The Power of Folklore: The ‘Ghosts’ of Berry Pomeroy Castle

Welcome to another of our Superstition Saturday in-house articles. This piece was originally written under the title Ruins and Ghosts: How a Work of Gothic Fiction Created the Most Haunted Site in Britain for Superstition Sam’s undergraduate degree. Hope you enjoy it!

Berry Pomeroy Castle is an early 15th century property located in Gatcombe Valley (near the town of Totnes, in South Devon), originally built during a turbulent time that preceded the rise of the Tudors called “War of the Roses”. Later in 1548, after Thomas Pomeroy II fell into debt, this seat of the Pomeroy family was sold off and acquired by the Seymour dynasty: the distinguished family from which Jane Seymour descended – Queen of England between 1536-37 and infamously married to King Henry VIII after the decapitation of Anne Boleyn. But, like the Pomeroys, the Seymours fate was to eventually fall into financial difficulties as well (around the passing of Sir Edward Seymour V in 1688), leaving inheritors with no option but to abandon the remote estate to the passage of time and the fate of the elements. With such a highbrow connection to historical figures, it is no wonder then that the site has become the stage of numerous folklore and ghost stories, with little to no claims to academic accuracy. So, how did the process of turning an otherwise ordinary posh countryside property into the ‘most haunted site in Britain’ begin?

Portrait of a white lady with her hands clasped in front of her stomach, wearing a lavish red velvet dress, jewellry (including rings and necklaces) and a black and gold gable hood.
Portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger (1536-37), via Wikimedia.

In this essay, I argue that this folkloric ‘makeover’ might have been set in motion through the publication of The Castle of Berry Pomeroy – an 1806 book by an obscure writer by the name of Edward Montague. Described as a “wild Gothic extravaganza of dynastic power politics, corrupt monks [and] restless ghosts” (Writing Britain’s Ruins, 2017), The Castle of Berry Pomeroy seems to have also been a shameless imitation of a more popular novel: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764).

Chronologically, the first figure that appears to have speculated upon the true history of Berry Pomeroy Castle was actually the Reverend John Prince: an enthusiast of Devonshire history who declared in his 1701 catalogue of Worthies of Devon that Berry Pomeroy was “now demolished and all this Glory lieth in the Dust, buried in its own Ruines”. Though the Reverend never openly alluded that the castle was ‘haunted’, he appears to have been the first guilty party to mislead the many generations that have succeeded him, especially after remarking that “several gentlemen held their land from St Margaret’s Tower”. Such a statement is said to have been referencing papers and charters “given at St Margaret’s Tower” – one of the few remaining structures at Berry Pomeroy – but, according to local historian Deryck Seymour “none such have so far appeared.”

Photo of a stone tower with no roof, a bricked-up window on the upper floor, a barred window on the middle floor, and defensive window slots in the lower floors.
Photo of St Margaret’s Tower by Richard Croft via Geograph – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Such a bold assumption suggests that the Reverend may have relied on his own religious interests to ‘fill in the gaps’ about the history of the castle, not unlike early folklorists – namely, through the legend of St Margaret of Antioch who is said to have been locked in a tower dungeon and tortured (A Most Haunting Castle, 2012). The influential Reverend’s shady word-of-mouth might have then led to the custom of locals referring to one of the castle’s turrets as St Margaret’s Tower, and the designation remained until today – likely cemented through the influence of Edward Montague’s work and Victorian Gothic tourism, as we shall discuss briefly. But first, let’s look at Montague’s inspiration: The Castle of Otranto.

Several sources, such as The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute, indicate that “the starting point of Gothic literature is usually given as The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole” – although the writer might have been influenced by previous “foundations [that] were laid by […] Daniel Defoe’s ghost story A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs Veal (1706)” (Romanticism, 2005). Further antecedents can arguably also have been “evident in much earlier work, especially the plays of […] William Shakespeare”, who might have been one of the first artists to allude to ghosts as harbingers of doom, for instance in Hamlet or Macbeth.

Curiously, Walpole had intended The Castle of Otranto to be “a parasite, an artificial commodity, produced half in joke in reaction to the current style, or in relief from it”, but “his contemporaries tended to miss the comedy, and instead pick[ed] up on the fear and sentiment.” In the event, subsequent Gothic texts, i.e. Radcliffe’s The Castle of Udolpho, began to use in earnest the tropes of ruined castles, especially to symbolize “a place of great strength, but now, like the proud ancient possessors, almost forgotten”. It was the rise of an element in Literature which, according to Gothic Studies Professor David Punter, was interpreted as “a sign of antiquity, of a life which preceded our own but appears never to have gone away, and as such it refers as much to a condition of the unconscious as to a historical moment […] of our own childhood.” Just like the generations who had witnessed the crumbling of Berry Pomeroy’s walls since 1688.

