Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton
1899

CHAPTER XIX: The Ghosts of St. James's Palace

THE GHOSTS OF ST. JAMES'S PALACE.

CHAPTER XIX: The Ghosts of St. James's Palace

THE GHOSTS OF ST. JAMES'S PALACE.

 

 

COULD a spiritualist summon up from their graves the genii loci of that gloomy pile of smoke-stained bricks called St. James's Palace, what a curious dance of death it would be. On all Mudie's shelves there are not so much real romance, so much of love and hate, of pomp and sordidness, of satire, absurdity and thrilling sensations as those walls have witnessed.

The early associations of the spot are gruesome enough. As I have already noted in my chapter on St. Giles's, a leper hospital was founded here. It was in the days of the Norman kings, when the terrible scourge of leprosy was almost as prevalent among the western as it was among eastern nations, that some pious soul endowed this house of refuge for " maidens that were leprous" and dedicated it to St. James the Less.

Think of the generations of ghastly faces that, through hundreds of years, gazed drearily across the desolate swamps which lay between them and the river! Loathed, abhorred, dreaded, a touch of their garments pollution, for ever cut off from the world outside their living tomb. No hope but death!

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Could all the pessimism, the agonies, the terrors of all the psychological novels ever written descend to the depths of those isolated, despairing souls when from the windows of their oubliettes they looked out upon the beauty of summer, heard the birds warbling, the joyous song of the lark and laughter of happy children, watched young lovers, and husbands and wives strolling about the pastures that stretched away from the gates of the hospital? All the world seemed full of love and happiness save that one God-accursed spot which they must never leave. Not even these wretched lepers, however, could escape the savage greed of Bluebeard Henry, who seized upon the revenues of the hospital, converted the land into a hunting park and game preserve, pulled down the house and erected thereon a palace, of which only the old gateway and a part of the chapel remain.

What a transformation from that gruesome charnelhouse with its living corpses to the gayest and most superb court of Europe! Kennington had hitherto been the rural palace of our kings, and it was just after his marriage with Anne Boleyn that Henry came to St. James's. Health and beauty now laughed and romped and danced and sang and disported themselves, where those living ghosts had groaned and sobbed and prayed and dirged and rotted. Forth at dawn from the gateway, to the jocund sounds of horns and the barking of the hounds, issue a splendid cavalcade of hunters and lords and ladies, with the

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king and queen at their head, glittering in green and gold, to hunt the stag, which, after a glorious chase over the frosted grass of St. James's Fields, right away
to Edgeware and Harrow, will be brought home in triumph. Then the banquet, and afterwards the dance to the strains of the harp and viol and sackbut. What

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a kaleidoscope of gorgeous colours and jewelled splendour where but a short time before there were only ashen grey and funereal black ! On a May morning the royalties and a joyous retinue of knights and squires and dames and demoiselles, all arrayed in white and silver, ride into the fields and return laden with hawthorn branches and sweet wild flowers. 1 Many a time might Henry and beautiful Anne have stood against the mantelpiece-which may still be seen in the old presence chamber, with the initials "H. and A." entwined in a true loveknot-hand clasped in hand, eyes gazing into eyes, unconscious of the red spectre and the gleaming axe that lurked in the shadows of the coming time.

Those were the palmy days of St. James's; it has known nothing like them since. Mary and long-chinned Philip of Spain, not then a gloomy bigot but quite a preux chevalier, have many a time been shadowed by that frowning archway; and in this palace the wretched woman, who deserves our pity as much as our execration, passed out of a world that had never been much more than a lone dungeon to her. Among the crowd of ghosts we catch 1 Stow tells us how Henry and his queen, Catherine, from the Palace at Greenwich, accompanied by the court, went Maying over Shooter's Hill, and met a company of archers dressed as Robin Hood and his merry men. Elizabeth followed the same old custom. Pepys notes (1667) meeting, on his way to Westminster, many milkmaids, with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before. The old lyrists, especially Herrick, are full of allusions to " Maying ". It need scarcely be added that it is a survival of Beltano, or sun worship.

