Witchmarks to protect King James I found on concealed wooden beams
Witchmarks to protect King James I found on concealed wooden beams

Past Horizons / 05 NOV 2014 – Archaeologists exploring National Trust property Knole, in Kent (southeast England), have uncovered a series of 17th century witchmarks with an intriguing history. Discovered in a room built to accommodate royalty, the marks lay hidden for centuries.

The discovery comes as part of the National Trust’s five-year project, supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, to conserve Knole, one of Britain’s most important historic houses.

Precise dating

Using dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) have precisely dated the marks to early 1606 and the reign of King James I, thereby connecting their engraving to a fascinating episode in Britain’s history. 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.

A few months before the marks were engraved the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 had caused mass hysteria to sweep across the county. Accusations of demonic forces and witches at work were rife.

The marks at Knole were found on beams and joists below the floorboards and on fireplace surrounds in the Upper King’s Room. 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.

Protection from evil spirits

Experts believe that craftsmen working for then owner of Knole, Thomas Sackville, carved the marks in anticipation of a visit from King James I with the intention of protecting him from evil spirits.

Sackville, was Lord Treasurer to James I, and in 1605-08 he 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.

Thomas 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. Previous studies of the building have identified that the Kings 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. 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.

Marks carved in carpenters workshop

Also known as apotropaic marks, the carved intersecting lines and symbols found in the Upper King’s Room were thought to form a ‘demon trap’ warding off evil spirits and preventing demonic possessions. 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.

“King James I had a keen interest in witchcraft and passed a witchcraft law, making it an offence punishable by death and even wrote a book on the topic entitled Daemonologie,” explains James Wright, MOLA Buildings Archaeologist. “These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century. 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.”

Nathalie Cohen, National Trust Archaeologist, said: “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. 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.”

This insight into the everyday folk beliefs of the past is just one chapter in the history of Knole’s 600 year past. It is part of investigative work that will continue throughout the house until 2018.

Although the showrooms are closed to the public for winter conservation work, Knole is hosting a series of behind the scenes tours led by project archaeologist Nathalie Cohen on 20th and 21st November 2014 so that visitors can discover the witchmarks for themselves.