Saturday, 27 February 2010

King James I: Royal Demonologist

Even by the standards of his age, King James VI of Scotland, who later became James I of England, stood out as a deeply superstitious man, ruled by his obsession with the occult.

Before his reign, witchcraft persecutions had been rare in Britain. But that all changed in 1590 when James personally oversaw the trials by torture for around seventy individuals implicated in the North Berwick Witch Trials, the biggest Scotland had known. The witches’ alleged crime? Raising a storm which nearly sank James’s ship when he sailed home from Norway with his new bride, Anne of Denmark. Possibly dozens of accused witches were executed by burning at the stake, although the precise number is unknown.

In 1597 James published his book, Daemonologie, his rebuttal of Reginald Scot’s skeptical work, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which questioned the very existence of witches. Daemonologie was an alarmist book, presenting the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation.

In 1604, only one year after James ascended to the English throne, he passed his new Witchcraft Act, which made invoking spirits a crime punishable by execution.

James’s ideas on witchcraft were later popularised by Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, which had its premier performance at James’s court in 1606. For the first time in history, English drama depicted witches gathering in secret for their own malign rituals and scheming.

The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters by the sea and land,
Thus do go, about, about,
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace, the charm's wound up.
(Macbeth, I,iii, 32-37)

According to Instruments of Darkness by James Sharpe, this terror of supposed witch covens was the driving factor mobilising 17th century witch hunts. Previously the belief in witches’ covens had been a Continental European concept, foreign to traditional British folk magic, practised by individuals, not collectives. No evidence exists that supposed witches in Early Modern Britain organised themselves into collectives, and nothing of the black mass can be traced to England at this time.

It wouldn't take long before life began to imitate James's and Shakespeare's dark fiction.

Six years on, in 1612, the King’s paranoid fantasy of satanic conspiracy, planted in the minds of local magistrates hoping to earn his favour, culminated in one of the key manifestations of the Jacobean witch-craze: the trials of the Lancashire Witches of Pendle, which resulted in the execution of seven women and two men. According to Thomas Potts's The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the official trial transcripts, the accused allegedly gathered "according to solemn appointment" at Malkin Tower on Good Friday, "with great cheer, merry company and much conference," and then plotted to blow up Lancaster Castle with gunpowder. As far-fetched as this scenario seems--where would a group of impoverished commonfolk even get hold of gunpowder--it fed directly into James' fears following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

James’s unfortunate legacy extends even into our age. The King James Bible, completed in 1611, saw the scriptures rewritten to further the King’s agenda. Exodus 22:18, originally translated as, “Thou must not suffer a poisoner to live,” became “Thou must not suffer a witch to live.”

Speaking of the Pendle Witches, local preparations for commemorating the 400th anniversary of the 1612 Lancashire Witch Trials are underway. Read more about it here.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


Thank you to those of our readers who fed back that they most enjoyed reading about the characters of the period (and there were certainly plenty of those!). I thought for the next couple of blogs I would continue on from my blog about the “She Souldiers” and introduce you to some of the formidable ladies of the English Civil War, starting with one of my favourites – Lady Brilliana Harley of Brampton Bryan Castle in Herefordshire.

The Harleys were an old, established Herefordshire family who had settled at Brampton Bryan and built a castle there in the early fourteenth century. Brilliana was the third wife of Sir Robert Harley and it can be seen from the letters (some of which were contained a secret code) that passed between Brilliana and her husband that it was a strong and affectionate partnership. They had three sons and four daughters, all of whom survived into adulthood.

As England lurched towards Civil War, Herefordshire showed itself solidly and staunchly Royalist in sympathy. The Harleys, puritans and supporters of Parliament, rapidly found themselves themselves the butt of unpleasant taunts and rumours, long before the first shot had been fired. When the war finally broke out, Sir Robert Harley, a member of Parliament, remained in London. At his insistence Brilliana and her daughters were left at Brampton Bryan, an island of Parliamentary sympathy in a sea of Royalists. Being a practical woman, she turned her mind to what she would need in the event of hostilities and added powder, match and flintlocks to her housewifely shopping list.

