The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret

The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret

by Catherine Bailey


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For fans of Downton Abbey, this New York Times bestseller is the enthralling true story of family secrets and aristocratic intrigue in the days before WWI

After the Ninth Duke of Rutland, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, died alone in a cramped room in the servants’ quarters of Belvoir Castle on April 21, 1940, his son and heir ordered the room, which contained the Rutland family archives, sealed. Sixty years later, Catherine Bailey became the first historian given access. What she discovered was a mystery: The Duke had painstakingly erased three periods of his life from all family records—but why? As Bailey uncovers the answers, she also provides an intimate portrait of the very top of British society in the turbulent days leading up to World War I.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143124733
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/31/2013
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 127,716
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Catherine Bailey read history at Oxford University and is an award-winning television producer and director, making a range of critically acclaimed documentary films inspired by her interest in twentieth century history. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Secret Rooms and Black Diamonds. She lives in West London.

Read an Excerpt


18–27 April 1940

Two doctors were already at the castle; a third, Lord Dawson, Physician to King George VI, was expected. It was mid-morning on Thursday 18 April 1940 and they were gathered at the entrance to a suite of rooms. The door leading into them was made of polished steel; the colour of gunmetal, it was the type used to secure a walk-in safe.

The door was firmly closed.

The light from the dim bulbs along the windowless passage cast pools of inky shadows around the waiting figures. Piles of cardboard boxes were stacked against the bare stone walls. Marked ‘Secret – Property of His Majesty’s Government’, they were secured with steel binding.

The doctors – Dr Jauch, a GP from Grantham, and Mr Macpherson, an eminent chest specialist – had been in and out of the rooms since dawn.

Shortly before eleven o’clock, the first footman, dressed in an azure tailcoat and navy-blue breeches, escorted Lord Dawson across the Guard Room. A coldly sumptuous hall, it was the first point of entry to the 356-room castle. Rows of muskets, taller than a man, and hundreds of swords, their blades sharp-edged and glinting, lined its walls. From the vaulted roof hung the tattered remnants of regimental colours, captured in battle. Directly in front of them, a magnificent staircase swept to the state rooms on the upper floors; and yet, as the footman led the King’s doctor across the hall, he veered to the right, heading for its farthest corner. There, he ushered him through a discreet swing door. It marked the border between master and servant. They had stepped into the ‘invisible world’.

Behind the Guard Room, the entire ground floor was devoted to the smooth running of the Duke’s household. A gloomy hinterland of fifty rooms, some cavernous, some no larger than a priest’s hole, it was where the servants lived and worked. From here, a network of passages coursed through the castle: hidden routes, which spiralled up the narrow turrets and towers to the splendid rooms above, enabling the servants to carry out their duties unobserved.

It was through this labyrinth of passages, deep in the servants’ quarters, that the footman conducted Lord Dawson, arriving at the steel door where the other doctors stood waiting.

They were at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. Built in the Gothic style and situated on a ridge eight miles from Grantham, it belonged to John Henry Montagu Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland. Aged fifty-three, he was one of the richest men in Britain. Three years earlier, he had carried the Sovereign’s Sceptre at the coronation. His family had lived at Belvoir since the eleventh century. Looking south from the castle’s Flag Tower, he owned the land as far as the eye could see.

Earlier that morning, the Duke’s wife, Kakoo, had telephoned Lord Dawson. Her husband was desperately ill. He must come to the castle immediately.

Up in the Flag Tower, the clock struck eleven. Ten minutes had passed since Lord Dawson’s arrival, but he had yet to be admitted to see the Duke. The sounds of distant industry drifted along the passageway: shouted orders; the banging of tools; the clatter of footsteps approaching on bare stone.

The sight of the King’s doctor in the passage immediately caught the servants’ attention.

‘If there was something serious going on, the housekeeper and the butler would try and keep it quiet,’ George Waudby, the third footman, recalled. ‘They might talk together, but they’d be tight-lipped in front of us lower ranks. We were their inferiors. We were the lowest of the low. We were never told anything. Everything we knew depended on what we saw or overheard.’

‘We all talked. We weren’t meant to, but we did,’ said Dorothy Plowright, the daughter of the boiler stoker. ‘Every rank had its gossip: the upstairs maids, the kitchen staff, the footmen, they all had their grapevines.’

Until that morning, the servants’ grapevine had had nothing to report. They had seen and heard very little. ‘We knew the Duke was unwell. He had been ill for a week. But we didn’t realize it was serious,’ said George Waudby. ‘We rarely saw the Duke. He spent all his time in his rooms. Every day, all day, he was in there. That had been the case for months. We knew this because they were in our quarters. Of course we had no idea what went on in there. Those rooms were absolutely secret. But we were told it was where the Duke worked. Nothing struck us as unusual. His routine hadn’t changed. He had carried on working as normal.’

