [5] [6] [7] [15] [12]



Part Two: Thomas Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park and his ‘spirit phone’


, , , , , , , , , ,

Click here to read Part One

A telephone line to the dead?

Thomas Edison with his phonograph. Source CNN.

“…I am now at work on the most sensitive apparatus I have ever undertaken to build, and I await the results with the keenest interest.”[13]

Many people believe that Edison was working on a device to contact the spirit world up until his own death in 1931. As to what the device was opinions differ. Edison never mentioned in any articles or in interviews that he was trying to create a ‘spirit phone’. The term ‘spirit phone’ was first devised in the 1940s and the term seems to have been applied to Edison’s experiment retrospectively. It may have been because for many people Edison’s name is intrinsically linked with the development and refinement of the telephone.

Whenever Edison does refer to a device, which would have the potential to contact the dead, in either an interview of in an essay he invariably described it as a valve and not a telephone. This valve he claimed would have to be so sensitive that it would respond to the very slightest movement and record and amplify the barest whisper of the life units.

A practical application

Some people claimed that Edison had said that he had made a pact with his engineer William Walter Dinwiddie that whoever died first would contact the other through the machine. Another story exists that Edison had stated that one of his employees who had been working on the device had died and that “he ought to be the first to use it if he is able to do so”[14]. For some these stories are all the proof they need for others it is an essay which appeared in 1933 in Modern Mechaix.

Thomas Edison in later life. Source [unknown].

The essay claims to depict an experiment which Edison undertook to try to contact the spirit world. This secret experiment was purported to have taken place in 1920 in Edison’s lab. The author also goes on to describe how Edison set up a beam projector and photoelectric receiver which were sensitive enough to register any movement across the beam. According to the paper, the experiment was a complete failure with the scientists sitting for hours waiting for something to happen[15].

It seems doubtful that the experiment ever took place as why did it take thirteen years for the article to be published and why was it only ever mentioned in one publication? Also the one man that could refute or confirm the article’s authenticity was no longer around.

A hoax on the world?

Thomas Edison – shining a light on the spirit world…or not? Source [unknown].

1920 Edison caused a media sensation when he told B.C. Forbes of American Magazine that he was working on a spiritual communication device. Other newspapers immediately jumped on the bandwagon and the story spread. The reaction to Edison’s statement was unprecedented. The editor of American Magazine received around 600 letters from members of the public. Gerald Falons, Museum Curator of Sound Recording at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park has grouped the letters under headings and summarised the content. The letters include offers of help with the design; people claiming that such a machine already existed; one man asking how to place a call once he had reached the afterlife (he apparently had not long to live); and people wondering whether they could purchase the machine early or would have to wait until it was in the shops. Some of the contents of the letters reveal panic among the newspaper’s readers such as those that thought that contacting the dead was going against religion whilst others were convinced that only evil spirits would answer. What is really interesting is that the most popular response was whole-hearted support for the machine’s creation and that three of these letters were from people from a science background who had been formally educated in the field. The furore that was caused is not surprising. Edison was a national hero, a man hailed as one of the most brilliant men to ever live and someone whom people trusted. It would never have occurred to the majority of people that Edison would have been teasing them or even worse deceiving them.

Edison in Scientific American. Source [?] on Pinterest.

A year later in an article in ‘The Scientific American’ Edison again referred to the subject stating that if personality survives death then it makes sense that those “… who leave the Earth would like to communicate with those they have left here…then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.”[16] The article then went on to report that Edison had said that his apparatus was still in its experimental stage suggesting that he had already developed a prototype. The lack of details except for the fact that it was a valve does raise doubts about Edison’s research. Was it because Edison did not have a concrete idea on how to devise his instrument or did he simply want to keep his plans close to his chest or was it because he never had any intention of creating an instrument to communicate with ‘spirits’. The latter argument could be used to support Edison’s admission in an interview with the New York Times in 1926 that he had only said what he said to Forbes because “I really had nothing to tell him [Forbes], but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirit is, but it was all a joke”.[17]

It seems strange that Edison would have made such a statement as a joke and let it fester for six years. If it was a prank was Edison really that bored or was it simply that he had been developing such a device but that it hadn’t worked. Is that why there are no pictures, plans or models or even a reference to the contraption in his diary? Or was it that Edison did invent a machine but could not get it to work and therefore embarrassed by his lack of success erased all evidence of his research, preferring instead to pretend it was said in jest rather than admit failure.

The missing evidence rediscovered?

For those who believe Edison did create or at least research the possibility of a ‘spirit communication device’ it is vital therefore to find some tangible evidence. In 1948 Edison’s book Diary and Sundry Observations detailing his research was published by the Edison Estate. It has often been cited that the last chapter comprising 80 or so pages detailing his spiritual investigation research were removed from the English version of the diary. In March 2015 an article published on the internet claimed that the French edition had been discovered with the missing pages intact. These pages were reprinted by Philippe Baudouin, a French radio presenter and philosopher in his book “Le Royaume de l’Au-dela” (The Kingdom of the Afterlife)[18]. Could these pages be authentic? I am not sure and I haven’t found any reviews yet on the book. I hope to read it soon but will have to wait until an English translation is available.

Edison’s Journal, to do list. Source Len Wilson website.

From beyond the grave: The last words

Years after Edison’s death, his ‘spirit phone’ was not forgotten. Despite the fact that Edison had little time for the work of mediums he seems to have on two separate occasions used their services. Participants at a séance in 1941 claimed that Edison had contacted them and told them that three of his assistants had the plans for his ‘spirit phone’. At another séance the participants reported that Edison had given instructions on how to improve the phone[19]. The thing which is strange is that if Edison was so successful at communicating through the mediums why was the ‘spirit phone’ even needed!

A deathbed confession?

Edison died at 9pm on the 18th October 1931 at his home in New Jersey at the age of 84. He had been suffering from complications as a result of diabetes which had left him in a coma. Just before he passed away he awoke and said quietly to his wife, Mina “It is very beautiful over there”[20]. Was Edison dreaming or did he really see something? We will never know but it would be an ironic twist if this brilliant and unique man who had spent his life promoting science over the spiritual had at the very end changed his mind.

So was Edison interested in creating a device to which would record the voices of the dead? In my opinion, yes it is more than likely he was. Did he build an instrument? He was an inventor, so again I think he probably did try. Did the device work? No, I am pretty sure it didn’t. Did Edison destroy his plans? Yes more than likely. Edison once said “A good idea is never lost. Even though its originator or possessor may die without publicizing it, it will someday be reborn in the mind of another”[21]. Edison was right! Ever since he made his announcement which astonished and frightened the world, people have been trying to create devices which can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of the spirit world. Will anyone ever succeed? Maybe. Possibly a more pertinent question is, if they do succeed will they ever be believed?

A modern day Spirit Box, used by many paranormal investigators to attempt to contact the spirit world. Source Ghost Hunt Now website.


The Biography of Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison,

The religious and political views of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison’s Telephone to the Afterlife

Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

Edison and the Ghost Machine,

Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine,

How Thomas Edison Pranked the 1920s With His “Dead People” Phone

Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of),

Edison’s ‘Lost’ Idea: A Device to Hear the Dead,

Edison’s Lost Plan To Record Voices Of Dead,

Edison’s forgotten ‘invention’: A phone that calls the dead


[13] Edison and the Ghost Machine,

[14] Edison and the Ghost Machine,

[15] Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

[16] Thomas Edison’s Telephone to the Afterlife

[17] ibid

[18] Edison’s Lost Plan To Record Voices Of Dead,

[19] Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of),

[20] The Biography of Thomas Edison,

[21]The Biography of Thomas Edison,

Part One: Thomas Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park and his ‘spirit phone’


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

‘Addle-brained’ young Thomas Edison. Source Wikipedia. Public domain.

This is the first part of a two-part post by Miss Jessel, looking at the extraordinary Thomas Edison (1847-1931), inventor and freethinker.  Famous for developing everything from the phonograph to the light bulb, he was also instrumental in bringing a scientific approach to the investigation of the spirit world. Lenora.

Thomas Edison was born on the 11th February in 1847 in Milan in Ohio, America. When he was seven his teacher described him as ‘addled-brained’ because of his constant questions and so a decision was taken to home school him. Edison’s mother believed her son’s unusual demeanour and appearance were due to his extraordinary intelligence. The lack of formal education meant that Edison was able to develop his own approach to learning which included the importance of practical applications to test scientific theories.

