There is something particularly disturbing about the association of children with the supernatural.
I know someone who used to live far out in the country. Her house sat off an isolated, rural road and her nearest neighbor was a mile away. One night she looked out of her window. The only thing to light the gloom was a single overhead light suspended on a pole. A figure stood beneath the bright circle created by the light pole, surrounded by darkness. It was exactly the height of a young child. Horrified, she was about to turn away to rescue the toddler when it turned its head in her direction.
It was an enormous owl.
She was scared out of her wits and so was I.
The Marquis of Londonderry was not by any means mistaken. He really did see a ghostly child. And the ones who loved him wished he hadn’t.
But before we get to that, a little background is necessary.
The Reverend Richard Harris Barham (1788 – 1845), intimate of Regency wit Sydney Smith , mentioned the spectral phenomenon known as the radiant boy in his famous Ingoldsby Legends (1837). In the tale of the “Radiant Boy,” a family’s young son is obsessed with the spirit of a boy, pale and crying, who wanders the manor’s grounds. His mother tells him it is nothing:
“The linden tree is straight and tall, its leaves are fresh and fair;
but there’s no little boy at all–no pretty boy is there.”
Later in the story the narrator notes how the mother’s cheek is a little red, her voice losing its customary tone. She knew the legend of the radiant boy. She knew he was a portent of bad luck and violent death.
The basis of the legend appears to come from Germanic folklore–the curse of the kindermorderinn–children murdered by their mothers. Commonly seen in northern England, these ghosts were thought to be heirs deprived of their inheritance, returning to haunt the great estates of the wealthy. They appeared as young boys naked or nearly so, surrounded by white light.
Corby Castle in Cumbria, with its Regency facade by Peter Nicholson, used to be nothing more than a Border tower. In the old part of the house, the rector of Greystoke stayed with his wife. They departed so precipitously the following morning their hired chaise knocked down part of a fence to the flower garden. He later wrote:
“Soon after we went to bed, we fell asleep; it might be between one and two in the morning when I awoke. I observed that the fire was totally extinguished; but, although that was the case, and we had no light, I saw a glimmer in the centre of the room, which suddenly increased to a bright flame. I looked out, apprehending that something had caught fire, when, to my amazement, I beheld a beautiful boy, clothed in white, with bright locks resembling gold, standing by my bedside, in which position he remained some minutes, fixing his eyes upon me with a mild and benevolent expression. He then glided gently towards the side of the chimney, where it is obvious there is no possible egress, and entirely disappeared. I found myself again in total darkness, and all remained quiet until the usual hour of rising. I declare this to be a true account of what I saw at Corby Castle, upon my word as a clergyman.”
The so-called “Blue Boy” resides in another border fortress, this one in Northumberland. Chillingham Castle was once the seat of the Grey family and the Earls of Tankerville. In the late nineteenth century, before the castle was allowed to fall into ruin, country party guests staying there frequently reported blue flashes followed by a loud wail in a chamber known as the Pink Room. Today, Chillingham is undergoing restoration by its new owner, Sir Humphrey Wakefield. The remarkable account of this process and a picture of the Pink Room can be found here.
And now to the Marquis of Londonderry. He’s better known as Viscount Castlereagh and in certain circles, the husband of an Almack’s Patroness. Long before his duel with rival and fellow ghost-observer George Canning, Robert Stewart was serving His Majesty’s forces in Ireland when he saw the Goblin Child of Belashanney in the village barracks. According to Thomas Moore, “Regency Poet of Wine and Love,” the Duke of Wellington made Castlereagh recount the story to Sir Walter Scott. He complied and “told it without hesitation as if he believed it implicitly:”
“It was one night when he was in the barracks and the face brightened gradually out of the fireplace and approached him. Lord Castlereagh stepped forward to it, and it receded again and faded into the same place approached it.”
Moore goes on to relate that Scott swore only two men ever admitted to him they saw a ghost and both eventually ended their lives by suicide. One was Stanhope.
The other was Lord Castlereagh.