Palace Tittle Tattle: the Marples at Court

Ah, the speed that gossip travels round a village.

It is the key to Agatha Christie’s Marple mysteries: a village is a hotbed of the whisper and the undercurrent. “”In St Mary Mead”, reads the text of Christie’s 1930 novel ‘Murder At The Vicarage’, “everyone knows your most intimate affairs. There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

Is this not true? Have we not met Marples in every small community we have ever known, razor-sharp, mouse-eyed quiet types who acquire definiteness when they perceive injustice?

I know one. Who sees everything that passes the window: who knows, without being nosey, when all is right with the world and when it is not. She gives a new meaning to our Neighbourhood Watch organisations, here in the UK. Watch she does; and while she may not take on the world herself, she can alert someone to attend to injustices and untidy situations.

Never is society safer than when these ladies meet regularly.

And I suspect the Duke of Wellington knew this. Even he, great warrior that he was, felt safer because of a meeting which would go on regularly at the abode of his mother, the Countess of Mornington.

The Countess had a rather lovely grace and favour house, apartments in that most self-absorbed and privileged of villages: Hampton Court.

She lived on the ground floor of the North East Angle. And on the East Front – the grand facade so different from the Court’s Tudor brick underbelly- was a favourite seat, below a picturesque window, where all the ladies of a certain age gathered to chat.

Wellington called it “Purr Corner.”

It was where the ladies gathered to exchange news. And what news that village did proffer, if you knew the right people!

The nook dated from around in the time of George III: but one cannot help wonder if the ladies had been there a great deal earlier; indeed, from the earliest days of this royal village.

I wonder if their eagle eyes spotted the errors of the hasty stonemasons who were ordered, after Anne Boelyn’s death, to change all the former queen’s crests, and replace the ‘A’ which had been linked with Henry VIII’s ‘H’, with a ‘J’ for Jane Seymour?

Did their laconic gazes take in the ‘A’ which remains even today, in the archway under the clock tower?

Their sharp eyes will have picked out the book Charles I dropped as he left Hampton Court in the custody of the roundheads.It was entitled ‘The Broken Heart”, a Royalist-sympathising tome which would not have found favour with his captors. Yet somehow it survived and, mud-stains intact, it sits in the Kings Library at the British Museum to this day, volume 100.

 Certainly they must have tutted over the manners of Elizabeth Cromwell, who may have come of a good family, but scandalised the good ladies of the court with her rough manners. Did that derisive nickname for Elizabeth,  ‘Old Joan’ start with them?

They must have followed Sir Christopher Wren with cautious optimism as he gave the old Tudor court a facelift its occupants would never forget: and celebrated the new court centred around a lavish fountain when it arrived as quite The Thing. A veritable Versailles.

In 1871, when the Fountain Court was excavated to provide modern drainage,  one older female resident at the Court was unsurprised when two skeletons were found under the cloister.

The Lady in question lived on the West side of the court. “The stupid board of works,” she is recorded as saying, “has at last found the two wretched men who, I have been telling everyone, have been haunting me for years!”

She had been accompanied often, it seemed, by two ‘presences’ and been bothered by the sound of people rapping on the panels for years.

The ladies may not have paid for the roof over their heads but heating and lighting were costly, and the great flights of stairs prohibitive. The good gentlwomen would travel about the court in ‘The Push’ – an old sedan chair on wheels, drawn by a man.

Yet all-seeing as they are, even the most long-lived could not live forever. When James I’s wife died the tittle-tattle would have it that the great clock struck the hour, and stopped.

And thus was born a legend with no foundation: perhaps fuelled by a yearning for a little immortality in that village of seething undercurrents. For it is said that whenever an elderly resident dies, the clock strikes at the moment of death: and then stops.

I prefer to think of the hawk-eyed ladies who keep the gossip alive, to this day, in this most privileged of villages.

My main source today is a little old book I found in a second hand bookshop: Strange Tales of Hampton Court, by Sheila Dunn and Ken Wilson.


