Of damned deeds, and deadly dole,
I make my mournful song
By witches done in Lincolnshire
Where they have lived long
And practiced many a wicked deed
Within that country there
Which fills my breast and bosom full
Of sobs and trembling fear.
Do you believe in witchcraft? I don’t mean the modern Wicca belief but the old-fashioned notion of women with pointed hats riding on broomsticks. This traditional view of witchcraft has always been based on the Medieval Christian belief that witches were servants of Satan.
Belief in witchcraft has led to many terrible abuses and persecution throughout the centuries. Just like the Holocaust, slavery and the Crusades, there’s not a lot we can do to change it, but we can ensure that nothing like them can happen again. With witchcraft it has been women who have borne the brunt of persecution, hence the traditional Hallowe’en image of a witch on broomstick.
I want to write about three specific witches today and their connection to last week’s first article on “The Ballad of the Murdering Toy-Boy”. Both are linked to King James I and his “favourites”. Last week’s was about Robert Carr who was convicted of implication in a murder and the ballad that was written about it. Today we look at another ballad, the one whose opening lines are given above. But the link to James I’s toy-boy isn’t evident because it was only discovered nearly 400 years after it was written. Here’s the background to that ballad.
In 1613 the Earl and Countess of Rutland employed a local woman called Joan Flower and her daughters Margaret and Philippa as servants in their home Belvoir (pronounced “beever”) Castle. However, the other servants didn’t like them very much and accused them of stealing from the castle, whereupon the Earl fired them.
Not long afterwards the Rutland family became very ill and the eldest son and heir, Henry, Lord Ros, who was less than 10 years old, died. This was followed by the younger son, Francis. At that period in time there were many accusations of witchcraft all around the country and many people were hanged (we didn’t burn witches in England, despite what you see in the movies). The Flower women were well-known as herbalists and, more significantly, non-church-goers. Both amounted to witchcraft in those days, so the Earl of Rutland had the women arrested on suspicion of causing the deaths of his sons by witchcraft.
Joan Flower died on the way to imprisonment in Lincoln Castle proclaiming her innocence, but her daughters confessed. They were tried, found guilty and hanged on 11th March 1619. In less than year a ballad was published about these Witches of Belvoir, as they were called.
In 2013 historian Tracey Borman published a book in which she suggested that the Witches of Belvoir were innocent, and that the Earl’s sons were actually murdered on the orders of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628), who succeeded Robert Carr as the favourite/toy-boy of King James I.
New, let’s have a closer look at the story. When the Earl’s two sons died his heir was his only other surviving child, Lady Katherine. As a woman she wouldn’t have inherited the English title of Countess of Rutland, but would have inherited the Scottish title of Baroness de Ros and all the estates and income from both titles. She was a very wealthy heiress. One of the appointments her father held was Constable of Nottingham Castle, an important honorary position that had become virtually hereditary in the family for several generations.
King James had visited the Earl at Belvoir Castle many times, and the earl would have attended the king on the royal visits to Nottingham. Perhaps between them they thought Lady Katherine would be a suitable wife for George Villiers. George, however, may have been impatient to obtain the estates of his wife and contrived to remove the two Rutland boys who stood in the way of the inheritance, leaving Lady Katherine as sole heir. He had them poisoned and then framed the Flower women as scapegoats to cover his tracks.
That’s Tracey Borman’s theory. It’s probably more believable than witchcraft. Whatever the truth it is a fact that George Villiers and Lady Katherine married a year after the deaths of the first boy.
George’s plan backfired. Although the Earl passed on the appointment of Constable of Nottingham Castle to George not long after the wedding George predeceased the Earl and didn’t inherited his estates. George met his untimely death at the hands of a disgruntled ex-soldier who had served in one of George’s continental campaigns. The Earl’s estates were inherited by Lady Katherine and passed to her second husband.
But let’s return to the Witches of Belvoir and another connection to the previous article on Robert Carr. I mentioned in that other article that the king and court stayed at Thurland Hall in Nottingham, named after the grandson of John Tansley, Mayor of Nottingham. One of Tansley’s other grandchildren married into the same Flower family to which the Witches of Belvoir belonged. They may even have been descended from Tansley. The evidence is hard to find. As also mentioned previously Tansley is my 14-times great-grandfather, making the Witches my ancestral cousins.
The verse that began this article comes from the ballad of the Witches of Belvoir. It’s a very long ballad, so I’ll finish with the last few verses. They tell of the demise of my witch cousins – Joan choking on a piece of bread and her daughters hanged at Lincoln.
And unto Lincoln City borne
Therein to lie in jail,
Until the judging sizes came
That death might be their bail.
But there this hateful mother witch
These speeches did recall,
And said that in Lord Ros’s death
She had no hand at all.
Whereon she bread and butter took,
“God let this same” quoth she,
“If I be guilty of his death,
Pass never through me.”
So mumbling it within her mouth
She never spoke more words,
But fell down dead, a judgement just,
And wonder of the Lord’s.
Her daughters two, their trials had,
Of which being guilty found
They died in shame, by strangling twist,
And laid by shame in the ground.