The servants had had no reason to believe the Duke’s illness was life-threatening. Only two days previously, after spending the night at Belvoir, Lord Dawson had returned to London, satisfied that the

Duke was on the mend. Before leaving the castle, he had issued a short statement to the press:

The Duke of Rutland is suffering from pneumonia at his home, Belvoir Castle, and is now stated to be making satisfactory progress. The Duke, who is 53 and succeeded his father in 1925, was taken ill during last weekend.

That morning, however, the servants had reason to suspect that the Duke’s condition had deteriorated. Shortly after breakfast, three mysterious-looking packages were delivered to the castle. From that moment, they were on tenterhooks.

The porter was on duty when the packages arrived at the lodge. Marked ‘Urgent’, they were addressed to Mr Speed, the Duke’s valet. Two of the boxes were long and bulky; one was very heavy. The labels gave away their contents; they had come from Bartlett’s of Jermyn Street, Suppliers of Oxygen Tents.

The castle’s odd-job men were summoned to take the packages to the entrance of the Duke’s room, where Mr Speed was in attendance. ‘Besides the butler and the housekeeper, Mr Speed was the only ser- vant the Duke allowed in his rooms,’ George Waudby remembered. ‘The rest of us were forbidden to go in there.’

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Populated with a bevy of real-life aristos who played by their own twisted and privileged set of rules, a searing portrait of family intrigue, dysfunction, and hubris—a la Downton Abbey—emerges.” – Booklist

“Bailey is a truly dogged detective… a compelling exposé” – Kirkus Reviews 

“Bailey deserves commendation for her meticulous research as well as her storytelling.” – Publisher’s Weekly 

“Gripping. Reads like the best kind of mystery story. It is a tale of mistresses and heirlooms, cowardice and connivance.” – The Sunday Times (London)

“Compelling. A remarkable piece of research which throws a bright shaft of light on powerful people, hypocrisy and the First World War.” – The Guardian


