A chilling story for our Christmas ghost story series:
GHOST OF DEATH
Heard in the Tower of London Christmas Eve – A Bad Omen
London Cor. New York Journal.
The ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots, which appears in the Tower of London before the death of a crowned head, made itself heard on Christmas Eve.
The fact has been carefully concealed from the Queen because of the extreme grief into which the death of the Dowager Lady Churchill threw her, but it has caused the greatest alarm in court circles.
Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth in the Constable’s tower, and was led from it to execution in the tower quadrangle. Before the death of every King or Queen of England since her day her spirit has been reported as having appeared. An officer of the guard on duty in the Constable’s tower on Christmas Eve heard a long wail from the top of the tower. He stopped to listen and heard it again. Footsteps followed, and a third time the wail rang out over the fog-bound river and the sleeping city. He went to search for a cause but found none.
How severe a shock to the Queen was the death of Lady Churchill may be gathered from the following extract from today’s Court Circular.
“The Queen has sustained another and great loss in the death of the Dowager Lady Churchill, who had been a devoted and intimate friend of the Queen. Her Majesty, while sorely grieved by this sudden loss of one for whom she entertained the warmest affection, has not suffered in health from the great shock.”
Private reports say that Christmas at Osborne was a day of awful depression. The plans for its celebration were canceled, as the Queen’s condition of overpowering grief filled the house with gloom.
The Queen regards it as an evil omen that the last Christmas of the century should bring the angel of death under her own roof. This is the first death in a house with the Queen since that of the Prince Consort.
Lady Churchill was the Queen’s oldest and closest companion. They lived in personal intimacy, spent most of the day together and slept in adjoining rooms. What gave the Queen a particular shock was the knowledge that Lady Churchill died within a few feet of her, separated only by the thickness of a wall. Numerous recent tragedies, such as the deaths of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Christian Victor and several particularly respected old friends, added to this latest, have had a telling effect on the Queen
Superstitious people are prophesying many gloomy events and the ghost of Mary in the tower has caused more than a sensation. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 December 1900: p. 4
This is a curious story, mingling fact and completely falsehood. Mary Queen of Scots was never imprisoned in the Constable’s Tower (which was built in the 19th century on the site of a medieval tower that was used to house prisoners during the reign of Elizabeth I) or anywhere in the Tower complex, and she was certainly not led out of it to her death in the “tower quadrangle.” She was held captive in various manor houses well away from London and was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587.
1900 was indeed an annus horribilis for the Queen. Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and, until 1893, the Duke of Edinburgh, died 30 July 1900. Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein, Queen Victoria’s grandson by her daughter Helena, died 29 October 1900 of typhoid fever in South Africa. The Dowager Lady Churchill was Senior Lady of the Bedchamber and, as the article says, a close friend of Queen Victoria. She was found dead in her bed at Osborne House 24 December 1900, aged 74. Queen Victoria mourned in her diary “It is a horrible year, nothing but sadness & horrors of one kind & another.”
Mary Queen of Scots was a romantic figure to the Victorians and a popular apparition so I suppose it is natural that she was believed to be the wailing ghost. The Habsburgs had their White Lady of the Hohenzollerns, who appeared before Imperial deaths. One wonders if the British Royal family felt that they needed their own royal death apparition even though there was a (probably 19th century) tradition that if the ravens at the Tower of London flew away either England would be conquered by her enemies or a member of the Royal family would die. And a beautiful, beheaded queen is much more appealing than croaking black birds. More likely this is a piece of journalistic folklore. Other, later versions of this piece elaborate on the basic story and add what appear to be quotes from guards at the Tower or describe how the ghost of Mary appeared to Queen Elizabeth I before her death.
Still, despite the historical inaccuracies, a wailing ghost–the banshee–would have been familiar to many readers of this story as an omen of death. And a banshee keening in the dark within the haunted environs of the Tower is a perfect image for a Victorian Christmas ghost story.
However, it must be noted, Queen Victoria died 22 January 1901.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.