Monday, 2 December 2013

Phantoms of Michelham Priory, Sussex

This route in the Cuckmere Valley takes the walker around some of the most charming farmland in Sussex. The towering South Downs dominate the skyline to the south while more rolling countryside runs to the north. Most of the walk is through fields and pastureland, but there are a few woods and copses to add variety to this gentlest of walks.



The Walk

1) Park in the car park at Michelham Priory.

Michelham Priory is both one of the most charming and most haunted houses in England. As its name suggests it was founded as a religious house, in this case for the Augustinian Order. The Priory was begun in 1229 to be the home to just 13 canons. Although it expanded considerably over the following centuries, Michelham was never very large. It did, however, attract the unwelcome attentions of French invaders eager for loot and none too scrupulous about taking it from holy ground.

It was as a defensive measure that the monks diverted the River Cuckmere to flow around their priory, creating the largest moat in England. This impressive waterwork is still in existence, and is home to swans, ducks, geese and a multitude of fish. The other defensive work was the mighty gatehouse, which dwarfed the other monastic buildings and barred entry to the artificial island created by the moat. And it is the Gatehouse that is the centre of the more active haunting at the site.

On the first floor landing of the Gatehouse hidden behind the wooden panelling is a small chamber which is traditionally described as being a priest hole, a place where Roman Catholic priests were hidden in the early 17th century when Protestant England banned such men from entering the kingdom. It is here that the Grey Lady is seen. She appears dressed in a long gown of a grey or fawn colour and is usually reported as being of middle age and seeming to be sad or upset. It is believed that this is the ghost of a maid servant who fell down the stairs from the second floor and broke her neck. The accident, for there was nobody else in the building at the time, occurred in the 1730s and the ghost’s dress certainly seems to date from this period.

The Grey Lady is seen often, and is frequently accompanied by a heavy floral scent, sometimes likened to incense. But she is not the only apparition to be encountered here. Seen much less often is a ghostly girl aged about 8 or so. She is dressed in a torn or ragged dress and, like the Grey Lady, appears to be in distress of some kind. Some think that her name is Rosie, though where this information came from is unclear. Whether it is the Grey Lady or the little girl who opens the door from the landing to the Banquet Hall is unclear, but it is often found open when it had been firmly shut, and even locked.

Not only the Gatehouse has survived from medieval times, the Prior’s House is also intact and now serves as a museum of monastic life in the 14th century. There is rumoured to be a ghostly man in the building who can seem to be very angry and to resent intruders. One group which held a seance here in 2004 reported that the spirit seemed absolutely determined to get them to leave, even adopting different personas to encourage them to go. Detailed questioning at the seance produced the information that the man was the ghost of the owner of the house at a time when King Henry and Queen Catherine sat on the throne. This could mean only Henry VIII and Catherine Howard, which would make the angry ghost that of Thomas Cromwell. It was Thomas Cromwell who, as Lord Privy Seal, had come up with the legal and theological arguments that gave King Henry the powers to close down the monasteries of England and take their wealth for himself and his government. In thanks, Henry gave Michelham Priory and its estates to Cromwell in 1537. However, Cromwell later fell out with Henry over foreign policy and made the mistake of tricking the king into an alliance he did not want. In 1540 Henry had Cromwell executed. No wonder his ghost is so angry.

After Cromwell’s death the estates were broken up and sold off. The priory itself was converted into a manor with much demolition and rebuilding to make the place more suitable for farming activity. It is in the Tudor house that the next haunting takes place. In the Music Room there is a most unusual pair of ghosts, which follow a set routine. First to enter is a young man dressed in a short cape and jacket over hose of typically Tudor pattern. He runs in, turns to look behind him, then rushes on. He is followed by a young lady, also dressed in Tudor fashion. She seems rather angry and is clearly chasing the man.

What makes these ghosts so remarkable is that they enter through the ceiling of the room, descend to the floor through thin air then rush out of the door. They are following the route of a staircase that was removed some 250 years ago. Clearly, for the phantoms, the staircase is still there and its removal has had no effect at all on their movements.

The final ghost of Michelham is not, strictly, haunting the Priory. The ghost of a middle aged lady in a tweed suit and accompanied by a small terrier on a lead has been seen several times on the drive that leads to the Priory from Upper Dicker. She has also been glimpsed walking along the banks of the Cuckmere. Her clothing would seem to date her to the early 20th century, but nobody seems to know who she might be.

2) Leave the Priory and walk along the drive towards Upper Dicker. At the crossroads, turn left. Ignore the drives that give access to farms, but take the first lane on the right.

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