Weird Norfolk: Who was the poltergeist that terrorised a Norfolk parsonage?
PUBLISHED: 09:00 30 March 2019
At Norfolk's own Borley Rectory at Syderstone near Fakenham, a Reverend and his family were plagued by a terrifying poltergeist. But just who was the ghost who wreaked havoc on a holy man's house?
When we left Syderstone parsonage last week, the residents in 1833 were struggling to live with their spectral lodger and speculating about why a ghost might have attached itself to a holy man’s house and left its inhabitants and staff terrified out of their wits.
One explanation is linked to an Elizabethan mystery and involves a story of love, lust, betrayal and a queen who was accustomed to getting exactly what she wanted: could the ghost be poor Amy Robsart, whose untimely death led to a scandal which has stretched across centuries?
Amy was the daughter and only child of Sir John Robsart, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and Elizabeth Scott who lived in the 16th century Syderstone Hall. Born on June 7 1532, little is known about her early life but a great deal is known about her death at the tender age of 28, when her life ended when she fell down a flight of stairs.
A renowned beauty, Amy married Robert Dudley on June 4 1550 in the presence of King Edward VI but the couple enjoyed just three years of married bliss before Robert was imprisoned after his father John’s conspiracy to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne failed and he convicted after leading troops in support of the coup.
While he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, Amy visited her husband who was, by all accounts, incredibly handsome and hugely ambitious. Released a year later, he fought with English forces in France and the couple struggled financially until the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558.
He and Elizabeth had been friends since childhood and, close in age, had shared the same tutor – when she was eight, she had told Dudley that she would never marry.
The pair spent many hours in each other’s company while Amy was kept far away from court in case she threatened the special relationship the Queen and her favourite shared – gossip was rife that the pair were in love and as soon as she became queen, Elizabeth appointed Dudley as Master of Horse, a position which ensured he would have to spend even more time with his Royal employer.
By 1559, Elizabeth had moved Dudley’s bedchamber next to her private rooms – scandalous behaviour which spread like wildfire in the courts of England and abroad and the pair did little to quash the rumours by their open, flirtatious behaviour with each other. People began to suspect that the Queen had found her future husband despite her advisors begging her to marry advantageously to a foreign suitor.
Meanwhile, poor Amy was living apart from her husband with friends until she moved to Cumnor Place in Abingdon, the home of her husband’s treasurer, a move which fuelled the rumour mill and led crueller commentators to suggest she was being hidden so that she could be “quietly poisoned”.
On September 8 1560, the Abingdon Fair was in town and Amy persuaded the other ladies of the household to visit and became agitated when some refused: she told them that she planned to play backgammon, but when her friends returned, she was found dead at the bottom of a flight of eight steps with head injuries and a broken neck.
The subsequent rumours that an accident had been staged to make it look as if Amy had fallen to make way for marriage between Elizabeth and Dudley put paid to any hope that the Queen had of making her court favourite her husband – any lingering hope of a wedding had entirely disappeared.
Whether it was accident, suicide or murder is a subject which has perplexed historians for centuries and which became the subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Kenilworth. Some believe she had grown desperate at rumours of her husband’s infidelity and had thrown herself down the stairs, others that she was suffering from cancer and that her bones were so brittle that when she fell, she snapped her spine.
Amy was buried in the chancel of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, her husband was absent from her funeral – but he would see his wife one more time before he died.
Almost immediately, there were reports of ghostly activity at her parent’s home in Syderstone Hall and, before it was demolished in 1810, would appear by the staircase where she met her death at Cumnor Place. Each Christmas, she could be seen walking the grounds at Cunmor where she would stare balefully and accusingly at anyone still living in the hall.
Alfred Barlett, writing in 1850, recalled that Amy’s ghost was so vengeful that people avoided Cunmor Place entirely and it nearly “destroyed the peace of the village” – the ghost had to be exorcised by nine clergymen from Oxford who drowned it in a pond in the adjoining close. The water in the pond never froze again.
Legend has it that Dudley, by then the Earl of Leicester and remarried, saw his first wife one final time following the defeat of the Armada, as he travelled to Buxton to try and take in the healing waters in the Derbyshire town in August 1588. As he travelled through Wychwood Forest, the shape of Amy Robsart loomed in front of him and, with a great laugh, told him he would be dead within a fortnight. He died at his house in Oxfordshire on September 4, 1588
Following the demolition of Cunmor, Amy’s ghost moved back to Syderstone Hall and when that was demolished, moved across to the nearby Rectory, bringing us full circle to the strange goings-on at Syderstone and the haunting of the poor unfortunate Stewart family.
As an aside, Amy’s ghost is said to haunt another Norfolk stately home, too, Rainthorpe Hall near Tasburgh, which was once the home to her half-sister Amy, the daughter of her mother Elizabeth’s first marriage and close to her birth place at Stanfield Hall (infamous in Norfolk for being where a Victorian double murder took place for which James Blomfield Rush was hanged at Norwich Castle on April 21 1849). Amy played at Rainsthorpe as a child, and on a door in the main hall is carved, in old French, “The shade of the great Robsarts still cherishes Raynsthorpe”.
The sound of happy, playful, childish footsteps can be heard at Rainsthorpe, it is said, the foosteps of a child who whose death would cause misery and suspicion and change the very course of history.
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