Friday, 22 October 2010

The Spectres of Woburn Abbey

Woburn Abbey is without doubt one of the premier stately homes of England. The grounds are magnificent, the house splendid and the artworks within fabulous.

As its name suggests, Woburn began life as a cistercian monastery. The religious house was confiscated by King Henry VIII in 1538 during the reformation that so disrupted religious life in England. Having stripped the place of its moveable wealth, Henry granted the lands and buildings to his Lord Privy Seal, Lord John Russell. Russell, later to be made Earl of Bedford by King Edward VI, took down many of the monastic buildings and remodelled the remainder to be a comfortable home. In 1744, the Russells, now holding the title of Duke of Bedford, tore down the old house and commissioned first John Sanderson and then Henry Flitcroft to create an entirely new residence. It is this graceful Georgian house that is the Woburn Abbey of today.

The oldest ghost of Woburn dates back to the traumatic upheavals of the Reformation. Most monks, nuns and abbots who lost their holy houses during the dissolution of the monasteries were not treated badly. They were moved to almshouses or given modest pensions so that they would not starve, but were forbidden to continue their religious life. The last abbot of Woburn did not take his fate so meekly. Not only did he rail against the soldiers sent to seize the abbey and its assets, he denounced King Henry as a heretic and worse. The tough soldiers hanged him from an oak tree beside the church without much ado. The figure of this cleric was seen for many years standing beneath the tree, which was surrounded by a patch of barren ground where no grass would grow. This particular ghost has not been reported since the tree died and was felled some generations ago.

The next oldest of the Woburn phantoms lurks in the private chambers of the house. This phantom manifests itself by stalking through the lounge, not that he is ever seen. First the door on one side of the room flies open and slams shut, then the sound of footsteps moves across the room to a second door, which opens and shuts in its turn. During the 1960s this ghostly activity became so frequent that the ducal family had to move their television set to another room where they stood more chance of watching a programme uninterrupted.

This ghost is traditionally said to be that of a black servant of the 3rd Duke of Bedford who met a grisly end in the room just after the present house had been built. Reasoning that the house must contain a wealth of precious objects, a gang of thieves broke in and began quietly searching cupboards for silver and other valuables. They had reached this lounge when the black servant came across them. The bandits quickly overpowered the man and bound him to a chair. Rather than waste more time searching, the crooks decided to beat the servant to make him reveal the locations of the most valuable objects. The loyal servant refused to answer, despite the violence, so they threw him out of the window to his death.

Such an unpleasant death would explain why anyone might return as a phantom, but it is not entirely clear why he should want to stomp about slamming doors.

Considerably more gentle is the spectre to be found flitting around the grounds, especially near the summerhouse. This is the phantom of Lady Mary Tribe, who married the 11th Duke and so came to live at Woburn. Lady Mary was an adventurous woman who in the 1920s took to the glamourous business of flying. She was the first woman to fly to South Africa, visiting many remote British colonial settlements on the way, and made great efforts to encourage other women to take up flying for both sport and employment. Unfortunately the Flying Duchess, as she was known, lost her life in 1937 when flying off the coast of East Anglia.

Soon afterwards her ghostly counterpart was seen drifting gently around Woburn grounds. She is seen dressed in a pretty summer frock as if ready to entertain her aristocratic friends at a garden party. The flying togs are nowhere to be seen.

The Flying Duchess is not the only duchess to haunt Woburn. The 6th Duchess held court here in the early 19th century as a noted hostess. She has been seen infrequently in one of the public reception rooms. The most recent sighting came in 2004, when she was mistaken by a visitor to the house for a guide.

Perhaps as intriguing is the ghost of the Butler's Pantry. This figure is indistinct and appears blurred, but is usually said to have the appearance of a monk. Given the indistinct nature of the ghost, it is not entirely certain that it is a shade of one of the holy men who used to live at Woburn. Given his location, this seems more likely to be a phantom servant of the Bedfords. He is, in any case, not seen often.

Woburn Abbey has been one of the premier stately homes of England for generations and, in more recent years, a top ranking tourist attraction. It would seem to be a favourite haunt for the ghosts of Bedfordshire as well.

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