Lady Anne Glenconner — friend and confidante of Princess Margaret and best-selling author — grew up at Holkham Hall in Norfolk where the family and their staff lived cheek-by-jowl with a very persistent ghost.
Here, on the eve of Halloween, in a spine-tingling account, she explains how the spectral intruder became the star of her latest murder-mystery…
When I look back on my childhood at Holkham — a colossal Palladian mansion on the north Norfolk coast with a huge, imposing Marble Hall at its centre, ornate state rooms and four enormous wings — I have many fond memories.
We played hide-and-seek and rode our ponies and our bicycles around the 3,000 acres of grounds within the walls of the park.
I adored helping my beloved grandfather look after some of the family treasures, including the Codex Leicester, a priceless manuscript written by Leonardo da Vinci himself.
But I also have some darker memories — of my sister Carey waking up screaming night after night, haunted repeatedly by the ghost of a young woman who had suffered terribly when she lived at the Hall.
We first came across the ghost shortly after we moved into the Family Wing in 1948, having previously lived in a nearby house.
Lady Anne Glenconner (pictured) — friend of Princess Margaret — grew up at Holkham Hall in Norfolk where the family and their staff lived with a very persistent ghost
My family consisted of my father, Viscount Coke, who became the 5th Earl of Leicester on the death of my grandfather the following year; my glamorous mother; my sisters Carey, 14, and Sarah, four, and me, then aged 16.
Carey’s bedroom was next to mine so I would regularly hear her scream out in terror. My mother would rush from her own room to comfort her, but Carey was inconsolable, crying and shaking.
This went on for at least a year. At first my mother assumed Carey was simply having nightmares, but my sister explained that she was being woken up by a lady dressed in old-fashioned clothes.
And when she told my parents more details of the lady’s appearance, they realised she was describing Lady Mary Coke, nicknamed ‘The White Cat’ for her fair hair, pale skin and fierce eyes.
Two centuries earlier, Lady Mary had been kept as a virtual prisoner by her husband and his family — in what was now Carey’s bedroom. She was long reputed to haunt the house, but no one had warned my sister.
Carey was badly affected by what she saw, always terrified of going to bed, exhausted and nervous, so she moved into a dressing room to sleep. Then a local clergyman came and exorcised the bedroom.
From then on Carey’s ‘nightmares’ ceased, but Lady Mary continued to haunt other parts of the house — and does so to this day.
The household staff certainly knew about the ghost: they called her ‘Our Virgin Mary’. She was most often spotted weeping, or flitting along a corridor before vanishing.
On occasion, she was given to mischief and would poke or pinch the servants as they made their way around Holkham, especially in the cellars and the passageways that ran under the house.
I knew of the existence of all these secret passageways, but I certainly never went down there alone.
She claims her sister Carey would wake up screaming night after night, haunted by the ghost of a young woman who had suffered terribly when she lived at Holkham Hall (pictured)
Seventy years later, I can vividly recall the dread of encountering this spectral lady, of suddenly feeling a hand on your back or brushing against your cheek when you thought you were alone.
It is these memories that have inspired my latest book, A Haunting At Holkham, a murder-mystery set there during the war and its aftermath. It draws heavily on my own experiences — with a fictional twist or two.
I’m glad to say that, unlike in the book, there were no suspicious deaths at Holkham in real life. But, the more I have learned about Lady Mary’s life at Holkham, the less surprised I am that her restless spirit haunts it still.
She was born Lady Mary Campbell, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, and was just 19 when, in 1747, she was informed that she was to marry Edward, Viscount Coke, heir to the 1st Earl of Leicester and to the splendid Holkham Hall.
She must have been a strong-willed, spirited girl because she made it very plain that she had no wish to marry the viscount: he was dissolute, fond of gambling, cockfighting and women. Lady Mary treated him with disdain, which perhaps he deserved.
But her personal feelings could not stand in the way of a merger between two great families.
Edward, furious at how Mary had behaved during their courtship, abandoned her on their wedding night. In retaliation, she refused to let him consummate the marriage the following night — or ever. This impasse continued month after month, with Mary refusing to emerge from her bedroom.
