Thursday 12 July 2012

The Ghosts of Avebury Manor

As you might expect, a house as old as Avebury Manor has gained quite a haunted reputation over its 450 years, that's not to say a building has to be old to be haunted. The Manor is said to have four ghosts, one of which is a cat but more about him or her later. Let's start with the ghostly presence of what may be Sir John Stawell.

Sir John Stawell of Cothelstone
The staunch Royalist - Sir John Stawell, purchased Avebury Manor from William Dunch in 1640. Sir John played a significant role in the English Civil Wars, indeed, at his own expense, he raising five regiments for Charles I.  Sir John’s allegiance to the crown was to prove his undoing, for during one of his many campaigns in the West Country he fell foul of the Parliamentarians at the siege of Exeter and was finally captured in 1646.  Later that year he went to London with a copy of his terms of surrender issued by Sir Thomas Fairfax.  He was instructed to swear on oath ‘<em>not to bear arms against Parliament’.</em> He refused, and in doing so was immediately committed to Ely House in Holborn on the advice that his possessions and estates were to be sequestered, including his beloved Avebury Manor.

On 13 August 1646 he was summoned to the Bar of the House Of Commons, where he declined to kneel and take the oath when ordered to do so by the Speaker. He was immediately committed to Newgate Prison on a charge of high treason. His trial at Somerset Assizes was repeated several times but on every occasion no proceedings followed. In July 1650 he was moved from Newgate to The Tower of London and on 17th December of that year he was brought to trial once more but the judges neither acquitted nor condemned him. He remained in the Tower of London for the next 11 years. In 1652 Avebury Manor was sold to George Long who in turn leased it to Sir Edward Baynton.

Sir John was to remain in the Tower until his release in 1660 during the Restoration of Charles II. His estates and possessions were reinstated in full. He returned to Avebury where he lived a short time until his death on 21st February 1662. He was buried with great pomp at Cothelstone on 23rd April. Some say he died a broken man, suffering from ill health and depression. It was rumoured that he took his own life in a moment of utter despair, although there is no evidence surviving to support this claim. I suppose it is not surprising that such rumours grew as to his state of mind, lord knows what conditions he must have had to endured during his imprisonment.

It would seem Sir John is reluctant to leave Avebury Manor, for it is the aptly named Cavalier Bedroom, now the Withdrawing Room (since the BBC makeover) where his ghost has been seen gazing out of the south window which overlooks the gardens. He has also been spotted standing quite motionless to the left of the fireplace.  He is described as being solid in appearance, just like you or I and suited in the finery of a Cavalier of the time. A melancholy figure by all accounts, who, when encountered, appears to be weeping. Some say his arrival is often preceded by a sharp drop in temperature, and or the fragrant smell of roses. During that period, rose water was often used to disguise body odour, as personal hygiene was yet to establish itself. Sir John is said to have adored his garden and spent a lot of time strolling therein, which may also account for reports of his ghost being seen thereabouts.

Visitors have, on occasion been overcome by feelings of intense sadness in this room, some even unable to cross the threshold. Only recently whilst I was working in the Manor a young man in his early twenties came down the exit stairs ashen faced, visible shaken and tears in his eyes. He asked if there were somewhere outside where he could sit. I showed him into the garden where I found him a seat and where I left him alone with his thoughts not wishing to pry. I promptly returned to the exit where I met his parents who were looking for him. I enquired as to what the problem was and they told me that in one of the rooms he had suddenly been overcome by sadness and needed to leave. I asked which room they had been in and was not surprised at the answer. I explained the relevance of the room to his parents and reassured them that their son was not the first and no doubt wont be the last to experience such feelings of utter misery in that room.

The Tudor Bedroom
The 'Tudor Bedchamber' is another room which has been renamed for the BBC project, though this room would undoubtedly have served as a bedchamber at some point. It forms part of the east extension, built between 1580-1600. One of the guides recently told me of a frightening experience he had whilst working in this room several years ago. A group of visitors had just entered the room, when all of a sudden one of the party, a woman, was overcome by something only she could sense.

