The Wars of the Roses happened at the end of the medieval period, and it was time of treachery and betrayal, murder and terrible violence, great battles and political turmoil. One of the biggest traitors played his final hand of cards within this period and it was to be his downfall. This was the dastardly Duke of Buckingham and he really upset King Richard III.
As far as turbulent periods in the history of Britain go there aren’t many more bloody than this. For thirty-two years, from 1455, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, two rival branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty, fought to control the throne of England and it was a very brutal time.
Named the Wars of the Roses, after the family badges, the House of Lancaster with a white rose, and the House of York, a red rose. This is an incredible subject deserving of a whole series of history blogs of its own, but we will be concentrating on just a little part, and its connection to Wiltshire, this being the Weird Wiltshire blog.
It’s the medieval market city of Salisbury we are visiting to find out about the Duke of Buckingham. So strong is the connection in fact that he actually lost his head in the city, and it is said he has yet to leave, living on in a ghostly form haunting the Debenhams department store!
I have wanted to write about him for ages, as I already knew of the legend of his ghost, said to terrify customers, workmen and staff alike in various parts of the store. But, when I wrote an article for Mainly Museums, a whistlestop tour of Salisbury Museum, I found this building in the Cathedral Close, King’s House, also has a connection to the duke.
The Wars of the Roses
Let’s get back to the Plantagenet family at war. It’s 1483 and nearing the end of this turbulent time. Richard III, a Yorkist king, is sitting dubiously on the throne. He was a ruthless man (although some historians say he is very misunderstood) who, after the death of his brother King Edward IV, became Lord Protector of his nephew, Edward V. Driven by raw ambition to be on the throne himself, Richard III had his two nephews declared illegitimate. He locked them up in the Tower of London ‘for their own protection’ and when they subsequently vanished, blame was cast Richard’s way. Eventually it was assumed they were murdered. They became known as the Princes in the Tower. A shadow also lay over Richard’s cousin and longtime ally, Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, as a possible accomplice in the murders of the two young boys.
There was an event that caused the king and his cousin to have a monumental bust-up. Whether it was to do with the children’s murders or because of a promise of extra land that was undelivered, or even due to the duke’s envy at Richard’s throne grabbing, when he himself had as much right to be king, we do not know. But whatever the cause, the duke’s revenge was to stage a coup and make a bid for the throne himself. This was of course a mighty blow to Richard III and the ultimate betrayal.
Henry Stafford skipped court and absconded to the Brecon Beacons to gather a reluctant and ill-prepared army of Welsh farmers, tenants and disgruntled nobles ready to fight. But a lack of planning failed to prepare for the weather and the late-October storms, with heavy driving rain, caused the river Severn to flood. The duke’s militia, disheartened and dispirited, drifted back to their homes and the nobles followed too, having heard Richard III had got wind of the plan and was not going to take an uprising lying down, so to speak.
Poor Henry was captured in Shropshire after being dobbed in by a supposed friend of his. Richard commanded he be brought to the city of Salisbury where he himself was also heading, in order to dish out the duke’s punishment. The duke was charged with treason. He was locked up in a room of the Blue Boar Inn, the only suitable hostelry for a noble, even if he was a traitor. But sneaky Henry was not yet ready to give up. In one last attempt to exact revenge on his cousin, he hid a knife in the sleeve of his tunic and begged to be able to see the King. But his plan to cut the King’s throat was thwarted as Richard wouldn’t even see him. In fact, he didn’t even hold a trial. Henry was to be executed, without trial.
The following day, Sunday 2nd November, Buckingham was led into a shady courtyard between the back of the Blue Boar Inn and the Saracen’s Head. Despite committing treason, but due to his noble birth, the duke was put to death away from any crowds. And so, one of the biggest rebels in British history met his grisly end by losing his head at the back of what is now the Debenhams department store in Salisbury.
This was once the Blue Boar Inn, a significant hostelry in Salisbury, built in the 15th century. The inn was definitely still standing in 1721 but by 1843 it is listed as a draper’s shop, an early type of department store, so is likely to have been rebuilt within that period. Obviously given its age, but sadly, no photos of the Blue Boar Inn exist. It’s a shame as I would have liked to have seen it.
