Queen Emma's Ghost at the Bishop's Palace, Witney
15 August 2021 (Updated 20 September 2022)
Just to the East of St. Mary's Church in Witney once stood a large manor house known as the Bishop's Palace. The 'palace' was constructed in the 12th century as a second home for the wealthy Bishop of Winchester.
Although the palace was visited numerous times by Royalty, including Richard III and King John, by the mid 18th century its importance had dwindled. In 1751 what remained of the by-then dilapidated building was pulled down and a new property, Mount House, was built on the site.
A Royal Ghost
The site of the old Bishop's Palace is said to be haunted by the figure of a tall, willowy woman wearing the clothes of the Norman period. The figure has been seen in broad daylight drifting across the grounds of Mount House in the direction of where the Bishop's Palace once stood.
The figure is believed to be the ghost of Queen Emma of Normandy (984 - 1052), husband to King Æthelred the Unready, and father to King Edward the Confessor. Queen Emma's connection to Witney is strong. She is remembered in the street name Queen Emma's Dyke and the nearby Queen Emma's primary school.
Although the first Bishop's Palace was not completed until after Queen Emma's death, a popular legend about her is said to be connected to its construction.
Trial by Fiery Ordeal
Queen Emma was not always popular in court. She was a strong-willed woman and wielded considerable influence over her son, King Edward. As the story goes, the Bishop of Winchester was a close advisor to King Edward and saw Queen Emma as an impediment to gaining further power. In the hope of ruining the Queen's good name, he accused her of 'unchastity', and as a result, Queen Emma was taken to Winchester Cathedral to undergo a 'trial by fiery ordeal' to prove her marital fidelity.
This trial involved walking across plowshares that had been heated to a burning hot temperature and places on the floor of the Cathedral nave. To the Bishop's surprise, Queen Emma passed this trial with flying colours. She walked across the blistering heat of the plowshares without any discomfort or injury, and thus proved her innocence.
According to the story, King Edward was so relieved that his mother had passed her ordeal that he awarded the Bishop of Winchester twenty-one manors, including the one at Witney where the Bishop built his Palace. Why the king should choose to reward the person who had just been proved to have wrongly accused his mother of adultery is anyone's guess!
- 'Oxfordshire Ghosts' by Joe Robinson (2000, Wharncliffe Books, ISBN: 9781871647761)