The Witches of Belvoir

In the early 17th century the Rutland family – of Belvoir Castle, North East Leicestershire – experienced tragedy upon tragedy. In 1613 the 6th Earl, Countess and their son Henry fell ill and, sadly, Henry passed away. In an eerily similar turn of events their daughter Katherine and son Francis fell ill suddenly in 1618. Infant sickness and mortality at the time was high but the Earl suspected the ‘wicked practises and sorcerye’ were the real cause.

A few days prior to their sudden sickness in 1613, the Countess had dismissed a servant named Joan Flowers, as well as her daughters Margaret and Phillipa, as they were unpopular with the other staff and had been found guilty of theft (Notestein 1911). Although the family were known locally as herbal healers who helped the community, Joan Flowers was also a ‘notorious witch … some of her neighbours dared to affirm, that she dealt with familiar spirits and terrified them all with curses and threatenings of revenge’ (Eller 1841). She was described as a ‘monstrous, malicious woman, full of oaths, curses, and imprecations irreligious; and… a plain atheist’ (Eller 1841) (although Eller wrote this some 200 years after the trial, so best not taken as fact).

It would be five years before the Flowers were accused of causing harm to the family. All three were arrested and sent to Lincoln Castle to await trial. Joan, however, never made it to Lincoln. En route to the castle, she is believed to have choked on Communion bread – likely a rumour spread as a symbol of her connection to the devil and proof of her witchcraft.

In Lincoln, her daughters confessed to witchcraft; they admitted to receiving charms and curses from the devil to carry out their revenge against the Earl of Rutland and his family (Notestein 1911). They also claimed they had familiars who helped them in their practice – Margaret had two familiars while their mother Joan had one, named Rutterkin (Phillipa doesn’t appear to have a familiar, which is a little sad).

During the examination they revealed the names of three other women who helped them: Anne Baker, Joan Willimot and Ellen Green (Levack 2006). All three admitted to having visions of the devil and familiars after ‘examination’. Although Joan Willimot stated that she was a cunning woman who helped the community, Ellen Greene argued she had seen her with two demonic familiars – a kitten and a mole, named Pusse and Hisse Hisse, respectively (Levack 2006).

[I’ve not been able to find out what happened to the three additional accused women – but I’ll update this if or when I do]

On 11th March 1619 the Flowers were found guilty of causing death by witchcraft and communing with spirits and were hung (Urban 1975). However, it is widely rumoured that Phillipa managed to escape by drugging the guards, which is kind of cool.

In 1620 the Earl’s son Francis passed away. He remained convinced that witchcraft was the cause. The Earl’s tomb reads:

‘In 1608 he married ye lady Cecila Hungerford, daughter to ye Honorable Knight Sir John Tufton, by whom he had two sons, both of which died in their infancy by wicked practises and sorcerye’.

Books:

Eller, I. (1841) The History of Belvoir Castle. R. Tyas: Lincoln.

Levack, B. P. (2006) The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

Notestein, W. (1911). A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. Washington: American Historical Association.

Urban, R. (1975). ‘The Somerset affair, the Belvoir witches, and Jonson’s pastoral comedies’ in Harvard Library Bulletin, vol 23. pp 295-323.