Lady Anne Glenconner — friend and confidante of Princess Margaret and best-selling author — grew up at Holkham Hall in Norfolk where the family and their staff lived cheek-by-jowl with a very persistent ghost. 

In this spine-tingling account, she explains why the spectral intruder became her latest murder-mystery…

When I look back on my childhood at Holkham — a colossal Palladian mansion on the north Norfolk coast with a huge, imposing Marble Hall at its centre, ornate state rooms and four enormous wings — I have many fond memories.

We played hide-and seek and rode our ponies or bicycles around the park’s 3,000 acres. 

My grandfather was a wonderful man and I loved helping him care for some family treasures, including the Codex Leicester. This is a precious manuscript that Leonardo da Vinci wrote.

But I also have some darker memories — of my sister Carey waking up screaming night after night, haunted repeatedly by the ghost of a young woman who had suffered terribly when she lived at the Hall.

The ghost was first seen shortly after we moved into our Family Wing in 1948. We had previously lived in a nearby home.

Lady Anne Glenconner (pictured) ¿ friend of Princess Margaret ¿ grew up at Holkham Hall in Norfolk where the family and their staff lived with a very persistent ghost

Lady Anne Glenconner (pictured) — friend of Princess Margaret — grew up at Holkham Hall in Norfolk where the family and their staff lived with a very persistent ghost

My family was my father, Viscount Coke who became the 5th Earl Of Leicester after the death my grandfather the year following his death; my glamorous mother; my sisters Carey (14 years) and Sarah (four years); and me (16 years old).

Carey’s bedroom was right next to mine, so I would hear her screaming out in terror. My mother would rush from her room to comfort Carey, but Carey was inconsolable and crying.

This went on for over a year. My mother initially thought Carey was having nightmares. But my sister explained that Carey was being woken by an old-fashioned lady.

When she shared more details about the lady’s appearance with my parents, they realized she was referring to Lady Mary Coke, also known as ‘The White Cat’ because of her fair hair, pale skin, and fierce eyes.

Two centuries earlier, Lady Mary had been kept as a virtual prisoner by her husband and his family — in what was now Carey’s bedroom. My sister was not aware that she was haunting the house.

Carey was greatly affected by the events she witnessed, and she was terrified of going to sleep. The bedroom was then exorcised by the local clergyman.

From then on Carey’s ‘nightmares’ ceased, but Lady Mary continued to haunt other parts of the house — and does so to this day.

The household staff knew a lot about the ghost. They called her “Our Virgin Mary”. Most often, she was seen weeping or flitting down a corridor before disappearing.

She was sometimes prone to mischief, and would poke or pinch servants as they navigated Holkham, particularly in the cellars and passageways under the house.

I was aware that there were secret passageways. But I have never been down there on my own.

She claims her sister Carey would wake up screaming night after night, haunted by the ghost of a young woman who had suffered terribly when she lived at Holkham Hall (pictured)

Carey claims that her sister Carey would wake up screaming every night, haunted night after night by the ghost of a young girl who suffered terrible at Holkham Hall (pictured).

Seventy-years later, I still remember the terror of meeting this spectral lady.

These memories are what inspired my latest book, A haunting at Holkham, a murder mystery set in Holkham during World War II and its aftermath. It draws heavily on my own experiences — with a fictional twist or two.

I’m happy to report that, unlike the book, there weren’t any suspicious deaths at Holkham in actual life. However, I’m less surprised that Lady Mary’s spirit haunts Holkham as I learn more about her life.

She was born Lady Mary Campbell to the Duke and Duchess Argyll. At just 19 years old, Edward, Viscount Coke informed that she was going to marry Edward, heir of the 1st Earl and Holkham hall.

She must have been a strong-willed, spirited young girl, as she made it clear that she did not want to marry the vicar: he was a dissolute, passionate about gambling, cockfighting, and women. Lady Mary treated him with disdain.

Her personal feelings were not able to stop a merger of two great families.

