It’s a familiar story . . . an isolated and ancient country house where a ghostly figure is said to haunt the corridors and glide through the moonlit gardens. This particular version takes place at Godolphin, one of Cornwall’s best-known manor houses and involves the Godolphin family who once lived there and were amongst the great and the good of the region.
This is the story of a tragic death and the ghost of a White Lady . . .
A Fair & Pious Lady
Margaret Blagge was born on 2 August 1652, probably in London. She was the youngest daughter of Thomas Blagge and Mary, daughter of Sir Roger North of Mildenhall. Hers was a privileged but turbulent childhood.
Her father was a Groom of the Bedchamber in the court of Charles I, and during the civil war he commanded the garrison at Wallingford for the king. Then, after the execution of the king, Blagge and his family, including Margaret, followed the royal family and the future Charles II into exile in France. When the Restoration came he was made colonel of a regiment and governor of Yarmouth and Landguard Fort and when he died on 14 November 1660 Thomas Blagge was buried in Westminster for his loyalty to the crown. Margaret was just eight years old at the time of her father’s death.
Her father’s passing left her and her mother without any financial support, much of the family’s wealth and property had been swallowed up by the rigours of the Civil War. Fortunately, however it is said that the King was sympathetic to their situation and allowed Mary Blagge a small pension while Margaret was brought to court as a Maid of Honour. From 1666 she was maid of honour to the Duchess of York, and, at her death in 1671, Margaret was moved into the household of Queen Catherine as her maid of honour.
It was said that she was extremely popular at court, intelligent, witty and reputedly extraordinarily beautiful. Her long-time friend, the diarist John Evelyn wrote of her:
“every body was in love with, and some allmost dyeing for her!”John Evelyn, The life of Mrs godolphin, 1847
It should be noted that her friendship with Evelyn was an unusual one, especially for the time, he was around 30 years older than her, but it seems that the pair had a deep connection that lasted until her untimely death. He mentioned her frequently in his diaries and later wrote her biography.
When she accompanied Lord and Lady Berkeley to France in 1675, King Louis XIV was anxious to meet her but it is said that Margaret arranged her affairs so that she could avoid the attentions of the king. Despite the fun and frolics of life in the royal household Margaret was also renowned for her piety and was even considering retiring from court life entirely and becoming a nun.
“A lady renowned from her purity in a court notorious for its lack of chastity . . .”Crispin Gill, The Great Cornish Families, 1995
However, Margaret fell in love with a Cornishman and everything changed.
Meeting Sydney Godolphin
It is unclear when Margaret and Sydney Godolphin, the first Earl of Godolphin, first met but it is thought that their paths would have crossed when she arrived at court in 1666. It seems that he courted her for many years and then finally in 1675 she consented to marry him.
The two wed at Temple Church in London on 16th May 1675. John Evelyn wrote in his diary:
“16th May – This day was my dear friend, Mrs Blagg married at the Temple Church to my dear friend Mr Sydney Godolphin, Groom of the Bedchamber of His Majesty.”
(Unmarried women were often referred to as ‘Mrs’ during this period.)
It was after her wedding that Margaret had accompanied the Berkeleys to Paris in 1675, leaving Godolphin behind, and keeping their marriage a secret for the whole trip, hence her need to avoid the attentions of the French king. But when she returned in 1676, the couple announced their union and made a home together in London.
The Death of Margaret Godolphin
“She was not a Cornishwoman by birth but she was by marriage and by a touching affection for her husband’s native county.”Rev. Canon Mason, Cornish telegraph, 24th Feb 1881
By 1678 Margaret was pregnant with the couple’s first child but it seems that her health began to suffer almost immediately. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography she mentioned her own death on several occasions during the pregnancy, as if preparing for it. This is perhaps not entirely unusual given the mortality rate for mothers at that time. In the later stages of pregnancy, however, she went with John Evelyn to visit Elias Ashmole and his collection of curiosities (the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford), and he consulted his astrological charts and various mathematical instruments and predicted that she would give birth to a boy – “a Brave child”.
This prediction came true when on the 3rd September Margaret gave birth to Francis, the future second Earl of Godolphin. At first mother and baby both seemed to be doing well, the same day as the birth John Evelyn notes that he and his wife went to dine with the couple and meet their new son. But it quickly became clear that something was not right with Margaret and her health rapidly deteriorated over the next few days. She was soon in extreme pain and running a high fever.
Four different doctors were called but “neither the Cupping and the Pidgions [?]” could save her. (Today a likely diagnosis for her illness might be puerperal fever or an infection of the womb, which could have been easily treated with antibiotics.)
On the 8th September 1678 John Evelyn wrote the following in his diary:
“Whilst I was at church came a letter from Mr Godolphin that my dear friend, his lady, was exceedingly ill and desiring my prayers and assistance. My wife and I took a boat immediately and went to Whitehall where to my inexpressible sorrow I found she had been attacked by a new fever so violent that it was not thought she could last many hours.”
Margaret Godolphin died the following day aged just 26 years. And as suspected she had been prepared and had left a letter with her sister-in-law, Mrs Joel Boscawen, to be given to Sydney after her death.
The Letter & Funeral
In her letter to Sydney Margaret insisted that she wished to be buried close to his family home in Cornwall – a place we should note she had actually never managed to visit, and that the funeral there was to be a simple one. She wrote:
” . . . you will sometime think of me with Kindnesse; but never with too much Griefe. For my Funerale, I desire there may be no Cost bestow’d upon it at All. I would Begg, that my Bodie might lie where I have had such a mind to Go myself . . . I believe, if I were Carryed by Sea the expense would not be very Greate . . .”