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a glimpse of the sharp features of " the virgin queen," but St. James's was never a favourite abode of hers, and her successor preferred the more gorgeous Whitheall. But it was here that his son Henry, Prince of Wales, a noble youth of great promise, breathed his last. Had he lived to succeed to the throne instead of his brother Charles, the whole future history of England might have been different. A notable ghost, not to be overlooked, is that of beautiful and stately Marie de Medicis, the consort of the great Henri and mother of Henrietta Maria--was she privy to her husband's assassination? God knows, and only He. She held a little court in St. James's for three years, and then went away to die in a garret in Cologne. What an end to so much greatness! The Stuart and Medici blood was a fatal combination; each was a doomed race, and all that sprang from it died miserably. The fateful visage of Charles the Martyr reminds us that within those walls he and his queen passed some of the happiest hours of their lives; and, terrible contrast, it was there that he took the last agonising leave of his younger children, and slept his last living sleep on that sombre January night that preceded his execution. And so like " the blood-bolter'd Banquo" the shadow of the pale king fades away.

Hey, presto! "Hence, loathed melancholy !" Here is a new troupe of ghosts bringing with them- Jest and youthful jollity, Quips and cranks and wanton wiles,

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Nods and becks and wreathed smiles, Such as hang on Hebe's cheek, And love to live in dimple sleek; Sport that wrinkled care derides And laughter holding both his sides. It is "the merry monarch" and his Comus crew, the Rochesters, Buckinghams, Dorsets, Sedleys, Ethereges, De Grammonts in their flowing periwigs, plumed beavers, laces, and be-ribboned velvets; laughingeyed Nell Gwynne, voluptuous Castlemaine, babyfaced Louise de la Querouaille, La belle Stuart, that white dove among the soiled ones, immortalized on our coinage as Britannia, and in the midst of them " Old Rowley " himself, gay and sans souci as though there were no cares of state, and life was one perpetual holiday. And so it is for him. And with peals of laughter they fade away towards the Mall. In the wake of the jovial rout plods saturnine James and haggard Mary of Modena, who within those walls has given birth to the last prince of the Stuart line born within his kingdom. A hacking cough announces the presence of Dutch William; he and his beloved Mary were married in the chapel.

Now comes the unwieldy figure of plethoric, heavyeyed Anne, who, with ever-watchful Sarah Churchill on one side, and Mrs. Masham on the other, the two tyrants of the poor queen, who hate each other like poison, is about to go through, for the last time in history, a ceremony which has been performed by English sovereigns since the days of Edward the Confessor-touching for the king's-evil. A crowd of

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people is assembled round the gateway, men, women, children, infants in arms, all more or less disfigured by scrofulous blotches and sores. Among them is a masculine woman of about fifty, with a hydrocephaliclooking boy in her arms, much scarred. It is the wife of a Lichfield bookseller, named Johnson, who, on the recommendation of a great physician, has brought her son Samuel to essay the healing powers of the royal hand. At the approach of the queen all kneel; then at a signal the people one by one approach the chair, on which the sovereign has seated herself, and upon each sufferer she lays her hand while a prayer is offered up. Then each is presented with a small gold coin, or " touch piece," and goes away devoutly believing that a cure is effected. Thereafter little boy Johnson will describe it all and how he remembers the queen as a stout, florid-faced lady, attired in black, that sparkled with diamonds, and wearing also a long black hood. Some of those touch pieces, too, will be treasured up for generations.

And so fades away the last of the Stuarts, and enter heavy-jowled, potato-digging George of Hanover, who looks more fitted to handle a spade than a sceptre, and on each side of him a German frau, Madame Kielmensegge, Countess of Darlington, tall and scraggy, nicknamed "the Maypole"; and Madame Schulenberg, Duchess of Kendal, fat and flabby, rejoicing or not rejoicing in the sobriquet of " the Elephant," but quite to the taste of the man who hates " blays and boetry " and England and the English; who never speaks their

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language, never associates with them, but only with his Hanoverians, whom he has brought over to help him plunder the nation-and they do that work bravely.

