Updated: Nov 7
For centuries the impressive stately homes, palaces, and castles that the current Royal Family have occupied have, according to reports and witness statements, seen the return of many previous inhabitants.
The British Royal Family are well aware of the truth of the old saying, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." For the troubled spirits of their predecessors are known to still reside in the historic royal homes. The Queen, Princess Margaret, and the Queen Mother have all come face-to-face with ghosts.
Windsor Castle, the royal retreat in Berkshire, is said to be home to at least 25 different spectral skeletons in its cupboards, four of them former monarchs. It was there that Princess Margaret saw the figure of Queen Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, who has been wandering around the 12th-century building since her death in 1603. She is frequently seen in the castle library. An officer of the guard once followed her into the room, but when he reached the door, Good Queen Bess simply vanished.
King Charles I, who lost his head in 1649 during the Civil War, has been reported many times standing by a table in the library, while George III, who died on January 29, 1820, and was confined to the castle during the last years of his lunacy, has been seen and heard in several rooms, often muttering one of his most-used phrases, "What, what?"
The bulky figure of Henry VIII is another nocturnal visitor. Two guards watched him disappear into a wall on the battlements as recently as 1977. They later learned that there had been a door at that very spot during Henry's reign.
Soldiers on sentry duty at Windsor have often seen the ghost of a young guardsman who killed himself in 1927. Many who have spotted him in the Long Walk believe at first that he had come to relieve them.
A Coldstream Guardsman found unconscious in the Great Park in 1976 had experienced a very different kind of ghost. He told those who found him that he had seen Herne the Hunter, a man clad in deer skins and a helmet with antlers jutting from the forehead.
Hundreds of other people have also claimed to have seen the same apparition over the last 250 years, silently speeding through the castle grounds with his ghostly pack of hounds. When the tree from which he allegedly hanged himself was cut down in 1863, Queen Victoria reserved the oak logs for her own fire, "to help kill the ghost." But even after this, the sightings of Richard II's forester have continued.
In the 17th century, a terrified servant called Parker approached one of the castle guests, Sir George Villiers, with an extraordinary story. He said he had three visits from the armour-clad ghost of Sir George's father, the Duke of Buckingham, and had been told that unless Sir George mended his callous ways, he had not long to live. Sir George laughed off the warning. Six months later he was assassinated.
Hampton Court, the palace by the Thames presented to Henry VIII by his disgraced Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, is still haunted by the spirit of the King's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who was beheaded in 1542. She has been seen so frequently, running screaming to the chapel door in the search of sanctuary, that she is now mentioned in the official guide issued to the thousands of tourists who visit the palace.
The third of Henry's six wives, Jane Seymour, has also been seen at Hampton long after her death. She emerges from the Queen's apartments carrying a lighted taper and walks around the Silver Stick Gallery on the anniversary of the birth of her son, later Edward VI, on October 12, 1537. Jane died one week later, and the weakling boy, crowned for a short reign when he was only ten years old, was fostered by a nurse, Mistress Sibell Penn, who also appears at Hampton.
Mistress Penn was buried at St Mary's Church after she died of smallpox in 1568, but the church had to be rebuilt in 1829 after being struck by lightning. The nurse's remains were disturbed as her tomb was moved, and soon strange whirring sounds and mutterings were heard coming from behind a wall at the palace where there was no known room.
When the wall was knocked down, a spinning wheel was uncovered along with other relics which indicated that the nurse had once lived on the site. Many witnesses have also seen Mistress Penn wandering the corridors of the palace's southwest wing, where her old room was. She is a tall, thin hooded figure in a grey robe, her arms outstretched as if in appeal. In 1881, a sentry watched her walk through a wall.
Two male figures once haunted Hampton's Fountain Court, making loud noises in the middle of the night. The ghosts were never seen or heard again after workmen uncovered two skeletons in Cavalier dress buried beneath the courtyard. The skeletons were given a Christian funeral.
Perhaps the most bizarre Hampton phantoms were those encountered by a police constable on duty at the palace one cold February night in 1917. The officer, identified only as PC 2657, who had 20 years of service in the force, opened a gate in the grounds for two men and seven women wearing strange old-fashioned costumes. He swore that they then walked on for 30 yards, turned to one side of the path, and simply faded away.
