Guilt, Horror, and “The Castle of Otranto”

Guilt is the basis of horror. Horror emanates out of the guilt of the author, the artist, the creator; perhaps none more powerful and captivating than Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, which catapulted the genre of horror into the English literary world. It should also be noted that horror emanated from the Protestant Anglosphere; depravity and debauchery in literature may have also grown out of the Enlightenment sweeping across Europe, but the hallmarks of horror literature is quintessentially Protestant Anglophone in origins.

Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Oxford, was a Whig parliamentarian who is credited with the creation of the Gothic horror genre in literature. His most famous book is the aforementioned Castle of Otranto. Walpole was a descendant of a prominent and powerful family that had come to support the anti-monarchical politics of Charles II; Colonel Robert Walpole broke from his father (a supporter of the Restoration) and became the most prominent Whig politician in Norfolk after the Glorious Revolution; Robert Walpole, the 1st Earl of Oxford, son of Colonel Walpole, was effectively the strongman Prime Minister of England after the Glorious Revolution who banished the Tories, attacked the Church of England, Roman Catholicism, and defended the Hanoverian Succession, and the supremacy of Parliament. His youngest son, Horace Walpole, became a parliamentarian and man of letters.

The origins of the Whig supremacy in England is the long result of the anti-Catholic revolution begun by Henry VIII, leading to the dissolution of the monasteries the rise of the police state under Queen Elizabeth, and the English Civil Wars which led to the beheading of Charles I, the brief Cromwellian Commonwealth, the Convention Parliament, the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy, and the Glorious Revolution which overthrew the Stuart Monarchy, defeated the Catholic and High Anglican forces allied with the Stuarts, and prompted the solidification of low and broad church Protestant rule and Parliamentarian supremacy. Out of this turbulent period emerged the Walpole family, which rose to rapid prominence by supporting the Glorious Revolution and taking an anti-Stuart and anti-Jacobite stance in politics. However, the power and wealth accrued by the Walpole family was the result of illegitimate theft. They had reached their prominence by overthrowing the old order.

Enter Horace Walpole. Horace was the beneficiary of this long history of theft and war. His family had actually achieved little on the order of merit; they had been opportunistic and came out on the winning side. To the victors, the spoils.

It is evident, however, the Horace was guilt-stricken by his family legacy and lineage. He eventually attempted to escape it by retreating to Strawberry Hill. The story was supposedly inspired by a nightmare that Horace had while sleeping in his newly built manor meant to evoke the Gothic architectural legacy that was smashed by iconoclastic and revolutionary forces that had swept England from the mid-sixteenth through the seventeenth centuries.

The story, as we know, deals with the sexual predations of Manfred, the illegitimate and dictatorial ruler of Otranto. He plots to dissolve his marriage with Hippolita and marry the young princess Isabella whose betrothal to Manfred’s son, Conrad, is ended by a freak accident that resulted in Conrad’s death. Eventually, a young peasant named Theodore is brought to Otranto who helps Isabella escape the predatory advances of Manfred.

In Manfred there are many manifestations of Walpole’s own history and the history of England. Manfred is a cruel tyrant who wants to divorce his wife to marry someone much younger and more voluptuous than his current spouse. It is clear to anyone with a knowledge of English history that Manfred is a dual manifestation of Henry VIII and the tyrant Queen Elizabeth. Manfred is also the manifestation of Horace’s own sexual depravity. Though never married, Horace engaged in many failed flirtations and pursuits of younger women (like Manfred with Isabella) and, supposedly, after his failures turned to homosexuality (see Gothic Architecture and Sexuality in the Circle of Horace Walpole).

The story then proceeds to a pivot. In chasing after Isabella who has escaped with Theodore, it is clear that Manfred is an antagonist and that the real protagonist, the real hero, is not Isabella but Theodore. Theodore is briefly captured and condemned to die by Manfred. A friar, named Jerome, is tasked with the killing. He recognizes Theodore as his son and pleads Manfred to spare him. Before the culling blow is unleashed, knights from Isabella’s fathers arrive and request the return of Isabella in the aftermath of Conrad’s death. This leads to a race between Manfred and the knights, which includes a disguised Frederic.

In the pursuit to find Isabella, Theodore defends her from a knight who is wounded and revealed to be Frederic. Frederic eventually conspires with Manfred to allow Isabella to be married to him if Manfred’s daughter, Matilda—who is in love with Theodore and hopes to be his wife—is betrothed to Frederic. Frederic, however, is haunted by an apparition which causes him to flee. This leaves Manfred in total control of the action once again.

Meanwhile, Manfred’s insecurities and guilt are overwhelming him. He suspects Isabella, his hopeful prize, is plotting to escape with Theodore. He intends to kill Isabella for her infidelity despite not being married. Manfred finds Isabella and Theodore in the chapel and he attacks them, mortally wounding Isabella. As Isabella lays dying, it is revealed that Manfred has accidentally killed his own daughter, Matilda.

After Manfred has killed Matilda, Theodore is subsequently revealed to be the agent of prophetic fulfillment and destruction. As the rightful prince of Otranto, and with a prophecy of destruction upon Manfred’s line, Theodore reclaims his birthright as Manfred repents of his crimes and sins and forfeits his titles. Manfred is banished to a monastery for a life of repentance and Theodore marries Isabella as the rightful claimant of Otranto is restored.

At the heart of the horror story that is the Castle of Otranto, sexual depravity and the politics of illegitimacy, mixed with the supernatural elements of prophecy, are combined into a potent and powerful story that has become quintessential to the horror genre. The deeper, psychological, interpretation reveals much more. It reveals the guilt of Horace Walpole and his family mixed with the history of England despite the story’s setting in Italy. We find the guilt of the politics of illegitimacy through the Walpole’s inheritance or seizure of lands and titles that were not originally theirs (Manfred being the Count of Otranto); the want of divorce for a new wife and the tyranny of Manfred over the land (Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth); failed sexual advances on a younger woman (Manfred’s lust for Isabella); filicide as an act of filial betrayal (Colonel Walpole’s breaking with his father, Edward Walpole, who had served and supported Charles II during the Restoration seen through Manfred’s killing of Isabella). The story ends with the guilt of Horace Walpole being overthrown by that which he feared: the rightful claimant of what his family had stolen—seen in Theodore’s prophetic fulfillment of Manfred’s dissolution and overthrow.

As mentioned, the Castle of Otranto and the birth of the horror genre was only possible through the complex filial and historical legacy of the Walpole family situated in the turbulence of early modern English history. The guilt that Horace Walpole felt was communicated through the pages of his most famous novel. And despite it all, we have all been the beneficiaries of the guilt stricken conscious of the 4th Earl of Oxford who left to posterity the blueprint for all future Gothic Horror stories; none of which come to matching the potency, power, and sublimity of the Castle of Otranto.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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