Forthcoming book: Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England

Claudius pours magically concocted poison into the ear of the sleeping King of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

I am delighted to announce that I have signed a contract with I. B. Tauris to publish my book Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England: A History of Sorcery and Treason, which will be the first complete account of attempts to use magic to harm, kill or manipulate the judgment of English monarchs by magical means. Between 1300 and 1700 magical treason was a major problem for English governments, with famous cases including the trial of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester in 1441 and the panic that erupted after wax effigies apparently representing Elizabeth I and her councillors were found in a barn at Islington in 1578. Allegations of magical treason played a key role in Richard III’s claim to the throne and Edward IV’s execution of his brother the Duke of Clarence in a butt of wine, and it was widely believed that James I had been magically poisoned by the Duke of Buckingham when he died in 1625. Even during the Civil War, Parliamentarians regularly accused Royalists of employing witches or using necromancy to achieve victory. After the Restoration of the Monarchy claims of magical treason gradually disappeared in England, although a mysterious English aristocrat was implicated in the lurid allegations of magical treason against Louis XIV of France in the 1670s.

Magic as a Political Crime will provide comprehensive coverage of every known magical plot in England, real or alleged, and will thoroughly explore the nature and origins of the harmful ritual magic used by plotters. The book will address the cultural impact of magical treason as well, especially on the plays of William Shakespeare. Beginning with the conjuration scene in Henry VI Part Two (1594), Shakespeare made the entanglement of treason with the supernatural a central theme of several of his plays, including Macbeth and Hamlet, where Claudius uses the magical art of veneficium (occult poisoning) to kill and usurp Hamlet’s father. The book will argue that the lasting impact of treason’s close relationship with magic is our tendency, even today, to adopt the vocabulary of black magic and witchcraft when discussing the bad behaviour of politicians.

Magic as a Political Crime is a sort-of-sequel to my earlier English Catholics and the Supernatural (2013), in the sense that it will address a shortcoming of that book, which did not thoroughly cover the involvement of Catholics in magical plots against Elizabeth I. However, the new book will show that it was not just Catholics who expressed their displeasure with the government through the use of magic but also, on occasion, Puritans as well.


Remembering St Alban Roe

On 21 January 1642 the Benedictine monk Alban Roe, born Bartholomew Roe at Bury St Edmunds in around 1583, suffered martyrdom at Tyburn by being hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason. St Alban Roe was beatified in 1929 and canonised in 1970. He is one of the four canonised martyrs of the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia, as well as being venerated at Ampleforth Abbey and Douai Abbey. Roe was a member of both Benedictine communities, since he joined St Laurence’s, Dieulouard in 1613 having been expelled from the English College at Douai for insubordination. He was then sent, appropriately enough given his birthplace, to found the Priory of St Edmund in Paris (the future Douai Abbey) in 1615.

Bartholomew Roe was born into a Protestant family and was sent to Cambridge. Whilst a student he travelled to St Albans in the hope of converting a Catholic priest held prisoner there to Protestantism. He found himself unable to answer the priest’s arguments, and ended up becoming a Catholic himself. Bartholomew took the religious name Alban as a monk in honour of the place of his conversion, but also perhaps because his story resembled that of St Alban himself, a pagan soldier who sheltered the Christian priest Amphibalus and ended up being converted and suffering a martyr’s death. In accordance with Benedictine custom, Roe also took a surname from the place of his birthplace, and was known in Latin as Albanus a Sancto Edmundo. Yet Roe did not immediately follow his saintly patrons in martyrdom; he spent much of his life imprisoned in the Fleet Prison, where he would famously play the other inmates at cards, asking for prayers if he won. He eventually fell victim to the intensification of anti-Catholic feeling in the run-up to the outbreak of Civil War, and was convicted of having received orders abroad under the authority of the Bishop of Rome and sentenced to a traitor’s death.

