Magic and warfare at the Defence Academy of the UK

An illustration from Konrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis, a fifteenth-century work on military technology and magic

Yesterday evening I delivered a talk entitled ‘Magic in medieval warfare’ at one of the more unusual venues where I have been invited to speak – the Joint Services Command and Staff College, which is part of the Defence Academy of the UK at Shrivenham, Wiltshire. The talk was attended by staff, students and families at the college, which trains officers in the British army, Royal Navy and RAF. My talk focussed on the history of magic in warfare in British history, beginning with the druids’ attempts to defend the island of Mona (Anglesey) from the Romans by magic. However, I also drew attention to more recent instances of magic creeping into the conduct of war, drawing attention to the notorious case of James McCormick, a British con-man who was sentenced to ten years in prison for selling ‘bomb detectors’ based on a similar principle to Paracelsus’s weapon-salve. Although the detectors were sold only to foreign armies, McCormick managed to trick by the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry and the Royal Engineers into promoting them. This example was designed to show that magical thinking can quite easily gain a foothold in the fields of defence and security – and in many parts of the world, especially Africa, the use and threat of ‘occult violence’ is part and parcel of warfare.

In English history, the earliest instance of magical warfare was William the Conqueror’s attempt to end the siege of the Isle of Ely (held by Hereward the Wake) by magic in 1071, but magic really came into its own during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Both the English and the French used astrology in an attempt to diagnose the weaknesses of their enemies and gain a tactical advantage, while Edward III drew on the expertise of alchemists to create early artillery. In 1430 the English made a determined attempt to convict Joan of Arc of sorcery, since they were convinced that she had been able to achieve what she did only by being in league with the devil (although in the end Joan was convicted of heresy). The idea of using magic in warfare continued into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One sixteenth-century magician and traitor, John Prestall, proposed an alchemical attack on the port of Rochester using ‘wildfire’, and it was rumoured that a wizard in the employment of the Duke of Buckingham projected a spirit-double of the duke during a battle in 1625 so that the duke would be safe from harm.

However, it was during the English Civil War that magical warfare truly came into its own. Both sides accused one another of employing witches as a weapon of war, and a major massacre occurred after the Battle of Naseby in 1645 because a group of Irishwomen were accused of helping the Royalist army by witchcraft. Allegations that James II was using sorcery emerged during the Revolution of 1688, but these were to be the last serious claims of magic used in warfare in British history – until the Second World War, that is. There are numerous stories, more or less plausible and poorly authenticated, about magicians supporting the British war effort against the Nazis, from a colonel in MI6 attempting to establish a ‘psychic shield’ using ritual magic to Aleister Crowley inventing the ‘V for Victory’ sign as a magical sigil.

There was a lively and extensive discussion after the talk, and I am most grateful to the JSCSC for inviting me to speak on this rather unusual subject.

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