Sunday, 6 July 2014

White Ladies


In my book, 'Dark Angels' (US title 'The Shadow Hunt'), the 11th century castle of La Motte Rouge, placed in a fictitious part of the Welsh Marches, 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, and in my recent short story 'By Fynnon Ddu', published in the Sussex Folklore Centre's journal GRAMARYE, I was able to confirm my long-held suspicion that she is the diminished pagan spirit of the spring which feeds the castle's cistern - and is older, much older, than the castle in which she is now contained.  The various (Christian) inhabitants now regard her with attitudes ranging from fear to pity.  In this shortened extract my young hero, Wolf, encounters her late one night:

In the faint moonlight Wolf could see the yard - an expanse of greyish mud. He hurried across, and was about to slip around the corner of the Hall, where the huddled buildings made a darkness as intense as ink - when instinct made him pause, and a woman stepped around the corner from the opposite direction.   She was wrapped in flimsy clothing for this time of night: fluttering white garments with a light veil pulled across her face. She must be a lady of the household, one of Lady Agnes' women, though he hadn't noticed anyone like her at supper. Mist blew around her as she swayed towards him and murmured [something] in a melancholy, musical voice.

...'What's your name, lady?' he asked gently.  But the question seemed to distress her.'I can't remember', she moaned, swaying in a sort of absent-minded dance. 'Gwae fi! I can't remember!'

...Wolf stared at her feet.  She had crossed that dirty yard right behind him. His own shoes were clotted with mud. Yet there wasn't a single stain on her little white slippers.  

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 by 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.  John 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 Somnambulist, by John Everett Millais
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. I loved Irene's grandmother! Fascinating. I suppose Wilkie Collins' Woman In White draws on the tradition.

  2. Fascinating as always. Thank you.

  3. Interesting the way white stags/does/hermaphroditic fairy beasts keep showing up in stories from all over!
    Incidentally, I have nominated you for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award (no obligation to accept). Details are on my latest post if you're interested!

  4. Beautifully written! I love white ladies - not just the ghosts but also the protectors and the banshees. I had never heard the story of Irene and the goblin - thanks for that.

  5. Interesting how ghosts and folklore can overlap. White Ladies are common ghosts stories around my hometown, but I didn't realise there were so many types or that they appeared in so many stories! From reading this post, they remind me a bit of the Russian fairy tale character Baba-Yaga. Ambiguous - either harmful or helpful, depending on the situation.

    Love your extract, too! Very mysterious :)