A turning point in Edison’s life was when at the age of 14 he saved the 3-year-old son of a station master from being killed on the railway tracks by an oncoming box car. As a thank you the station master taught Edison morse code and the workings of the telegraph and as a result Edison began a career as a telegraph operator.

Edison’s experiments on improving the telegraph system and the use of electricity formed the basis of all his later inventions. In his life Edison registered 1093 patents either singly or jointly. His most famous inventions included the first practical electric lightbulb; dictaphone; memeograph; fluoroscopy; alkaline storage battery; and motion picture camera, the kinetoscope. Edison also set up the first industrial research lab at Menlo Park in New Jersey in 1876. The success of Edison’s research and inventions led him to be dubbed ‘the father of the electrical age’, ‘the greatest inventor who ever lived’ and my personal favourite ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’[1].

Replica of the Menlo Park Lab. Source Andrew Balet via Wikimedia.

Probably the most controversial of Edison’s inventions is a device which many believe he never invented and others that the plans and models of were destroyed. This invention was an instrument which could communicate with the souls of the dead.

Atheist, Free-thinker or Deist

Edison has been labelled at different times and depending on the sympathies of the author either an atheist, free-thinker or deist.

Thomas Edison c1922. Source Wikimedia.

On being accused of atheism, Edison replied that he had never made such as a denial but that “what you call god I call nature, the supreme intelligence that rules matter”[2]. Although Edison is often described as a free-thinker he seems to have shared a very similar viewpoint to Thomas Paine who in his book ‘The Age of Reason’ expresses his opposition to institutionalized religions and the Bible. Edison’s belief in deism and the idea that although a creator existed beyond that it was only the laws of nature that ruled the world, is clear when he stated “I do not believe in the god of theologians, but that there is a supreme intelligence I do not doubt”[3].

A New Sixth Sense

A story is told about Edison’s first introduction to someone who claimed to be a clairvoyant. A stranger came to Edison’s lab and asked to see him. Edison was a little concerned about the man and so asked his assistant to come into the room. The man asked the assistant to write down a number of names which he then proceeded to repeat perfectly without looking at the paper. Edison then wanted to test the man’s ability and asked if he could write down a question. The man agreed. His response was ‘No, there is nothing better’. The question was whether there was anything better for a storage battery than nickel hydroxide. The man then left and Edison never saw him again[4].

Burt Reese 1851 -1926, Medium. Source Wikimedia.

This event may have been why Edison was so keen to test the famous medium Dr Bert Reese. Reese’s ‘divination method’ involved asking members of his audience to write names on pieces of paper which he would then roll up into small balls and rub on his forehead. He would then ‘read’ the paper with his mind. His accuracy amazed people as he would reel off the names correctly. Reese was revealed to be a charlatan by Harry Houdini at a séance but Edison was firmly convinced that Reese was genuine since he himself had never seen any evidence of Reese cheating[5].

These two experiences convinced Edison that clairvoyance was not due to some form of magical power but was proof of a new sensory ability which anyone could develop. It may have also confirmed and cemented Edison’s standpoint that the afterlife could also be deciphered by science.

Spiritualism vs Science

“I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation we must do it with scientific apparatus and in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry, and other fields.”[6]

The Victorian era was the age of invention. Ideas that would have been seen as impossible a few decades earlier were now becoming a reality. Science was disproving many long-held beliefs. This new reality left some people uncomfortable and frightened. The desire to reconcile religion and science was one of the reasons for the rise of spiritualism. Some scientists felt that by scientifically proving that spirits and the afterlife existed they could then justify why so many people felt the need for religion.

Séance, 1872. Source Wikimedia.

Although Edison himself had no tolerance for people who believed in an afterlife or in the supernatural, Because we are as yet unable to understand it, we call it immortal. It is the ignorant, lazy man’s refuge. There are plenty of savages, you know, who still call fire immortal”[7] it would have been strange for someone with his questioning personality if he had not got caught up in the spiritualism debate. Therefore it makes sense that Edison would have wanted to find answers using technology and if they exist give ‘spirits’ a better opportunity “to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and Ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication.” [8]

Edison was first and foremost a scientist and so it is impossible to think that he would have ever conceived of the spirit or soul in the same way theologians or spiritualists did. There is evidence to prove that he was in contact with other like-minded scientists such as the British inventor, Sir William Crookes who claimed to have captured spirit images on photographs but what Edison always demanded wasProof, proof! That is what I always have been after; that is what my mind requires before it can accept a theory as fact.”[9] It may have been this need for proof which was behind him thinking about building a device which could allow the souls of the dead to communicate.

If Edison did try to create such a device, the ‘spirits’ which he would have envisaged would not have been what spiritualists and religions refer to as shades, ghosts, phantoms or manifestations but a very scientific version i.e. what Edison called life units[10].

Swarms of life units

Edison’s idea of how life existed was quite unusual. He thought that animate objects were made up of extremely tiny particles which he called life units. These life units were even smaller than electrons and had yet to be officially discovered. Edison’s theory was based on the scientific concept that energy was interchangeable and that the energy which made up all lifeforms could not be created or destroyed. Therefore when an animate object died these life units broke up into their respective individual units, left their human vessel, created swarms and joined another form[11].

Since these life units made up all human functions they would also naturally make up the Broca’s Area of the brain which Edison believed wrongly was responsible for both personality and memory. Therefore as life units could not be destroyed, a person’s memory and personality would continue to exist after death[12].

It was these life units that Edison if he did create an instrument would have tried to contact.

Swarms of life units… Original Image by Bin im Garten via Wikimedia. Altered by Lenora.

In part two, Miss Jessel will look at whether Edison’s spirit phone was ever created, and evaluate the evidence as to whether Edison’s alleged invention was genuine or a hoax.  Click here to read Part Two.


The Biography of Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison,

The religious and political views of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison,

Thomas Edison’s Telephone to the Afterlife

Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

Edison and the Ghost Machine,

Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine,

How Thomas Edison Pranked the 1920s With His “Dead People” Phone

Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of),

Edison’s ‘Lost’ Idea: A Device to Hear the Dead,

Edison’s Lost Plan To Record Voices Of Dead,

Edison’s forgotten ‘invention’: A phone that calls the dead


[1] The Biography of Thomas Edison,

[2] Thomas Edison,

[3] Thomas Edison,

[4] Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine,

[5] Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine,

[6] Edison and the Ghost Machine,

[7] The religious and political views of Thomas Edison

[8] Edison and the Ghost Machine,

[9] The religious and political views of Thomas Edison

[10] Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

[11] Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

[12] Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead,

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins – shades of Burke and Hare?


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

Edinburgh Castle viewed from the Grassmarket.

Edinburgh. The elegant New Town, the Athens of the North, home to writers, philosophers and surgeons – the cradle of the Scottish Enlightenment.  But entwined with this respectable façade there is also the Old Town, with its narrow wynds and closes, rife with tales of squalor, plague and sudden death.  And looming in the distance, the ancient extinct volcano called Arthur’s seat.

A Strange Discovery

Salisbury Crags and Arthurs Seat.

Late June, 1836, a group of lads out rabbiting made their way up the North East flank of Arthur’s Seat. Poking about in the undergrowth they came upon a small cave or recess, blocked by three slate slabs.  Intrigued, they removed the slates and found within, 17 miniature coffins laid out in three rows – two rows of eight and a top row, apparently just begun, comprising one coffin.  Boys being boys, as opposed to trained archaeologists, they then began to pelt each other with the mysterious little coffins.  Despite this rough treatment, enough of the coffins made it down from their resting place and into safer hands.

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

The find was described by The Scotsman newspaper, at the time:

” [Each coffin] contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.”

The discovery of the Arthur’s Seat coffins gripped the public imagination as both local and national newspapers began to speculate as to who put them there? How long had they been there? What was their purpose?

Media speculation and public fascination

16th Century woodcut of witches. Public Domain[?]

At some point shortly after discovery the boys had relinquished their treasure and the coffins eventually went on display in a private museum, run by Robert Frazier an Edinburgh Jeweller.  Although sealed when originally found, they were soon opened and it was  discovered that each neatly made coffin, contained a carved wooden figure, individually dressed – care had clearly gone into the construction of the strange artefacts.  It was noted that some of the coffins in the lower rows appeared more decayed, some of the grave-clothes were completely missing, and this seemed to infer that they had been laid down over a considerable period of time.  Theories were quickly developed as to the possible meaning of the ‘fairy ‘coffins.

