Hampton Court Palace has a tremendous reputation for being haunted. In fact, it is often considered to be one of the most haunted buildings in the United Kingdom. From the former wives of King Henry VIII to a ghostly figure caught opening a door on CCTV, this 16th century marvel of architecture has produced reports of the paranormal for centuries.
The ghost of Catherine Howard
Probably the most well-known of all the palace’s ghost stories is the one concerning Henry VIII’s fifth wife, his “rose without a thorn”, Catherine Howard.
Found guilty of adultery, Catherine was arrested and stripped of her titles in November 1541. It is said that when Catherine was arrested at Hampton Court Palace, she broke free from the guards and ran to the doors of the Chapel Royal, where she believed Henry was at prayer. Hoping a personal appeal to her husband would change her fate, she screamed to the king for mercy. Ultimately, Catherine was executed at the Tower of London on 13th February, 1542.
Throughout the next 470 years, visitors to the palace have reported seeing the ghost of Catherine Howard in that part of the building, eternally seeking out her husband so as to plead for her life. These anecdotal stories were so well-known that by 1918, when Hampton Court Palace opened to the public, the space associated with Catherine’s story was already dubbed the “Haunted Gallery”.
Since then, with the arrival of over half a million visitors each year1, reports of paranormal occurrences in that part of palace have only increased.
In addition to witnessing apparitions, visitors have reported feeling chills and strange sensations when they pass along the corridor. Bizarrely, in 1999, during separate tours of the palace, two female guests fainted on the very same spot in the Haunted Gallery within half an hour of each other. 2
Paranormal investigations at Hampton Court Palace
With the new millennium came a surge in the number of reports of Catherine Howard being sighted and felt in the Haunted Gallery. Determined to understand more about these alleged paranormal occurrences, the palace invited Richard Wiseman, a professor of Psychology known for his critical examination of anomalous phenomena, to conduct an investigation. 3
The experiment took place between 27th May and 4th June 2000. 4
During the investigation, a century’s worth of witness testimonies were used to plot out a map of the phenomena reported in the Haunted Gallery.
Wiseman and his team concluded that suggestion played a large part in people’s experiences at the palace: those who admitted a belief in ghosts were far more likely to experience something strange. However, according to questionnaire data submitted by members of the public, non-believers also reported strange sensations, including “unusual emotional feelings” and the “sense of presence” within the Haunted Gallery. 5
A possible relationship between locations reported as being supernaturally active and local magnetic fields was also identified. 6
So, is Hampton Court Palace’s haunted reputation due to the effects of magnetic interference? Even the sceptically minded Richard Wiseman concedes that more work is needed in order to clarify the strength of such an argument. Indeed, several experiments have shown that magnetic fields have absolutely no effect on spiritual experiences. 7With that said, is there some truth in the ghost stories of Hampton Court Palace?
Hampton Court Palace staff ghost stories
During a visit to Hampton Court Palace, I spoke with Ronald, a senior warder at the palace and self-professed sceptic.
When asked if he has ever seen a ghost, he replied in the negative. However, he did stress that he – and several other members of staff – have experienced many things which he cannot explain.
It had gone 6pm, and Hampton Court was now closed to the public. On that evening the palace was hosting an evening function. Ronald and his colleagues – now the only people in the building – were preparing and waiting for the event to begin.
Chatting together in the Queen’s Gallery, they – at first – paid little attention to the sound of a door opening. They were somewhat surprised, but quickly dismissed it and continued talking amongst themselves. Then they heard the sound of footsteps. Ronald described how several adult and reasonably minded people, himself included, ran from the Queen’s Gallery screaming.
When they had calmed down, they returned to the room to check if anyone was there. There was not.
The spooky incident in the Queen’s Gallery was not the only strange experience Ronald can report as having happened on his watch.
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He described how, on another occasion, two American ladies who were visiting the Young Henry exhibition had to be removed and calmed down by members of staff. They were found screaming and shaking with fear, claiming to have seen an apparition. Chillingly, both women described the figure in the same way: headless and dressed in a dark robe.
The most common, mysterious occurrence at the palace, however, is claimed to be the rather irritating habit of doors locking and unlocking seemingly of their own volition. In particular is the door at the end of the Cartoon Gallery, which leads to an area out of bounds to the public. One time, a member of the security team radioed Ronald asking him to unlock the door. He told of how he had been puzzled by this, believing the door to be unlocked already – as it should have been. However, the security staff assured him it was not. So, Ronald went to investigate and found it locked. After that, this same thing happened multiple times.
Several doors in that same area have been reported to have had similar problems. Another warder remarked how one or two years ago there was an incident whereby a door would not unlock at all. Every key was tried, even ones which had not been used for many years. Eventually the lock had to be physically dismantled and removed from the door in order to open it.
Intrigued to find out more about the mysterious happenings at Hampton Court, I spoke with another senior warder in another part of the building – the Cartoon Gallery, which housed the door with the tricky lock.
In contrast to Ronald, he believes, without a doubt, that Hampton Court Palace is haunted.
From his experience, women are more likely than men to experience something supernatural at the palace. He recalled how a woman described being pushed in the head by unseen hands. Another female visitor refused to enter the Cumberland Art Gallery, for fear of the evil presence she said she felt in there.
The Cartoon Gallery
Talking about the Cartoon Gallery, the warder explained how, in 1986, a fire had ripped through the apartments above the gallery, causing the roof and floor to cave in. At the time, the apartments (known as the Grace and Favour quarters) were occupied by elderly widows and diplomats. Tragically, 86-year-old Lady Daphne Gale succumbed to the flames.
Despite the efforts of around 125 firefighters8, the fire devastated that part of the palace. According to the warder, it took two years to dry out the wood in the room alone (after having been doused in the water which eventually stopped the flames).
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Several years passed and the renovation was reaching completion. Although the warder was not present when the following event occurred, the story is well-known by members of staff at the palace. An electrician was on site to replace a faulty fuse box. As he worked, he saw an old woman looking down at him from the top of a staircase. At the time, he thought nothing of it. However, later, at the reopening ceremony, when a photograph of Lady Gale was displayed, the electrician realised that she had been the woman watching him from the top of the staircase that day. Nothing would convince him otherwise.
The tragic and relatively recent events witnessed by the Cartoon Gallery have had a lasting impact, it would seem.
The Queen’s Staircase
Another area which the warder reported as being known for paranormal encounters is the Queen’s Staircase.
It was during one of the evening ghost tours operated by the palace in the winter season. As he customarily did, the warder rested his hand on the banister as he described the history of the Queen’s Staircase to the group. Afterwards, a member of the tour group confided in him that they had seen another hand right behind his on the banister.
On another occasion at the staircase, a lady who professed to being a medium claimed to have witnessed a white, cloudy figure on the stairs behind him.
Some say that the spirit associated with the Queen’s Staircase is Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII.
These are but just a handful of the ghost stories of Hampton Court Palace, such is the extent of its haunted reputation. Ultimately, the only way for one to truly judge the validity of such paranormal claims is to visit the palace for oneself.
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