A Little Bit of Tom Foolery

There is a rumor that the character “Tom Fool” from William Shakespeare’s play King Lear is based on a real fool named Thomas Skelton, who had a sadistic sense of humor. The saying “Tom Foolery” allegedly comes from Skelton’s knack to send travelers he didn’t like to their deaths in the quicksands of the River Esk.

Thomas Skelton was the last court jester of Muncaster Castle. Though he isn’t the only spirit to haunt the castle, much of the paranormal activity at Muncaster Castle is attributed to him because of his nefarious sense of humor in life. One story in particular is sinister enough to cause shivers to run down your spine.

Skelton was a trusted servant and steward at Muncaster in the 16th century. His master was Sir William Pennington and the jester was keen to stay in the good graces of the castle’s lord.

Known for sitting beneath an old chestnut tree outside the front entrance of the castle, Tom Skelton was often asked for directions. This position also gave him opportunity to witness the comings and goings of people to and from the castle, which is how he allegedly spotted Pennington’s daughter Helwise sneak off with a local carpenter.

When Skelton told his master what he’d seen, he’d been ordered by Sir William Pennington to get rid of the carpenter. Only one method of disposal would work for Tom. The fool got the carpenter drunk on cider one evening and, for a somewhat poetic lark, he used the carpenter’s own tools– mallet and broad chisel– to decapitate the poor, love-struck man. Tom is rumored to have said, “When the lazy dolt wakes up, he’ll have trouble finding his head.”

Skelton then presented his lord with the head of the carpenter, but it is unclear from historical records how the Sir William Pennington reacted.

Ghostly footsteps and what sounds like the thunk of a body being drug up one particular set of stairs add an element of reality to this Muncaster legend.

Even more eerie is the full-length portrait of Tom Skelton, which hangs in the hall of Muncaster Castle. Tom is dressed in fool’s motley and is holding a staff. His will, which predicted Skelton’s own death in the very same quicksands to which he is rumored to have sent many travelers to die, hangs from a table to his right (the viewer’s left). The will reads as follows:

Thoms. Skelton late fool of Muncaster last will and Testament

Be it known to ye, oh grave and wise men all,
That I Thom Fool am Sheriff of ye Hall,
I mean the Hall of Haigh, where I command
What neither I nor you do understand.
My Under Sheriff is Ralph Wayte you know,
As wise as I am and as witty too.
Of Egremond I have Burrow Serjeant beene,
Of Wiggan Bailiff too, as may be seen
By my white staff of office in my hand,
being carried straight as the badge of my command:
A low high constable too was once my calling,
Which I enjoyed under kind Henry Rawling;
And when the Fates a new Sheriff send,
I’m Under Sheriff prick’d World without end.
He who doth question my authority
May see the seal and patten here ly by.
The dish with luggs which I do carry here
Shews all my living is in good strong beer.
If scurvy lads to me abuses do,
I’ll call ’em scurvy rogues and rascals too.
Fair Dolly Copeland in my cap is placed;
Monstrous fair is she, and as good as all the rest.
Honest Nich. Pennington, honest Ths. Turner, both
Will bury me when I this world go forth.
But let me not be carry’d o’er the brigg,
Lest falling I in Duggas River ligg;
Nor let my body by old Charnock lye,
But by Will. Caddy, for he’ll lye quietly
And when I’m bury’d then my friends may drink,
But each man pay for himself, that’s best I think.
This is my Will, and this I know will be
Perform’d by them as they have promised me.

Sign’d, Seal’d, Publish’d, and Declared in the presence of

THS. SKELTON, X his Mark

Though it is rumored that Thomas Skelton was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s character “Tom Fool”, it is more likely Shakespeare penned King Lear prior to having met Skelton– though they are rumored to have at one time met.

A historical time-line provided by the website about the will gives pretty concrete evidence that Tom Skelton is not Tom Fool. The website says:

… it seems that Skelton moved [to Haigh] from Muncaster in 1659, following the death of Joseph Pennington of Muncaster, whose young heir William became a ward of Sir Roger Bradshaigh of Haigh, who had married Joseph’s sister Elizabeth in 1647. Ives also found that Ralph Waite was buried in January 1666 (1665 Old Style dating), thus establishing a very limited time-span during which the portrait could have been painted. Most importantly, it’s a very long time after William Shakespeare created a character “Tom Fool” in the play “King Lear”- so this Tom was not the Bard’s inspiration. The burial of a Thomas Scelton of Haigh is recorded in the Wigan parish register on 13 January 1668 (1667 Old Style), which fits with the late-middle-aged look of the portrait.

The strange, prophetic will, the creepy portrait of a scowling Thomas Skelton, and the eerie story of getting away with a most brutal murder make Skelton quite a devious character both in this life… and the next.

If you’re interested in hearing more stories about Muncaster Castle, check out the following YouTube video:

2013-07-29 Edit-
I’m not sure why the video has been deleted– if it was YouTube or the user’s choice– but I can tell you what was IN the video.

The video started out with a reenactment of the original Tom Skelton. Then it segued into some ghost stories. One was a story of a woman who was visiting the castle as a tourist. She walked down the carpeted hallway towards the painting of Skelton, and stopped to get a good look at it. While she was looking at the painting, she heard footsteps on stone come up behind her. “That’s a sinister looking man,” she said as she turned to greet the other visitor only to see that no one was in the hall with her or anywhere in her vicinity. Furthermore, it was at that point she realized that the footsteps she’d heard were on stone, but the whole area was carpeted (with rugs, I believe).

Another story included in the video was that of the more recent Pennington resident of the castle. He told of how every morning he would take care of some castle things and head up a particular stairwell– the one where Skelton allegedly dragged the carpenter’s body– the footsteps following the gentlemen up the stairs were, again, on stone but the steps were carpeted. This happened at the same time every morning and was thought to be the hour which Skelton made his infamous journey upstairs.

Unfortunately, that is all I can remember about the video. I’m sure there are equally entertaining videos about the Muncaster Castle ghosts that can be found with a quick internet search. Enjoy!

* http://www.muncaster.co.uk/castle
* http://www.vancepennington.com/muncaster_haunting.htm
* http://homepages.tesco.net/~trochos/eskdale/tomfool3.htm