To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 00:45:59

Writer of the month: witches, sorcery, scandal and seduction in Jacobean England

This talk describes the events which unfolded at Belvoir Castle four hundred years ago, during the witch craze. It is a tale of superstition, injustice and conspiracy.

Dr Tracy Borman is an author, historian and broadcaster, whose books include the highly acclaimed Elizabeth’s Women: the Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror. Find out more at Tracy has recently been appointed interim Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and is also Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust.

This podcast was recorded live as part of the Writer of the month series, which broadens awareness of historical records and their uses for writers. We apologise for any intermittent reduction in sound quality.


Thank you very much, well, what a great pleasure it is to return to Kew, to my old stomping ground. Terrifyingly, I was just sitting and working out how many years it was since I worked here and it was 14 years ago that I first discovered the wonders of Kew, certainly as an employee anyway. I was tasked with coming up with an events and exhibition programme when I worked here, but before that I’d actually been a student using the archives when I was studying for my PhD and that was when they were back in Chancery Lane so that really is casting my mind back some way.

And then of course they moved lock, stock and barrel to Kew and that’s where I was based and it was just one of those jobs that I will always remember. With hindsight I should have just stayed here forever because it was my favourite, favourite job. If only I hadn’t been so young and ambitious and gone on to something else at the time.

Because on my first day here at what was then called the Public Record Office, I was led to the Safe Room – I don’t know if it’s still called the Safe Room – but where the most treasured archives are kept. And my first job was to help select what should go into a new museum. So there I was, a graduate of History, surrounded by Shakespeare’s will, the log book of HMS Bounty, telegrams from the Titanic. ‘Kid in a sweetshop’ doesn’t even begin to cover it, it was just remarkable, and I just never looked back really. I absolutely loved my time here. I fell in love with the archives, and they still for me are the best collection of archives anywhere, certainly in the country, if not the world.

Because they also seem quite surprising and quite hidden, they have that secretive aspect still, just by dint of the fact that people don’t seem to always know about the treasures that are contained there. Because ‘The National Archives’ – it sounds like it’s going to be many official papers, which of course it is, but it’s those unexpected, quirky items that have always appealed to me, the mummified rat always being my favourite. I think it had munched its way through so many documents that it was given its own reference number, and preserved in perpetuity. That was always my favourite item in the collection here.

But it is absolutely staggering the work that The National Archives does and it’s changed enormously in the 14 years since I was here. And definitely embraced modern technology and I can’t wait to get started in the archives again for my new book. Which, by the way, is – a plug coming up for this – ‘The Real Wolf Hall’. That’s not the actual title but I’m writing a biography of Thomas Cromwell to tie in with a new BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s amazing novel Wolf Hall. And all of Cromwell’s correspondence is here, so I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

As a historian, the importance of archives, I think, goes beyond just the information that they contain, which of course is valuable enough in itself, but for me, nothing gives me that shivers-down-the-spine moment like picking up a letter written by the person who you are studying. It really is extraordinary. It brings people and events from history to life, like nothing else. It really does. You just can’t believe – here is a letter, and the person you’ve been studying inside and out actually sat down to write that. You can look at the vagaries of their handwriting. You can look at how they chose to write their signature. When I was studying for my book about Elizabeth I, I looked at a lot of her letters here at The National Archives and saw the evolution of her elaborate signature. It got ever more elaborate as she played up to her iconic image as The Virgin Queen.

And then… I found this other letter in the archives of a lady-in-waiting of Elizabeth I, the wonderfully-named Helena Snakenborg, who was a Danish lady-in-waiting. And she mimicked Elizabeth I’s signature so she did her ‘H’ and then that swirl underneath in the same way that Elizabeth did. And you know, just seeing the letters like that, it just transformed it. Because I already knew that Helena really mimicked Elizabeth and tried to flatter her by being like her but actually seeing her letters there in front of me, it was just amazing.

So just the fact that they bring history to life, they bring you face-to-face with history, that is why I love archives, and in particular The National Archives, with its unparalleled collection. So it really is such a great pleasure to be back here and thank you very much to The National Archives for inviting me to be Writer of the Month, which is a lovely accolade.

