Site of Guy Fawkes interrogation had witchmarks added to walls to protect from gunpowder ringleader's "evil spirits"
Attempts to ward off “evil” spirits in England hundreds of years ago are well known. But rarely have as many apotropaic witchmarks, carved and burnt into timber roof frames, been counted as the 59 symbols recently discovered at the Tower of London’s Queen’s House.
“This was historically where the Lieutenant of the Tower lived and where he interrogated high-profile prisoners, including Guy Fawkes,” says Alden Gregory, the Buildings Curator for Historic Royal Palaces, who believes this could be the first spiritual midden – containing 46 animal bones, scraps of leather, broken blades and spades and a clay pipe – to have been archaeologically excavated.
“Although witchmarks are not particularly rare in historic buildings, the exceptionally large number of them in the Queen's House is very unusual. The discovery of so many ’witchmarks’ and other signs of superstition in the house has given us an interesting new insight into the lives and fears of the people who lived in the Tower.”
Created between 1540 and the early 18th century, the marks symbolise the vulnerability inhabitants felt from witches planning arson attacks. “Lower status” occupants of the building – probably service staff or craftsmen – made the marks around doors, windows, chimneys and fireplaces.
“The conservation project that we've just finished has provided us with a fantastic opportunity to research the history of the Queen's House,” says Gregory. “It suggests that the people living in the Queen's House felt that they needed extra protection from the evil forces that they believed were brought into the Tower by the heretics and traitors who were confined in its prison cells.”
As well as Fawkes, those prisoners included Lady Jane Grey and the last prisoner held in the Great Fire of London-surviving Tower – Rudolf Hess in 1941. “The tower is well-known for historical graffiti associated with high-profile political prisoners,” says James Wright, a Buildings Archaeologist for Museum of London Archaeology.
“But the recent discoveries offer a new perspective. They reveal something of the hopes, fears and desires of the everyday occupants of this iconic fortress.
“The spiritual midden, full of assorted objects and intended to protect the palace from evil spirits, is really exciting. These features are rarely, if ever, excavated by archaeologists.”
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