According to tradition, the Jacobean mansion of Burton Agnes Hall in the East Riding was built by the three Griffiths sisters in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603). At the time, the family were living in the old Norman manor house near the church. All three were impatient to see the new house completed, but none more so than the youngest, Miss Anne. However, this was not to be. According to the Bradford periodical Yorkshire Chat, cited by Eliza Gutch in her East Riding of Yorkshire (1912):
One day, when wandering alone in the park, Miss Ann [sic] was murderously attacked and robbed by an outlaw, who seriously wounded her. This brought on a fever of which she died. Before her death she grieved incessantly that she would never see the grand structure complete, and made her sisters promise to remove her head to the new grand Hall, where it was to be placed on a table. This they agreed to do, but after her death they buried her without fulfilling the compact. Nothing happened until they took up their abode at Burton Agnes. Then strange moanings and weird sounds made the sisters’ lives a burden to them. No servants would stay; so at last after two years they caused the body to be dug up and decapitated, and placed the now fleshless head upon the table.
For many years, the skull remained there and there were no more disturbances. Some time later, however, a maid tried to discredit the story by throwing the skull on to a wagon standing outside the Hall. The horses immediately reared up, and the whole house shook, so that the pictures fell off the walls. Things only quietened down when the skull was put back on the table. Other attempts to get rid of the skull ended the same way.
It is said that belief in the skull was ‘a second religion’ with the Boynton family (who succeeded to Burton Agnes by marriage in 1654). They appear to have regarded it as a kind of ‘luck’, believing that, as long as it was left undisturbed, nothing serious would happen to any of the Boyntons, but woe betide the family if it were moved. To prevent accidents, they had a niche in the wall constructed especially for it and bricked it up inside. There it has remained: it is said to be now hidden behind panelling in one of the bedrooms, and though family and staff know where it is they do not tell.
Despite the fact that her wishes have been complied with, the ghost of Anne Griffiths, ‘Owd Nance’, as she was known in the village in the nineteenth century, reputedly haunted the Hall. Indeed, it is still said at Burton Agnes today that the Queen’s State Bedroom is haunted by ‘the blue lady’, thought to be Anne, seen by some, though others only sense her presence.
The Hall was in fact built for Sir Henry Griffith (d. 1620), said to be the father of the three sisters. One clue to the origin of the story is a group portrait of three ladies that hangs in the Inner Hall. Painted by Marc Gheeraerts in 1620, it is labelled ‘Frances, Margaret and Catherine Griffith’ (though only Frances and Margaret are named on Sir Henry’s memorial tablet in the church). Anne, nowhere mentioned in contemporary records of his family, is traditionally identified as the one on the right, distinguished from her sisters by wearing black. As with the portrait of Lady Hoby, also clad in black, at BISHAM ABBEY, Berkshire, her striking funereal garb may have inspired the story.
See also CALGARTH, Westmorland.