Angry Monks and Bloody Weapons

Into nearly every novel about Lady Jane Grey must fall this scene: Jane and her parents, Henry and Frances Grey, Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, are strolling around their home at Sheen when a hand, wielding a bloody axe or sword, suddenly pops out of the wall, giving the family the fright of their lives and underscoring the author’s message that only bad things can be expected from Jane’s recent marriage to Guildford Dudley. As it’s Halloween week, there’s no better time to examine this story.

Sketch of Sheen Priory by Anton van den Wyngaerde, minus the bloody axe.
Sketch of Sheen Priory by Anton van den Wyngaerde, minus the bloody axe.

In nonfiction, the most recent incarnation of the story I can find is in Alison Weir’s The Children of Henry VIII, where Weir writes that while Jane and her parents were at Sheen, “a former monk, embittered at having been turned out of the foundation by Henry VIII, did his best to frighten them away. One day, when the Duke and Duchess were walking in the gallery, a bloody hand brandishing a dripping axe thrust itself out of an aperture in the wall. No sources record what happened to the monk who perpetrated this hoax.”

Weir cites no source for the story, but it appears to come from Hester Chapman’s Lady Jane Grey. Citing Agnes Strickland as her source (more on that later), Chapman writes:

Soon after the wedding Lady Jane and the Suffolks moved to Sheen, a palace on the river once belonging to Somerset, which before that had been a monastery. Some of the original occupants, no doubt incensed by the treatment they had received, were still hanging about the grounds; and eventually, hoping to drive out the Suffolk, they staged a threatening and bodeful apparition in one of the galleries. They waited till the Duke and Duchess were walking there; then, from an opening in the wall, a red hand appeared, brandishing a bloodstained axe.

It is unlikely that the Suffolks accepted this crude demonstration as it was meant. In their world, a bloody axe was too familiar an object to be regarded as either a symbol or a warning.

Leaving aside the unlikelihood that even the Suffolks, cold and unfeeling as they are depicted by Chapman, wouldn’t be nonplussed by a disembodied hand coming out of the wall, we move to the next version of the story, given to us by Richard Davey in The Nine Days’ Queen:

It was supposed to be haunted—the place was often disturbed after dark by the sound of footsteps, the rustle of ghostly garments, and the mutter of unearthly voices; but the most ghastly incident of all was one which struck sudden terror into the hearts of the Duke and Duchess as they paced the gallery in the gloaming. All at once a skeleton hand and arm thrust itself from the wall, and brandished in their faces a sword, or, as some said, an axe, dripping with blood. It should be remembered that the Lady Frances was now in possession of nearly all the Carthusian property in and about London, which had been granted by Henry VIII to her father, Charles Brandon, and which she had lately inherited from her stepbrothers; and this spectre may have been contrived by some friend of the exiled Brotherhood to impress on the Duchess and her brood the sacrilegious origin of this wealth, which certainly did not bring them good luck.

And finally, we have Agnes Strickland, writing in Lives of the Tudor and Stuart Princesses:

[Lady Jane Grey]’s father then held possession of the Carthusian building of (East) Sheen, once belonging to the Protector Somerset—a haunted place, as report went—where he and his proud duchess were once most thoroughly terrified, when walking together in the gallery there, at a time when they were at the pinnacle of prosperity, ruling England. Suddenly, out of the wall issued a hand, bestained with red, brandishing a bloody sword, or, as some say, an axe, in their faces. As both the duke and duchess saw this apparition, and were well-nigh terrified to death, it was, in all human probability, an ocular deception contrived by some one interested in the ejected Carthusian occupants.

So where did Agnes Strickland derive this story? She gives no source, and I have not been able to trace it past her. It seems most probable that Strickland was repeating a colorful legend that came to her ears.

But there is one feature in the story that up until now, I believe, has gone unremarked. Which duke and duchess saw the apparition–Lady Jane Grey’s parents or their predecessors at Sheen, Edward and Anne Seymour, the Duke and Duchess of Somerset? The antecedent of “he and his proud duchess” in Strickland’s account is not clear, but the reference to the couple being “at the pinnacle of prosperity, ruling England” suggests that Somerset, Edward VI’s Protector from 1547 to 1549, and his wife were the strolling couple in question. Henry Grey, a political lightweight, could hardly be described as “ruling England” at any time in his career. As for the “proud duchess,” while this could refer to Frances Grey, niece of Henry VIII,  it is far more likely here to be a reference to Anne, Duchess of Somerset, for in this book, Strickland repeatedly couples the duchess’s name with the epithet of “proud”:

“Newdigate, the husband of the proud Duchess of Somerset . . .”

” . . . the proud old duchess to goad Cecil with her solicitations for Hertford and Katharine . . .”

“Anne Stanhope, the proud Duchess of Somerset . . .”

By contrast, Strickland doesn’t bestow a single “proud” upon Frances when referring to her by name.  Furthermore, given the fact that Henry VIII bestowed the former Carthusian priory of Sheen on Edward Seymour back in the 1540’s, it seems rather unlikely that its former occupants would still be playing ghostly tricks in 1553.

Thus, it appears that all of these years, writers misreading Strickland’s admittedly murky prose have been erroneously depicting the hapless Duke and Duchess of Suffolk as being scared out of their wits by a protruding hand, when in fact it was the Duke and Duchess of Somerset who were spooked by the ghastly apparition. Perhaps in future iterations of the story, the Somersets will be restored to their rightful place in the annals of ghost-spotters.

5 thoughts on “Angry Monks and Bloody Weapons”

  1. I grew up reading Agnes Strickland in the reference library on Saturday afternoons :).

    Btw am really enjoying The Woodevilles!

  2. Guess it all comes down to close reading a text…
    I think you are right to point at the Duke and Duchess of Somerset as the happy couple to be confronted with the hand.
    Funny, how each writer makes the hand into something slightly different. Bloody, red, skeleton, and bestained with red.
    I wonder, would the story still be told around the area?

  3. Great post. I wonder how the legend originally developed — sometimes, there is a grain of truth at the bottom of the stories.


  4. There is an early seventeenth century source that refers to the proud Duchess, or similar abuse, and since it has been associated with Frances I checked it – to discover it referred to Anne Somerset. Annoyingly have since forgotten the source. If anyone recalls which one it is/might be, please let me know…!

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