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Gore, Mysteries and Ghosts: 13 Royal Halloween Tales

31 October 2017

​Mwwaa-haa-haa-ha-ha! Come with me as we explore dungeons and archives for the most gruesome, ghoulish and macabre stories in the history of the British monarchy. Dare you read these horrible accounts of blood and death? Dare you learn the sad ends of kings, queens and other unfortunate people? Let us celebrate Halloween with these 13 tales of royal horror! Mwwaa-haa-haa-ha-ha!

(Tongue’n’Cheek Warning: Historical facts might be slightly exaggerated in order to chill the bones and disgust the senses.)

William the Conqueror’s Revenge

Before he became known as the Conqueror William was known as William the Bastard, because of his illegitimate birth from the mistress of Duke Robert I of Normandy. To make matters worse his mother was also of low birth, the daughter of a simple tanner. William was very sensitive about his origins and could be very unpredictable when teased about it. Once in the 1040s, when he was in his early twenties, he was laying siege to the town of Alencon in France when soldiers defending the city began to taunt him about his lowly, bastard origins by laughing at him and hanging tanning hides upon the walls. After William broke the siege and occupied the city he rounded up all the men who had taunted him and had all their hands and feet cut off.

King John the Murderer

All kings are responsible for killings, but very few have personally committed murder with their bare hands—let alone against their own teenage nephews. King John’s nephew, Arthur of Brittany, had a legitimate claim to the English crown and in order to protect his throne John imprisoned the 15-year-old boy in one of his castles in 1203. That, however, was not enough to placate John’s fears that Arthur might steal his crown. The story goes that while John was staying at his castle of Rouen, France, where Arthur was being kept prisoner, he went into a drunken rage on the Thursday before Easter at the mention of Arthur’s name, walked down to the dungeon and murdered his nephew with his own hands. He then tied a stone to his body and threw him in the river flowing nearby. Historical records cannot confirm if the story is true or not but what is certain is that Arthur disappeared whilst in his uncle’s custody, and was never seen again.

The Gruesome Death of Edward II (and Friend)

The story of Edward II’s supposed demise must rank among the most perverse. Edward was deposed in 1327 by his wife, Queen Isabella, and her supporters after being accused of misgovernment, misrule and misconduct in the bedroom. Among the charges laid against him was neglecting his wife in favour of male companions, particularly a certain Hugh Despenser with whom he was suspected of having sexual relations. After he was deposed Edward died under mysterious circumstances while a prisoner at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It is said that he met his end by being held down while a red-hot iron poker was shoved in his rear-end, burning his innards, with the screams of the dying king being heard for miles around the castle. Some say this is only a legend born of gossip, but his alleged lover’s mode of death was faithfully recorded when he was executed in the market square at Hereford the same year. Hugh Despenser had his genitals cut from his body while he was still alive and burned in front of his eyes. He was then disemboweled and cut into pieces.

A stained glass window in Gloucester Cathedral showing the traditional tale told of Edward’s death. Photo taken by the author, 2016).

A Dead King Reaches Back for His Crown

King Henry IV had an unpleasant death. No one is sure exactly which disease afflicted him but it is recorded that his legs grew weak over time, his skin erupted with blisters and abscesses, and he began to have seizures. After years of suffering he finally had a stroke in 1413 while praying in Westminster Abbey and was laid in a chamber near the church to slowly die. His son and heir, the future Henry V, arrived at the Abbey to pay his last respects, and to naturally wait for his assumption of the crown which had physically been placed on a cushion next to the dying king. When it was finally noticed that the king had stopped breathing, his son bowed his head, then reached for his father’s crown…only for Henry to revive suddenly and shout to leave his crown alone! (Ok, I am embellishing a story that was only recorded once in a French chronicle and that probably never happened, but wouldn’t be great if it happened like that?! The French chronicle actually says that Henry’s son took the crown away from the chamber thinking his father had died, only to be recalled by an indignant Henry a few moments later. The rest of the story about Henry’s miserable, painful death is completely true).

The Disappearance of the Princes in the Tower

What happened to them? Were they actually murdered? If so, who did it? The disappearance of young King Edward V and his brother Richard in 1483 remains a mystery. They were last seen in the Tower of London in the summer of that year, where they were being held ‘for safekeeping’ after being declared bastards by their uncle Richard, who became king in Edward’s place as Richard III. Perhaps the most unnerving thing about their disappearance is that no one seems to have put much effort into looking for them. It was just accepted that they…disappeared...as if vanished into thin air. Lack of efforts in clearing the mystery at the time can be of course explained by political expediency, since a missing king and his brother are two less claimants to the throne. However the lack of credible evidence on their fate—barring political slander and second-hand testimony—is certainly odd in an age when all affairs of state were documented. The classic theory is that they were smothered in their sleep on the orders of their uncle Richard III and were then buried secretly in the Tower. Almost 200 years later, during the reign of Charles II, the bones of two children roughly the Princes’ ages were found buried beneath a staircase in the fortress. They were assumed to be the two unlucky boys and they were given honourable burial in Westminster Abbey. A forensic examination in the 1930s confirmed that the bones were of the right age. But was it really them? And if not…whose young bones are they? And why were they buried secretly beneath a staircase?...

