The Witches of Belvoir, Leicestershire
The story of the witches of Belvoir can be looked on in two ways: either as yet another example of the different and dispossessed being hounded by those of higher social standing; or as the tale of women who genuinely thought themselves witches, who sought to harm others by their incantations and curses.
Early in the seventeenth century a mother, Joan Flower, and her two daughters, Margaret and Philippa, worked on occasion for the Earl of Rutland and wife at Belvoir Castle. Margaret became a live-in servant at the castle, but was dismissed for petty thievery. Some time after this the Earl’s family suffered from unusual sicknesses: both the Earl and his wife endured horrific convulsions before overcoming their illness; but their son and heir, the infant Lord Ross, went suddenly from a healthy child to a sick and dying one, and duly expired.
Words spoken in anger by Joan Flower, added to the reputation of the three women for godlessness and wickedness, and as ever because they looked odd, all suggested to the noble ‘victims’ that it was the three hags who were to blame. They and some friends were arrested at Christmas 1618. When they were ‘tested’ they confessed to putting devilish curses upon the Rutlands, of using the power of Joan’s familiar, a large cat named Rutterkin, and of pilfering effects like gloves and pillow-feathers that were used in magical ceremonies to inflict pain and sickness on their aristocratic enemies. But as the testing almost certainly included torture, their testimony is somewhat dubious.
In an interesting coda to the tale, Joan, awaiting transport to Lincoln Jail for trial (and inevitable death) asked for bread to be given her, stating that god should strike her down if she had been guilty. She died shortly afterwards, though whether through divine intervention or self-inflicted poison to avoid further agonies is not of course clear. Her daughters both hanged at Lincoln Jail on March 11 1619.
The church of St Mary the Virgin, Bottesford, just over the border into Leicestershire from Rutland, houses the tomb of Francis, Earl of Rutland, and mentions that the two sons he and his second wife Cecilia had both died “by wicked practice and sorcerye,” but as the second died in 1620 it seems a little harsh blaming that too on the Flower women.
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