And by the way, another of your Writers of the Month I now share a job with, Lucy Worsley, obviously much more famous than me. There’s always a vague sense of disappointment when I show up for meetings at Historic Royal Palaces [laughter] because we both share the role of Chief Curator now, and I’m a bit like the understudy. It’s like ‘Lucy couldn’t make it so they’ve sent Tracy’. So it’s quite nice that you all, I hope, know that I was going to be here today and you’re not expecting Lucy Worsley. So there don’t seem to be too many disappointed faces. So that’s always nice.

But it seems to have been a great programme and it’s nice to see there are still so many active events programmes here. Because that’s part of what I did when I was here, and we used to do these extravagant open days and lots of costumed re-enactment and I think I probably wore too many Tudor dresses than was good for a person. But it was the great excuse to dress up when I worked here at the archives. So thank you, and a lovely trip down Memory Lane.

But also I am here, not just to rave about the archives although I could do that all day, but to talk about one subject in particular. And it’s again a subject that is very well-covered here at Kew as well as in local record offices across the country. And that subject is witchcraft.

And it’s the subject of my new book, launched, quite cunningly, around Halloween this year. And it focuses upon a particular witchcraft trial from the early 17th century, but looks at that as a microcosm of the witch hunts that swept across Europe between about 1450 and 1750. It was a terrifying phenomenon, and every single village throughout Europe would have had a witch, would have known a witch – whether a good witch or a bad witch – who went on to meet her fate, usually quite a grizzly fate.

So I want to tell you about the particular trial because that trial is rooted in the archives, in this case the archives of Leicester Record Office, but the main record for witchcraft trials are the record of the Court of Assize, of which you will find many here at The National Archives. So it was a treasure trove for any student of the subject.

But just to go back to basics, what is, or was a witch? Now that word – and I’m going to use a pun, I’m sorry – but it conjures up certain images in your mind of perhaps a pointy hat, maybe a broomstick, maybe a slightly elderly lady wearing black, with a cat, a hook nose, maybe a wart on her nose…Well when I started my research for my book on witchcraft I assumed that was a fairly modern image of a witch, created by the likes of the Wicked Witch of the West and all the images you see every year on 31st October paraded around the shops and the Trick or Treaters.

I was therefore astonished to come across in the archives an engraving from around the middle of the 15th century, and it looked exactly like that. It was a witch flying on a broomstick. She’s dressed in black, she has the pointy hat, the hook nose, the wart on the nose. She has a cat in front of her and… she’s a lady of a certain age. So that image is very historic. That’s how we’ve seen witches for hundreds of years. It’s not a modern image, it’s derived from history. And I found that fascinating. It’s easy to make assumptions about where our images come from. It’s very historic.

And of course witches, themselves, are historic. They’re not a modern phenomenon at all, they’ve been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. They’re referenced in records almost since time began. Ancient Greek texts refer to witches, and they’re littered throughout the Bible and in ensuing centuries ever since.

But the big difference is that up until about the late 15th century, there were many, many more good witches than bad. If you were to say the word ‘witch’ to somebody before the late 15th century, it would have very positive connotations, because most witches were known as ‘White Witches’ or ‘Cunning Folk’, ‘Wise Women’, other… similar names to that. And they were a force for good in their community, you would have wanted a white witch in your village because she was skilled in herbal remedies, she would be very, very effective at healing the sick, far more effective than the official physicians of the age, she would find lost property, I don’t know how, she would detect crime, she would get out her crystal ball – again that’s a very historic piece of kit for a witch – and she would foretell your future. So they were valued members of the community.

But of course there are always opposites in history as in life, and the opposite to a white witch was, of course, a black witch. Far rarer though, I have to keep stressing this… witches get a bad press these days but actually they were positive, they were more like fairy godmothers in the past. But there were a few maleficent witches, evil-doers, and their role was the exact opposite of a white witch: it was to cause harm, chaos, catastrophe in a community. They would conjure up spells, they would make a pact with the Devil, in order to bring some misfortune on their community. So if ever there was a sudden death or a harvest failure or a visitation of plague, then people would cast about for their nearest witch and blame her.

