THE GHOSTLY TUDOR WIVES OF HAMPTON COURT PALACE
Posted August 12, 2013on:
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The prolific author of historical fiction, Jean Plaidy, once said that she got her love of history from visiting Hampton Court Palace when she was a child. It is impossible not to walk around the house and grounds of this splendid palace and not feel the weight of history all around you. I was once walking down a dimly-lit corridor here, which was swarming with a party of schoolchildren, and hearing a little girl say in an awestruck voice “there are ghosts at Hampton Court aren’t there”. Oh just a few.
The most famous ghost is that of Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII, and the second of his unfortunate spouses to be executed. Katherine was a sort of Paris Hilton of her day. Pretty, not overly-blessed with brains, rather ditzy in fact, and more keen on clothes, jewels and boys than bothering with the duties of being Queen. The King, proving spectacularly that “there’s no fool like an old fool”, became infatuated with this pretty young thing during the farce of his short-lived marriage to Anne of Cleves. How Henry could think that this bubble-headed girl could become equally infatuated with a cranky, bloated old devil like him, with a dodgy leg as well, really must have been a case of big delusion.
For all that she enjoyed the privileges of being Queen, Katherine was still prone to having her head turned by men closer to her own age. She had had a vigorous sex life before meeting the King, and was scarcely the “rose without a thorn” that Henry was said to have trumpeted her to be. When Katherine’s peccadilloes were brought to the King’s ears in the Autumn of 1541, a heartbroken Henry ordered her to be taken to the Tower of London.
Katherine, all too aware of the tragic fate that had met her cousin Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, became understandably hysterical. On 4 November she ran through the palace, screaming for the King. Henry was at prayer in the chapel, and his henchmen prevented Katherine from reaching him, fearing that when confronted with her in person, the King’s heart might melt and he would spare her from the executioner’s axe. Ever since, Katherine’s tormented spirit is said to haunt the gallery leading to the chapel, running along, her long hair streaming behind her.
The pathetic little queen was beheaded at the Tower on 13 February 1542. She was said to have ordered the executioner’s block to be brought to her room, so that she could practice laying her head upon it.
At the end of the 19th century the gallery was kept locked, used as it was for storing pictures in, yet residents still spoke of hearing Katherine’s ghostly screams, particularly at the time of her arrest in the late Autumn. When the gallery was opened to the public, an artist was sketching there when he saw a be-ringed hand touch his pad. He later discovered, from a portrait, that the ring was very similar to one Katherine had owned.
Another of Henry Tudor’s longsuffering wives to haunt the palace is Wife No.3, Jane Seymour, the mother of his only legitimate son, Edward. Jane had finally given Henry his much longed-for son on 12 October 1537. Edward was carried in triumph through the palace to be baptised by candlelight. Jane must have had little awareness of it though. Complications from the birth had set in, and Jane died very soon afterwards. Her ghost is said to be seen on the anniversary of Edward’s birth. She has reputedly also been on the staircase of the Clock Court, dressed in white and carrying a candle.
It would be somewhat strange if Anne Boleyn’s ghost hasn’t also been seen here. She has been seen, dressed in blue, gliding along the passageways. Servants working here at the end of the 19th century said that she had looked sad, which is perhaps scarcely surprising, all things considered. I did read an intriguing anecdote a few years ago of a visitor to the palace, standing in the Clock Court, looking up and seeing a lady in Tudor clothes looking down at him from a window. He swore it wasn’t one of the guides (who do dress up in period costume), and said he liked to think it was Anne. If it was, I wonder what she thought of suddenly seeing a visitor from the future standing there!
It is not just Henry’s brides who haunt the palace though. Mistress Sybil Penn, foster-mother to King Edward VI, has been sighted a few times since her death from smallpox, including once by Edward’s half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth I. She is said to wear a grey dress with a hood, and was once seen by a sentry on duty here, who deserted his post on sighting her. (A similar tale is to be found at the Tower of London, with the ghost being Anne Boleyn instead).
You can also add the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey, two duelling Cavaliers in the Fountain Court, one of Anne Boleyn’s lovers, and a spectral distraught woman running out of the main entrance. In recent years a strange “apparition” (for want of a better word) was caught on security camera at the Palace. A set of fire doors in a part of the palace not frequented by the public, were seen to open outwards, and a rather sinister-looking figure in a cloak, and what seems to be a mask briefly emerging. There has been much debate about what this figure is. It isn’t even very clear if it’s a man or a woman. Skeptics have said the whole thing is most likely a hoax, or one of the costumed guides, and how could a ghost from a distant era know how to operate a modern fire door? I have no idea, but speculation about what this strange figure is continues to rage. The clip can be found on YouTube.