In 1923, one of the most touching and melodramatic of legends connected with the ancient castles of England was brought vividly to the attention of an American readership by the reported appearance of “The Mistletoe Bride.”
This most thrilling of old English family legends tells of a bride who was lost on her wedding day and not found until fifty years afterward. Several versions of the legend are in existence. They represent the strange and tragic events as occurring in many different old families and castles.
Although there is some uncertainty concerning the supposed scene of this old tragedy, owing to its great antiquity, the researches of historians and antiquarians have proved that it most probably occurred at Bramshill House, in Hampshire, the seat of the very ancient Cope family.
T. F. Thiselton Dyer, who made the most exhaustive study of old English romances and mysteries, writes in his “Strange Pages from Family Papers”:— “The chest in which The Mistletoe Bride was found is shown to visitors at Bramshill House, Hampshire, the residence of Sir John Cope.”
Now, this statement was of peculiar interest because, in 1923, a charming American society girl, Miss Edna Hilton, had just become the bride of Captain Denzil Cope, heir of Sir Anthony Cope, the chief of the ancient family that had long occupied the old house.
Mrs Cope was well known in New York society as she was one of the Hilton family that inherited part of the Stewart millions. For several years, before her marriage, she lived in Paris, where her mother, Mrs Edward Baker Hilton, had a magnificent apartment.
Young Mrs Cope now virtually became the owner of the famous chest in which the poor bride was locked up and lost. Americans who knew her were intensely curious to know what experiences she would have with such a gruesome relic. It was said that persons staying in the house were kept awake at night by the stifled moans of a woman in terrible agony. They would hear muffled sounds like those of a person beating on the interior of a thick wooden chest.
There was little surprise in the considerable gossip that attached itself to the new Mrs Cope and her unusual home. The chattering classes of New York society discussed the matter at length. What would the new bride do with the tragic chest? Would she have the hardihood to climb into it herself? Would she send it away for fear of it being haunted by the bride who died in it? Would she remove the great lock that was the real cause of the tragedy?
The papers of the day did not have to wait long before actual testimonies of encounters with spectres began to emerge from the strange old house.
One visiting English society woman reported, “During the night I had the most terrifying experience. Shortly after midnight I was awakened suddenly with a sensation that I was not alone in the bedroom. Then, from behind the ancient oak panelling, I heard noises of light, hurrying footsteps.”
“What followed was even more terrifying. I heard moans of the most heartrending kind and then strange sounds like hands beating upon a wooden partition.”
“The moans so terrified me that I fainted away, and it was daylight when I recovered consciousness. I made an excuse for leaving the castle and hurried away.”
Not long after this, one of the old retainers at the castle, who subsequently soon departed, declared that in the stillness of the night he heard the clatter of bony feet hurrying up the stairway into the attic. With this came an accompanying sound like the swish of skirts and later on a muffled thump like the falling of a cover of a heavy chest.
While the story of “The Mistletoe Bride” has figured in several novels and plays, it is most familiar through the dainty old song of that name by Thomas Haynes Bayly. It was a great favourite in days gone by and, perhaps, even today, there are some who remember it. The old song begins:
The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall;
And the baron’s retainers were blithe and gay,
And keeping their Christmas holiday.
The baron beheld with a father’s pride
His beautiful child, young Lovell’s bride;
While she with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of the goodly company.
….They sought her that night, and they sought her next day,
And they sought her in vain while a week passed away;
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly — but found her not.
And years flew by, and their grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past;
And when Lovell appeared the children cried,
“See! The old man weeps for his fairy bride.”
…Closed with a spring! and dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasped in her living tomb.
In his song Bayly says that it was Lord Lovell’s bride who “hid from her lord in the old oak chest.” He does not mention the bride’s name, but from various other sources it is known that she belonged to the ancient family of the Copes who possess the chest in which she died.
Bramshill House was bought by Lord Zouche, a noted statesman, adventurer and philosopher of the Elizabethan period. He was a friend of the famous William Cecil, the chief minister of Queen Elizabeth, and was closely associated with Francis Bacon, the Earl of Leicester, the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and other great characters of that period.
Lord Zouche used all of his wealth in building his mansion. Ever since then it was considered one of the noblest and most beautiful monuments of Elizabethan architecture in England. It is also one of the largest of English mansions.
To the new Mrs Cope, the size of the house must have appeared daunting. The great house stretched a distance of 150 feet at its greatest length and was built in the form of an E, the middle bar of the letter having the main entrance at its front end. High above the entrance was a great statue of Lord Zouche, the founder of the house, in full armour, within an architectural niche.
The finery was contained within great oak panelled halls and gilded salons and immense corridors stretching out in vistas that ended in dim shadows. There were almost incalculable treasures in the form of pictures, old furniture, immense tables, curiously carved chests, old plate and beautifully-wrought metal work.
So vast were the apartments that even persons who had spent their lives there would not have been familiar with all of them. In the tremendously thick walls there were said to be many secret chambers. One was the study to which Lord Zouche retired for his philosophical and scientific work.
The great house was so costly that the descendants of Lord Zouche were not able to keep it. It then passed into possession of the Copes, a very ancient family, who hitherto had their principal seat at Banbury. They enjoyed one of the earliest created Baronetcies.
Most of the Cope baronets had borne the Christian name John, but several had been christened Denzil like the new incumbent. One of the early Sir Johns had a very beautiful daughter, who became affianced to Lord Lovell, a very wealthy young nobleman. His title, by the way, had long become extinct and the family had completely disappeared.