She would stand out from her community because there are a number of characteristics that typified a black witch.

So she would probably be very poor. Poverty was equated with evil, rather unfairly, for much of history. She would probably live somehow on the periphery of her community, on the edge of the village… in the poorer dwellings. She would be considered elderly, and I’m terrified to tell you that meant over 40. She would own a cat… known as a ‘familiar’.

She would probably have moles on her skin because it was believed that when the devil made a pact with a black witch he would mark her in some way. And those devil’s marks, funnily enough, looked exactly like just an ordinary mole that you would find on any skin pretty much anywhere, they’re common features.

But this terrifying business of finding out if you’re a witch by looking for the devil’s marks suddenly sprang up. It was called ‘witch pricking’ for good reason, because a ‘witch pricker’ was actually what looked like a dagger, and the theory was that if the devil marked you, that particular mark would be insensible to pain, you would feel no pain, you wouldn’t feel anything if it was touched. And so this dagger was brought into use when trying to find out if somebody was a witch. And basically that suspected witch would be stabbed on every single mark on her body until she ceased to cry out in pain. Well, of course she probably ceased to cry out because she was beyond pain, she was probably almost passing out by that stage. But as soon as she stopped crying out they would say ‘Ah ha! We’ve found the devil’s mark’ and she would go to the gallows. So she would have a mark on her skin.

She would be unmarried; witches were predominantly single, they were either widowed or… they’d never been married in the first place.

So I was doing the research and I was… compiling this checklist of what it would take to be considered a black witch in the early modern period and I found the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise as I ticked off in my own head how many boxes I’d have actually fulfilled myself in those times. And I live in New Malden that’s sort of on the edge of London, anyway I won’t go into age and all that sort of thing. Suffice it to say, the only thing in my favour is that I’m allergic to cats [laughter]. But otherwise I would have been absolutely in the frame as a black witch.

And I sort of make light of it but the terrifying fact is it was so easy to end up on the wrong side of an accusation for witchcraft. And you wouldn’t even want to get to the stage of being accused because most accusations led to convictions, which in turn led to executions.

And even those people who escaped that outcome would not really have a life worth living after that, because they’d be vilified by their local communities. Mud sticks throughout history – that again is something that hasn’t changed about human nature. And you often find a lot of vigilante justice being carried out; if somebody has been acquitted in a witchcraft trial, they’ll probably be murdered by members of their community anyway. So it was terrifying to be in the frame for witchcraft.

And between 1450 and 1750 the records tell us that as many as 100,000 people – mostly women, about 90% of witches were women – were convicted for witchcraft, and at least 40,000 were executed.

Now you may think if you’re doing some mental arithmetic that’s a 300-year period and about 40,000 deaths, so spread out over that it’s not that great, it’s not that significant. But the point is that those 40,000 are only the ones that the records tell us about, and the vast majority of witchcraft trial papers were destroyed in the 18th century. We only have very, very patchy remains of witchcraft records. They’re fascinating, but they’re very much the tip of the iceberg. So probably the official figures ran into millions, not hundreds of thousands.

What did we do to those witches who were convicted and sentenced to execution? Well the common image is that they’re all burned. In fact we didn’t burn witches in this country [England]; they were burned on the continent and they were burned in Scotland but here we just hanged them so we were much more humane in England. But nevertheless we did of course put them to death.

What we didn’t do was to torture them in order to get a confession. Torture was illegal for such cases in England but it was readily employed in Scotland and in the rest of Europe.

Well, so much for the background, but as I said my story takes place in the early 17th century, what was happening here in that time? Well in fact by the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, so by 1603, the English people were rapidly cooling off on the whole idea of the witch hunts. We’d had enough, really, of that. There was growing scepticism about whether witches really existed at all, whether they were capable of doing evil, and so the number of trials for witchcraft was very much on the decline.