Thus, the Gothic became fairly formulaic, frequently portraying the following character archetypes to the point of exhaustion: a monk or religious figure; a corrupted usurper; a chivalrous knight; and finally, a ‘damsel in distress’ or a “heroine imprisoned within the home” (The Gothic, 2004). It is no surprise then that these elements were also the staple of The Castle of Berry Pomeroy – particularly the ‘damsel in distress’, symbolical of “a subversive [literary] genre which expressed women’s fears and fantasies, their protests against the conditions of patriarchy” (ibid, 2004).

Book cover of The Castle of Berry Pomeroy by Edward Montague. The included illustration depicts the ruins of a structure atop a wooded valley and stream.
The Castle of Berry Pomeroy by Edward Montague (Valancourt Books, 2014).

Now, for the story proper. The Castle of Berry Pomeroy, originally published by Minerva Press in 1806, details the tried-and tested venture of a knight, whose name is De Clifford, and who becomes enamoured to the heiress of an influential seat – the Berry Pomeroy Castle, of course. Said heiress is in “distress” due to the jealousy of her sister Elinor de Pomeroy, who covets the possession of the property for herself, thus enlisting the help of the villainous Father Bertrand to assist her in (predictably) murdering her sibling. However (SPOILER ALERT), in the conclusion of the novel the act is revealed to have never occurred, despite Elinor’s criminal exposure and subsequent trauma that causes her to believe that the ghost of her sister is haunting her and roaming the property. In effect, it is discovered that said sister had been locked in a tower all throughout – though her name was not Margaret, as the folklore story of St Margaret told us, but Matilda. Here, you will probably say that the resulting ghost legend makes no sense other than a similar initial – unless, you see it as a clue that Montague might have been producing a rushed and almost verbatim copy of The Castle of Otranto, as we shall see shortly.

In effect, in The Castle of Otranto the ‘damsel-in-distress’ is named none other than Matilda. After its publication in 1764, its popularity led to a re-edition in 1798 – and by then, Montague was watching, since his own creation saw the light of day shortly after. To be sure, the similarities between both works do not stop with Matilda. There is also Walpole’s religious character with evil aspirations Friar Jerome, portrayed in Montague’s Father Bertrand; the villainous and deceitful Manfred, by virtue of Lady Elinor de Pomeroy; and finally, chivalrous Theodore and Sir Thomas De Clifford – names which again, have an assonance between them. Of course, such a suggestion could be clearly dismissed as coincidence, but the harder you look, the stranger it gets. There are numerous other characters in Montague’s work with similar names to Walpole’s, such as Hugh Fitz-Morris, Hugh de Pomeroy, Hugh Trevanion; not to mention additional names beginning with H–, such as Henry Fitz-Auburne and (cherry on top) the baffling Henry De Clifford – one and the same with Thomas De Clifford. Indeed! In Montague’s work, the hero changes names halfway through the story.

To corroborate this theory, the foreword to the 2014 edition of The Castle of Berry Pomeroy by Valancourt Books indicates that the novel “bears signs of having been written hastily”, as well as under a pseudonym “drawn from the annals of English history”, suggesting that whoever this ‘Montague’ was, he may have wished to hide his identity to prevent the likelihood of accusations of plagiarism. For all its imperfections, The Castle of Berry Pomeroy appears to be a textbook example of Gothic literature – revealing a ruin which echoes with the “dreadful groans of the blood-stained”, a hyperbole considerably akin to the characteristic melodrama of this literary period. Furthermore, it features the typical heroine Lady Matilda, of the “sweet dumpling cheeks, the abode of the blushing rose”; as well as the “unportioned, neglected” usurper Lady Elinor with “dark eyes”, “acquiline nose” (author’s spelling), so very close in charisma to the “impatient” and “enraged” Manfred of Otranto – who, like Elinor, is also confronted by the ghost of a family member that reminds him of a “foul deed”. In the case of Montague’s Lady Elinor, the ghost is that of her supposedly dead sister, who she believes to see for the first time “wrapped in a large garment, glid[ing] slowly through the trees and disappear[ing] amongst the umbrageous shade”. Such a terrifying sight is received with a “fear-struck heart” and a very alliterative description: “tremble, thou murderess! […] consign it to everlasting torments”. Even poor Henry (or Thomas, or… Henry) believes himself to glimpse the ghost of his missing lover Matilda at times. Alas! The revelation that Matilda is not a ghost finally comes through in the climax, when the narrator divulges that Matilda had never perished, but had instead been locked in a vault “under the lofty towers of Berry Pomeroy Castle” – bearing the ultimate connection with the legend of St Margaret of Antioch.

Painting of a lady, sitting and playing the piano in a darkened parlour room. She appears see-through and shiny, and in the background there is a surprised gentleman looking at her.
Spirite by George Roux (1885) via Wikimedia.