The First newspaper report was in The Scotsman, 16 July 1836, which while managing to maintain an air of rationalistic superiority at the very idea of such superstitious nonsense as witchcraft or demons, at the same time seemed to revel in giving the paying public exactly the sensationalism that they wanted:

“Our own opinion would be – had we not some years ago abjured witchcraft and demonology – that there are still some of the weird sisters hovering about the Mushat’s Cairn or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.”

Sensing a good story, other newspapers followed suit offering their own, slightly more restrained, theories:

The Edinburgh Evening Post suggested the coffins could be an example of a tradition, found in Saxony, of symbolically burying those who died overseas.  While the Caledonian Mercury suggested the origin was a tradition for family members to provide a ‘Christian Burial’ to sailors lost at sea.  [1]  This theory was supported, in the 1970’s, by Walter Havernick of the Museum of Hamburg who also proposed that the Arthur’s Seat Coffins represented a stockpile of such charms, stored there by a merchant for later retrieval.[2]  However, this would seem to me to be rather an extreme measure to take in storing merchandise that did not appear to have any real monetary value, in addition to which, the place of concealment was not even weatherproof resulting in damage to some of the coffins.

Some coffins show signs of deterioration – a sign of age or just weathering?

The National Museum of Scotland boasts many examples of charms against witchcraft that have been found in Scotland, charms were in use as late as the nineteenth century.  Nevertheless the theories that the coffins were connected either with witchcraft or honorific burials for those who died abroad or were lost at sea, are hard to evidence in Scotland’s known folk traditions. [3]

Charms on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

Until recently though, two things did seem to be agreed upon: the coffins appeared to have been placed there over a period of time (differences in deterioration of individual coffins seemed to support this theory) and their most likely purpose was some sort of honorific burial.  These conclusions were supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (later the National Museum of Scotland), who were gifted the remaining eight coffins in 1901.

The West Port Murders and the Day of Last Judgement

One of the most compelling recent theories is that proposed by Professor Samuel Menefee and Dr Allen Simpson.  They studied the coffins in the 1990’s and although their published findings are hard to locate online, their work is quoted from extensively by Mike Dash in his detailed article on the Coffins, available on the Charles Fort Institute website (CFI).[4]

Details of the Arthur’s Seat coffins – tiny corpses both dressed and undressed.

Menefee and Simpson were able to identify that one or at most two individuals made the coffins (based on stylistic differences in coffin shape) and the tools used suggested the maker was a shoemaker, rather than a carpenter, as a sharp knife and not chisel was used to hollow out the coffins.  The tin decorations were of the type used in shoemaking or leather-making further strengthening this theory. Their findings also indicate that the figures themselves were probably originally toy soldiers dating from the late eighteenth century.  Perhaps the most important revelation from their study relates to the thread used in the clothing.  Three ply cotton thread was used to sew the grave-clothes for one of the figures, this thread was not in use in Scotland before 1830.  Other figures using one or two ply thread may have been earlier, but as Mike Dash suggests the date range could be as short at 1800-1830 – so it would seem that the infamous Scottish weather was to blame for the deterioration of some of the coffins, rather than the passage of time.

In fact Menefee and Simpson’s theory supposes a date after 1830 and they draw attention to the number of coffins in place as being a significant indicator that the placement of the coffins was event-driven, rather than part of a long-standing folk tradition. Dash provides the following quote from their work:

“It is arguable, that the problem with the various theories is their concentration on motivation, rather than on the even or events that caused the interments.  The former will always be open to argument, but if the burials were event-driven [..] the speculation would at least be built on demonstrable fact.  Stated another way, what we seek is an Edinburgh-related event or events, involving seventeen deaths, which occurred close to 1830 and certainly before 1836.  One obvious answer springs to mind – the West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828.” [5]

Burke and Hare. Image Source National Museum of Scotland.

Burke and Hare made a living out of death, selling bodies to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.  They began their careers as opportunists following the death of Hare’s lodger, Old Donald.  Old Donald died owing a substantial amount of rent, so Hare and his friend Burke decided to sell his body to the local anatomists to recoup the loss.  So profitable was this enterprise that their initial opportunism soon blossomed into a full-scale murder spree, tallying sixteen victims before they were caught.  While Hare escaped the hangman’s noose by turning kings evidence, Burke was hanged for his crimes on 28 January 1829 and his body sent for public dissection.

Mort safe in Grey Friars Kirkyard.

What made both the work of the anatomist surgeons and the murders carried out by Burke and Hare so dreadful to people at the time, was they were in effect denying the deceased the chance of salvation at the Last Judgment.  Christians at the time held a strong belief that the dead would literally rise up on the final day of judgement.  So, if a loved one’s body was dissected and destroyed it was on the one hand a horror in the physical sense, but on the other hand, a deeper metaphysical horror at the spiritual consequences of the destruction of the body.  People went to great lengths to protect their departed relatives from this fate, as the mort-safes in Grey Friars Kirkyard attest.

Menefee and Simpson’s study suggests that the event that triggered the interment of the seventeen coffins on Arthur’s Seat was the West Port murders of Burke and Hare.  They propose that the coffins were a symbolic burial for those whose bodies were destroyed because of the actions of Burke and Hare.  A way that the dead could still stand for their last judgment. So although their scientific analysis of the material used to make the coffins explodes one theory (of their antiquity) they do support the long-held view that they represent honorific burial.[6]


So, were the coffins evidence of satanic rituals, witchcraft, protection for sailors on the high seas, or mock burials for those who died abroad?  Or a reminder of the grisly crimes of Burke and Hare?

It would seem that one of the earliest theories, that the coffins represented honorific burials, might not have been too far off the mark, even if the motivation for them was event driven rather than an ancient tradition.

If the crimes of Burke and Hare are the inspiration behind the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, some questions still remain: who made the coffins – a relative of one of the victims or someone who knew Burke and Hare and wished to make amends?  If they are related to the West Port Murders, then, as Min Bannister of the Edinburgh Fortean Society points out, why are they all male figures when the victims included twelve women?  Could this simply be because the offering was a token gesture and not meant to represent the actual individuals?  Is it also possible that the single coffin at the top represents the first ‘victim’ old Donald, whose death by natural causes gave Burke and Hare the idea for their terrible crimes?  Chances are we will never know for sure, but perhaps that is part of their enduring fascination…

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins are on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Sources and notes

Images – unless otherwise credited all images by Lenora. [1] [2] [3]  The Miniature coffins found on Arthur’s Seat by Mike Dash [4] [5] [6]


John Middleton and Laird Bocconi: A Ghostly Bromance


, , , , , , , , , , ,


Images source unknown.

The image of the vengeful ghost is one which is very common in literature, films and folklore. Usually the spirit returns to wreak revenge on someone who had wronged them when they were alive or to seek help in carrying out their revengeful plan or even just to curse those who unluckily come into contact with them. Famous fictional examples include The King in Hamlet, Samara from The Ring series and Jennet Humfrye from The Woman in Black. There are also people who claim that evil spirits intent on causing them harm share the same house. For instance The Cage in St Osyth which was labelled as one of the UK’s most haunted houses by the TV series, Great British Ghosts is reported to be occupied by the vengeful spirit of Ursula Kemp, one of 13 women accused of witchcraft who were chained up in the house prior to their execution[1].

The flip side of the coin is spirits who return to help the living rather than to harm them. There are many reasons given as to why they return such as to bring comfort to grieving family and friends, to impart a message such as the location of important documents or family heirlooms or to give a warning. One of the most often repeated stories involves a pact made between two close friends, John Middleton and Laird Bocconi to help each other from beyond the grave.[2]

A Career Soldier

John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton, in later life. Source Wikimedia.

John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton, pictured in later life. Source Wikimedia.

John Middleton born around 1608 was the eldest son of a Robert Middleton, Laird of Caldhame in Kincardineshire in Scotland. Middleton’s origins are obscure which probably indicates that he was from a humble background. Some sources say that he enlisted as a regimental pikeman when he was just thirteen but all agree that by 1632 he had joined the regiment raised by Sir John Hepburn for service in France. Whatever the truth of his origins, Middleton was a career soldier and a good one. It was due to his skill and ability that he worked his way up the ranks to become captain of the Covenanter army led by Earl James Graham of Montrose during the Bishops’ Wars[3].

Victory at the Battle of the Brig O’Dee

The Book of Common Prayer, Scotland 1637. Source Wikimedia.