The-Princes-in-the-Tower-1830 delaroche.
Edward V and his brother Richard in a painting by Paul Delaroche from 1830 in the Wallace Collection, London.

An Old Woman is Hacked on the Scaffold

Imagine being a noble lady of royal blood, and managing to survive, by hook and by crook, into your sixties despite the many intrigues and dangers surrounding the court of King Henry VIII. And then being told one morning that you will be executed within the hour. That is what happened to Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, a niece of King Edward IV and first cousin once removed of Henry VIII. Her crime was essentially that of having a claim to the throne by blood and of having passed it to her son, one of Henry’s enemies. Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1539 on trumped-up charges of treason but she proclaimed her innocence for the whole 18 months she was kept there, even writing on the walls of her cell “I am no traitor, no, not I!...Christ in Thy mercy, Thou save me!”. It was to no avail. On 27 May 1541 she was dragged out of her cell to a corner of the Tower and was beheaded by a young inexperienced executioner, since the main executioner was busy elsewhere. Instead of striking a clean blow, the poor boy hacked and hacked on Margaret’s neck and body, to the horror of spectators, until the head finally came off in a bloody, horrible mess.

Ghostly Appearances at Hampton Court

Hampton Court Palace, on the outskirts of London in Surrey, is said to be filled with the ghosts of Henry VIII’s family and courtiers. The most famous is the one of Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, who was sentenced to death in 1542 after committing adultery. Catherine pityingly pleaded with Henry for forgiveness at Hampton Court before she was arrested and executed, and her ghost has been reported by many people to still wander the palace. Her favourite spot seems to be the appropriately re-named Haunted Gallery, near the Chapel, where many visitors have reported unexplained chills and noises. Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife who died in childbirth at Hampton Court in 1537, is also said to wander the palace, especially around the date of her death on 25 October. And one of Edward VI’s nurses has been making apparitions since her tomb was disturbed in 1829. The spookiest ghost of all though has to be the so called ‘Skeletor’. He (or she) was first seen in 2003 when for three consecutive nights fire doors in the palace were invisibly opened and closed with no apparent explanation. A CCTV camera finally captured the unsettling footage below…

Henry VIII’s Horrid Prophecy

After sowing so much grief throughout his life, King Henry VIII finally met the grim reaper himself in January 1547. It was not a pretty death. His body had swollen to a bloated, foul-smelling mass, and the end came slowly and painfully while he gasped for air. Perhaps while he was in his final agony an old prophecy flashed through his mind. Once in 1532, when he was courting Anne Boleyn and divorcing Catherine of Aragon, a Franciscan monk had come to his court and daringly preached a fiery sermon to him, chastising him for being unfaithful and predicting that, just as it had happened to evil King Ahab in the Bible, one day he would die with dogs licking his blood. There was no dog blood-licking at Henry’s death, but afterwards his body was placed in a coffin and taken by carriage from London to Windsor for burial. The journey took two stages, stopping midway at Syon Abbey in Surrey where the coffin was left alone for the night (incidentally, it was five years to the day from when Catherine Howard was executed). No one knows what happened to the body overnight but it likely kept on swelling with diseased gases, for when people came back in the morning they found the coffin’s wood unsettled, and putrid matter mixed with blood leaking to the floor. And there was a stray dog there, licking the bloody mixture as if for breakfast.

The Gruesome Afterlife of James II’s Body

Ghastly things happen to the bodies of bad monarchs. James II tried to reign as a tyrant until he was deposed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and fled into exile. He spent the last 13 years of his life in France, mortifying his flesh with lashes until his body gave out and he had a deadly stroke. That should have been the end of James’ abuse of his body but he was not quite through with it yet. He left instructions that his body be embalmed and that different organs should be sent to different places around Paris. His heart was sent to the Chaillot convent; his brain to the Scots College; part of an arm was given to the Augustinians nuns; and part of his intestines were sent to a church in St Germain-en-Laye. His hollow body was then placed in the church of the English Benedictines, in the centre of Paris, where his coffin was not buried but kept above ground since James still hoped one day to be properly buried in Westminster Abbey in London. During the French Revolution, however, his coffin was opened and his embalmed body was showed for a fee to all who wanted to gaze upon the body of a king. After the novelty wore off, republicans dumped the body in a lime pit where it was destroyed. His heart, brain and arm were also destroyed when the buildings where they were kept were ransacked. The only part of James that seems to have survived are some bits of intestines that were rediscovered in the St Germain-en-Laye church in the 19th century. These were given proper burial on the orders of Queen Victoria who financed the building of memorial monument to James. The result is that there is now a grand, official monument in the church today serving as the grave of James II which in reality contains nothing more than a few shrivelled guts.

