Unlucky English Castles: 1907

Fyvie Castle


Weird Histories of Some of the Old English Castles That Are Now Passing Into the Hands of Rich Americans.

by F. Cunliffe-Owen

Each year witnesses a considerable increase in the number of Americans who lease or buy castles and manors in Europe, oftentimes in that portion whereof whence their own ancestors originally sprang. This being the case, it may be well to recommend that before concluding any bargain they should assure themselves as to whether the place which they intent to acquire is not the subject of some old time malediction; for experience has demonstrated that the curse in such cases is likely to extend its baneful influence from the original owners responsible for its existence, to a whole series of subsequent purchasers and tenants of these so-called “unlucky houses.”

There are plenty of country houses which maybe thus described, the blight being in some instances ascribed to a tragedy or crime, and in others to the fact that the property, after being consecrated to the use of the Church, had been sacrilegiously wrested from the latter. It is not that the houses are haunted–for every ancient manor or castle that respects itself has its familiar specter, which forms to such a degree a recognized feature of the establishment that people have actually appealed to the English tribunals to quash sales, on the ground that the ghost had failed to materialize, but it is because these unlucky houses bring misfortune to the owners or lessees.

Ridiculed the Superstition.

Among those who have suffered in this manner are Lord and Lady Leith, who, when they acquired Fyvie Castle, in Aberdeenshire, were disposed to ridicule the idea that it was accounted unlucky. Lady Leith is an American woman, a daughter of D. A. January of St. Louis, and her husband, after retiring from the British navy, established himself in business in this country, and made a large fortune in Chicago as president of the Joliet, the Illinois, and the Federal Steel Companies, before returning to his native land to buy Fyvie Castle. All sorts of legends cluster round the latter, including that of the Trumpeter of Fyvie, whose unhappy love for Annie Tifty, the miller’s daughter, has furnished the themes of so many poems.

The Trumpeter’s tragic death, which is said to have caused even the very stones to weep, led to the imposition of a curse upon the castle by that master of magic and spells, Thomas the Rhymer, who, angered beyond measure at the disposition of the lord of the castle to ridicule the idea that stones could weep, declared that the ownership of Fyvie should never pass from father to son until the third of three stones known as “The Weeping Stones” was recovered. One of the stones is built into the castle walls, where it absorbs and exudes moisture in a most curious way; another is transferred to the possession of each purchaser or tenant of the estate; while the third, which is missing, is currently believed to be lying embedded in the mud at the bottom of a terribly deep lake in a remote portion of the property. Whatever doubts may have existed in the mind of Lord and Lady Leith as to the value of this superstition were set at rest by the death of their only son Percy in South Africa during the Boer War.

Not but his parents were prepared for their bereavement. For fully twenty-four hours before the receipt of the despatches containing news that the young officer, born in America, had fallen in battle, the people of Fyvie Castle had been troubled by the appearance of the specter of the Trumpeter, known in the countryside as “The Green Laddie,” who for the last five hundred years has invariably shown himself when ever any calamity was about to overtake the owners or occupants of Fyvie.

It was with the object of averting a similar misfortune that Colonel William Frederick Webb, on dying, bequeathed Newstead Abbey, the famous home of the poet Lord Byron, to his youngest daughter, married to General Sir Herbert Chermside, instead of to his eldest girl, or to his only son Roderick. The abbey, which was built by King Henry II in expiation of the murder of St. Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, has long been burdened with a curse to the effect that it should never pass from father to son, which, according to some, dates from the time of the confiscation of the abbey at the Reformation, and by others has been ascribed to an act of sacrilege perpetrated by the fifth Lord Byron, surnamed “The Wicked.”