We can imagine from this those intimate conversations between the couple, Sydney telling his wife about his childhood home in Cornwall and her planning their life there together. But it wasn’t to be, and neither was her quiet, inexpensive funeral.
According to Margaret Caine and Alan Gorton in their book on Cornwall’s haunted houses, Sydney had Margaret’s body embalmed and chose to bring her to Cornwall via the more costly overland route. She was placed in a lead-lined coffin on a hearse pulled by six black horses, complete with cavalry outriders, and this was followed by coaches carrying thirty members of her family and servants.
The journey took 14 days and every night the coffin was taken out of the hearse and “decently placed in a house with tapers about it and her servants attending.”
Margaret was laid to rest in the Godolphin vault inside Breage Church, just a few miles from Godolphin House, as she had wished, alongside her husband’s family. And there is a local tradition that she was buried with all her jewels.
The brass plaque on her coffin is said to have read:
“Here lyes a Pearl, none such the Ocean yields
In all the Tresaure of his liquid fields
But such as that a wise Merchant bought
Who the bright gem with all his substance bought.”
So, why is it said that Margaret now haunts Godolphin House?
The White Lady
“The ghost of the unhappy Margaret . . . is alleged to have been sighted on numerous occasions, usually in the vicinity of the entrance hall of the house.”Peter Underwood, Ghosts of Cornwall, 1983
For many years there have been rumours of a ghost of a ‘White Lady’ haunting Godolphin House. It is said that she often appears in the hall where she emerges from a tiny closet long since sealed up. The White Lady has also been frequently seen in the gardens, especially on or around the anniversary of Margaret’s funeral.
In fact, she was sighted so often that one path that leads through an avenue of trees (the old driveway perhaps) in the direction of Breage church became known as the “Ghost Walk” or the “Ghost Path”. It is also said that this path once led to a small family chapel, now disappeared, that stood within the grounds of Godolphin House and it is thought that Margaret’s coffin may have been placed here while she waited for her burial at Breage.
Those that have seen her invariably describe the rustling sound of her skirts as they sweep across the floor. The historian A. L. Rowse actually spent the night at Godolphin, sleeping in one of the guest rooms in an Elizabethan bed. He reported being woken in the night by “the unmistakeable swish of a woman’s silk dress” sweeping across the floorboards in his bedroom.
The White Lady has been described as very beautiful but sad, with a head of long, thick, dark brown curls and of course many have come to believe her to be the ghost of Margaret Godolphin, roaming the halls of the home that should have been hers.
But there could be another reason for her restlessness.
Sydney Godolphin did not attend his wife’s funeral.
Some accounts claim that John Evelyn was part of the cortege trailing behind Margaret’s coffin to Cornwall and that Sydney followed later in his own coach. But in his diary Evelyn categorically states that he accompanied the procession as far as Hounslow before returned to London where he and Sydney Godolphin sorted through Margaret’s papers and letters. There is no mention of either of them travelling to Cornwall to attend her funeral. It seems that, perhaps either because of his unbearable grief or for some other more callous reasons, Godolphin did not return home with his wife. Could this betrayal be why Margaret cannot rest?
The owner of Godolphin house in the 1950s, Mary Schofield, became particularly attached to the idea of the White Lady and the ghost of Margaret. Her young daughter claimed to have seen “a beautiful lady with black curls” standing beside her bed, a ghostly figure who she said then vanished into a cupboard where a now blocked up door once was.
In the 1990s Mary told the West Briton newspaper:
“Every year on the day my daughter saw the ghost I sit and watch over the ghost walk but I have never seen the White Lady. I would love to see her though because I think she felt the same way I do about this house.”
So is the ghost of the White Lady the shadow of poor Margaret Godolphin, forever mourning the life in Cornwall that she never had the chance to live?
Her Final Resting Place
Inside Breage Church there is a separate side chapel known as the Godolphin Chapel, beneath the floor of this quiet space is said to be the Godolphin family vault and it was here that Margaret was laid to rest.
To the right of the altar there is a brass plaque on the floor, added in the 19th century, which bears her name and an inscription.
But take a close look at the altar itself and you will notice a small brass plate attached to the stone base. Look closer still and you will see that this tiny plaque bears Margaret’s name and in Latin lays out the details of her life – her father’s name, her husband’s and her son’s, the dates of her birth and death.
It is thought that this plaque was found, possibly during renovations, when the Godolphin vault was opened. And even more strangely this plaque is said to have been engraved by John Evelyn himself, as a sign of his love and friendship, and it would once have been fixed to the lid of Margaret’s coffin.
How and why it came to be above ground is a mystery.
Final Thoughts –
A Slimy Houseguest
During my research for this article I came across an alternative theory as to what might be haunting Godolphin House and its so bizarre I just couldn’t leave it out. In February 1925 the Western Morning News reported that a Major Gill had given a very successful lecture to around 300 members of the London Cornish Association.
During the talk Gill covered a range of subjects for the Cornish-in-exile, including famous Cornishmen and their achievements and some amusing pieces of folklore from the region. He even told a strange story that he had heard connected to Godolphin House.
“There is a story of a fair lady who tried to poison her rival, a Godolphin, but the powder got into her own glass by mistake. Because she was a witch it did not kill her but changed her into a horrible slimy dragon. She was chained up in one of the rooms of Godolphin and to this day the floor in that room is said to be mysteriously slimy and her ghost haunts the garden on gloomy nights.”Major Gill, Western Morning News, 3rd Feb 1925
Make of that what you will.
(Godolphin House is now cared for by the National Trust. It is possible to walk in the grounds and surrounding estate most days, see Walking Opportunities below, but the house is only open one weekend every month.)