SET on the banks of the Thames, near Marlow, is Bisham Abbey. Marlow is in Buckinghamshire but Bisham lies just across the border in Berkshire. Today Bisham Abbey is the home of the national Sports Centre where the English Football team trains but it is deeply imbued with mystery. Besides its holy well, it has a secret passage. Hidden treasure has been found there and spectral lights have been seen hovering over it. True to form, it also has its resident ghost.
The treasure, a bag of Spanish fifteenth century gold doubloons, was discovered by workmen beneath floorboards, during renovations being carried out in 1840. Its origins are uncertain, but it was common practice for wealthy noblemen to provide finance for piratical adventures against Spain such as those of Francis Drake receiving, in return, a share of the booty. Since banks with secure vaults did not then exist it was customary to hide away any valuables from possible thieves. This may explain the Bisham Abbey hoard.
More mysterious was another find in the same place. Among a batch of clothes was the costume which would have been worn by a Boy Bishop, a relic of an ancient English custom banned by Henry VIII. Until the royal proscription it had been traditional for cathedral clergy to choose a chorister who, for the three weeks from the Feast of St Nicholas, patron saint of boys, on December 6th, enjoyed all the privileges and fulfilled all the functions of the prelate. The costume may well date back to the time before Henry VIII's abolition of the monasteries when Bisham was a religious foundation.
The spectral lights which many people claim to have seen may well be associated with the nearby holy well as the two are often found in conjunction. Recent research shows that, in a phenomenon known as earthlights, lights of this kind seen over Bisham can arise through the activity generated when two rock surfaces rub against another due to the earth's movement - not sparks but a type of plasma. The water feeding the holy well (in reality a spring) must seep through fissures in the underlying rock and movement of the surfaces would explain the lights. No such convenient explanation is available for another Bisham mystery however. It is said on midsummer even an eerie blue mist emanating from the house rolls across the Thames to extend out to the meadows to the southwest of Marlow.
The underground passage is on the south of the abbey. Police frogmen, who investigated it in 1957 confirmed that it had an outlet on the river. But most dramatic of all, is Bisham's ghost.
Looking down from the hall at Bisham Abbey is the portrait of Lady Elizabeth Hoby, one of the sixteenth century chatelaine and legend tells how, having unintentional heedlessness brought about the death of her son, William, she lived out her life in a remorse, which continued after her death. Her troubled soul still stalks the Abbey's rooms and passages to be glimpsed by an occasional visitor. When not in visible form, her heart-rending moans can be heard in a remote room. William was aid to be the only member of the family lacking high intelligence.
One day his mother, visiting him during a writing lesson in the tower room, became so exasperated with what she took to be his perverse stupidity that, according to one version of the story, she set about him with a ruler - in those days a solid rod of wood - beating him so savagely he succumbed to his injuries soon after. In another account, it is said that, as punishment she tied him to a chair in the town and, omitting to tell any of the servants where he was, went off to ride in Bisham Wood - perhaps to the holy well. While she was out she encountered, a distant relative, Queen Elizabeth I, and forgetful of her son tied up in the tower, accepted her invitation to return with her to Windsor. When eventually she reached Bisham Abbey again and went to the tower it was to find him dead in the chair.
Like most such tales, this one has given rise to a great deal of controversy. Critics have seized on the absence of any documentary proof that Elizabeth Hoby had a soon called William. Others point to an assertion by Piers Compton in his book The Story of Bisham Abbey that copy books were found during renovation work at the Abbey in 1840. One bore the name William Hoby and one witness declared that almost every page was blotted. Unfortunately, this significant piece of evidence was lost only days after its discovery and has not been seen since. It has been suggested that if the books ever existed, they may have been taken by workmen and perhaps sold to antiquarians. In any case, lack of formal proof is not to be taken as irrefutable proof that the unfortunate William is fiction. The keeping of parish registers was a much more casual affair in the 15th century than it became later and, if there were documents, they might have been destroyed or have been lost among the papers in some archive, where they may possibly turn up at some future time.
Witnesses of ghosts are rather easier to find. There have been countless stories of lights seen burning in the tower room at times when it was known no one was in there, of doors opening of their own accord, of unseen hands pulling the bedclothes off hapless - and greatly alarmed - sleepers, as well of well-attested sightings of Lady Hoby.
In Piers Compton's book, Edward Vansittart, a retired admiral who owned the abbey in the early years of the 20th century, describes an incident after an evening's chess with his brother. "We had finished playing" says the admiral, "and my brother had gone to bed. I stayed some time with my back to the wall turning over the day in my mind. Minutes passed. I suddenly realised the presence of someone standing behind me. I tore round and it was Dame Hoby." Before fleeing the room he noticed that the frame on the wall holding her portrait was blank. And many people who have worked there in recent years are emphatic that they have seen or heard the ghost.