top of page
  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Paranormal thinking?

Updated: Feb 16

Somehow we got talking about ghosts a couple of days ago. We were both reminded of working at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire and how it claimed to be one of the most haunted places in the UK. We both seemed to recall that Mary, Queen of Scots was one of those said to roam the grounds, but were we remembering correctly? Not only that, but wasn't Mary executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire? Why would she be haunting Tutbury some 75 miles distant?

We had to check. One of the first websites encountered was Now this is primarily a hotel directory offering clients a 'chance to possibly experience something paranormal in some of the most haunted hotels throughout the UK', but they also rather usefully include some background on the locations they feature.

Case study: Tutbury Castle Together with an apparition in a full suit of armour [1], a white lady, a little boy, and a small girl, the most famous of all the ghosts said to haunt Tutbury Castle is Mary, Queen of Scots. She was imprisoned at Tutbury on four separate occasions and is said to have despised Tutbury precisely because of the time she spent incarcerated there. So, armed with the description provided by, supplemented by 'Paranormal Eye UK', let's dissect what we 'know'.

A woman in white In 2004, at approximately midnight, Mary was seen standing at the top of the South Tower wearing a full white Elizabethan gown and peering down at the 40+ men being guided round the Castle. When they saw her the men laughed assuming it was Castle curator, Leslie Smith, wearing a costume to play a prank. It was pointed out, however, that neither she nor any other staff member (in 2004 at least) possessed a white gown and therefore it would have been impossible for one of them to have been the figure. Reputedly, the men were profoundly disturbed by the experience, but what makes this story significant is that so many witnessed Mary's 'ghost'.

Comment: Or did they? If the witnesses did indeed see a woman, just how close were they, on a dark night, to be able to positively identify the figure as the Queen? Who knew what Mary actually looked like? Which, if any, of the witnesses was able to identify, at a distance and at night, that the figure was wearing 'a full white Elizabethan gown' and not some other voluminous dress? After all most of us would struggle to discern the differences between the outline shape of a Tudor gown and, say, a much later mid-Victorian period dress. Perhaps they were 'seeing', and thus describing, the type of garb that they might expect to see given the known association between Mary and the Castle. As to whether a member of staff possessed the correct period costume, we only have their word that no one did and that the whole scene was not 'staged' (for publicity?). We know, from our experience working at Tutbury in 2006, that the curator was keen to promote the 'haunted castle' angle and even led guided tours in reproduction Tudor costume. Comment ends.

Other sightings To confuse things, the 'woman in white' also dresses in black if indeed it is the same figure who has been seen looking through the window of the Great Hall, often by people leaving the Castle in their cars. In 1984, a serving marine witnessed Mary, walking at an unusually fast pace across the grass on a hot afternoon. One summer she was reportedly seen by several senior members of staff at the Castle and by archaeologists who were carrying out an extensive 5-year dig. According to, the staff 'are quick to brush off anything paranormal about the castle'.

Comment: Promoting the haunted nature of the Tutbury has been a marketing ploy for many years. Leslie Smith, mentioned earlier and pictured right, was well known for her dramatic interpretations of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, for which she donned replica costumes. Certainly in 2006 when we worked at Tutbury Castle, she was regularly hosting ghost hunt evenings, in character. We cannot help surmising that including the reference to the archaeologists may be intended to increase the credibility of the paranormal sightings. The implication perhaps being that their professional training, emphasising objectivity and the detective-like nature of examining the evidence, would not be so easily fooled. Comment ends.

Why Tutbury? Queen Mary spent most of 1585 at her most hated castle, Tutbury, but in December of that year she was moved to Chartley Manor, a moated mansion near the ruins of Chartley Castle. It was while there that she became embroiled in The Babington Plot to assassinate the English Queen, Elizabeth I. Arrested for her involvement, Mary was briefly held in Tixall Hall in Staffordshire, the home of Sir William Aston, while her rooms at Chartley were searched. Between August and September 1586 she returned to Chartley Manor but, on Queen Elizabeth's orders, Mary was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on September 21st. This medieval castle, the birthplace of King Richard III, was to be Mary, Queen of Scots final residence. Fotheringhay's remote nature, surrounded by marshland, made rescue or escape difficult, an important consideration given that Mary was about to be tried for treason, after she had finally and firmly been implicated in the Catholic conspiracy to depose and murder Queen Elizabeth. Unsurprisingly, the outcome of Mary’s trial in 1586 was a foregone conclusion, but it took Elizabeth several months before she agreed to sign the death warrant. England’s queen could not execute Mary without first considering the implications; not only an anointed queen, but Mary was Elizabeth’s own cousin. The inevitable happened however and Mary was duly executed for treason at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8th, 1587. Comment: Now we are confused. If Mary's traumatic end took place in Fotheringhay Castle, why would she haunt Tutbury? We felt we needed to understand better what a 'haunting' meant. From an article in 2013, the website 'Psychic Source' offers three explanatory 'causes of a haunting':

1. Some believe that spirits come back from beyond the grave because they have unfinished business. It is often thought that ghosts who make their presence known need to get a message across, whether it's to their loved ones or people inhabiting their old homes.