The Mad Old Man of Windsor

George III fought with madness most of his life, and in the end madness won. Although he usually recovered from his periodic episodes of insanity (said to be brought on by attacks of porphyria though no one really knows what was wrong with him) George III finally succumbed to permanent madness in 1810, after the premature death of his youngest child at the age of 27. He was locked in Windsor Castle where he roamed, rambled and vegetated for the last 10 years of his life. He began to hold imaginary conversations with dead ministers and with some his other children who had died young, including his 4-year-old son Octavius whose face he kept seeing in a cushion. He said he was married to one of the ladies of the bedchamber, Lady Pembroke, whom he called ‘Queen Esther’, and that God had sent another terrible flood upon the world. He then became convinced that he had died, speaking of himself in the third person and wearing mourning clothes for poor, dear George III, whom he said had been a good man. He tried to take solace in religion—sometimes giving Holy Communion to himself—and at night, after he said his prayers, he stuffed a handkerchief in his mouth to prevent himself from blaspheming in his sleep. As he entered his 80s, his hair and beard grew long and frizzled, and he started having uncontrollable fits of crying and of laughter. In December 1819 he talked incessantly for 58 hours straight, making no sense at all. A month later he was dead, a sad shell of a man, empty as a hollow crown.

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An engraving of George III made shortly before his death, from the National Portrait Gallery Collection.

Victoria’s Morbid Rituals

“He can’t be gone! He can’t be gone!”. Queen Victoria uttered these words on her knees by the deathbed of her husband, Prince Albert, after he died in December 1861 at Windsor. For the rest of her life she did indeed refuse to accept he was gone, adopting an extraordinary series of rituals to keep Albert alive in her mind as she went about her daily business. Among the most macabre routines were the fresh clothes, linen and warm water for shaving that servants had to lay for Albert every morning in a room that was still assigned for his use. Then there was the photo of Albert that she hung over one side of her bed at every residence she slept in, and the visitors book in Albert’s name that Victoria insisted everyone must sign in when they visited her (Disraeli described it as calling on a dead man). It was like his ghostly presence never left her, no matter where she went or what she did. Ministers often noticed that when she was about to sign official documents she would look up at a bust of Albert, as if to ask if he approved what she was about to do. On visits to the countryside she would be seen taking out a small miniature she carried in a brooch and ‘show Albert’ a view that she liked. Other people had to participate too occasionally: new brides marrying into the Royal Family were always taken to the mausoleum where Albert was buried to be officially introduced to him before the wedding. This morbid mania continued until her own death, after which she was finally buried besides Albert wearing her wedding veil—and with one of Albert’s dressing gowns in her coffin.


The Mysterious Death of Prince Alfred of Edinburgh

One death Queen Victoria did not dwell on was that of her grandson, Prince Alfred, for his mysterious passing was quickly swept under the rug. No one really knows the exact circumstances in which he died, or even the exact cause. Alfred died in 1899, aged 24, in a sanatorium in Austria, two weeks after supposedly shooting himself on the night their parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. He had never gotten along with his mother, a haughty Russian Princess, and was said to have contracted an illegal marriage with a commoner which she ordered him to break, prompting his death wish. His mother was reportedly more upset about her festivities being spoiled by a scandal than her son trying to kill himself. She herself organised his removal to a far away sanatorium where he could die away in seclusion from his botched suicide. But did she drive her unhappy son to shoot himself? Or, as some others say, did Alfred shoot himself in a fit of madness brought on by the advanced stages of syphilis, which he had caught from prostitutes? Or did he not shoot himself at all and died, as reports said at the time, of consumption or a tumour? No one knows. Over 100 years have passed and his death still remains an unsolved mystery.


glamis castle.jpg
Ghostly Glamis Castle in Scotland.

The Ghosts of Glamis Castle

We conclude our royal ghoulish parade with one of the spookiest spots in Scotland, Glamis Castle, home to the Bowes-Lyon family of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Elizabeth was born at Glamis in 1900, and she went back there in 1930 to give birth to her youngest daughter Princess Margaret, who died in 2002. It would not be surprising if the ghost of Princess Margaret already roamed the halls of Glamis, for the castle is reputed one of the most haunted places in the country. Apparitions have included the Hanged Butler, the Woman With No Tongue and the famous Grey Lady who was burned at the stake in 1537 and often appears in the castle chapel (the Queen Mother’s own sister swore that she saw it there one day). Then there is Earl Beardie, a 15th century noble who is said to have lost his soul while playing cards with the devil, and who has been seen many times standing by children’s beds in the middle of the night. But the most terrible of all has to be the Monster of Glamis, a hideously deformed ancestor of the Queen Mother who was supposedly locked in secret apartments in the Castle in the 19th century to prevent him from inheriting the estate. His existence was once only known by the Bowes-Lyon family and only became public knowledge after he finally died. But did he really die? Or is he still roaming the castle in spirit form? There are still locked apartments in the castle, unseen by human eyes...

Happy Halloween!

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