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The Ghosts of Pevensey Castle

by Elizabeth Wright

Pevensey CastleIt is dusk. The walls of Pevensey Castle stand in silhouette against a darkening sky. In the gloom something flutters overhead. Is it an owl, a bat, or something more sinister? A fox calls in the distance and there's a flurry of panicking rabbits scampering away in the long, damp grass. From a narrow, iron-barred recess in one of the round towers, where archers used to stand and fire their arrows at invading enemies, a noisy family of crows add to the eerie atmosphere, their strangled, guttural calls of "Caw, caw" echoing off the walls. A fine mist starts to coil up out of the moat and cloak the surrounding meadowland.

Pevensey Castle, managed by English Heritage, is on the south coast of England, some fifty miles from London. Its outer ring of stocky walls, twelve feet thick and thirty feet high, cover a site of ten acres, and were built by the Romans in 340 AD. The inner moated castle dates from 1088, when it was owned by Count Robert of Mortain. It was a gift from his half brother, William the Conqueror, who invaded Britain from France, took over the abandoned fort on the 28th September 1066 and defeated King Harold and his Saxon army at the famous Battle of Hastings on October 14th 1066.

Over the centuries this area has had its share of battles, massacres, invasions, rape, pillage and murders. Smuggling too, was rife here. At night, sailing ships from France would creep stealthily into these south coast waters carrying contraband, cigars, brandy and spirits, avoiding payment of customs duty. From all this, ghostly tales have evolved over the years, many no doubt, cultivated by the smugglers themselves to cover up their night-time activities with spirits of another kind. But the castle and the adjacent historic villages of Westham and Pevensey can produce a hard core of numerous, well substantiated ghost sightings.

One of the most famous ghosts of the castle is that of "The Lady in White." She has appeared a number of times in the surrounding meadowland. On a warm summer's evening a few years ago, a group of twelve campers were putting up their tents in the protective valley of an adjacent field. One of them, stopping for a break, stood looking at the castle. He saw, in the next meadow, what he thought was an old lady dressed in a long white raincoat that came down to her ankles. He suddenly noticed that she wasn't walking, but gliding. He called to his friends and they all watched her float up the slope towards the castle, passing right through a wooden fence on the way. They gave chase and as they got within a few yards, she drifted into a clump of bushes and disappeared from sight. They surrounded the small copse and had a thorough look through the foliage, but found no sign of anyone. A camper was reported to have said, "We packed up as quickly as possible and left in a hurry."

Pevensey Castle A "grey or pale Lady " is reputed to haunt the inside of the castle. She has been seen pacing up and down one of the parapets. There has been much speculation as to whom she might be. Some say it is the ghost of Lady Joan Pelham, whose husband took over the castle in 1394. He was called away with his troops to help fight a battle in the north and Lady Joan, a lady of strong character, was left at Pevensey in charge of the castle. With most of the soldiers gone, the virtually unprotected castle was besieged by an invading army demanding its surrender in the name of King Richard II. Trapped inside, Lady Helen did not know whether she would survive or if she would see her husband again. In a letter smuggled out to him she wrote, "I am laid here in a manner of siege... that I may not out nor no victuals get me." She held on, pacing the parapet every day until he returned. But she suffered such mental trauma under the pressure that it is believed her troubled spirit still walks the battlements. Others insist it is the ghost of Queen Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV, stepmother to Henry V and mother of nine children. Falsely charged with witchcraft by one Friar Randolph, she was put in the custody of Sir John Pelham at Pevensey Castle in 1419. She was let out several years later when Henry V reprieved her from his deathbed, apparently feeling remorse for the ill-treatment of his step-mother.

Recent paranormal investigations have revealed that the dungeon and the North Tower have sinister atmospheres and a number of floating orbs have been seen there.

A ghost of a more recent era put in appearances at the same time of 6am, three days in a row, according to an eyewitness. Before going off to work one of Westham's residents used to walk his dog in the castle grounds. Out as usual, he saw someone dressed in black on the far side of the meadow. But he gave it no thought, believing it to be somebody else also exercising their dog. He saw the same figure the next day, and on the third day it was much closer, but did not appear to be in any way unusual. Picking up a stick for his dog to fetch, he tossed it into the air. The strong wind caught it and it landed right behind the stranger. The eager dog dashed to collect his toy, and to his owner's astonishment the animal could clearly be seen passing through the body of the man in black. Scared, the dog's owner left the scene in a hurry and although he plucked up courage to come back at 6 am the next day, he never saw the dark stranger again.

Other sightings have been of a Roman centurion marching on the castle battlements, and the ghost of a drummer boy who, local say, is still beating out the alarm of a Saxon attack. A black monk drifts across a nearby valley. But he must be of more recent origin, as much of the land in that area around the castle was covered by the sea until it retreated a few hundred years ago. A number of people have reported that they have heard the sounds of marching soldiers and the screams and moans of dying men drifting across to the castle from the site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

St. Mary's Church Pevensey

At the nearby parish of Westham, the church of St. Mary the Virgin is nearly as old as the castle. A few years ago the Vicar was working late at this church. Most of the lights were off, bar one, and all the doors were locked. At around midnight, he was disturbed by violent hammering on the heavy oak doors, causing them to visibly shake. He ran to see what was causing the disturbance, but as he put his hand on the lock to open the doors, the noise ceased. On looking out, there was no one in sight, and nowhere near where they could have hidden. There has been much speculation that this is the ghost of a smuggler still checking to see if the Excise men were at a church service. It appears that, being God-fearing men, Customs officers would regularly attend the same church service every week. Once they were settled inside, the contraband was quickly moved around the area. Eventually, getting wise to this and to catch the smugglers out, the Excise men began to attend the services at different times, so the church had to be checked out before the booty was moved.

