I have never thought of myself as any kind of expert on mediaeval British ecclesiastical architecture, but I was nonetheless surprised to learn that there exists in Westminster Abbey a secret chapel, dedicated to King Henry V. It will be opened to a select group of the public tomorrow, on the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, the field where the beleaguered Henry triumphed against a French army that was vastly superior to his own in terms of numbers, but you can learn more about this famous king’s secret chapel in this brief BBC report by Nick Higham.
After watching this film and wondering at its content, my mind immediately wandered to the many other secret chambers I’ve read about over the years. New caves containing prehistoric artefacts and artworks are continually being discovered around the world, while the single most famous or notorious location for purported hidden chambers is on the Giza Plateau in Egypt. I’m aware that there is a vast body of literature and research dealing with the possibility of concealed chambers awaiting discovery inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops and beneath the enormous, recumbent body of the Sphinx, so it is exhilarating to speculate about the precise nature of the ancient rooms that almost certainly lie buried somewhere in the midst of the sprawling Giza Necropolis.
There are however other wonders far closer to home, if your home, like mine, is in the UK. When I was a child, I learned in a book of ghost stories of the mysterious room and its dreadful occupant that is said to be somewhere inside the gloomy structure of Glamis Castle, depicted in a painting at the top of this post, which in turn is located in the region of Strathmore in Scotland, twelve miles inland from the North Sea. There appears to be considerable substance behind the rumours of a secret room and the fearful creature that once inhabited it, as shown by this fantastically detailed feature on the subject of the Monster of Glamis Castle, with accompanying illustrations, in the Smithsonian Magazine.
The Green Children of Woolpit, in twelfth century England, described how they had once lived in a subterranean realm they called St Martin’s Land prior to unexpectedly finding themselves by the wolf pit where they were discovered by nearby villagers. The twelfth century archdeacon and historian Gerald of Wales recounted a story that resembled this, writing of a boy fleeing his master who was taken by two pygmies to a crepuscular zone much like St Martin’s Land, so these tales are immediately reminiscent of an episode of the story of Gawain and the Green Knight and of other accounts of faery realms whose entrances are to be found in barrows, or prehistoric burial mounds.
The physical existence of such hidden places may belong to folklore, but one of the most famous and enduring concerns a cave barred by an iron gate beneath Cadbury Castle, one of the places where King Arthur and his knights are said to sleep. In a previous post on this site, The Sleeping Sentinels of Durrington Walls, I provided this link that recounts two stories of yet another hidden realm in Caerleon, the birthplace of Arthur Machen, a man who wrote at great length about the haunted countryside in that part of the world.
A few miles down the road from Caerleon, closer to my own birthplace of Usk, lies the small village of Llangybi where my grandparents used to live. In the village is the White Hart pub, cryptically referred to by T.S Elliot in his poem of 1935 entitled Usk, while the White Hart itself contains a priest hole that once sheltered David Lewis, the last Welsh martyr who was hanged, drawn and quartered in Usk in 1679. Priest holes were hidden rooms that were purposely fabricated by ingenious builders like Nicholas Owen, who was coincidentally canonised on the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt in 1970, having been tortured to death in the Tower of London in 1606.
Owen’s incredible ingenuity in constructing hidden chambers was such that it’s perfectly possible that others await discovery even today, when old buildings are being repaired or torn down, while the books here in my study contain many references to other secret chambers reputed to exist in caves, castles and other structures throughout Britain.
The single most famous and tantalising of these secret chambers was thought to be inside the colossal earthen mound of Silbury Hill, in Wiltshire, a prehistoric construction without parallel that was believed to the tomb of King Zil, or King Sil. Local legends described this enigmatic and otherwise unattested king as being buried inside Silbury Hill as a statue of gold, or else wearing golden armour and seated on a golden horse. Silbury Hill certainly resembles a gigantic version of one of the many other such prehistoric burial places in the area, so it is no surprise that this earthern mound was systematically plundered for centuries in what has proved to be a futile attempt to locate the tomb inside.
One of those who excavated Silbury Hill in the early part of the twentieth century was the famous Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie, who hoped to uncover the entrance of a tunnel leading to a previously undiscovered chamber containing a royal or otherwise notable burial inside this artificial mountain, which was coincidentally constructed at around the same time as the Great Pyramid of Cheops and in a maddeningly similar fashion.
Petrie failed to uncover either an entrance or a tomb, but as a result of centuries of desecration and subsequent neglect of Silbury Hill by antiquarians, treasure-hunters and archaeologists, a series of strange voids or chambers formed inside the inner body of Silbury Hill, which were repaired by workers from the construction firm Skanska in 2007 after it became apparent that Silbury Hill was close to collapse.
These ominous caverns and Stygian recesses were considered to be so dangerous by the archaeologists working inside the hill while it was being repaired that they were investigated by means of a robot probe. More men have stood on the surface of the Moon than have clambered through these voids, a number that will never be added to because Silbury Hill has now been sealed forever, so it is incredibly gratifying for me that I was fortunate enough to become one of this very select few.
I visited Silbury Hill in 2007, courtesy of Mark Kirkbride who was in charge of the repair of this enigmatic monument. During the course of my visit, two miners who were working on the project generously invited me to crawl inside this mysterious, crumbling labyrinth and to see with my own eyes a hidden aspect of this artificial mountain that legend described as the last resting place of King Zil.
It proved to be an experience like no other, something that forms a significant part of Otherworld, a book I’m working on that will contain my personal stories of mysterious places I’ve visited in Britain and abroad ever since this exotic, alluring subject matter captured my imagination when I was a child growing up in ghost-haunted Wales, a period of my life I described in detail in my previous book A Tale of Sound & Fury.
“Somewhere, something wonderful is waiting to be discovered”