The early months of the war did not go well for the Parliamentarians but it was not until July 1643 that Brampton Bryan found itself the centre of royalist attention and her former neighbours, friends and relatives suddenly found themselves ordered to “reduce” Brampton Bryan. An awkward correspondence between besieger and besieged ensued, but Brilliana politely but firmly refused to surrender Brampton saying “…my dear husband hath entrusted me with his house but according to his pleasure, therefore I cannot dispose of his house but according to his pleasure…”.

Hostilities commenced, the village of Brampton Bryan was razed and artillery brought to bear on the castle. Despite heavy bombardment casualties within the castle were surprisingly light. A personal offer of terms from the King did not move the lady who played for time in the knowledge that the Earl of Essex was going to the relief of the siege of Gloucester, which would divert the royalist forces. After seven weeks the siege was lifted and Lady Brilliana set about replenishing stores within the castle. Encouraged by the news that the siege of Gloucester had been lifted, she went on the offensive, sending out foraging parties and an attack force to the town of Knighton. By early October the royalists were again poised to renew the siege.

Brilliana wrote to her son, Ned on 9 October 1643 “…I have taken a very great cold, which has made me very ill these 2 or 3 days, but I hope that the Lord will be merciful to me, in giving me health, for it is an ill time to be sick in. My dear Ned, I pray God bless you and give me the comfort of seeing you again…”

Sadly she was never to see her husband or sons again as she died of pneumonia on 31 October leaving “the saddest garrison in the three kingdoms”.

In the spring of 1644, Brampton Bryan Castle was besieged a second time and finally fell to the royalists. The castle was “reduced” (a term meaning, destroyed so as not to be capable of defence again) but the lives of the defenders were spared and the fame of Lady Brilliana Harley spread, earning her the “admiration and applause even of her enemies”.


Alison Plowden: Women All on Fire – The Women of the English Civil War
Jacqueline Eales: Puritans and Roundheads – the Harleys of Brampton Bryan and the outbreak of the English Civil War
Antonia Fraser: The Weaker Vessel

Saturday, 6 February 2010

On water and germs

(Men bathing, 17th century Italy)

As winter approached in Canada this year, everyone caught "swine flu" (H1N1) nerves. Like many, I felt uneasy in crowds, and I think I would have felt uneasy in a crowded public pool or sauna, as well. There is something a wee bit intimate about sharing hot, steamy air, and hot, steamy water during a health scare. Our instinct is to retreat.

Imagine a world where at least one-third of the population dies horribily over the course of a short four years. This is what happened after the Black Plague came to Europe in 1347. Twenty-five million people died during that first outbreak. Other outbreaks continued sporatically for 350 years, often with devastating effects. The fearful Plague was never far from the minds of men and women in 17th century Europe (which may help account for the profound spiritualism of the period). 

Needless to say, fear of getting sick was uppermost in most people's minds. Theories abounded about how to avoid it. In 1348, the medical facultiy of the University of Paris concluded that the Plague was caused by an unfortunate conjunction of Saturn, Jupitoer and Mars, causing infected vapours to rise up out of the earth and waters. The obese, intemperate and over-passionate were most at risk.

Also at risk, they claimed, were people who took hot baths, because hot water opened the pores of the skin, allowing the Plague to enter.
Not only could bad things enter the body through water, but the all-important balance of the four humours could also be upset through pores opened by moisture. [The Dirt on Clean, page 95]
Soon water immersion was believed a threat in a number of ways to a person's health ... and so began the end of personal bathing for several centuries — the dirtiest in the history of Europe.

In 17th century France (my period), the aristocracy rarely bathed, washing only their hands and feet, and face, on occasion. They believed that a linen chemise cleansed them better, drawing sweat away safely. The King and his brother changed their linen chemise three times a day and were thus considered clean.

(Right) The Sun King's son, Le Grand Dauphin, had his hair combed for the first time at seven months, and his first bath at the age of almost seven.

Ironically, many bathed (clothed) in the rivers and lakes (not the ocean, however, which was still considered too fearful). Also, the aristocracy regularly went to mineral water spas, for reasons of health. This practice began to change water's reputation as a promoter of disease to a promoter of health — but even so, very slowly.

We still have a long way to go to achieve the standards for personal cleanliness set long ago by the Romans, who went to the baths for two to three hours a day.

Reference: The Dirt on Clean; An Unsanitized History, by Katherine Ashenburg.

Sandra Gulland, Author of the Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun