The present mansion of Knebworth House replaced an older house begun in the last decade of the fifteenth century, its mainly Elizabethan fabric dated over a doorway to 1563. It was this old house that the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–73) knew in boyhood and of which he later wrote:
I remember especially a long narrow gallery … which terminated in rooms that were called, ‘haunted’. They were of great antiquity, covered with gloomy tapestry … In another room … was a curious trap-door that gave access to a chamber beneath … which had neither doors nor windows … How could I help writing romances when I had walked … through that long gallery, … mused in those tapestry chambers, and peeped … into the shadowy abysses of Hell-hole.
All but one wing of the old house had been demolished in 1811 or 1812, including the ‘haunted’ rooms. But before this they had inspired not only Bulwer-Lytton, who later inherited Knebworth, but a house-guest called Miss James, who stayed there one Christmas in about 1800. Members of the house-party had asked the gatekeeper and villagers about ‘the ghost’, but no one knew anything more than that there was one. Each of the house-party undertook to write a history for it. Miss James’s story was entitled ‘Jenny Spinner; or, the Ghost of Knebworth House’, and concerned an apparition whose spinning-wheel was often heard. Miss James apparently did not invent her: a Knebworth inventory of 1797 mentions ‘Spinning Jenny’s Room’. This may have been ‘the Haunted Chamber’ referred to earlier, in a deed of 1707, in the Knebworth archives.
Certainly traditions of other spinning ghosts are known, including Mrs Baines of PENZANCE, Cornwall, and a Spinning Jenny, attached, according to Mrs Crowe in The Night-Side of Nature (1848), to ‘a Scotch family of distinction’. She was heard spinning in their house, and accompanied them to their town house on visits to London. She was supposed to be the ghost of a former housemaid. Both Jennies perhaps got their name from James Hargreaves’ famous invention (1764).
The most extraordinary apparition connected with Knebworth is that of ‘the Radiant Boy’. He appeared to the English statesman Viscount Castlereagh (1769–1822), according to most reports when staying at Knebworth. Sir Walter Scott, who frequently told the story, said that he heard Lord Castlereagh speak of the Radiant Boy ‘at one of his wife’s supper parties in Paris in 1815’. Seven years later, Scott wrote in a letter to Lady Abercorn:
I remember his once telling seriously and with great minuteness the particulars of an apparition which he thought he had seen. It was a naked child, which he saw slip out of the grate of a bedroom while he looked at the decaying fire. It increased at every step it advanced towards him, and again diminished in size till it went into the fireplace and disappeared. I could not tell what to make of so wild a story told by a man whose habits were equally remote from quizzing or inventing a mere tale of wonder.
With hindsight, he could see that Castlereagh was probably ‘subject to aberrations of mind which often create … phantoms’. For what had followed, on 12 August 1822, was that Lord Castlereagh committed suicide by severing the carotid artery with a penknife, earning himself the cruel posthumous epithet of ‘Cut-throat Castlereagh’. Accordingly, on 1 November 1826, Scott wrote in his journal, ‘He is gone … I shall always tremble when any friend of mine becomes visionary.’
Since Lord Castlereagh’s suicide, the Radiant Boy or Burning Babe has frequently been said to be a Lytton hereditary ‘death omen’, although it is unclear if it was so thought of by Castlereagh himself. Certainly it was enough to terrify anyone witless: Scott’s son-in-law Lockhart, who had often heard him tell the story, says that, as it grew in size, the naked child ‘assumed the appearance of a ghastly giant, pale as death, with a bleeding wound on the brow, and eyes glaring with rage and despair’.
After receiving Scott’s account, Lady Abercorn wrote to him, ‘I never heard of his [Castlereagh’s] having named it to any one else.’ If that is true, one might suspect that Castlereagh was not ‘fey’ but simply entertaining Scott with the kind of story he liked. However, Scott is said by contemporary writers to have heard the story at the house of the Duke of Wellington, at his own request, implying that it was already in circulation.
Unless Lord Castlereagh’s story spawned imitators, which is possible, the Radiant Boy seems not to have been a single individual, but a particular kind of ghost – there was another at CORBY CASTLE, Cumberland.