In 1618, the Earl of Rutland and his wife accused three women of bewitching their family. They believed that bewitchment was the cause of death of their first son, and the long-term illness of their second. The women in question were former servants of their household at Belvoir Castle near Bottesford, England: Joan Flower, a Bottesford cunning woman, and her two daughters, Margaret and Phillipa. Joan Flower died while being transported to the prison at Lincoln; her two daughters were interrogated mercilessly by the Earl and several other noblemen who also served as magistrates in Lincoln County until they confessed. The jury found both guilty, and the judge sentenced them to death. Less than a year later, the Earl’s second son succumbed to his long-term illness. The Earl had his family tomb inscribed with these words: “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.”[1] Francis Manners and his wife, Cecily, were convinced that their family had been cursed by a witch. Historian Tracy Borman suspects foul play of a non-magical sort. Ultimately, the motive mattered little to the Flower women. Their accusers were too powerful to be denied a conviction, and they were too inconsequential, with too few friends in Bottesford or Lincoln, to survive a witch hunt.

Transcript for: “Wicked Practises and Sorcerye”: Cunning Folk, Witch Trials, and the Tragedy of Joan Flower and Her Daughters

Written by Averill Earls, PhD
Recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Sarah: In 1618, the Earl of Rutland and his wife accused three women of bewitching their family. They believed that bewitchment was the cause of death of their first son, and the long-term illness of their second. The women in question were former servants of their household at Belvoir (or Beaver) Castle near Bottesford, England: Joan Flower, a Bottesford cunning woman, and her two daughters, Margaret and Phillipa. Joan Flower died while being transported to the prison at Lincoln; her two daughters were interrogated mercilessly by the Earl and several other noblemen who also served as magistrates in Lincoln County until they confessed. The jury found both guilty, and the judge sentenced them to death. Less than a year later, the Earl’s second son succumbed to his long-term illness. The Earl had his family tomb inscribed with these words: “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.”[1] Francis Manners and his wife, Cecily, were convinced that their family had been cursed by a witch. Historian Tracy Borman suspects foul play of a non-magical sort. Ultimately, the motive mattered little to the Flower women. Their accusers were too powerful to be denied a conviction, and they were too inconsequential, with too few friends in Bottesford or Lincoln, to survive a witch hunt.

Inscription on the family tomb | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Hundreds of English folk like Joan and her daughters were accused of witchcraft between 1484 and 1750. Some were cunning, and known to have magical abilities; others were old women, disabled men, widows with too much economic independence, religious or ethnic minorities, outsiders, or just neighbors who rubbed their communities the wrong way. Early modern Europeans both feared and relied on those with magical abilities. Witch hunters, like King James VI and I or Matthew Hopkins, used torture, fear, and their own political power to foment panics, sending dozens, sometimes hundreds of women and men to their graves.  Magical belief, good and evil witchcraft, and cunning folk barely survived these dark times. In some places, they did not. The witch panics, in which dozens or hundreds of women and men could be swept up by accusations in a matter of months, made it ever more dangerous for the cunning folk to practice their own magic, even if it was only for good. By the early 17th century, elites were growing ever more skeptical of the existence of magic and real witches. Some of that disbelief was fueled, as for Reginald Scot, by the belief that no human could have those Godly powers; for others the rise of alchemy, science, new mathematics, and ways of understanding the world left little room for magic. But those disbeliefs did not save the women and men, like Joan and her daughters, who were killed for alleged crimes of witchcraft.

I’m Winifred Sanderson

And I’m Sarah Sanderson

And we are your witches for this episode of Dig

Averill: We want to send a big thank you to all of our Patreon supporters! But especially our Excavator and Auger level patrons: Lauren, Eric, Denise, Colin, Maddie, Susan, Edward, Christopher, Peggy, Danielle, Maggie, and Iris, wow. You’ve supporting us for so long, we should basically rename the show after you. Maybe an anagram. Nope, there aren’t enough vowels. Unless we start being a Swedish podcast. And that is not out of the realm of possibility. Anyway, we can’t thank you enough, but THANK YOU ANYWAY!

Sarah: Before we begin, there is some confusion about the actual dates of the Belvoir witches case. Borman suggests that Joan and her daughters were arrested in December 1618, and then interrogated and tried in the first few months of 1619. The contemporary pamphlet that was published shortly after the trial, and which is digitized on the University of Michigan library website, lists the dates of the interrogations and trial in January-March 1618. We are going to assume that Borman has cross checked the pamphlet with other sources, and that the dates run along her timeline.

