Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Witches of Belvoir Castle

In 1603, James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne and he had the desire to rid the British Isles of witches – women being easily led astray by the devil, he assumed. If children died, crops failed and villages fell into starvation, it was because of witchcraft – unholy women. Francis Manners, sixth Earl of Rutland, was the lord of Belvoir Castle and was a friend of the king.  He was an educated and trusted man, but a bitter man too. His first wife, Frances, died in 1608 and when he re-married, to a lady called Cecilia, his son and heir, Henry, also died before him. His other son, Francis, also followed suit and died young.

Belvoir Castle
As Christmas 1617 approached, the earl and countess were not preparing Belvoir Castle for festive celebrations, their minds were filled with darkness. Specifically, they were consumed with the idea that they were the victims of a plot instigated by witches. Joan Flower and daughters Philippa and Margaret had been servants at Belvoir Castle until their master and mistress became dissatisfied with their work. Philippa had become (and I quote) “lewdly transported with the love of one Thomas Simpson” and her mother was considered “a monstrous, malicious woman, full of oaths, curses and imprecations, irreligious and, for anything they saw by her, a plain atheist”.

Earl Francis Manners
The trio were sacked. Margaret was the only one compensated with a payoff of “40 shillings, a bolster (pillow), and a mattress of wool.” Joan, with her “strange and exotic” behaviour, was enraged and is said to have placed a curse on the family. Whether coincidence or not, the earl and his countess soon became ill with serious vomiting and convulsions, and after their sons, Henry and Francis, died, the three “witches” were blamed. He ordered them to be arrested and taken to Lincoln for questioning.

At Lincoln, they were questioned about their involvement with witchcraft. Joan was accused of murder, with her daughters as accomplices. The mother protested her innocence and to prove it, she strangely asked for bread and butter. She said that if she was guilty then ‘let it never pass through her.’ She bit into the bread and, moments later, say accounts from the time, she died on the spot. The inquisitors, who included the earl, turned their attention to her daughters.  Interesting, by their own confession, they had entered into communion with spirits, in the bodily form of a cat called Rutterkin. Margaret confessed she had stolen a glove from his lordship’s son, Henry, and gave it to her mother, who stroked Rutterkin with it, dipped it in hot water and pricked it.  She said that Henry then became ill when he “sickened very strangely and, after a while, died”. In order to stop the earl from having any further children, they took a bunch of feathers from his bed and a pair of gloves, which they boiled in water and blood.

They didn’t want to take all the blame either and they implicated Anne Baker of Bottesford, Joan Willimot of Goodby, and Ellen Greene of Stathorne as fellow witches of the dark arts who helped them destroy the life of the powerful earl. The two Flower women were tried and because of their own confessions, they were condemned to death.  Margaret and Philippa were executed in Lincoln, strangled and then, whether already dead or still alive, they were burned at the stake. Strangely, the three women they named as their accomplices walked away unscathed.

The portrayal of three accused witches
Earl Francis Manners died in 1632 and was buried at St Mary the Virgin Church in Bottesford. On his tomb is the only reference to the dark art of witchcraft in an English church. It says: “two sonnes, both who died in their infancy by wicked practise and sorcerye”. Were Henry and Frances the only innocents to lose their lives that winter? Not likely. It is believed among historians that the two girls who were burned at the stake were tortured into giving their confession by the bitter and twisted earl, while their mother was probably throttled as opposed to choking on bread.

Devilish gargoyles can be seen at Belvoir Castle
Can accounts of the day be trusted? Can any historical account be truly accurate? We know about the anti-Plantagenet propaganda after Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, and the accounts of the witch-trials are most likely the earl’s excuse for his own failed life. The three ladies may have been different to the average lady of their time. Maybe they used ancient British customs and family traditions of healing with herbs and spices. Maybe they had deformities, looking different from the rest, or maybe they had a mental illness which the earl was wary of. I for one think they were the scapegoat of a bitter earl who needed someone to blame for his own life failings.

In the Leicestershire Chronicle newspaper a few years ago, George Ferzoco of the University of Leicester said that “the Belvoir Three should certainly receive some sort of amnesty. It would set a good example in our times, when people in our midst are being persecuted because they are different from the majority. In my opinion, the day will come when some expression of deep regret over persecution on grounds of witchcraft is made, in the same way that, for example, Pope John Paul II expressed regret over things such as the Crusades and anti-Jewish actions.”

1 comment:

  1. The theft is fact; so are the sad deaths of the Earls sons before their time; the trial and the executions are also true. The inscription on the eldest boys tomb alleges that the women were to blame; belief in witches and their craft was a normal and profound one. However, it is more likely that they died of some family inherited illness, that they blamed the deaths on the women as it was too much of a conincidence and they confessed due to the fact they were most likely tortured. The Earl was also a grieving father and grief can make a person do strange things. He acted on his beliefs and the trial sadly followed. Of course the story of the butter and bread is most likely a legend but it makes a point; that such signs were believed as proof of innocence or guilt. A very good article.

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