A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.
Tucked away in the heart of Birmingham, Aston Hall is a fine example of Jacobean architecture. Built between 1618 and 1635 for Sir Thomas Holte, the house sits in a large park, more famous these days as the home of Aston Villa football club, an English Premier League soccer team. Currently managed by Birmingham Museums Trust, the Hall is now a community museum, featuring grand panelled corridors, fine art, and period furniture. It is also reputed to be one of Birmingham’s most haunted buildings, thanks in part to the fiery temper of the man who built it.
A Vain and Ambitious Man
Sir Thomas Holte, 1st Baronet, was born in around 1571, and died in 1654. Son of Edward and Dorothy Holt of Duddeston, Warwickshire, he was born into a wealthy family which possessed vast tracts of land and commanded great respect in the area. Thomas succeeded his father aged 21 after his death, doing rather well for himself and boosting the family fortunes. He had a reputation of being vain and ambitious, and he craved power. Serving as High Sherriff of Warwickshire in 1599, he received a knighthood from King James I in 1603 as the monarch-to-be was on his way to London to claim his place on the throne.
Purchasing the title of Baronet in 1612, Sir Thomas felt that he now outranked other wealthy families in the area, and saw it only fit that a grand house should be constructed in order to demonstrate his power and status. His title was one of only 200 granted by King James I, and was a level above a knighthood. It was prestigious, and granted the bearer a hereditary title; one that would be passed down from father to son. It meant that he would now outrank nearly everyone outside of the peerage. However, the price of the title was the blood of the Irish. The fee of £1,095; a small fortune in 1612, was used to fund the King’s army in Ulster, and crush the Catholic Irish who still opposed the new Protestant ways and English rule. Holte was awarded the Red Hand of Ulster to add to his coat of arms, which was later explained through a grisly story of murder.
There was little love for Sir Thomas Holte, who is now remembered for being obstinate, vindictive, and violent.
Sir Thomas married well; his first wife Grace, was the daughter and co-heiress of William Bradbourne of Derbyshire. She gave birth to fifteen children, although many of these sadly died in infancy. During his life, Sir Thomas and Aston Hall saw their share of conflict with the English Civil War, where Holte warily sided with the Royalists. Naturally loyal to the King who had knighted him, Holte hosted King Charles I as a guest at the hall, and used his influence to secure a position within the King’s Household for his second son, Edward. He had great plans to increase his family’s dynasty, intending for his son to marry well and increase their influence further.
To his dismay, Edward fell in love with Elizabeth King, daughter of John King, the Bishop of London. Holte refused to give permission for this marriage, and upon learning that Edward had gone ahead with the marriage regardless, cut his son out of all inheritance, despite King Charles himself urging him to reconsider. So hateful was Sir Thomas, that he quarreled with Edward for twenty years, and went to great lengths to try to ruin him.
When Sir Thomas’ eldest son, George, passed away in 1641, Sir Thomas remarried to spite Edward, and got to work quickly to raise another son with a woman much younger than he. Estranged Edward was killed in battle sometime during 1643, never obtaining reconciliation with his stubborn father.
Sir Thomas’ wicked scheming seemed at first to bear fruit, as his new bride, Anne did give birth to a son. However, like so many of his other children, the boy did not survive to adulthood.
Sir Thomas died at the grand age of eighty-three. Upon his death, Sir Thomas was buried in Aston Church, leaving behind his widow and one daughter named Grace. The Holte line was ended. The legacy still lives on though through terrible tales of Holte’s household.
The Red Hand
It would seem that Sir Thomas was overcome by one of his rages, perhaps upon being displeased by the dinner served to him by his cook. Sir Thomas was accused of murder in 1606 by William Ascrick of Birmingham who claimed that ‘Sir Thomas tooke a cleever and hytt hys cooke with the same cleever.. and clave hys head that the one side thereof fell upone one of his shoulders, and the other side on the other shoulder..’
Ascrick had accused Holte of splitting his cook’s head in half with a meat cleaver, killing the man. Wealthy Sir Thomas sued him for slander and was awarded damages, although the verdict was overturned after an appeal. Ascrick was cleared and would not have to pay, although Sir Thomas was never charged for his wicked deed. The logic behind this was that whilst the halves of the cook’s head had indeed fallen on to either shoulder, there was no evidence that the man had been deliberately killed. Of course, a man's head can fall into two pieces of its own accord! Sir Thomas' wealth and status meant that he was above the law.
Rumours naturally arose, and local tradition told later of how Sir Thomas murdered his cook in a cellar at Duddeston by ‘running him through with a spit’, and was subsequently compelled as a punishment, to adopt the red hand on his coat of arms.
As one would expect, the cook's ghost has been sighted around the kitchen areas of the Hall.
The Ghost of Dick's Garrett
Another of the Hall's staff to suffer Holte’s ire was a young servant boy. Accused of stealing food, the boy feared his master’s rage and to save himself further suffering, retreated to the servant’s quarters.
Contemplating his fate, so overcome was the servant by terror and misery, that he hung himself with a rope from the rafters. His ghost has been spotted roaming the corridors, particularly around the area where he died, which is known in modern times as ‘Dick’s Garrett’.
A caretaker of Aston Hall has reported seeing his shadowy form swinging from the rafters.
The Girl at the Stable Block
Now converted as toilet block, the stables is home to its own ghost. Local accounts tell of how a young girl was murdered, and her ghost lingers in this place.
Details of how she met her demise have not been recorded; varying accounts suggest that she was killed after a liaison with the sadistic Sir Thomas during a fit of one of his passions, or that she may have been killed upon being discovered having romantic meetings with one of the stable-hands.
The Grey Lady
Like many stately homes, Aston Hall is home to its own Grey Lady. Said to be the daughter of Sir Thomas Holte, The Grey Lady haunts the House, particularly the upper floors of the building. In life, she had refused her father’s choice of suitor, as she had fallen in love with another man. Outraged, Sir Thomas locked her in an upstairs room after learning of her plans to elope. She would be released if she forgot all this nonsense and did what she was told.
However the girl was as stubborn as her father, and would not budge. Refusing to submit to Sir Thomas’ wishes and give her heart to the man chosen to be her husband, the poor girl remained locked away and there she stayed until her death 16 years later.
It is said that her broken heart caused her to go completely insane, although other accounts tell of how she was starved to death. This restless spirit still makes regular appearances with at least two sightings reported each year. Described as being a solid grey form, she is sometimes mistaken for a staff member in period dress. Until she vanishes!
The Green Lady
The Green Lady is rumoured to be a former housekeeper, named Mrs Walker, who is sighted in the Great Hall, or housekeeper’s living quarters. In life, it is said that she served until 1645.
Often spotted sitting in a chair, or wandering the galleries, she is described as wearing a long, green dress of elegant cut with a high collar. She will disappear upon noticing that she has been seen.
Planning a Visit
Aston Hall is open to the public for much of the year and charges a small entrance fee to explore the site.
Ghostly Tours can be booked around Halloween, but do hurry and plan in advance as these are always very popular.
For those that wish to enjoy a more relaxed visit, Aston Hall by Candle Light events run every Christmas.
Full details on prices and the Hall's opening hours can be found on the Official Website, here: http://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/aston
Aston Hall Ghost Stories by Amy's Crypt on YouTube
© 2018 Pollyanna Jones
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 29, 2018:
This is an informative article. I enjoy learning about British history. The addition of ghost stories makes it even more interesting!