Averill: Also, full disclosure: the reason I lobbied for us to do this series now and the reason I picked my topic is because I am currently teaching a History of Witchcraft and Magic class! And I originally hoped to just assign a bunch of Dig episodes, but then it got changed to a seminar class, so now I am letting the students pick the assignments. I will probably throw these four episodes in the mix just to expand their background knowledge, but by the time this episode comes out, we’ll already by almost four weeks deep into the semester. I used Tracy Borman’s wonderful book, Witches, to write a role playing game for that class, which we start playing the Tuesday after Sarah and I record this, and when I first started writing this episode, I had to prep to teach my students about cunning folk and Christianity in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. That is why this episode is more about just one little aspect of Borman’s book – Joan Flower as cunning woman – and very little about the broader, more intricate story that she wove together. It’s a fantastic book, extremely readable, and I highly recommend it for a good dive into English witch hunting culture and the tragic story of Joan Flower and her daughters. Borman totally convinced me that a certain suitor with ulterior motives did it… but more on that in a little bit. For now, we’ll let the story unfold naturally.

Sarah: Joan Flower and her daughters were employed at Belvoir Castle as charwomen as early as 1612, though we don’t know the exact start date of their employment. As Ave just noted, according to Tracy Borman, Joan Flower had a local reputation as a cunning woman, because of her knowledge of herbs and remedies. Borman even suggests that when she was employed by Francis Manners, Joan and the Earl would talk at length about herbal medicines, an interest that they shared.[2] For medieval and early modern Europe, just about every nation had its equivalent of the cunning folk, or those whose natural magical gifts allowed them to help their neighbors find lost objects, learn about their future, fight off evil spirits who would do them harm, protect the crops and the livestock, heal injuries and illnesses, and the like.

Averill:In England they were the cunning folk; in France, the devins-guérisseurs, or diviner-healers; in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, the curanderos, or healers; in Germany, they were the Kräuterhexen, or herb-witches; in Norway and Denmark, the kloge folk, or wise folk; in Russia, vědmák, or knower, which my friend Katie the Russian Linguist tells me also means “male witch” more specifically; in the Netherlands, toverdokter, or magick-doctor; and in Italy, they were the benandanti, or good walkers.Carlo Ginzburg was among the first historians to posit that belief in magic and witches in early modern Europe was not as saturated with fear as the inquisition and witch hunts would presume. While many hundreds of women and men were tried and condemned for practicing magic, it is very likely that many more women and men who practiced magic were not tried and condemned. There was a strong popular belief across the continent and the United Kingdom and Ireland that there were those who practiced good magic: the cunning folk, the benandanti that Ginzburg discusses in his classic 1966 book on witchcraft and agrarian cults in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and their equivalents across all cultures. In some cases, like with the benandanti, these good witches fought the bad witches and demons who plagued their communities.[3] 

Sarah: According to one interview, Ginzburg discovered the benandanti of Italy while he was going from archive to archive in Italy trying to gather a wide range of samples of witchcraft cases in local and regional court records. He had been disappointed that the first case he ever found just sort of confirmed the hypothesis he had about witchcraft, Catholic Inquisitions, and medieval Italian history. He wanted to be excited about the topic, so he went looking for anomalies. In Venice, he found a case that introduced him to the benandanti.

Averill: Recounted in his foundational work on Italian witches, The Night Battles, Ginzburg outlines the multifaceted relationship that early modern Italians had with their magically-gifted folk. He opens the first chapter with the story of a boy in Brazzano who fell under the spell of evil witches. The local folk called on a man named Paolo Gasparutto, who “cured bewitched people,” and was said to “roam about at night with witches and goblins.”[4] When questioned, Gasparutto admitted to telling the boy’s parents that he’d snatched the boy from the arms of witches who would have taken him, and then gave them a charm to keep the witches away. Gasparutto described the regular clashes that benandanti had with witches.

‘on Thursdays during the Ember Days of the year they were forced to go with these witches to many places, such as Cormons, in front of the church at Iassico, and even into the countryside about Verona,’ where ‘they fought, played, leaped about, and rode various animals, and did different things among themselves; and . . . the women beat the men who were with them with sorghum stalks, while the men had only bunches of fennel.[5]

Sarah: After he knew what to look for, Ginzburg discovered many more benandanti stories in the archives. Gasparutto wasn’t an outlier.  In the benandanti community and local lore, the benandanti were people born in a caul – when they emerged from the birth canal they had the birth sac around them, still intact – and it was known that such origins allowed their spirits to leave their bodies. In addition to providing charms, medicines, and other magical services, they left their bodies regularly to battle the evil spirits that would harm their communities. The benandanti rode on the backs of spirit rabbits, brandishing bunches of fennel, and clashed with the bad witches on the spirit planes, in a battle over the life and health of their community’s livestock and crops. Presumably if they failed, the crops failed, or the livestock died, or plague hit, any of which could spell disaster for the community. The benandanti were not immune to an inquisition – that is how Ginzburg found them in the first place – but did occupy a unique position in their communities. They had magic, which they could and did use for good, but which they could also use for evil. People respected and relied on them, but also harbored fears of them.

