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Historic Hauntings at Hampton Court Palace

A screaming queen, a grey lady and a man in a mask – meet our famous phantoms!

A screaming queen, a grey lady and a man in a mask – meet our famous phantoms!

We all love a good ghost story. But nobody knew better than the Victorians that terror sells tickets.

In the early 20th century, the darker episodes of palace history were retold for enjoyable chills, and ghostly legends grew until visitors expected an ectoplasmic encounter around every corner.

But is there more to the faked-up photos and spooky sightings than we like to think?

An early postcard depicting a 'ghost' in the Horn Room.
The ghost is that of King Henry VIII's fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Charged with adultery, the young queen was placed under house arrest at Hampton Court. The story goes that she managed to escape from her rooms and run to the Chapel where the King was at Mass. Before she was able to reach him, she was seized by the guards and dragged screaming back to her rooms. It is said that her ghost still haunts the palace today.

Restless royals

The best-selling postcards at Hampton Court in the early 1900s were of spectres in historic spaces, with these faked up double exposed photographs offered as spine-tingling ‘proof’.

Stories persist today that at least two of Henry VIII’s wives haunt Hampton Court Palace: his beloved third wife Jane Seymour who died after giving birth in 1537 and most famously, his fifth wife Catherine Howard, executed for adultery in 1542.

Image: This typical early 20th-century postcard claims to reveal poor Queen Catherine, ‘captured’ on film in the Horn Room at the palace

Illustration of Jane Seymour (c1508-37), King Henry VIII's third wife and mother of King Edward VI

The Spectre of Silverstick Stairs

A sad white wraith carrying a lighted taper is said to be Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. She died from post-birth complications at Hampton Court, only a few days after delivering Henry’s longed-for son, Prince Edward. While delighted with his male heir the King was devastated at the sudden loss of his ‘perfect’ queen.

A pale figure is reported to appear on the Silverstick Stairs, which once led up to a room in which Jane gave birth,and died, on the anniversary of Edward’s birth in October 1537.

Image:  Jane Seymour, the only one of Henry’s six wives to lie beside him in the royal tomb at Windsor Castle

The Haunted Gallery

The Screaming Queen

Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard was as wild as Jane Seymour was mild.  Catherine’s ghost is far more vocal and the sightings more regularly reported.  

Catherine was beheaded at the Tower in 1542, aged 19, for adultery and treason. It is claimed that after she was arrested at Hampton Court, the terrified teenager broke free of her guards. She ran along what is now called the Haunted Gallery, screaming out to the King for mercy.

She never reached Henry, who was at prayer in the Chapel. Guards dragged her away and she never saw Henry again. It is said that her anguished ghost now repeats this heartbreaking journey, screaming through eternity.

Image: Hampton Court Palace. The Haunted Gallery

The Grey Lady

There have been numerous sightings of the ‘Grey Lady’, aka Sybil Penn at the palace. Sybil was servant to four Tudor monarchs, and wet nurse to Edward VI.

She nursed Elizabeth I devotedly through smallpox in 1562. The Queen recovered, but poor Sybil caught the pox and died soon afterwards.

Did you know?

Sybil was buried in nearby Hampton church, as befitted her role as loyal family servant.

Spinning wheel

Sybil's tomb was disturbed when the church was renovated in 1829, and shortly after this, stories began to spread of a ‘grey lady’ seen to walk the corridors of the State Apartments and Clock Court at the palace.

Sybil is also linked to mysterious spinning wheel noises that were said to come from behind a wall in a grace and favour apartment. Legend has it that when the wall was removed, an old, much used spinning wheel was discovered.

Image: When darkness falls at Hampton Court, it’s easy to imagine someone, or something in the shadows...

‘A world invisible or half known, [where] imagination and tradition vie in bringing forth strange noises and mysterious presences’

Writer William Holden Hunt describing the appeal of Hampton Court in 1897.

Strange sensations

In May 2000, the noted psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted an experiment at Hampton Court to investigate whether ghosts really were ‘all in the mind.’

He asked volunteers to describe themselves as either ‘believers’ or ‘non-believers’ in the paranormal and asked people in both groups to record any unusual experiences as they wandered around. 

As you might expect, ‘believers’ reported more spooky sensations overall, but interestingly many participants recorded more unusual incidents  in the same places – the Haunted Gallery and the Georgian rooms, whether or not they knew about the legends.  This suggests something is happening, but exactly what isn’t clear…

Did you know?

On one day in 1999, during separate tours, two female visitors fainted in exactly the same spot in the Haunted Gallery.

Fountain Court, looking west along the north cloister

‘Knock, knock.’ ‘Who’s there?’

In 1871, two male skeletons in shallow graves were unearthed under a cloister in Fountain Court during a routine excavation.

Their discovery bought huge relief to one palace resident: an elderly woman living in a nearby grace and favour apartment.  She had complained of constant banging and knocking on her walls, but no one had believed her.  All disturbances ceased when the remains were properly interred.

It has been suggested that the anonymous men were victims of Roundhead villainy during the Civil Wars (1642-51). They may have been hastily buried in unmarked graves, which were concealed during Wren’s building of the baroque palace in 1689.  

’That stupid Board of Works has at last found the two wretched men … who have been haunting me for years’

A relieved grace and favour resident, 1871

Security spooked

In October 2003, the palace CCTV captured the image of a ghostly figure, apparently flinging open a fire door. 

Had this been in the age of social media, then the image would have certainly gone viral: back in the day it attracted international media attention.

No living soul has ever come forward to admit that this was their prank. Security staff remain baffled…

Did you know?

The door flew open on three consecutive days, with the ‘spectre’ making his (?) appearance on the second.

Caught on camera

This short film was taken from the CCTV cameras and was shown around the world. What do you think it is, a fluke or a spook?