Country house ghosts

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that every self-respecting country house is in need of a ghost. Sceptic and believer are both in happy agreement on this point. And if owners and guides are to be believed, they are very rarely disappointed: the ghostless stately home or castle seems a great rarity. But what is the history of these familiar and much-beloved spectres? Did our Tudor forebears, who haunt so many homes today, expect as living men and women, to encounter the spirits of their distant ancestors in the great hall? And when the Victorians encountered the supernatural, did they see ghosts that we would recognise?

The word ghost is as old as the English language itself. It distantly derives from a group of words in West German speech variously meaning to tear, to terrify, to wound as well as anger, fury and rage. In Anglo-Saxon and Old English, it was commonly rendered as gast or gaest, words that could be used to refer in various senses to a soul or spirit. In Middle English, its meaning was expanded to refer to the manifestation of one in the living world. Our modern spelling of the word with an ‘h’ is a legacy of the 15th-century printer Caxton, who was probably influenced by the Flemish gheest.

In the Middle Ages, the doctrine of Purgatory a celestial zone where the dead atone for their sins through suffering before passing on to Heaven helped account for the appearance of the dead in the living world: ghosts were generally understood to be souls from Purgatory appearing in order to resolve the effects of some past action.

Alternatively, spirits might rise to warn the living of their fate. Such is the case with the 13th-century literary tale of the three dead kings who confront three living counterparts and warn them of the dangers of luxury and vice, and offer the stark reminder ‘we were as you are; and you will be what we have become’.

On both counts although they might be terrifying to see medieval ghosts were essentially benign. Stories about them are common in written sources from the 12th century and are thought to have been popular points of reference in sermons.

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Among the most curious compilations of such stories was written in the early 15th century by an anonymous Cistercian monk at Byland Abbey, Yorkshire. They fill the end pages of an earlier manuscript and appropriately were transcribed in 1922 by perhaps the best known of all modern ghost writers, M. R. James. The monk’s 12 stories are all set in the locality of the abbey and concern specific individuals, although some names are tactfully withheld. One is additionally dated by reference to the reign of Richard II (d.1399).

Some long-established themes of ghostly behaviour are already apparent in these accounts, as, for example, the need to conjure a ghost to allow them to speak. Other features of them might seem odd to a modern audience: ghosts are reported to make physical contact with the living and can take many forms, such as birds, animals and even inanimate objects that spin or burn. They’re not confined by buildings, although they sometimes act in relation to them.

Take the case of Robert, son of Robert of Boltby, who was buried in the churchyard at Kilburn. His ghost walked abroad at night, pursued by the village dogs, and habitually stood at the windows and doors of houses. Eventually, some men in the village successfully wrestled the ghost to the ground and fetched the parish priest. He called on the ghost to speak and acted as confessor for its sins (reputedly, a murder). Henceforth, the ghost disappeared.

At the Reformation, the condemnation of the doctrine of Purgatory by Protestant reformers demanded a new explanation for ghosts. If the dead passed straight to Heaven or Hell, what business had they with the living and their world? Increasingly, they were viewed as manifestations of evil and became associated with witchcraft or sorcery.

The attempted use of ghosts for human purposes is occasionally documented in this period. A renegade monk, William Stapledon, for example, left the cloister and attempted to raise spirits in order to dig for treasure. In a confessional letter of the 1530s, he made the inflammatory claim that one summoned spirit Oberyon refused to speak because he was already in the keeping of Cardinal Wolsey. Most writers, however, were not openly practitioners of such doubtful arts.

In his celebrated volume Daemonology (1597), James I essentially saw ghosts as malign, although he cautiously acknow-ledged that, in rare cases, a ghost could be ‘natural’. And when he identified a particular class of spirit that haunted remote spots or houses, he saw the phenomenon either as ‘a sure token either of grosse ignorance [among the household], or of some grosse and slanderous sinnes amongst the inhabi-tantes thereof: which God by that extraordinarie rod punishes’.

This growing ambivalence towards ghosts is further attested to in the plays of Shakespeare. When Hamlet encounters his father’s spirit on the battlements of Elsinore (after repeated sightings there), his first response is to question its real identity as an evil or natural apparition: ‘Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell… I’ll call thee Hamlet,
 King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!’

In the burgeoning field of 17th-century publications on the supernatural and witchcraft, writers began exhaustively and enthusiastically to categorise spirits and their intentions. An architectural setting is usually incidental to the colourful reports of their activities. One repeated curiosity of house hauntings in this period, however, is the animation of physical materials.

In 1609, the death of the mayor of Rye, Tomas Hammond, was accompanied by a bizarre series
of apparitions that was recorded in a surviving deposition. One witness, a certain George Tayler, described a complex scene that appeared ‘in shadow’ in a window. It included ‘a verie anciente grave man sittinge verie maeisterallie in a chaire with a booke before him’ beside images of men and women and several death’s heads.

