|The Cromwellian Tea Room|
Buildings have existed at Greys Court near Henley-on-Thames since the Domesday Book, where they were listed as Redrefield (Rotherfield). The earliest surviving fabric visible above ground is part of a ruined wall which connects with the Great Tower, the latter dating from around the mid 1300s, a feature you can climb offering splendid views of the estate once you have navigated the three almost vertical flights of steps-come- ladders that is, which must be tackled with modesty in mind. So ladies beware, a fitting dress code is strongly advised.
In the early 13th century the estate belonged to Walter de Grey, Archbishop of York. But it was his nephew, the 1st Baron John de Grey, who was responsible for fortifying the mansion and its surrounding buildings. The current mansion was built in 1575-6 by Sir Francis Knollys (treasurer to Elizabeth I, and jailer of Mary Queen of Scots) from flint, brick, ashlar and materials salvaged from the medieval buildings, now ruins. Today, the mansion is in the care of the National Trust thanks to a generous gift in 1969 by the last owner, Lady Brunner, who died in 2003.
It is the 16th century ‘Cromwellian Stables’ (now the National Trust tea room) that is the focus for this post and not the mansion. This building is thought to have been a mess-room used by Cromwell’s soldiers who were garrisoned at Greys during the Civil Wars. The ground floor has been converted into the tearoom, whilst the first floor is used for exhibitions. The wooden spiral staircase was installed in the 1930s by former owner - Mrs Fleming (who’s son went on to write some rather exciting novels about a chap named James Bond) and connects the ground to the first floor. It is this staircase and the room above that seems to be the focal point for the ghostly presences of a young ‘potboy’ (a lad employed to serve ale in a tavern or inn). There have been several incidences where staff have felt a sudden drop in temperature when climbing the stairs, or just standing near the staircase. An impression imperceptible to others it would seem, nothing unusual there, some sense, some do not.
Sometime ago, the cleaner, a young lad in his early teens, complained of feeling uncomfortable when asked to work in the tea room. He was convinced that something or someone was trying to communicate with him. His apprehension increased to a point where he found it difficult to work there, indeed his uneasiness got so bad that he eventually refused to go in. One of the National Trust volunteers, whom by chance was a practicing medium, got wind of his plight and offered to sit with him in the tearoom to try and discover just what was ‘spooking’ him. He agreed, they met and it wasn’t long before the medium sensed a presence. She is reputed to have seen a young boy dressed in a style which would not have looked out of place in the mid 17th century. She also described him as wearing a metal helmet which sat slightly askew on his head. Just why a potboy should be wearing a metal helmet is anyone’s guess but there you go. Anyway, she managed to find out that the poor lad had suffered the brunt of bullying, insults and practical jokes by Cromwell’s soldiers. She tried to press him for more information but he seemed reluctant to divulge anything more, insisting that he should be allowed to commune with the cleaner, who unfortunately couldn’t see him. At that moment both the medium and the cleaner became aware of raised voices and much merriment though they were quite alone. The noise grew louder until it reached a crescendo at which point potboy and cacophony abruptly vanished and ceased. It is uncertain just what this meeting achieved other than to subsequently allow the cleaner to enter the tearoom and venture upstairs without any misgivings. The temperature however still has a habit of suddenly dipping leaving the upper room and especially the spiral staircase icy cold.
Our visit to Greys took place on a very warm sunny day, the upstairs and spiral staircase gave no impression of chilliness. No ’cold spots’ were perceived by any of my party but then we are the first to admit that we are as psychically aware as a bowl of cold custard. I did manage to chat, albeit briefly, with one of the tearoom staff (it was very busy that day) who told me that there are still occasions where some staff feel uncomfortable on the spiral staircase, often sensing that something is immediately behind them.
The legend of The Mistletoe Bough Chest
Back upstairs, at the far end of the room stands an elaborately carved wooden chest. This chest is reputedly 'The Mistletoe Bough Chest‘ of legend. Many stately homes lay claim to the Mistletoe Bough legend but it is believed this one at at Greys could well be the original.
It was Christmas, so the tale goes, that Lord Lovell's (the Lovells’ occupied the property in the 1400s) bride disappeared during a game of hide and seek on their wedding day. She elected to hide (it was her wedding after all) and the guests were encouraged to wait the agreed time before searching for her. A thorough search of the house found nothing, Lord Lovell’s bride had completely vanished. When the puzzled guests had left, Lord Lovell, along with his servants searched every inch of the house but to no avail. As the days turned to weeks then to months then to years, Lord Lovell grew old never knowing what happened to his beloved bride. It was many years later, that a servant found and opened a leaden chest which had been stored and gathering dust in the attic. To his horror he discovered the partially preserved remains of a young woman dressed in a bridal gown clutching a sprig of mistletoe. Legend suggests that she hid in the chest during the wedding party game and the heavy lid dropped down sealing her fate.
It is believed the chest to be the original from the ballad of the ‘Mistletoe Bough,‘ however, Marwell Old Hall Hampshire, Bramshill Hampshire and Minster Lovell Hall Oxfordshire all lay claim to possessing the original chest, indeed it is said the Lord Lovell still haunts the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall searching for his lost bride (a story to follow.) Whether it be legend or truth, Greys Court proudly exhibit’s what they believe is the original Mistletoe Bough chest, and who’s brave enough to argue. It is true there were strong links with Greys Court and the Lovell estate, both incidentally, confiscated by Henry VII. This link may add weight to Greys claim. It may be possible, should you go along with the residual transference theory, that the chests' gruesome history may account for the icyness felt in the upper room.