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The Knole witch marks: a note of caution

Witch marks

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.

8 comments on “The Knole witch marks: a note of caution

  1. James Wright
    November 7, 2014

    Dear Francis,

    Thank you very much for the critical commentary on our discovery. It is genuinely valuable to read a second opinion. I would like to offer you some further evidence and information which was perhaps not fully covered in the press release:

    1) We are not suggesting for one minute that James I or Thomas Sackville knew for that these marks were carved and they certainly did not order them to be laid out themselves in the royal suite at Knole.

    2) You are quite correct that James’ interest in witchcraft had begun to dwindle by the time of his English accession. However he was interested enough to not repeal the 1604 law against conjuration and on 9th November Parliament James referred to the plot having a devilish origin in Parliamen indicating that his interest had not completely dried up.

    3) Despite James’ dwindling interest, the language used to an extent by himself, but more so his contemporaries in the aftermath of the Powder Treason is revealing. Robert Cecil, later in the month, referred to the plot as an “abominable practice of Rome and Satan”; a year later Lancelot Andrewes the Bishop of Chichester specifically laid the blame at the devils door during his Powder Treason anniversary sermon; several early 17th century illustrations within pamphlets all show a devil right behind Guy Fawkes as he is discovered about to blow the mine; Shakespeare was not alone in writing a Powder Play in the 12 months after the plot – Barnes, Dekker and Marston all contributed to that effort and all of those four plays were performed by companies with royal patronage. Molino the Venetian Ambassador offers a much more humanist explanation, but his language is stiill couched in descriptions of terror, fear, suspicion and uncertainty on the streets. Alongside this there were many sermons, pamphlets and of course the Oath of Allegiance which helped to whip up a State sponsored fervour and fear.

    4) The symbols were carved during this aftermath, as I said above we are not trying to link necessarily to James’ own belief (Christina Larner convincingly pointed out the stages of his interest in 1973 after all). However it seems to be the case that regardless of his own personal thoughts the connection was made between the extremist Catholic plot and the perceived power of Rome and the Devil (and by extension witches). Our link is that the carpenters soaked up this State propaganda and carved the marks as their own private response to the Plot.

    5) The carpenters would have known that the King’s Tower was intended for royal use. Its architectural style is the highest status at Knole – even more so than the Sackville family quarters. Its location is also in the classic Renaissance position at the end of a procession of rooms where the Great Hall, Great Stair, Great Chamber, Long Gallery and then royal suite were all aligned – this can be seen also at properties such as Knebworth and Hatfield.

    6) Apotraopaic symbols remain an obscure corner of archaeology. However the work of Timothy Easton and more recently Matthew Champion have begun to reveal a deeper understanding. Alongside more local projects by myself (Knole), Matt Beresford (Nottinghamshire), Nathalie Cohen (Kent) and Brian Porter (Lincolnshire) the Wealden Downland Museum and Vernacular Architecture Group have helped to push the boundaries.

    7) There are literary and artistic representations of apotropaic symbols during the Mediaeval and Early Modern periods. The power of the pentagram to repel evil is specifically mentioned in Sir Gawain & the Green Knight and Robert Greene’s (14th century) Friar Bacon (c 1590). Alongside this there are several illustrations dating to c 1600 of witchcraft activity which feature apotropaic symbols as we have observed them – however the symbols have been crossed out enabling the depicted witches to be able to access the chimney and hearth.

    8) Indeed the marks may have been routinely carved, however we have found this specific orientation of marks in two rooms of the King’s Tower. There are 11 surviving symbols carved on one beam between the fireplace and bed on the second floor alone. We have no evidence from the total of 37 rooms that we have surveyed that such a dense distribution pattern exists anywhere else. For example, in the Spangled bedroom on first floor level a single apotropaic symbol lay between the bed and fireplace as that was apparently considered to be enough protection for the sleeper there. The apparent overkill in the distribution of marks in the King’s Tower indicates that something above the ordinary was occurring.

    We are extraordinarily lucky that this moment in history did not spark a nationwide purge against both Catholics and perceived witches. The retribution against the plotters themselves was fast, targeted and ultimately decisive. It was recognised that this was an extremist group within a largely peaceful if disgruntled community. In fact the years of James’ English reign saw a dramatic rise in recusancy figures indicating that even with the State propaganda machine Catholicism was still a very attractive practice.

    The dating of the symbols is key. They relate to a very limited period where fear of evil was paramount as a result of State propaganda. This was fortunately a limited period of time.

    Regards.

    James Wright

    • owen kric
      March 14, 2016

      I respectively challenge you to conform or substantiate anything Matthew Champion wrote about apotropaic marks / ‘witch marks’ in his book ‘Medieval Graffiti’ please. Thank you.

  2. David Martin
    May 5, 2015

    You mention 11 symbols on one beam – the one shown looked like IIX, but what were the others and did they appear in the same places or between alternate joists? From the one shot, it looked to me like an type of assembly mark called ‘Brentwood marking’ or ‘cellular marking’ – commonly used in Kent, for example, at the barn at Westenhanger Castle, built a few years before. If so, the same marks should appear on the side of the joists, though perhaps a little way along them. I am sure you will already have thought of this and discarded the idea, but it would be nice to know. Incidentally, I do accept the existence of protection marks, it is just that it is not always the answer.

    David Martin FSA IHBC
    (a past president of the Vernacular Architecture Group and
    retired Senior Historic Buildings Officer, Archaeology South-East,
    University College London).

    • James Wright
      May 5, 2015

      Dear David,

      Thank you for your suggestions. The ‘Brentford marking’ is indeed present on the framing of the Kings Tower. Alternate joist bays on the beams are marked up as are the joists themselves. These carpentry marks can be seen on both faces of all three spine beams within the room. Crucially the apotropaic symbols are carved between the existing carpentry marks and are only to be found on the face of the beam directly opposite the fireplace. The design of the marks is quite different to those of the numerical framing. I too was concerned about this interpretation early on so discussed in some detail with Damian Goodburn who also came to the same conclusion that these are apotropaic symbols carved additional to numerical marks and are actually in alternate bays to the more regular carpenter’s marks ie Bay I carpenter’s marks, apotropaic symbols, Bay II carpenter’s marks, apotropaic symbols etc.

      I hope this answers your enquiry, I’m typing this on my phone during a site lunch break so also hope it makes sense!

      All the best.

      JPW

      • David Martin
        May 5, 2015

        Makes perfect sense thanks. I thought this would be the case, but with such a brief piece from a general public media source I thought it worth checking. Sorry to have interrupted your work.

        Best wishes

        David

      • James Wright
        May 5, 2015

        Not a problem at all, David. Thanks again for showing an interest in the project.
        JPW

  3. Ian Evans
    May 29, 2016

    Dear James Wright,

    Re your comment:

    “….. there are several illustrations dating to c 1600 of witchcraft activity which feature apotropaic symbols as we have observed them – however the symbols have been crossed out enabling the depicted witches to be able to access the chimney and hearth.”

    I would very much appreciate the source of these illustrations, if you would.

    (Dr) Ian Evans evansthebook@gmail.com

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