The house still known as Chicksands Priory was originally a foundation of the comparatively rare Gilbertine Order. Dissolved with other religious houses in the reign of Henry VIII, in 1587 it became the property of the Osborn family and the birthplace of Dorothy Osborn (1627–94), writer of the celebrated Osborn Letters to her diplomat husband Sir William Temple.
The remains of the priory – which reminded John Byng, Viscount Torrington, who came on a visit in 1791, of nothing so much as a dairy – were sold to the Government in 1939 and enclosed in an airforce camp. To make up for this lack of romance, they are now said to be haunted by the ghost of the nun Rosata, walled up alive, and still walking here in search of her lover.
The story was connected with a plaque in the remaining cloister on which the inscription
Moribus Ornata Jacet
Hic Bona Berta Rosata
This has been translated as: ‘By Virtues guarded and by manners graced, here alas is fair Rosata placed.’ A historical consultant who examined it said he knew of no medieval example of the name ‘Rosata’, and suggested that the epitaph was an eighteenth-century invention, added by one of the Osborn family to give a suitably Gothic touch to Chicksands.
Betty Puttick, in Ghosts of Bedfordshire (1996), wonders if it was inspired by the name of the founder of the priory, Rose de Beauchamp of Bedford Castle.
As she tells Rosata’s story, it is a tale of forbidden romance between a nun and a canon (no doubt suggested by the fact that the Gilbertines were a mixed order and the priory in its heyday was the third-largest house of this order in England, housing 55 canons and 120 nuns). Inevitably, Rosata became pregnant and the discovery of this by the authorities was followed by swift punishment: the canon was beheaded, while she was walled up to her neck
and forced to watch him die. Then the wall was sealed up and she was left to perish.
How long this story has been in circulation is uncertain, but Roger Ward in Legend and Lore (1983) gives a comparatively early reference. A woman who had worked at the priory for thirty years said that in 1914 or 1915 – ‘the time of the battle of Mons’ – she was just coming out of the King James’s Room, after taking a glass of hot milk to a guest, when a tall woman in white glided past her. ‘I heard the rustle of her dress and saw the long white train as she flashed by.’ She dropped her tray and fled in terror, telling the other servants she had seen a ghost. This was at about ten o’clock on a winter evening and the light was dim; she had not been drinking. She said, ‘I am not sure it was Rosata, but I am sure it was something.’
Also reported are sightings by members of the RAF and USAF, but the descriptions vary greatly and include an old woman, a woman with untidy hair and a lace collar, a middle-aged nun, and a woman in a long, filmy white robe with a hood. In the early 1950s, George Inskip, head gardener at the priory for thirty years, reported seeing a
‘dark, greyish shape’, coming up the path outside the greenhouse where he was tending the vines. Thinking it was someone coming to see him, he went outside but there was no one there. ‘Whatever I saw was wearing a cowl and came straight up the path … if it was a ghost I don’t know, but I’ll never forget it.’
Though the paranormal activity at Chicksands has evidently been varied, there is nothing conclusive to link any of the alleged sightings with the legend of Rosata, the walled-up nun.