The deathly stoop chair of Thomas Busby


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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


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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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Mansion of Pleasure and Privacy”[2]

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

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

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

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

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

The Henry VIII Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Royal Prison

Queen Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary.

Queen Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary.

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

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

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

Sir Thomas Heneage and a Shakespearean First

Thomas Heneage. Image from Coppend Hall Trust.

Thomas Heneage. Image from Coppend Hall Trust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oberon and Titania by William Blake. Image via Wikimedia.

Oberon and Titania by William Blake. Image via Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Sackwell: A rapier wit and forgivable rogue

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

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

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

Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely. Image via Wikimedia.

Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely. Image via Wikimedia.

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

A New Era: The Conyers Family


Edward Conyers. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

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

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

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

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

A Victorian Palladian Mansion

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

Foxhunting. Image via George Glazer Gallery.

Foxhunting. Image via George Glazer Gallery.

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

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

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

An unfortunate accident

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

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

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

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

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

Copped Hall Reborn

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

Copped Hall today. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

Copped Hall today. Image via Copped Hall Trust.

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

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

Copped Hall. Image via Diamond Geezer blog.

Copped Hall. Image via Diamond Geezer blog.


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


[1]  Nicholas Hagger, A view of Epping Forest

[2] Waltham Abbey Church,

[3] Waltham Abbey Church,

[4] Waltham Abbey Church,

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


Thomas Skelton: the murderous jester of Muncaster Castle


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Evil Clowns

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

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

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

Who was Thomas Skelton?

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

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

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

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

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

Dating Tom Fool

Thomas Skelton's Will

Thomas Skelton’s Will

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

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

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

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

A Killer Sense of Humour

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Day by William Collins, Wikimedia.

May Day by William Collins, Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

Detail of Holofernes by Carravagio.

Detail of the beheading of Holofernes, by Caravaggio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The punchline…

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

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

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


Sources and notes

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

Bob, ‘The History of the Fool’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

A Debut Performance


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

The Captain and the Ghost

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

Frederick Marryat by John Simpson. Source Wikimedia.

Frederick Marryat by John Simpson. Source Wikimedia.

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

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

Captured on Camera

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

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

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

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

A Ghostly Image or Clever Fake?

This might just be a fake.....

This might just be a fake…..

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy Walpole’s Wandering Spirit

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

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole.

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole.

Other Ghostly Residents of Raynham Hall

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

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

The Duke of Monmouth, the housewife’s choice…

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

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!


Florence Marryat, There is No Death, 1917

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

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

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

John Harold Wilson, Court Satires of the Restoration, 1986

Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014

Raynham Hall,

The vast history of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Whartons of Winchendon,

Raynham Hall,

Dorothy Townshend,

The Brown Lady,

Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton,,_1st_Marquess_of_Wharton

Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend,,_3rd_Viscount_Townshend

Raynham Hall,

Gothic Literature,


[1] Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[2] ibid

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

[4] Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[5] Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[6] The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[7] ibid

[8] The vast history of Raynham Hall,

[9] The Brown Lady,

[10] Raynham Hall,




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


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


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

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

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

The Legend of the Brown Lady

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

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

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

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

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

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

Variations on a theme

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

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

A Gothic Nightmare or a Misjudged Marriage

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

Image via Gutenberg Press.

Image via Gutenberg Press.

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

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

Introducing The Principle Players…

Lady Dorothy Townshend (née Walpole)

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole

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

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

Houghton Hall. Image by Lenora.

Houghton Hall. Image by Lenora.

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

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

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

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

Lord Charles Townshend (2nd Viscount Townshend)

Charles Townsend, 2nd Viscount Townsend by Godfrey Kneller.

Charles Townsend, 2nd Viscount Townsend by Godfrey Kneller.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Lucy Wharton

Lady Lucy Wharton by Godfrey Kneller. Private Collection.

Lady Lucy Wharton by Godfrey Kneller. Private Collection.

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Wharton

Honest Tom Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton.

