Fears of demonic spirits following 1605 Gunpowder Plot revealed by witchmarks in Kent

By Ben Miller Published: 05 November 2014

Apotropaic marks in royal room aimed to protect King who blamed Gunpowder Plot on Catholics, say experts

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Secret 17th century witchmarks, found in a room made for royalty and dated to the period of hysteria which swept Britain following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, were carved to protect King James I from evil spirits, say archaeologists at a National Trust property in Kent.

Marks have been found on beams and joists on floorboards and beneath fireplace surrounds in the Upper King’s Room at Knole, a historic house visited by the King in 1606. Experts believe the property’s owner, Thomas Sackville, employed craftsmen to carve the engravings in early 1606, when accusations of demonic forces and plotting witches were widespread.

An old oil painting of a king in royal robes
John de Critz the Elder, King James I© NT Images / Matthew Hollow
“King James I had a keen interest in witchcraft and passed a witchcraft law, making it an offence punishable by death,” says James Wright, a Buildings Archaeologist for Museum of London Archaeology, which has used tree dating on the intersecting lines and symbols of the “demon trap”.

“He even wrote a book on the topic entitled Daemonologie.

“To have precisely dated these apotropaic marks so closely to the time of the Gunpowder Plot, with the anticipated visit from the King, makes this a rare if not unique discovery.

“Using archaeology to better understand the latent fears of the common man that were heightened by the Plot is extremely exciting and adds huge significance to our research about Knole and what was happening at that time.

“These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.”

Known as apotropaic marks, the discoveries are part of an ongoing, five-year investigation into the 600-year past of the house.

“It’s wonderful to be able to piece together the forgotten stories of those who lived and worked at Knole and to share them with our visitors,” says Nathalie Cohen, an archaeologist for the Trust.

“This is that once-in-a-lifetime chance to unravel the history of one of the largest houses in the country, from the rafters to the floorboards.”

The showrooms are currently closed for conservation work, although a series of behind-the-scenes tours, led by Cohen, will take place on November 20 and 21 2014.

Witchmarks

  • The word apotropaic comes from the Greek apətrəpeɪɪk, meaning “to turn away”, and has been used to identify symbols, objects, car vings and talismans which have traditionally been associated with warding off evil.

    The marks in the Upper King’s Room include chequerboard and mesh designs and interlocking V-shapes on the beam and joists, (a Marian symbol invoking the protection of Mary the Mother of God and stands for ‘Virgo Virginum’).

    The third form of apotropaic symbols in the Upper King’s Room is the scorch marks which have been made by directly burning the timber with a candle or taper.
  • The marks were found beneath the floorboards and on the fireplace of the Upper King’s Room at Knole.

    Other examples of apotropaic marks have also been recorded at Knole – in the Spangled Bedroom, the King’s Room, the Cartoon Gallery, the Great Hall and in Stable Court.
  • The marks were found during archaeological survey and building recording by buildings archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology, as part of the enabling works undertaken during the winter of 2013-14.

    Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) of the floor beam and roof beam directly above gave a felling date of the winter of 1605-06.

    The fact that the beam was laid whilst the oak was still green - and therefore malleable - indicates that it must have been placed in its current location during the spring or summer building season of 1606.

  • The owner of Knole, Thomas Sackville, was Lord Treasurer to James I. In 1605-08 Sackville began a programme of renovation with the intention of constructing a ‘progress house’ which would attract visits by James.

    The remodelling of the rooms in the King’s Tower was part of the transformation of the South Wing into a very high-status suite of royal spaces.

  • The marks date to the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. This Catholic plot to assassinate James I was, at the time, considered to be demonic in origin.

    An enormous programme of State propaganda followed, orchestrated by James I and his government, which sought to lay the blame for the plot at the hands of Catholics, who they claimed were ultimately in service to Satan himself.

    The marks are significant as they were placed on the beam during this period of propaganda, within a space at Knole which was being remodelled for James I - a king noted for his personal interest in witchcraft and demons.

  • It is clear from the location of the marks that there is not room to carve them in situ, so it is certain that all the marks were added by the carpenters in a planned system prior to the construction in the room.

    The marks were carved whilst they were still in the workshop by a team of carpenters headed by Matthew Banks.

    These artisans were exactly the audience that the post-Gunpowder Plot State propaganda was trying to reach.

    Banks’ carpenters would have been aware that the tower they were remodelling was intended for use by James I and took steps to ensure that the monarch received ritual protection.

  • Sackville was concerned that James was spending increasing amounts of time at other houses such as Theobald’s Palace in Hertfordshire, which was owned by Sackville’s social rival, Robert Cecil.

    Sackville reconstructed Knole as a progress house to attract the visitation and patron age of James I.

  • Previous studies of the building have identified that the King’s Tower was constructed as a State apartment.

    Architecturally, the King’s Tower has the very highest status private rooms available at Knole – they are even more opulent than those occupied by the Sackville family. They were probably reserved for royal use.

    These spaces were certainly being directly referred to as a royal suite in documents by the end of the 17th century.

  • Ultimately, James never visited Knole because very soon after the remodelling was completed Thomas Sackville died and his son did not have the same level of importance or influence at court as his father.

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