Averill: Belief in both good and evil magic doers, and of capacity of the cunning folk, benandanti, and the like to do both good and evil was pretty ubiquitous across early modern Europe. So being someone known as cunning or benandanti could open one up to accusation, though was not necessarily the case. 

Sarah: In Denmark, witch hunts were pretty ferocious in the late 16th century, tapered off by the mid-17th century, but then had a resurgence in the 19th century. While Danish ideas about witchcraft and magic necessarily changed over time, the belief in the cunning folk – the Kluge folk – persisted into the 20th century, according to Timothy Tangherlini.

Averill: After the Reformation, like in England, secular courts tried witchcraft cases. While English laws in the 16th century moved toward criminalizing any form of magic-use, 17th century Danish lawmakers seemed to want to protect the Kloge folk, even as the religious authorities had their own ideas. A 1617 Danish law distinguished between maleficium, or malicious magic, which was attributed to “rette troldfolk,” or witches in league with the Devil, and non-malicious “indbildede konster” or imaginary arts. According to historian Jens Christian Johansen, a law in 1683 further entrenched the distinction between good and bad magic, making only bad magic illegal.[6] This change followed an already declining trend in the total number of witch trials in Denmark.

Sarah: Tangherlini notes that when Lutheranism took hold in Denmark, the Lutheran clergy saw the cunning folk (Kluge folk) as competition for the hearts and minds (and maybe souls) of their flock; so started preaching that the trolddom – bad witches – caused folk’s illness or misfortune – and also that trolddom was cunning, and cunning was the work of the Devil.[7] By marking cunning folk as heretics and magic as an outgrowth of the Devil’s work, the Lutheran clergy could steer people from the authority traditionally ascribed to the Kluge folk, and claim that authority as their own. But Tangherlini cites two historians – Johansen and Kim Tørnsø – who argue that despite the clergies’ best efforts to stamp out the Kluge folk, very few cunning folk were accused of witchcraft. The secular court system focused on those who cursed or harmed others using witchcraft, and by their trade, the cunning folk tended to avoid that behavior.

Averill: Drawing on Johansen’s research, Tangherlini notes that of the 1,519 witchcraft cases in Jutland (which is the mainland region of Denmark) that he was working with, only 10% involved cunning folk.[8] One of these cases involved Kirsten “Pinn” Poulsdatter of Laesø, who was accused of witchcraft in 1636. She was well-known in her community as Kluge folk. In 1636, a neighbor man accused her of taking his milk luck. When arrested for this and other magical ‘crimes,’ she asserted that doing so was within the realm of her rights as kluge folk. It was a gift that she could give and take freely. Another man testified that Pinn had helped him out one year – he traded her some grain for a blessing on his field, which did yield a good harvest – but then he accused her of walking across his field the next year and killing his crops with her powers. Pinn was ultimately found guilty, but only of lesser magical crimes, rather than maleficicent magic – sort of like petty assault, as opposed to attempted murder.

Sarah: In England, the cunning folk fulfilled key roles as healers, astrologers, pharmacists, counselors, and – at times – even as witch testers.[9] Borman notes that some, like Joan Flower, levied their extensive knowledge of herbal remedies to build a reputation and make a living. Others used props, costumes, and mystery to cultivate their aura of wisdom and power. Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer, John Dee, for example, was said to carry around a crystal “as big as an egg; most bright, clear and glorious.”[10] And as in Italy and Denmark, cunning folk were essential to their communities. Borman notes that physicians weren’t particularly effective in the healing arts, since humoral medicine still dominated medical theory in the early modern period, but it didn’t matter, because only the very rich or elite could afford a physician anyway. Common people relied on the local wise woman or man for their remedies and charms. Most cunning folk didn’t charge for their services, but relied on donations instead. A token of gratitude in the form of food or services or coin was a safer system than a dissatisfied customer accusing you of witchcraft when a charm cure didn’t work![11]

Averill: In most English communities in the early modern period, neighbors didn’t turn on their cunning folk unless circumstances were dire. In times of natural disaster, or the pressure of a zealous witch hunter like Matthew Hopkins, such folk were susceptible. Sometimes cunning folk “fanned the flames” of a witch hunt, for they were consulted when someone seemed bewitched, and might make accusations against suspected evil-doers themselves.