Honest Tom Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


Florence Marryat, There is No Death, 1917

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

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

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

John Harold Wilson, Court Satires of the Restoration, 1986

Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014

Raynham Hall,

The vast history of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Whartons of Winchendon,

Raynham Hall,

Dorothy Townshend,

The Brown Lady,

Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton,,_1st_Marquess_of_Wharton

Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend,,_3rd_Viscount_Townshend

Raynham Hall,

Gothic Literature,


[1] Raynham Hall,

[2] The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[3] Gothic Literature,

[4] Dorothy Townshend,

[5] The vast history of Raynham Hall

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

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Raynham Hall,

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

[11] ibid

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

[13] The Whartons of Winchendon,

[14] The Brown Lady,

[15] Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014

[16] The Whartons of Winchendon,

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] ibid



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


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Strawberry Hill – a dream of gloomth

Strawberry Hill from the south.

South View of Strawberry Hill.

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

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

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

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

Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds, 1756. Image Wikimedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horace Walpole by Rosalba Carriera. Source Wikipedia.

Horace Walpole, by Rosalba Carriera. Source Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

It must have seemed shocking to his neighbors!


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


The Tribune, where Walpole displayed his most valued treasures.

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

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

According to Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi:

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

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

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

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

My Fellow Goths

The Stunning Long Gallery

The Stunning Long Gallery

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


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

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

The Glorious Gloomth of the Library.

The Glorious Gloomth of the Library.

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

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

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

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

Walpole's rules for visitors to Strawberry Hill.

Walpole’s rules for visitors to Strawberry Hill.

 The Castle of Otranto

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

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

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

Staircase and Lantern. Image by Lenora.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The armory from the staircase.

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

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

Strawberry Hill today

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

The Waldegrave Wing.

The 19th Century Waldegrave Wing.

Restoration, and hand woven bedsheets.

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

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

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

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

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


 Sources and notes

Images:  By Lenora unless otherwise stated. [1]

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

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

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

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

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




Blogger recognition award 2016


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Blogger recognition award 2016


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


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

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

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

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

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

How The Haunted Palace Blog began…

800px-Turner_Alnwick_Castle BW

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

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

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

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

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

My Nominations for the Blogger Recognition Award 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenora and Miss Jessel at The Haunted Palace Blog.

creepy girls


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


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

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

Leineschloss. Image via Wikipedia.

Leineschloss. Image via Wikipedia.

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

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

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


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


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A Scandalous Family


The Dashing Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. Residenzmuseum Celle 20160708.

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

At the court of Charles II

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

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

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

The assassination of Mr Thynn

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

Thomas Thynne. Image source unknown.

Thomas Thynne. Image source unknown.

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

A fateful meeting

Sophie Dorothea, Princess of Hannover by Henry Gascard

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

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

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

A tempestuous marriage

George I, Elector of Hanover

George I, Elector of Hanover. Image source Wikipedia.

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

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

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

Eléonore d'Olbreuse,

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

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

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

A love affair

The Meeting. JH Fragonard. Frick Collection NY.

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

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

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

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

‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’

-William Congreve

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


The vindictive Countess Clara von Platen. Image source Wikimedia.

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

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


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

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

The Princess of Ahlden

 Ahlden Castle in Celle . Image source Wikimedia.

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

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

Sophie Dorothea and her children. Image source Wikimedia.

Sophie Dorothea and her children. Image source Wikimedia.

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

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

A platonic relationship or torrid affair?

The Lovers. Image source Prometheus Art dealers.

The Lovers. Image source Antiques Atlas website.

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

History’s great romance

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


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


Tragic lover, Philip. Image source The Peerage website.


[1] Hans Christoff von Königsmarck:

[2] Amalia Königsmarck:

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

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

[5] Ibid, 223

[6] Sophia Dorothea

[7] Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

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

[9] Sophia Dorothea

[10] Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

[11] Who Murdered Konigsmarck?:

[12] ibid

[13] Philip Christoph von Königsmarck:

[14] Maria Aurora von Königsmarck: Königsmarck

[15] Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):

[16] Philip Christoph von Königsmarck:

[17] Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):


Philipp Christoph, Count Of Konigsmark:

Clara Elisabeth von Platen:

Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):

Hans Christoff von Königsmarck:

Amalia Königsmarck:

Lord Rochester and the Court of Charles II:

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

Sophia Dorothea

Maria Aurora von Königsmarck:

Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

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