The Bishops’ Wars (1639-1640) were triggered by Charles I desire to remove the Presbyterian system (without bishops) favoured by the Church of Scotland and replace it with an episcopal system (with bishops). Charles I also wanted to force the Scots to follow the Book of Common Prayer.
The determination and success of the Scottish rebellion led to Charles I eventually admitting defeat and accepting the decisions of the General Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Middleton played a vital role in the Covenanter army. In June 1639, he successfully led an attack on the Royalists at the Brig o’ Dee outside Aberdeen. The battle at the Brig o’ Dee was the only ‘substantial action’ that took place during the First Bishop’s War.

Covenanters petitioning Charles I. Source: Bridgeman Art Library.

The Parliamentary Cause

At the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the Covenanter army allied themselves with the Parliamentarian cause against the Royalists. Middleton volunteered and fought at the Battle of Edgehill and in 1644 he was promoted to the rank of the Lieutenant-General in the Regiment of Horse in Sir William Waller’s Southern Associate and served in the Oxford Campaign and at the Battle of Cropredy Bridge. In 1645 Middleton returned to Scotland and joined the Army of the Covenant with the rank of major-general. In February 1646 Middleton was given the rank of commander-in-chief by the Committee of Estates and fought a campaign against the Royalists in the Highlands. Middleton also helped to negotiate the final terms for the surrender of Montrose (who he had formerly fought under) in July 1646[4].

The Battle of Edgehill. Source: Bridgeman Art Library.

A Fraught Partnership

Although between 1642 and 1647 the Covenanters and the Parliamentarians fought on the same side, the alliance was often on shaky grounds. Differences of religious ideology made them uneasy bedfellows. The parliamentarians were unhappy with the Scottish aim to impose a Presbyterian system on the Church of England and the Covenanters were equally uncomfortable with the increased radicalisation of the parliamentarian troops and the popularity of the levellers’ ideas in the New Model Army. The conflict between the two allies came to a head shortly after the Covenanters handed over Charles I to the parliamentarians after the king had surrendered to them at Newark in 1646. This led to an alliance or the Engagement between the Scots and the Royalists with Charles I promising to impose Presbyterianism on the Church of England for a period of three years once he was reinstated on the throne[5].

Charles I insulted by Cromwell’s soldiers. Source: wikipedia

A Change of Heart

As the covenanters changed alliances so did Middleton and as a result he found himself for the first time fighting for Charles I instead of against him. In August 1648 Middleton was amongst those who were taken prisoner by the Roundheads after the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Preston. Middleton broke parole and made his way back to Scotland to join up with Sir Thomas Mackenzie of Pluscardine in an abortive Royalist uprising in the Highlands in the Spring of 1649.

A Ruffian’s Penance

Sack cloth and ashes. Source: unknown.

Middleton’s support for both the Royalists and the Engagement brought him into conflict with the Presbyterians of the godly Kirk. Middleton was probably not someone whom the Presbyterians would have been too fond of anyway because of his reputation as a notorious ‘hard-drinking ruffian’[6]. As a punishment they excommunicated Middleton in October 1650 and then forced him to undergo a public penance. Middleton was made to wear a sackcloth at St Mary’s Kirk in Dundee[7]. This humiliating experience left Middleton with a deep hatred of and grudge against the Presbyterians. As a result of his degrading treatment Middleton became a loyal supporter of the Royalists and in particular Charles II. His grit, experience and ability made him indispensable to Charles II and a dangerous foe to the Presbyterians who he was once willing to put his life on the line for.

A Ghostly Visitation

The Tower of London. Source:

In September 1651 whilst fighting on behalf of Charles II, Middleton was captured at the Battle of Worcester. In a bad state and wounded Middleton was sent to the Tower of London to await trial for treason. It is whilst he was a prisoner that one of the strangest stories of a ghostly apparition was reported to have occurred. One night while he was lying in bed feeling depressed, Middleton saw the ghost of his friend, Laird Bocconi appear before him. Many years before Middleton and Bocconi had made a friendship pact that if one of them died before the other and if the survivor was in trouble, the deceased friend would return to help him. Middleton first asked Bocconi if he was alive or dead[8]. Bocconi’s ghost replied that he was dead and that he had died a long time ago. Bocconi then continued that Middleton’s life was in serious danger and that he needed to make his escape sooner rather than later. Middleton did in fact manage to escape three days after receiving this ghostly advice by disguising himself in his wife’s, Lady Grizel’s clothes. His escape was even more remarkable since he manage to get out his cell despite the door being tripled locked! Did he have inside help? Did his wife change places with him? No one knows and no other details about how he got away have ever emerged.

Source: wikipedia

Bocconi’s appearance up to the point of his warning seemed to follow a typical pattern for manifestations of this type but then after delivering his message Bocconi did something very bizarre. Middleton reported that Bocconi started to do a frisk i.e. jigged around the room and recited a short rhyme,

Givanni, Givanni, ‘tis very strange,

In the world to see so sudden a change[9]

Then Bocconi vanished. Why did Bocconi’s ghost suddenly decide to prance around the cell and chant and what if anything did the rhyme have to do with Middleton’s situation? Bocconi’s use of the Italian equivalent of the name ‘John’ does show that Bocconi was addressing Middleton directly but the rest of his chant is confusing. Was the ghost referring to Middleton’s personal change in circumstances i.e. from a free man to a prisoner or to the remarkable change in his allegiances or more generally to the tumultuous times Middleton was living in? Could the message have been a prediction about Middleton’s future and his rise in the world? No one has ever managed to explain the ghost’s actions or to be fair I don’t think anyone has ever tried.


Middleton managed to get to France and join the exiled Charles II in Paris. By 1653 he was made commander of the Royalist forces and was at the forefront of the military campaign to restore the Stewarts to the English throne. When Charles II became king he was given the title of the Earl of Middleton. Middleton was appointed in 1660 as the Royal Commissioner to the (Scots) Parliament[10] using his position to help the king root out Presbyterianism from Scotland. His rapid rise from humble beginnings caused resentment amongst the established nobility, in particular the Earl of Lauderdale who contrived to destroy Middleton. Lauderdale succeeded for a while with Middleton being stripped of his position and offices but he was soon back in favour. In 1663 he was made Governor of Rochester and later in 1668 he was appointed as the Governor of Tangiers. Middleton remained in Tangiers as governor until his death in July 1674[11]. It is believed he died from injuries sustained after falling down some stairs whilst extremely drunk[12].

Image Source: Franz Hals[?]

A Final Note

On a historical note, Middleton had the last laugh as despite the Scottish aristocracy contempt for him, his descendant is currently sitting on the throne of England! Queen Elizabeth through her matrilineal line is a direct descendent of John Middleton[13]. The only mention of Bocconi I could find was in relation to his ghost, who he was, what he did and how he met Middleton seems so far to have vanished from the pages of history. Maybe they met when Middleton was fighting on the continent. Bocconi sounds Italian but the title of Lord was given in its Scottish form. Does that mean anything? probably not. As to the ghost story, it is a unique tale revealing very strange behaviour on the part of the spirit, from a dignified and ominous entry to a rather silly exit. I would also be fascinated to know if anyone ever manages to work out the meaning of Bocconi’s last words on earth!


Image source:[?]


John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton,

Royal Middleton Roots,

Alisdair McRae, How the Scots won the English Civil War: The triumph of Fraser’s Dragoons

Brave or bonkers? Man chooses to live in ‘Britain’s most haunted house’ where poltergeists BITE guests,

Magnus Bennett, Royal wedding: Prince William ‘has Middleton ancestry’,

Owen Davies, The Haunted: A social history of ghosts

Horace Welby (editor), Signs Before Death: Authenticated Apparitions

John Middleton, c.1608-74,


Bishops’ Wars,’_Wars

Tristan Hunt, The English Civil War: The Endgame – 1646 – 1649 – Introduction,

John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton,,_1st_Earl_of_Middleton

Middleton name already part of Prince William’s family tree,


[1] Brave or bonkers? Man chooses to live in ‘Britain’s most haunted house’ where poltergeists BITE guests,

[2] Owen Davies, The Haunted: A social history of ghosts

[3] John Middleton, c.1608-74,

[4] ibid

[5] Covenanter,

[6]Royal Middleton Roots,

[7] Alisdair McRae, How the Scots won the English Civil War: The triumph of Fraser’s Dragoons

