History News: “Demon Traps” and King James I

How interesting!

A number of 17th century demon traps, the so-called “witchmarks” intended to keep evil spirits away from a member of royalty, have been discovered at Knole House, Sevenoaks, Kent.

Knole House – now located in a medieval deer-park – originally was an Archbishop’s palace, the house passed through royal hands to the Sackville family – Knole’s inhabitants from 1603 to today.

The marks were found under the floorboards and surrounding the fireplace of a room which was built for King James I, in anticipation of his planned visit to Sevenoaks.

The etchings, also known as apotropaic marks, are described to be interlocking, chequered and v-shaped.

They have been hidden for centuries and are believed to be linked to the  plot in which some Catholics, most famously Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up James I, the first of the Stuart kings of England.

 

“A few months before the marks were engraved, the infamous plot caused mass hysteria to sweep across the county. Accusations of demonic forces and witches at work were rife.

The etchings, also known as apotropaic marks, are described to be interlocking, chequered and v-shaped.

They were thought to form a ‘demon trap’, warding off demonic possessions and have been dated back to 1606 by archaeologists who used tree ring dating methods,” according to Kent Online.

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Experts from the National Trust believe the markings were carved by craftsmen working for the owner of Knole house, Thomas Sackville, in anticipation of a visit from the King – a visit he never made.

These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.

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“King James I had a keen interest in witchcraft and passed a witchcraft law, making it an offence punishable by death and even wrote a book on the topic entitled Daemonologie,” said James Wright, an archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).“These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.

“To have precisely dated these apotropaic marks so closely to the time of the Gunpowder Plot, with the anticipated visit from the King, makes this a rare if not unique discovery.

“Using archaeology to better understand the latent fears of the common man that were heightened by the Plot is extremely exciting and adds huge significance to our research about Knole and what was happening at that time.”

 

Excerpts from MessageToEagle.com

 

Nathan Hale Homestead’s Great Pyramid – George’s Folly?

When guests exit the visitor’s center at Nathan Hale Homestead, they invariably ask, “What’s that big stone thing over there?” and “Why do you have Thomas Hooker’s bones?” (Thomas Hooker being a founder of CT.) The short answers are, “A memorial pyramid” and “We don’t, it only looks that way.” Wait a minute, a pyramid in Coventry, CT?

Memorial pyramids have a lengthy history, particularly in England, where they, along with various other odd structures, are often referred to as “follies.” The Hale pyramid was constructed in 1938 by the man who restored the house and property of Nathan Hale’s family, George Dudley Seymour. A patent attorney from New Haven, Seymour devoted his life to historic preservation, and while he owned Hale Homestead, he usually summered there, a gentleman farmer reforesting the area and tending to his animals. Among the latter was a cow named Octavia, after a Hale daughter-in-law; for a brief time Seymour ran a small cheese-making business, presumably in partnership with Octavia. His favorite animal companion, however, was a retired war horse named Thomas Hooker Bones. Seymour is pictured above, proudly astride Bones in front of the Hale house. TH Bones undoubtedly enjoyed his peaceful life following his WWI military service, and when his noble, courageous spirit departed this earth in 1937, Seymour decided that Bones was too fine a character to warrant a final trip to the knacker’s. He interred THB right on the historic property, immediately behind the house, no easy task, as a horse is much larger than a dog or cat. And he set about memorializing Bones in a way that not even Nathan Hale received. A few years later, the black dog that can be seen in front of horse and rider is Sheba, and when she died, she was also buried there.

There is a precedent to the story of George’s folly on Farley Down, west of Winchester, England. Erected in 1740 by Sir Paulet St John, this much older pyramid commemorates St John’s horse, who survived a horrific fall into a 25 foot chalk pit while fox-hunting. The horse might have had second thoughts about his good fortune when St John renamed him “Beware Chalk Pit”, but that’s another story. At any rate, Beware’s exploit is commemorated in the shape of a 30 foot high pyramid that still stands today. TH Bone’s pyramid is only half that height, but in the hills of rural New England, is no less a marvel.

