The Witches of Belvoir, also known as the Bottesford witches, were a mother – Joan Flower – and her two daughters Margaret and Phillipa, believed to have caused the deaths by witchcraft of two young nobles. Henry (died 1613) and Francis Manners (died 1620) were the only male heirs to Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland, whose seat was at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. Joan Flower died on her journey to Lincoln Castle, where she and her daughters were to be incarcerated before their interrogation and trial, after demanding that she be tried by ordealMethods used to identify witches. .
The only record of the trial of Margaret and Phillipa Flower in early March 1619 is that contained in a contemporary pamphlet, The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillippa Flower, Daughters of Joan Flower; the records of the Lincoln assizes have been lost.
Margaret and Phillipa were executed at Lincoln Castle on 11 March 1619. A new and influential manual for the use of judges, magistrates and anyone else involved in bringing alleged witches to trial was published eight years later, clearly influenced by the trial of the Flower women. The historian Tracey Borman has suggested that the Flowers women may have been framed by a favourite of King James I, George Villiers, the Marquess of Buckingham.
The Flower family had been connected to the earls of Rutland since at least the mid-16th century, and in their heyday the Flower women had acted as ladies-in-waiting to the countesses of Rutland, and even retained servants of their own. Joan Flower herself was almost certainly in the employ of the Manners family in 1603, and her social position seems to have been comfortable until 1611, when she appears to have fallen on hard times, probably owing to the death of her husband. By the time records reveal anything other than the sketchiest details of her life, Joan was looking after her daughters Margaret and Philippa on her own.
The famously generous Earl and Countess of Rutland evidently felt some responsibility for the Flower women, as it is recorded that they “dayly founde reliefe” from the castle. Joan and her daughters were offered employment at the castle in 1612 as day servants, possibly to assist with preparations for the visit of King James I in August that year, but they remained in service long after the King had left. Joan was a particular favourite with the earl, and the pair spent many hours discussing natural remedies; Joan was a well-known local cunning woman, and the earl solicited her advice on many occasions.
Events leading up to the trials
The Flower women were evidently not popular with the other members of the earl’s staff, and rumours of their misconduct soon began to spread, culminating in 1613 when the servants lodged a formal complaint with Cecelia, the countess of Rutland. Margaret was accused of stealing provisions, and all three women of entertaining “certaine deboist [debauched] and base company at their house”, at all hours of the night. Margaret was dismissed, but with “an extremely generous parting gift” of 40 shillings – about one year’s pay – a bolster and a wool mattress. Both Margaret and her mother were reportedly furious at Margaret’s dismissal, and Joan cursed the earl’s family. The earl and the countess were subsequently “many times subject to sicknesse and extraordinary convulsions”, and in late summer 1613 their eldest son, Henry, Lord Ros, “sickened very strangely”. Henry died in September, and to add to his parent’s grief his brother Francis, their last surviving male heir, shortly afterwards fell ill with the same symptoms as his brother.
The earl employed several eminent physicians in an attempt to restore his son to health, one of whom, Richard Napier, believed passionately that witchcraft was at the heart of many illnesses. Rumours abounded among the servants and local villagers that the Flower women were evil witches, and it seems that the earl and the countess gradually began to be swayed to that opinion. The conventional wisdom of the time among many was that victims of bewitchment could only be healed if the witch could be forced to confess or by the death of the witch, both of which were matters for the law, and so in either late 1618 or early 1619, the Flower women were arrested and accused of witchcraft, probably at the instigation of the countess of Rutland. Their arrest excited much interest, as it was very unusual for such a distinguished family as the Manners – one of the richest and noblest families in England – to be involved in a witch trial.
Ordeal by bread
The three women were committed to be tried at Lincoln castle, a 40-mile (64 km) journey from where they were being held in Bottesford, in the depths of winter. Stopping off at the village of Ancaster, worn down by her treatment, and very likely terrified – mistakenly – of the prospect of being burned alive,[a] Joan demanded that she be subjected to an ordeal to prove her innocence, an ordeal by breadMethods used to identify witches. .
The Earl of Rutland’s chaplain, the Reverend Samuel Fleming, was among the party accompanying the women to Lincoln, and he may have blessed the bread before Joan broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. Immediately she “fell donne and dyed … with a horrible excruciation of soule and body”. The historian Tracey Borman has suggested that such a convenient death may have been an invention by the authorities to cover up the reality that the real cause of Joan’s death was the hardships she had been forced to endure at the hands of her captors.