The wedding festivities were held in Sir John Cope’s stately mansion. When the wedding was under discussion Christmas happened to be approaching, and Sir John thought it would be a splendid idea to combine the happy event with the usual festivities of the season.
Weddings were attended with unrestrained revelry in those days, and was an occasion of tremendous merry-making and feasting. The wedding festivities even in the noblest families were often conducted with a gaiety and abandon than would have seemed shocking to the refined tastes of the modern age. The guests, after partaking of vast amounts of wine and spirits, sometimes fought for the vestiges of the bride’s most intimate apparel, and before finally leaving the house insisted upon arranging the happy pair on the nuptial couch.
For these reasons the wedding at Bramshill House was one of the greatest and merriest that had ever been known in England. The great house was filled with distinguished guests from all parts of the country. Most of the nobility and the great landed squires came with their families.
The banquet was of amazing lavishness. A great wild boar, roasted and stuffed and arranged with head and tusks raised up in a life-like manner, was borne into the banquet hall on a gigantic platter by the Cope retainers. Musicians played and sang appropriate music up in the minstrels’ galleries all the time.
Details of the fare served on this wonderful occasion are still preserved in the archives of the ancient house. Two hundred geese and two hundred ducks were among the substantial delicacies provided for the guests. These birds were especially fat and luscious, for the Copes had for centuries held the honourable court office of “sergeant of the poultry to His Majesty the King.” Wine was consumed in proportionate quantities, for Sir John possessed a rare “store of Malmsey, Malvorsie, Cyprus, Canary and goodness knows how many more.”
After dinner there was dancing and music in the great hall. The little bride grew weary of the feasting and drinking and merry-making. She drew her husband and a few of the younger men and girls together and proposed that they should play hide-and-seek. In this simple game a girl hid herself and the first man who found her had the privilege of kissing her.
“I will begin,” said the bride. “Give me five minutes to hide myself and then see if you can find me.”
They all turned away until the time was up, and then started to hunt for her. The young bridegroom was naturally anxious to be the first to find her.
They hunted and hunted, but without success. For several hours they laughed at the girl’s trick thinking how clever she was to hide herself so thoroughly. At last it dawned on them that the matter was serious. Guests and servants were formed into parties and searched the house from top to bottom. Every room, every closet, was searched.
The evening wore away and the night came. The distracted bridegroom was left without a bride.
Many persons thought that the bride, with female capriciousness, had run away from the house. Days passed, and months and years, and she was never heard from.
The unhappy Lord Lovell never believed for a moment that his bride had deserted him. He was sure from the first that some tragedy had befallen her. He spent his whole life searching for his lost bride. He did not want to leave the place where he had last seen her, and was willingly accommodated by her sorrowing father.
Lord Lovell grew old and withered, but his passionate quest for his lost bride kept him alive. The younger generation thought him a harmless madman.
One day, fifty years after the wedding, he was running his hand for the thousandth time over the oaken panelling of a room on the top floor. He touched a spot of the elaborately carved woodwork accidentally. The panelling flew open and revealed a secret closet. Within stood an ancient oak chest, ironbound, dusty with years, solid and beautifully carved. It had evidently been a secret repository for important documents.
Lord Lovell felt that he was near the end of his quest. He secured tools and broke open the ancient chest.
Within lay the body of his lost bride, now a fleshless skeleton, wearing the beautiful wedding robes in which he had last seen her. The wedding dress was yellow and stained with age and corruption. Her fleshless hand was raised in a pathetic attitude as it trying to open the door of her tomb.
Evidently the little bride had learned of the secret closet in some way and had run to it, thinking to give her pursuers a hard puzzle. She stepped into the chest and pulled the lid over her. It closed with a strong spring and she was unable to open it. The lid was heavy and fitted closely and she died a most agonising death.
That the body never betrayed its presence by any odour was explained by the fact that it was on the top floor. It was near a chimney and the warmth helped to carry the odour away through the roof.
When Lord Lovell had completed his life-long quest he had nothing more to live for. He faded away and died in a few weeks.
The tragedy is one that naturally grips the popular imagination. Hence it has for centuries been made the subject of poems and ballads. The cruel death of the beautiful bride on her wedding day is perhaps the most tragic combination of circumstances that could possibly be imagined.
The mind becomes fascinated with terror as it imagines and dwells on the feelings of the bride, who finds herself condemned to a slow and agonising death at the very moment when she expected to be enjoying the most delightful day of her life.
Perhaps her living death lasted through the whole night following her wedding day. It Is hard to say just how long breathing could have continued. The air in the chest alone would not have kept a person alive for that time. The heavy lid fits very closely, but it may be possible that sufficient air may have entered from the outside to support life for some hours beyond that made possible by the capacity of the chest alone. If air did enter in this way, it would have made the girl’s martyrdom more lingering and cruel.
Did she hear the footsteps of her bridegroom searching for her in the night? That is barely possible. It is not surprising, however, that her cries could not be heard, for the old oak chest was immensely thick, with a tight-fitting lid, and then in addition there was the barrier of the thick oaken partition which would have shut out her cries from the searchers.
For many years thereafter, the classic chest was exhibited to visitors at Bramshill Park. When Edna Hilton married, her husband took her to Bramshill Park for a period. But the Copes were far too wealthy to be restricted to one residence in England, and as it was quite in the order of events that the young couple should later move to Oxfordshire.
And move to Oxfordshire they did – Lovell Castle to be precise – where the spectre appears to have followed them for, shortly after they took residence, it became the scene of manifestations lurid enough to make the stoutest heart quake and the most normal pulse race a good deal faster. But, perhaps, these are tales of haunting best left for another day.
To be continued…