Bisham Abbey, in Berkshire, is now a National Sports Centre, a residential training base for athletes, teams and community groups. It is often surrounded by deep mists, even in the middle of summer - an atmosphere that reminds the visitor of the ghostly legends told about the site and buildings.

Bisham Abbey

An ancient holy well reflects the spiritual importance of this place before the English Reformation; there is also a secret passage, and mysterious lights have been seen at its location. In 1840, workmen discovered a bag of Spanish gold coins dating from the fifteenth century hidden beneath floorboards. Yet the most enduring and powerful ghost of Bisham Abbey is undoubtedly that of its former owner, Lady Elizabeth Hoby (1528 – 1609), whose portrait hangs in its Great Hall.

Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Hoby in the Great Hall at Bisham Abbey

Originally the house was known as Bisham Priory, after the Augustinian priory that stood there in medieval times. This was dissolved as part of the Reformation's attack on Catholic religious houses, on 5 July 1537. An attempt to found a Benedictine abbey on the site lasted only from 18 December 1537 to 19 June 1538, when the abbey was also dissolved. In due course, Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII, was granted the manor house of Bisham as part of the generous settlement she received after her marriage to the king was annulled in 1540.

In 1552, Anne passed Bisham Abbey on to Sir Philip Hoby (1505 – 1558), an influential and skilled diplomat, then ambassador to Flanders. Philip had no children, so Bisham was inherited on his death by his half-brother Thomas Hoby (1530 – 1566), also a diplomat, and an excellent linguist and traveller. In 1558 Thomas married Elizabeth Cooke, who was a sister-in-law of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, the Secretary of State to Elizabeth I.

Thomas was knighted in 1566 and appointed English ambassador to France, but died within four months of the appointment. He and Elizabeth had two sons, Edward, and Thomas Posthumus, whose name reflects the fact that he was born after his father's death.

Lord Burghley made a protégé of his nephew Thomas, and both the Hoby sons prospered and were knighted like their father before them. Edward followed in his father's footsteps as a diplomat, scholar and politician; he also became a soldier, and a favourite of Elizabeth I's successor, James I. However, the fame of Edward and Thomas has been eclipsed by the tragic legend of their brother, a child we now know as William Hoby.

The legend centres on Lady Elizabeth's education of her children, of which she is said to have taken sole charge. There were good reasons why she would have thought academic education an important part of a child's upbringing. She was the daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, who had been a tutor to Edward VI, the present queen's half-brother. A talented musician and poet, she and her sisters were highly educated. They were taught Latin and Greek, unusual subjects for girls at that time, and Elizabeth's translation of a Latin treatise had been published.

No doubt her academic abilities were one reason for her friendship with Elizabeth I: the queen had been well educated herself, and valued scholarship. In 1592 Elizabeth I stayed at Bisham Abbey for six days, and she was reputedly godmother to two of Lady Elizabeth's children.

Lady Elizabeth surely took personal pride in her children's accomplishments; she would also have known the importance of learning to their progress in the Elizabethan court, especially when they had no father to help them advance. But according to the legend she had another son, William, who could not match his parents' academic abilities. He struggled with his lessons, and the situation was made worse by his mother's impatience.

An exacting and unsympathetic teacher, Lady Elizabeth soon decided that William's problems were the result of laziness and obstinacy rather than genuine difficulties. She began to punish him severely for failing at his lessons, often beating him with a violence that shocked onlookers.

One day, Lady Elizabeth's harshness had horrific consequences: the legend tells us that she tied William to a chair and locked him up in the Tower Room of the Abbey. Summoned to court immediately afterwards, she forgot to tell anyone where William was, and, upon her return a few days later, unlocked the Tower Room to find him dead. Another version of the legend is that the child died as a direct result of a beating from his mother.

In the light of this story, it is hardly surprising that Lady Elizabeth Hoby's ghost is said to haunt Bisham to this day, racked with guilt and constantly trying to wash her son's blood from her hands in a fountain or basin that appears in front of her. Strangely, she is usually seen with a dark face and white clothes, like a photographic negative.

Her appearances can be violent: she has torn down bedside curtains and threatened visitors, or thrown objects around rooms. In the early twentieth century, she once terrified the owner of Bisham Abbey by materialising behind him as he stood in the Great Hall of the Abbey one night. At the moment he saw her, the owner also noticed that her portrait hung empty: it was as if she had simply stepped down from the frame.

Mostly, though, Elizabeth is heard rather than seen as she sobs in remorse; she also makes her presence known when an unexplained light is seen in the Tower Room. Until 1936, when Edward VIII abdicated, Elizabeth Hoby's ghost appeared at Bisham Abbey at the time of every English monarch's coronation, perhaps to express her eternal guilt at having gone to join Elizabeth I and left her son to die.

But did Elizabeth Hoby really kill her son? One clear obstacle to the legend is that there is no historical record of William Hoby's existence. His very name comes from a discovery of a mass of paper under the floorboards of the Abbey's dining room in 1840. The then owner of the house, a Mrs East, reported that the papers seemed to date from the sixteenth century; that the name Hoby appeared on them, and they seemed to have been corrected by Elizabeth Hoby.

Among these papers were what looked like children's copybooks. One, bearing a name that might have been 'William Hoby', contained poorly-written exercises, covered with blots. However, these papers mysteriously disappeared on the same day they were discovered, so it has not been possible to analyse or date them to ascertain whether they really came from the time of Lady Elizabeth Hoby.

In Elizabethan times, records of births and deaths were not always kept as meticulously as they are now, especially in the case of short lives. William's story could therefore be true. However, he could also have existed under a different name - that of Francis Russell. In 1574 the widowed Elizabeth remarried, to John, Lord Russell, son and heir to the second Earl of Bedford. They had three children: Elizabeth, Anne and Francis.

All of the Russell children died young, with the two daughters dying within days of each other in February 1571, and Francis dying in unexplained circumstances. Lord Russell himself died in 1584. Lady Elizabeth Hoby, then, did have a son who died at an early age. Whether or not she caused this tragedy as the legend claims, she went through the experience of losing not just one, but three, of her children.

William's story could also have originated from incidents in the childhood of another Hoby son: it is known that Elizabeth, in a letter to Lord Burghley, told him she was having some problems with teaching her second son, Thomas Posthumus. In Thomas's case, though, the story had a happier ending. As Burghley's nephew and protégé, he would always have had opportunities to succeed and prosper. Indeed, it may be that the jealousy inspired in others by the Hoby family's success and influence was enough to start the potentially scandalous rumours about the child we now call William Hoby.

As a powerful and forthright woman, Lady Elizabeth Hoby could easily have made enemies at court and within society. Malicious gossip about another Hoby son of uncertain origin, his life and death a guilty secret, had the potential to do a lot of damage to her reputation. The story that she had killed her own son for being a poor scholar could have been an exaggeration or invention, intended to mock and undermine Elizabeth's intelligence and scholarly background, and her ambitions for her children's future.

Therefore, while the legend of Lady Elizabeth Hoby is a warning about the importance of patience and compassion in educating children, it can also reveal just as much about the enduring power of envy and resentment. Whatever its degree of truth, Bisham Abbey remains haunted by the tormented spirit of a mother - and the suffering of a child who may or may not have lived.