How a haunted Norfolk hall inspired Lady Glenconner's ghostly new novel

Holkham Hall, at the heart of the massive estate twice the size of Norwich which is owned by Thomas

Holkham Hall, whose ghost has inspired a mystery novel by a noblewoman who grew up amid its splendour - Credit: Ian Burt

Growing up in a haunted hall has inspired a spine-tingling ghost story which weaves fact and fiction into a web of mystery . 

Lady Anne Glenconner, oldest daughter of Thomas Coke, the Fifth Earl of Leicester and his wife Lady Elizabeth, grew up amid the splendour of Holkham Hall.

But her parents, siblings and servants were not the only inhabitants of the colossal mansion on the north Norfolk coast.

Lady Glenconner will be back at Holkham Hall this Christmas to share insights of her extraordinary l

Lady Glenconner, whose childhood at the haunted Holkham Hall have inspired her new novel, A Haunting at Holkham. - Credit: Hal Shinnie

For centuries before the young Lady Anne marvelled at its marble hall and rolling grounds, a young wife had previously a vey unhappy time within its walls.

Lady Mary Campbell, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, was just 19 when in 1747 she was told she would be married to Edward, Viscount Coke of Holkham.

She had no wish to marry the Norfolk nobleman, who was fond of gambling, cockfighting and women. When she shunned him on their wedding night and refused to consummate their marriage, he locked her in her room.

PROJ 52. NORFOLK ARCHITECTURE. HOLKHAM HALL. HOLKHAM

Lady Anne Glenconner grew up at Holkham Hall - Credit: Lesley Buckley

Lady Mary endured a year of virtual confinement before her family were able to release her. She went on to live a long and happy life, unlike her husband who passed away aged 33, just six years after their wedding after his lifestyle caught up with him. 

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While the merry widow because a high society figure in London, who died at the age of 81 she never forgot the traumas she endured.

Lady Anne said her family began encountering her ghost soon after they moved into the hall in 1948, having previously lived nearby.

One of the first to experience the presence of Lady Mary was her younger sister, Carey. The apparition is nicknamed the White Cat because of her pale complexion, fair hair and fierce eyes. 

"My sister slept in the room which Lady Mary had as her room," she said. "She had terrible nightmares, she said she had been woken up by this lady in old clothes.

Tour of Holkham Hall. The library which is situated in the attics. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The ghost is said to rearrange books in the libraries at Holkham Hall - Credit: Denise Bradley

"I think my father didn't really like people talking about it too much. He didn't want the children to be scared. A lot pf people working at Holkham have seen her or been troubled by her.

"She moves things, she pushes things, he pinches people, A lot of people working at Holkham have complained about that. She moves books too, really quite heavy books. I'm surprised by the number of people who have been troubled by her."

Lady Mary's bedroom was exorcised but her presence stubbornly remains. 

The butler would always lock the state rooms and place the key in a  safe in his parlour before retiring for the night. He once woke to find the safe open, the key missing and every door unlocked and left open.

Mysterious footsteps have been heard in the attic. Doors slam, televisions turn themselves on and books are re-arranged or turned upside-down on their shelves.

A Lord Snowdon wedding photograph of Lady Glenconner in her wedding dress at Holkham Hall with guset

A Lord Snowdon wedding photograph of Lady Glenconner in her wedding dress at Holkham Hall with guests including the Queen Mother - Credit: Lord Snowdon

Lady Anne left Holkham in 1956, when she married  Colin, the late Lord Glenconner. She would go on to become lady in waiting, confidante and friend of the Queen's late sister Princess Margaret from 1971 until her death in 2002.

Now 89, she wrote her first book Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown about her experiences of royal life in 2019.

It was followed by her  first novel, Murder on Mustique drew on some of her experiences of the Caribbean island owned by her late husband, which became a playground for  royalty and rock stars.

Library filer dated 1/10/1977 of Princess Margaret (centre) and friends Colin and Anne Tennant - now

Princess Margaret (centre) and friends Lord and Lady Glenconner - waiting on the jetty on the Caribbean island of Mustique to greet the Queen during her Silver Jubilee tour of the West Indies in October 1977. - Credit: PA

Lady Anne had helped her husband to transform the island after he bought it for £45,000 in 1958. When he died in 2010, he left everything in his will to a former employee, while his wife now lives in a farmhouse in north Norfolk.

Her second novel, a haunting at Holkham, features the ghost of Lady Mary and some of Lady Anne's experiences of growing up on the 25,000-acre estate during the war.

Lady Anne Coke, daughter of the 5th Earl of Leicester, is called home from a business trip when she is called home after a sudden death in the family.

She returns to Holkham Hall to find her beloved grandfather has been found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs with a valuable piece of jewellery in his pocket.

Lady Glenconner will be back at Holkham Hall this Christmas to share insights of her extraordinary l

Lady Glenconner's new novel, a Haunting at Holkham - Credit: Hal Shinnie

No one can find a cause of death, and some even suspect foul play from the ghost of Lady Mary. But Anne's suspicions are aroused, she grew close to her grandfather when they lived together during the Second World War and she is determined to discover the truth.

Lady Anne said Holkham was a very different place during the war, when the government feared the remote and low-lying Norfolk coast offered the Germans ideal beaches for an invasion.

"We couldn't go to the beach because there were mines and barbed wire," she said. "There were London taxis on them for the RAF to practise bombing.

"We had the Home Guard in the temple in the park, the army were in the kitchen and all the outbuildings at Holkham."

 Part of the estate also housed prisoners of war as the tide turned towards the end of the conflict.

Holkham Beach. Photo: Matt Cooper

Holkham Beach, which was out of bounds during the Second World War - Credit: Matt Cooper

"The Italian POWs were lovely," said Lady Glenconner. "They never wanted to run away, they all worked up on the farm or on the garden."

Some captives liked north Norfolk so much that their sisters came to work at Holkham, with some settling down nearby.

"One of them even married the postman up here," added Lady Glenconner. "The Germans were quite different, they were terrifying."

Another war time addition to the estate were searchlights which could scan the skies for enemy aircraft. Lady Anne said they were still in situ when she was 18, in 1950, when a party was thrown at the hall for her.

< co FAO Mark Nichols>The coronation in 1952 with Lady Glenconner as a Maid of Honour assisting w

Lady Glenconner was a Maid of Honour at the Queen's coronation in 1953 - Credit: Archive

Guests included King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who were friends with her parents, and Princess Margaret.

Lady Anne recalls the lights being switched on as the Royal car arrived from nearby Sandringham, beams sweeping skywards as it swept down the drive.

The King was found dead at Sandringham on February 6, 1952. 

"He had been shooting with my father a few days beforehand," said Lady Anne. "He was a great friend of my father's, my family was devastated. Norfolk was devastated. Norfolk people consider the Royal Family theirs."

Lady Anne had also been a childhood friend of the Queen. She was one of the aids of honour who carried the train of her grand gown at her coronation the following year.


A Haunting at Holkham by Anne Glenconner is out published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99. Join Lady Glenconner for an evening at Holkham Hall on Monday, December 27, at 5.30pm.Tickets include a drink and a copy of the book https://www.holkham.co.uk/events/details/in-conversation-with-lady-glenconner

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