Weird Norfolk: The Green Lady of Costessey Hall
- Credit: Archant Library
Costessey Hall is one of Norfolk’s great Gothic losses.
With a silhouette like a fairytale castle, filled with turrets crying out for Rapunzel, towering chimneys and crinkly crenellations, the Hall was a victim of war: destroyed not by bombs, but by the British, whose use of it for training during World War One left it uninhabitable and too expensive to repair.
Today just one ivy-clad ruin remains, watching balefully over the 18th fairway on Costessey Park Golf Course, inhabited, legend has it, by the ghost of The Green Lady.
William the Conqueror awarded land in Costessey to French nobleman Alan Rufus, the Earl of Richmond, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
By 1555, Queen Mary Tudor had gifted the manor to Sir Henry Jerningham (then Jernegan) for his support in helping her to the throne two years previously.
The Jerninghams were staunch Catholics and, when Mary’s brother Edward died in 1553 and Lady Jane Grey’s name was put forward as a new Protestant queen, it had been up to Mary and her co-conspirators to defeat Lady Jane from their Norfolk hideout at Kenninghall.
Sir Henry, who had been born in 1509, was one of those who had stepped forward to help Mary Tudor and, after she became queen, she rewarded him by bestowing prestigious titles on him and making him executor of her will.
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Despite removing Sir Henry from his executor duties after Mary’s death in 1558 on grounds of his Catholicism, successor Queen Elizabeth remained on good terms with the Jerningham family, calling in at the Tudor mansion when she visited Norwich in 1578: on August 20 of that year, she spent the night in Old Costessey.
Little did Queen Elizabeth know that above the bed where she slept there was a secret: a hidden chapel where Catholics could worship away from prying eyes.
The chapel, hidden in the attic of the south wing of the hall, was cunningly built so that at very short notice, the altar, pulpit and pews could be instantly transformed to resemble ordinary bedroom furniture.
Visiting Catholic priests were often in disguise and went under various aliases, and under the porch of Sir Henry’s Tudor hall was a small box room, above which was a space small enough to conceal one or two people – a priest hole.
One of Queen Elizabeth’s first Acts involved abolishing the right to take Catholic Mass, the Jerninghams were painfully aware of the penalties involved if the law was broken, her stay must have been a dreadfully nervous time for the family.
Today, Old Costessey remains a haven for Catholics, a place where the old faith refused to give way for the new: in 1834, when the estate chapel proved too small for a growing congregation, the Jerninghams provided land for a church in the middle of the village which joined the Catholic school, built in 1821.
Sir Henry’s Tudor palace remained largely unchanged until the 1830s when it was rebuilt at the order of Lord Stafford Jerningham at the behest of his “commanding and forceful wife”.
Although never entirely finished, the architect delivered a Gothic fantasy.
But despite its new fairytale cloak, the hall was rarely a happy place after its transformation: in 1862, Sir Henry - who had no heir – asked the fabulously-named Masters of Lunacy to declare the next in line, his nephew Sir Augustus Frederick Fitzherbert Stafford Jerningham, to be of unsound mind.
Augustus is thought to have been the legitimate but secret grandson of George IV.
History records the mental health issues suffered by King George III, who secretly married his Catholic mistress Maria Fitzherbert.
George and Maria had a daughter, Maryanna, and it appears that the health problems that dogged her father went on to haunt Maryanna’s son, Augustus.
When Augustus died, his brother Fitzosbert was so terrified that the Masters of Lunacy would come knocking that he refused to leave the estate at any point, believing if he left the park gates, he would never be allowed home.
One of his favourite pastimes was to try to produce commercial diamonds from coal in his personal laboratory at the hall, an experiment which came to an abrupt end when an unscheduled explosion occurred and along with it, minor injuries.
In 1909, Fitzosbert decided to reconstruct the secret worshipping area in the attic to mark the cententary celebrations of the St Augustine Chapel built by Sir William Jerningham in 1809. For his efforts, he received a telegram from the Pope
After Sir Henry died, in 1913, the contents of the Hall were auctioned off and it was taken over by the War Office, who commandeered the building for the training of infantry, cavalry and artillery troops to serve in World War One.
Trashed during training, by the time the war ended, Costessey Hall was in a perilous state and much of it was demolished by 1922.
When the next war loomed, what was left of the hall was once again taken over by the military and a landing strip for observation aircraft was laid: by the 1950s, the largest tower had fallen, by the 1960s, precious little of the building remained.
But parts of the Hall lived on.
When Morningthorpe Manor was bought by Cecil Grosvenor Sargent in 1918, he purchased the fine carved oak panelling stone fireplace, carved by James Linnall, which was removed from Lady Stafford’s boudoir in Costessey Hall.
Other parts of the hall were salvaged and taken elsewhere: Hethersett Hall has a carved stone fireplace and panelling and the stained glass was sold for £17,000, around £600,000 today.
And in the belfry, the Green Lady kept watch over Costessey Park.
Your Weird Norfolk correspondent grew up in Old Costessey and lived in a house built in 1860 by the Gunton brothers whose career began as they learned their trade working on Costessey Hall.
The brothers owned nearby Gunton Brickworks and one went on to live in the house on West End which boasts ornamental bricks, fine mouldings and a fireplace with Lord Stafford’s crest on, thought to be from Costessey Hall itself.
Next door was one of the original workers’ cottages for the Hall where an old couple lived who had met while in service at ‘the big house’, she a maid, he a gardener.
It was the couple who first mentioned the Green Lady to a child obsessed with fairytales, ghost stories and the giddy excitement of a nearby ruin (which at that point boasted a tower) which had all the hallmarks of perfect location for a haunting.
“We all saw her,” said the man, whose chrysanthemums were the talk of the village, “some of the girls wouldn’t go to the part of the house where she was seen, but she never worried me.”
The theory was, apparently, that the Green Lady was an echo from the days when Catholicism was illegal in England and it was High Treason for a Catholic priest to even be on English soil and anyone found to be aiding and abetting a priest would be punished severely – the rumour was that Catholics in Costessey wore green to identify themselves.
Green Lady ghosts are said to be restless female spirits that protect the space they haunt: some say that Costessey Hall’s ghost appears as the ivy that surrounds the ruin, appearing only if she is spotted.
In some tales, Green Lady ghosts are the victims of murder who walk the earth seeking justice, in most they are benevolent forces who look after those who love the places they love too.
Historian Ernest Gage wrote the authoritative guide to Costessey Hall in 1991: Costessey Hall: A Retrospect of the Jernegans, Jeringhams and Stafford Jerninghams of Costessey Hall, Norfolk.
He wrote that the Green Lady haunted the Thornbury Tower, which demolition contractors tried and failed to blast into the past in the 1950s.
“The tradition was that it (the tower) contained the ghost of the Lady in Green and that she would haunt them for the rest of their lives if the tower were fully demolished,” wrote Mr Gage.
The Thornbury Tower began to sink into the ground in the 1960s and a partial collapse in 1966 after a violent storm left it in a dangerous state – by the early 1970s, it had disappeared. Did the Green Lady move to the only remaining section of the Hall, the Belfry block?
Does she guard over this last fragment of a shadow from Old Costessey’s past?
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