Nestling amid leafy boughs, a short distance from the meandering waters of the River Ribble, Samlesbury Hall stands as a reminder of England’s turbulent religious past. While the hall’s long history tells of religious persecutions, unrequited love, premeditated murder and even decapitation, its recognisable black oak and white quatrefoils thankfully now stand in mute witness to far more peaceable goings-on.
A dwelling of some kind has existed on the current hall’s site since at least the early 1300s, and large sections of the existing house date back to the 1400s when the site was the residence of the Southworth family. The Southworths prospered for many years, winning favour for military service under various kings of England and fighting at such great battles as Agincourt. But their happy days were destined to fall by the wayside when the protestant Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1558. Being staunch Catholics, the Southworths refused to abandon their faith and so began many years of discomfort and hardship. They endeavoured to keep their worship a clandestine affair, with secret Masses taking place in the surrounding woods and the installation of at least three priest holes around the house by the diminutive Nicholas Owen. Owen found a degree of fame as a builder of ingenious priest holes and, despite taking precautions (such as working alone at night), he himself was arrested in early 1606 after four days without food or water spent in one of his own constructions.
Another unfortunate fellow would not be saved by Owen’s cleverly disguised hiding places. In the mid-1500s a priest was followed to the hall by soldiers and discovered secreted in one of the priest holes. He was dragged out and beheaded on the spot. Legend has it that the ill-fated priest’s blood stained the floor of his small room so intensely that nobody was able to wash it away – no matter how hard they scrubbed. As such, the room was bricked up for some 200 years until it was reopened in 1898. Even then, servants refused to remain in the house until the floorboards were replaced.
What's more, to this day the blood stain is said to occasionally reappear.
As grisly as the priest’s end may have been, there is a Samlesbury spectre that enjoys far more infamy – the lady in white. Thought to be Lady Dorothy (or Dorothea) Southworth, her tale is one of romance and tragedy. Lady Dorothy fell in love with a dashing young man from the de Hoghton family. Unfortunately, the de Hoghtons were as strongly Protestant as the Southworths were Catholic and neither house wished a union with the other. Consequently, Dorothy and her young beau were refused permission to marry. Defying their families, the lovers continued to see each other in secret, meeting along the Ribble’s winding banks or amid the shade of nearby woods, and it was there that they concocted a daring plan to elope. They hoped that once they were married their families would be forced to respect their vows and their love for one another. Alas, the naïve arrangement was not to be made good, for their scheme was overheard and the tale relayed back to Samlesbury Hall.
On the night of the planned elopement, Dorothy’s brother waited in ambush for the rendezvous to take place. As soon as young de Hoghton arrived, Dorothy's murderous sibling sprang forth from his hiding place and killed her lover on the spot along with his two retainers. The trio of corpses were hastily buried under the cover of darkness within the grounds of the Hall’s chapel. Dorothy witnessed her lover’s violent death. Legend says that she was inconsolable and had to be sent to a convent overseas where she descended into grief-fuelled madness.
Sources state that three bodies were unearthed in the late 1800s when a "land drain or road works necessitated excavation". Could this have been the luckless trio slain by Dorothy’s ruthless brother?
It seems that Lady Dorothy’s spirit has lingered on at Samlesbury Hall, perhaps tethered to the grounds by her tragic torment. Many witnesses have claimed to have had encounters with a white lady flitting across the estate on clear nights, or floating down one of the hall's many corridors, sobbing for her lost love.
For centuries there have been many reports of the white lady, weeping and wailing, and even walking solemnly through the grounds to meet a “young knight who receives her on his bended knee, and he then accompanies her along the walks. On arriving at a certain spot, most probably the lover's grave, both phantoms stand still and as they seem to utter soft wailings of despair they embrace each other, and then the forms rise slowly from the east and melt away into the clear blue of the surrounding sky.”
Indeed, so often is the white lady encountered that she has garnered widespread infamy. But, perhaps there is a more rational explanation as to the origin of the white lady’s story:
“The Hall contained many items of papistry, which were eventually discovered by the authorities in 1592. So it was about the time Dorothy died that there was, perhaps, a 'need' for a ghost in the Hall and its grounds, to deter prying eyes. It may be then that the ghost story first emerged.”
While this idea does provide an interesting angle on the legend’s origin it doesn’t explain away the myriad sightings of the white lady in the years hence. Indeed, even in our modern age of silicon and cynicism there have been countless reports of motorists meeting (and even picking up) the white lady while travelling down the busy A59 that passes close to the hall.
Alas, while the real truth behind the hauntings and their origins shall undoubtedly remain lost in the shadows of history, Samlesbury Hall remains a beautiful and much-loved medieval property, and it isn’t difficult to see why this Grade I listed building attracts over 50,000 visitors each year.
All photographs allowed by kind permission of Sharon Jones, Hall Director.