Margaret and Phillipa were subjected to a series of interrogations from 22 January until 25 February 1619. Margaret was the first to crack, and on 4 February admitted that she, her mother and her sister had conspired to bring about the death of the earl’s eldest son, Henry, with the help of her mother’s familiar, a cat named Rutterkin. Phillipa appears to have been made of sterner stuff, and consistently refused to confess to having caused the boy’s death, admitting only that she had used magic to make him sick. But she did otherwise confirm Margaret’s story about their mother casting a spell on him.
According to the account published in The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillippa Flower, the Devil took advantage of the fury felt by Margaret and her mother on her dismissal from the earl’s service by promising to help them wreak revenge on the family, in return for their souls. After sealing their pact with “an exchange of blood and ‘abominable kisses’ ”, the two women wasted no time in using their new powers to torment their victims.
Phillipa on the other hand was madly in love with a local man, Thomas Simpson, it was claimed, and she succumbed to the Devil’s offer to make him love her in return, once again at the cost of her soul. Thomas did indeed fall in love with Phillipa, but the romance ended with him testifying against her, claiming that he must have been bewitched, as “hee had no power to leave her”.
Trial and execution
Margaret and Phillipa stood trial in early March 1619[b] at Lincoln assizes, in front of Sir Edward Bromley and Sir Henry Hobart, both eminent legal figures; Bromley had been one of the presiding judges at the Pendle witch trialsThe trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous witch trials in English history, and some of the best recorded of the 17th century. of 1612. As was customary for such trials at the time, no defence lawyers were allowed, as it was feared that they would be aided by the Devil, so the judges made their decision based on the written testimonies presented to them, and any witness statements. The only witness recorded as giving evidence was the Earl of Rutland himself, but as the law required there to be at least two witnesses there must presumably have been others.
Margaret and Phillipa were found guilty under the terms of the Witchcraft Act of 1604Until the passage of Henry VIII’s Act of 1542 witchcraft was dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts rather being seen as a secular felony. It is unknown what triggered the perceived need for such a law, but it undoubtedly suited Henry’s agenda of wresting power from the Catholic Church. , and duly executed on 11 March 1619; their bodies were buried in unconsecrated ground in a corner of Lincoln Castle. The boy they had been accused of bewitching, Francis Manners, died almost a year later, on 5 March 1620.
Aftermath and legacy
Three known associates of the Flower women – Anne Baker, Joan Willimot and Ellen Green – were arrested a few days after the executions; Margaret and Phillipa may have implicated them in their own confessions. Despite all three admitting to having used witchcraft, but not to any involvement in the Flower’s conspiracy against the Manners family, there is no record of any legal proceedings being taken against them.
The earl and countess remained so convinced that their sons had been killed by witchcraft that they had it inscribed on their monument at Bottesford church. The only reference to witchcraft in an English church, it reads, in part:
In 1608 he married ye lady Cecila Hungerford, daughter to ye Honorable Knight Sir John Tufton, by whom he had two sons, both of which died in their infancy by wicked practises and sorcerye
A new manual for the use of judges, magistrates and anyone else involved in bringing alleged witches to trial was published eight years after the execution of the Flowers women. Titled A Guide to Grand Jury Men[c] and written by Richard Bernard, it was clearly influenced by the Belvoir witch trial, and became “one of the most influential tracts on witchcraft”.
Tracey Borman has suggested that the Flowers women may have been framed by a favourite of King James I, George Villiers, the Marquess of Buckingham. Villiers was certainly able to profit from the death of the the Earl of Rutland’s last male heir by marrying the earl’s daughter Katherine and thus securing the title, which he did on 16 May 1620.
Villiers employed a cunning man by the name of John Lambe, who was known to concoct various potions and poisons. Even at the time, doubts were expressed in some circles about the guilt of the Flowers women. The letter writer John Chamberlain for instance, reported that Francis had died “by witchcraft (as some will have yt) but in all likelihood of the falling sickness to which he was much subject and a weake child”.
- There are no recorded cases of witches being burned alive in England, they were routinely hanged.
- The court records have not survived; the only extant record of the proceedings are contained in the Belvoir witch pamphlet.
- In early 17th-century English jurisprudence, all indictments were initially submitted to a grand jury, whose task was to decide whether there was a prima facie case against the accused before the prisoners were taken into the courtroom to be tried by the petty jury, the forerunner of the modern jury.