Close at his heels is a dapper, strutting, lobster-eyed little man, upon whom the ghost casts a hateful scowl : it is his son and heir. And yet he is worthy of such a parent, for he also loves a fat frau, he too rages like a bull at the sight of a book or a work of art, detests everything and everybody not German, and but for the plunder would soon shake every particle of English dust from his shoes and go back to beloved Hanover, which he visits so frequently that one day the following placard is affixed by some wag against the gateway of St. James's: " Lost, stole or strayed out of his house a man who has left a wife and six children on the parish. Whoever will give any tidings of him to the churchwardens of St. James's Parish, so he may be got again, shall receive four shillings and sixpence reward. This reward will not be increased, nobody judging him to be worth a crown." Another time a wretched worn-out horse, blind and lame, is driven through St. James's Court; he has a broken saddle and a ragged pillion upon his back, and this inscription is affixed to his forehead: "Let no one stop me, I am the king's Hanover equipage going to fetch his majesty and his harlots to England"

Beside this little red-heeled ghost stands stately and beautiful Caroline of Anspach, his consort, a woman of culture and keen intellect, who actually loves

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this ridiculous fantoccino-but did not Titania love Bottom ?-even to the toleration of his amours; and when tow-haired, stupid but kindly Lady Suffolk, thinking herself neglected by her royal lover, threatens to quit St. James's, Her Majesty is complaisant enough to write and say how much she would regret her loss and to beg her to remain. When George brings fat frau Walmoden from Hanover he presents her to the queen with this recommendation: "I am sure you will love her because she loves me !" Was ever anything so delicious ! But Caroline, with the aid of Sir Robert Walpole, rules the court in state affairs, and dapper George is the only person who is unconscious of it, for he snubs his wife and then struts and crows like a bantam cock. "Governed by my wife, oh, oh ! ah, ah! "

That very shadowy, foppish-looking figure, pale even for a ghost, is Lord Hervey-Pope called him "that white curd of ass's milk," but the great satirist was unjust to the English St. Simon, who is making notes for his famous Memoirs, in which he will show us some wonderful pictures of the domestic life of this curious court. Here is an evening piece:-

A gloomy apartment in the palace lit up by a few tallow candles sparsely distributed; at a table sits the queen, knitting and yawning, while her spouse, his little figure clad a la militaire and his plethoric visage framed in powdered peruke, is walking up and down, soundly rating her for giving vails to the servants at the houses she visits. "My fader was never fool

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enough to give away his money," he growls. Caroline says no more, snuffs her solitary dip and knits placidly, until the coming in of the Count de Roncy and his sister; then the king talks of military matters and genealogies, Caroline dozes, presently snores; the company depart and Darby and Joan go to bed.[1] 

Another night picture. George and Lady Deloraine-one of the harem-are seated at a table playing cards, when one of the princesses, who hate the sultanas, pulls the chair from beneath her ladyship and down goes La Deloraine in a conceivably ungraceful position. Little George laughs until his eyes almost start from their sockets, and everybody joins in. The sultana picks herself up and, livid with fury, clutches savagely at the royal seat and down comes the cachinnating king with a sounding thump. Awful consternation! There is a wild rush to help the fallen monarch, who, struggling to his feet and rubbing the injured part, shrieks out such furious imprecations in

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high Dutch that La Deloraine flies terror-struck and is seen no more.

When this crowned Simon Tappertit is in Hanover, the queen, who has a taste for art and literature, holds levee, according to the fashion of her time, at her toilette, and while her maids are assisting her to dress, the ante-chamber is crowded with gentlemen; the brilliant costumes of the courtiers mingling with the black cassocks of the clergy and the shabby slovenliness of the literati.

The conversation is very mixed; the sententious lip morality of Dr. Young, who is then writing Night Thoughts, and who, between ourselves, is as destitute of morals and religion as-well, any of the company, is shot by the piquant scandal or double entendres of a Mirabel, or the polished worldly aphorisms of Chesterfield; and the playful wit of Gay is pointed by the wicked sneer of the owner of Strawberry Hill, while a little, deformed, withered-up man in black, named Alexander Pope, is gathering hints for those Satires in which he will gibbet some of the assembly for all time. Now and again, when some more delicate operation of the royal toilette is being performed, the chamber door is closed, and some of the more complaisant will kneel down and talk to the queen through the keyhole. George hates "bictures" as much as he does books ; the only one that he will tolerate is a gross, ugly German Venus. When he is away the queen has this filthy thing removed, and some works of art hung round the private apartments.

