The Spirited Ladies of Herstmonceux

There is much yet to be discovered about Colonel Claude Lowther, owner of Herstmonceux Castle from 1911 until his death in 1929, who started the journey to restore the castle from ruin. What is known for certain is that Lowther had a particular flare for the dramatics; this can be seen in his style of dress, his play writing, his purchase of a 15th century castle, and his interest in recounting the paranormal.

One of the greatest mysteries attached to Lowther, one which may never be solved, is the alleged sighting of several ghosts during his castellanship. Two of the ghosts that are very often mentioned and mistaken for one another are the Grey and White Ladies. While there is no way of knowing for certain if these are indeed the same lady (or if they are even real), a castle this old surely must have a few ghosts roaming the grounds.

The only evidence we have of the existence of these ghosts comes from those who are willing to tell of their experiences, real or believed. It is highly important to keep in mind that there can be no 100% accurate account of these tales, even if a person today witnessed one of these ghosts, the parapsychology behind it would reveal many different explanations of actions and motives. The accounts of the apparitions of the Grey Lady and the White Lady tend to overlap; often these stories will be the same with the exception of a few, small details.

A ghost in the cloisters? (Artwork by Carolyn Kane).

The Ladies of Herstmonceux

The Grey Lady is perhaps the most complex of ghosts at Herstmonceux Castle. Every single version of her story is strange mix of different parts, some more likely than others. The Grey Lady is either a young pre-teen girl, or a young woman in her early twenties. Both are believed to be Grace Naylor in different versions, the only daughter of George Naylor and Grace Pelham. Grace’s father, George, bought Herstmonceux Castle in 1708. George was a lawyer and Whig party politician. Grace died at a young age from unknown causes. In many versions of Grace Naylor’s story, her name is changed to Georgiana.

There are three different versions of the Grey/White Lady that were popularized and accounted for by Colonel Lowther himself. For the sanity of the reader, I have separated them.

Lady A: Staircase Grace Naylor (older)

 Lady A is said to haunt the Elizabethan staircase, and many say that Colonel Lowther purchased the staircase because of the Grey Lady ghost being associated with it. It is said that at one of Colonel Lowther’s famous parties in the 1920s, two guests saw the lady appear well into the night, warning them to leave her alone.[1] It is highly suspected that this is the ghost of Grace Naylor. Along with the staircase she is believed to roam the castle corridors at night.  According to urban legend, Grace was locked in a tower and starved to death by an evil governess. Her sobs are said to be heard at night throughout the castle.[2] Grace was the only child of the Naylors, she would have had a very lonely childhood, the isolated location of the castle would have increased the loneliness, she wouldn’t have had the amusement of parties like Lowther’s. It seems most likely that Grace would haunt the castle as a result of her unfinished business with her evil governess.

Lady B: Courtyard Grace Naylor (younger)

The courtyard haunting by Grace Naylor follows a very different story. One night Col Lowther was roaming the estate and upon walking through the Castle’s courtyard believes he sees a gypsy girl begging. She looks young, frail and scared. The Colonel approaches her to ask if she needs help. He then realizes that it is not a gypsy girl at all, but somehow recognizes her as a young Grace Naylor. However, she disappears the moment he gets close.[3]

A ghost in the castle moat? (Artwork by Carolyn Kane).

Lady C: Moat Girl

The other version of the White Lady popularized by Lowther relates to a young pre-teen girl. Most versions of this ghost story date back to the Dacres who owned Herstmonceux castle in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  However, only one version of this tale explicitly states that the White Lady is Grace Naylor.

The moat girl is believed to have been a young girl living in Herstmonceux village. It is said that one of the sons of Sir Roger Fiennes, who built Herstmonceux Castle in 1441, forced himself on the girl. She escaped him by jumping into the moat, however, he managed to catch her again. Fiennes then dragged her back into the castle where he raped and murdered her. [4] The moat girl is believed to be dressed in a glowing white gown, her skin also has an ethereal glow. She wanders silently around the moat’s bridge wringing her shriveled hands. She is sometimes also seen desperately swimming to survive in the moat at night. Colonel Lowther is said to have told a tale to his guests where he saw the girl wondering along the bridge while he was riding his horse, but when he called out to her she jumped into the moat.

A ghost on the terrace? (Artwork by Carolyn Kane).

Final Thoughts

Although each of these tales is markedly different, Lowther is said to have told both versions. Lowther therefore is the connecting factor of both the Grey and White Ladies. Unfortunately, the tales of Herstmonceux’s ghosts recounted here are often ones of violence and trauma. As fascinating as their stories of them are, all that can be hoped for now is that the souls of the women in these unfortunate tales have found rest.

Whether or not these apparitions are ‘real’, they do let the modern observer into the mindset of a person visiting the castle in the 1920s, making them a valuable historical source. Lowther would not only invite his guests to the castle but to an ‘experience’ which was emphasized through the partially ruined 15th century castle he called home, its medieval furnishings, the extravagant clothing he wore, and the ghost stories he told.

While the stories of the ghosts will most likely forever remain a mystery, these tales tell us a great deal about Colonel Lowther. Lowther’s fabrication of a haunted past for the castle is a means of legitimizing himself historically, it suggests that he is worthy enough to have been approached by ghosts and emphasizes the ancient nature of his home, connecting him to ‘old’ money and the history of the landed elite, something which he aspired to.   Lowther came from an illegitimate family line and was not fully accepted as an aristocrat; the castle and its ghosts helped Lowther to establish the legitimacy of his ancestry. After all, ghosts are not found in new buildings.

Carolyn Kane, 1st Year Arts Student and Student Research Representative, Queen’s University Canada.

[1]‘A Famous Castle Changes Hands: Hurstmonceux – its Treasures’ The London Illustrated News, 19th October 1929 [last accessed 11/03/22].

[2]‘ Haunted Castles: Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex’ [last accessed 11/03/22].

[3] Judy Middleton, Ghosts of Sussex (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2004), p. 32

[4] ‘Haunted Sussex’, [last accessed 11/03/22].