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.
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.