A Brief History of Muncaster Castle

The Richards. Photography by Tiffany Black, Blackbirdphoto.com.

The Richards. Photography by Tiffany Black, Blackbirdphoto.com.


This week, I made a dispassionate decision to put the podcast on sabbatical in order to devote my life to telling ghost stories of my ancestors, the Penningtons of Muncaster Castle. This is a project I have been researching for 10 years — 30, if you count the endless hours of Blackadder I watched as a child or my own personal paranormal experiences, 800 if you count my genetic memory imprinted across the castle grounds.

The Baroness & the Fool began in earnest two years ago at Cicily JanusWriting Away mountaintop retreat. There at a cozy oak table in the company of literary lovelies, I realized my responsibility as “the Pennington with the pen.” Incidentally, that is the very same moment I realized I am in love with Graham. I called him up and said, “I need you to go with me to my family’s castle, and also I am in love with you.”

Since then, we uprooted our entire lives in order to be together and bring you these stories. Please enjoy this construction paper tale introducing the adventure at hand.

Follow along on our journey from the modern comforts of electronic mail.



Audio Essay: Discovering My Pennington Pedigree

Artwork by Graham Richards

We hope you are enjoying our recent blitz of audio essays.  Each week, Graham and I collaborate on a new enhanced story for your viewing/reading/listening pleasure.  This week, I wrote and recorded the essay, then Graham wrote music, etched the picture above, and transformed all the bits and pieces together to fit on your favorite reading device.  We are navigating new territory, and we appreciate your continued feedback.  Thank you for encouraging us by sharing our stories with your friends.

Download “Discovering My Pennington Pedigree” as ePub (iBooks).

Pre-order your digital copy of our enhanced storybook with your $10 Kickstarter Pledge.

Thank you for listening!

I always wanted to be English.  Alas, I was born in Chicago and reluctantly raised in Texas.  My American childhood was spent living in an imaginary version of Great Britain.  Fueled primarily by an early obsession with Robin Hood and The Black Adder, homeschool enabled my Anglophile curiosity to go unchecked for years.  Armed with a library card and mild social anxiety, I pieced together a colorful history of the slapstick Motherland so happily abandoned by our forefathers.

Our basement was musty enough to emulate a dusty old castle.  My sister and I would fashion courtier bustle’s out of sleeping bags and if our brother got in the way, we’d keep him captive under the pool table until he agreed to answer to his serf name, Baldrick.  Once my loyal subjects were in order, I would go outside to Sherwood Forest, climb up a tree with a book between my teeth, and carefully avoid other children until dinner.

I spent the whole of my education attending any school that offered even a single course in British culture, making me as fickle with majors as Henry VIII was with his wives.  I studied theater for Shakespeare, Literature for Austen, and History for the Tudors.  Though I was of legal drinking age, I holed up in my room for a solid week to devour the first four Harry Potter books.  Today my mind is consumed by genealogical research of my Pennington heritage.  I seek to better understand the influential role my family had in English history as the lords of Muncaster Castle.

In 1208, the wildly unpopular King John granted Alan de Penitone 23,000 acres of prime English countryside.  I can’t help but wonder what Sir Alan did to curry such favor with the sworn enemy of Robin Hood.   During the War of the Roses in 1464, King Henry VI sought refuge at Muncaster.  Sir John Pennington was rewarded for offering sanctuary with the gift of the King’s drinking bowl, known today as the Luck of Muncaster.  According to legend, the Penningtons will lord over Muncaster as long as the bowl remains unbroken.

Audio Essay: Tom Fool and the Ill-Fated Lovers

Crisman | Richards

Audio Essay:  Tom Fool and the Ill-Fated Lovers

Written and Narrated by Sarah Crisman

Music and Engineering by Graham Richards

Music performed by Dave Richards and Graham Richards

Muncaster Castle has been home to my family, the Penningtons for over 800 years — three generations live there today, along with numerous ghosts.  Muncaster is believed to be one of England’s most haunted buildings.  Paranormal researchers have spent over 20 years studying centuries-worth of unexplained events.  Many eerie happenings are attributed to the most famous castle ghost, Tom Fool, usually heard walking the halls and sneaking up close behind visitors.

Known in life as Thomas Skelton, the last Fool of the Pennington family, Thomas’ 16th century misdeeds were far darker than a few bumps in the night.  Two of the Muncaster ghosts knew Tom Fool in life and death:  Richard, a lovestruck, headless carpenter (reportedly seen wandering the grounds), and my headstrong, weeping ancestor Helwise Pennington — now believed to be the Grey Lady drifting through the halls of Muncaster.  They are known in English folklore as the Ill-Fated Lovers.