[8] Horace Welby (editor), Signs Before Death: Authenticated Apparitions

[9] ibid

[10] Middleton name already part of Prince William’s family tree,

[11] John Middleton, c.1608-74,

[12] Magnus Bennett, Royal wedding: Prince William ‘has Middleton ancestry’,

[13] Magnus Bennett, Royal wedding: Prince William ‘has Middleton ancestry’,

Memento Mori…Victorian post-mortem photography


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

~A note to the faint-hearted: this post contains photographs of dead people ~


The Victorian celebration of death

It has been noted by many other writers, that today when a loved one passes over, we celebrate their life, often avoiding or glossing over the distressing fact that they have died… almost as if it would be rude to mention it.  Not so our Victorian ancestors, they positively revelled in rituals that celebrated death.  This was unsurprising as it was all around them – poverty, incurable diseases and insanitary housing meant that had you lived in early Victorian England (the 1830 and 40’s) you would have been lucky to make it to your late thirties; while a fifth of children born at that time would not reach the age of five.[1]

Yet despite these grim statistics, the Victorian fondness for funerals and funeral rituals grew out of more than just a pragmatic realisation that they would undoubtedly be attending an awful a lot of them.  It was far more than that, the spiritual and religious beliefs of Victorians lead them to the view that death was something to prepare for, and that the dead should be remembered, not just in their living but in the manner of their passing.  To have a ‘good death’ was important, to settle ones affairs not only materially, but spiritually as well, in preparation for the transition into the next phase of the souls existence.  One aspect of this tradition which can seem macabre and slightly voyeuristic to the modern eye, is that of post-mortem photography. But creating images of the dead was not invented in the nineteenth century.

How the dead were remembered: from oil paintings to Carte de visite

Lady Venetia Digby on her death bed by Van Dyke.

Lady Venetia Digby on her death-bed, by Van Dyke.

Preserving the memory of the dead has a long history (and pre-history). From the monumental (think pyramids, mausoleums and tombs) to the personal and portable (such as jewelry and images).  While we might find it odd to want an image of a loved one in death, in the past it was not unheard of. In the seventeenth century, when the beautiful Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, died unexpectedly in her sleep, her distraught husband had her final portrait painted, post-mortem, by non other that Sir Anthony Van Dyke. But such extravagant memento mori (translated as ‘remember that you have to die’) were the preserve of the wealthy upper classes…until, that is, the advent of photography.

Capturing the soul

Post Mortem photography was popular in the UK, USA and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, its popularity peaking in the 1860’s and 70’s. Its rise began in the 1840’s with the birth of photography.

Louis Daguerre, one of the fathers of photography, developed his eponymous Daguerreotype in 1839.  Daguerreotype images were produced on treated silver-plated copper sheets, protected by glass.  The images are strange to look at and change from positive to negative, depending on the angle.  The process was expensive and time-consuming – it could take up to 15 minutes to develop an exposure, and the images created were fragile (often having to be protected in cases or frames).[2][3] Nevertheless it wasn’t long before they were being used to capture the likenesses of the deceased.

Post Mortem Daguerreotype. 1862. Source Astronomy Pictures.

Post Mortem Daguerreotype. 1862. Source Astronomy Pictures.

In 1850 the cheaper Ambrotype method superseded the Daguerreotype.  This process created a positive image on glass.  As with the daguerreotype, the finished product was fragile and each image was unique and could only be reproduced by the camera.[4]

Victorian Post Mortem Ambrotype, in case. Source unknown.

Victorian Post Mortem Ambrotype displayed in a case. Source unknown.

The 1860’s and 1870’s brought the tintype photograph to prominence, which as the name suggested was created on a thin sheet of metal.  This method easy to produce and was popular with itinerant photographers on the move.  So the photographer was able to extend beyond the studio setting to other arenas…such the open battlefield, or the private deathbed.[5]

Tintype post mortem photograph. Source unknown.

Tintype post-mortem photograph. Source unknown.

The biggest revolution in democratizing photography was the Carte de Visite method, patented by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854.  His method produced small images made up of albumen prints on card.  The truly revolutionary aspect of this method was that he developed a way of producing up to eight negatives on one plate, thereby driving down costs.[5] This meant that images could more easily be shared amongst family and friends.  With post-mortem images, it allowed family members who were not able to be present at the deathbed or funeral, to have a final image of their loved one.

Carte de visite post mortem image. Paul Frecker collection.

Carte de visite post-mortem image. Paul Frecker collection.

Post Mortem Photography and The Good Death

In the early and mid-Victorian period, evangelical Christianity had a strong influence on attitudes towards death and dying.  Professor Sir Richard Evans noted in his lecture The Victorians: Life and Death, that the emphasis was on a ‘good death’ – ideally a peaceful and gentle transition in to the afterlife, witnessed by family and friends; where a deathbed struggle with fever or delusion occurred, it could be seen as a metaphor for the Christian struggle for redemption.  Post mortem photography represents part of this tradition, offering a memento mori – an object of reflection to the yet living – as well as, more prosaically, providing symbol of social status because not everyone could afford them.

That is not to say that all Victorians were comfortable with the idea of snapping images the dearly departed – far from it.  As Catharine Arnold notes in Necropolis, photographic images such ‘Fading Away’, created by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858, which used actors to depict the death of a beautiful young girl, were not universally praised.[6] Unlike the tasteful and idealised deathbed scenes depicted in oils, the disturbing intimacy and realism created by the medium of photography seemed to intrude on the very personal and private realm of grief.

'Fading Away' by Henry Peach Robinson, 1858. The Royal Photographic Society at the National Media Museum.

‘Fading Away’ by Henry Peach Robinson, 1858. The Royal Photographic Society at the National Media Museum, Bradford.

In the case of ‘Fading Away’, the image was saved from censure when Prince Albert bought a copy, thereby ensuring its popular appeal. It’s a good thing he liked images of deathbeds, because Queen Victoria commissioned both a painting and a photograph of him on his own deathbed, in 1861.  These images are available to view in the Royal Collection (See links at the end of this article).

Styles of post-mortem photography ranged throughout the nineteenth century and varied from the UK and Europe to the USA.  Broadly speaking the earlier images focused on head shots and close ups, with the subject apparently ‘asleep’, later more ‘naturalist’ poses were adopted -where the subject was posed as if in life, and later still the funeral group – with the family gathered round for one last photo with the dearly departed in their coffin – became popular.  However the significant difference between these images and images such as ‘Fading Away’, is that post-mortem photography was intended to be viewed in the private sphere, whereas Peach Robinson’s staged image was clearly for public consumption.

Mirrors with Memories [7]

Deceased man. Source Wikipedia.

Deceased man in a naturalist pose c1860. Source Wikipedia.

So, why did the Victorians do it? Why have a stranger come into your home, while you are grieving, and interfere with your loved one, simply in order to take a photo?  Well, it seems that a number of factors collided to produce the right climate for it: evangelical Christianity, with its concept of the good death, technological developments, and the rise of the middle classes, along with a large dash of Victorian morbidity.

In some cases, these images may have been the only images taken of the individual, this is particularly possible with images of babies and young children. And, practically speaking, they were a way of sharing the death of a loved one with relatives unable to attend the actual deathbed.

Deceased child surrounded by flowers. Image Source BBC.

Deceased child surrounded by flowers. Image Source Wikipedia.

However, as well as a personal remembrance of the individual, they were also used as a way to reflect upon death – demonstrating Victorian preoccupations with both piety and morbidity. The images allowed for a dialogue between the living and the dead – a reconciliation that the viewer too will die.  A Victorian viewing these images would have been able to ‘read’ them in a very different way than we do now -identifying the spiritual narrative, shared social values, the moral lessons in these images.

Jo Smoke, writing in Beyond the Dark Veil,[8]suggested that as well as a moral and spiritual purpose, Memento Mori can also be seen as expressing class goals by equating ‘taste and beauty as metaphors for status and style’ – after all these images were often displayed in beautiful and expensive frames or jeweled cases and not every one could afford them.

He concluded that post mortem photography successfully encompassed both the spiritual and the consumerist nature of Victorian society, stating that they ‘symbolised tangibility by stretching the inevitability of human decay into the future by investing memory into materials of great physicality’.[9]

Identifying Post Mortem Photography

Today, the internet is flooded with images purporting to be Victorian post mortem photographs. Sometimes a sort of ‘check-list’ is deployed to identify them and although one can probably assume that an individual depicted in a coffin, is almost certainly dead, other signs such as closed or painted eyes, blank expressions, visible standing frames, or strange posture aren’t necessarily proof-positive of a post mortem photograph.

