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Top 10 ghost stories at UK museums and heritage sites

From headless queens to ghostly apes, some of the UK’s oldest heritage attractions have spooky tales attached

By Rachel Mackay 

Haunted-attractions

For many, the United Kingdom is famous for its wealth of sites and buildings covering thousands of years of history. This is an important draw for international tourists, but for those who operate such sites, having so much – often bloody – history contained within your walls comes with certain drawbacks. Especially at this time of year.

UK’s most haunted attractions

As someone who manages a historic property, I know there are often moments, especially on a dark winter’s evening, that make the hair on the back of your neck stick up. However, I have to admit I get a bit of a kick out of it too. Who doesn’t love a great ghost story?

So, as we approach Halloween, let’s have a look at the top ten spooky stories from museums and heritage sites across the country – as reported by the staff who work there!

10. Chiswick House – Lady Burlington

Like most stately homes, Chiswick House in west London has hosted its fair share of celebrity deaths, including Whig leader Charles Fox and former Prime Minister George Canning. But it’s former resident Lady Burlington who causes the most trouble for the Chiswick House team.

Lady Burlington died in her bedroom at Chiswick House in 1758. In that room is an old mirror, and visitors and staff have reportedly caught fleeting glimpses of Lady Burlington in it; but allegedly, only if she likes you!

As one ex-employee told me, “you wouldn’t catch me sleeping in that bedroom!”

9. Blickling Hall – Anne Boleyn

Blickling Hall, now run by the National Trust, stands on the site of Anne Boleyn’s birthplace. The infamous second wife of Henry VIII apparently returns to Blickling every year on 19th May, the anniversary of her execution.

The story goes that Anne Boleyn’s ghost rides up to the house, in a coach drawn by a headless horseman, with her own head on her lap. The moment the coach arrives in front of the house it vanishes into thin air!

It’s no surprise Anne doesn’t stick around for long. She’s one of the UK’s most desirable ghosts, so her diary on 19 May is full as she visits several other haunted attractions and houses. That headless horseman will have more stops than Rudolph on Christmas Eve.  

8. Carew Castle – The Barbary Ape

There are a few visitor attractions in Wales that make a claim to being the country’s most haunted place, but Carew makes it onto this list because of the originality of the spook in question: a barbary ape.

The animal in question belonged to Sir Roland Rhys, who lived at Carew in the 17th century. In one of the original examples of why not to keep wild animals as pets, the ape attacked a visitor, who narrowly escaped with his life. As he ran from the castle, he cursed Sir Roland – fair enough – and prophesied the same fate would befall him.

Carew Castle

In an even better example of why not to keep wild animals as pets, the prophecy came true, and servants later found Sir Roland dead in a pool of his own blood.

Sadly, the ape died that night as well. However, apparently on certain evenings, the ghost climbs the stairs of the Northwest Tower and out onto the battlements. Many visitors have claimed to hear his howls echoing throughout the night.

Whether or not apes do actually howl remains an open question.

7. Cawdor Castle – The Earl of Cawdor’s daughter

Rumour has it that the daughter of the Earl of Cawdor haunts Cawdor Castle in Nairnshire. The story goes that she betrayed her family by flirting with the son of an enemy chieftain – a Scottish Romeo and Juliet story!

Cawdor Castle

However, this tale had an even more gruesome ending than the original. When her father discovered the affair, he chased her around the Castle. Eventually, she tried to lower herself from the window of the highest tower to escape. As any caring father would, the Earl reached out of the window… and cut off her hands.

His daughter fell to her death, and visitors to the Castle today still claim to see the handless girl roaming the site.

6. Ham House – Elizabeth Murray and John Maitland

Former residents Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale and her second husband, John Maitland, 1st Earl Lauderdale are rumoured to haunt National Trust managed Ham House. They are ideal candidates for live-in malevolent spirits. The sudden death of Elizabeth’s first husband started dark rumours, whilst Maitland was also recently widowed when he married Elizabeth.

Coincidence? Probably. But whether the Lauderdales were naughty or nice, they are certainly (possibly) still making their presence felt at this possibly haunted attraction.

Ham House haunted attractions
Image by Rachel Mackay

As well as a strong smell of roses, associated with Elizabeth, visitors have also claimed to sense the tobacco the Earl used to smoke in the rooms at Ham House. In addition, there is one particular room where the presence of Elizabeth is so strong that staff often verbally greet the Duchess with a “Good afternoon, your ladyship” – just in case she’s listening!

Ham House staff and volunteers also report a ghostly dog resident and ghastly screams, said to belong to a nobleman who took his own life after being rejected by a servant girl he was in love with.

5. Glamis Castle – The Tongueless Woman

Glamis Castle is reputed to be the most haunted visitor attraction in Scotland, and it has been said that the Queen Mother, who spent much of her childhood there, may have seen a few apparitions herself!

