The screaming skull of Burton Agnes Hall

31 October 2010

When I was a little girl we lived for a while in the countryside near Beverley in Yorkshire, which was rather lovely as we had an amazingly creepy church in our village, Dalton Holme and also lots of splendid countryside to roam around. One of the best things about the area for me though was our proximity to Burton Agnes Hall, an incredibly beautiful Elizabethan manor house with the most wonderful gardens.

I spent many happy hours at Burton Agnes at that time, wandering around the beeswax and pot pourri scented mansion, with its beautiful light filled long gallery at the top of the house and sauntering through the gardens, pretending to be Marie Antoinette or Anne Boleyn or whoever was my current historical crush at that time.

The really, really thrilling thing about Burton Agnes though was the ghost story attached to the house, which as it is Halloween, I am going to share with you now.

Burton Agnes Hall was built in the early years of the seventeenth century by Sir Henry Griffith, who planned to live there with his three beautiful daughters. The three girls were all enthralled by the creation of their father’s gorgeous new house, but it was Anne, the youngest and prettiest who was particularly in love with the estate and was fond of wandering around the grounds and neighbouring land, planning the new gardens and imagining the happy life that lay before them all.

However, on one of Anne’s countryside rambles, she was set upon by a gang of robbers who took her possessions and then viciously beat her before leaving her for dead. She was discovered and brought home to the hall, but it was too late and the unfortunate girl died a few days later of her wounds.

Anne fell into a fever in her final hours and is said to have been in despair at the thought of leaving her beloved family home forever and so begged her aghast sisters to ensure that a piece of her would always reside there by removing her head after death and secreting it within the walls of the Hall.

Unsurprisingly her family nodded and smiled and agreed to do as she asked but as soon as she was dead, she was interred, head intact in the nearby churchyard and everyone thought that that was the end of that.

They were wrong. Shortly the burial of poor Anne, her family’s peaceful nights at the Hall were shattered by strange bumps and moans and horrible, spine curdling screams of horror and panic. At first they tried their best to ignore the racket but then finally and in despair and desperation, they decided to bring up Anne’s coffin and do as she had asked.

From the moment that the skull was brought into the house, peace and serenity reigned at Burton Agnes Hall and there were no more reports of horrible disturbances until an unfortunate chambermaid, encountering the skull in a cupboard threw it with some disgust out of an open window, whereupon the bangs and screams began again until the skull was retrieved and placed indoors again.

Later inhabitants of the house, spooked by the presence of the ghastly grinning skull of a murderered girl did their best to rid themselves of it by burying it in the garden, but with no luck as again the nights were shattered by hideous screams.

In the end, it was decided that the best policy was to place the skull in a secret spot within the walls of the house, probably behind some panelling in the great hall so that its presence could be easily ignored and so that Anne’s spirit can reside in peace in her beloved home.

I remember that as children we used to love surreptitiously tapping the panelling in the Great Hall, wondering which one hid the terrifying screaming skull, but with no success. I wonder if the local children still do this now? I used to stare up at the portrait of Anne sitting with her two sisters which hung high on the wall in the great hall, gazing down on us with pop eyed indifference. She was clad in sombre funereal black, which was a stark contrast to the bright, shimmering silks worn by the other girls and was intended to denote her premature demise.

All photos: Burton Agnes Hall.

Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK, Amazon US and Burning Eye.

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