Lady In Green

The Lady in Green was the first story I wrote, outside of school. It sprawled across eight pages of a red Silverline exercise book. I was nine years old. It was inspired by a local legend, only part-heard.

The Lady in Green, it was said, haunted the tower whose upper reaches were tantalisngly visible at the heart of a deep woodland at the edge of our village. It was a local dare to spend the night there. Aged nine, I was too young to do that. But that summer, with a group of friends, and in the heat of the day, I had braved my first visit there.

Access wasn’t easy. Two routes, each with its own danger. Not to mention that the woodland and all in it were private property.

The first and most direct route was along the busy Norwich-to-Lynn road, with no pedestrian walkway. Then over a rickety gate, ignoring the signs to keep out. Along an overgrown carriage-drive through a dark spooky woods where game-birds would suddenly break cover with much flapping and quarking. I remember, even now, the wildflowers there. Such profusion, and species not found elsewhere in the village, not even in the public-access woods. Though there, too, were the ubiquitous Victorian rhododendrons. Dark shrubs of summer, those.

The second route was more open – once we were through the hazel-coppice that hadn’t been worked for years. In spring it was thickly carpeted with primroses. The thicket gave way to a field, dusty with wheat or barley, an ancient beech huge in the middle, home of a raucus roost of rooks. We’d keep to the edge, following the rolling banks of brambles, the balckberries ripening just before we were due back to school. We tried to be quiet for on the far side of those brambles was Frankie and Rosie’s land. We thought them gypsies, I’m not sure if they were. He dealt in scrap metal, had a couple of ponies, and an unknown quantity of vicious and threatening Alsatians (German Shepherd-dogs). The field ended against the privately-owned dark spooky woods. Such was our fear of that place that we’d rather climb over a barbed-wire fence, round a corner at rapid pace, climb another wire-fence, while hoping that Frankie hadn’t caught wind of us. He was reputed to shoot trespassers and we didn’t know whether that wedge of pasture was his.

By either route we’d arrive at the ruins. It was not only the tower (130 ft) that was held to be haunted but a nearby ivy-clad shell of a building, complete with cupola-topped bell-turret. We thought it the Green Lady’s chapel. That tower and bower were all that remained of what was originally an Elizabethan hall.

We friends weren’t true village children. Our families hadn’t lived there through their generations. We didn’t even live in the village-proper, but on a post-war housing development. Hence we didn’t know the full story of the Lady in Green.

As I remember hearing it, the hall had been requisitioned by the War Office during WWI. Then in 1918 society had so changed that the upkeep of the hall was prohibitive and the owner decided to sell. He had other property in Staffordshire. The estate consisted mostly of arable land which was split into lots and bought by farmers. Not so for the hall.

It could have been bought and converted to a private school, as was the old hall in a neighbouring village. Or it could have been used as a hotel or a hospital-cum-nursing home. But, perhaps failing to find a buyer, the decision was taken. It would be demolished.

Years later I found a book on the hall, by a local historian. From that I learnt the truth. Though this photo taken from Wikipedia fails to convey its full splendour, I have seen other photos and drawings that make it seem like some mock-gothic version of Mont St Michel. For by the 19th century the hall resembled a pile of later accretions all clustered around the Elizabethan core, which was mainly the tower. All those chimneys and pinnacles. Yet here it looks quite small.

File:Costessey Hall.jpg

I’ve tried to discover how many rooms, but all I have found are these few dimensions:

  • drawing-room 43’ x 26’ x 22’ high
  • long gallery 109’ x 18’ x 18’ high
  • kitchen 33’ x 24’ x 22’ high.

Most of the rooms were carved-oak panelled. The ceilings, too, ornate with carved-oak ribs and gilded bosses. And everywhere, even on chair-backs, was the family’s coat of arms. The hall even had its own Gothic styled chapel based upon St George’s Chapel at King’s College, Cambridge.

Apparently the contents were already put to auction before the War Office used it, 1914-1918. So, as a child I had muddled that part of the story, thinking the decision had been part of the changing social values. The demolition began in 1920 but it was a slow process. Yet by the beginning of WWII most of the old hall had disappeared. Left were the tower and what we kids had thought was the Lady’s chapel but was in fact the ‘Belfry block’ which had abutted the kitchen. The tower being no longer in safe condition, explosives were used. But without success. And it was from that that the legend was born.

A ghost dwelt there of the Lady in Green, a guardian spirit who would haunt unto death any who dared to pull down her tower. (It was eventually to fall of its own accord in a storm.)

~ ~ ~

At nine years old when I wrote my Gothicky tale, I was thinking of green as in leaves, as in trees – as in the spirit of the woodland. It was that same spirit that served as inspiration for the story of Neve. Hence, initially, Neve’s home-village was to be that same one of my own childhood days. And were she never to return there I could have  kept it so.

Yet the old hall as it now stands – or does not! – would not serve my story. And hence the need of Dowsingham.

Yet Dowsingham isn’t entirely a writer’s fiction. I came upon the name on an old map of the village, on the outskirts where today is only a scatter of bungalows fringing some small-holdings. Alas, in three decades the Internet is much changed and I can no longer find that map, the site is gone.