TH Bones’ Latin epitaph, extolling his exemplary character:

Post revised 9/29/14.

Modern Lit: The Diviner’s Tale, by Bradford Morrow

The Diviner's Tale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Single mom Cassandra Brooks comes from a long line of “diviners”, or water dowsers, and her father has taught her the secrets of the craft. Some folks say she’s a witch, and she has always felt like an outsider. One day while searching for a source of water on an about-to-be-developed farm, she comes upon the body of a young girl hanging by the neck from a tree. Horrified and saddened, she contacts the police, but when she leads them to the site, the body has disappeared. The Diviner’s Tale is the story of her reaction to that incident, which prompts her to question her sanity and her place in the world. What is reality and what is a figment of the mind?

Cassandra’s is a spooky sort of tale, a slowly simmering eeriness pervading it all. Like the mythological Cassandra, from time to time she sees visions, and some of them come true. She tells of her experiences in her own words, sometimes straightforwardly and other times, poetically and metaphorically. The language in this book is thoughtful, beautiful and affecting. Perhaps Cassandra thinks too much, complicating things beyond their significance. But as a character, she is engaging, intelligent and courageous, and if she’s profoundly unsure of herself, she nevertheless faces problems head on. The Diviner’s Tale also has its suspenseful segments, built around three different crimes that took place in three different decades. While it becomes clear who the middle malefactor is, the nature of his crimes, as well as the the identities of the first and third, require more delving into the details of the story itself. In the process, her most significant relationships must change.

As Cassandra herself concludes, “All we had ever been were stories, and saying ourselves, unveiling our stories, was the best, the only, chance at divining ourselves.”

View all my reviews

Buttolph Williams House and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

One look at the Buttolph-Williams house is enough to transport the imaginative viewer straight back to America’s earliest century. Built in 1711, this first period building is typically medieval-English in style, with its massive posts and beams, its overhangs and finials, and its small leaded paned windows. It represents the most authentic restoration of a 17th century style dwelling in the CT River Valley, and contains a lovely collection of early furniture, kitchenware, and ceramics.

Few people are aware, however, that the Buttolph-Williams House was a source of inspiration, and the partial setting, for the Newbery Medal-winning book The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. This fictional classic is based upon the story of Kit Tyler, an orphaned adolescent girl forced by necessity to live with her uncle’s family in Connecticut, who becomes involved in a case of suspected witchcraft when she befriends Hannah Tupper, a local woman who does not conform to Puritan standards of the day. Author Speare witnessed the restoration of the Buttolph Williams house in the 1950′s, and learned at the same time about the witchcraft trials and executions that took place in Wethersfield in the 1660′s, a full three decades before Salem.

Today the house is operated as a museum, and the rooms have been arranged to reflect various scenes in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. To see enlargements of photos, click on each image.

Kitchen hearth with settle and flax wheel. In this location, Mercy did her spinning, Kit spoiled the hasty pudding, and the Dame School was taught. Mercy, who had difficulty walking, slept by the fireside.

The hall, or best room, where the John and William called upon Kit and Judith. The young people knitted, ate popcorn, and

did some reading while “courting.”

 

The second floor chamber shared by Kit and Judith.

 

The Buttolph Williams House is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. To learn more or plan a visit: http://www.ctlandmarks.org/index.php

Links to info about real Connecticut witchcraft trials:

http://yourehistory.wordpress.com/2007/05/15/before-salem-first-to-die/

http://yourehistory.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/before-salem-first-to-confess/

Historical Fiction: The Burning Time by Robin Morgan

The Burning Time

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Author Robin Morgan is a well known international feminist. In The Burning Time, her first work of fiction, she draws upon medieval court records to relate the life of Lady Alyce Kyteler, the unconventional mistress of Kyteler Manor near Kilkenny, Ireland. During the 14th century, Christianity was accepted by the Irish, but many of them blended their new religion with aspects of the old “pagan” earth religious traditions. The pope sent an emissary, Bishop Richard Ledrede, to Ireland with the mission of rooting out and punishing heretics.

