The haunting of the Royal Crescent

Every Christmastide deserves a good ghost story. So we asked Dr Lynch of Bath Ghost Tours to tell us one associated with Bath (he knows them all, being deceased), based on the real-life narrative of two famous star-crossed lovers.

Bath has, as everyone knows, a rich and varied history, dating back before the Romans ever set foot upon this land. It is a history full of stories of passion, romance, intrigue, deception and life. But like most cities and towns where life has been lived to the full, Bath can also boast a very rich collection of ghost stories, legends and paranormal sightings. It is a city which for centuries has drawn the attentions of the living, and similarly it has retained the attentions of the dead!

All hauntings have a story behind them, a reason, if you will, for why a certain phenomenon has been reported. For the majority of hauntings, the origin will be a history of great violence, sadness or desperation which is attached to a certain location. The obvious example of this is a house in which a particularly violent murder or desperate suicide has occurred, and Bath has quite a few of those. However, not all hauntings are so grim, and as we are getting close to Christmas, it seems only fitting that I share with you one of Bath’s most warming of ghost stories.

She stole away under cover of darkness one night, wrapped up against the cold in a carriage to France with her young lover…

There is a house, on the Royal Crescent no less, which was the location of a famous elopement during March 1772, when the street itself was almost brand new and, as it is today, a most sought-after address. A plaque is fitted on the outside of number 11, briefly mentioning that this is the former address of the famed beauty and soprano of Bath, Elizabeth Linley. She stole away under the cover of darkness one night, wrapped up against the cold in a carriage to France with her young lover, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Reputedly, the couple were secretly married and soon returned. Elizabeth was just 17 and was acting against her father’s wishes. Sheridan himself wasn’t much older and was similarly acting without his family’s blessing. Upon returning to England, the young lovers had to part, both being in their minority, without money, and most tellingly because Elizabeth’s father refused the suit of the young Sheridan. After she threatened suicide, Elizabeth’s father relented, and they were officially married in London in 1773 and went on to have a son, Thomas.

The haunting connected with this famous elopement is reported by the occurrence of two different phenomena. Firstly, the spirit of Elizabeth herself has been heard singing while descending the stairs of number 11, beautiful perhaps, but no less highly disturbing to encounter. Secondly and more dramatically are the reports of the sight and sounds, of four dapple-grey horses leading at speed a carriage clattering upon the cobblestones of the Royal Crescent during the dead of night.

These hauntings are reported to be associated with the elopement – so are they therefore just moments of romantic happiness, fragmentary elements of youthful passion which have been somehow imprinted upon the very stones of the Crescent? Well, dear readers, the answer is both ‘yes’ and of course ‘no’. These phenomena are indeed the replaying of tiny moments within the intense passions of our young lovers, but it is the depths of the later despair and tragedy attached to the lives and deaths of this famous couple, which has caused this particular haunting.

Before her famous elopement, Elizabeth already had quite the reputation as a highly spirited young woman, a great beauty whose charms and looks had brought her the attentions of many would-be suitors, most of which were unwelcome. At just 17, she had already been engaged by her father to a wealthy gentleman who was 44 years her senior. From this unromantic arrangement, she had managed to extricate herself, only to be pursued most vehemently by a friend of the family, one Captain Mathews. Despite already being married at the time, Mathews was most insistent and dogged in his advances towards the beautiful Miss Linley, and it is from this aggressive admirer, as well as fear of any further engagements arranged by her father, that led Elizabeth to take matters into her own hands in 1772.

Captain Mathews, however, was not a man to be so easily rejected. He published a most scathing letter in a widely circulated newspaper, insulting the character and reputations of both Linley and Sheridan. Indeed, upon returning to England, Sheridan was forced to defend both their reputations by agreeing to fight Mathews in a duel in London. To the surprise of all, Sheridan was the victor in this duel, mostly due to the dubious tactic employed, of immediately rushing his opponent. Mathews, despite the defeat, but true to his nature, demanded a second duel shortly after, this time to be held just outside Bath itself, upon Kingsdown. This time Mathews was ready for any dubious tactics, and it was Sheridan who was left defeated and badly wounded. This personal experience became the background for Sheridan’s most successful of plays, The Rivals. After risking his life twice, and more importantly, their parents finally agreeing to the match, Richard and Elizabeth were at last allowed to officially marry.

The spirits of Richard and Elizabeth are ultimately playing out their elopement …in a desperate attempt to right their own wrongs

The Sheridans should have been happy, but in many ways, they were products and victims of their own time. Richard became a successful playwright, owned a theatre in London, and even enjoyed a parliamentary career. Elizabeth still performed occasionally for a healthy fee, travelled widely with her husband, and they had their love and their son. However, love is not always enough. Elizabeth preferred a quiet family existence, whereas Richard was in truth a rake and a gambler, who preferred the noise and life of London. Both had affairs, and they soon fell into the practice of largely living apart from each other. It was from one of these affairs that Elizabeth fell pregnant again, to Lord Edward Fitzgerald. She gave birth to a daughter, but there were complications. Elizabeth never fully recovered from the difficult pregnancy and being of a weak constitution, as well as now suffering from tuberculosis, she sadly died shortly after, at just 38 years old. We are told that Sheridan nursed Elizabeth throughout her illness and even adopted the child that was not his, and was subsequently broken by his wife’s early and tragic death.

Ill-fortune continued to plague the family. Elizabeth’s daughter died very early, a mere year after her mother, Sheridan’s London theatre burnt to the ground and Sheridan himself soon fell into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and gambling. He died himself in 1816, and despite such a glittering career his last years were spent in abject misery and poverty.

The lives and subsequent deaths of Richard and Elizabeth make for a great story in itself; indeed several of Sheridan’s plays are largely based upon their own experiences. Their passionate love for each other was intense, and unconstrained by convention or time. However, the combined elements of intense despair and deep regret has denied their spirits any rest. They return to the scene of the Royal Crescent, time and time again, creating a re-enactment of a moment when life and love held so much promise.

The spirits of Richard and Elizabeth are ultimately playing out their elopement from the Crescent in a desperate attempt to right their own wrongs, a venture that is doomed to failure, and it’s a fate we must all be wary of. However if you find yourself unable to sleep on a cold winter’s night, take a walk to the Royal Crescent, and if you’re lucky, very lucky, their carriage might just pass you by. But, dear readers, please don’t get in!

Bath Ghost Tours offer ghost walks in the city of Bath. Led by Dr Lynch, Mrs Needles and Mrs Cruncher (all deceased), the tours are a mixture of fun, theatrics, historical fact and paranormal experiments. Tours run at 8pm from outside the Abbey, from mid-March to December every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and also on Wednesday and Sunday from June to October. Private ghost tours can be booked throughout the year for private parties.