Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Ghosts in Buckingham

In 1725 a great fire swept through the town of Buckingham. Nearly every house in the town was gutted, and the whole area reduced to a charred ruin. Few people were killed, however, and the good citizens of Buckingham moved back to rebuild their town on a new and much grander scale. Gone were the old wooden houses, to be replaced with fine brick structures in the very latest Georgian style. It is this new town that largely survives to greet visitors.

Perhaps the most important building to be destroyed in the fire of 1725 was Buckingham Castle. The fortification dated back to 888 when King Alfred the Great built an earth and timber fortress here to block a crossing point over the River Great Ouse to the armies of marauding Vikings that then plagued England. Most of the castle that burned down was of medieval date. The stones were later reused to build the castle-like prison, now the tourist information centre and council offices, that stands on the site today.

`Not far from the castle was one house that did survive the conflagration. It was the comfortable house in West Street that went by the name of Castle House. This was begun in the 15th century, though it has been much altered since, to provide more fashionable lodgings and accommodation for the gentry and notables who visited Buckingham and who would have found the old castle with its fortifications too cold and draughty.

The most famous of the guests to stay in Castle House was Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. It is this sad queen whose stay led, indirectly, to the haunting of the house. The unhappy Queen Katherine came to Buckingham in the later 1520s when her husband was trying to find grounds to divorce her. Henry was, by this time, infatuated with Anne Boleyn who was much younger and prettier than Katherine and who seemed to offer a better prospect of providing Henry with a son and heir. Buckingham was deemed far enough away from London for Katherine to be kept out of Henry’s way, but close enough to allow her and her lawyers to play a role in the divorce proceedings.

Among Katherine’s household was a priest by the name of Thomas. This Father Thomas not only administered mass and confession to Katherine, but also played a key role in smuggling messages between the estranged queen and her relatives in Europe. He would slip away, sometimes for weeks, then return just as mysteriously. One day this priest vanished, but never again reappeared. What had happened to him remained unclear until the house was undergoing renovations in 1908.

A small chamber was found hidden beneath the floors of the upper stories, above the Great Parlour. Inside this tiny room was found the skeleton of a man accompanied by the crucifix, rosary and other belongings of a Tudor priest. Had the man proved too efficient a servant of the queen and been killed by the king? Or had he betrayed the queen and been disposed of on her orders. Or was his death a tragic accident. There is no way of knowing.

What is clear, however, is that the priest does not seem to approve of having been discovered. Ever since the body was found the dark robed figure of a priest has been seen hurrying up the stairs and along the corridor towards the hidden chamber. He is seen most often in late afternoon or early evening. A clue, perhaps, to the time of the priest’s death.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire by Rupert Matthews.

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