Nestling deep in the heart of rural Northumberland, Chillingham Castle is a little bit special in many ways. I discovered this uniquely wonderful seat of pure English eccentricity a couple of years ago when we were on holiday, and I hope to return next year and write a post all about its rich and turbulent history. But for now, I fancied writing about castle ghosts to mark All Hallows’ Eve, and you can’t beat Chillingham for a good haunting. In fact, it’s been dubbed the most haunted castle in Britain. So come with me on a very different kind of castle wander: one with a ghost in virtually every room.
Chillingham Castle, home of so many lost souls…
We start in style, in the baronial Great Hall. A highly evocative and atmospheric room, it’s furnished with all kinds of artefacts including ancient armour and weapons, a sprawling dinner table that stretches nearly the whole length of the room, a tapestry depicting a battle scene and some mischievous spirits. Caretakers often report objects being thrown around by unseen hands, as cups, goblets and plates clobber them on the back as they lock up for the night. And it’s not just the crockery that moves around unaided. During a guided tour one evening, the guests were startled to hear a sudden scraping sound, and were even more surprised to find it had been made by a chair from the banqueting table moving into the centre of the room all by itself. Footsteps have also been heard pacing the stone floor, while cameras and mobile phones regularly lose all power on arrival in the hall. Any photographic equipment that does last will often capture images of mysterious white balls of light, known to ghost-hunters as ‘orbs’ and believed to be the early stages of a spirit’s manifestation.
The Great Hall, where mischievous spirits hang out
Weapons adorn the walls of the Great Hall, but luckily these
don’t seem to fly
Moving on, we pass through the Library, where you definitely don’t want to be on your own. It’s said in this impressive room that when a lone person is absorbed in their work the voices of two men can be heard talking in mumbled tones, only to cease abruptly as the reader looks up from his book. This, it seems, is not a conversation held by the living, but by library visitors from the past.
Our next stop is the Chapel with its sad little spirit, a girl of around 9 years old who sits in the pews and turns to look at visitors with an expression of desperation before vanishing. It’s thought she is Eleanor, a young victim who was kept a prisoner at the castle during the late medieval border wars between the English and the Scots. After suffering ill treatment by a number of soldiers she is said to have crawled into the chapel and died beside the priest’s stand, where there’s now a famous year-round ‘cold spot’ and regular reports of a sense of dread. Nobody knows where Eleanor’s remains lie, but one theory is that her body was hidden somewhere nearby. Visitors who have encountered the girl say she’s small in stature with matted dark hair and she wears a dirty white dress.
The Chapel, where visitors meet little Eleanor
Although most of the spirits at Chillingham seem benign enough, there are a couple of darker spirits who linger within the ancient walls. One is that of John Sage, a Lieutenant during the reign of Edward I (1272 – 1307) who had been rendered incapable of military service after a spear tore through the tendons of his lower leg in battle. The injury resulted in a permanent disability and a lumbering limp, earning him the nickname ‘Dragfoot’. A vile character who revelled in his role as chief torturer at the castle, Sage particularly enjoyed inflicting excruciating pain on imprisoned Scotsmen. His reputation grew so fearsome that prisoners would try to commit suicide rather than face torture and death at his hellish hand. But his sadistic, evil deeds were to catch up with him in the end.
One evening, Sage’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Charlton, came to visit as he was locking up the dungeons for the night and after, shall we say, a particularly creative amorous experiment went horribly wrong (or did it?) Elizabeth died. Unfortunately for Sage, Elizabeth’s dad found out how his daughter had met her untimely end, and threatened to join an allied attack on the castle with the Scots if Sage wasn’t put to an agonising death. The king, strapped for cash to resist an attack at the time, agreed, so John Sage ended up suffering the same kind of brutal death he’d inflicted on all those Scots. Many have reported seeing the wraith of a tall, thickset man with a beard as black as night walking with a heavy limp around the castle’s rooms, and sounds of a single footstep followed by a long scrape over a stone floor echo around the walls at night.
There are lots of fireplaces in the castle, but they won’t stop you
After all these chilling stories, I could do with a nice warming cup of tea, so the next stop on our tour is the Minstrels’ Hall, which now functions as the castle’s café. This is one of several parts of the building dating back to the 12th and 13th Centuries when it was used for communal eating, while diners were entertained by minstrels in the gallery above. I have to admit I particularly love this room, as its old tapestries, round chandeliers and stone walls are so evocative you could really believe you’d stumbled through a wormhole in time.
The Minstrels’ Hall, a refuge from the restless spirits – or not…
But even as we sip our welcome hot brew beside one of the fabulous fireplaces, we’re still not immune to the ghostly goings-on. People have seen shadows moving around up in the gallery before disappearing, and there have been sightings of a male figure in an Edwardian shirt and black riding boots resting against the balcony. One poor startled visitor reported the man had glared at him before turning away and silently ascending the stairs towards the chapel. But when the visitor, overcome with fascination, bravely gave chase the grouchy Edwardian gentleman was nowhere to be seen.
The Minstrels’ Gallery, where strange shadows are seen moving around
Then there’s The Inner Pantry, with its thirsty ghost. This room is where the castle’s treasure was stored, and a guardsman slept in here to protect it. One night, as he’d just settled down to sleep he was roused by a lady in white looking somewhat frail and confused. She appeared to cling onto the wall for balance as she asked the guardsman for a cup of water. Assuming her to be one of the castle guests he turned to oblige, only to realise he’d already locked himself in with the key he kept about his person, and there was no way anyone could have entered the room without his knowledge. The white lady is still seen today, and it’s thought that her pale complexion and apparent thirst come from the effects of poisoning.
There are many more spirits that roam around the walls of Chillingham Castle, and from what I’ve learned it certainly deserves its title as the most haunted castle in Britain. But for me, that’s quite enough spooky encounters for one Halloween, thank you very much. In fact, my nerves are so frayed I think it’s time for a drink that’s a wee bit stronger than tea…
So until next time… Sleep tight, and Happy Halloween!