GHOSTS OF THE SOUTH MIDLANDS
Woodchester Park, Nympsfield, Gloucestershire
The Ancient Ram Inn
The New Inn, Pembridge
Dudley, West Midlands
Dudley Castle – the ragged remnants of which stand atop a lofty, limestone crag, and which are reached via a brisk stroll through Dudley Zoo – was founded in 1071. It was massively refortified in the 12th and 13th centuries by the then owners the de Somery family who, tradition holds, resorted to violent extortion to fund the expansion.
At least one member of this brutish clan may still reside amidst the shattered ruins.
In a dimly lit corner of the castles lecture room are two halves of an enormous medieval stone coffin, the original occupant of which must have been a giant of his time.
It came from Dudley Priory, where the Lords of Dudley were once buried, and is believed to have once held the mortal remains of John de Somery, who died in 1322.
However, in 2002, an historical dowser detected that the two sections of the coffin, whilst both being from the 14th century, were of different dates and, therefore, may well be the remains of two different caskets.
Such a discovery, of course, is merely academic.
Unless, that is, you happen to be one of the former incumbents, whose earthbound spirit has remained trapped at your place of interment.
A cleaner, working in the room one day, happened to glance over in the direction of the coffin, and saw a pair of feet, clad in a pair of thigh length riding boots, standing next to it. Her alarm intensified when she realised that the figure was minus the upper half of its body! Is it possible that the cleaving in two of his resting place has condemned John de Somery to lead a somewhat truncated ethereal existence?
From the de Somery’s, the castle passed by marriage to the de Sutton family, and then in the mid-16th century came into possession of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who set about creating an abode that would match the lofty, and ultimately fatal, heights of his dynastic ambition.
When Henry V111 died in 1547, John Dudley became Protector to the young Edward V1.
Following Edward's death in 1553, Dudley conspired to make his own daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England, thus by-passing the rightful heir, Mary Tudor.
When the plot floundered, due to the country as a whole supporting Mary’s claim, his fellow conspirators quickly deserted him, and John Dudley was forced to surrender to the mercy of Mary 1st.
This was not forthcoming and he, his son and the unfortunate nine-day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, were all executed.
The castle reverted to the Sutton family and thereafter sank into decline.
Garrisoned by the Royalists during the Civil War, it was besieged by the Parliamentarian’s. But following the defeat of Charles 1st at the Battle of Naseby, it was surrendered on 13th May 1646 and the Keep, Gatehouse and portions of the curtain wall were subsequently slighted.
Although the then owners, the Ward family, continued to use the domestic range, they appear to have had little enthusiasm for it and when, on 24th July 1750, it was engulfed by fire, the flames were allowed to burn unabated for three days and nights.
Dudley Castle then settled into its role of romantic ruin until, in 1937, it was incorporated into the zoological gardens, above which it now looms.
Disembodied legs aside, many spirits linger around the lofty remnants.
A group of intrepid ghost hunter’s who volunteered for a sponsored overnight stay one Halloween, were startled in the early hours by a mysterious figure, seen pacing across the parapets. Who, or what, it was has never been ascertained and it has never been seen since.
The wraith of an old lady, who hanged herself from the ramparts when her cat was killed by local youths, has also been known to return occasionally to the place of her suicide.
A Civil War drummer, who was picked off by a single shot from the battlements as he attempted to take a message offering terms of surrender to the garrison, is also seen from time to time.
But the most famous of all the ghosts is that of the grey lady, whose sombre shade drifts around the parapets of the old keep at sundry times of the day and night.
She is thought to be Dorothy Beaumont, who died at the castle during the siege of 1646, apparently of natural causes.
The Parliamentary commander, Sir William Brereton, allowed her funeral cortege to pass though his lines and she was buried in the church at the top of Dudley High Street.
But, the fact that her infant child had died before her, and been laid to rest in the towns lower church, which was closer to the castle, proved too much for Dorothy’s spirit, and her ghost wanders the castle seeking the baby whom fate, and the length of Dudley High Street, have separated her from for the whole of eternity.
Staff have long since grown accustomed to her wanderings, whilst numerous bemused visitors will testify to her existence.
