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Rooting Out the Witches



Rob Hardy


There have been few English kings who wrote books. James I was one of them, and because of it, woe to you if you were a poor old woman in the early seventeenth century. James's book was the 1597 Daemonologie, about how to find and persecute witches, and he and his book play important roles in Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal, and Seduction (Jonathan Cape) by Tracy Borman. The author is a British historian who has brought us here the story of Francis Manners, the Earl of Rutland and the lord of Belvoir Castle in Liecestershire. The Earl had a serious problem with witches: they killed his sons. He even made sure that witches got explicit blame on his sons' tomb in the village church. He was friends with King James, and took to prosecuting (and persecuting) the witches responsible, just as James advised. Borman has given the facts of the case as best as can be known; the court transcripts are long gone, but as was often the case in sensational trials, there was a pamphlet all about the trials and the executions of the witches. It is a sad story of a time when superstition was backed up by religious fervor, and Borman does not restrict herself to just the Manners family and the three women of the Flower family that were accused as witches. She gives a general depiction of witch persecution in England at the time, a broader picture that makes this a scintillating, if troubling, history. 




Joan Flower and her two daughters, Margaret and Phillipa, had been among the many house staff within Belvoir Castle, as other members of the Flower family had been before them. There was some sort of disagreement, and they were let go. They were thus outcasts, but the three women would have been recognized as peculiar for they did not attend church. They may also have entertained men in some naughty fashion; the mother was a widow and the two daughters single, so no matter what they were up to, the stories about them would have been salacious. Perhaps the greatest stroke against them was that the mother was a "cunning woman," knowledgeable about herbs and other natural medicines. These sorts of practitioners made up for the lack of physicians who would treat the public, and they may well have had even a better success rate. They also used amulets and religious charms, and they helped detect thieves. They might themselves be in charge of canceling spells by witches, but of course they were doing something close to witchery. The eccentricity of the Flower women might have been tolerated if they had the blessing of the the lord of the castle, but once that was withdrawn, calumny would prevail. 




The earl and his wife turned fretful over the health of their younger and then their elder son, and if any rumors reached them about the Flower women practicing witchcraft, they initially paid them little attention. Indeed, the earl was able to employ physicians who did the same sort of magical treatments Joan Flower applied, but the earl's choices worked for a better class of clientele. Eventually the earl and his wife would have started to pay attention to the rumors. It was not often that people in power thought themselves the specific targets of specific witches, but once the idea settled upon the earl, it did not let go of him. His suspicion was more than enough to secure the women's doom. 




He did this with the blessing of his king. James I had come to believe that he himself was the biggest enemy the Devil had, and that it was his duty to to persecute the Devil's allies. With a religious zealot's passion, he exhorted his people first in Scotland and then in England to fear and to root out the witches among them. In Daemonologie, he made clear that the stakes were so high that any type of horror was justified in getting confessions from the women accused and then in punishing them. Borman cites many alarming gaps of reason in the work. One was that an accusation against a witch was in itself a sure thing; James wrote, "God will not permit that any innocent person shall be slandered with that vile defection." In other words, if the witch is accused, piety compels us to accept also that she is guilty. The Bible itself said that you should not allow witches to live, and that they should be stoned to death, but James favored death by fire.  




Even if accusations in themselves were assurances of guilt, a trial still had to happen. The brutality and unfairness of such trials is distressing. Since these women were guilty (or else they could not have been accused), they could not be treated badly enough. It is not clear exactly what the accused witches in this case went through, but they were kept in miserable conditions. The mother died on her way to prison, in the extraordinary circumstance of her insisting on an ordeal to test her guilt. She was fed bread that had been blessed, and she promptly died; this must have obliged her tormentors. Her daughters went on to prison in Lincoln, and may (if they got treatment comparable to other imprisoned witches) have suffered exposure, sleep deprivation, and wounding or rape in attempts to find a Devil's mark. Judges were eager to hear that the witch had confessed to her crimes, and it is not surprising that confessions could be arranged under such torture. There was little in the way of real evidence for the crime of witchery; no impartial observer at trial ever testified about witnessing an act of sorcery, and although authorities would raid the premises of other criminals in order to find evidence, they never did so against witches. Evidence was rather the depositions of neighbors, who may have had a grudge against the outcast women. The courts allowed themselves extraordinarily wide leeway for taking evidence, even permitting the testimony of women and children, testimony which would not have been accepted in trials of other crimes.  




The daughters were found guilty, of course, and hanged. Besides taking a broader view of witchcraft beyond this one sad case, Borman suggests that James's favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, may have wanted the earl's sons dead as he was engaged to marry the earl's daughter, the one remaining child. Well, perhaps, but such conspiracy suppositions are a sidetrack from the main show here, a thoughtful reconstruction of a particular witchcraft trial within a wider view of the European-wide witch persecution.



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