The Ghosts Of Astley Castle

(with digressions many and varied)

Local tales of two Queens, three ghosts, multiple severed heads, two well-preserved bodies, a bit of black magic and a lady novelist.

Originally posted on Twitter on the 2nd May 2019.
Images via @britishlibrary's Flickr collection.
Photograph of the modern building from
@LandmarkTrust, used without permission.

A map of the area of Warwickshire around Astley.

Astley is a small village close to the Arbury Estate in Nuneaton, Warkwickshire. There's a castle and a church, St Mary The Virgin. Orginally a Saxon homestead, a fortified manor was built in 1170 by the Astley family before the Grey family took over the estate

Queen No.1

Sir John Grey lived at the castle with his wife Elizabeth Woodville and their sons but he died fighting for Henry VI at the Second Battle Of St Albans in 1461 and Liz was left destitute when the Crown took the estate.

Moving to live with her Ma, she took her chance to petition Edward IV while he hunted in Grafton Forest. He fell for her, much to the annoyance of the court, and they married. They had two sons and seven daughters so it was an active relationship.

Then Eddie Four died and things got a bit heated. The two boys (Eddie Five & Dick Of York) became the Princes In The Tower and may (or may not[*]) have been murdered under order of Richard III. Or perhaps Henry VII as he had just as much reason to cement his claim...

[*] Recommended: The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey.

So he married Liz's eldest daughter Elizabeth Of York. Liz died in 1492 and is buried at Windsor next to Eddie Four.

Queen No.2

Elizabeth Woodville doesn't haunt Astley Castle, unlike the other Queen to have lived there: Lady Jane Grey, The Nine Days Queen. She grew up at Astley with her father Henry, Lord Grey aka Duke Of Suffolk and her mum who was cousin to Henry VIII's kids.

A sketch of Sir Henry Grey

Suffolk and his equally ambitious chum the Duke of Northumberland (one of The Three Who Ruled in Edward VI's name) decided to marry their kids, Jane and Guildford Dudley, and when the Boy King, little Eddie Six died they installed Jane as Queen(ish).

A sketch of Lady Jane Grey

Ghost No.1

Bloody Mary was a bit miffed about this and marched on London. Since it was a long walk, Jane remained on the throne for all of nine days until Mary arrived. Then it was off to the Tower for Jane and hubby and off with their heads on 12th February 1554.

Jane's ghost is said to haunt the castle where she grew up[*], as is that of her father also (spoilers sweetie) sans head...

[*] In the nearby villages of Arley and Ansley it was said that Jane's favourite haunt was Nuthurst Lane which runs from Astley to Ansley.

Suffolk was initially saved on appeal from his wife (it helps to marry well) but the idiot promptly fell in with Sir Thomas Wyatt's rebellion.

Ghost No.2

He returned to Astley to raise trouble but had to raise himself into a huge hollow oak tree on his estate to hide from Bloody-Annoyed Mary's men. One of Suffolk's men sold him out for cash and it was off to the Tower and off with his head on 23rd February.

A drawing of a beheading at the Tower Of London

Now his ghost walks down the path to where the oak stood (it was blown down in 1891) before disappearing from sight.

A cartoon of a headless man walking towards a tree.

His severed head was unearthed 300 years later. Deep gashes marked where an inept executioner had required multiple attempts to finish the job.

Jane's mum didn't have a happy ending either. She married her equerry, a bad sort who lined his pockets with the lead from Astley Church's roof and spire. The spire came down in 1600 and the church was rebuilt by the Chamberlayne family.

A drawing of Astley church from the mid-1800s.

Well-Preserved Bodies No.1&2

In the process the coffins of Sir Thomas Grey and his wife were uncovered and opened. Both bodies were said to be remarkably well-preserved after eighty years. Though they were tossed out with the rubble, effigies of the Grey family remain.

Which just leaves...

Ghost No.3

A cowled monk, sometimes known as Willie, who is said to wonder around the castle.

A Bit Of Black Magic

The castle was the home to the Newdigate family for many years before becoming a hotel in the 1960s.

Until the place burned down in 1978...

After which the investigators discovered a previously hidden room that contained a black circle, various masks and grimacing ritual dolls stabbed with nails painted red. On the door had been daubed a symbol something like a question mark.

A cartoon of a skeleton holding a candle with a terrified man in the background.

But It's OK Now

The castle, Grade II Listed, was ruined and only restored by The Landmark Trust in the early 2000s, winning the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture 2013. It's now a holiday let with a modern interior built into the shell of the old castle.

A photograph of the modern rebuild of Astley Castle.  Image via The Landmark Trust, used without permission (sorry!)

Not forgetting the Lady Novelist:

Mary Ann (Marian) Evans, aka George Eliot, was born and grew up in the area and the people and places of her youth heavily influenced her writing. Her aunt is buried in the churchyard and the church itself inspired Knebly.

A somewhat flattering drawing of the young Mary Ann Evans.

A Bit More About George

Just for the heck of it...

Her early relationship with brother Isaac inspired Tom and Maggie Tulliver, though their later relationship was fraught because Mary Ann was a tad unconventional.

She got her atheism from Charles Bray, owner of the Coventry Herald where her early writings were published. Chuck's wife thought they were up to no good and getting up to no good with other people's husbands became a theme in Mary Ann's life.

Next up was John Chapman and another aggrieved missus.

At least the next one, George Lewes, was in an open marriage (their sons were actually by his best friend).

It was George who co-created the pseudonym George Eliot and sent her first attempt at fiction off to a publisher friend. She earned eighteen guineas.

She lived with George ("small and pockmarked", "quite the ugliest man in London") from July 1854 to his death in 1878.

In 1880 at the age of sixty Mary Ann married forty year old John Cross. It started well: he threw himself off a balcony on their honeymoon. And ended quickly: Mary Ann died a few months later in December.

Despite John's hopes, the Dean Of Westminster refused to allow the irreligious Mary Ann to be buried in Poets' Corner and instead she was laid to rest in unconsecrated ground at Highgate Cemetery.

It took 100 years for her to receive a memorial stone at the Abbey.