In the course of one of the ghost tours now staged at the castle, an actor was employed to play the part of Dorothy’s ghost. At the crucial moment when the castle keeper, Adrian Durkin, was regaling his audience with her heart-rending tale, participants were puzzled by the appearance of second grey lady behind the actor.
With the possible exception of Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots must have possessed one of the most psychically charged persona’s to ever drift across the pages of history. There is hardly a castle or house that she visited, and several that she didn’t, which is not now haunted by her tragic shade. The place where you would certainly expect to encounter her wraith is, of course, Fotheringay Castle, in the great hall of which she was beheaded on February 8th, 1587. But the Castle was long ago demolished, and all that now remains, is a melancholic mound in the grounds of a farmhouse. Much of the its stone was used for new building in the neighbourhood, and many of its furnishings ended up at sundry other locations.
When Mary’s son James 1st ordered that Fotheringay Castle was to be razed to the ground, the landlord of the Talbot Inn, William Whitwell, saw an opportunity to refurbish his hostelry in grand style at reasonable cost, and purchased many of the fixtures and fittings. Since the inn was reputedly founded in AD638, it was no doubt in need of a little modernisation, and the great horn windows from Fotheringay, must have looked particularly impressive when they had been incorporated into its ancient walls. Whitwell also purchased the staircase, down which the Queen had walked to her execution and with it, at no extra cost, came Mary’s ghost.
On the polished wood of the balustrade, there can still be seen the imprint of a crown, which local tradition maintains, was left by the ring on Mary’s finger as she held the balustrade for support on her way to the block.
Less obtrusive, is the psychic imprint of her restless wraith that has been encountered by many of the guests who come to enjoy the traditional hospitality offered by this venerable old establishment. People complain of a feeling of chilling unease as they descend the stairs.
A woman, lying in bed one night, suddenly felt a weight pressing upon the covers. Attempting to reach for the light switch, she found herself unable to move as a clammy presence held her firmly against the bed. An unseen hand sometimes moves furniture about, and the picture that depicts Mary’s execution has been known to suddenly jump off the wall.
Guests crossing the outside yard, have seen the ghostly face of a woman staring down from the horn window’s that came from Fotheringay.
Of course, claims that it is Mary Queen of Scots who haunts the Talbot are little more than convenient speculation and some even cast doubt on the authenticity of the staircase itself.
There is, however, a direct physical connection between the tragic Queen and the ancient hostelry. On the night before she was beheaded the executioner lodged at the Talbot inn where, it is recorded, he "partook of pigeon pie, drank a quart of best ale and made a merry discourse with the serving girl till an early hour of the morning."
Astley, Nr Nuneton, Warwickshire
The fire-mangled ruins of this ancient castle sit alongside the tranquil churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, in the sleepy Warwickshire village of Astley.
It is a sad and neglected place whose pale red walls have collapsed and fallen; and whose moat has almost disappeared beneath an ocean of weed, nettle and bracken.
A ring of massive trees shield it from prying eyes, and there is nothing here to suggest that it is was once the home of that most tragic of historic figures, Lady Jane Grey (1537 – 1554), the nine day Queen. It was to Astley that Jane’s father, Henry, Duke of Suffolk, came following the failure of his attempt to defeat Mary 1st.
Legend holds that he spent three days hiding in a tree in the churchyard, before being spotted by his grounds keeper who betrayed him. He was later beheaded, and his headless ghost has wandered Astley Castle ever since.
Nr. Kineton, Warwickshire
On October 24th 1642 the first major clash of the Civil War was fought at Edgehill, where Charles 1st with an army of 13,000 men had blocked the retreat of a Parliamentarian force numbering slightly less, which was commanded by Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex.
The early advantage went to the Royalist Army, until Charles’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, squandered it with an ill-advised cavalry charge that left the infantry exposed to an enemy attack. In the fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Roundheads succeeded in capturing the Royal Standard and killing its bearer Sir Edmund Verney. A Royalist cavalry officer, Captain John Smith, spotted a group of enemy troops making of with the colours. He charged after them, killed one, wounded another and, as the others fled, retrieved the standard and returned it to the King, with Verney’s hand still clasped around it!
