Friday 11 January 2013

White Ladies

In my book ‘Dark Angels’ (US title ‘The Shadow Hunt’) the castle of La Motte Rouge, which shelters below the hill called Devil’s Edge, is haunted by a mournful White Lady who wanders the courtyard on dark and misty nights, wringing her hands and moaning softly.  She’s creepy but harmless, she's  forgotten her own name; she may be the diminished pagan spirit of the spring which feeds the castle’s cistern, and is regarded by the various inhabitants with attitudes ranging from fear to  pity. In this passage the saintly old priest Howell intercepts her as she peers in at the door of the castle’s chapel:

Billows of mist floated across the yard, and the pale lady was still moaning and wringing her hands at the chapel door. 

“Hush now, hush!” the old man called in a soothing voice.  The lady turned to him like a frightened child.

“I can’t remember.  I can't remember my name…”

“Dear, dear. …But that’s all right, because you see, we have a name for you.  Dame Blanche, our White Lady, our sweet Ladi Wen.”  He dropped into musical Welsh, and the lady listened very attentively.  When he had finished she bowed her head and walked smoothly away. The mist followed her.  Her feet moved a fraction above the ground, and when she reached the dark corner of the building, Wolf wasn’t sure if she went around it, or just vanished. 

You can catch a glimpse of her here.

White Ladies are a bit different from other ghosts. In an article called The White Lady of Britain and Ireland, by Jane C Beck (Folklore, Vol 81, 1970), Beck argues that “the modern day ghost known as the White Lady … is …a creature with a heritage reaching back to the darkest recesses of time.  Although her most usual form today is that of a gliding spectre, some of the acts she performs recall her earlier condition as a deity.”

Ghost stories often come complete with ‘explanations’ for the apparition - explanations which usually feel contrived.  Frequently they involve some sort of crime: the ghost is unable to rest because it is either the victim or the perpetrator.  White ladies are often described as murdered brides or sweethearts, or else girls who have drowned themselves for love. They are frequently associated with water. A story from Yorkshire, reported in 1823, tells how a lovely maiden robed in white is to be seen on Hallowe’en at the spot where the rivers Hodge and Dove meet, standing with her golden hair streaming and her arm around the neck of a white doe. From Somerset, Ruth Tongue describes an apparition called the White Lady of Wellow,

… who haunts St Julian’s Well, now in a cottage garden.  She played the part of a banshee to the Lords of Hungerford, but she seems to have been a well spirit rather than a ghost.  The Lake Lady of Orchardleigh is another white lady who is rather a fairy than a ghost.  But the most fairy-like of the three is the White Rider of Corfe, who…gallops along the road on a white horse, turns clean aside by a field gate and into the middle of a meadow, where she vanishes.  I was told about her by some old-age pensioners in the Blackdown Hills in 1946.  One of them said. “She shone like a dewdrop,” and another of them, “T’was like liddle bells all a-chime.”

In Wales there are apparently two types of white ladies, the Dynes Mewn Gwyn or lady in white, and the ladi wen: the first is a true ghost; the second is an apparition which haunts the place where someone has died a violent death. Not all White Ladies are harmless.  Jane Beck tells of one which appeared at Ogmore Castle near Bridgend, Glamorgan, where she was believed to guard a treasure under the tower floor.  One man was brave enough to speak to her; she gave permission to take half the treasure and showed him where it lay, but when he was so greedy as to return for the rest:

The White Lady then set upon him, and to his dismay, he found she had claws instead of fingers, and with these she nearly tore him to pieces.

Jacob Grimm, in his Teutonic Mythology, talks of the White Lady as someone who

… appears in many houses when a member of the family is about to die, and …is thought to be the ancestress of the race.  She is sometimes seen at night tending and nursing the children… She wears a white robe, or is clad half in white, half in black; her feet are concealed buy yellow or green shoes.  In her hand she usually carries a bunch of keys or a golden spinning wheel.

I’m strongly reminded of Princess Irene’s great-great (ever-so-many-greats) grandmother in George MacDonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblin’, a beautiful woman with long white hair who can seem both old and young, who inhabits the top floor of the castle tower, and sits spinning her magical moony wheel.  When Irene climbs the tower steps and taps at the door:

“Come in, Irene,” said the sweet voice.

The princess opened the door and entered.  There was the moonlight streaming in at the window, and in the middle of the moonlight sat the old lady in her black dress with the white lace, and her silvery hair mingling with the moonlight, so that you could not have told which was which.

And is the Lady of the Lake, in the Morte D’Arthur, a White Lady?  She is seen by Arthur and Merlin ‘going upon the lake,’ and although it is not actually her arm ‘clothed in white samite’, which brandishes the sword Excalibur above the water, she does tell Arthur that the sword belongs to her. Whose is the arm, then?  We never find out.

