Tudor Horror Stories: Ghost Stories, Executions and Halloween

Who doesn’t love a good creepy ghost story? When Fall comes around all I want to do is watch scary movies and rehash old ghost tales.

In this post I’ll give you all the creepy and scary as well as fascinating tales of horror at Tudor court and a bit of history on Halloween. I hope you enjoy.

One of the most horrifically botched executions of the era was that of Margaret Pole, Countess of Surrey.

The following poem was found in the Margaret Pole’s cell in the Tower of London:

For traitors on the block should die;

I am no traitor, no, not I!

My faithfulness stands fast and so,

Towards the block I shall not go!

Nor make one step, as you shall see;

Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me

Here is a quote from a guest post on my blog by Alan Freer, called The Last Plantagenet:

On the morning of 27th May 1541, an elderly, stately woman walked with dignity, as befitted her birth, from her cell in the Tower of London. Her name was Margaret Pole. Margaret had been informed earlier that day that she was to die. Her reply had been to say that no crime had been proved against her. In an effort to play down the event, no wooden scaffold had been built, no large crowd of onlookers were to be present; only the Mayor of London and a few dignitaries were to witness Margaret’s death.

Margaret knelt at the simple, low block of wood, which was to be her final pillow, and commended her soul to God.

Turning to the thin line of bystanders she asked them to pray for the King and Queen, for young Edward, Prince of Wales, and for Princess Mary, of whom she was Godmother.

With a final prayer she placed her delicate, royal neck on the block. The executioner, a clumsy novice, hideously hacked at her neck and shoulders before the final decapitation was accomplished.

This version of Margaret Pole’s demise is not the only one available. In the much kinder version that Freer shares with us it is believed that Margaret was hacked at ten times before her head was removed from her neck. Yes, you heard me right at the beginning there – I said kinder version, and here is why – There is a second version. That account is the one that really tears at the heartstrings. That account states that Margaret managed to escape from the block and was cut down by the executioner as she ran. In the account it was also noted that it took eleven blows to accomplish the deed.

Both of the versions have one thing in common, Margaret was hacked at either ten or eleven times. What a horrible way to die.

Richard Roose – Boiled Alive

Speaking of horrible ways to die, how about being boiled alive? Just thinking about it I can hear the screams of poor Richard Roose.?

A statute was passed in England in 1531 by Henry VIII that made willful murder by means of poison high treason and punishable by death by boiling.

It was the action of Richard Roose, cook of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester that prompted the measure.

In February 1531, Roose poisoned the porridge of Rochester and his guests. But it wasn’t only those in the household at the time who received the poisoned porridge but also the poor who had gathered outside to collect alms. They were also given whatever was leftover from the poisoned meal. All those that ate the food became extremely ill and two people actually died.

Rochester had not eaten so he was spared.

In his defense, Roose claimed that he had merely placed a laxative in the porridge and that it was meant as a joke – no harm was meant.

Richard Roose was charged and found guilty of high treason – his penalty was the newly instituted, death by boiling.

A quote about the event from, The Men and Women of the English Reformation by S.H. Burke:

He roared mighty loud says an old chronicle,  and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead;and other men and women did not seem frightened by the boiling alive, but would prefer to see the headsman at his work.

What a horrific way to die.

It seems plausible that sometimes, when a person has a horrific death that their ghost/spirit may stay behind and haunt a person or a place. This seems true when it came to Queen Katheryn Howard.

Katheryn Howard’s Ghost

Katheryn Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII was executed by the axe at the Tower of London. Her story is either seen as tragic or reckless. You can decide.

When, in 1541, Katheryn Howard’s secrets came to light the King immediately took action and asked for an investigation. You see, for those who do not know, Katheryn Howard was the first cousin of Anne Boleyn. Henry’s second wife whom he had executed for adultery (among other ridiculous charges). The fact that there were rumors about Katheryn’s promiscuity did not bode well for the Howard clan, or for Katheryn.

When Katheryn Howard was arrested she was unaware of what was happening. She was confined to her rooms at Hampton Court, she was cut off from contact, there was no music, no dancing and I can only imagine fear and panic. One can imagine the young queen sitting in her rooms – mind wandering. Terror of what it could all mean for her. She was aware of her cousin’s fall and execution about half a decade previously.