Sarah: In the 1610s, the Earl of Rutland’s family suffered. In 1612, shortly after a royal visit with King James I and his retinue, young Henry, the eldest boy fell ill. Some accounts suggest that the entire Manners family fell ill. Henry died in 1612, to his parents’ utter horror. We don’t know how old he was, as his birth records have not survived, but he may have been as old as 4. His younger brother fell ill then as well, or shortly thereafter, and never fully recovered. Physicians were no help, though the Earl had the country’s best attend his son throughout the years. Cecily and the elder Francis never had another child. Borman speculates that this may be connected to that illness in 1612 that gripped the family, or perhaps psychological barriers after the loss of Henry, or even self-inflicted barriers, in which one or more of the couple decided they should not have another child.[12]

Memorial at St. Mary’s Church to Henry and Francis Manners, the heirs to the 6th Earl and Countess of Rutland, whom the Witches of Belvoir were accused of killing | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Desperate over the deteriorating condition of their son, in 1618 the Manners paid a cunning healer twice to treat Francis. Because they knew her and would have known of her cunning reputation in Bottesford, Borman argues that they hired Joan Flower to treat their son.[13] Francis did not get better. And at the end of 1618, while the Earl was away from the castle at Whitehall, someone – most likely Cecilia Manners – lodged an accusation of witchcraft against Joan Flower and her daughters.

Sarah: Starting in the 15th century, and stretching well into the 20th in some places, all across Europe and the American colonies, witch hunts damned women and men by the hundreds.

Averill: Typically a local magistrate would have questioned both the accuser and the accused, recording the information of both to be presented at trial. Then the accused was transported to the local Assizes location – in the Flowers case, to Lincoln Castle Gaol – to be held and interrogated until trial.[14]

Sarah: The laws governing witchcraft in England were pretty clearly laid out by 1618.

Averill: Henry VIII’s 1542 Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery, and Enchantmentswas England’s first law dealing with accused magic-users. Prior to 1542, the Catholic Church’s inquisitorial board had dealt with the smattering of witchcraft cases in England, as they continued to do on the continent. But Henry’s reformation required that England have its own legislation for adjudicating over suspected cases of witchcraft. Notably, the 1542 law specifically singled out those who would use witchcraft to obtain wealth that didn’t belong to them, or who used magic to harm others.

Sarah: Edward VI repealed Henry’s act, and Elizabeth I reinstated and expanded her father’s legislation to make witchcraft a capital crime, punishable by death, particularly when witchcraft resulted in bodily harm or death of a victim. Just as significantly, Elizabeth’s expansion included any use of magic, not just magics that might harm others or make unlawful gains for the sorcerer or witch.

Averill: The Elizabethan legislation declared that “if any person or persons shall …by Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, … tell or declare in what Place any Treasure of Gold or Silver should or might be found or had in the Earth or other secret Places, or where Goodes or Things lost or stolen should be found or become, or…to provoke any person to unlawful love, or to hurt or destroy any person in his or her Body, Member or Goodes.

Sarah: Divination, finding lost or stolen things, herbal healing, love potions, and a range of other services were performed by people known in England as “cunning folk.” Elizabeth’s law erred on the side of caution when she included some of those services in her list of magic-related crimes.

Averill: For such minor infractions, she outlined how guilty parties would be punished: they would “suffer Imprisonment by the space of One whole year without bail or Mainprise, and once in every Quarter of the said yere, shall in some Market Towne, upon the Market Day or at such time as any Fayer shall be kept there, stand openly upon the Pillory by the space of Six Hours, and there shall openly confess his or her Error and Offence.”

Sarah: But it would ultimately be James I’s 1604 law under which the Flower women were tried. James took the guessing out of what witchcraft might look like, describing in detail the kinds of acts and behaviors that would be criminalized in his realm: “use, practise, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit: or … consult, covenant with, entertaine, imploy, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit, to or for any intent or purpose; or take up any dead man, woman, or child, out of his, her, or their grave, or any other place where the dead body resteth; or the skin, bone, or any other part of any dead person, to be … used in any manner of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Charme, or Enchantment.” This law was established on the assumption that all magic originated with the Devil and his servants, and no matter what one used it for – good or evil – that was evidence of one being in league with the Devil. Because James thought of himself as a bastion between the world and the Devil, as God’s warrior on earth, he dedicated a great deal of his life and influence to sussing out witches and executing them.