This peer had many crimes in his record, including the killing of his coachman, whom he shot dead for some disobedience, and the singularly cowardly murder of his cousin William Chaworth, while he was staying as his guest at Newstead Abbey. Byron was tried for this latter homicide by the House of Lords, and escaped with a verdict of manslaughter, which was punished by the imposition of a heavy fine. Held up to obloquy in connection with this crime, and ostracized by society, he withdrew to the country to spend the remainder of his days in Newstead Abbey, so embittered against his fellow creatures that he sought in every way possible to shock and horrify them. In fact, he was believed by the people of the district to be in league with Satan, and invited the wrath of Heaven by violating the sepulcher of the old time abbots of Newstead, one of whose skulls he had mounted in silver and converted into a drinking cup, which he used at those orgies at which he and his boon companions defied Providence and hailed Satan. He lived to see both his son and the latter s only boy die by violence in quick succession, and it was in this way that the abbey passed into the hands of the poet, a distant relative.

Had to Sell the Abbey

The sixth Lord Byron, the bard, as everyone knows, had no son, and left only a daughter, afterward Countess of Lovelace, who, like Newstead Abbey, figures often and lovingly in his poems, notably in “Childe Harold.” The abbey therefore at his death went to a remote kinsman, who became seventh Lord Byron, and he was obliged, through poverty, to get rid of the old place. He sold it to Colonel Wildman.

The latter, likewise pursued by the malediction imposed upon the owners of Newstead Abbey, lost his only son, and was overtaken by other reverses, which led him to dispose of the property to the late William Frederick Webb, the traveler and explorer. Sometime after becoming the owner of the abbey, Webb discovered, by mere chance, m a second hand bric-a-brac shop on Bedford-st., off Covent Garden, in London, the gruesome drinking bowl of the fifth and wicked Lord Byron. He at once purchased it, and caused the skull to be reverently reinterred within the abbey precincts, hoping that thereby the curse upon the place might be lifted. But being in doubt about the matter, and fearful lest any harm should befall his only son, he declined to leave Newstead Abbey to him, but bequeathed the place to his younger daughter, Lady Chermside, who has no children.

What the ultimate fate of the abbey may be it is difficult to see; for recently coal has been discovered on the estate, the mines proving exceedingly rich. The operations, however, cannot be extended without entailing the destruction of  the abbey, with its cloisters and quaint old garden; and it is understood that General Sir Herbert and Lady Chermside, called upon to choose between the possession of a country house burdened with a curse, on the one hand, and great wealth on the other have come to the conclusion to abandon the Abbey.

New Battle Abbey

Two other famous mansions, each of them burdened with a curse, and popularly known as unlucky houses, are Battle Abbey and Cowdray Park, the latter the country seat of the Earl of Egmont, while the former, owned by Sir Augustus Webster, is now leased to Michael Grace of New York. If I mention them together, it is because they are, after a fashion, united in their misfortune.

Battle Abbey, built by William the Conqueror, remained in the possession of the monks until the reign of King Henry VIII., who drove out the friars and presented the abbey and its lands to his favorite. Sir Anthony Browne, Knight of the Garter and Master of the Horse.

The Terrible Curse

The story goes that as Sir Anthony was celebrating his housewarming in the great abbot’s hall a monk suddenly appeared, no one knew whence, strode up to the dais, and pronounced a solemn malediction upon the spoiler of the Church. He warned Sir Anthony that the curse would cleave to every owner of the place, and to his remote posterity and foretold the special doom which was to be their temporal punishment. ” By fire and water,” he exclaimed, “your line shall come to an end and perish out of the land!”

The prophecy sank deep into the minds of men, until it was literally fulfilled in a remarkable manner two and a half centuries later. Sir Anthony died suddenly, before he had been able to complete the great manor house which he had begun to construct on the site of the old abbey, which he had partially demolished for the purpose. His eldest son, created Lord Montague, moved to Cowdray Park; but he did not, however, escape the curse. He got mixed up in the Gunpowder Plot with Guy Fawkes, and was put to death on the scaffold.

Misfortunes of one kind and another pursued the family relentlessly. Several for the Lords of Montague met their death by violence. The eighth and last Lord Montague was drowned in the Rhine a little over one hundred years ago, in a foolhardy attempt to shoot the falls at Schaffhausen. By a strange coincidence, on the very same day, Cowdray Castle was mysteriously burned to the ground. Battle Abbey had already been sold by the fifth Lord Montague to Sir Godfrey Webster, in the hope of escaping the effects of the curse. Cowdray went, on the last Lord Montague’s death in the Rhine, to his sister, married to Stephen Poyntz.