At first her father-in-law, the Earl, was kindly hoping that she would soften and produce the all-important heir. But he lost patience. Since she refused to leave her bedroom, he had her locked inside it.
MOST HAUNTED COUNTRY HOUSES IN THE UK
Aston Hall, West Midlands
This magnificent 17th-century red-brick mansion was named as the UK’s top haunted site in 2019, according to the Spectrum Paranormal Investigations.
It was first occupied by Sir Thomas Holte, who allegedly murdered his cook by splitting her head in two, and who later locked away his daughter for 16 years until her death.
The ‘grey ghost’ of his daughter still wanders the halls, as well as a lady in a green, high-collared dress who is said to have been Sir Thomas’s elderly housekeeper, Mrs Walker.
Samlesbury Hall, Lancashire
Samlesbury, built in 1325, is renowned for its impressive medieval architecture, but it is also infamous as the haunting ground of the White Lady — thought to be Dorothy Southworth, whose home it was during the 17th century.
When Dorothy, who was Catholic, fell in love with a Protestant neighbour, both of their families were outraged.
Her lover was killed by his own brother as punishment, while Dorothy succumbed to a broken heart.
Ham House, Surrey
THIS grand 17th-century Stuart house was home to the ambitious Duchess Elizabeth Murray.
Rumour has it she murdered her first husband.
Later, ill health forced her to confine herself to a ground-floor apartment.
Staff whisper ‘Good afternoon your ladyship’ before entering.
Newton House, Carmarthenshire
Newton House has been the happy home to the Rhys family for more than 300 years.
But it has a regular spectre in Lady Elinor Cavendish, who was strangled. Visitors reported feeling hands trying to throttle them.
Great Fulford Manor, Devon
Owned by the Fulford family since 1190, the current residents are reality TV stars known for their shows Life Is Toff and The F****** Fulfords.
Man of the house Francis Fulford has twice spotted a girl in a nightdress, while his wife reported being pushed down the stairs.
He replaced her faithful maid with one who spied on Mary and reported back to her in-laws. Mary became paranoid, fearful that the servants would poison her.
When Mary’s family learned that she was being held captive at Holkham, they tried to negotiate a separation. But it was only after a long year that the Cokes allowed her to leave, realising their efforts had failed.
Even then the battles continued, with Edward refusing to divorce her and she, in turn, refusing to be known as Viscountess Coke.
Just six years after their wedding, Edward’s dissolute lifestyle caught up with him and he died, aged only 33. Mary was at last free, and at 26, became a merry widow indeed.
She lived in London, moving in literary circles, becoming lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III — a royal role that I would take on 200 years later for my friend Princess Margaret — and travelling around Europe, writing gossipy journals that were published to acclaim.
She never remarried — although there were rumours of a love affair with the Duke of York — and died in 1811, aged 84. She was buried in the Argyll family vault in Westminster Abbey.
It is true that only a year of her long life was spent at Holkham, but I believe the misery she suffered there was so intense it imprinted itself into the atmosphere and fabric of the house, leading her ghost to haunt it for ever more.
Interestingly, I suffered my own trauma in childhood, at the hands of a malevolent governess my parents hired to look after us while they were away in Egypt during the war.
This governess was all right with Carey, but for some reason she took a sadistic pleasure in tormenting, bullying and humiliating me.
No matter how hard I tried to please her, every night she would punish me by tying my hands to the back of the bed and leave me there all night.
I was terrified of her and although she was eventually sacked — not for her cruelty to me, which I never spoke about, but because she had taken me to Catholic Mass — I was deeply affected by her abuse.
Years later, simply receiving a letter from her made me physically sick. Writing about her in my memoir, Lady In Waiting, and casting her as the villain in my new novel, was very cathartic.
Princess Margaret was keen on ghosts: once, when Carey and I had visited Glamis Castle, the family home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in Scotland, she delighted in telling us stories of the many ghosts said to haunt it, including a tongue-less lady.
But when I suggested we go ghost-hunting in the cellars at Holkham, she made up an excuse not to!