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But he would storm and rage were he to miss the hideous daub, which has to be replaced at the first warning of his coming, and the other pictures have to be hidden away.

The women of such a court, as may be imagined, are worthy of it. Licentious as was the age of the second Charles, it was far exceeded in gross brutalism by that of the two first Hanoverian kings. A couple of exceptions may be made in favour of beautiful Molly Lepell, afterwards Lady Hervey, and saucy, enchanting Mary Bellenden, who was made a colonel of infantry in her second year-could the ambition of the most advanced women go beyond that! And she was brave enough to throw the infamous gold that Prince Frederick tendered her in the royal satyr's face.

Another picture of this noble king. Caroline is dying, and M. le mari, with a white nightcap drawn over his dumpling head, in nightgown and slippers, his feet upon the fender, is keeping watch. " You look like a calf with his throat cut! " he cries, as she stares vacantly with fast-glazing eyes. The next minute he breaks out into a blubber; that passed he begins to expatiate upon his own virtues and wonderful bravery. One of his daughters is in the room and pretends to be asleep, but when her royal dad has gone bursts out: "I have been bored to death by his stories: I believe they are all lies; his bravery exists only in his imagination, and I believe he is as frightened in a battle as I should be !" But there she

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was unjust to papa; dapper George was brave; when his horse ran away with him at Dettingen he dismounted and went into the thick of the fight on foot. He was the last king of England who led his army on the field of battle. " You must marry again," are almost the last words of the queen. " No, no; I will only have mistresses," blubbers George. " Oh, that will do as well," she answers complacently.

Last scene of all-25th October, 1760. On that morning, when the royal valet enters the royal chamber with the royal chocolate, he finds his royal master lying upon the floor-dead.

George III. little affected St. James's, but it was during his reign that the most mysterious tragedy in its annals-as far as we know-was enacted. Here resided the Duke of Cumberland, the most unpopular of the king's sons-perhaps on account of his repulsive ugliness. On the morning of 31st March, 1810, Neale, the duke's page, who sleeps in a closet adjoining his master's bed-chamber, is startled out of his sleep by a cry of "murder!" and sees the duke standing beside him pale and trembling, his nightgown stained with blood; he stammers out that his Corsican valet, Sellis, has entered his room and attacked him in his sleep, and that when he jumped out of bed, the assassin pursued him and wounded him in the thigh with a knife. The cries of the page and the duke rouse the palace; some rush off to Sellis's room; the door is locked inside and no answer is returned to their summons, but there is another entrance

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by which they gain admittance. The morning is just breaking, and by the dim grey light they perceive a figure in a semi-erect position upon the bed; it is bathed in blood and the head is almost severed from the body. The theory is that, after failing in his attempt upon his master's life, he has committed suicide. It is curious, however, that some severe wounds are found on the back of his neck, and that though a left-handed man he must have cut his throat with his right hand. Some say he was jealous of his wife with the duke; others that it was to avenge the coarse abuse that his master was in the habit of using against the Romish religion. But a few darkly hint that Sellis knew too many of His Royal Highness's secrets, that the duke's wounds were self-inflicted to throw off suspicion, but --

The ghosts have vanished. Looming through the foggy night is the old gateway upon which all those living eyes have rested, hugging its dark secrets; and beating upon the dull ear of the night is the tramp of the sentry that has never ceased night or day through all the centuries. It was heard by Henry and Anne Boleyn, it is heard by Victoria, and will be heard perhaps by generations of her successors.

 
 
Footnotes:

[1] The life of his grandson, George III., and his household at Buckingham Palace was equally dreary; every day was precisely the same as the one that preceded it, and every act-eating, walking, riding, sleeping--never varied by the clock. George was mediocrity personified and he liked only mediocre people; he had no liking for great ministers, great painters or great poets. He did not like Burke nor Nelson, Reynolds nor Shakespeare. When he went to the theatre he loved plenty of buffoonery, at which he laughed till he was purple in the face. He was as ignorant and as stupid as his grandfather, but he was impeccably respectable - alas! stupidity and respectability are usually synonymous : " 'Tis true, and pity 'tis, 'tis true ". But the second George had a very clever queen, the third of that name had one as narrow and obtuse as himself; if he had had a Caroline he might not have lost the American colonies.