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.
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 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.
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
With 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”. 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.
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
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. 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.
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”.
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 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”. 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”. 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 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.
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”. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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”.
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”.
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. So in a strange way she was banished to some sort of gothic residence but not as a prisoner!
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”.
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”.
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” 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”.
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, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raynham_Hall
The vast history of Raynham Hall, http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/norfolk/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8058000/8058145.stm
Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_Lady_of_Raynham_Hall#cite_note-4
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/norfolk/hauntings/the-brown-lady-of-raynham-hall.html
Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, http://www.paranormalunited.co.uk/brown-lady-of-raynham-hall-norfolk-1936/
The Whartons of Winchendon, http://thedabbler.co.uk/2014/10/the-whartons-of-winchendon-4-honest-tom/
Raynham Hall, http://www.delcoghosts.com/raynham_hall.html
Dorothy Townshend, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Townshend
The Brown Lady, http://altereddimensions.net/2012/brown-lady-ghost
Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wharton,_1st_Marquess_of_Wharton
Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Townshend,_3rd_Viscount_Townshend
Raynham Hall, http://home.worldonline.co.za/~townshend/raynham.htm
Gothic Literature, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_fiction
 Raynham Hall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raynham_Hall
 The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/norfolk/hauntings/the-brown-lady-of-raynham-hall.html
 Gothic Literature, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_fiction
 Dorothy Townshend, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Townshend
 The vast history of Raynham Hall http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/norfolk/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8058000/8058145.stm
 William Coxe and Horatio Walpole: Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole – Volume I, 1808
 Raynham Hall, http://home.worldonline.co.za/~townshend/raynham.htm
 M. Townshend, Townshend – Townshend: 1066-1909, 1909
 John Harold Wilson, Court Satires of the Restoration, 1986
 The Whartons of Winchendon, http://thedabbler.co.uk/2014/10/the-whartons-of-winchendon-4-honest-tom/
 The Brown Lady, http://altereddimensions.net/2012/brown-lady-ghost
 Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014
 The Whartons of Winchendon, http://thedabbler.co.uk/2014/10/the-whartons-of-winchendon-4-honest-tom/