And Elizabeth I had never been a great advocate of the witch hunts anyway. Not, we must be careful to note, because she was any kind of feminist – you know, she saw herself as the exception that proved the rule where women were concerned – but she was rather pro-witchcraft. She kept on her books the famous astrologer Dr John Dee, and she was quite interested in the potential of witchcraft, and certainly of herbal remedies and astrology. So she was quite open to that and she didn’t really promote the witch hunts very keenly at all. So they were on the decline and there were many pamphlets published at the time that… poured scorn on the very notion that there were such things as witches.

So you can see us as being rather more enlightened than some of our European neighbours who were still very much embracing the witch hunts. And we were certainly – if you can see it as enlightened – more enlightened than our immediate neighbour north of the border, Scotland, where the witch hunts were in full flow. And that was largely thanks to their King, James VI, who was the most notorious witch hunter who we’ve ever seen. Certainly the most notorious royal witch hunter anyway!

Why did he believe so passionately in the existence of witchcraft? Modern day psychologists would of course look back to his childhood, and that to a certain extent was true, he was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, he’d been raised to believe that Mary was evil, that womankind in general was evil and weak and susceptible to seduction by the Devil.

But something happened when James was in his early twenties in 1589 that absolutely convinced him of the existence of witches. And that was he’d just been betrothed to Anne of Denmark and he was waiting for Anne to arrive across the seas onto Scottish soil, but her fleet never arrived. And as James waited and waited with increasing anxiety, eventually a messenger arrived from Denmark and explained that Anne and her huge fleet had been batted back by a very violent storm, and in fact she’d lost many hundreds of men and ships in the process. But she herself has just narrowly escaped with her life.

Well James wasn’t known for his valour but in an uncharacteristic show of bravery he decided to go and take, or rather collect, Anne himself. So he amassed a large fleet of ships and was about to set sail, indeed did set sail for Denmark, but hadn’t got very far when his fleet was also batted back by a very violent tempest that seemed to be whipped up out of nowhere. Many hundreds of men were lost, James only narrowly escaped with his life.

He tried again and he made it this time, just by the skin of his teeth. And while he was in Denmark it was whispered to him by some of those who were quite keen on the witch hunts in Denmark – it was one of the forerunners of the witch hunting nations of Europe – and it was whispered to James that neither of those two storms had been a coincidence. They had been whipped up by witches, they said. And James was all too willing to believe this.

And so as soon as he got back to Scotland with his new bride Anne, he rounded up about 70 people, mostly women, on suspicion of having bewitched his fleet, and that of his new wife. And he personally superintended the interrogation and torture of those 70 suspects.

And one of the ringleaders of this conspiracy, as it was seen, was a lady called Agnes Sampson, who was probably a wise woman… a white witch. She was known for her herbal remedies and her gifts of foresight. And during her interrogation – which James superintended and was said to have taken, according to the records, great delight in – Agnes suddenly called proceedings to a halt and beckoned the King of Scots to her. Now, I think James was so shocked to be beckoned by a mere commoner that he went. He walked up to Agnes and she beckoned him closer still and whispered in his ear. And whatever she said made the King of Scots go as white as a sheet. And it’s since transpired that the words that Agnes had whispered to him were the very words that had passed between James and Anne on their wedding night. Words that no other mortal soul could possibly have known, and yet she repeated them verbatim.

This convinced James, as if he needed any more convincing, that witchcraft was true, it was valid, it was a force of evil that he himself had been appointed by God to eradicate from his kingdom.

So he called the interrogation to a halt and he ordered the torture of Agnes Sampson to stop. But if you’re thinking that I’m going to say he spared her because of that remarkable thing she did, he didn’t; he just sent her to the flames earlier because he was sufficiently convinced of her guilt. So she was burned alive for her crimes, as they were seen.

And from that moment on James becomes the witch hunter par excellence. He writes a book about it which can still be found among the archives today. It was called ‘Demonology’, it was published in 1597 and it became a bestseller of its age, reprinted many times in several languages. It was enormously influential, and almost became a manual, really, for witch hunters, how to hunt down and persecute witches. It resulted in the deaths of many thousands of women.

