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Halloween story: Victorian horror master M R James and the terror from Ashridge chapel

PUBLISHED: 11:10 02 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:51 03 October 2017

Ashridge chapel today, with stained glass removed from the gothic windows. The glass was bought anonymously in 1928 at Sotheby's and donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Ashridge chapel today, with stained glass removed from the gothic windows. The glass was bought anonymously in 1928 at Sotheby's and donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Ashridge House estate

With Halloween this month, Alex Burman turns the pages of a classic horror story to find the links between stained glass at Ashridge chapel and a monster lurking in a German monastery

Ashridge House, a fine example of early gothic architecture, completed in 1814. Today it is a management college. James visited on the invitation of owner Lord Brownlow to catalogue its stained glassAshridge House, a fine example of early gothic architecture, completed in 1814. Today it is a management college. James visited on the invitation of owner Lord Brownlow to catalogue its stained glass

‘Ten thousand pieces of gold are laid up in the well in the court of the Abbot’s house of Steinfeld by me, Thomas, who have set a guardian over them. Beware whoever touches it.’

Inquisitive antiquarian Mr Somerton discovers these words after decoding an inscription in a stained glass window of a chapel in ‘master of the macabre’ M R James’ spine-chilling short story, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.

We know from James’ correspondence that the stained glass that inspired the tale was in the private chapel of Ashridge House near Little Gaddesden in Hertfordshire. At the time, James was preparing an inventory of the windows for the estate’s owner Lord Brownlow, whose family had come into possession of the gothic mansion after a long legal wrangle in the 1850s.

In James’ story, Somerton’s discoveries lead him on a treasure hunt from England to Steinfeld Abbey in Germany – the monastery, as James had discovered in his research, where the Ashridge windows were originally installed.

A clue in an old book suggests to Somerton that ‘Job, John, and Zechariah’ might show the way to the Abbot’s hidden gold. It is these three Biblical figures that Somerton identifies in the chapel windows and so on to the secret code. He is impelled to follow the trail, although not without trepidation about what he might find waiting for him.

M R James around the time Ghost Stories was publishedM R James around the time Ghost Stories was published

Dr Montague (Monty) Rhodes James is best remembered today as one of the great Victorian ghost story writers, with more than 30 classic tales of the supernatural to his name, but he was primarily a distinguished academic and medieval scholar (it was in this capacity that Brownlow asked him to study the windows at Ashridge) and his spooky stories were originally invented to entertain (and scare) friends and students after dinner.

Born in Goodnestone in Kent in 1862, the son of an Anglican clergyman, James spent his early years in a rectory in rural Suffolk before rising as a star pupil at Eton and then King’s College, Cambridge. His academic star would continue to rise as he went on to become dean at King’s by the age of 28 and later provost (head of the college), before being elected vice-chancellor of the university.

He had a childhood fascination with history, religion, superstition and the supernatural and began telling and writing ghost stories at Eton. While still an undergraduate at King’s he embarked on a project to catalogue the university collection of illuminated medieval manuscripts held at the Fitzwilliam Museum – a huge and academically significant ambition – that would be published in 1895. He went on to document many of Britain’s great medieval manuscript collections. It was this fascination with the texts of the early Christian church, as well as its buildings – both often decorated with demonic creatures and gruesome scenes – that fed James’ imagination as he crafted the richly detailed and powerfully creepy tales that have frightened and delighted generations of readers ever since.

As at Eton, James became known at Cambridge for his ghostly storytelling. He would host soirées for college societies, and his audience would gather in anticipation in his rooms for James to emerge from his bedroom with a hurriedly completed manuscript in hand, before extinguishing all the candles but one and taking his seat in its glow. Then would begin the latest nightmarish tale with the ink barely dry on the page.

His early listeners would enjoy sensing their flesh creep as their host related how a curse written in ancient runic symbols is given to an unsuspecting victim or a creature summoned by a whistle found in a grave takes an unlikely form to attack a professor, or how, in the case of Somerton, a treasure hunter awakens a monstrous thing in a deep well.

The medieval well below the chapel plunges 224 feet. It inspired the location for both the gold and a thing of 'darkness and slime' in The Treasure of Abbot ThomasThe medieval well below the chapel plunges 224 feet. It inspired the location for both the gold and a thing of 'darkness and slime' in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

The idea of placing the monster in a well was also inspired by Ashridge – a medieval well plunging 224 feet opens out into a vault under the chapel.

It was not until 1904 that James’ first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was published, strikingly illustrated by his friend James McBryde. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is the final story in the collection. The tales captured the public imagination.

The windows of Ashridge chapel were installed between 1811 and 1831 by the seventh and eighth Earls of Bridgewater who built the stately home on the site of a 13th century monastery, the College of Bonhommes. Glass for the chapel’s 11 perpendicular gothic windows was imported from Steinfeld Abbey, but also, as has since emerged, from the convent of Mariawald, near Cologne.

Following the upheaval of the French revolution and Napoleon’s subsequent rise, many continental religious buildings were secularised and their valuable assets sold off. A German cloth merchant, John Christopher Hampp, who had settled in Norwich in 1782, was responsible for bringing much of the stained glass from the Eifel region of Germany to England where it was sold to furnish the houses and private chapels of aristocrats and newly-rich industrialists.

The Ashridge windows date from between 1519 and 1572, some of them being attributed to master glass painter Gerhard Remisch. They formed part of a sequence in Steinfield Abbey’s cloister, which the monks would have contemplated as they made their way between the church and the refectory for meals. The scenes depict events in the life of Jesus and, in panels above, images from the Old Testament. At the apex of each window is the portrait of a saint or prophet who indicates with his hand a scroll containing a biblical text connected with the story depicted.

In James’ The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, the 16th century abbot of Steinfeld arranged for these scrolls to direct the way to the whereabouts of his hidden treasure. The number of fingers held up by each figure provides the key to deciphering the code that gives Somerton the final piece of the puzzle.

The Steinfeld glass is no longer at Ashridge. When the estate was sold in 1928, the windows were auctioned by Sotheby’s for £27,000. Shortly afterwards the anonymous buyer donated the artworks to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where much of it can be seen on display today. It emerged after his death in 1955 that the benefactor was Ernest Cook, grandson of travel agent Thomas Cook, who used his fortune to preserve historic estates and artworks for the nation.

I won’t give away exactly what Somerton finds guarding Abbot Thomas’ treasure. Curl up on a dark night with a copy of Ghost Stories, and you can find out for yourself. It might be best to follow the example of the author’s earliest audiences though and make sure you’re not alone...

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