Lady Alyce was a woman ahead of her time, one who flouted the pretensions of nobility. Alyce treated her serfs with dignity, developed her skills as a healer, followed the ancient calendar, and led celebrations of holidays such as Lammas and Samhain. When Ledrede visited her offering to restore her to the church and save her soul, she strongly rebuffed him. Although Alyce marshalled assistance from her influential relatives, Ledrede was able to bring charges of witchcraft against her.

This plot should/could have been a compelling one, but Morgan spoils things by turning her novel into a polemic with dialogue. Alyce is portrayed as a sort of Joan of Arc, and her serfs, who play a relatively large role here, are worshipfully enthralled with her. As for Ledrede, he comes across as the ultimate misogynist bigot who takes out his resentment over being sent to this backwater upon his victims.

What I found most annoying was the frequent use of the term Wiccan, the use of which has not been documented to before the early 20th century. I did finish this book because I wanted to know the outcome, but in places, I had to roll my eyes….

 

More Medieval Witch Images

The Devil making love to a witch. Ulrich Molitor’s Von den Unholden und Hexen. 1489.
 
 
 
 
Witch inoculating a man by shooting a twig through his foot. Ulrich Molitor’s De lanijs et phitonicis mulieribus, Cologne, 1489.

Witches concocting an ointment to be used for flying to the Sabbath. Hans Baldung Grien, 1514.

Witch riding to the sabbath. Wizard riding to the sabbath. Wizard riding to the sabbath. From Ulrich Molitor’s Hexen Meysterey, 1545.

Before Salem – First to Confess

Part of a series of posts on the 17th century Connecticut witchcraft trials.

Alse (Alice) Young of Windsor was the first individual executed for the crime of witchcraft in the English New World. link

The first recorded confession for familiarity with the devil was given under duress in 1648 by Mary Johnson, only a year after the hanging of Alse.

Mary Johnson was a servant whose legal troubles began around 1646, when, accused of theft, she was publicly whipped in Hartford. The incident was repeated a month later at Wethersfield.

On December 7, 1648, Mary was indicted by a jury as guilty of “familiarity with the Deuill (sic).” Under pressure from minister Samuel Stone, she fuly described her crimes. Cotton Mather tells us (Magnalia Christ Americana, 1698, VI 71-78): “her confession was attended with such convictive circumstances that it could not be slighted.”
So, what exactly did Mary admit to doing? Her contact with devils came about because of her discontent with her work as a servant. “A Devil was wont to do her many services, she said. For example, when her master once blamed her for not carrying out the ashes, “a Devil did clear the Hearth for her afterwards.” When her master sent her “into the Field to drive the Hogs that used to break into it, a Devil would scowre (sic) them out, and make her laugh to see how he feazed ‘em about.” Mary also admitted that she was guilty “of the Murder of a child” and of “Uncleanness with Men and Devils.”

For some reason, odd in this theocracy, Mary Johnson was not indicted for murder or adultery. But the charge of familiarity with the devil stuck, and on the strength of her confession, was sentenced to death.

For several months prior to the execution of her punishment, Mary was imprisoned in Hartford, under the care of the jailer, William Ruscoe. She gave birth to a baby boy while in jail, giving proof to her admission of “uncleanness with Men.” It is not known if her hanging was deferred specifically due to her pregnancy, but this often happened when criminals were pregnant. The jailer’s son, Nathaniel, offered to bring up the child and educate him, and this arrangement was later sanctioned by the court.

It was reported that, before she died, Mary Johnson repented. The jailer was paid six pounds, ten shillings for twenty four weeks of services, ending June 6, 1650, which is assumed to be the date on which her sentence was carried out. According to Mather, she died in “a frame extremely to the satisfaction of them that were spectators of it.”