Today the Queen and her immediate family have abandoned Hampton Court to the tourists and divided their time in Britain between Buckingham Palace, Windsor, Sandringham in Norfolk, and Balmoral in Scotland. All of which have their own paranormal stories.
It was at Balmoral that the Queen is said to have seen the phantom figure of John Brown, confidant and some say lover of the widowed Queen Victoria. He has often been reported stalking the castle's corridors and entrance hall, a magnificent sight in his kilt.
Sandringham has for years played host to a mischievous yuletide poltergeist. It livens up Christmas Eve in the second-floor servants' quarters by flinging greetings cards about, ripping sheets from newly-made beds, and breathing heavily in the ears of unsuspecting maids. Prince Philip's uncle, Prince Christopher of Greece, once saw a mysterious masked woman while staying in one of the Sandringham guest rooms. He glanced up from his book and saw her head and shoulders framed in the dressing table mirror. She had soft, curly brown hair, a dimpled chin, and a mask over the top of her face.
The next day, while visiting Lord Cholmondeley at nearby Houghton Hall, the Prince found out who she was. He saw a portrait of the same woman, Dorothy Walpole, unhappily married in the 18th century, whose ghost was also seen by King George IV in 1786.
The ghost of Buckingham Palace is that of Major John Gwynne, a private secretary in the household of King Edward VII early this century. Fearing that mention of his name in a divorce case had brought dishonour on the Royal Family, he shot himself at the desk of his first-floor office. And it is there that his dim shape has been seen several times since.
Gatcombe, the Cotswolds mansion home of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, is said by locals to be haunted by a huge black dog. They call it the Hound of Odin, named after the God of the Vikings who pillaged Gloucestershire 1,000 years ago and was always accompanied by a fierce four-legged friend.
Kensington Palace has three ghosts. A man in white buckskin breeches strolls the arcade courtyards, Queen Victoria's Aunt Sophia sits working a spinning wheel, and, on the roof, King George II has been seen staring at the weather vane, and asking, in his thick German accent, "Why don't they come?" The King died at the palace on October 25, 1760, waiting for messengers with news from his native Hanover.
No ghostly goings-on have yet been reported from the Gloucestershire home of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, but St Paul's Cathedral in London, where they were married in July 1981, was once the scene of a strange incident. Workmen preparing foundations for a building beside it unearthed a wooden box containing jewels. The gems were taken to the British Museum, London, and an expert took them home to clean, polish, and value. As he and his daughter worked, the room suddenly grew cold. A psychic friend who called a few hours later found out why. He saw a tall thin man in Elizabethan dress standing behind the couple, clearly angry that his hidden treasures had been disturbed.
There was another surprise when the jewels were put on display at the museum. A woman looking at them suddenly fainted, and explained after attendants revived her, that she had seen blood on one of the necklaces. Staff could find no trace of stains on the gems, but the woman remained convinced that the person who last wore the necklace had been murdered.
Of all the hauntings connected with royal buildings, the most intriguing are those of Glamis Castle. The towered and turreted fortress beside Dean Water, near Forfar, Angus, is the Scottish family home of the Queen Mother's family, the Bowes Lyons. Princess Margaret was born there. But its 16-feet thick walls have been cloaked with mystery ever since Macbeth usurped the Scottish throne by murdering Kink Duncan in one of the rooms in the year 1040.
The Queen Mother took delight in telling the younger members of her daughters' families the spine-chilling tales that have sprung up about Glamis. How Lord Beardie Crawford and fellow revellers diced with the devil in a tower room, and were condemned to stay there, drinking eternally until the Day of Judgement. Of how the Ogilvies, fleeing from the Lindsays during a clan war, were locked in a room and forgotten, starving to death.
The Queen Mother herself is one of many who have seen the sad Grey Lady of Glamis, who haunts the Clock Tower. She is believed to be the ghost of Janet Douglas, wife of the sixth Lord Glamis, who was burned to death on Castle Hill, Edinburgh, in 1537 after being falsely accused of witchcraft and of plotting to poison King James V.