Some accounts say Henry’s bloody head was carried from the inn, up to the King’s House, (now the Salisbury Museum) on a platter to a waiting King Richard. Somehow, while in the house, the head rolled from the platter onto the floor, leaving a permanent bloody mark on the floorboards. It is this gruesome mark that, despite attempts at cleaning it and even having the floorboards turned upside down and relocated by workmen, still reappears when the blood seems to seep upwards through to the top of the boards. A phantom trail of blood splatters are also said to still be seen on the route leading from Debenhams to the King’s House.
What happened to the Duke of Buckingham?
When the old Blue Boar Inn was eventually pulled down the new building became a draper’s store called Style and Large in 1803. Some years later in 1843 a group of poor builders dug up the foundations while doing some work there and found a skeleton, minus a head and arm. Salisbury historian, Henry Hatcher, immediately declared it the lost bones of the duke, but this is unlikely. His remains were interred in the now destroyed church of Grey Friar’s, Newgate Street London. Supposedly! The fact is, where the duke’s bones now lay is a mystery.
Several places claim to be his final resting place, including the Grey Friars of Salisbury (now under the Churchill Way road system) whether that is with his head or without. The headless skeleton found in the foundations of Blue Boar Inn was destroyed so no one was ever able to test the theory that this was the duke. Whilst it’s generally agreed its was probably not the duke’s missing bones, it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that the devious duke was buried there in the yard where he lost his head. But where is his head? Some reports exist suggesting the head was transported to London and put on display at Temple Bar to remind others of the perils of treason, but another report points out that heads on spikes only really appeared in the 18th century.
And where is Richard III?
It’s worth mentioning, in case you don’t know, Richard III had an equally unglamourous (and for many centuries unknown) resting place. After dying at the Battle of Bosworth, the Grey Friars, a Franciscan Holy Order, bought his body back to Leicester to be buried in their friary church. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, at some point the church disappeared, as did Richard’s remains. But, centuries later in 2012, the hunt for the king’s missing remains was successful and he was recovered from a Leicester car park!
A haunted department store
Anyway, back to Debenhams! Well, it’s not actually Debenhams anymore. They are yet another big high street shop to fall foul of modern times and have now closed. The building is boarded up. I wish I had got in there while I could, to get photos of the store, but alack I am too late.
It’s likely the duke is still floating around the empty store. He is said to seek out the ladies, having been spotted in the changing rooms and sportswear department where he is said to hiss to any poor unsuspecting lady that sees him.
He walks from the attic room to a small yard at the back of the inn on the 2nd of November, the anniversary of his death; likely revisiting his final steps over and over. Other sources speak of invisible hands touching the living as they go about their business and some unlucky people have even seen the duke without his head, his aura giving off a melancholic air.
Strange things happen in the building. During world war two the fire-watchers, a stoic and sturdy bunch, refused to stay in the building overnight but there is no record of why. More recently, in June 2002, security guards were called to the supposedly locked building to find all the doors flung open, alarms going off. But no one had all the keys to these doors. There was no humanly way for this to have happened.
One poor man, a telephone engineer, was working in the attic one time, the room where the duke spent his last night alive. He felt a cold hand placed on his shoulder and he ran from the room in terror. So frightened was he that he refused to go back in there and even had to get someone else to retrieve his tools.
So numerous are the reports over the years that the duke has been named ‘The Duke of Debenhams.’
The other ghosts of the building
He is not the only ghost spotted in this old building. A professional looking man in a pin-striped suit has been seen walking around. Could he be from the times when parts of the building served as offices for an insurance company?
It is outside the building, on Blue Boar Row, that a young girl in Victorian clothing has been seen, happily playing and skipping around before suddenly disappearing into thin air.
What is to happen to this building is yet to be decided but the rumour is another department store will be taking it over. Whatever it becomes, its unlikely to deter the headless duke. I think he’ll be roaming the floors of this building forevermore and I for one will be checking out the changing rooms (not in a dodgy way!) when it reopens, just to see if the duke is still about!
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