Etymology–the study of word origins–is a hobby of mine. This is the story of a man–now a ghost, so they say–called Tom Fool, whose nickname gave us that lovely prankish word tomfoolery. Have to say, some of his deeds in life were neither lovely nor prankish–
For nearly eight hundred years, beginning around 1258, Muncaster Castle has loomed over the town of Ravenglass in England’s Lake District. Continuously owned by the Pennington family, it’s seen kings and queens rise and fall, and wars come and go. And once, it was home base for a jester whose deeds in life were no jests.
In the latter half of the 1500s, the contemporary owner, Sir Ferdinand Pennington, employed a man whose educational attainments belied the nickname Pennington gave him: Tom Fool. Tom’s real name was Thomas Skelton; he was employed as a jester–that fixture at so many royal courts and noble houses whose antics and capers brought laughter to many a dull day or dull party–but also served as a tutor for the Pennington children.
Tom, in his role of jester or “fool”, got away with a lot that Ferdinand Pennington would otherwise have fired or, if really provoked, killed him over, in the ordinary course of things. But he held a secret–so goes the legend–that could have gotten Pennington himself imprisoned or executed.
That secret was murder.
Ferdinand Pennington had a beautiful daughter who was being courted by a man of much lower status than she, a carpenter whom the legend calls Dick. Pennington wanted rid of the unsuitable suitor badly enough to order his loyal fool, Tom Skelton, to kill him.
Tom Fool, too, had a secret side: a sadistic streak a mile wide. At Muncaster they could–perhaps still can–point out a chestnut tree under which Tom would sit and exchange pleasantries with travelers as they passed. If the traveler asked for directions, Tom would give them willingly. To those he liked, he gave clear and correct directions to their destinations. Those to whom he took a dislike were directed into a maze of forest, swamp and quicksand and never heard from again.
It so happened that, like his employer, Tom Fool had a grudge against the upstart carpenter. It involved the theft of three shillings, which were replaced in the hole where Tom had hidden them with threepence–a theft and replacement for which he blamed Dick.
Pennington gave Tom Fool a hammer and chisel and told him to get rid of Dick, and Tom did so with gusto: he caught Dick out one dark night and decapitated him, a slow, painful and supremely bloody death that appealed to Tom’s inner sadist. It was recorded centuries later that Tom hid the body and head separately and was heard to remark that Dick would have a harder time finding his head than he had finding Tom’s shillings.
The Penningtons have long attributed odd happenings around the castle to the lingering spirit of Tom Fool. One such encounter showed a bit of Tom’s old sadistic prankishness: a housekeeper, alone in a part of the castle that isn’t in normal use, started to open a door for which she had the only key. The door led into a cupboard to which there is no other means of ingress; before she could insert the key into the keyhole, though, the door’s knob began turning from the inside. The housekeeper, naturally frightened, left at a dead run and never returned to that area.
There’s a portrait said to be that of Tom Fool hanging at Muncaster. It’s never been moved from the wall where it hangs. Also, the staff sometimes leaves a glass of whiskey “for Tom”, or sets an empty place, complete with a glass of wine, at table for him.
A small price to pay to keep a prankster with a mean streak happy. . .
Muncaster, which has eighteen rooms to accommodate visitors, also offers tours and banquet facilities, and occasionally allows ghost hunts.
Tom Fool is not their only spirit by any means. The Tapestry Room is haunted by the sound of a crying baby (when there are no babies in the castle). The grounds and roads around the castle are haunted by a White Lady, said to be a housekeeper from Ravenglass who was in love with a footman at the castle, and who was killed on the orders of another woman who also loved the footman.
The oddest of them all, though, was a one-shot: a visitor once asked if a historical drama or reenactment was being filmed that day, because she had just passed a man outside who was dressed in what she identified as doublet and hose from the fifteenth century. Needless to say, there was no filming going on that day, and the man in doublet and hose has never been seen again.
For more about Muncaster and its hauntings, see Jeff Belanger’s The World’s Most Haunted Places (2004).