There is one Glamis phantom that few in the family have ever been prepared to talk about. Victorian high society was alive with rumours that a hideously disfigured beast of a man had been born into the Strathmore clan, an immensely strong and hairy egg-shaped creature whose head ran straight in a huge body that was supported by toy-like legs and arms.
Unable to reveal the monster's existence, yet unable to kill it, the family were said to have locked their odd offspring in one of the secret rooms built at Glamis in the last years of the 17th century. There it lived for years, known only to the Earl of Strathmore, his lawyer, and land agent, and when he reached 21, the Earl's heir.
Guests returned from Glamis with strange stories that fuelled the gossip. Many said they had been woken in the night by the howls and snarls of an animal. One woman claimed she saw a pale face with huge, mournful eyes staring at her from a window across a courtyard. When it disappeared, she heard appalling screams and watched an old woman scurry across the yard carrying a large bundle.
In 1869, a Mrs Munro woke in her bedroom at the castle to feel a beard brush her face. As she fumbled for a light, the shape that had been standing over her shambled into the next room, where her son was sleeping. The boy's screams of terror brought Mrs Monro and her husband racing to his bedside. As he explained that he had just seen a giant, they all heard a crash.
At breakfast the next morning, other guests said they too had heard the crash, and one said she had been woken by the mournful whines of her small dog. But their hosts could offer no explanation.
In 1865, a workman who found a secret passage, and claimed to have seen something alive in a room off it, was "subsidised and induced to emigrate."
In 1877, essayist Augustus Hare watched the Bishop of Brechin offer to share the burden that was making the then Earl of Strathmore morose at a house party. Hare reported, "Lord Strathmore said that in his most unfortunate position, no one could ever help him."
Andrew Ralston, land agent to the Strathmore's from 1860 to 1912, was once asked for the full story by the Countess, grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. He replied, "Lady Strathmore, it is fortunate you do not know it, for if you did you would never be happy."
Dowager Lady Granville, the Queen Mother's sister once admitted, "We were never allowed to talk about it when we were children. Our parents forbade us ever to discuss the matter or ask any questions about it. My father and grandfather refused absolutely to discuss it."
And the 12th Earl, the Queen's great-grandfather, was quoted as saying, "If you could only guess the nature of the secret, you would go down on your knees and thank God it was not yours."
His warning failed to deter historians and ghost-hunters. For years they tried to unravel the nature of the secret. Once, towels were flown from the window of every known room, to try to locate the possible hideaways. Experts combed the family tree for clues, and in the 1920s journalist Paul Bloomfield came up with what seemed a plausible explanation.
According to Burke's Peerage the "bible" of British nobility, Lord Glamis, heir to Thomas, the 11th Earl of Strathmore, married Charlotte Grimstead on December 21, 1820, and was presented with an heir, Thomas George, later the 12th Earl, on September 22, 1822. But when Bloomfield checked Douglas's Scots Peerage, he surmised that Lord Glamis and his wife also had a son "born and died on October 21, 1821." Another reference book gave the date as October 18.
Bloomfield guessed that the first-born son did not die, but was badly deformed. He could never inherit the title and estates. Expected to live only days, he was kept alive and well cared for, but he survived both his father and his younger brother. A third son, Claude, became the 13th Earl, and was succeeded in 1904 by his own boy, Claude George, born in 1855 and who became the father of the Queen Mother.
It is believed that he was the last heir to be initiated into the grim family secret, when he reached the age of 21 on March 14, 1876. His son and successor, Timothy, was never told the story, although he once said, "I feel sure there is a corpse or a coffin bricked up in the castle walls somewhere, but they are so thick that you could search for a week without finding anything."
Today, the legend of the monster lives on only in the name of the rooftop lead path where he may have been exercised at night - the Mad Earl's Walk.
The Grey Lady still prays silently in the chapel. Spirits still haunt the room where the Strathmore's personal hangman used to sleep. And Early Beardie is still seen, a huge old man with a flowing beard, sitting by a fire in one of the castle bedrooms.
Yet for all their ghosts, none of the royal palaces and castles rank as the most haunted places in Britain.