Three thousand men lost their lives that October day and, with the outcome of the battle indecisive, both sides were quick to claim the victory. The truth is that the advantage probably did go to the Kings army and, had Charles then chosen to march on London, he may well have altered the course of history. But so appalled was he by the carnage of this, his first battle, that he was unable to concentrate on military strategy and opted instead to head for Oxford where he established his headquarters.
On 23rd December 1642, several shepherds at Edgehill claimed to have witnessed a spectral re-enactment of the entire skirmish. It began with the sound of distant drums which, as they got nearer, were joined by “the noise of soldiers… giving out their last groans”.
There then appeared in the air “the same incorporeal souldiers that made those clamours” and a full-scale clash of phantom armies took place in the sky above the original battlefield.
As the ethereal battle ended, the shepherds rushed to nearby Kineton, where they repeated, on oath, before William Wood, a Justice of the Peace, and the Reverend Samuel Marshall, the unbelievable details of what they had witnessed.
The phantom armies re-appeared over several nights and were witnessed on Christmas Day by many people in “the same tumultuous and warlike manner.. fighting with as much spite and spleen as formerly”. When word of the miracle reached the King in Oxford, he dispatched six men of “good repute and integrity” to investigate the phenomena. They too were treated to a ghostly re-enactment of the dreadful battle and three of them, who had fought in the original conflict, actually recognised several of the ghostly combatants.
Edgehill is still said to occasionally echo with the spectral vestiges of the bloody skirmish. The hoof-beats of invisible cavalryman have been heard thundering down nearby roads in the dead of night, whilst the agonised screams of the wounded and dying are said to rend the air around which is still one of Warwickshire’s most striking hillsides.
Ettington Park Hotel
Nr Stratford, Warwickshire
The Gothic appearance of this luxury hotel, the oldest part of which dates back to the Tudor period, looks every inch the haunted house of tradition.
It was, for centuries, the home of one of Warwickshire’s oldest families, the Shirley’s and was used as a location for the 1963 film of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting.
As dusk creeps across the surrounding treetops, and the eerie glow of twilight dapples the turrets and pinnacles of the old house in shadow, a grey lady has been known to materialise near the great stone staircase and drift about the spot where she reputedly died having been pushed down the stairs on an unspecified date.
As she remembers her tragic demise a ghost, whom staff have christened “Lady Emma”, sometimes drifts along the cloister-like terrace, her translucent figure resplendent in a flowing white dress.
Meanwhile, on the banks of the River Stour that flows through the grounds, the wraiths of two children, wearing old-fashioned clothing have been seen.
One guest was woken by the sound of a child sobbing outside and, on looking out of the window, saw the shadowy phantoms gazing pensively into the river.
Finally, in the library bar, a battered copy of Sir Walter Scott’s St Ronan’s Well has sometimes been lifted off the shelf and flung across the room, where it always opens at the same page on which the text concerns a curse
In the summer of 2001, archaeologists working in the centre of Coventry, uncovered the remains of a 14th century stained glass window, the shards of which depicted the face of a beautiful, golden haired woman.
It was part of the east window of the former cathedral where, traditionally, the images of benefactors were depicted. It may well have shown the face of the wife or daughter of a wealthy and influential medieval citizen.
But, as far as many were concerned, as they gazed upon the long buried but striking features of their exquisite find, they were looking upon the face of Coventry’s most famous daughter, Lady Godiva.
Unlike many whose names have become synonymous with legend, there is no doubt that Lady Godiva actually existed. Indeed, the Domesday Book of 1086 records that Godgifu, to give her the name by which she would have been known, was a substantial landowner in her own right and was married to one of the most powerful noblemen of the day Leofric, Earl of Chester.
Both were devoutly religious, and both were generous benefactors to the church. But beneath Leofric’s charitable exterior, there ran an avaricious streak, tinged with a curiously creative imagination that dreamt up a legendary riposte to his wife’s determined nagging.
The story begins close to the physical centre of modern Coventry, where stand the bombed out remnants of the once mighty Cathedral. It was around here in 1043 that Leofric and Godiva founded a monastery, which soon became one of the richest in the land “resplendent with gold and gems to a degree unequalled in England at that date”.
Soon Leofric had taken control of Coventry’s finances, and initiated a series of magnificent public works the costs of which were borne by the townsfolk, as Leofric began taxing anything he could think of.