The tradition of depicting the deceased as though living, often accompanied by living relatives and children, has created even more difficulty in differentiating between what may simply be an awkward and uncomfortable looking living individual and a posed corpse.

Deceased young girl, with her parents. Source BBC.

Deceased young girl with her parents. Source BBC.

In the above post mortem image, the dead girl is propped up by her parents, with her head on one side.  She appears notably sharper than her living parents who appear slightly blurred. Even when developments in photography led to reduced exposure times, it was still difficult to remain still during the process (unless of course, you were dead).  This was such a problem that the living were often supported with apparatus, such as a Brady Stand.  The use of these stands has led to what some call the ‘Myth of the standing corpse’ [10] – whereby any images of a slightly suspect individual, where a stand is visible, may be identified as post mortem (a particular problem on commercial selling sites).

The Stand is visible, but is this man dead? Source hchronicles blog.

This man has decidedly odd eyes and is supported by a Stand – but is he dead? Source: hchronicles blog.

This image has often been described as a post mortem photo - but the jury is out. Image source - unknown.

This image has often been described as a post mortem photo, demonstrating the use of the stand – but the jury is out. Image source – unknown.

However there seems to be a strong argument against the possibility that the Brady stand, or any other stand (even combined with wires), could have ever actually support the dead-weight (pardon the pun) of a corpse, in anything approaching a natural manner. [11][12 – see the video at the foot of this post for more on this debate.]

The girl in the middle is said to be dead. Petrolia Archive Collection.

The girl in the middle is said to be dead. Petrolia Archive Collection.

The image above, originally from the Petrolia Archive, appears on many sites online as a post mortem photograph. The young girl in the middle is supposed to be dead – her painted on eyes are cited as evidence for it. However, given the ease at which a photograph could be spoiled by a sudden twitch or blink during the long exposure time, it can be argued that this is not necessarily certain proof that the subject is dead. [13] And in fact, this could explain a lot of the blank, dead-eyed stares that gaze out from us from some of these photographs.

Other images are more obviously photo-shopped, such as this fabulously gruesome image of two sisters, which would stretch even the Victorians capacity for morbidity!

Image often cited as Victorian Post Mortem, but actually an art project from 2009. [Artist unknown]

Image often cited as Victorian Post Mortem, but actually an art project from about 2009. [Artist unknown]

The original picutre [Source Unknown]

The original picture before manipulation [Source Unknown]

 Changing attitudes

It has been said that the advent of the Kodak box brownie, allowing families to document entire lives from birth to death, caused the Post Mortem Photograph to fall out of favour, [14] but there was more to its decline than technical innovation.  By the end of the Victorian period and beginning of the Edwardian, there was a fundamental shift in attitudes to death. For one, evangelical Christianity, with its particular interpretation of the ‘good death’, had waned. By the Edwardian period a ‘good death’ had transformed into one more familiar to us today – a death without suffering or one that took the subject unawares, such as in their sleep.  As such, conversations about death and dying became less acceptable than they had been in the early and mid-Victorian periods.  Catastrophic conflicts such as the First World War, also played their part in changing attitudes.  Such brutal conflicts took death away from the intimate family setting, and while death could be presented as a patriotic sacrifice to the state, it often occurred violently, or to far from home to allow for a photographic memento mori to be either desirable or practically possible.


In this modern world, where we have become desensitized to the graphic images of death reported in the media, we have shut death out, except in its most extreme and impersonal form.  In contrast, these quiet, contemplative and very personal images of the dead offer us the opportunity to open a dialogue with death, and to reflect on that great leveler.  And of course, they also provide an ever so  gentle reminder that we too will die.

Memento Mori.

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

Post Mortem Images on the net

Anne Longmore-Etheridge Collection:

Petrolia Heritage

Royal Collection:

The Burns Archive:

The Thanatos Archive:

Sources and notes

Arnold, Catharine, ‘Necropolis: London and its dead’ 2007, Simon and Schuster [3] [6] [1]

Evans, Professor Sir Richard, [this article contains some disputed post mortem photographs] [13]

Mord, Jack, ‘Beyond the Dark Veil’, 2013, Grand Central Press [7][8][9][14] [4] [5] [2] [5] The Myth of the stand alone corpse [10][11][12]



The deathly stoop chair of Thomas Busby


, , , , , , , , , ,

Thirsk Museum. Image source Trip Advisor.

Thirsk Museum. Image source Trip Advisor.

If you visit the small jewel of a museum in Thirsk you will see the rather strange sight of an oak chair hung from the ceiling in one of the display areas. The chair was suspended at the explicit request of its owner to prevent anyone from ever sitting on it including maintenance and cleaners[1]. The museum has never broken its promise in over 30 years despite numerous requests and even the threat of legal action[2].

A notorious ruffian


Portrait of Thomas Busby. Image source:

Local legend has it that the chair belonged to Thomas Busby, a thug, thief and drunkard who lived in North Yorkshire in the latter part of the 1600s. Busby married Elizabeth, the daughter of a small time petty crock, Daniel Awety who lived near the village of Kirby Wiske. Awety had purchased a farm after moving to the area from Leeds. His house which he called Danotty Hall was ideal for Awety, enabling him to continue with his illegal coining activities in relative seclusion. It was even reported that Awety had built within the house a hidden chamber which was connected to the cellar via a secret passageway[3]. Busby who was also the original owner of an inn near Sandhutton and just three miles from Danotty Hall became Awety’s partner in crime.

A crime of passion

The details of what happened that fatal last day of Awety’s life are vague. Awety and Busby may have argued earlier that day but over what is not known, it could have been something to do with Elizabeth, the coining business or almost anything else. Their relationship was known to be far from harmonious with Busby often in a foul mood with Awety for some reason or another.

Gibbet. Source unknown.

Gibbet. Source unknown.

What is clear is that later that day a drunken and volatile Busby returned to his inn only to find Awety waiting for him threatening to take Elizabeth home with him. Busby’s mood only blackened when he saw Awety sitting in his favourite chair. Whatever their second argument of the day was over Busby forcibly removed Awety from the chair and threw him out.

That night Busby still seething grabbed a hammer, stormed over to Danotty Hall and bludgeoned Awety to death. Busby then tried to hide his handiwork in the woods. Concern over Awety’s sudden disappearance led to a local search of the area being made. On finding the body, Busby was arrested at the inn and charged with murder.

In the summer of 1702 Busby was tried and sentenced to death for murder at the York Assizes. His punishment was to be gibbeted i.e. hung from a gibbet, his body dipped in tar and his remains displayed on a stoop (post) attached to the gibbet, in full view of his inn. The inn was soon after renamed the Busby Stoop Inn, a name which it retained until it closed in 2012.

The Busby Stoop Inn. Image taken from

The Busby Stoop Inn. Image taken from

Busby’s final warning

Busby's favourite chair. Image source:

Busby’s favorite chair. Image source:

It is here that the story veers away from historical certainty and moves into the realms of local folklore. One version recounts how Busby was granted his last wish which was to have a final drink at his own inn and sit in his favorite chair. On leaving the inn to make his final journey to the execution site Busby cursed the chair declaring that death would come shortly to anyone who sat in it. Another version tells how Busby drunkenly shouted out the curse whilst being taken to the gibbet to be hung. Whichever way you look at it, Busby was determined that even from beyond the grave he would never allow anyone to enjoy sitting in his beloved chair.

Busby’s spirit was believed to have haunted his old pub as well as the area where he was gibbeted[4] but it’s his precious chair, the focus of his curse which became irrevocably linked to his revengeful spirit. According to local legend, this seemly innocuous piece of furniture has been responsible for more deaths than most serial killers (one estimate puts the number of its victims at over 60!).

The chair’s first victim?

250px-chimneysweep2The first reported death alleged to be associated with the death chair is that of a chimney sweep who along with a friend sat in the chair whilst having a drink one evening in 1894. The sweep never made it home that night, being completely inebriated he laid down on the road to sleep. The next morning his body was found hanging from the post next to the gibbet. His death was ruled as a suicide but in 1914 the friend with whom the chimney sweep had spent his last hours with admitted on his death bed to having robbed and murdered his friend.

Dead man’s chair or Don’t sit down!

During the Second World War, the pub became a popular drinking spot with RCAF airmen. The airmen would goad each other to sit in the chair. Those that took up the challenge never returned from their missions.

In 1968 a couple of years before Tony Earnshaw took over the running of the pub, he overheard two airmen dare each other to sit in the chair. They both did. Returning to the airfield their car left the road and crashed into a tree. They both died on the way to the hospital.