Aged nine, I didn’t know that green was worn as a badge of Catholicism. Nor that from the reign of Good Queen Bess (Elizabeth I) until as late as late the 18th century it was not good for one’s health to be a known Catholic in England. Yet the family who built that Elizabethan hall, who later added the gothic turrets, who eventually sold it to be demolished, were unwavering Catholics. They had a secret chapel that converted to a bedroom. That stubborn, haunted, tower contained a genuine priest’s hole. When Catholics were again allowed to breathe and to build, the first thing this family did was to build that Gothic-styled chapel. They founded the Catholic school in the village. They founded the Catholic church of St Walstan and St Mary.

Who were they? The Jerningham family of Costessey Hall (aka Cossey). A truly amazing family.

All around England, everyone claims Queen Elizabeth I stayed the night at their hall. But she really did stay with the Jerninghams – on the night of 20th August 1578. Perhaps she was hoping to catch the Catholics at their forbidden Mass.

Sir Henry Jerningham had supported the Catholic Princess Mary in the face of the Protestants’ proclamation of Lady Jane Grey. Mary was Henry VIII’s eldest child, while Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen, was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister. Sir Henry had played a vital role in bringing her to the throne. She had been crowned in nearby Norwich.

According to local historian E. G. Gage, Queen Mary then appointed Sir Henry Jerningham her Vice-Chamberlain, her Captain of the Guard, her Master of the Horse and Household, one of her Privy Council, Keeper of her Royal Palace at Eltham in Kent as well as Lieutenant of Kent. As I was to discover, the appointments weren’t made in quite that order.

Despite the difference of religion Sir Henry remained loyal to the throne. So, while no doubt in 1558, when Protestant Queen Elizabeth came to power, he and his family quaked in their boots, he and they retained their heads and court positions. Many of their closest friends did not.

When I first read the Jerningham story, stretching from Hasting, 1066 and all that, to the last lord, the secret, but not illegitimate, grandson of King George IV, I was so caught by it that I had to learn more.

The results of that research are posted on Crimsons History. Check it out the first post, Foundations 1: The Family there.

About crispina kemp

Spinner of Asaric and Mythic tales
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16 Responses to Lady In Green

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    Now that I’m actually catching up, nice to see the connection laid out. It looks like an impressive mansion in the photograph. I’m a bit reminded of the bed & breakfast I stayed in on Skye years ago, which looked nothing like this, but was similarly an old house with many accretions, in its case a Georgian core with primarily Victorian additions. Sad to say, according to the owners, the Victorian parts were built much less sturdily than the Georgian original.


    • crimsonprose says:

      This house looked more impressive outside than in. The family ran out of money before it was complete and had to cobble together enough bedrooms to accommodate a royal visit. The grooms etc had to lodge in the village.


      • Brian Bixby says:

        I see, the English equivalent to a Potemkin village!


      • crimsonprose says:

        Something of a Hollywood backlot, I think. I wish I could scan the photos from the book but they’re old photos, badly reproduced. They just come out black. But they really went to town with e.g. the long gallery. Then the last lord was touched by the ‘Royal George’ madness. Some colourful tales in the village when I was a child.


    • crimsonprose says:

      By the way, the Gerningham series concludes this Saturday with “Captain Gernegan”.


      • Brian Bixby says:

        Good. I’ll be going through the history next, then Neve, then FF. As near as I can tell, I’ve got about two months’ worth of reading to catch up on.


      • crimsonprose says:

        I’ll be interested in your comments on the last post. Won’t spoil it by saying why. Though I have to say, I don’t think I’ll be doing one like that again. It was the endless links to endless sites. But I am pleased with the results. But gosh, has it really been that long?


      • Brian Bixby says:

        Perhaps I overstated just a bit; I know the last posting I read on FF1 was March 28. Sigh.


      • crimsonprose says:

        I know that you read the first three in the Jerningham series. And you’ve given an occasional ‘like’ as well. But I had noticed your absence of late – I mean absence from this blog, not from your own. I assumed you were reading but felt not need to comment. As I said, glad to have you back. Even at 1:00 a. 🙂


  2. Brian Bixby says:

    Incidentally, while I didn’t run into any maps referring to Dowsingham, a quick look on the web turned up some 19th century references to said place, since they mention it’s in Norfolk. Nothing useful on the tow itself, though.


    • crimsonprose says:

      You would like a map of Dowsingham? If I’m able to produce it in time, I shall post one at the relevant time in the story. Too early would reveal too much. But, Dowsingham the real place, I’m surprised you found on the Web, although that is where I found it. It was a hamlet marked on a very old map – and I can no longer find that map on the Web. It was situated between Costessey and Taverham and has since has disappeared into gravel works which themselves are flooded, now acting as a reservoir – I used to go fishing there with my brother when 10 or 11 or so. There are a few smallholdings along the Costessey-Taverham road which might just pass for the remains of the hamlet.


  3. Brian Bixby says:

    While looking for the henge from your latest post’s comments, ran across this, which gives another view of Costessey’s Hall:
    I presume you’ve already seen it, but I had to include the link because of the photo.


    • crimsonprose says:

      I’d not seen it, so thank you. It’s actually the best photo I’ve seen of Costessey Hall. The aerial view disentangles the otherwise jumble of towers and turrets. So can see the chapel in the background. When I was a kid only the gatehouse tower remained. I learned much of Victorian/Edwardian life at the hall from an old lady in the village. Her stories . . . enough to make a young girl blush. The last lord there was a bit of a rake.


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