And this was the man who in 1603 inherited the throne of England, because of course Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, died without any direct heirs of her own, so she was forced to leave her throne to the son of her great rival, Mary Queen of Scots.

So James made his way south to England and he brought with him his witch hunting fervour. And that’s why suddenly the English, who’d been cooling off on the whole idea of witch hunting, suddenly reignite their passion for it, or at least pretend to, in order to flatter their new king. And you get the likes of Shakespeare penning Macbeth in order to convince the King that he shares his passion for witch hunting.

And by the way, that’s why Shakespeare makes Macbeth the shortest of his plays, because he knows that James hates the theatre! There are many other examples of how we try to curry the favour of our new King James I, as he is now, the first King of England and [and sixth of] Scotland.

Well among those who were trying to curry favour was a man called Francis Manners, sixth Earl of Rutland. His estate was Belvoir Castle. It’s not far from where I hail from, I’m a Lincolnshire lass, and it’s just in Leicestershire. And it’s spelled ‘Belvoir’ but pronounced ‘Beaver’. You see I’ve just done a tour of the Midlands, I didn’t have to explain that, but I think for some Southerners I probably have to say ‘it’s spelled Belvoir’, but it’s Belvoir Castle, and that was the estate of the Rutlands, the Earls of Rutland.

Now the Earl of Rutland was quite a benevolent man, and there are many acts of kindness that he did to members of his local community. The nearby village of Bottesford was full of his tenants and servants and they enjoyed quite a nice existence. But three women who lived in Bottesford had a much more miserable existence, they were Joan Flower and her two daughters Margaret and Philippa. Now Joan did enjoy some favour with the Earl because she was known for her knowledge of herbal remedies, that was something in which the Earl was very interested, so he would often pay her attention and converse with her.

Unfortunately though, this did nothing more than invoke the jealousy of other members of the Bottesford community, and the Flower women were already hated enough. They were known as reprehensible members of the Bottesford community. Their morals were forever being called into question. It was said that they would welcome male company into their house at all hours of the night. They didn’t go to church, which in the early 17th century was shocking. In fact it was a crime punishable by a large fine if you didn’t go to church; they didn’t care for that, they didn’t go. And they were always said to be uttering curses against their neighbours. They were not popular, it’s safe to say.

But it’s these very women who now found themselves with an enormous stroke of good luck, because they were offered employment at Belvoir Castle. The reason for this is that James I had become a regular visitor at Belvoir, it was one of the first places he visited on his journey south to claim his crown in London, and he loved it. He loved Belvoir with good reason, there was excellent hunting ground all around and James loved hunting deer almost as much as he loved hunting witches, it was said. He also enjoyed the lavish hospitality of the Rutlands, the Earl and Countess would lay on magnificent banquets.

But when a king announced, or a queen indeed, that they were going to pay you a visit, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing because they didn’t travel lightly. They would bring about 400 courtiers with them. They would bring furnishings, tapestries, basically they would take over your castle. You would have to have a very big castle to start with. Most would probably have to have accommodation in the grounds or on the floors of the great hall, wherever it may be. It would bankrupt many estates to have a royal visit, but the Rutlands were rich enough to cope.

Nevertheless, they had to take on extra servants when the King announced he was going to visit, which is exactly what happened in the summer of 1613, exactly 400 years ago this year. And by the way, I only realised that when I’d written the book and it had been published and I thought ‘Actually that would have been a nice anniversary to hang the story on’, so I’ll kind of make the most of it in my talks now.

But he announced he was going to visit and that’s why the Earl of Rutland took on extra staff, among them Joan Flower and her two daughters. Now you can imagine that was not a popular move among the other servants, given how detested the Flower family were in the local community. And it wasn’t long before rumours started to be spread against Joan and her daughters, it was said that they were pilfering, they were stealing from the castle, certain provisions from the kitchens in order to fund or furnish their late night parties with all sorts of ne’er-do-wells in the local area.

Well at first the Earl and Countess paid no heed to these rumours but after a while they became so vocal that they were forced to act. And I think probably in order to prevent any further in-fighting between the servants, they dismissed Joan Flower and her two daughters, and they had to return to their poor house in Bottesford even though they were given quite a generous pay off by the Countess.

