The ghost of a young woman dressed in pale grey or white was said to haunt one of the bedrooms of Bramshill House. The Cope family, who for many generations owned this fine seventeenth-century mansion, believed that it was the true setting for the tragic tale of the ‘Mistletoe Bride’.
The story was made the subject of a ballad by the songwriter Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797–1839), set to music by H.R. Bishop, and entitled ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ from its refrain, ‘Oh! the Mistletoe Bough, Oh! the Mistletoe Bough.’
Its setting is the Christmas season, when ‘the castle hall’ is hung with mistletoe and holly. The company is ‘blithe and gay’, but the baron’s beautiful daughter, ‘young Lovel’s bride’, grows tired of dancing and starts to play hide-and-seek. Her friends and her lover search high and low for her, but in vain: she cannot be found. The years roll by, until:
At length an oak chest that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle. They raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay mouldering there,
In the bridal wreath of the lady fair.
This song, also published in Bayly’s Songs, Ballads and Other Poems (1844), was hugely popular at English village concerts in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In the USA, too, it spread by word of mouth, sometimes being altered in the process – for example, by the lost bride becoming a lost princess, or, as in an oral version collected in Kansas in 1959, the tune scarcely changed but unfamiliar words replaced. Because of the popularity of the song, several English ‘halls’ claimed to be the one in the story.
There appears to be no European version of the legend, suggesting that it arose in England. Though conceivably based on a historical incident, surviving versions are undoubtedly the same story, with only minor variations. It was probably current by the eighteenth century, as it forms the plot of ‘Ginevra’ in Samuel Rogers’ blank verse poem Italy (1822–8).
His version is set in Modena, in an old palace of the Orsini. There, in an empty room, stands ‘An oaken chest, half-eaten by the worm’, on the wall above it a portrait of a beautiful girl named Ginevra. The last of her race, at fifteen she married an only son, ‘Her playmate from birth, and her first love’, Francesco Doria.
Ginevra enjoyed the irrepressible high spirits of youth and was given to ‘pranks’. The day of the wedding arrived:
Great was the joy; but at the Bridal feast,
When all sat down, the bride was wanting there.
Nor was she to be found!
Heart-broken, Francesco threw his life away fighting the Turk; Ginevra’s father, old Orsini, died; and the house went to strangers.
Full fifty years were past, and all forgot,
When on an idle day, a day of search
Mid the old lumber in the Gallery,
That mouldering chest was noticed …
They try to move it:
but on the way
It burst, it fell; and lo, a skeleton,
With here and there a pearl, an emerald-stone,
A golden clasp, clasping a shred of gold.
All else had perished—save a nuptial ring,
And a small seal, her mother’s legacy,
Engraven with a name, the name of both,
Rogers observes: ‘This story is, I believe, founded on fact; although the time and place are uncertain. Many old houses in England lay claim to it.’ They do: the Copes at Bramshill maintain that the chest in which the bride had hidden was kept in the house until about 1815, and other places to which the legend has been attached include Marwell Old Hall and Malsanger, also in Hampshire, Brockdish Hall near Harleston in Norfolk, and Bawdrip and Shapwick in Somerset, where it is related to a stone in a nearby church commemorating a local heiress who died on 14 June 1681, ‘Taken away by a sudden and untimely fate at the very time of the marriage celebrations’.
The story is also linked to Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, probably attracted by the double coincidence of the family name and the finding of a skeleton by workmen building a new chimney in 1809. The skeleton was that of a man, but the very word ‘skeleton’ seems to have been enough to hang the story on.