'Her eyes rolled up till just the whites were showing then she started to shake but worse was her voice which was deep and guttural, I couldn’t’ understand what she was saying. It only lasted for a few seconds then she came out of this ‘trance’ I suppose you’d call it. She was lead out of the room by friends. I was told that she was a medium and she had obviously had a reaction to something in the room.'

One of the other guides will not work this room, she too claims to be sensitive to whatever may be present here and firmly believes that this particular entity is malevolent. As for me, well, I’m as psychic as a brick. I love this room, it is always my first choice when I occasionally help out as a room guide for The National Trust. It has three large mullion windows which face east, south and west and as a consequence the room is bathed in sunlight all day long, surely an environment which is hardly conducive of such a malevolent

The White Lady
The house and gardens are reputedly haunted by a beautiful young woman dressed in white. ‘The White Lady‘ is arguably the most active of the Manor's ghosts. Her story is one of tragedy, as are many ghost stories. Although her identity is uncertain, it is believed she may well have been a ward of Sir John Stawell. Sir John ran a strict house, especially with regard to protecting the young lady’s integrity and virtues.

In defiance of Sir John's house rules, she met and fell in love with a hansom young man who worked on the estate. Sir John got wind of her deceitfulness and immediately put a stop to their secret rendezvous. She was to have none of it and continued to meet covertly with her young suitor.

Their brief romance was to be cut short, for the young man received orders to join ranks and participate in the Civil Wars. As each day passed she would pray for his safe homecoming, for they had decided to elope together at soon as he returned. Then came the news that she had been dreading. She received notification that her lover had been killed in active duty. With a broken heart and little to live for, she took her life by jumping from a second floor window breaking her neck in the fall.

Her ghost is said to follow visitors around the gardens where she will randomly select a gentleman (preferably with a beard it would seem) and tap him sharply on the shoulder. It is believed this ‘tap on the shoulder’ signifies her attempt to identify whether the recipient of her advances is that of her lover. The startled gentleman who has been selected, would turn round to find no one behind him, confirmation one would assume, that the poor girl had got it wrong again.

She is most often encountered at the south gate close to the pet cemetery.

One of the National Trust guides at the Manor told me of an experience he had during a film shoot for the Trust whilst in the gardens. He described his encounter as suddenly being 'gripped by the shoulders and pulled back.' He spun round to see who was there but to his surprise discovered there was nobody near him.

The White Lady has also been seen by guides and visitors descending the stairway inside the Manor. She is dressed in a flowing floor length white gown and described by all who have seen her as 'stunningly beautiful'.

The Monk
With the Manor's monastic roots, it is not surprising to learn that there have been numerous sightings of a phantom hooded monk. The identity of the monk is unknown but there may be a connection as to why he continues to haunt the Manor. It is well documented that in 1249 several of Avebury’s monks were being held at Marlborough assizes on suspicion of murder. Could the unfortunate victim of this heinous crime be said monk?

His ghost has been seen in the kitchen, the small parlour, the east garden and the churchyard of St. James which stands adjacent to the Manor. One of the earliest documented encounters of the monk was during the ownership of the Manor by William Dunch in 1557. The story goes, that one evening while the maid was busy organizing the dining room for the evening meal, she was briefly interrupted by Dunch who called to her from the kitchen. They spoke briefly in the kitchen regarding some matter or another, after which the maid returned to the dining room stopping just short of the threshold, for standing at the dining room table was a 'tall imposing hooded figure'. The maid looked over her shoulder towards the kitchen where she enquired of Dunch, “sir! - do we have guests for dinner?” “No!” came the reply from Dunch, at that, the maid looked back into the dinning room to find the intruder had disappeared.

Several times a shadowy figure has been seen crossing the passage that connects the kitchen to west garden door, a door long since bricked up. He has also been spotted standing motionless in the east garden.

St. James Church

One of the more recent sightings of the monk occurred one evening as the previous curator of the Stables Museum was locking up for the night. As he turned from the door he noticed a hooded figure standing motionless amongst the gravestones in the adjacent church of St. James. Thinking it to be a young local lad who had been up to mischief on several occasions near the Manor gates and in the churchyard, the curator decided to confront him. As he drew closer to the churchyard gate, the figure started towards him. Startled and a little concerned at this sudden advance, the curator backed away from the gate, at which point the figure began to fade until nothing was left except a fine amorphous mist which slowly dissipated.