One of the most famous ghostly residents has the horrifying nickname of the ‘Tongueless Women’. Visitors claim to have seen her wandering around outside the Castle, gesturing at the blood dripping from her mouth.

Glamis Castle Angus Scotland haunted attractions

The chilling back story suggests she was a servant who saw something she shouldn’t have and had her tongue cut out by the Earl to stop her from exposing her secret. An extremely gruesome gag rule.

Other ghostly inhabitants include the Grey Lady, and the ‘monster’ of Glamis Castle. The rumour is that this is a member of the historic Bowes-Lyon family, who was a prisoner within its walls!

4. Hampton Court Palace – ‘Skeletor’

Hampton Court Palace, part of Historic Royal Palaces, has a reputation as one of the most haunted attractions or buildings in England. According to legend, it has no shortage of ghostly inhabitants; but it’s not often that CCTV catches them in the act.

In October 2003, a fire door suddenly flew open on three consecutive days. One day, Palace security systems captured the image of a ghostly figure, apparently flinging open the door. At the same time, a visitor wrote in the visitor book that she had also seen a ghost, in the same area as the fire door.

This video clip gained international news attention, and also led to the nickname ‘Skeletor’ which is staff still use today. The culprit has never been found.

3. Kew Palace – Prince Octavius

The UK’s smallest Palace holds its own when it comes to haunted attractions, but the most common sighting is that of Prince Octavius, the eighth son of King George III. Octavius died aged 4, possibly at Kew Palace.

Kew Palace
Image courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces

Many visitors to the Palace have reported seeing “a little blonde girl in a white dress” on the second floor of the Palace. On the face of it, this doesn’t appear to match the description of the Prince. However, boys in Georgian times often wore gowns. Normally, they did not begin wearing breeches until the age of seven. And a glance at contemporary portraits of Octavius shows he had shoulder-length, blonde, curly hair. He could easily be mistaken for a girl.

On two separate occasions, children visiting the Palace have asked their parents if they can leave because “the little girl won’t leave me alone.” This “little girl” is never seen by the parents.

Other reported sightings at Kew Palace have included Princess Amelia, who died of tuberculosis aged 27, and an unknown presence who laughs cruelly in the Great Pagoda.

2. The Tower of London – Anne Boleyn

As mentioned above, Anne is one of the country’s busiest ghosts. But it’s no surprise she would show up at the Tower of London. It’s a site that is also in the running to be one of England’s most haunted attractions and it was the location of her execution in 1536.

St-Peter-ad-Vincula-chapel-HRP
Image courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces

One of the most famous Anne stories comes from the 19th century when Queen Victoria ordered that the bodies disposed of under the floor of St. Peter ad Vincula’s Chapel be dug up and buried in a more appropriate manner. One of these bodies (well, in two parts) was, of course, Anne Boleyn.

According to legend, after the re-burial, a captain of the guard noticed a flickering light in the chapel. Going to investigate, he looked through the windows. He saw a gathering of people in Tudor dress, with Anne Boleyn at the centre of some sort of ceremony. Even as he watched, the image faded.

Tower Green is the area where the Chapel stands and the site of many brutal executions. It is still regarded as one of the most haunted spots at the Tower.

1. Hampton Court Palace – Catherine Howard

As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of reported ghost sightings at Hampton Court Palace. However, Catherine Howard gets the top spot because of the sheer number of sightings; and possibly some compelling modern evidence.

Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII. She was beheaded in 1542 for adultery and treason. Aged only 19 at the time, the prospect of her execution was understandably terrifying. According to some accounts, when she was arrested at Hampton Court, she broke free of her guards and ran through the corridors, crying and screaming for mercy.

The Haunted Gallery
Image courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces

The corridor she ran down is now known as the Haunted Gallery. This is famous for being the place to spot Catherine, as her ghost runs past searching in vain for the King.

Sightings of Catherine are amongst Hampton Court’s most frequent ghostly encounters. In 1999, two visitors fainted in exactly the same spot in the Haunted Gallery. This occurred on the same day, but in two separate tours.

Scientific evidence?

An experiment that took place in 2000 identified that visitors identifying themselves as believers in paranormal experiences were more likely to experience unusual sights and sounds. So far, so predictable. And yet, the experiment also showed that all visitors were more likely to report unusual experiences in the same places. One of these was the Haunted Gallery. There must be something going on!

Happy Halloween to everyone. And to those of us who are lucky enough to work in the UK’s most haunted visitor attractions: watch your back!

Top image: An early 20th-century postcard claiming to show a ghost at Hampton Court Palace. Image courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces

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Rachel Mackay

Rachel Mackay manages Historic Royal Palaces at Kew, looking after four historic sites including Kew Palace. In 2020, she created The Recovery Room (therecoveryroomblog.com) to share research and resources as the museum sector recovers from the impact of the pandemic. She was recently named one of Blooloop’s top 50 museum influencers.

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