The Skeleton at Sulgrave Manor

Sulgrave Manor as it appears today.

Sulgrave Manor as it appears today.

Since yesterday was President’s Day, it seems appropriate to trot out a skeleton in George Washington’s ancestral closet. This story, which does have a few problems with its credibility, not the least of which is the youth of the witnesses, comes from Sulgrave Manor, where George Washington’s great-great-grandfather the Rev. Lawrence Washington was born. Lawrence’s son, John, his prospects dashed by the Royalist’s defeat, emigrated to Virginia, where he was befriended by the immensely rich landowner Nathaniel Pope, marrying Pope’s daughter Ann in 1658. John begat Lawrence, Lawrence begat Augustine, and Augustine begat George. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

BONES CHAINED

Found by Ohio Woman as Girl 50 Years Ago.

SECRET KEPT LONG TIME

Lived in Ancestral Home of First President.

Cleveland, Feb. 22. There was a skeleton in the history of the family of George Washington.

It was a chained skeleton and was found by a little girl—now a middle-aged woman who lives in Cleveland.

She has kept the skeleton’s secret for 50 years.

The woman is Mrs. Ann Lynn who lived for two years in Sulgrave Manor, ancestral home of Washington, in the hills of Northamptonshire, England.A half century ago Mrs. Lynn’s father was sent to the district on government business. Rooms were scarce. Finally he was assigned to the manor. His family was given quarters in the very rooms that had housed the ancestors of America’s first president.

A Rose-Filled Garden.

It was the home bought by Lawrence Washington in 1539, and the home the Washingtons occupied in the days of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves.

As Mrs. Lynn recalls it, the home was an L-shaped building, its stucco work weather-beaten and covered with ivy.There was a stone wall that enclosed the house and a rose-filled garden with an ancient sun dial.Over the doorway was the crumbling shield that bore the arms of the Washington family. Over the window were the Tudor royal arms, with the lilies of France and lions of England At one of the large hall was a huge old-fashioned fireplace. A great oak table filled the center of the room and a big clock ticked on a shelf at one side.

Feared Gloomy Attic

There were many rooms, small stairways and narrow halls. A gloomy attic into which the children feared to wander fired their imagination.

Now and then terrific storms shook the surrounding country, and one of these still is strong in the memory of Mrs. Lynn.

“I was downstairs with my brother, Harry, then 13,” she said. “We heard a crash in a part of the house we never had entered.

“I was afraid, but Harry started to investigate, so I trailed along with him. I was only 5 then, but many times he has described what we saw.

“Our curiosity carried us up into the attic. There we found the storm had knocked down successive layers of plastering, so that part of the wall lay on the floor.

Chains on Skeleton

“Then we both screamed.

“A skeleton, with chains still clinging to the bones, had fallen forward and was lying amid the plaster.

“We stopped running when we again reached the first floor.”

Mrs. Lynn said she has never read anything about the skeleton, but since has learned thru English history that at one time it was common in some parts of England to punish evildoers by imprisoning them in walls of houses in the course of construction. They were sealed beneath the plaster and left to die.

Now the British-American Peace Centenary Committee is restoring the historical mansion to its original condition. The low-ceilinged rooms are being brought back to the high-domed halls they were. Three successive fireplaces had to be torn out before workers came to the original fireplace used by the Washington family. A rare Gilbert Hunt portrait of George Washington hangs over it, at the end of the long hall, pictured above. This room is vivid in the memory of Mrs. Lynn, for it was one of the rooms occupied by her family.

Fitting Memorial.

The house and all its grounds were opened formally to the public last June, a permanent peace memorial made possible by the greatness of a son born across the ocean. Down the stream a bit lies the home of Shakespeare at Stratford.

“The surrounding country is beautiful as I remember it,” says Mrs. Lynn. “The mansion makes a fitting memorial of the country of peace between Great Britain and the United States.

Washington never lived in the house, his ancestors moving to America long before the war that made him the first president of the United States.”

Cincinnati [OH] Post 22 February 1922: p. 2  

I’m afraid that Mrs Lynn got her information, not from some reputable English history, but rather in a lurid story of Convent Horrors, where lecherous priests skulked to illicit assignations through secret tunnels and erring nuns were walled up alive. Bodies are sometimes found walled up in British stately homes. During the Reformation, if a priest or other illegal resident of the home died there and could not be properly buried in the Parish graveyard, sometimes the body would be interred within the house, perhaps in a priest-hole. Certainly murder victims might be served the same way. There was also the possibility of an anchorite or anchoress, who deliberately isolated him- or herself in a cell for religious reasons, being buried in situ.  Some ascetics wore chains around their waists as a penance, which might explain the chain, although I’m reaching for explanations here. In any event, chaining  malefactors insides of walls was never a feature of British jurisprudence, although this may have been an amateur, rather than official, effort.

I can find no mention of this skeleton on the Sulgrave Manor website or in histories of the house. Is the skeleton story even remotely plausible or does anyone know any more details? Flesh things out for me, please, at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

For more strange ghostly, historical, and Fortean tales, please see my Ghosts of the Past series here or at Amazon. The most recent title is The Ghost Wore Black. Other titles, which focus on Ohio forteana and ghosts are The Face in the Window and The Headless Horror, both of which are available on Amazon and other online retailers. Five of the Haunted Ohio series and all three of the Ghosts of the Past series are also available in Kindle editions. And join me for daily Fortean links from around the globe on Facebook at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard.