The White Lady of Tutbury

Maybe not as famous of other ghosts, the White Lady of Tutbury remains intriguing.

Tutbury Castle and its ruins have a special place in English history.

The White Lady of Tutbury - chapel - Lucie Robinson

photo: Lucie Robinson

My solo acoustic guitar album, Lost and Haunted Ways, takes its title in part from the most ambitious composition, The White Lady of Tutbury, named for an apparition said to haunt the ruins of Tutbury Castle.

Celebrating 950 years in 2018, Tutbury Castle arose in 1068, less than two years after the Norman Conquest. With a natural command of the surrounding flatlands, it was likely the site of earlier, primitive strongholds.

In 1153, Henry FitzEmpress put the Castle’s uncooperative owner under siege during the Norman civil war known as The Anarchy, on his way to becoming Henry II, the first Plantagenet King of England. And his legendary wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, stayed at the Castle during their long reign, when it belonged to the Earls of Derby, that is, when they weren’t in rebellion against one king or another.

Some 350 years later, the Castle was the glittering jewel and center of power for John O’Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of King Edward III, and the historical inspiration for the fictional Tywin Lanister in Game of the Thrones.

The White Lady of Tutbury - John O'Gaunt - Lucie Robinson

But it is unlikely this fanciful portrayal of the Castle in Gaunt’s day is accurate. Much of the masonry didn’t exist for another century. Still, it was a palace compared to most castles. As the permanent home of his wife, Constance of Castile, it was made resplendent under her direction, and was reputedly the Windsor of its day.

Gaunt was also the progenitor of the Tudor line, which is descended through his mistress, Katherine Swynford. Their children were legitimized by the Pope following the death of Gaunt’s wife in 1394 and his marriage to Katherine two years later.

It was far grander (and granit-er) a castle in the Tudor era, when it also became the chief prison of Marie Ire d’Écosse, called Mary Queen of Scots today. Because of her possible claim to the English throne, she spent eighteen years locked away by her cousin, Elizabeth I.

Here is a drawing from the British Library, of the Castle’s interior made in 1584-85, which would have been around the time of her final stay. She was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587 for plotting Elizabeth’s assassination.

The White Lady of Tutbury - T Spoon Phillips -Tutbury Castle 1584

And here is a computer mock-up of what some feel it looked like in those days.

Modern excavations uncovered the foundations of a wooden longhouse that may have served as Queen Mary’s chamber. Much of the surviving stone structures at Tutbury Castle today date from that time. Only a gateway is left standing that was there in Gaunt’s day (it’s actually older,) while the recently uncovered chapel foundations date from the reign of Henry II in the 1170s.

A Sad End

After nearly 600 years of war wounds and rebuilding, the once-impregnable fortress was destroyed once and for all by the Parliamentarians at the end of the Civil War, to punish and impoverish the lands thereabouts for siding with King Charles I. At the restoration of the monarchy, Tutbury Castle was left as a ruin and memorial for Charles and all who suffered at the hands of Cromwell and his followers.

While it is understandable that people may choose to believe the spectral White Lady to be Queen Mary, I suggest she might could be any number of ladies who once walked the Castle grounds, in any of the many eras where it was a place busy with life, and a vital center of the local universe in that part of England.

And thus, my tone poem.

I felt haunted by my visit to the Castle long after I had left the place. It is indeed beautiful and evocative. Knowing that some of my favorite characters from history had been there, or descended from those who once lived there, filled me with the desire to put it all into music.

The first of the three sections in my “suite” is entitled “John O’Gaunt’s Gateway,” after the inner gate that is now the main entrance to the ruins. And so I imagine it opening wide for a long troop train to march off to some battle or royal progress, until a trumpet sounds and echoes, and the gates are closed.

The second section, “Lady of the Tower,” is meant to suggest one of any number of ladies, great or lesser so, who must remain behind and wait for…? Forever?

The final and longest section is called “The Ghost’s Walk,” and should be self-explanatory.

Read more about Tutbury and Tutbury Castle at


The White Lady of Tutbury - T Spoon Phillips - John O'Gaunt's Gateway

The White Lady of Tutbury - North Tower weeds - Lucie Robinson

photos: Lucie Robinson