In terms of real family history though, “there is no record of a Lady Margaret sister to a Lady Elinor” (Gothic Tourism, 2016) anywhere in the genealogy of the Pomeroy and Seymour family. Several scholars have suggested that the reason for this linkage between Matilda and Margaret’s narratives may have been in fact perpetuated by the commissioners of Montague’s book on purpose. To prove this theory, in 1892 The Castle of Berry Pomeroy was “resurrected in a ‘Second Edition’” (Valancourt Books foreword), printed at nearby Totnes by “T. & A. Mortimer” – who, curiously, also happened to be the publishers of a Victorian Gothic tourism guidebook called Berry Pomeroy Castle: An Historical and Descriptive Sketch. This so-called ‘guidebook’ conspicuously alluded to the fictional adventure of Matilda and Henry/Thomas as ‘fact’ – and, according to Emma McEvoy, author of Gothic Tourism, “there is a distinct possibility that ‘Edward Montague’ was actually ‘Edward Mortimer’” from good ol’ Totnes.

Effectively, it would appear that the Mortimer publishing team was dying to take advantage of the popularity of the adjoining resorts of Torquay and Paignton, by appealing to tourists with expectations of contemplating a “medieval ruin […] ‘almost unparalleled’ […] whereupon the imagination was filled with ‘sieges, chains, torture, and death’” (Maton, 1797), whilst conveniently omitting the fact that, historically, the Pomeroys and Seymours “lived normal lives which in no way reflected the extravagantly gloomy legends” (Seymour, 1982). The result was that, with this successful publicity stunt, the Mortimers managed to attract not just fervorous Gothic tourists, but also a wave of writers and artists, such as painter J.M.W. Turner, and novelist and folklorist Anna Eliza Bray, author of Henry Pomeroy or the Eve of St John (1841), set in a 12th century version of the castle – a work in itself that was also guilty of initiating yet another surviving ghost ‘fact’ about the Castle known as The Pomeroy’s Leap.

Illustration of Berry Pomeroy Castle, in a secluded wooded valley and stream.
Berry Pomeroy Castle by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1816) via Tate.

The tendency to imagine ghosts at Berry Pomeroy Castle was not surprising given the Victorians’ penchant for Spiritualism and seances, as well as the predilection of literature enthusiasts for “revealed secrets, avenged wrongs, re-enacted ancient tragedies, […] proffered help and comfort to the living, or bore witness to the workings of divine providence” (Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, 2003). Moreover, “where the Gothic tale of terror had been indulgently heroic and ostentatiously fictitious, the Victorian ghost story was typically domestic in tone and inclined to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction” (ibid, 2003) – and by the end of the 19th century, fact and fiction had indeed become so ‘blurred’ at Berry Pomeroy that even academic sources stated that the castle was haunted, such as the 1927 edition of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, where it was stated that: “the tower has the usual ghost story, and tradition says that Margaret was imprisoned there […] thus recording the fate of some unhappy woman, who thus possessed, in an age of superstition left the name of St Margaret to the tower and the legend of the ghost to the adjoining battlement.”

Further into the 20th century, in 1953, Robert Graves came to describe the castle as “haunted and hag-ridden, a scene of witchery and monstrosity” in the preface of his poem The Devil at Berry Pomeroy, which in addition to “phantoms” also featured “sickly children, witches, and imps”, thus continuing to propagate “the classical concept of the ‘genius loci’”, as supported by McEvoy, with no other aim than to create a “well-organized local tourist economy [that] wanted amusement”. Effectively, the folklore and legends of a ghost ensconced in the last surviving tower of Berry Pomeroy Castle is now so ingrained in the collective psyche that not even English Heritage – who currently manage the site – have shown any desire to refute it, despite some overtly sceptic staff members. Because, although one of the site’s previous guidebooks, written by Charles Kightly, stated clearly that “Berry’s principal spectres, are, however, without foundation” (and we have seen that in this essay), the property’s audio tour continues to include references to the many ghost apparitions that supposedly haunt the site. Evidently, it would be unprofitable to deny the many tourists, ghost hunters and even trespassers who pilgrimage to the site hoping to catch a glimpse of the ‘The White Lady’ – the poor woman who was, once upon a time, locked in St Margaret’s Tower.

In any case, what better example is there of the needlessness of folklore legends to be academically verifiable when their point has always been to simply be entertaining? Folklore isn’t necessarily History – nor does it have to be. It’s the lore of folk. It evolves and changes and stretches as far as the generations who passed it on and where they travelled to, and it is as unreliable as the human mind. Its purpose isn’t to be written down in stone – but explored, maleable, like telling a story. To find out who told it, who changed it, and why: that’s the power of Folklore!

Photo of a crumbled three-floor high structure, with no inner walls remaining.
Photo of Berry Pomeroy Castle’s Seymour house by John Proctor via Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo of a gate entrance, sided by two high towers about four floors in height.
Photo of the Berry Pomeroy Castle entrance by Chris Gunns via Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 2.0.


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