Thomas Skelton served faithfully as steward to the lord of Muncaster and as tutor to the Pennington children.  He is said to have known Shakespeare —  even rumoured to be the inspiration for King Lear’s Fool.

In the 2008 documentary Castle Ghosts of England, presenter Robert Hardy explains: “In Muncaster’s long story, there is no more malevolent character to judge by events than Thomas Skelton.”

In 1585, a scandal broke when the castle lord’s fiery daughter, Helwise, fell in love with the village carpenter, Richard.  The rebellious affair would not go undiscovered.  On May Day, Helwise donned a country hoodie and stole away to the May Pole dance in nearby Ravenglass.  When she patently refused to dance with a cocky villager and chose instead the modest carpenter, the lovers were quickly given away.  The jilted villagers followed the couple to Muncaster, where they discovered Helwise was the Lady Pennington and thusly engaged to their hunting buddy, Sir Ferdinand Hoddleston of Millum Castle.  Knowing full well Sir Ferdinand’s pride and considerable artillery, they set off for Millum Castle to tattle on Helwise, thus sealing the fate of her illicit lover.

The disappointed Sir Ferdinand refused to rest until his rival was abolished.  He rode to Muncaster and found a smug Tom Fool laughing about misguiding a traveler off to the treacherous quicksands of the River Esk.  Thomas rose to the occasion, as he believed Richard had weezened sheckels from his pile of shillings.

According to Castle Ghosts of England, Thomas lured Richard to the castle under the pretense of meeting his adorable Helwise.  Once there, he poured a heavy cider until Richard was insensibly drunk.  Thomas used the carpenter’s own tools — a hammer and broad chisel — to hack off the carpenter’s head.

“He’ll not find where I’ve hidden his head so easy he did my shillings.”  said Tom Fool.  H
elwise’ fate was published in 1824 among the Remains of John Briggs:

“Her heart was cold, and no human power could warm it.  The noisy mirth of the hall, she could hear unmoved — the mazy intricacies of the festive dance could not reanimate her — the glowing beauties of the summer landscape were gloomy and dull as December.  She resolved to seclude herself from the giddy world, and brood over her own sorrows in a nunnery.  She therefore retired to the Benedictine Convent of Maiden Castle — the ruins of which are still visible behind the higher end of Soulby Fell; where she passed her few remaining days in piety and silent solitude.”

Thomas Skelton drown in the River Esk around 1600.

To learn more about Muncaster Castle and help bring these ghost stories to life, please consider supporting our Kickstarter Campaign.

Uncle Ogre & Great Aunt Ghost: Meeting My Ancestors at Muncaster Castle

Though thrilled at recent progress America has made, my first love remains with the Motherland I have never seen.  My entire life as a third generation American has largely been spent wishing and pretending to be English.  From Black Adder to Jane Austen and Bridget Jones, I obsessed with all things British.  My American parents and exhausted grandparents wearied of incessant demands to hear more about our lucky English ancestors.  The truth unfolded when my grandmother, Shirley Pennington Gylleck, presented our pedigree complete with the Baronet of Muncaster Castle —  one of the most haunted buildings in England.
My dear creative partner, Graham Richards and I cannot resist a good adventure.  Next summer, we are embarking on a pilgrimage to discover the mysteries of Muncaster Castle — serendipitously, Graham’s family tree is rooted on the Isle of Man, 40 miles across the Irish Sea from my ancestral home.  I am writing and narrating a collection of essays about our journey, Graham is writing an album to coincide, featuring the musical stylings of Dave Richards.  We will release an enhanced e-book of magical non-fiction, ready for your favorite reader and listening device.  We are unlocking mysteries, researching parapsychology (did I mention all the ghosts?), and putting my extensive knowledge of English History to use beyond Jeopardy questions and insufferable Tudors commentary.
Yesterday, we launched a 30-Day Kickstarter campaign to cover our research, travel, and production costs.  We are offering great rewards like merchandise, Artist Biographies, guest spots on The Crisman Show, and personalized theme music by Graham — every donation of $10 or more will also receive the digital download of our enhanced e-book at publication.  Please take a moment to watch our snazzy video to learn more — we made it with construction paper and an iPhone!  Thank you for your time and continued support.
Subscribe to my blog for updates and audio essays over the coming weeks — I can’t wait to share the family ghost stories that have kept me up for months.