When you arrive at Bisham Abbey, if you know the stories, it pays to look up. Way up high, to the red brick tower.
Every window up there seems to be blind. So that inside the tower, I cannot imagine there must be much light; only musty, centuries-old gloom.
We had better hope that talk of buildings remembering what happens in them is pure fanciful conjecture. Because if the walls of this tower could speak, it might tell tales on one of the most powerful mothers of her time, and the choices she made.
We have arrived, then, at 1522: and Bisham Abbey was empty once again. Henry VIII had despatched the last family who lived there, and he chose to award Bisham to Anne of Cleves in lieu of being married to him.
The Flanders Mare accepted it, and she swapped it. Diplomat and ambassador, Sir Philip Hoby, moved in.
He passed it to his half-brother, Thomas, on his death. And Thomas brought with him his wife: Dame Elizabeth Hoby.
A more formidable woman it would be hard to find. She was one of four intellectually brilliant sisters; the first married Lord Burghley, Lord High Treasurer; the second was governess to Edward VI and the mother to Francis Lord Velarum – one of the candidates for the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Elizabeth was fluent in Latin, Greek and French and used them in translations and tomb inscriptions. She was ambitious, and a personal friend of Queen Elizabeth I.
The stories say she was cold, though there is little evidence to support this. Unless you look at her portrait, hung in the Great Hall.
History records four children by that marriage: Edward, Elizabeth, Ann and Thomas Posthumous.
But locals say there was another, the youngest: William.
And while the rest were dyed-in-the-wool brilliant scholars, William was just not gifted academically, local lore had it. He was dull, and his books were unsightly and blotted, his hand ungainly. He irritated his mother as a grain of sand in the eye.
The villagers knew all about it. They would walk the towpath on the opposite side of the river, and watch Elizabeth in the summer-house, striding between the desks where her children sat intent on their tasks. But one passer-by swore her voice would rise to shouts of rage when she turned her attention to her youngest. An observer watched her beat him about the head with a ruler until he was bleeding from eyes, nose and mouth.
One Winter’s day it was cold, and everyone repaired to the tower for lessons. As usual, all the others met their mother’s approval and were sent away to pal;, but little William had blotted his work again, and was made to stay behind. Storytellers are lurid in their portrayal of the mother who beat him so severely she drew blood; forbade him to leave the room until the work was finished; and then went out for a ride on her horse.
She returned to find a messenger at the front door with a summons from Queen Elizabeth. She must go at once to Windsor Castle; and never did it cross her mind to check on her little dunce, up there in the tower, alone and bleeding.
She was away for several days. And when she got back, eventually, she enquired after William.
But My Lady, they said, dismayed: we thought he was with you.
History does not tell of the flight up the stairs, and who was fastest to open the door and encounter the small, pathetic remains of a little boy.
Perhaps history is making it all up.
But before you write the story off completely, listen: for in 1840 during alterations, a tenant’s builders found a large quantity of ancient school notebooks. The owner, Mrs General Vansittart, was driven over to see them: and indeed, it was the children’s notebooks, corrected by Dame Hoby herself. It was Mrs Vansittart who found them: a set of scrappy, blotted books. Each, she swore, bore the name William Hoby.
As builders are wont to do, they carried them off, contrary to instructions.
And the books were never seen again.