In John Masefield’s wonderful wintry book “The Box of Delights’, there’s a passage which well combines the ambiguous mystery and dread of the White Lady.  Kay Harker is out on the Roman Road on a night ‘as black as a pocket’ and sees something white moving towards him:

He remembered, that Cook had said, there was a White Lady who “walked” out Duke’s Brook way.  This thing that was coming was a White Lady… but supposing it was a White Wolf, standing on its hind legs and ready to pounce.  It looked like a wolf; its teeth were gleaming. Then the moon shone out again; he saw that it was a White Lady who held her hand in a peculiar way, so that he could see a large ring, with a glittering ‘longways cross’ on it.

“Come Kay,” she said, “you must not stay here; the Wolves are running: listen.”

Significantly the White Lady (who in this case is wholly benevolent) is still believed by Cook to haunt a water course: Duke’s Brook.  Masefield’s fiction is full of folklore, in which he clearly took great delight: his White Lady runs true to type.

Before the Romans came to Britain, the British appear to have worshipped the deities – many or mainly female – of rivers, streams, springs and pools. Most of their names, like that of my White Lady, must have been forgotten, but we still know Sabrina of the River Severn, and Sulis, who gave her name to Aquae Sulis, the hot springs at Bath. To the waters of these springs, pools and rivers, the British made offerings – just as we still throw coins into fountains – and many is the bronze or iron age sword which has been recovered from river beds and marshlands.  How many Bediveres have thrown precious weapons to the Lady of the Lake?  And what did they hope to receive in return? Health?  Wealth? Victory? 

I like White Ladies – beautiful, eerie creatures draped in moonlight, trailing clouds of grief and longing for those far-away ages when they still had the power to bless and to curse.

Picture credits:

The Woman in White by Frederick Walker, image courtesy of The Victorian Web
Irene's Grandmother, by Arthur Hughes; illustration from The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald
Sulis Minerva in the Museum of Bath by Akalvin at Wikimedia Commons. Original uploader was Akalvin at de.wikipedia


  1. this article is very's also beautiful as the story of White Lady is quite romantic. i felt somehow a little sadness in her walks, in her life among the living people.not everyone understands what she is.
    thanks for sharing a lovely piece of folklore and culture.

  2. You're right, Hindustanka, there's definitely sadness connected with the idea of the White Lady! Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Lovely post. And you made me o dig out my childhood copy of The Box of Delights- a favourite of mine. Hope all is well. Kath, and that 2013 is very good to you.

  4. Wonderful post.
    When I was researching banshees, I came across a couple of these white (or grey) ladies much like the one you mention from Grimm.
    There is something haunting and sad and captivating about them. You've captured that so well with yours in Dark Angels.

  5. Lovely, shivery post, Kath - thank you. No argument from me this week!
    It's so often some small detail that gives you that frisson - the streaming hair and the arm round a white doe! Lady of the Animals!
    And your White Lady is a magnificent creation. She's gentle, sad and unthreatening - and yet so very eerie. I don't know how you managed that. Beautifully done.

  6. That's a beautiful piece of work. I remember very well the White Lady from 'Dark Angels' and how moved and surprised I was to witness the relationship between her and the local people.

    It is so often the case that our ghosts and monsters and perhaps many of the faery clan, are folk-memories of earlier deities or lost heroines/heroes.

    I love this cultural detective work as it leads to so many paths of enlightenment, both in terms of history, psychology, culture and storytelling. I often refer to the great body of folklore and mythology as 'the archaeology of the soul' and to go digging there is always to find treasure.

    In the celtic myths of course, Bronwen, Bran's sister, means 'white skin' or 'white blossom.'

    I also recall, although without trawling through my books I couldn't quote you chapter and verse, but Arthurian Romance from the mabinogion to Malory are rich in references to various white ladies.

    A fascinating post and an eloquent one. I'm so happy to have found your blog!

  7. This is beautiful, Katherine. As soon as I saw the illustration of Princess Irene's grandmother I felt the shiver of awe and fear from all those years ago when I was a child and first met Irene and Curdie. Then, my inability to understand the grandmother worried me deeply. I don't mind, now. I've got used to not understanding.

  8. Thanks for all these comments! Lynn, I'm sure banshees and White ladies are related. I've come across grey ladies, and used to live close to an old house with a red lady (she would look out of an upstairs window; I never saw her, but the neighbour who owned the house did.)

    Sue, happy we agree, but also happy to disagree with you any time you like - I always learn from you!

    Austin, thankyou - I'm so glad you liked my own white lady.

    Sally - exactly. Irene's grandmother is something very mysterious and wonderful - and, for such a Christian writer, not at all Christian in any obvious sense even though I feel she does have some deeply moral significance.

    Jo - the happiest of new years to you too.

  9. Fascinating post... I very much liked the way the old priest Howell treated the White Lady with such compassion in your story... and having grown up and lived very near to Wellow all my life I'm afraid I didn't know that tale or the Lake Lady of Orchardleigh - also close to where I live. I wonder how many other folk tales are right under my nose!

  10. You must look out for them now! White ladies AND folk tales, I mean.