Edward was furious about Mary’s conduct during their courtship and abandoned her on their wedding day. In retaliation, she refused to let him consummate the marriage the following night — or ever. Mary refused to leave her bedside every month as this impasse continued.

Her father-in law, the Earl, initially hoped that she would be gentle and produce an important heir. He lost patience. He had to keep her in her bedroom because she wouldn’t leave.


Aston Hall, West Midlands

According to the Spectrum Paranormal Investigations this stunning 17th-century red brick mansion was named the UK’s top haunted spot in 2019. 

Sir Thomas Holte occupied it first, allegedly murdering his cook and locking his daughter away for 16 more years until her death. 

The ‘grey Ghost’ of his daughter wanders the halls along with a lady in a green, high collared dress who is believed to be Sir Thomas’s housekeeper, Mrs Walker.

Samlesbury Hall in Lancashire

Samlesbury, built in 1325, is renowned for its impressive medieval architecture, but it is also infamous as the haunting ground of the White Lady — thought to be Dorothy Southworth, whose home it was during the 17th century. 

Both their families were furious when Dorothy, a Catholic, fell in love a Protestant neighbor. 

Her lover was murdered by her brother as a punishment, and Dorothy suffered a broken heart.

Ham House, Surrey

This magnificent Stuart house from 17th century was home to the ambitious Duchess Elizabeth Murray. 

Rumours say she killed her first husband. 

Later, her health problems forced her to move to a ground floor apartment. 

Before you enter, staff will say “Good afternoon your ladyship” before you enter.

Newton House, Carmarthenshire

Since more than 300 years, Newton House has been the happy house of the Rhys family. 

However, it does have a regular spectre. Lady Elinor Cavendish was strangled to death. Visitors reported feeling their hands trying to throttle them.

Great Fulford Manor, Devon

Owned by the Fulford family since 1190, the current residents are reality TV stars known for their shows Life Is Toff and The F****** Fulfords. 

Francis Fulford, the man of the house, has seen a girl wearing a nightdress twice and his wife said he was pushed down the stairs.

He replaced Mary’s faithful maid by a spy who reported back to her in law. Mary became paranoid and feared that her servants would poison herself.

Mary’s family found out that Mary was being held captive at Holkham. They tried to negotiate a divorce. After a long time, the Cokes finally allowed Mary leave. They realized that their efforts had been futile.

Even so, the battles continued. Edward refused to divorce her and she refused to be called Viscountess Coke.

Edward’s dissolute lifestyle took its toll six years after their marriage and he died at 33. Mary was finally freed at 26 and became a very happy widow.

She lived in London, moving in literary circles, becoming lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III — a royal role that I would take on 200 years later for my friend Princess Margaret — and travelling around Europe, writing gossipy journals that were published to acclaim.

She never remarried — although there were rumours of a love affair with the Duke of York — and died in 1811, aged 84. She was buried at Westminster Abbey’s Argyll Family vault.

While Holkham is only where she spent a year of her life, I believe the suffering she suffered there was so intense that it imprinted itself on the house’s fabric, leading to her ghost haunting the house for ever more.

Interestingly, my childhood trauma was caused by a malevolent governess hired by my parents to look after us during the war in Egypt. 

Carey was fine with this governess. But, for some reason, she took a sadistic pleasure by tormenting and bullying me.

I tried my best to please her, but every night she would punish me by tying me to the back of her bed and leaving me there all night. 

I was terrified of her and although she was eventually sacked — not for her cruelty to me, which I never spoke about, but because she had taken me to Catholic Mass — I was deeply affected by her abuse.

I was physically sickened by the simple act of receiving a letter from her years later. It was very therapeutic to write about her in Lady In Waiting and to make her the villain in my new novel.

Princess Margaret was a keen ghost-spotter: once, after Carey and me had visited Glamis Castle in Scotland, the family home Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, she enjoyed telling us stories about the ghosts that haunted it, including one who spoke only in tongues.

She resisted my suggestion of ghost-hunting in Holkham’s cellars, but she found an excuse not to!

