The present Jacobean mansion of Blickling Hall succeeded an earlier house belonging to the Boleyn or Bullen family. At one time it was owned by Sir Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne, Henry VIII’s second wife.
Of Sir Thomas himself, a contributor to Notes and Queries in 1850 wrote:
The spectre of this gentleman is believed by the vulgar to be doomed, annually, on a certain night in the year, to drive, for a period of 1000 years, a coach drawn by four headless horses, over a circuit of twelve bridges in that vicinity. These are Aylsham, Burgh, Oxnead, Buxton, Coltishall, the two Meyton bridges, Wroxham, and four others whose names I do not recollect. Sir Thomas carries his head under his arm, and flames issue from his mouth. Few rustics are hardy enough to be found loitering on or near those bridges on that night; and my informant averred, that he was himself on one occasion hailed by this fiendish apparition, and asked to open a gate, but ‘he warn’t sich a fool as to turn his head; and well a didn’t, for Sir Thomas passed him full gallop like:’ and he heard a voice which told him that he (Sir Thomas) had no power to hurt such as turned a deaf ear to his requests, but that had he stopped he would have carried him off.
The note, initialled ‘E.S.T.’, came from the Revd E. S. Taylor of Ormesby, who adds, ‘This tradition I have repeatedly heard in this neighbourhood from aged persons when I was a child, but I never found but one person who had ever actually seen the phantom.’ The story was also said to be ‘well vouched’ for in Charles Palmer’s edition of Manship’s History of Yarmouth (1854), suggesting it had been current in the eighteenth century. The bridges in question are those of the Bure Valley.
The story recounted by the Revd Mr Taylor leaves many things unexplained, which the original narrator no doubt assumed to be common knowledge, notably the flames shooting from Sir Thomas’s mouth; the fact that he will carry people off if they give him half a chance; and that the surest way of preventing this is to take no notice of him. These features relate Sir Thomas’s story to other tales of the phantom coach, underpinned by the medieval tradition of the ‘hell-wain’, which carried off the souls of the damned. The warning against taking notice of the supernatural embodied in the story – including by implication speaking – is a common theme: tradition prescribes silence for dealing with everything from the Devil to fairies.
In Taylor’s version, Sir Thomas was ‘doomed … for a period of 1000 years’, a supernatural penance commonly imposed on wicked ghosts. Subsequent accounts say that he is ‘rumoured’ to have to atone for his share in Anne’s decapitation, some stating that his haunt took place on the anniversary of her execution (19 May 1536), though one from 1903 claims it occurs ‘every night’. Storytellers appear to have become more interested in explaining why Sir Thomas haunts Blickling than in what is the dominant theme of the 1850 version: what happens if you see him. The focus there is on the encounter with the spectre, and the story follows a traditional pattern, telling what the consequences of such a meeting could be, and relating how someone who did encounter the apparition escaped, thus passing on to the audience the ‘traditional’ time-tested strategy for dealing with the supernatural.
Later-recorded versions make things bigger, and more technicolour – not twelve Bure bridges (1850, 1862), which makes sense in the context of Blickling, but forty, over the Bure and the Yare, Bass Bridge at Brundall being one of them. The lengthening of Sir Thomas’s route appears to have taken place as the result of Palmer’s speculation in his edition of Manship’s History of Yarmouth that Sir Thomas’s haunt was identical with the ‘vision of the “Headless Horses”’ seen at WEST CAISTER.
Another shift in emphasis has been from Sir Thomas to Anne, by some said to have spent her early years at Blickling. In the Norfolk Antiquarian Miscellany, Walter Rye in 1877 wrote:
… nothing is more firmly believed than that Lady Ann Boleyn rides down the avenue of Blickling Park once a year with her bloody head in her lap, sitting in a hearse-like coach drawn by four black headless horses, and attended by coachmen and attendants, who have … also left their heads behind them.
However, the hallmark of phantom coach stories is that, if not anonymous, they are usually attached to landed proprietors against whom some kind of grudge is held. In folkloric terms, one would expect the passenger in the phantom coach to be Sir Thomas, whose rise to fame and fortune was somewhat rapid and must have excited envy. Anne’s haunt, though more often selected for mention today, is essentially a story told by warm and well-fed people in the safety of a highly populated mansion; her father’s expresses the anxieties of country people out alone in the Bure Valley after dark. This is why Rye, after saying that people had become used to Anne’s visits, adds, ‘But the appearance of Sir Thomas Boleyn is not to be treated with such calm indifference.’