James I observes witches on trial, from his book, Daemonologie, 1597 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: In witchcraft crimes, confession was one of the most important pieces of evidence presented in a case. Confession was extracted from individuals accused of crimes through interrogation, which almost always included some form of torture. The most common form of torture was sleep deprivation. Most European states had a limit on how long sleep deprivation torture could go on – typically 48 hours – but according to Borman, England had no such limitations.[15] If you’re familiar with sleep deprivation torture – and in the sleeplessness of the pandemic, I imagine many of you know what I’m talking about – most people experience hallucinations when their brains are not allowed to sleep. The confessions that result from sleep deprivation tend to be rambling, full of bizarre details that are often contradicted the next time someone is questioned, and are often the reason so many witch confessions include demons, talking creatures, and magic. 

Sarah: Joan Flower died in transport to the Lincoln Castle Gaol. According to the contemporary reports, she demanded that she be given bread and water on the 40 mile journey from Bottesford to Lincoln, and then declared that she should choke and die on the bread if she was guilty. And then she did choke and die.[16] Borman argues that reports of her declaration are an embellishment; forcing an alleged witch to eat blessed bread or to recite the Lord’s Prayer without stumbling were examples of witch tests in this period. If the accused choked on the bread or stumbled over the words (or if she couldn’t read or recite it because she was illiterate or afraid), that was considered evidence of her guilt. 

Averill: Building on James I’s law, in 1618 – just before the Flower women were arrested – Michael Dalton, an English barrister, published a guide for how justices of the peace ought to deal with suspected witches.[17] This manual gave very specific advice for the identification of guilty witches.

Sarah: For example, witches were believed to have a “familiar” or spirit that was their connection to the Devil or some other demon. Dalton says “These Witches have ordinarily a Familiar or Spirit, which appeareth to them; sometimes in one shape, sometimes in another; as in the shape of a Man, Woman, Boy, Dogge, Cat, Foale, Fowle, Hare, Rat, Toad, &c. And to these their Spirits they give names, and they meet together to christen them.” Now, the “familiar” trope must have been just completely demoralizing. It essentially meant, by Dalton’s definition, that if you were accused of witchcraft, any human friend or animal pet was evidence that could be held against you in a court of law. Joan Flower had a pet cat, which she and her daughters called “Rutterkin.” In the only surviving pamphlet recording the trial, Joan’s daughter Margaret, likely after a sleep deprivation torture session, said that “finding a glove about two or three yeares since of Francis Lord Rosse, on a dung-hill, she delivered it to her mother, who put it into hot water, and after tooke it out and rubbed it on Rutterkin the Cat, and bade him goe upwards, and after her mother buried it in the yard, and said a mischiefe light on him, but he will mend againe.”

Averill: (Notably, this was from the first of Margaret’s interrogations – there are three recorded in the pamphlet in total – and she says here that Francis was supposed to fall ill but then mend again. This narrative was challenged throughout the trial. The pamphlet states in later testimonies that Joan intended for young Francis to never recover. Because we do not know the author of the pamphlet, or who commissioned it, Tracy Borman rightly questions everything that is reported in it.)

Sarah: Dalton’s guide also instructs magistrates to look for the “witch’s teat” or Devil’s mark where the familiar would suck on their body – which would be “a blew spot, or red spot, like a flea-biting; sometimes the flesh sunk in and hollow.” He counsels magistrates to be “diligent” in searching for the mark, which “be often in their secretest parts,” and to order “witch pricking,” because the Devil’s mark would not bleed when poked with a needle. 

Averill: A major issue that was levied against Joan Flower was that she was known to swear, and that she was believed to be an Atheist, because she didn’t attend church. Such behavior was widely associated with witches and witchcraft. Dalton notes that witches “be given to usual cursing and bitter imprecations, and withall use threatnings to be revenged, and their imprecations, or some other mischief presently followeth.”

Sarah: As hopefully these first few indicate, if someone was accused of witchcraft – especially a woman – it was very easy to assemble evidence against them. The witch’s teat and Devil’s mark were nondescript enough as to be any blemish or mark, and if you had a friend or a pet you were fucked. Your victim’s testimony, your neighbor’s testimony, and the word of your servants or children (as if children don’t make up stories when prompted to all the time…) — all were viable evidence in court, and enough to send a woman or man accused of witchcraft to their death. Dalton’s guide did also point to potential evidence that would have been harder to collect – if the dead body of a witch’s victim bleeds when she touches it, or if a dead person gives testimony against a witch – but for the most part, the guide made sure that outsiders, people considered a burden on their neighbors, feuding neighbors, or anyone who was just disliked by their community – like Joan Flower – were at risk when fear of witchcraft was afoot.

Averill: Even as manuals for witch finding and tools for more effective torture were churned out every decade, however, there were those who critiqued the system regularly. In the 1560s, Dutch physician Johann Weyer argued that witchcraft is not real, and that those who believe themselves to be witches suffered from delusions, and should be treated for mental illness. In 1584, a few year before James VI launched his Scottish witch hunt, Sir Reginald Scot published A Discoverie of Witchcraft, a core text among the skeptics community, in which he argues that the majority of witches accused were old women who annoyed their neighbors, that believing that humans had magical powers was idolatrous because only God has that power, and that there was no biblical pretext for witch hunting, as well as scientific proof that witchcraft was not real.

