Haunted Britain: The Tower of London
We English are obsessed with ghosts. It’s a statistical fact, according to Peter Ackroyd-in the very scary book The English Ghost- the English, over every other nationality, report the most ghost sightings. From Anglo Saxon nuns to murderous hitchhikers, it seems every single spook, spectre and phantom has been reported in some decade or another. The English just can’t get enough of the supernatural, whether we truly believe in ghosts or not.
Our bloody royal history has given people more than enough ammunition to invent or imagine sightings and spooky goings on. Who doesn’t know of the haunted gallery in Hampton Court where Henry VIII’s 5th wide Catherine Howard often runs down screaming, eternally trying to escape being executed? And what of Balmoral Castle? It’s said to be haunted by most of the Tudor family-I wonder if Lizzie and Henry VIII ever bump into each other at night…
The general rule with ghostly sightings is, the bloodier the spot the more ghosts you’re likely to stumble across.
Save the episode in the crypt, I’ve yet to bump into Becket’s ghost at Canterbury Cathedral. And, despite his rather messy ending, the ghost often spotted in the cathedral is not Thomas Becket. The honour of being Canterbury’s resident ghost lies with Simon Sudbury, an archbishop who was murdered by the pesky rebel Watt Tyler in 1381 during the peasant’s revolt. After his bloody murder in which his head was cut off from his body, Sudbury is said to haunt the tower which bears his namesake; surprisingly in one piece. Scary stuff right? There is also said to a monk that floats around the cloisters looking ‘lost and confused’…less scary. While Simon is the most sighted ghost in the cathedral, it would be rude not to mention Nell, who is usually spotted in the ‘Dark Entry’. Nell was the servant of a canon at Canterbury and was said to be love with her employer. Upon discovering he was having an affair Nell flew into a jealous rage and poisoned both the canon and his lover. As punishment, Nell was buried alive under the Dark Entry and her ghost is often seen there on dark Fridays (whatever they may be). Despite numerous trips to Canterbury; I’ve yet to see Si, the lost monk and Nelly which is probably a good thing as it’s said that those who actually see Nelly die soon after…
Cathedrals are pretty creepy no? But castles are creepier and I think the dubious, macabre honour of most haunted place in Britain has to be The Tower of London. A castle, prison and death chamber for over 900 years The Tower of London is one of England’s most haunted buildings with a multitude of prisoners to choose from, it’s no wonder many sightings are reported. Firstly, despite being too posh to haunt the cathedral he was murdered in, Thomas Becket is one of the earliest sightings of ghosts seen at the Tower. Thomas was first seen during the reign of King Henry III-Henry II’s grandson- appearing to be rather unhappy about the construction of what is now the Inner Curtain wall. A chapel was built for Becket in the tower and, rather miraculously the haunting in the Inner Curtain stopped.
Another resident and one of the more persistent spooks is one of my favourites, Anne Boleyn. As wife number 2 of Henry VIII, Anne met a grisly and rather unfair end on 19th May 1536 on the blade of French sword at Tower. There have been many sightings of Anne at the Tower; she’s been seen standing where she was executed, leading procession down the aisle of a chapel (not Thomas Becket’s that would be weird) and many people have reported seeing her headless body walking the Tower’s corridors, I guess they knew it was her from her signature ‘B’ necklace.
Another famous female ghost is that of Arbella Stuart a prisoner of the tower in the early 1600s. Arbella married the nephew of Lady Jane Grey (the successor of King Edward VII and prisoner of the Tower under the reign of Mary I) against King James I’s wishes. The marriage to William Seymour was seen as a direct threat to James and a challenge for the throne. Husband and wife were arrested; Arbella under house arrest in Lambeth while William was sent to the Tower. Soon after their arrests the two began to plot an escape to France, Arbella planned to get William released but her husband tragically missed their night-time rendezvous leaving Arbella to set sail on her own. Sadly Arbella was recognised, arrested once more and this time imprisoned in the Queen’s Tower. William somehow escaped but Arbella, in 1615 died in captivity, believed to have been murdered.
For controversy’s sake, I’ll include the stories of the ‘Princes’ seen in the Bloody Tower. The infamous princes are of course the young King Edward V and his brother Richard, the sons of the deceased Edward IV. After Edward Sr’s death the princes were placed in the care of their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester-who you and I know as Richard III-after the two boys were declared illegitimate. Soon after the boys vanished without a trace, never to be seen again…sure a few pretenders to the throne popped up in the reign of Henry VII but the general consensus amongst historians is that the brothers were never seen again. Who murdered them is up for debate, but one of the common stories is that Uncle Rich had his rivals murdered in the Tower to finally secure the throne, that went well didn’t it? Two skeletons, thought to be the brothers were unearthed in the White Tower and two little boys, who bear the likeness of Edward and his brother Richard, are seen wandering the halls of the Bloody Tower a look of terror on their faces. It’s also said you can hear them screaming during the night.
Not content with just being haunted by the ghosts of humans, some grizzly ghosts have been reported to be seen at the Tower. Yes, on two separate occasions the supposed ghosts of bears have been spotted roaming about various Towers. One bear is thought to be a polar bear, given to King Henry III in 1251 from the king of Norway, the other bear belonging to George III in the 1800s. This bear was a gift from the Hudson Bay Company in America and he lived in the Tower for many years before being transported to the newly built London Zoo.
And there you have it, these aren’t all the spooky inhabitants of the Tower of London but they are some of the most famous. While I’m on the fence about ghosts-I’ll believe it when I see it- being English I love nothing more than a good ghost story to keep me up at night!