Tom Skelton: The Serial Killer Court Jester
Allegedly built on the site of an old Roman encampment, Muncaster Castle near the village of Ravenglass, Cumbria, on the far northwest coast of England, has been the ancestral seat of the local Pennington family for around 800 years. Like many of England’s castles and stately homes, Muncaster is supposedly haunted by more than its fair share of ghosts—among them, that of an infamous and murderous court jester named Thomas Skelton.
Although accounts of Skelton’s life are sketchy at best (because he was technically a servant, no detailed record of him was ever kept in the castle’s documents), it’s believed that he was hired by Sir Alan Pennington, possibly as a personal steward and teacher to the real Lord of Muncaster Castle, William Pennington, who was 14 when his father died in the mid-16th century. Precisely how the Penningtons came to know Skelton is unclear, but nevertheless he soon made a name for himself not only as a brilliant entertainer but—if local legend is to be believed—as a lethally dangerous practical joker.
According to one story, Skelton had a habit of sitting beneath a chestnut tree (which still stands today) on the castle grounds, where he would chat with and offer directions to travelers and passers-by on the road that ran by the castle. Anyone he took a dislike to, however, would not be helped on their way but instead be intentionally directed toward a perilous and all but undetectable patch of quicksand by the nearby cliffs, from which there was little chance of escape. How many people Skelton supposedly sent to their deaths this way is unknown—but whether true or not, even this grim story isn’t the worst thing attributed to him.
In 1825, a local journalist and editor named John Briggs published a series of essays and letters in which he recounted one particular story dating from Skelton’s time at Muncaster: Sir Alan’s young daughter Helwise dressed as a shepherdess and went to the village where she met and danced with a young carpenter named Richard, who eventually became her secret lover. But Wild Will of Whitbeck, who Helwise had shunned at the dance, was jealous and followed them until he learned her true identity.
He told the story to a knight, Sir Ferdinand, who had wanted to marry Helwise. He went into a fit of rage and contacted Skelton, who blamed Richard for stealing some money—and with Ferdinand’s backing went out to right several perceived wrongs.
Some versions of the story say that while entertaining Richard with jokes and magic tricks—and apparently agreeing to help him elope with Helwise—Skelton plied the young man with cider and, once he was suitably drunk, helped him back to his workshop. There, Skelton bludgeoned him to death with his own tools and, according to Briggs’s account, cut off his head with an axe and hid it beneath a pile of wood shavings. Skelton then returned to the castle and coolly told his fellow servants what he had done, joking that the carpenter “will not find [his head] so easily when he awakes as he did my shillings [that were stolen].” Quite what the other servants thought of this is, unfortunately, unrecorded. But Briggs does tell us Ferdinand's attempts to woo Helwise failed, and she went to go live in a nunnery while he went on to die in battle.
Briggs’s account of the carpenter’s murder is one of only a handful of details from Skelton’s life that we have on record, but given the lack of real evidence dating from Skelton’s own lifetime it’s impossible to say whether it’s a genuine account or not. Nevertheless, Skelton’s reputation continues to live on at Muncaster Castle: An eerie portrait of him in his full jester’s costume—and holding a copy of his own last will and testament, in which he apparently predicts his own death while reportedly all but admitting to directing people to their doom—is supposed to be the center of all kinds of ghostly phenomena at the castle. Perhaps because of his monstrous reputation, he became the last court jester of Muncaster for hundreds of years—that is, until the present-day Penningtons began hosting a competition each year to find a new annual fool. Hopefully, these new jesters only care about fun and games.