With all that intense energy and emotions is it any wonder that it is now believed that Katheryn Howard haunts the gallery at Hampton Court Palace.

When Katheryn was arrested it is said that she escaped from the guards and ran toward the door of the Chapel Royal, where she believed Henry to be at prayer. Katheryn screamed for Henry’s mercy, to no avail. Henry was not even there.

Today, the story goes that Katheryn’s ghost can still be seen running in the gallery at Hampton Court Palace. Visitors of the palace have reported having strange sensations in that part of the building as well.

Kateryn Parr

The sixth wife of King Henry VIII, Kateryn Parr is also known to haunt a couple of castles in London.

Parr died of childbed fever in 1548 at Sudeley Castle and is still seen roaming the ground wearing green and appears to be searching for something. Some believe she is looking for her daughter Mary. The child she had with Thomas Seymour before her death.

There is another account by a servant at Sudeley, a Margaret Parker, who said she saw a tall, beautiful woman in a long green dress looking out a window. Margaret Parker believed the woman was Kateryn Parr.

Kateryn Parr also makes an appearance at her former abode with Lord Latimer, of Snape Castle. At Snape, Kateryn evidently appears as a young girl with fair, long hair who wears a blue, Tudor-style dress. This one seems a bit strange to me to be Kateryn Parr – why would

While Kateryn Parr’s death was not by execution it was tragic, nonetheless. Kateryn was about to have it all. She married her great love and they were to have a family. It was all taken away when she died of puerperal fever in September 1548. The following spring her husband was executed by beheading.

If there is one thing Thomas Seymour could be grateful for is that he wasn’t Hanged, drawn and quartered. This may be the most disgusting and inhumane execution method. It’s clearly overkill to send a message to the subjects of His Majesty.

Hanged, drawn and quartered

To receive a sentence such as: hanged, drawn and quartered the person most likely would have had to cause high treason, or a similar type crime.

On execution day, the prisoner was dragged behind a cart from their jail or prison to where the execution was to take place. Once there, the prisoner was hanged until near death and then cut down. Their sex organs were cut off and the stomach was sliced open. They’re inerts were removed and burned before them. Finally the head was removed and the body cut into four quarters. The victim’s head and quarters were parboiled to prevent them from rotting quickly and were then displayed at the city gates as a warning to others.

If you were killed by execution there were plenty of other ways to die in Tudor England, like by plague or the dreaded sweating sickness. Next I’ll discuss the two and how truly awful they were.

My friend Susan Abernethy at TheFreelanceHistoryWriter.com wrote this about the Sweating Sickness:

Outbreaks of the sweating sickness in England in 1485, 1502, 1507, 1528 and 1551. A sufferer of the disease in the beginning would experience a sense of apprehension followed by violent cold shivers, then giddiness, headache and pains in the neck, shoulders and limbs along with great exhaustion. Then the hot and sweating stage began.

There was good reason to be scared of sweating sickness. It came on without any warning and did not seem preventable. People would feel a sudden sense of dread, then be overtaken with headache, neck pains, weakness and a cold sweat that covered the entire body. Fever, heart palpitations and dehydration followed. Within three to 18 hours, 30 to 50 percent of people afflicted with the illness were dead. – https://www.history.com/news/the-mysterious-epidemic-that-terrified-henry-viii

The final stage was complete exhaustion and collapse or sometimes an irresistible urge to sleep. There was no immunity if one survived an attack and some experienced several attacks before succumbing. If one could survive the first twenty four hours, they usually lived.

The disease did not discriminate. The historical records say Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales and son of King Henry VII of England, may have died of the disease, leaving Catherine of Aragon a widow. The best friend of King Henry VIII, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk had two young sons, Charles and Henry who died within hours of each other in the 1551 outbreak. Even Mary Boleyn sister and King Henry VIII’s great love Anne Boleyn suffered from the disease in the 1528 outbreak but managed to survive.

The attacks would last just hours before a person died. The cause of the disease was never found and never appeared again in England after it was last seen in 1578.

