In Hampton church is the imposing funeral monument of Mrs Sybil Penn, who died on 6 November 1562 of smallpox. She is shown lying full-length beneath a marble canopy supported on pillars. Her rhyming epitaph declares:
Pen is here brought to home, the place of long abode,
Whose vertu guided hath her shippe, into the quyet rode …
and includes the information ‘To courte she called was, to foster up a Kinge’.
Mrs Penn was the wife of David Penn, one of the Penns of Penn, Buckinghamshire, lords of the manor in the sixteenth century. In October 1538, a year after Lady Jane Seymour’s death, Mrs Penn became nurse and foster-mother to her son, the sickly Prince Edward. From various marks of favour bestowed on her by Henry VIII, Edward when he came to the throne, and Elizabeth I, she seems to have been highly regarded.
In 1829, when the old church at Hampton was pulled down, Mrs Penn’s monument was moved into the present church.
The story goes that, immediately after the disturbance of her tomb, strange noises as of a woman working at a spinning-wheel, and muttering the while, were heard through the wall of one of the rooms … in the south-west wing of Hampton Court Palace. On search being made, an ancient and till then unknown chamber was discovered, in which an antique spinning-wheel and a few other articles were found …
Reporting this in his History of the Parish of Penn (1935), Gilbert Jenkins adds that, about fifty years previously, the phenomena had recurred. Several mysterious happenings had been recorded, and one person claimed to have encountered, in the haunted room, Mrs Penn’s tall, gaunt form, dressed in a long, grey robe with a hood over her head, her lanky hands stretched out before her. The description of Mrs Penn corresponds closely to her appearance on the tomb and this was regarded as a coincidence so startling as to shake the doubt even of sceptics. (There is, of course, an obvious explanation – someone had seen the tomb.)
Jenkins suggests that Mrs Penn may have been unable to rest because her husband, in his will dated 5 January 1564, directed that her body be removed from the place where she then lay buried and be re-interred beside his body. While ghosts were thought sometimes to return because of the flouting of their own or a loved one’s wishes, what is perhaps more likely to have generated the haunting tradition is the widespread superstition that disturbing or destroying ecclesiastical property, including church monuments, brings dire consequences.
According to Peter Haining, writing in 1982, ‘the restless shade of the old nurse has continued to be seen and heard in the palace, and makes a visit to the south-west wing of Hampton Court a must for every ghost-hunter.’ This does not square with the fact that the royal nurseries were at Ashridge, near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.
The story of Mrs Penn may have been part of a fashion for spinning ghosts, like those heard in a house in PENZANCE, Cornwall, and in KNEBWORTH HOUSE, Hertfordshire, set at Hampton Court partly because it was a known royal palace but also because it was suggested by both ‘Hampden’, Mrs Penn’s maiden name, and that of the place where she was buried.