Well Joan was said to have immediately uttered a curse against the Earl of Rutland and his descendants. She cursed his children and she said they would have no more children beyond those three because the Earl had two young boys from his second marriage to his current Countess Cecelia, he also had a daughter from his first marriage, and she was called Catherine. What should happen within days of the dismissal and the curse being uttered but all three children fall very suddenly and dangerously ill. They have fits, fevers, foaming at the mouth. They cannot be roused from this seeming bewitchment that had overtaken them. And a few days later the older of the two boys, who’s only about five years old, Henry Manners, dies and is buried in the nearby Bottesford church.

Now all of the focus is on that youngest son because it’s sons who count throughout history and even up until modern times, when thankfully the Queen has rather changed things now, but it was a male heir that you needed. And of course now the Manners only had one male heir and his life hung in the balance. He didn’t recover, he was still gravely ill. His sister, his half-sister Catherine, did recover, but Francis remained very, very sickly indeed. And you can imagine the pressure was now on the Flower women because this can have been no coincidence. The curse was uttered, the children fall ill, it has to be witchcraft, doesn’t it? That’s certainly what everybody believed.

But this is where this case is extraordinary, because that would have been more than enough evidence to bring a suspected witch to trial in most other cases. You actually didn’t need any evidence, in fact what evidence could you have of witchcraft, it was actually quite hard to bring in a cauldron or a spell or something like that. It was quite hard to prove. You didn’t need proof, you just needed an accusation in order to get a witch to court.

Well the Flower women remained untouched for the next five years, which was extraordinary. They survived longer than any suspected witch could hope to. And the reason for this was almost certainly the protection of the Earl of Rutland who refused to listen to these outlandish rumours against Joan Flower and her daughters. So he offered them their protection. It must have though been a very pressured, frightening time for them in Bottesford because they knew that everybody in the village was calling them a witch, was accusing them of having bewitched the young boys and their half-sister, to death in the case of Henry Manners.

Nothing happened though until Christmas 1618. And it was during Christmas that the Earl left Belvoir and went south to London to join in the court celebrations at Whitehall as every respected nobleman was expected to do. He left his wife Cecelia in charge at Belvoir and the next thing we hear is that she’s ordered the arrest of the three Flower women. ‘Why now?’ we may ask ourselves. Well I think the reason is it was believed that if a victim didn’t recover from a bewitchment, the only cure was to kill the witch and then the curse would be lifted.

And it has to be said, the Earl and Countess had tried everything else. It’s quite heart-breaking, as I did to look through the archives of Belvoir Castle and see the number of apothecary bills and physicians’ bills, they spent a fortune on trying to cure this young son Francis Manners to no avail. And I think in desperation Cecelia finally listened to the rumours and thought, ‘If I have the Flower women arrested and convicted maybe that will lift the curse on my young son and he’ll recover.’

So the Flower women were arrested, they were subjected almost certainly to an initial test. This happened before any formal interrogation, it was almost like a litmus test to see if somebody really was a witch.

And the most notorious test of the time was to ‘swim’ a witch. You may have heard of this, whereby you find your nearest pond if it’s deep enough or stream, you throw them in. If they sink they were innocent; if they rise to the top they were guilty and they’ll be hanged anyway.

Well it wasn’t quite that unfair, in fact what they’d do first is tie a rope around the waist of the suspect, if it looked like they weren’t going to rise to the surface they would haul them up, except they often didn’t get there in time so many people perished as a result of this test.

And it was carried out, apparently the outcome was sufficiently convincing for all three women to then be formally arrested and taken north to Lincoln for their interrogation. But they’d only got some 14 miles north on their journey when Joan Flower, the mother, called a halt to the grim procession. And she demanded a trial by bread, which sounds a lot more civilised than the trial by swimming. In fact it was an ancient ritual and what you would do is, you would have a piece of bread consecrated by a priest, and you would then take it into your mouth and swallow it. And if you were able to swallow it you were innocent, because it was believed that nobody evil would be able to take a piece of consecrated bread, representing the body of Christ, into their own body. That’s what Joan did; a priest, Samuel Fleming, was brought, he blessed the bread, and Joan Flower broke off a piece, and as the hushed gathering watched, she put it into her mouth, tried to swallow it, choked and fell down dead.

