Save the Rookwood Book of Hours

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The burial service from the Rookwood Book of Hours, image © Sotheby’s

The Rookwood Book of Hours is a fifteenth-century Flemish illuminated book of hours produced for the English market in the 1460s. It was owned by Thomas Rookwood of Coldham Hall (1658-1726) in Suffolk, a leading East Anglian recusant who fled England after the Revolution of 1688. Rookwood went into exile in France, where he served in some sort of military capacity; he even received a French knighthood. He attempted to return home but the conviction of his brother Ambrose for treason in 1696 (for his part in the Barclay Conspiracy to assassinate William of Orange) meant that Thomas went into exile again, this time to Bruges in the Low Countries. Thomas did not return to England until 1704, and thereafter he kept his Jacobite convictions quiet and began a significant collection of books, which was continued by his daughter Elizabeth (1683-1759). By 1737, when Elizabeth catalogued them, there were 1,889 books in the Rookwood family library, including a number of manuscripts and incunabula.

A particularly interesting feature of the Rookwood Book of Hours is the fact that the prayers for the Feast of St Thomas Becket have not been erased or defaced. In 1538, Henry VIII ordered the removal of all references to Becket, even from private devotional books (one of the first physical signs of the coming Reformation). This may mean that the Rookwood Book of Hours was owned by a religiously conservative family who later became recusants. It is possible that the Rookwood Book of Hours was owned by the Rookwood family from the 1460s onwards, although this would be well-nigh impossible to prove. It is equally possible that Thomas Rookwood found it in Bruges (where the manuscript was probably illuminated) and brought it back to England in 1704. But even if this was the case, it is highly likely that the Book of Hours (which follows the Use of Sarum) was being used by English Catholic exiles in Flanders. It is even possible that the book comes originally from the library of the English Convent (the house of Augustinian Canonesses) in Bruges, where Thomas is known to have stayed, where his mother was buried, and where his daughter Elizabeth went to school. In later life Elizabeth was a collector of medieval religious art and owned several painted panels.

The Rookwood family continued to own the Rookwood Book of Hours into the nineteenth century, and after their move from Coldham Hall to Hengrave Hall, the Book of Hours was displayed and used for daily devotions in the restored chapel of Hengrave Hall, which was completed by Sir Thomas Kytson the Elder in 1538. The chapel at Hengrave is one of the best preserved examples of a pre-Reformation domestic chapel in England and features 21 lights of imported Flemish stained glass which were made specially for Kytson’s chapel and shipped to Ipswich. After Catholic Emancipation in 1829 (or even slightly before), the Rookwood Gage family moved their worship (which had been conducted in a variety of secret chapels around the house) back into the chapel that had been built for it. The family continued to worship there until the death of the last Baronet in 1874.

The Rookwood Book of Hours was associated with the Rookwood family from at least 1704, and possibly earlier, and therefore belongs with the Rookwood family papers which form part of the Hengrave Manuscripts in Cambridge University Library. I have asked the Manuscripts Librarian to consider buying the Rookwood Book of Hours, but with only 12 days until the manuscript is auctioned at Sotheby’s on 2nd December, time is running out. The Rookwood Book of Hours occupies a unique place in the history of Catholic recusancy in Suffolk, and I am most anxious that it should remain in the UK and at an institution where it can be studied; if it can be reunited with the rest of the Rookwood family’s surviving manuscripts, even better.


The Knole witch marks: a note of caution

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Witch marks discovered at Knole House © The Guardian

Yesterday’s press was full of news that a series of apotropaic ‘witch marks’ have been discovered under the floor of a room in Knole House in Kent. The joists on which the witch marks appear have been dated by dendrochronology to the year 1606, when James I and VI was due to pay a visit to the house. The room in question was renovated in advance of the royal visit. Reports on BBC local news reported that the witch marks form a sort of protective ‘box’ around the hearth, as if to protect the King from any evil influences that might come down the chimney. The reports have led to much speculation by historians and archaeologists that James was feeling vulnerable in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot: this, combined with his well-known fear of witches, supposedly explains the presence of the Knole witch marks.

It is always exciting to be able to link an archaeological discovery to a historical event, but I believe there are good reasons to pour some cold water on the speculations surrounding Knole. We really have very little idea what apotropaic marks were actually for, or of the precise intentions that lay behind them, since no surviving source describes the creation of such marks and the reasons behind it. However, that is not the main reason that the claims surrounding Knole began to trouble me yesterday. I was principally disturbed because the speculations drew on a stereotyped view of James I and his reign. Decades (even centuries) of Shakespeare scholars commenting on Macbeth and its links to the Gunpowder Plot, combined with an uncritical assumption that the preoccupations of James’s Scottish reign continued after his accession to the English throne, have led many historians to the lazy assumption that James was obsessed with witchcraft, and that he and his courtiers interpreted every hint of treason against him as a demonic attack.

It was a central plank of my argument in English Catholics and the Supernatural that Catholics were never accused of witchcraft in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, even when they were accused of treason. The connection between witchcraft and treason at this period was a moralistic and rhetorical one: ‘For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft’ (I Samuel 15:23) was understood, even by the most literal of preachers, as a comparison of two sins rather than a statement that traitors were actually witches. In fact, the reign of James I in England saw ‘magical treason’ virtually disappear as a category of attacks on the person of the monarch (in contrast to Elizabeth I, who experienced more attempted or imagined magical attacks than any other English monarch). Furthermore, even when magical treason did happen, the people accused of perpetrating it were male ritual magicians and not witches. The extent to which witchcraft was free of any political ramifications in seventeenth-century England is remarkable, but no matter how hard you look at the evidence, it is virtually impossible to find any links being drawn between specific acts of witchcraft and any kind of threat to the monarch and the state. The situation was completely different in Scotland, and of course it is true that witchcraft in general (like the proliferation of any sin in a godly commonwealth) was thought to be a threat to the state: but that is rather different from saying that witches were suspected of treason, or that traitors like the Gunpowder Plotters were suspected of witchcraft. Both of these ideas are historical fantasy, unsupported by the evidence.

Furthermore, the evidence strongly suggests that James had actually lost in witchcraft by the time he succeeded to the English throne in 1603. Yes, the accession was marked by a rash of popular plays about witchcraft, the republication of James’s Daemonologie, and the passing of the 1604 Witchcraft Act: but, as P. G. Maxwell-Stuart has argued, these events had more to do with sycophancy towards the new King than they did with James’ own views. James never pressed Parliament to produce the 1604 Act, and James’s scepticism about the possession and bewitchment of Mary Glover showed that his views seem to have undergone some change between the writing of Daemonologie and his English reign. Most importantly of all, however, James had no personal fear of witches. This is hard for historians to accept who think that such a ‘superstitious’ belief must be based on fear, but it is nevertheless true. James’ attitude to witchcraft is best described as ‘curiosity’ or even ‘prurient interest’. However, his faith in the power of his divine right was so strong that he believed witches were powerless to harm an anointed king. This was the fruit of his extensive experience of attacks from witches in Scotland: not fear or paranoia, but an overriding sense of his own invulnerability.

Finally, there are many alternative explanations for the witch marks at Knole, other than the idea that they were deliberately commissioned by the owner to protect the King. The workmen who undertook the work may have done this wherever and whenever they constructed a new floor, and they may not even have known that the King was about to visit. Archaeology seldom yields one definite historical explanation of material remains, much as the media would like this to be the case. Overall, the Knole witch marks are a good story, but unfortunately the interpretation that has been placed on them trades on outdated historical views of James I and his reign.