The walled up lady at Igtham Mote

5 November 2010

Fans of historical fiction may well be familiar with Anya Seton’s superb novel of reincarnation and thwarted love in the sixteenth century, Green Darkness which tells the story of the excessively beauteous Celia Bohun and her thing for a rather hot monk called Stephen. The novel has an ambitious sweep and a huge cast of characters, many of whom like Magdalene Dacre, Lady Geraldine FitzGerald and her husband Sir Anthony Browne, actually existed.

Much of the later action takes place at the charming fourteenth century moated manor house Ightham Mote near Sevenoaks in Kent, where the unfortunate Celia and Stephen meet their doom thanks to their forbidden passion for each other, with Celia coming to a particularly horrible end.

It’s likely that Seton was inspired by the local rumours that when in 1872, the then inhabitants of the Mote had called in workmen to investigate why one of the tower rooms was permanently draughty, they discovered the body of a woman sitting in a chair walled into a cupboard at the side of the room.

Immediately rumours started that the woman’s body was that of Dame Dorothy Selby, a former lady in waiting to Elizabeth I, who was renowned for her amazing needlework. It was said that Dame Dorothy, getting wind of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, had sent an anonymous letter warning her cousin Lord Monteagle of what was afoot and in retribution, a group of Catholics had burst into Igtham Mote, overpoweted the unfortunate Dorothy and then walled her up in the tower.

It was said that as well as causing the tower room to be chilly at all times, the ghost of Dame Dorothy had been seen stalking the corridors of her former home.

It’s a good story but, luckily for any putative walled up ladies, there is no official record of a body ever being discovered walled up at Ightham Mote also the tale about Dame Dorothy is almost certainly untrue as she is known to have died on 15 March 1641, thirty five years after the events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot and it is unlikely that she would have known anything about the plot anyway.

Ightham Mote.

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