In 1815 Mr. and the Hon. Mrs. Poyntz were staying with their two only sons at the seaside town of Bognor, on the Sussex coast. One hot July day after a pleasant outing the party were on the way home, when a sudden squall upset the boat, drowning Poyntz, his wife, and his two sons. The calamity was of course credited to the account of the curse pronounced upon the ancestor of Mrs. Poyntz by the monk at Battle Abbey.

With regard to Battle its possession seems to have brought misfortune upon the Websters; for they were obliged by financial embarrassments to get rid of it; and it passed through several hands before being purchased by the late Duchess of Cleveland, mother of Lord Rosebery. When she died she bequeathed it to her nephew, Captain Francis Foster. But he would not hear of making it his home, and hastened to sell it, whereupon it was repurchased by the family, in the person of Sir Augustus Webster, the present baronet. But immediately after having established his title to the place he rented it on a long lease to Michael Grace of New York.

Cowdray Park

On Mrs. Poyntz’s death, Cowdray was sold by the estate to Lord Egmont, whose earldom had been conferred upon one of his ancestors for services in connection with his colonization and governorship of Georgia. Not content with buying a place burdened with a malediction, Lord Egmont may be said to have brought to Cowdray a family curse of his own, from his estates in the south of Ireland.

The story goes that the fifth Earl of Egmont was appealed to by a widow on his Irish property to postpone her eviction, owing to the fact that her only son was dangerously ill. But the Earl was relentless, and had the widow and her son pitched out on to the roadside, where the sick man expired a couple of hours later as the result of exposure and of the rough treatment to which he had been subjected. The widow, in her bitter anguish, went down on her knees by the corpse of her boy, and cursed the Earl as only an Irish peasant can, praying to Heaven that neither he nor any of his successors would ever have an heir.

The Answer to the Curse.

It would seem as if the prayer had been heard; for the fifth Earl died without issue, and was succeeded by his cousin the sixth Earl. The latter likewise died childless, and was succeeded by a cousin, the late Earl, who in turn had no children, and was followed in the honors and estates by his kinsman, the present Earl. This nobleman, separated from his American wife, formerly a barmaid in London, without any divorce, has no offspring; while the marriage of his younger brother and next heir to the peerage, until recently a policeman at Johannesburg, has remained childless. After that in the line of succession is old Spencer Perceval, an octogenarian, whose only son, Henry Godfrey Perceval, was murdered, with his wife and only child, in Nebraska, on September 29, 1884, under the most shocking circumstances. The crime attracted considerable sensation at the time, not only by reason of its atrocity, but also by the fact that a grand-uncle of the victim, the Right Hon. Spencer Perceval, while Premier of Great Britain, was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. The present Lord Egmont has spent much of his life in this country, and has had a most adventurous career. For, before succeeding to the earldom, he had been in turn a sailor before the mast, a member of the London fire brigade, a of the town hall of Chelsea, a market gardener, and all sorts of other things besides, and even now is far from well off, owing to the fact of his being saddled with a big place like Cowdray Park, without the necessary means to maintain it in fitting style.

Cecil Rhodes is regarded by people in Suffolkshire as having been a victim of the curse which rests upon Dalham Hall. Certain it is that he died unexpectedly only a few months after having purchased it from Sir Robert Affleek. He bequeathed it to his brother, the popular Colonel Frank Rhodes, one of the leaders of the memorable Transvaal raid.

Another Owner Died.

