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Wishful thinking for a Christmas ghost or two….

John Holland's Ghost

A ghost story for Christmas may seem a little ill-placed, but nevertheless it has become something of a tradition. There was a time when BBC TV would not have been the same without something ghostly on Christmas Eve. Now we may or may not see anything like that. Dickens was greatly to blame, with Scrooge and his ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come.

I do not claim to be in Dickens’ class (hardly!) but I too have written such a seasonal ghost tale, part of which is true. Unfortunately, it is the ghosts themselves who are fictional. At least, I think they are. It came about because, as a writer of historical fiction, I long ago decided that I would attend to the story of John Holland, the 1st Earl of Huntingdon and 1st Duke of Exeter. I have said before in another post that he was the younger of Richard II’s two half-brothers. Passionate, handsome, fiery, brave and well skilled in the lists of love, as well as the lists themselves, he was one of the most colourful figures at Richard’s court. He came to a very sticky end, beheaded after Christmas, in January 1400, at Pleshey Castle, after becoming involved in the Epiphany Rising. It was a plot to overthrew Richard II’s usurper, Henry IV, and went pear-shaped, as the modern saying goes, and John paid the price. It was a brutal execution, a true hacking, but he died proudly and bravely. Quite a fellow. (As a side note that may intrigue Ricardians of the Richard III persuasion, Richard’s supporters were betrayed by a traitor to their cause, who informed on them to Henry. The similarities to what happened at Bosworth are quite startling. Another Richard betrayed by a so-called ‘friend’, who turned coat to support another Henry.)

Well, my interest in John Holland began way back in the 1970s, and I assembled an entire book of research, detailed chapters, the lot, only to be diverted into a another genre, that of 19th-century Regency England. Then, recently, Richard III was rediscovered. He was the inspiring figure who first got me writing, and I was delighted to think he had actually been found after all those centuries.. He fired me all over again, and my fingers fair smoked at the keyboard. But John Holland remained at the back of my mind.

I discovered that his favourite home, Dartington Hall in Devon, which he built, was now a hotel. Nothing could keep me away, so I hauled my husband along and we stayed there for a few days in autumn. It is the most beautiful house, set in rolling Devonshire countryside, on a hillside above the River Dart. I can well understand why John Holland loved it there so much.

Nothing even remotely supernatural happened, much as I wished it. Just a glimpse of the hall as it had been in Holland’s time? Please? But no, no such luck.

A year later we went again, not long before Christmas, and this time I was determined not to wish for anything at all. But being determined and actually succeeding were two different things. Deep down, I did wish. For something, anything. I stood in the breathtaking  courtyard, gazing at the house and the great hall, imagining all sorts of things. I sat in the porch, looking up at a famous ceiling boss of Richard II’s White Hart badge nestling on a red-rose cushion, surrounded by protective gold wheatears – the wheatear was John Holland’s badge. I went into the screens passage, imagining all the time, and then into the great hall, with the huge fireplace before which John and his royal wife, Elizabeth of Lancaster, would once have been seated on the dais, presiding over feasts and banquets.

My grey cells worked overtime, and a ghost story began to form. In it, I met the ghost of John Holland himself. You will find the story at Yes, wishful thinking indeed. Although I am sure that on Christmas Eve, when it’s dark outside and I have had a glass or two of Christmas cheer, I could convince myself it wasn’t imagination at all, but really happened…

I hope you read and enjoy it, and I wish you all a Merry Yuletide and a Prosperous and Fulfilling New Year.


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