2. People who suffer traumatic or untimely deaths are believed to come back and haunt the area where they died. This belief may explain why locations where crimes such as murders have occurred are considered to be prime locations for paranormal activity.

3. In some instances, individuals believe that alleged spirits are trapped in specific locations because they are unaware that they are dead. People who died quickly or unexpectedly might not have grasped the concept of death. In turn, they may feel like they're still alive and fail to understand why new people are in their personal space.

It seems to us that the second explanation, possibly best described as a 'residual haunting' [2], ought to apply to Mary's demise. We both recalled a 'theory' that proposed 'energy generated by traumatic. emotional or tragic events imprints records of those events on nearby physical objects, typically much the same way that magnetic tape recording imprints data on magnetic tape' (Lucia, 2020). This so-called 'Stone Tape theory' is highly unscientific, however, and the label 'theory' is wholly inappropriate. It is really only an unproven idea and purely conjectural. As sceptics, it simply does not make sense and just how would it work? The 'indisputable truth is that there is no method, procedure, apparatus or gadget in existence which is capable of recording the data involved in residual haunting on stone, let alone recording it on said stone in a form which can be replayed over and over again' (Lucia, 2020). Comment ends.

So Mary haunts Fotheringhay? Several macabre legends surround Mary’s beheading. When, for example, the executioner held the severed head by its hair to show onlookers the job was done, it became apparent that the queen had worn a wig – the hair came away in his hand and the head rolled across the floor. Given the nature of her violent end, however, Mary does not appear to haunt Fotheringhay Castle. Interestingly, however, on the way to her execution Mary descended the castle's great oak staircase; a staircase that in the 1620s was transferred to the Talbot Inn [now Talbot Hotel] in Oundle, four miles away, after Fotheringhay had fallen into ruins. The staircase can still be seen in the Talbot Hotel to this day, and tradition has it that, despite the change of venue, Mary's ghost can sometimes be seen descending its steps. Comment: One might argue this is a version of the third explanation but if the definition is applied rigorously, the 'facts' as presented simply do not fit. Comment ends.

Conclusions? By rights, if Mary, Queen of Scots was to haunt any location it ought to be Fotheringhay Castle, but apparently she does not. Instead Tutbury Castle is her preferred haunt. Believers in the paranormal may well point to the number of times Mary was incarcerated at Tutbury and that it was one of the places she disliked the most. The familiarity and emotion associated with Tutbury may be why Mary's ghost is drawn to the castle. But any such argument [3] does not fit with one of the three explanations presented above. So what are we left with seems to be either a 'ghost' haunting the wrong place or a skilful marketing opportunity - you decide.

For us, the so-called 'theories' explaining ghostly apparitions are no more than pseudoscience, and by any reasoned examination make no sense at all. Clearly, Mary's case is an object lesson in 'paranormal' thinking.



1. We know it's properly called a 'harness of plate' but that was not term used on the website.

2. According to Lucia (2020) from the website 'the Ghost in my Machine', The Psychic Library defines 'residual hauntings' as 'remnant[s] of past traumatic event[s] that happened at or near [a] location prior to someone's death'. The associated article 'How does it work? The Stone Tape Theory, residual hauntings, and the deep influence of memory and emotion' is well worth reading not only for an explanation of the terminology but also the arguments for and against of the 'Stone Tape theory' by both believers and sceptics.

3. This is very much a 'strawman' argument as no such position has been taken, to our knowledge, by anyone who believes in paranormal activity.

One finally note We must point out that this is neither an attack on Tutbury Castle nor its current or former staff. We are certainly not suggesting that anyone connected with the Castle is actively trying to deceive. Instead, we know the value of a good story to bring history to life, and ghost stories are some of the best. So, good luck to Tutbury Castle, one of Britain's most haunted places! We will remain, however, highly sceptical of 'paranormal' activity and the pseudoscience it attracts. But if you are a believer, that's fine.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page