So the contemporary records tell us. Can we believe this tale? Well certain it was that Joan Flower died there after the trial and was buried in an unmarked grave. But I think far more likely is this account written about a year afterwards was probably a work of fiction on the part of the author.

I think more likely is that Joan, who was described as ‘ancient’ – probably about 42! – at this time, had been suffering from the maltreatment that she and her daughters had endured. It was the depths of winter remember, if they had that trial by water that would have been bitter, absolutely bitter. And it would have caused all sorts of ailments to these poor women. So she was probably worn down by ill-treatment rather than this trial, but it’s quite an intriguing story anyway.

Well she died but her two daughters survived, they made their way to Lincoln and were immediately thrown into the castle dungeons in a particular cell beneath a tower called Cobb Hall. And that cell is still called ‘The Witches’ Hole’ today, if you visit Lincoln Castle. Again, very miserable conditions, it was the depths of winter, very cold, riven with gaol fever, insanitary conditions, many, many people never even made it to their trial. Well the Flower sisters survived, they had their interrogation. They withstood their accusers who by this time included the Earl of Rutland himself, because he was a JP so he was obliged to join in the interrogation of the women accused of bewitching his sons, one of them to death, the other to near-death.

Well, as I said, they withstood the pressure for a while but then they both capitulated. And they confessed that the sickness of the boys and their half-sister had been thanks to a spell concocted by their mother, and that involved stealing a glove from one of those boys, taking it back to their mother’s house where she cut her finger, dripped blood on the glove and rubbed it on the back of their cat, the wonderfully-named Rutikin – if I ever did get over my allergy of cats I would call my cat Rutikin, I think – and then she buried the glove in the back yard, and that apparently was enough to cause the sickness of those children at Belvoir castle.

Well it’s suspicious, surely. These two girls had been interrogated separately and yet they describe the same spell, word for word. Surely that means they’re guilty? Hmm. What happens a lot in witchcraft cases is that the witches, or suspected witches, are worn down by sleep deprivation, by the threat if not the practice of torture, by just sheer terror at what lies ahead, and very, very often the interrogators literally put words into their mouth. It’s probably the interrogators who thought up that outlandish spell and said, ‘This is what you did, isn’t it?’ and they both said ‘yes’, and it was therefore recorded as if they’d both spoken the same spell. In fact it’s suspiciously similar, the account that they both come up with.

Nevertheless it was enough. In fact the authorities didn’t even need a confession, it was just like the icing on the cake in a witchcraft trial. An accusation was enough, as I said earlier. They were taken forward to the Court of Assize in Lincoln in March 1619.

Now the average murder trial, which this in fact was, today would run into probably several weeks if not longer. The average witchcraft trial was 20 minutes. They would rush them through, the court of assize, which was only a quarterly court, so it had a lot of business to get through.

And it was quite common for several witches even to be tried at the same time. They were allowed no defence, they could defend themselves although most were illiterate and you can imagine too terrified to be particularly articulate anyway. And so the trials were very, very quick, bewilderingly so. And there was a lot of intimidation on the part of the judge. And the judge in this case was none other than the notorious Sir Edward Bromley, who had sent the Pendle witches to their deaths some seven years earlier.

Not surprisingly therefore, Margaret and Philippa Flower were very quickly found guilty of bewitching the Earl of Rutland’s sons. Three days later, they were taken just outside the castle walls to the place of execution, and they were hanged, we were told, by ‘strangling twist’. Now you may think all hangings are by ‘strangling twist’, but what that tells us is that nobody showed them the mercy of weighting down their ankles or pulling on their ankles in order to break their necks and give them the swift deaths.

They died the more agonising death of strangulation.