Customer Reviews

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The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found The Secret Rooms to be a fascinating read. Why did the Ninth Duke of Rutland erase himself from his family history. This is the question by brilliant writer and researcher Catherine Bailey in this book. The research is very in-depth. The writing is excellent. I give this book high marks.
naturemanLB More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book that is interesting and very well-written. The writer has the ability to make the reader feel as if he/she is a part of the mystery. The Secret Rooms is a page turner and one of the best books I have read. I highly recommend!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved The Secret Rooms. Ms. Bailey does a wonderful job describing her search for answers. I especially liked how, when her initial research topic didn't pan out, she jumped right into the topic that fell into her lap. The book gives great insight into the world of British aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Recommended for anyone with an interest in British history, or anyone interested in the personal stories of WWI.
JJBreads More than 1 year ago
...not quite what I'd expected. The only haunting, for instance, was by guilt. That being said, I found the story quite interesting and full of information about the British peerage and World War I. The latter was especially fascinating. So this is well worth a read -- just don't expect ghosts!
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
In 1940, John the 9th Duke of Rutland, locked himself in the servants quarters of his 356-room castle with his papers and journals and refused to leave, jeopardizing his health and ultimately leading to his death. What he did in these rooms, known as the Muniments Rooms, was a mystery until a few years ago, when the rooms were unsealed for the first times since his death and Catherine Bailey showed up to research a book about the villagers who died fighting in World War 1. What she ended up discovering was that John spent his last days erasing three periods of his life from the collections of letters and diaries he locked himself away with (interestingly, he erased a total of 356 days, which is exactly how many rooms the castle has). Upon learning this, Bailey shifted her focus to the Rutland family, in particular to John, in an effort to find out what horrific events he sought to remove from history. The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey is the story of John, a sad and neglected man who found comfort in his compulsive need to collect things from bird’s nests to family letters. An introvert who would rather study old artifacts than adhere to social norms, his shunning of high society led him to be a constant disappointment to his family. Unfortunately, his family, and in particular his mother, was accustomed to getting their way and had no qualms with using their political and social connections to achieve their goals. It is against this backdrop of family dynamic that The Secret Rooms takes place, and the book is better off for it. Without Bailey’s extensive research into the Rutland family, John’s efforts to erase aspects of his past would be unexciting. The book is set up in three sections, with each placing an emphasis on a missing piece from the puzzle. Although told independently, they intertwine and weave a complex tale of family, betrayal, and influence in a time when men were killed at war by the tens of thousands. Filled with cliffhangers and at times speculative, Bailey keeps the reader at the edge of their seats until the very last page. Allison @ The Book Wheel
55T-Bird More than 1 year ago
This book does provide some interesting insight into the war from the perspective of the English nobility which, according to the author, was the originally intended subject of her book.  However the ending of the story can be easily guessed at about halfway through the book; this made it difficult for me to be excited about reading it to the end.  The rigid rules of class distinction in pre-war England, however, are an important aspect of the war itself.  How military commissions were conferred, ranks determined, and battle strategies developed were all derived from this sense of class and entitlement.  In reality, the war might have ended sooner if all of Europe hadn't been so concerned with rank.  This book does help the reader better understand some of the manipulation that happened behind the scenes that was, in many ways, detrimental to winning the war with fewer lost lives.  In regard to writing style, I personally didn't like the first-person insertion of the author into the research and discovery of the story but that is just preference on my part.  The book is easily readable, tells an interesting story and does provide the reader with one perspective of the war.  I would argue that the use of the word "haunted" in the subtitle is very misleading; the author never alludes to a haunting and the reader should not look for ghosts among the pages.  "Mysterious" would be a more appropriate word.
Skater52 More than 1 year ago
SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!!   I'd have to give the book 5 stars for the research alone, but half way through when you realize what is happening  the impact or rather the let down of the mystery dips to 2 stars, so I marked it at three to sort of even it out.    Bailey is a great researcher and story teller but I did find the story started to drag down in retelling and minutia.   In the end I didn't like any of the characters, detested some and felt sorry for others, but all in all the great mystery is, frankly, a let down!   If I had to read one more  of the mothers letters I would scream!
SeaKyle More than 1 year ago
I REALLY wanted to like this book. Like another has mentioned, you start this book and cannot put it down. It begins with mystery, immediate empathy for the main character and fills your mind with ideas of what the answer to the mystery is. Halfway in, it becomes beleaguered with detail and minutia that felt like sitting through history class. I felt the bulk of the read to be about WWI making me forget the "mystery" and "intrigue". Why the book description even refers to fans of Downton Abbey escapes me. The book was exceptionally well written, the author's research no doubt to be the most thorough and painstaking. However, this was an interesting read at best; my attention waning the closer I got to the finish.
wjane More than 1 year ago
The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret by Catherine Bailey There were so many plots, secrets and mysteries I’m not sure if anyone will ever know the complete story. Excellent details and meticulous research by the author when most may have given up, simply guessed at the truth or written a novel. Well worth reading more than once just to absorb all the facts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very readable non-fiction book. I really like the writing style of the author. The book explores gaps in the life of the 9th Duke of Rutland. Charles devoted his life to hiding events in his life. The book includes: the death of his brother, World War One, hiding in the castle, odd and unloveable parents, a sister who sacrificed, a lifestyle of a rich and powerful family, secrets galore, and more. The book deserves an A++++++++
Griperang72a More than 1 year ago
I wanted to like this book more than I did. I enjoyed the first third of this book and the last few chapters. Where this book fell down for me was in the middle. Once it started talking about the war and how John's mother and uncle were trying to keep his out of it that is where I got lost. It was just very dry for me and I wanted it to be a little more juicy as to why there were parts of this man's life missing. I think I was hoping for more of a mystery as to why he had rooms shut off and why he lived in just one room at the end of his life. I am still not quite sure why the rooms were kept shut up for so long. I know John ordered them that way but why did his descendants never open them to see what was in there. It does go to show if you know the right people and have enough money you can escape things like war. There is one mystery that is still a mystery and that is the death of John's brother. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although history it read like fiction. Very enlightening about the titled of England and how the lived. It became a little slow when the author wrote about the third mystery, but overall it was difficult to put down.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did love the book, read it in 2 days, never read a Catherine Bailey book before,she kept your interest throughout the book. Would read more of her books.
Cyndy3 More than 1 year ago
Well researched. Too bad the characters were not more sympathetic. I give it 4 stars due to the excellent research and writing. But there are really no bombshells. Just manipulative parents and unhappy children. More sad than shocking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book seemed to drag on. Some parts of the book were repeated when the author is talking about his time on the front line. The review on the book made it sound more exciting and mysterious and made the mother sound very evil, when it wasn't. You learn about how he was rejected by the family, then how the family tried hard to get him to see he is the only heir left and how he needs to think of everything else and stop thinking of himself. just to find out he was in on it at the end.
emsNC More than 1 year ago
intriguing look into english mystery and drama
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Castles, aristocracy, AND mystery? And its all a true story? Just started this today and can't put it down.