My mother, Carey and I designed and sold Holkham’s pottery in the 1950s. They made hand-painted tea and dinner sets. 

My mother was acutely aware of Lady Mary’s propensity to mischief. She said, “Lady Mary, you’re no good in the pottery, you’ll break things.” She left the pottery alone.

I left Holkham Hall in 1956 when I married Colin Lord Glenconner. However, I still live close by and visit often; the current Earl de Leicester and his family are very welcoming. 

And I keep up to date with all the goings-on in the house — including the supernatural ones. Lady Mary, it seems to me, is still there.

The Hall is now open to public. It requires a staff of approximately 250 people.

Lady Mary likes the attic — footsteps are often heard when no one is up there — and the cellar best. The key is not required to unlock the cellar doors. They are slammed and unlocked.

One servant was going along the corridor when a locked gate opened and hit it. He was shaken and had a black eye when he came upstairs insisting that Lady Mary had done this to him.

I discovered that she targets certain people.

Lou, an electrician, was working high up on a ladder in Chapel Wing in 2004. He looked behind him to see his drawings for the work floating in the air near him, almost like someone was giving them to him. 

He watched them as they floated to the ground. There were no windows, no draught, and no explanation.

The ghost of Lady Mary Coke (pictured) was called 'Our Virgin Mary' by the household staff and was most often spotted weeping, or flitting along a corridor before vanishing

The ghost of Lady Mary Coke was referred to as ‘Our Virgin Mary” by household staff. She was most often seen weeping along a corridor or flitting around before disappearing.

He was also using a tower scaffold to build the chandelier. He went to the store to buy something. Two spare struts of scaffolding were moved when he returned. But nobody was there. Or at least no living person.

Lou was walking along the corridor that connected the North and West sides of the house in 2005 when he heard a loud banging sound. He heard a banging sound from the cupboard door, as though someone was slamming on it. But there was no one there. He approached the door and it stopped.

Gary and Mark, two of the house staff, walked once through the Strangers’ Wing into the Marble Gallery. Mark was behind Gary.

Mark felt a hand press down on his crown with some force as they did this. He ducked down to confront the person and then he swung around to dispute with them, but they were nowhere to be found. 

Gary had not seen anything either. The two men found themselves in a basement corridor later that day. They had already opened one of the doors, and they had gone through it. They heard a sound behind them. They turned sharply to discover that the door had locked.

Mark was about entering the Family Wing’s corridor when he felt someone or something approaching him. He ran upstairs in terror and hyperventilated.

Mike, another member of staff, went to open the house one morning. He started by turning off all alarms that go off if any doors are not locked. To begin the unlocking process, he went to the North dining area and was surprised to discover that the door was already open.

He was amazed to discover that all the main state rooms doors were open and the lights were on. The key was still in his hands, though it had been locked all night. None of the alarms had gotten off. There was no explanation.

Mike’s TV would often turn itself on at night. Stranger still, he would awake to find his mother’s photograph on his bedside table facing the wall. Mike’s father walked into the room and shouted at the spirit to’stop’, but he was too late.

Lady Mary, a literary type, enjoys moving the books around. This was accidentally captured on camera.

They are positioned right on the bookshelves in one photo, but they are placed in the second upside down in a strange way. They have never been moved by anyone. This mysterious shifting of books occurs all over the house.

Polly, the Countess de Leicester, now lives at Holkham, but I don’t think it will stop Lady Mary, who continues to haunt the rest of the house.

In some ways, it’s a blessing that she’s still here. She connects Holkham’s past to its future. 

Tomorrow night, as Halloween events and parties across Britain get under way, I’ll be thinking of Lady Mary — still with a shiver down my spine, but also with respect for a brave woman who turned the tables on her abusive husband, not only outliving him but continuing to haunt his family home for eternity.

She was determined to escape it in her life. In death, however, it seems she refuses to leave…

A Haunting At Holkham, by Anne Glenconner, will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 11 at £16.99. 

To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid to November 13, 2021, free UK P&P on orders over £20), visit or call 020 3176 2937