Painting of St Alban Roe in the church of St Sebastien, Dieulouard, France

Alban Roe is today commemorated in the church of St Sebastien at Dieulouard with a painting executed shortly after his beatification in 1929, which shows the saint with a noose around his neck, holding a martyr’s palm in his left hand while offering his heart to Christ with his right; a banner under the image of Christ reads ‘My Saviour suffered for me, I want to suffer for him’. Behind the saint is a depiction of St Laurence’s on the left and Tyburn on the right. At the base of the painting is the seal of the English Benedictine Congregation, accompanied by a tankard of beer (representing the famous beer brewed at Dieulouard, but also perhaps Roe’s reputation as something of a bon viveur) and the grid iron of St Laurence. On the right side of the picture are two shields representing the Abbey of Saint-Mansuy at Toul, originally dedicated to St Peter (Dieulouard was in the Diocese of Toul until 1824) and Westminster Abbey, likewise dedicated to St Peter.

A modern statue of St Alban Roe at Ampleforth Abbey

At Ampleforth the former junior school is known as Alban Roe House, and a modern statue of the saint, holding and pointing to a playing card in his right hand, can be seen at the Abbey. There seems to be only one parish church in the world dedicated to St Alban, at Wildwood, Missouri in the USA, and the church has a modern statue of the saint as a prisoner bound by chains. Wildwood is a suburb of St Louis, which is the location of an abbey of the English Benedictine Congregation founded from Ampleforth in 1955.

Statue of St Alban Roe at Wildwood, Missouri

The most recent statue of St Alban Roe, by the sculptor Rory Young, was installed in the screen of St Albans Cathedral in April 2015 along with seven other figures associated with St Albans, a remarkable tribute from the Anglican cathedral to a man who died defending the Catholic faith. Young’s St Alban Roe holds a martyr’s palm in his right hand and, like the Ampleforth statue, playing cards in his left.

Rory Young’s statue of St Alban Roe in St Albans Cathedral (2015)

It is a shame that nothing commemorates St Alban in his home town of Bury St Edmunds, although the parish history group of St Edmund, King and Martyr is working to remedy this. A statue of the saint in the parish church – perhaps a replica of the Rory Young sculpture – would do much to remind Bury’s Catholics of the town’s modern martyr.


Forthcoming book: Peterborough Folklore

The old double hundred of Nassaburgh (Soke of Peterborough) and the northernmost villages of Huntingdonshire, now part of Peterborough

I am delighted to announce that my book Peterborough Folklore is to be published by Lasse Press later in 2017. The modern Peterborough region, a unitary authority since 1998, includes the ancient Soke of Peterborough between the rivers Nene and Welland, together with part of the ancient county of Huntingdonshire south of the Nene and the parish of Thorney from Cambridgeshire. Peterborough’s folklore has never been the subject of a dedicated study, and until now the region was one of the few areas of England whose folklore had not been systematically catalogued. The area is usually missed out of (or peremptorily glossed over in) studies of the folklore of Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, counties which have laid claim to Peterborough at various times. Neither East Anglia nor the Midlands, neither upland nor fenland, the Peterborough region is ‘debatable land’ that developed its own distinctive traditions, legends and lore drawing on – but differentiated from – the regional traditions of Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire.

Peterborough is rich in folklore, from the legends associated with the medieval abbey to phantom airships, and the region is dense with half-forgotten holy wells, unique saints, tales of witchcraft, bogey beasts and innumerable ghosts. Perhaps most famously of all, it was in a forest between Peterborough and Stamford that the Wild Hunt, a perennial theme of British folklore, was first sighted in these islands in 1127. Less well known are such traditions as the Peterborough mummers’ plays, the mysterious disemboweled knight of Orton Longueville and the ancient Bridge Fair, which still takes place every October after nearly five hundred years.

John Clare (1793-1864), the earliest collector of folklore in the Peterborough region

The neglect of Peterborough by recent folklorists is ironic, given that the poet John Clare began collecting the folklore of the region in the 1820s, long before most other collectors and before the term ‘folklore’ had even been coined. Clare’s poetry is suffused with his knowledge of local customs and beliefs, but what is less well known is that others also collected material from the area, notably Charles Dack (b. 1847), an early curator of Peterborough Museum. It was my discovery of some of Dack’s surviving papers in Cambridge University Library that stimulated me to begin the project. The book will include comprehensive coverage of folklore associated with the villages of the Peterborough region as well as a complete calendar of traditional festivals and events formerly celebrated throughout the year, together with an appendix that puts into print, for the first time, all of the surviving evidence for the mummers’ plays of the region.