"The grey man of Westham churchyard," dressed in a grey jacket, grey trousers and carrying a walking stick, has been seen by quite a few people. He only appears in the afternoon, walking up and down the path between the church door and the gate. His appearances have been recent, but no one knows who he is. With the latest sighting, a visitor held open the churchyard gate to let through what he thought was a "dapper little gentleman," and he cheerfully said "Good afternoon" to the passing figure, it dissolved into nothing before his eyes.

The striking black and white Elizabethan house next to the church can boast its own ghost. Two centuries ago a young girl was murdered here. During the 1970's the family living there used to see a child dressed in Victorian costume walk across the landing and through a wall at the end. She appeared at exactly 11 pm every evening. Eventually the distressed family were forced to have the place exorcised and the ghost went.

Priory Court Pevensey Another house in the village, Priory Court, has two spirits. One is a ghostly soldier who stands outside an upstairs room and slowly fades away. The second is of a young boy who runs out from a wall and stands by the side of a bed.

Built in Victorian times, a house called The Gables, was once owned by a Major Vidler. His wife went mad and he kept her locked up in the attic until she died. The next owners used to hear the sounds of furniture being moved around at the top of the house and when they yelled out "Stop it," the noises ceased. Some later occupants let out that part of the building to a family with a young daughter. One day the child said, quite casually, "Your house is haunted. There's a lady who walks around the rooms. But she is not a normal ghost, she doesn't come through the walls, she comes out of my wardrobe." On investigation, a bricked-up doorway was found in the wall behind the wardrobe.

Both Banks Lodge House and The Smugglers Pub have poltergeists, naughty spirits, which are never seen, but make their presence known by heavy footsteps on floorboards and flicking light switches on and off. Banks Lodge had a stable block until about one hundred years ago and occasionally the sound of horses hooves can still be heard there.

One of the bloodiest ghost tales in this area must be about the Murders at the Mint House. It was built in 1342, on the site of the original Pevensey Mint, right opposite the castle. One occupant was Thomas Dight, who, in 1586, came to Sussex, accompanied by his mistress, for a hunting holiday. When he unexpectedly returned from a day out he found his mistress in bed with another man. He commanded his servants to tie up the pair. From the kitchen he got a sharp knife and cut out his mistress's tongue, leaving her to bleed to death. The man was tied in chains and suspended from the roof beams over an open fire. He slowly roasted to death, watched by the dying woman. One room in the Mint House is called the "Haunted Chamber," in which her spirit still appears to haunt. Once, when the house was empty, someone stayed there for a dare. He heard scratching noises on the diamond-shaped window and saw a young woman dressed in Elizabethan manner with close fitting bodice, a very full long skirt, a small ruff round her neck and a head dress of starched lace, looking in. The ghost then drifted through the wall into the room right up to the man's coach, before turning around and disappearing through the window. Her pale face has been spotted gazing out of a window above the entrance to the Mint House many times and each year hopeful tourists come in their thousands to try and catch a glimpse of this famous ghost.

Back at the castle there is an eerie stillness as the inky black darkness wraps itself around the building. A large and luminous moon glides out from behind a cloud and there is movement on one of the battlements, a flash of white. Was that an owl hunting for its supper or something more sinister...?

Pevensey Castle

Getting There

Regular trains run from London (Victoria station) to Pevensey and Westham stations. The castle is about ten minutes walk from either station. There are ghost walks every Saturday evening at 7.30pm throughout the year, meeting in the car park adjacent to the castle. Nearest main road is the A259. Buses from Eastbourne.

The castle is open from April 1 - September 30 from 10 am - 6 pm, from October 1-31 from 10 am - 4 pm, and from November 1 - March 31 Saturdays and Sundays only from 10 am - 4 pm. Closed December 24-26 and January 1. Facilities include audio tour, exhibition, shop, toilets, restaurant and tea rooms.

TimeTravel-Britain.com is deeply grateful to Robert Slater, host of the Pevensey Castle Ghost Walks, for permitting us to reprint some of his ghost tales in this article. To hear more ghostly stories, be sure to join Slater for a guided tour of Pevensey Castle's spooky past. Ghost walks are held on Saturdays, beginning at 7:30 p.m., and last about 90 minutes; the cost is from 3-5. Meet Slater in the car park or contact him at Slaterjas@aol.com.

Related Articles:

Pevensey Castle: One of Britain's Oldest Fortresses, by Dawn Copeman

More Information:

English Heritage

Pevensey Castle

Article and Priory Court photo © 2006 by Elizabeth Wright
Pevensey Castle and church photos © 2007 Patrick D. Allen


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