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

Through the early 1970s the chair seemed to claim a number of victims including a cleaning lady who was diagnosed with a brain tumor after knocking into the chair; a number of cyclists and motorcyclists who suffered fatal road accidents; a hitch-hiker who was run over after having spent two nights at the pub and; a local man who died of a heart attack shortly after sitting in the condemned chair[5].

A group of builders having a drink at the pub cajoled the youngest of their group into sitting on the chair. Back at the site the man fell through the roof of the building and landed on the concrete ground below. This death proved to be the final straw for Earnshaw and he banished the chair to the cellar.

A delivery man from the brewery was in the cellar one day when he decided to try out the chair. He commented to Earnshaw that it was far too comfortable to be left down there. He was killed shortly afterwards when his van went off the road. Soon after Earnshaw must have decided that the chair despite being a profitable tourist attraction was too dangerous to keep any longer. In 1978 Earnshaw donated it to the Thirsk Museum

A grim legacy or tourist gimmick?

There are so many questions that have been left unanswered and probably unanswerable. Did Busby really commit murder over a chair? Could any person truly hold such deep affection for a carved piece of wood? Is Busby’s revengeful and jealous spirit still attacking anyone who dares sit in his seat? Or was the murder over something far more important, something which we will never know about? Is the chair really haunted or was it a money-making gimmick? Is the chair just really an extremely unlucky piece of furniture? Is this chair really the same chair that Busby fought over[6]?

The chair is safely out of reach now. Image source:

The chair is safely out of reach now. Image source:

Many people believe the deaths were just an unlucky coincidence. Another explanation could be simply that the majority of those brave enough to defy the curse were just risk-takers, prepared to push their luck[7] (it is interesting how many of the deaths happened on roads and thousands of men of Bomber Command never returned from sorties) and were simply unlucky.

On one hand, it would be intriguing to test the chair to see if the legend about this unusual haunting is really true…but on the other hand, sometimes it is better not to know…


Thomas Busby’s Ghost – The Busby Stoop Inn:

Busby’s stoop chair:

The infamous Busby Stoop Chair:

The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story:

The Cursed Busby’s Chair:

Chair of death:

Busby’s Stoop Chair of Death:


[1] Busby’s stoop chair:

[2] The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story:

[3] ibid

[4] Thomas Busby’s Ghost – The Busby Stoop Inn:

[5] The Cursed Busby’s Chair:

[6] The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story:

[7] Death chairs


The Thundering Earl and the Northumbrian Jacobites of the ’15


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

Unraveling the thread of time

Taken near Alnwick, Northumberland. Picture source: Reed Ingram Weir/MASONS/

Taken near Alnwick, Northumberland. Picture source: Reed Ingram Weir/MASONS/

On 6 March 2016 the North of England was witness to the eerie dance of the Northern Lights in the night sky.  Not often seen so far south, the phenomena was perfectly timed almost coinciding, as it did, with the 300th Anniversary of the execution of James Radcliffe. The Third Earl of Derwentwater was executed on 24 February 1716, at Tower Hill in London, for his part in the doomed Jacobite Rising of 1715.  Perhaps the lights were a ripple in time, a reminder that it was as the coffin of the doomed Earl was born home to Dilston, that the same Aurora Borealis was witnessed in the north as a sign of heaven’s displeasure at Radcliffe’s death, and became known as Lord Derwentwater’s Lights.

Francis Dunn, a servant of the Earl’s aunt, witnessed the phenomena at the time, and wrote:

‘A most Beautifull glory appeard over ye hearse, wch all saw, sending forth resplendant streams of colours to ye east & west, the finest yt ever I saw in my Life.  It hung like a delicate rich curtain & continued a quarter & half of an hour over ye hearse.  There was a great light seen at night in several places & people flockt all night from durham to see ye corpse. Its remark’t yt att ye same day & hour ye glory appear’d over my lord’s hearse, ye most dreadfull signs appeared over London.’ [1]

Dilston and Chapel viewed from the trees.

Dilston and Chapel viewed from the trees.

In fact, in the 300 years since the Earl of Derwentwater died under the headsman’s axe, his shade, and that of his wife, has become part of local lore in and around Dilston and Northumberland.  In 1888 The Reverent Heslop writing in the Monthly Chronicle, claimed the Earl did not rest quiet in his tomb:

“The Hall is behind us, and its tragic story haunts the place.  it is but a generation since the trampling hoofs and the clatter of harness was heard on the brink of the steep here, revealing to that trembling listener that ‘the Earl’ yet galloped with spectral troops across the haugh.  Undisturbed, as the reverent hands of his people had laid him and his severed head, the Earl himself had rested hardly in the little vault for a whole century; yet the troops have been seen by the country people over and over again as they swept and swerved through the dim mist of the hollow of the dene.”

But not only the Earl is said to frequent the ruins of Dilston and Devil Water, his tragic bride is also bound to the castle in death.  The story goes that the Earl was a reluctant rebel, and upon setting out with his troop, turned one last time to view Dilston Hall and his vast estates.  His resolution wavered as he considered that should the rising fail, he would not only be risking himself, but the future prosperity of his young son and heir.  With that thought, he turned for home.  However, in the courtyard of Dilston, the Earl was met by his young and implacable wife who proceeded to berated him, going so far as to strike him with her fan, whilst exclaiming ‘take that, and give your sword to me.’ [2] With those words she condemned her husband to his terrible fate, and the Earldom of Derwentwater to eventual destruction.  After the young Earl’s death, she too died young and heartbroken; her tormented shade is said to flit between the tall tower of Dilston Castle and Dilston Chapel, lighted cresset in her hand, awaiting the return of her dead lord.

The tall tower at Dilston Castle.

The tall tower at Dilston Castle.

But local lore and legend may have dealt harshly with the Countess and her hesitant husband….

The Jacobite cause in a nutshell

James II of England, by Godfrey Kneller. Source Wikipedia.

James II of England, by Godfrey Kneller. Source Wikipedia.

The seventeenth century was a time of great political, social and religious upheaval in England. When Charles II died in 1685 without issue, his brother James inherited the throne.  James was raised an Anglican but became a catholic, and after the religious turmoil of the past century, that made people nervous.  James’s autocratic style of rule didn’t make him many friends and when his second wife gave him a son in 1688, assuring a catholic succession, parliament made its move.

Parliament turned to James’s protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange, offering them the crown jointly, thus triggering the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 which ousted James II.  In replacing James II, the de jure king of England (King by right/divine or otherwise), with King William, the de facto (King by possession of the office) the Jacobite cause was born.

When William and Mary died without issue, James’s other protestant daughter, Anne, took the throne.  Anne died without issue in 1714 and the throne of England was set to pass to a distant German princeling, George, elector of Hanover.  This was almost too much, not only for the catholic Jacobites, but also for many high church Tories in England – the stage was now set for a dangerous rebellion [3 & 4].

The Radcliffes of Dilston Castle and the Stuart Connection

Lady Mary Tudor - the Stuart connection. Public Domain[?]

Lady Mary Tudor – the Stuart connection. Public Domain[?]

The North had always been viewed by the south as a hotbed of Catholicism and potential unrest and measures were taken to curb the powers and resources of Catholics in the area. In Northumberland the most prominent and wealthy catholic family was the Radcliffe family of Dilston Hall, near Corbridge.  In the seventeenth century the Radcliffe’s had successfully married into the Stuart Royal family – albeit on the wrong side of the sheets.  The 3rd Baronet of Derwentwater, Francis, engineered the marriage of his son Edward to the Lady Mary Tudor, the natural daughter of Charles II, in 1688. The Radcliffes were now fatally linked to the doomed house of Stuart.

The marriage brought an Earldom with it, granted by James II shortly before his overthrow, but it was not a successful marriage. Nevertheless they had four children, the first James, being born on 28 June 1689.

The Radcliffe’s Stuart links were further cemented when the teenage James was sent with his brother Francis, to live with their royal cousin James III (James II having died in 1701) at the court in exile at St Germain in France. In 1705, while James and Francis were still in France, their father died leaving James, at only 16, the third Earl of Derwentwater.


Dilston Hall, demolished in the 1760’s.