They were buried in an area of the castle reserved for felons in an unmarked grave, and a year later, a book was published about their trial. This was very common in the cases of witchcraft. They were the bestsellers of their age. Every time there was a witchcraft trial, somebody would write a book about it, and they would sell in their thousands, and this happened with the Flower sisters. It was called ‘A Wonderful Discovery of Witchcraft’.

But the suspicious thing about this book is that it was written as if both boys are dead, and in fact by the time the Flower women went to their trial, that younger boy was still living. And there are a number of other things that are suspicious about their case. And all of those suspicions centre around one man: George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.

And I will save anybody – I don’t know if you did, but if anybody is a Guardian reader, they reviewed my book. It was a review of two halves, should we say. The first half: lovely, glowing, quotable for the paperback jacket. The second half: awful, damning because it says that basically I orchestrated my own witch hunt against the Duke of Buckingham. ‘Totally unfair’, they say, my treatment of the Duke of Buckingham. So I’m going to just preface that in case anybody’s read the Guardian.

However, I will just tell you the evidence that I’ve found against the Duke of Buckingham. He almost certainly paid for the publication of this book, which set out to prove that the Flower women killed not one, but two boys, even though only one of them was dead by the time the Flower women were executed. He also had, on his books, a poisoner called Dr John Lamb. His estate, Buckingham’s estate, was also in Leicestershire, very close to Belvoir Castle, he had ready access to the boys… is all I will say.
He had motive, a big motive, to do away with both boys. Because Buckingham, he was the most ambitious man at court. He was a great favourite of James I, and he needed money to fund his prestige, his lavish lifestyle as the King’s chief favourite. And there was no richer heiress in the country than the young Catherine Manners, if that second surviving brother were to be out of the way.

And Buckingham starts to make a play to marry Catherine even while her young brother Francis is still alive, but he won’t commit. He won’t absolutely agree to marry her until that boy is dead and out of the way. He sends a physician to attend the boy. He suggests that the boy is brought south to London, and indeed Francis Manners is brought south to London. And the very next day he dies, in March 1620, a full year after the execution of the Flower sisters. And who helps to pay for his funeral but the Duke of Buckingham.

So there’s circumstantial evidence if nothing else.

And with unseemly haste, Buckingham marries Catherine Manners as soon as her brother is dead. People are still wearing their mourning clothes when they attend the wedding of the Duke of Buckingham and Catherine Manners, who is now the richest heiress in the kingdom.

But Buckingham covers his tracks, if indeed he had anything to do with it at all. Suspicion was voiced about the justice of the trial of the Flower women, and indeed it was quite instrumental in causing a downturn in witchcraft trials from that period. Even James I himself starts to question the validity of witchcraft. And by his death in 1625 he has altogether gone off the whole subject of witch hunting and a lot of that was to do with the trial involving the Belvoir Castle witches.

Nevertheless, they have gone down in history as guilty. If you visit Bottesford and Belvoir today they’re still spoken of. If anything goes wrong in Bottesford, local people will say, ‘It must be those witches’. And if you look at the history of the Rutland family, actually rather suspiciously, you see the eldest son dying off for subsequent generations, a bit like – if anybody watched the White Queen, you know – Elizabeth Woodville’s curse against the Tudors, it’s believed, in a similar way.

And if you visit Bottesford church, you will see something quite extraordinary. It’s the tomb of those two young boys. And they’re depicted – there’s a little effigy of both boys – very small, they’re kneeling in front of the tomb, and each one clutches a skull to his chest to symbolise the fact that they died young. It’s an extraordinary tomb, a very lavish tomb, huge sums were spent on it by the boys’ parents, the Earl and Countess. And inscribed in the marble above it tells the visitor that these two young boys were ‘done to death by wicked practice and sorcery’. And that’s the only reference you will find to witchcraft in an English church, by the way.

And it’s thanks to this inscription, perhaps more than anything else, more than the pamphlet that was published, more than the rumours that were put about, that has ensured that Joan Flower and her two daughters have gone down in history not as innocent victims of persecution but as witches.

Thank you very much.

Transcribed by Lucy Handscomb as part of a volunteer project, February 2015.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We will not be able to respond to personal family history research questions on this platform.
See our moderation policy for more details.