37 thoughts on “Palace Tittle Tattle: the Marples at Court

  1. How fascinating, royal enclosure gossips. Sharing every little piece of trivia until whole pictures emerge?

    I see several of these groups, women of a ‘certain age’ meeting for coffee to gossip, and share all there is to know about ‘their people’

    1. Have you ever walked round, IE? There is a strange homeliness to its magnificence. Right down to the serving hatch where food was collected for banquets; and some of the street names: ‘Fish Court’…

  2. as the sun promises heat today I almost put your delights on hold until lunch, to dash to the garden – almost – I am so glad I stopped for my coffee, what a find – I love those random buys – I always swore I would never live in a village because of those twitching curtains ! so where do I live – in a village and so glad of women who watch – as they moniter my sister and her guide dog around and about – they are the ones who pop out to help if a walk goes wrong, they are the ones who notice if she drops anything and often return it to the house before she gets home, and they are the ones who ask after her if she has been missing for a few days.

    They watch and they know and both of us are very grateful to them – maybe the tittle tattle isn’t to my liking – but it is for the most part kindly meant and I have managed with care to keep my life private from them!:)

    I can picture those ladies of long ago – yay for us ladies

      1. Does somewhat, Kate, but it’s people and what they do which brings history to life. You have a real knack for ferreting out stories that do just that. I admire the skill and enjoy the stories.

  3. I’d never heard of the grace and favour apartments until reading here, Kate, and I particularly liked Wellington’s term “Purr Corner” (might need to adopt that name for our little neighborhood–all of us seniors and most, I think, ladies :)). Of course, that led me to look for more . . . and now I see that the ladies were sometimes also a bit greedy, to-wit: “. . . the Lord Chamberlain in 1903 recorded: ‘those decayed ladies are somewhat difficult to deal with–they all seek better things gratis’.” See: Do you know if this apartment still available for public viewing?

    1. Very good question, Karen. We haven’t found it yet: there are state apartments for Henry and the rest, but I didn’t track anything else down. Leave it with me: if no-one else answers this, I’ll go and ask the next time I’m there.

      1. Thanks, but please don’t make a special effort. The question was curiosity driven more than anything else. It’s highly unlikely I’d ever get to see it in any event!

  4. Well i surely want to read that book too, this was a great essay, we keep forgetting when we are reading about those times that these people were similar in many ways to the ordinary farmers wives who, as their daughters took over the chores and they got older together, would meet for a cup of tea and rip the locals to shreds with their laughing eyes. c

  5. Around these parts, we call such a person a “Mrs. Kravitz” from the nosy neighbor of the 60’s TV series, Bewitched. Indeed, in every place I’ve lived, there has been a Mrs. Kravitz.

    For many years a group of us met for coffee, almost every day it seems, at a coffee shop called The Chocolate Moon. Our Katy referred to us as the Moonies. It stuck and we even call ourselves the Moonies.

    Thanks for this bit of history, Kate.

    1. Once, when my Mom thought I was exhibiting too much curiosity about goings-on nearby, she called me Ms. Probe! Henceforth, I attempted to be less nosy, at least in her presence!! 🙂

  6. No matter how much time passes, people stay the same, don’t they? I’ve always wondered how anyone could stand being at Court. Places like Purr Corner probably made it a little more bearable for them. (At least, for those who weren’t the topic of conversations there.)

    1. Quite. Makes me remember how important it has always been to keep on the right side of these good ladies. I always loved their decisiveness, but I always took good care to pay respect where respect was due…

  7. What a wonderful little book to have found! I love the idea that there are spirits lurking around, rapping on windows and helping the “early Agatha’s” keep a keen eye on everyone. And yes, we all have them. I might even aspire to be one of the THEM when I retire. But I’ll write about my observations rather than be the town crier! Debra

  8. Dear Kate, do you in the UK have the word “coffee klatsch”? It’s German I think. It became popular here, as I remember, during the 1950s. It’s a gathering for conversation in which coffee is served, but when I was younger, it meant mostly a group of women sitting around the kitchen table with coffee and coffee cake and sharing their days–with the latest stories from their lives and those of their neighbors. And among them I’m sure was always the one extremely perceptive Miss Marple who understood motivation. Peace.

  9. Love Agatha . . . and the tongues wagging and clocks stopping reminded me of this nursery rhyme:

    The grandfather clock was too tall for the shelf
    So it stood 90 years on the floor.
    It was taller by half than the old man himself
    Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
    Ninety years without slumbering
    Tick Tock Tick Tock
    His life’s seconds numbering
    Tick Tock Tick Tock

    It stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died. 😀

  10. Strange tales, indeed, Kate – love the fascinating details such as “the ‘A’ which remains even today, in the archway under the clock tower” Perhaps not an error, but the work of a secret stonemason lover of Anne’s?

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