In 1709 Queen Anne allowed the young Earl to return to England and take up his responsibilities.  After a brief stay in London, James set off in February 1710 to view his northern estates for the first time.  He seems to have made a good impression on the locals, he was after all, young, fashionable and rich.  But more than that, he was described as possessing a charming smile and a generous nature – qualities which more than made up for his shortness of stature.   During this initial stay he fell in love with Dilston and decided to build a grand new hall befitting his status as third Earl of Derwentwater.  In the meantime the Earl made his presence felt in the area, entertaining his neighbours and cousins such as the Erringtons of Beaufront and Swinbournes of Capheaton.

James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater. Source Wikipedia.

James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater. Source Wikipedia.

Early on James’s Jacobite sympathies were recognised by his neighbours, and in 1710 he was invited to Lancashire to meet with other gentlemen Jacobites who regularly met at the Unicorn Inn in Walton-le-Dale.  Eventually he became Mayor of this group.  Whether this was an honorary title, or something that required active engagement, it indicates that he took an keen interest in the Jacobite cause at an early stage.  However, it is important to note that at this time there was a genuine hope that Queen Anne would name James III as her heir, thereby providing a peaceful resolution to the problem of the king over the water.  James Radcliffe, cousin and childhood companion of James III, must have hoped as much.  After all, as one of the richest men in the North, he would have much to lose if it came to an uprising [5].

For a while things went smoothly for the young Earl, he married Anna Maria Webb, a pretty catholic heiress, in 1712 and moved away from Dilston for a few years while the new hall was constructed.  His heir John was born in 1713, and soon after Dilston Hall was completed, allowing Radcliffe family to return.  But things were not going so smoothly elsewhere…. Queen Anne sickened and died in 1714, and King George I’s reign looked set to entrench the power of the Whigs, the Jacobites and Tories grew fractious, riots and unrest soon broke out in London….

James and Anna Maria.

James and Anna Maria.

Oak Leaves and White Roses

Oakleaves and White Roses, Jacobite Symbols. Image SNA.

Oakleaves and White Roses, Jacobite Symbols. Image SNA.

History records that the Jacobite Rising of 1715 began on 6 September, when John Erskine 11th Earl of Mar raised the Stuart standard in Braemar.   That the Jacobite Risings were largely Scottish affairs has entered the popular imagination, however there were many in England who felt sympathy for the king over the water. Catholic or not, he was the rightful heir and in a time when belief in the divine right of kings had not yet evaporated, that could count for a lot.   There were also many who were not happy at the prospect of a German king and a Whig stranglehold on power.

In the North, key catholic Peers such as The Earl of Derwentwater, Lord Widderington and MPs such as Thomas Forster of Adderstone and Sir William Blackett of Wallington quickly fell under suspicion.  On 22 September 1715 warrants were issued for their arrest.  The young Earl decided a low profile would be advisable, hiding for two weeks in in tenants cottages and with friends and relations all across the area [6].

All would seem the actions of a man who dabbled in intrigue, but was not an instigator of rebellion.  Nevertheless the Earl knew that he could not run and hide for ever, and after all, he had Stuart blood in his veins.  Under the guise of a race meeting held at Wide Hough meadow near Dilston on 5 October 1715, the Earl and his compatriots decided to make their stand on the morrow.  The next morning the Earl, his brother Charles and their small band set out to meet Thomas Forster,  the commander of the Northumbrian Jacobites, and his men, at Greenriggs, a wild desolate moorland, between Redesmouth and Sweethope Lough.  The die was cast.

The Rising in the North

The Northumbrian Jacobites of the ’15 have had a bad press, being described by one writer thus:

‘In October a handful of Catholic Gentry under Forster and Derwentwater, amateurs in rebellion and war, had ridden out in Northumberland [..]

The quixotic travesty of civil war by a mob of foxhunters, had found no support save from the more dare-devil of the Catholic gentry and Mackintosh’s Highlanders.  The English Rebellion was at an end.’ [7]

Thomas Forster MP, and leader of the Northumbrian Jacobites.

Thomas Forster MP, and leader of the Northumbrian Jacobites.

The mission of the Northumbrian Jacobites was to capture Newcastle and thereby hobble the government in London by cutting off their coal supply.  They would be supported by a French led invasion fleet which was expected to land on the Northumbrian coast.  History however did not record this outcome.  Instead, weak and indecisive leadership, lack of the promised support from the High Church Tories, inability to capture Newcastle and the failure of the French fleet to materialise left the Northumbrian Jacobites little choice but to head into the pro-Jacobite territory of Lancashire hoping for greater success.

Leo Gooch, however,  has presented a more sympathetic and compelling view of the effectiveness of the Northumbrian Jacobites in his book ‘The Desperate Faction?’  He argues that the original plan formulated by the Earl of Mar, for a Northumbrian landing of the Jacobite forces, was militarily sound. It was only when this plan was shelved by Ormonde and Bolingbroke (without bothering to inform Tom Forster and the Northumbrians) in favour of a landing in the South West, that things started to go badly wrong.  Gooch argues that when this new strategy failed, Forster was thrust into the role of commander of all the Jacobite forces in England.  Although he and Derwentwater did their best, they were, quite literally fighting a losing battle [8].


That losing battle was at Preston.  The supposed Jacobite support in Lancashire remained dormant and the rebel forces were defeated and their leaders captured and taken to London for trial.   Many were condemned to die, some escaped, some were pardoned.  Tom Forster who rode out with the Earl of Dertwentwater was executed but Derwentwater’s brother Charles managed to escape.  The Earl himself, was lodged in the Tower of London, as befitted his status.  His devoted wife Anna Maria stayed with him and petitioned for his release.  It was not to be.  He was beheaded on Tower Hill on 24 February 1716.

Jacobite Lords on Trial.

Jacobite Lords on Trial.

Catholic Martyr


Suit worn by the Earl at his execution. Source Northumbrian Jacobite Website.

Once executed James’s body was wrapped in black cloth, with his severed head in red velvet.  His body was then secretly conveyed to a surgeon called Metcalf who embalmed the corpse and removed the heart which was to be sent to the English nuns at Angers in France.  Mr King the undertaker then provided a lead coffin covered in crimson velvet and gilt nails, to convey the third Earl back to his home at Dilston for burial in the chapel.  It was said that his heart remained uncorrupted for many years and was able to heal those who touched it, it was especially effective on Scrofula or the king’s evil [9].

On his return to Dilston, the Northern Lights accompanied his procession.  Many saw this as a sign of Heaven’s displeasure at the Earl’s execution, it was said the Devil Water ran red at Dilston. Already tales began to be told that would place James Radcliffe, the Jacobite third Earl of Dertwentwater firmly in the folk memory of the region.


Devil Water at Dilston ran red when the Earl was executed.

James’s widow, Anna Maria, never returned to Dilston and died in Belgium 7 years later.  The Radcliffe estates were confiscated by the government, but in a lengthy legal battle it was successfully argued that as James only had life interest in the Derwentwater estates and his son John should inherit the great wealth of the Radcliffes.  Sadly though, he died in 1731 before reaching his majority.  That left only Charles Radcliffe, James’s brother, as heir.  Unfortunately he was was still under attainder for his part in the ’15 so could not inherit.  By default then, the estates then passed back to the crown.  The power of the Radcliffe’s was broken.

Whether James Radcliffe was a reluctant Rebel [10] or a passionate and committed Jacobite, his legend lives on in the North. Even today, Paranormal investigators such as Otherworld North East, and Christina Ogilvy and James Davidson, have reported strange anomalies in and Around Dilston Castle.  Orbs, strange mists and dark figures still haunt the ruins of Dilston [11 & 12].  On a moonlit night it may still be possible to come across James and his young bride Anna Maria, walking by the Devil Water.

Lords Bridge, over the Devil Water at Dilston.

Lords Bridge, over the Devil Water at Dilston.

Access to castle:

Sources and notes

Dickinson, Frances, ‘The Reluctant Rebel A Northumbrian Legacy of Jacobite Times’ 1996, Cresset Books [1][3][5][6][10]

Gooch, Leo, ‘The Desperate Faction The Jacobites of North-East England 1688-1745’ 2001, Casdec Ltd [4][8]

Graham, Frank, ‘The Castles of Northumberland’ 1976 Frank Graham Books [7]

Liddell, Tony, ‘Otherworld North East Ghosts and Hauntings Explored’ 2004, Tyne Bridge Publishing [12]

Matthews, Rupert, ‘Mysterious Northumberland’ 2009, Breedon Books [2]

Ogilvy, Christina and Davidson, James, A, ‘Haunting Dilston’ 2015, Powdene Publicity Ltd [9][11]

Copped Hall: An architectural phoenix


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

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


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

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]