A Night at Scotney Castle

James Lloyd visits Scotney Castle, which lies on the border between Kent and Sussex, between Protestantism and Catholicism and between this life and the next.

As the darkness draws in and the gloomy night obscures the sacred day, we enter the season of remembrance. The Feast of All Saints, the commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot and Remembrance Sunday all cluster in the first half of November. These festivals are unrelated to one another but no doubt folklorists of the future will insist that their accumulation cannot be a coincidence and will write learned tomes on the twenty-first-century devotees of the Festival of Death.

As it happens, there may be a connection between the first two observances. The Feast of All Saints, though retained by the Protestant regime, was much pruned of its ceremony and the old custom of saying prayers for the dead in purgatory was cancelled. The purpose of the Gunpowder Plot was to install a government friendly to the Roman Catholic religion, which would have seen (among many other changes) the restoration of purgatory and the prayers for the dead.

Although the festival of Hallowe’en owes the majority of its modern form to the old Irish observance of Samhain (and therefore has no business being celebrated, if “celebrated” is the word, in England), it may possess just a tincture of old Catholicism. It was believed that the souls in purgatory might become angry if their relatives on earth did not pray them through into the afterlife proper, so many a confused Englishman in the sixteenth century must have worried that the ghosts of his ancestors might make an appearance to remind him of his filial duty. The eve of All Saints was the typical night for such a visitation.

It is difficult for us today to remember just how seriously this fear was treated and even at the end of the sixteenth century, when a generation had grown up born into Protestantism, there were still those who yearned for the return of the old faith. It was a band of extremists of that persuasion who were responsible for keeping Britain’s firework manufacturers in business for centuries but others practised their resistance more passively, though no less subversively.

All over England, in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James, there were families, often landed and wealthy, who secretly continued to harbour the old religion and who used their resources to keep its flame burning. The home of one such family was in Scotney Castle, in the County of Kent by modern reckoning but anciently part of Sussex. Little remains of the castle now, just the central house and one stone tower overlooking the moat.

Nonetheless, the castle is an ancient foundation. It takes its name from Walter de Scotney, who possessed the manor in the reign of Henry III. Walter was the seneschal of Richard de Clare, seventh Earl of Gloucester, who was a fellow critic with Simon de Montfort of the abuses of King Henry’s government. In 1258, Gloucester was one of the barons who forced Henry to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, which went further in curtailing royal power than Magna Carta had.

Shortly afterwards, he and his brother survived an attempted poisoning. The King’s uncle, William de Vallance, Earl of Pembroke, was accused but it was Walter de Scotney, supposedly his co-conspirator, who was convicted, dragged through the streets of Winchester and hanged. It is reputed that the disembodied whispers and footsteps occasionally heard in the castle today belong to Walter.

That is pretty unlikely, for at least two reasons. One is obvious and the other is that Scotney Castle as we now recognize it did not exist in Walter’s time. It was built by Roger Ashburnham in the middle of the fourteenth century, to whose family the Scotneys had sold the manor. From the Ashburnhams it passed to Henry Chicheley, Archbishop of Canterbury, who bequeathed it to his niece, who had married into the Darell family of Yorkshire. A branch of the Darells settled in the castle and they held it during the turbulent times of the Reformation, in which they were on the losing side.

The Darells were recusants, who refused to conform to the Protestant church. They involved themselves in the network of landed families who sheltered Catholic priests, whose very presence in England brought sentence of death upon themselves and upon anyone harbouring them. One such priest was Richard Blount, who was sent down from Oxford for his Catholicism. Having trained in Rome and Spain, he was sent back to England in 1591 disguised as a sailor and was lodged with the Darells at Scotney Castle. During his stay with the family, he became a Jesuit, the most hated and feared of all the agents of Rome.

To this day, the visitor to Scotney Castle can see the priest hole, in which Blount was forced to hide for several days at Christmas 1598, when the house was searched by the authorities. Fearing discovery, Blount emerged from the hole by night and dived into the moat. Despite the freezing cold, he swam across and escaped. With his Scotney cover now blown, Blount re-located to London but this time he had friends in very high places indeed: his old Oxford chum George Abbot had become Archbishop of Canterbury and he made sure Blount went undetected. Blount would remain active in the Catholic community in England until his (natural) death in 1638.

Nonetheless, it is said that another ghost inhabits Scotney Castle, a ghost who emerges from the water on the far side of the moat and then disappears into the night. Given the history, one would assume that this was Blount, re-living his daring escape but there is another story to go with this apparition, of inferior historicity but much stranger.

The last Darell to own the castle was Arthur, who was unmarried and had no heir. According to local legend, he was involved in smuggling, which was rife along the southern coast at the time and enjoyed the connivance of many respectable families. Authoritative information on Arthur Darell is hard to find but the story goes that, having been caught by a revenue man, he threw the unfortunate into the moat and let him drown. In order to escape the rap for it, Darell faked his death but had the cheek to attend his own funeral, before vanishing to the continent.

It sounds like a romantic story and Edward Hasted, who wrote a parish-by-parish history of Kent at the end of the eighteenth century, records merely that Darell died in 1720. Yet when his coffin was exhumed in the nearby churchyard in 1924, it was found to contain only stones and so the theory grew up that the ghost from the moat is the revenue man, looking for revenge against his killer.

For so modest and obscure a castle, Scotney has had a surprisingly eventful history and a respectable motley of ghosts to go with it. It is fitting, in the season of the Gunpowder Plot, that one of the themes of that history and those hauntings should be recusancy. In next week’s blog, we shall visit another recusant bastion in Kent, one with a direct connection to the plotters and, of course, the obligatory ghost.

Photo credit: Scotney Castle (Chris Heaton) / CC BY-SA 2.0