Sarah: Scot’s book really irked King James, who banned it in Scotland. James went on to publish his own witchcraft treatise in 1597, clearly responding to the works of men like Scot. Daemonologie pretends to be a reasonable philosophical dialogue between a skeptic and a believer, but like James himself, the dialogue slants heavily in favor of the believer, and the reader is left with the inevitable conclusion that not only are witches real, but everyone’s immortal soul relies on the banishment of such evil doers from this earth.

Averill: James wrote Daemenologie after his famous 1590s witch hunt. He believed then that there was a nefarious witch plot to kill him and his new wife, Anne of Denmark, as they sailed from Denmark back to Scotland in 1592.[18] They were hit by a storm, and their ship nearly sank. Back in Denmark, which was grappling with its own spate of witch panics, several dozen women were tried and executed for the attempted assassination via witchcraft of Anne and James. James took it upon himself to launch a parallel witch hunt in Scotland, and over 100 people were arrested and tried.

Sarah: In 1612, a Spanish university-educated lawyer named Alonso de Salazar Frias published a tract on the unreliability of torture, arguing that people would say literally anything to stop physical punishment. Sleep deprivation makes the accused talk at length about wild details, visions or hallucinations, and a range of truths and lies born out of the mental state of someone whose brain is shutting down from lack of sleep. The thumb screws, Rack, Pear of Anguish, and various other instruments of torture were more likely to get screamed confessions, or a few names, or a handful of incoherent words before the accused passed out from the pain. What seems obvious to us now was just as obvious to some, like de Salazar Frias, in 1612. These methods continued to be used in Spain as elsewhere well after 1612, but not without the objections of a few, on really quite reasonable grounds.  

Averill: By 1619, when the Flower women tried and convicted, there was a marked decline in belief in witchcraft among elites. Even James, who was famous for his witch hunting when he was just king of Scotland, back-pedaled a bit in his fervor once he came to power in England. Certainly by 1619, at least, he was no longer personally overseeing the torture and interrogation of individuals accused of witchcraft.

Sarah: Still, James I played a rather significant role in the trial of the Flower women. The Earl of Rutland and his family worked to bring James to the throne, and then Francis Manners cultivated the king’s favor throughout his lifetime. James made at least five recorded visits to Belvoir Castle in Francis Manner’s lifetime, including in 1612,  just before the Manners’ eldest boy, Henry, died suddenly. James enjoyed hunting on the Earl’s grounds, and indeed, the Earl was one of the wealthiest and best connected men in the king’s nobility. That was increased even more so after 1620, when the Earl’s only daughter, Katherine, married the king’s favorite, George Villiers, the Marquess of Buckingham.

The coat of arms of Sir Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: When the time came to dispatch judges to Lincolnshire, where the Flower women were held, he sent Edward Bromley, best known for his harsh treatment of the Pendle witches in 1612.[19] There can be no doubt that James was aware of what was happening in Bottesford and Lincoln. To send such a formidable judge, one wouldn’t hesitate to threaten and cajole the jury to ensure the conviction of women accused of witchcraft, speaks to James’ personal and political stakes in the case.

Sarah: For six weeks leading up to their trial, Phillippa and Margaret were held at Lincoln Castle Gaol. They’d watched their mother die at some point on the 40 mile journey from Bottesford to Lincoln. Once in the prison, they most likely went hungry more often than not, as prisoners in the private gaols of the English judicial system only ate at the charity of the gaol owner. They were interrogated, tortured, and driven relentlessly to confess that they were witches, and that their mother had cursed the Manners boys.

Averill: Philippa held out the longest. She has no recorded confession until February 4, whereas her sister Margaret first confessed on January 22. But Phillippa threw her sister to the wolves, implicating her as a witch with a neck-sucking familiar.

SHe saith, that her mother and her sister maliced the Earl of Rutland, his Countesse, and their Children, because her Sister Margaret, was put out of the Ladies service of Laundry, and exempted from other services about the house, whereupon her said sister, by the commandment of her mother, brought from the Castle the right hand glove of the Lord Henry Rosse, which she delivered to her Mother; who presently rubbed it on the back of her Spirit Rutterkin, and then put it into hot boiling water, afterward shee pricked it often, and buried it in the yard, wishing the Lord Rosse might never thrive, and so her Sister Margaret continued with her mother, where she often saw the cat Rutterkin leap on her shoulder, and sucke her necke.