Sightings of a mysterious female figure within St James churchyard have been reported many times by reliable witnesses. Could it be, that the skeletal remains of a woman found in the churchyard in the mid 1950s (exposed whilst a fresh grave was being prepared) may account for the ghostly figure. She was identified as being in her early twenties and surrounded by shards of late Norman pottery. The skeleton was lying east to west within the churchyard boundary and it appeared to represent a Christian burial of the Norman period.

The Ghostly Cat
If you should venture into the Stables Museum adjacent to the Manor, you will find amongst its exhibits, many of which have been discovered at Avebury henge, a rather grisly desiccated cat. Now then, said cat was apparently discovered some years back whilst work was being carried out on one of the Manor's external walls. It is said that during medieval times, if you were to wall up a dead cat, then even in death the animal would prevent rodent infestation. How times have changed, thankfully.
On occasion, when staff have been locking up for the evening, some have claimed to have heard the unmistakable sound of a cat crying as if locked in somewhere upstairs. When they have gone to investigate, nothing is ever found.

To conclude. Avebury is a magical place where mystery, wonder and the paranormal combine to make it one of Britain's most enigmatic and popular locations. It is therefore a mystery to me and many others I may add, just why the management at Avebury see fit not to promote its ghostly history, which is extraordinary really when you consider that there is a National Trust publication which devotes itself to ghost stories from many Trust properties. So wake up! I say to the stuffies at Avebury, and start promoting...fat chance.

One of several notice boards at Dunster Castle describing tales to chill and entertain. Maybe the management at Avebury might take notice.


Anonymous said...

I am so happy to have found your blog. I visited Avebury Manor for the first time on 31st July 1984, and while visiting I believe I encountered the spirit of Sir John Stawell of Cothelstone. Until this evening I did not know his name. A friend and I were with a group of people touring the manor. I was left behind alone for a bit while upstairs in a lovely room with carved wooden walls with a window overlooking the gardens [I believe -- this is all from memory] I turned to walk towards the door to catch up with the group and suddenly a very courteous gentleman in full Cavalier garb approached me, and YES he smelled of roses, but I thought the scent came from the garden. He was a solid as myself, and he said to me "Milady, do you like the gardens?" I replied that I "thought they were beautiful, but there was a sadness about them, as well." He bowed to me and said that I "was losing my party..." or something to that effect and escorted me to the door. I thanked him for his courtesy, and quickly caught up with my group. For all the world I thought he was a RenFaire kind of actor hired to add spice to the tours. When we got downstairs to the large hall, I think it might have been a dining hall or something, I asked the caretakers, or perhaps even the owners for all I know, who the actor upstairs was, because his character and costume were spot on for the time. They kind of looked at me strange and said that they had NO actors in the Manor. My friend who was traveling with me got freaked out and wanted to go. So we went out to the gardens and looked up at the window of the room I had been in, and there the man was again, standing looking out at us. My friend was really freaking out, or excited, I cannot say which, and when the man suddenly vanished in thin air she wanted to leave the grounds immediately. For the rest of our time in Wiltshire she was afraid his spirit would follow us. I was not, because he was a Gentleman, and I knew he was tied to the Manor. Now I know who he was, and that others have encountered him, as well. He is the nicest ghost I have every met, and since then I have met quite a few. Thank You for this page and the information that has helped me put a name to my Cavalier Ghost.

Willow said...

Thanks Anonymous’ for your fascinating story and kind comments.

You are not the first and I am sure not the last to encounter what is believed to be the ghost of Sir John Stawell. As recently as the latter part of last year, one of the house guides reported the fragrant smell of roses just before we opened for business for the day.

Our most active entity currently seems to be the image of a little servant girl often seen in the passageway close to the kitchen. She is only ever seen in the mornings oddly enough, and then only fleetingly.

Avebury Manor continues to provide much supernatural activity especially when not expecting it. I live in hope.