Tuesday 28 January 2014

Review: Witches - Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction

Back in November I went to a talk about a historic witch trial by the author of the book Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction.
In the talk, Tracy Borman, who is joint curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, explained that she took one witchcraft trial from 17th century England and focused on it as a microcosm of the witch trials of that time.

I've now finished reading the book, and found it to be just as good as the talk suggested - a real page turner, full of intrigue, horror and scandal. And, of course, it is meticulously researched by an eminent historian. The press release describes it as: "A tale of bloody witchcraft, that leads all the way to James I's right-hand man."

The movers and shakers behind the trial might have been those in the highest ranks of society - Francis Manners, the 6th Earl of Rutland; George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham; and the renowned witch-hater King James I himself - but those who stood accused of witchcraft were three poor women.

It is a story that is now less famous than the Pendle witch trials or the case of Agnes Sampson, who James I had burnt to death because he believed she had magicked up a storm to try to kill him. However, it is a tale that equals them as being a tragic miscarriage of justice, and surpasses them in terms of the murderous conspiracy that Tracy Borman suggests was behind it.

The case, which took place in Leicester, involved three women being accused of causing the Earl of Rutland’s sons to fall ill and die. The widow Joan Flower and her daughters Margaret and Philippa worked for the Earl as servants at Belvoir Castle but lost their employment after one of them was found stealing.

As well as having a grudge against the Earl and Joan being heard to utter a curse against him that he would have no more children, they were exactly the kind of people likely to be accused of witchcraft. The women were generally unpopular with the local villagers, they lived alone, and Joan had a knowledge of herbs and probably earned money working as a herbalist.

When the Earl's three children fell ill and the oldest, Henry, died, this was seen as being caused by witchcraft. The Earl had consulted many physicians to try to cure his remaining son, but without success. At Christmas 1618, while Francis Manners was at court, his wife Cecilia took matters into her own hands and had the Flower women arrested. It was commonly believed that killing a witch would end her curse.

The book describes the trials and tests that the Flower women, like many others accused of witchcraft, would have been put through. This included "swimming" them in a lake or river. If they sank they were innocent but if they floated they were guilty.

The family were sent to Lincoln for trial, but on the way Joan Flower asked to take another test - to show that she could swallow the Eucharist. For some reason, when she tried, she dropped down dead. Her daughters were imprisoned for further interrogation before trial and execution.

I must admit I found the descriptions of the horrific torments the women faced very difficult to read because they were so harrowing. Torture might have been illegal in England, but it was still sometimes used in cases of witchcraft and the means of interrogation employed were tantamount to torture themselves. The women would have been stripped naked, shaved and pricked with sharp objects to find "witch marks". They would also have been prevented from sleeping and kept in cold and insanitary conditions. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that at their trial they would be found guilty and sentenced to hang.

At the time, few doubted their guilt. Nowadays, of course, most people would think the sentence was a great miscarriage of justice. However, Tracy Borman shows there is case that witchcraft - or perhaps poisoning - did take place although Joan and her daughters were not behind it. The true villain of the piece could well have been George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham.

This ambitious and ruthless man, who wanted to marry the Earl's daughter, had much to gain if Francis Manners had no male heirs. Buckingham was also known to have a retainer, John Lambe, "who made a living from concocting various potions and spells". But Buckingham was King James's favourite and could get away with murder - perhaps literally as well as figuratively.

Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction is published by Random House and can be ordered via Amazon.

Links and previous related posts
Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction

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