Shee further confessed, that she heard her mother often curse the Earle and his Lady, and thereupon would boil feathers and blood together, using many Devilish speeches and strange gestures.

Sarah: Remember Margaret’s confession in January, in which she claimed that she retrieved one of young Francis’s gloves from Belvoir castle grounds, and her mother conducted a similar ritual to curse Francis.

Averill: In addition to Margaret and Phillippa’s confessions, which were presented as evidence in the courtroom, the magistrates heard testimonies from the Earl of Rutland, and from three other local cunning women – Anne Baker, a friend and confidante of Joan Flower; Ellen Greene; and Joan Willimott, a cunning woman from Goadsby, where George Villiers and his mother lived, some 40 miles from Bottesford. All three women admitted to their own magic use, and implicated Joan in those activities as well. Borman suspects that Joan Willimot was a plant, sent to Bottesford and the trial to ensure that Joan Flower and her daughters would hang for the witchcraft-induced deaths of the Manners boys.

Sarah: Why? Tracy Borman puts forward a theory in her book that is quite interesting – that George Villiers or his mother actually killed the Manners boys, or had them killed at any rate, to ensure that Katherine Manners would be the sole heir to the Earl’s fortune. George Villiers was the king’s favorite. At 21 he caught the eye of the king at a hunt, and then courtiers spent a bunch of money to dress him and get him appointed as Royal Cupbearer, so that he would jostle out the previous favorite who was disliked at court. He succeeded, and was quickly rocketed to new social and political heights, granted knighthood, a marquess, and finally in 1623, a dukedom. His mother wanted him to marry Katherine Manners, Francis Manners’ daughter by his first marriage. If either of the boys were in the picture, they would inherit, even though Katherine was the eldest child. Borman suspects the Villiers because they had the means – they would have visited Belvoir Castle as often as the king, which was at least five times between 1610 and 1620, and the motive – a fortune. That Joan Willimot, who was from the Villiers’ hometown, was involved in this case at all is suspect. And Borman also suspects that the pamphlet – which is the only record of the case, and would have been the main source of information about the case for public consumption at the time – was commissioned by either Villiers or Manners himself, to affirm the veracity of the Flowers’ guilt. For indeed Phillippa and Margaret Flower were found guilty of witchcraft, and they were blamed for the death of young Henry Manners, Lord of Ros.

Averill: But as Borman notes, the swift and brutal way the judicial system disposed of the Flower women did not sit well with all involved, but whatever penance or guilt the involved parties may have grappled with is difficult to quantify. One of the men involved in the interrogation of the Flowers was Samuel Fleming, a 70-something-year-old clergyman who served the Bottesford church, and who seemed to harbor guilt about how everything went down for the rest of his life. Upon his death he bequeathed property to establish an almshouse for old women in Bottesford, which Borman suggests was atonement for his part in the unjustified death of Joan Flowers and her daughters. Borman’s research suggests that the three women who implicated themselves while testifying against the Flowers did not follow the Flowers to the gallows. There is an Ellen Greene’s whose medical care was paid for by some unknown benefactor years after the trial; Borman believes it may have been Cecilia Manners, who outlived her children and her husband by more than 20 years.[20]

Sarah: The Villiers certainly left no discernible records of their involvement in the Manners boys’ deaths, nor their stake in finding the Flowers women guilty. No one involved left behind written records of their regrets or sense of injustice. Once the Flowers were buried, so too was the responsibility for the boys’ deaths – which is especially disturbing, since young Francis wasn’t even in the grave yet when Margaret and Phillippa were to be marched to the gallows.

Averill: There are a lot of what ifs and maybes in this particular story. Tracy Borman had a monumental task in front of her when she decided to write a book about the Belvoir witch trials. Some individuals involved in the case, like the Manners family, Samuel Fleming, the judge, left behind letters and ledgers with slivers of their part in the condemnation of the Flowers. But the official trial records were lost or destroyed, and the only thorough record of the proceedings is a flawed, anonymously-written pamphlet, which was published after the conclusion of the trial.[21]

Sarah: Borman suggests that the pamphlet could have been written by or commissioned by Francis Manners, to ensure the narrative of the Flowers’ murder was told in a flattering light to the Manners, as the wronged parties. She also suggests that perhaps George Villiers commissioned the pamphlet, to eliminate doubt about the Flowers’ guilt – and eliminate Villiers as a suspect. Either man could have even written the pamphlet itself, and we will never know![22]

Averll: Borman comes down hard on the side that this was a miscarriage of justice. Unsurprisingly there are websites that take a different perspective – taking the confessions in the pamphlet at face value, assuming that magic is real and the Flowers did curse the boys, or that the confession itself was at least true and that they tried to curse the Flower boys, which somehow amounts to the same thing.