Probably equally as terrifying was the black death, and while it wasn’t around during the Tudor period it is still a frightening reminder of how our health can change in an instant.

Europeans were introduced to The Black Death, or ‘The Great Pestilence’ (by sea) in 1347 when twelve trade ships docked at a Sicilian port. Most on board were dead and those who were alive were gravely ill they would soon die as well. On board were men covered with black boils that oozed blood and pus, it was eventually given the name, ‘Black Death’.

The Black Death knew no status, when a person became infected with this plague they would die within a few days. It would begin with a persistent fever, followed by blisters and boils on the legs, arm and neck that would weaken the victim due to the immense pain, so much pain they became fatigued and bedridden. The boils would grow and increase in size until they were the size of an egg, oozing and seeping infectious fluids. Within days they would be dead. Very few people actually survived the plague.

The Black Death terrified people so much that they often abandoned family members and loved ones to save themselves from becoming infected.

Many died unseen. So they remained in their beds until they stank. And the neighbors, if there were any, having smelled the stench, placed them in a shroud and sent them for burial. The house remained open and yet there was no one daring enough to touch anything because it seemed that things remained poisoned and that whoever used them picked up the illness. – Marchione di Coppo Stefani, The Florentine Chronicle

An interesting side note:

  • Many scholars believe the nursery rhyme, ‘Ring Around the Rosy’ was written about the Black Death (See video below)
  • King Edward III was the ruling monarch during the outbreak his daughter, Joan of England died from the plague on 1 July 1348.

Lyrics to Ring Around the Rosy:

Ring around the rosy

A pocketful of posies

Ashes, Ashes

We all fall down

So now we’ve come to the last topic of this post…the history of Halloween! Did the term Halloween begin with the Tudor dynasty?

History of Halloween

Over 2,000 years ago the Celts celebrated summer’s end, or Samhain/SAHwin on the 1st of November which marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. The night before Samhain, people believed the dead returned as ghosts. By leaving food and wine on their doorstep they would keep the ghosts away – they also dressed in disguise to blend in with the ghosts who walked among them.

The Christian Church turned Samhain into All Saints Day and in the 8th century All Saints Day became known as All Hallows. That was when October 31st became All Hallow’s Eve.

If you are wondering what exactly a “hallow” is –  according to Google it is a saint or holy person.

During the reign of Queen Mary I of England in 1556, the term All Hallow’s Eve was reportedly used, however, it was used in the setting of the church and not as a celebration as we know it today.

Author Nancy Bilyeau (Bilyeo) wrote an article on October 27, 2011 for the website English Historical Fiction Authors website and said the following (no source listed):

The first recorded use of the word  Halloween was in mid-16th century England. It is a shortened version of All-Hallows-Even (evening), the night before All Hallows Day, another name for the Christian feast that honors saints on the first of November. -Nancy Bilyeau, The Truth about Halloween and Tudor England

There was a similar statement on Halloween-History.org that states: Halloween is said to have started as early as 16th Century.

So now that I’ve covered the basics let;s discuss something that is a bit more familiar to us in the modern-day. Dressing up and trick-or-treating.

I remember as a kid, my mom used to make our costumes. As a poor farm family my parents did not have the money to purchase costumes for my three siblings and I. It didn’t bother me because I got to dress in disguise for the day and spent hours trick-or-treating at night.

So did the children in the Tudor period dress up and trick-or-treat like we do now?

In the Tudor period people would dress in costume and accept food, wine, money and other items in exchange for singing, citing poetry or telling jokes. It was called guising and it originated in medieval England.

That makes for a completely different kind of night. I’m just imagining someone coming up to my house, ringing the bell and reciting me poetry. I’m not so sure I would give them any food, wine or money, but I might need some wine afterward.

While I often wish that I could go back and time and experience life at Tudor court, if just for a day, it only takes a few stories about life in 16th century England to quickly change my mind.







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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Very interesting especially the diseases. It seems that even today there are diseases that no one can cure. Medicine hasn’t come too far as long as new diseases creep up. I loved the ghost stories. During the Tudor period many lived in fear so I can see that energy still surviving but I hope I never see one.

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