Meanwhile Lady Godiva had become a generous patron of the arts. She decided that what the hard-pressed populace required more than anything else was a heightening of their aesthetic awareness.
At first, she was mystified as to why the rough and ready peasantry appeared unable to appreciate the merits of her artistic vision. It never seems to have entered her mind that the actions of her megalomaniac of a husband had made their lives one long struggle for food and shelter in which pretty pictures were of little use.
When the truth finally dawned on her, she went straight to Leofric and insisted that he reduce taxes so that her vision of "art for everyone" could become a reality. Not only did he refuse her demands, but he also laughed so long and so loudly at them, that he fell off his chair and injured his wrist.
Godiva promptly launched a counter attack, and began nagging Leofric so incessantly and vociferously that he eventually caved in and acceded to her wishes - but on one condition. He argued that, since the ancient Greeks and Romans considered the naked human body the pinnacle of nature’s perfection, then his wife should take her artistic crusade to its logical conclusion and ride naked through Coventry’s market place. If she would do this, then he in turn would reduce the unpopular taxes. He nearly fell off his chair a second time when his modest and devoutly religious wife accepted the challenge.
So it was that, on the appointed day, at the appointed hour - flanked by two fully clothed horsewomen - Lady Godiva removed her clothing, mounted her steed, and cantered proudly into the realm of legend. As she went, her long hair fell across her body and veiled it so thoroughly that, despite the fact that most of the populace had turned out to watch, none saw anything, save her face and “fair legs”. Leofric was so amazed by this miracle that, instead of simply reducing taxes, he abolished them completely.
Sadly, the whole story is little more than a myth, and it is doubtful that the real Lady Godiva ever undertook an artistic streak for the benefit of the good citizens of Coventry.
Indeed, the earliest written accounts of the event occur some two hundred years after it supposedly happened and, over the centuries, the story has been considerably embellished and re-written before arriving at the version that we know today.
Thus, by the 16th century, the ride itself had changed significantly, and Lady Godiva was said to have sent messengers around the town asking everyone to stay indoors and shutter their windows at the appointed hour.
Because of her popularity and because they stood to gain from her actions, the citizens were happy to oblige.
A hundred or so years later, the antiquarian William Camden visited Coventry and was shown a battered, wooden effigy that inspired him to introduce another character into the legend.
Today that same timeworn figure stands encased in glass on the first floor of the Cathedral Lane Shopping Centre. Its blinded eyes and anguished expression are those of a man whose true identity has long since been forgotten.
By the time Camden came to write him into the story in the late 17th century, he had assumed a name that is now as famous as that of Godiva herself. He is said to be Peeping Tom, the boy who was struck blind when he ignored the good lady’s wishes, and snuck a brief peek as she rode proudly by in all her natural glory.
Minster Lovell Hall
Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire
The sleepy ruins of Minster Lovell Hall are tucked away behind the delightful St Kenelm’s church, on the tranquil banks of the River Windrush, in what is one of England’s most beautiful villages.
It is haunted by the ghost of Francis, the first Viscount Lovell, and a fervent Yorkist who fled to the continent following the defeat of his King, Richard 111, at the battle of Bosworth.
He then made his way to Ireland where the “Pretender” Lambert Simnel was crowned King and, in whose company, he returned to Yorkshire to raise an army which then met with Henry V11’s forces at the battle of Stoke.
Defeated again, Francis is said to have escaped by swimming his horse across the River Trent and galloping hell for leather back to Minster Lovell Hall where he had himself locked up in an underground room, the location of which was known only to an old retainer.
With only his pet dog for company, he was dependent upon this faithful servant for food and drink.
One day, the servant died suddenly, leaving his master incarcerated and helpless in what became his underground prison and eventually his tomb.
There he remained until the 18th century when, during the fitting of a new chimney, the builders uncovered a large underground vault in which they found the entire skeleton of a man sprawled across a table with the bones of a little dog at its feet!
His doleful revenant has wandered the ruins ever since, a forlorn figure in a billowing cloak whose manifestations are often accompanied by the dreadful sounds of “groans, footsteps and rustling papers” emanating from “somewhere beneath the ground”.