Sarah: Borman’s theory that George Villiers arranged the deaths of the two boys is intriguing. Of course, it’s just as possible and likely that these were two sickly boys – that both were so fragile, and that Cecily never conceived again suggests to us that they were sickly infants from the get-go, probably made worse by the “physicians” who treated them.

Averill: Whoever the author of the pamphlet was, they understood the philosophical and political landscape that permeated elite English society by 1618. There were many non believers who would have looked at the Flowers case and called bullshit, were it not for the noble wronged parties involved. At one point, the author of the pamphlet pontificates – at length – on the nature of witchcraft in England, and says – listen, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. You can give it all names you want – Necromancer, Magi, Chaldi, whatever – in England, we just call it a witch. And perhaps, to assure the Manners that their case against the Flowers women was justified, the pamphlet author goes on: “As for the conceit of wise-men or wise women, they are all merely coseners and deceivers; so that if they make you believe that by their means you shall hear of things lost or stolen, it is either done by Confederacy, or put off by protraction to deceive you of your money.”[23] In other words, a cunning man or woman who peddles magical cures is just as guilty as someone who practices magic to harm others. Whatever Joan Flower was or was not, she was paid to heal young Lord Ros, using magic powers she claimed to have, and she failed to deliver. So that was enough – for the pamphlet writer, whoever he was – to condemn her. And apparently that was enough for the Lincoln judge, jury, and executioner too.


förgörning to trolldom: A History of Danish Witchcraft and Magic

Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006).

Ed. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Tracy Borman, Witches: James I and the English Witch-Hunts,(London: Vintage, 2014).

Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,(Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992).

Richard A. Horsley, “Who Were the Witches? The Social Roles of the Accused in the European Witch Trials,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, IX: 4 (Spring 1979), 689-715.

J. Dennis Mull, MD, MPH and Dorothy S. Mull, PhD, “A Visit With a Curandero,” West J Med. 1983 Nov; 139(5): 730–736.

Ed. Darren Oldridge, The Witchcraft Reader, (Routledge Readers in History, 2008).

Timothy Tangherlini, “‘How do you know she’s a witch?’: Witches, Cunning Folk, and Competition in Denmark,” Modern Folklore, 59:¾ (Summer-Autumn 2000), 279-303.

King James I,Daemonologie (full text)

Michael Dalton, The Countrey Judge’s Guide to the Justices of the Peace (1618; 1666)

Alonso de Salazar Frias, The Unreliability of Torture

The wonderful discouerie of the vvitchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Ioan Flower neere Beuer Castle: executed at Lincolne, March 11. 1618 Who were specially arraigned and condemned before Sir Henry Hobart, and Sir Edward Bromley, iudges of assise, for confessing themselues actors in the destruction of Henry L. Rosse, with their damnable practises against others the children of the Right Honourable Francis Earle of Rutland. Together with the seuerall examinations and confessions of Anne Baker, Ioan Willimot, and Ellen Greene, witches in Leicestershire. (Digitized by the University of Michigan Library)

[1] Inscription on the tomb of Francis Manners, Earl of Rutland, in St Mary the Virgin’s Church, Bottesford.

[2] Borman, Witches, 69.

[3] Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992).

[4] Ginzburg, The Night Battles, 1.

[5] Ginzburg, The Night Battles, 1.

[6] Timothy Tangherlini, “‘How do you know she’s a witch?’: Witches, Cunning Folk, and Competition in Denmark,” Modern Folklore, 59:¾ (Summer-Autumn 2000), 284.

[7] Tangherlini, “‘How do you know she’s a witch?’, 281.

[8] Tangherlini, “‘How do you know she’s a witch?” 286.

[9] Borman, Witches, 73-80.

[10] Qtd. in Borman, Witches, 74.

[11] Borman, Witches, 70.

[12] Borman, Witches, 97-100.

[13] Borman, Witches, 120-21.

[14] Borman, Witches, 131-2.

[15] Borman, Witches, 155-6.

[16] Borman, Witches, 138-9.

[17] Michael Dalton, A GUIDE TO JUSTICES OF THE PEACE REGARDING WITCHES FROM THE COUNTRY JUSTICE. 1666 edition (Digitized by Google Books) 341-350.

[18] Borman, Witches, Chapter 3.

[19] Borman, Witches, 175-6.

[20] Borman, Witches, 197.

[21] Borman, Witches, 209.

[22] Borman, Witches, 208.

[23] Modernized slightly so that we wouldn’t struggle to read it, but quoted from the pamphlet “The wonderful discoverie of the witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Joan Flower.”


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