In the 1950s, my mother started up a pottery at Holkham, making hand-painted tea and dinner sets and mugs, which she and Carey designed, and I sold.
Knowing Lady Mary’s propensity for mischief, my mother announced sternly: ‘Lady Mary, you’re not to go into the pottery as you’ll break stuff.’ She left the pottery alone.
I left Holkham Hall when I married Colin, Lord Glenconner, in 1956, but today I still live near by and sometimes visit; the current Earl of Leicester and his family are very welcoming.
And I keep up to date with all the goings-on in the house — including the supernatural ones. Lady Mary, it seems, is still a presence.
The Hall, now open to the public, requires a staff of around 250 people and several of them have encountered its resident ghost.
Lady Mary likes the attic — footsteps are often heard when no one is up there — and the cellar best. Locked doors in the cellar corridors are unlocked, without the key, and slammed.
One servant was walking along the corridor when a locked door opened and hit him. He came upstairs very shaken, with a black eye, insisting: ‘Lady Mary’s done that to me.’
And I have discovered that she definitely targets certain people.
In 2004, an electrician called Lou was working high up a ladder in the Chapel Wing. He looked behind him and saw his drawings for the work hovering in the air beside him, almost as if someone was handing them to him.
As he watched, they floated back to the floor. There were no windows open, no draught, no explanation.
The ghost of Lady Mary Coke (pictured) was called ‘Our Virgin Mary’ by the household staff and was most often spotted weeping, or flitting along a corridor before vanishing
On another occasion, he was using a tower scaffold in the drawing room to work on the chandelier. He left the room to get something. When he returned, two spare struts from the scaffolding had been moved. But nobody had been in there. Or at least no living person.
In 2005, poor old Lou was walking along a corridor connecting the North to the West side of the house when he heard a noise. He saw the door to a cupboard banging, as if someone was slamming it, but there was no one there. As he approached, it stopped.
Two of the house staff, Gary and Mark, once came out of the Strangers’ Wing and walked through the North dining room into the Marble Gallery, Mark behind Gary.
As they did so, Mark felt a hand press down with some force on the crown of his head. He ducked down and swung round to remonstrate with the person, but there was no one there.
Gary had seen nothing either. Later that day the two men were in a basement corridor. They had unlocked one of the doors and gone through it. Then they heard a noise behind them. They turned round sharply to find the door had locked itself.
In 2007, Mark was about to enter the corridor beneath the Family Wing when he felt, but could not see, someone or something coming towards him. He bolted upstairs, hyperventilating in terror.
Another member of staff, Mike, went to open up the house one morning, starting with turning off all the alarms which go off if any of the doors in the house are unlocked. He went to the North dining room to begin the unlocking process, but and was surprised to find the door was already unlocked.
To his amazement, he then found all the doors of main state rooms wide open and the lights on. Yet he had the only key in his hand, and it had been in a locked key box all night. None of the alarms had gone off. There was no explanation.
Often, at night, the TV in Mike’s room would switch itself on. Stranger still, he would wake to find the photograph of his mother on his bedside table turned to face the wall. It was only after Mike’s father came to the room and loudly told the spirit to ‘stop it’ that she left him alone.
Fittingly for a literary type, Lady Mary enjoys moving the books around. This was once captured, accidentally, on camera.
In one photo they are the right way up on the bookshelves, but in the next they have been placed sideways in a bizarre manner. No living person had moved them. This mysterious shifting of books takes place all over the house.
Polly, the Countess of Leicester, who lives at Holkham now, has had two of the rooms exorcised, but I don’t suppose it will stop Lady Mary from haunting the rest of the house.
In some ways, I’m glad she is still there. She connects Holkham’s past to its present.
Tomorrow night, as Halloween events and parties across Britain get under way, I’ll be thinking of Lady Mary — still with a shiver down my spine, but also with respect for a brave woman who turned the tables on her abusive husband, not only outliving him but continuing to haunt his family home for eternity.
In life, she was desperate to escape from it. But in death, it seems, she refuses to leave…
A Haunting At Holkham, by Anne Glenconner, will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 11 at £16.99.
To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid to November 13, 2021, free UK P&P on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937