This fine Tudor building on the site of a fourteenth-century priory was given by Henry VIII to Anne
of Cleves, and then passed to the Hoby family, one of whom (Sir Thomas Hoby) died in 1566, at the
relatively young age of thirty-six. His widow, Lady Elizabeth Hoby, married again (her second
husband being John, Lord Russell) and lived to be eighty-one; like many aristocratic women of the
period, she was learned in Latin, Greek, and theology, and is remembered as a stern, forceful
character. Her portrait, by a follower of Holbein, can be seen in the Great Hall of Bisham Abbey
(now a national sports centre); her tomb, with marble effigy, is in Bisham church. But according to a
legend which arose in the nineteenth century, her tormented spirit has never ceased to roam the
abbey and its grounds.
The story goes that Lady Hoby was not only a scholar herself but expected similar intelligence in
her sons and daughters. The younger boy (whom most authors name ‘William’) distressed her by his
stupidity; she was particularly enraged by his slovenly handwriting and ink-stained copybooks. One
day, when his work was particularly dirty and full of errors, she gave him a severe whipping, as a
result of which he died – as Jerome K. Jerome curtly notes in Three Men in a Boat (1889):
The ghost of the Lady Hoby, who beat her little boy to death, still walks there at night, trying to wash its ghostly hands clean in a ghostly basin.
Anne Mitchell’s more recent version (1972) is more elaborate: she says Lady Hoby, having
whipped the child, locked him in a closet with his books and set off for London, forgetting to tell
anyone where he was. The servants assumed the boy had gone to London too, and it was not till
many days later that anyone looked for him. He was of course dead.
One writer who did much to publicize the legend was John Meade Falkner, in his Handbook for
Berkshire (1902); he cites an alleged confirmation of the story which has also been much repeated:
It is certainly curious that about 1840, in altering the window shutters, a quantity of children’s copy-books of the time of Elizabeth were discovered, packed into the rubble between the joists of the floor, and that one of these was a copy-book which answered exactly to the story, as if the child could not write a single line without a blot.
Falkner does not say that he himself saw these books, whose present whereabouts, if they ever
existed, is not known. Moreover, records show there never was a ‘William Hoby’. The two sons of
Thomas and Elizabeth Hoby, Edward and Thomas Posthumous, both lived to be adults; she did have
a son by her second marriage who died as a baby, but his name is given by some authorities as
Thomas, by others as Francis – never William – and he was too young for blotted copybooks to be
Lady Hoby’s ghost is generally said to appear in the upper corridors, wandering from one
bedroom to another, weeping and washing its bloodstained hands in a spectral basin which glides
before it in mid-air. According to Falkner’s account, its face and hands are inky black, but its dress
is white. He notes that the portrait of Lady Hoby is notable for the extreme whiteness of the face,
hands, and coif, contrasting with her black widow’s weeds; it has a distinctly spectral air, which
may have contributed to the growth of the tale. Anne Mitchell’s modern account includes mention
of an occasion when Admiral Vansittart, owner of the house in the 1920s, became aware that Lady
Hoby was standing in the library behind him – and that where her portrait hung there was only an
The church booklet mentions the floating bowl in the 1967 revision but not in the 1990 revision.
Both revisions remark of the murdered son: ‘Who this child was, whether a Hoby or a Russell,
history does not record.’