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More spectacular still is the report in a history of spirits by John Beaumont (published 1705) of a ‘London house’ in 1649, falling under the spell of a ‘conjuroer’. It was visited by ‘evil princes’, who created images in the glass and the ceilings. In addition, a map of the visible globe appeared on the bricks of the chimney stack along with a coach and four horses, passengers and a footman, as if in motion.

Another common report was of house ghosts appearing in the likeness of a recently deceased individual. In September 1652, for example, a Canterbury physician, William Jacob, lost a cousin whom he was treating for gangrene. He was later woken in his bed by the ghost of the deceased, when it ‘laid a cold hand on his face’. The apparition was recognisable by the distinctive trim of its beard.

In some cases, such ghosts might appear at the moment of death to unwitting friends or family. John Butler, MP for Sussex, died while travelling to London in December 1766. His ghost, in the form of a living man, reputedly directed his family still ignorant of the event to the location of the will he had left at home.

However, ghosts were not necessarily recognisable as individuals. A letter in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1790 described a ghost that intermittently appeared in the church porch at Kilncote, Lincolnshire, to the rector’s wife: ‘The lady determined to approach it, and the nearer she advanced the more confident she was that the substance or shade of a human was before her.’ This ghost was surely kin to the innumerable grey, blue or white ladies reported in country houses today.

Invisible and mischievous spirits that slam doors, throw things (and people) about and rings bells what we would today term a poltergeist are also longstanding visitors to houses. One such troubled the Wesley family (of preaching fame) in 1716-17. After setting aside natural explanations, they determined rather surprisingly that this was the ghost of a Jacobite reacting against prayers offered for the Hanoverian king.

The tradition of scepticism regarding the appearance of particular ghosts stretches right back to the Middle Ages: Chaucer uses the figure of the fool who mistakes the ordinary for a ghost. From the Reformation, discounting stories about spirits and ghosts additionally became a means of discrediting unorthodox beliefs. Public debates about the authenticity of particular sightings, however, are properly a phenomenon of the 18th century onwards.
An early example was the Cock Lane affair in 1760-2, when the spirit of a woman purportedly took possession of a young girl and haunted her house in West Smithfield, London. As reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine, ‘many gentlemen, eminent for their rank and character’ attended the denoument, which was a visit to the coffin of the deceased in the vault of St John Clerkenwell. The affair, which attempted to implicate someone for murder, revealed itself to be a sorry domestic scandal.

The fascination with Spiritualism at the end of the 19th century generated a rash of Society scandals as groups sympathetic to the idea of ghosts attempted to track them down and communicate with them. One celebrated figure involved in a series of ghost hunts that were publicly denounced was Ada Freer, a member of the Society for Psychical Research (and who claimed second sight and wrote papers as Miss X).

In parallel to the reported sightings of ghosts real and pretended are a myriad of fictional representations in literature. These equally give a sense of changing perceptions of ghosts. By the 19th century, nearly all appear in or around houses. Perhaps the most individually celebrated is the ghost of Bob Marley, wreathed in chains, in Dickens’s short story A Christmas Carol (1843).

There are much darker creations, too, such as the ghost of Catherine in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847).

By this date, a literary genre of ghost stories was already developing and creating new horrors. Famously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was born as the result of a competition among the Shelly-Byron circle during a thunderstorm in 1816 to write a ghost story. And by the close of the century, the idea of such storytelling was turned to comedy by Jerome K. Jerome.

Far less familiar today, but quite as important, is the fictional ghost of scurri-lous and partisan political writing. From the late 16th century onwards, the conceit of a dead hero who castigates his living successors became common. There are also satirical ghost stories. The Story of St Alb-n’s Ghost or the Apparition of Mother Haggy collected from the best manuscripts (1712), for example, ridicules a host of thinly disguised figures by incorporating them in a mockingly composed ghost story: ‘she knew the man, who knew the woman, who was said she in the room at that instant.’

It’s largely in response to literature that the vast majority of art including ghosts has been created. The most striking exception is perhaps to be found in the work of William Blake. To be plagued at night with the images that he saw and depicted must have been truly terrifying.

To the representations of the pencil and brush have been added since the late 19th century the images of photography. When Country Life first published the celebrated image of a ghostly figure walking down the stairs of Raynham in Norfolk in 1936, it did so beside an article reproducing some celebrated photographic frauds. These include pictures by Edouard Buguet (imprisoned and fined for his fraud in 1876) and William Hope.

To a modern eye, these fraudulent images look very much of their period. And so, too, today do the vast majority of ghost photographs revealed by a quick trawl of the internet. Besides background forms and images that resemble figures in period dress, there is a popular newcomer (in historical terms) in photographs of the paranormal: a sphere or spheres suspended in the air.

Whether they prove or disprove the existence of ghosts in our houses remains, of course, an open question. Whatever the case, they reflect a trait that colours all human endeavours and which is writ large in the history of the country-house ghost. Whatever confronts us and however much it surprises us, in some curious way, we usually end up seeing what we expect.

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