He in turn enjoyed possession of Dalham Hall for only a short time before being gathered to his fathers, although he seemed when he took possession of the place good for many years to come. Since then it has changed hands twice. The mansion, which is of brick, and was built away back in the days of William and Mary, that is to say, shortly after the Stuarts had been driven from the throne of England, occupies the site of a famous monastery that shared the fate of so many other establishments of the same kind at the time of the Reformation, in having its ecclesiastical occupants driven out, when, after it had been looted and plundered, it was given to one of the minions of King Henry VIII. Subsequently it became the residence of the Anglican Bishops of Ely. But even they found the place too heavily burdened on account of the blighting malediction of its former monastic owners. They got rid of it, and it passed through several hands before it was acquired by the Affleck family. The latter are a branch of the old House of Auchinleck. The baronet, a nephew of the Admiral, married an American girl, a daughter of Thomas Clark of New York. The next successor was a cousin. In fact, the Dalham Hall property has never passed from father to son, and the present baronet, who recently figured in the bankruptcy court, has no issue, while his only two surviving brothers, three having already died, are likewise childless.

To what extent the Church has the power to lift curses of this kind imposed upon former ecclesiastical property is a moot question. The wife of the seventh Marquis of Lothian felt so uneasy at living at New Battle Abbey, that she proceeded to Rome, and confided her scruples and fears about the matter to Pius IX. She informed him that the Lords of Lothian are descended in a direct line from the last Roman Catholic abbot of New Battle Abbey, a prelate who forsook the Church of Rome at the time of the Reformation, and joined the Protestant Church. Wedding Lady Helen Leslie, he retained possession of both the abbey and lands of the monastic order of which he had until then been the head, and which had been given by David I. of Scotland to the White Monks of the Cistercian order several hundred years previously. Not content with absolving himself from his vows of celibacy, the abbot coolly pulled down the monastery and the stately abbey which formed part thereof, and made use of the materials to build himself a seat on the very same site.

After hearing what the Marchioness had to say, the venerable pontiff said, “Remain quietly where you are, without worrying yourself, my daughter.” But Lady Lothian would not be comforted until she had obtained from His Holiness a document bearing his sign manual, authorizing herself and her children to occupy their Scottish home in peace. This papal permit is now preserved among the family archives of the Lords of Lothian, in the very same case which contains the original documents forming the grant of New Battle Abbey by King David to the Cistercian monks.

Family Finally Scared Out

But in spite of this papal permit, Fate nevertheless; seems to pursue the House of Kerr, of which the Marquis is chief, to such an extent that neither he nor any of the members of his family is willing to live there. He may he said to owe his succession to the family honors to one of the many tragedies that figure in the history of his house, his elder brother having had his brains blown out accidentally while duck shooting in Australia.

Berkeley Castle–where Edward II. was put to death in so atrocious a fashion, and which, burdened with his dying curse, has brought so many tragedies to its owners that their annals may be regarded as one long series of dramas and crimes—and a number of other old manors and country houses could be cited, to show how well founded are the superstitious fears entertained by many people on the subject of so called “unlucky houses.

Evening Star [Washington DC] 27 January 1907: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This was written at the end of those halcyon days when American millionaires like William Waldorf Astor, who bought his way into the Peerage, were snapping up castles right and left. A ghost and a curse were an expected part of a stately home purchase. Astor purchased Hever, Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, only to be disappointed when her ghost did not appear for him.

The English were not the only ones entertaining superstitious fears. The Americans had their own brand of unlucky dwellings, known as “hoodoo houses,” albeit probably lacking an abbot’s curse by way of explanation for the malign influence. Here is an example:



McConnelsville, Ohio, July 9. The old belief in evil spirits and devils is gaining credence in Eastern Morgan and Western Noble. Near Keith’s is a house that seems to have a baneful influence on all who dare to enter its portals.

About a year ago it was occupied by the family of Dr. Gatewood. The doctor had an extensive practice, and seemingly a bright future. In the midst of his success his beautiful wife became a raving maniac and the heart-broken doctor wandered off to Cleveland, where he took his own life. Recently Dr. J.W. Lindsay, a young physician, moved into the property vacated by the Gatewood tragedy. He had only resided in the haunted house a few months until he became a confirmed drunkard, and, to complete the ghastly history of the place, word is just received that his wife, in a fit of despondency, took morphine, and died from the effects.

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 10 July 1895: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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