Witch marks discovered at Clandon Park
Since the fire in 2015, Clandon Park has been subject to all manner of investigations. From below-ground geophysical analysis to drone camera photography around the tops of the chimney stacks, we’ve revealed a number of secrets hidden from view since the house was built almost 300 years ago. Most recently, we’ve uncovered a number of ‘witch marks’ – surprising discoveries given the date that the mansion was built.
Removal of panelling in the Speakers’ Parlour and modern display cases in a basement room, has revealed a number of marks scratched into beams and plaster walls called apotropaic marks, or witch marks. Carpenters or occupants made these simple marks to protect the building, or themselves, from malign forces and evil spirits attempting to gain entry.
Fear of the dark
From earliest times, but reaching a fever pitch in the 17th century, people were incredibly sensitive to the threat from forces beyond their understanding, often focusing on the activity of witches. This national fervour was further inflamed following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an assassination attempt on the Protestant King James I by Catholic plotters, after which accusations of demonic forces at work in society were rife. Older women, particularly widows who were not protected by male family members, were often targeted with horrific results.
People weren’t able to understand the world in the way that we do now, lacking the benefit of our insights into modern science and medicine. Without the knowledge to combat or prepare for eventualities such as ill health, the weather or poor harvests, it was important for people to feel that they had a way of protecting themselves. These marks formed part of a web of superstitions that helped people to feel in control and safe.
Keeping out the spirits
Properly called apotropaic marks, from the Greek to ‘ward off’, witch marks are often found in churches and if you look carefully you can see them in many older houses. They follow particular patterns and shouldn’t be confused with carpenter’s marks which were used to number and locate timbers when constructing a building.
Witch marks are most commonly found around doorways, above chimneypieces, on window sills or on beams and lintels, close to openings through which airborne spirits could enter a building. You might also notice them scratched into areas where food is prepared, to combat the threat of poisoned or rotten food causing illness.
Witch marks typically take the form of simple geometric patterns. Carved lines intersect with one another to create a web or mesh-like symbol, confusing or trapping the demon, preventing it from entering a home and causing harm.
In the Speakers’ Parlour, a ground floor room that survived the fire miraculously well preserved, we’ve carefully removed the wood panelling and placed it in store. Behind the panels on the south wall we were surprised to discover a supporting timber, reused from the previous Tudor house at Clandon Park, which hadn’t been seen since the 1730s. The sharp, angular, 400 year old scratch marks here form the interlocking letters V and M, representing the Virgin Mary which the maker believed would protect them from harm.
In the basement, a room directly beneath the Green Drawing Room, which was probably used by the upper servants to eat their meals, boasts more demon-busting graffiti. Between two windows on the outside wall you can make out two marks scratched into the surface of the 1730s plaster. The first is a daisy wheel, a circular mark surrounding a series of concentric petals or arcs, radiating from a central point. The second is simpler and more familiar, a five-pointed star or pentagram formed by two interlocking triangles.
Late to the party
Gradually, by the 18th century, the fear and persecution of witches reduced as people began to understand the world around them better. In 1735, as Clandon Park was being built, George II passed the Witchcraft Act which reduced such crimes to confidence tricks only. The age of enlightenment had accelerated and, as scientific discoveries developed with an incredible pace of change, the use of protections such as apotropaic marks started to decline.
Given that Clandon was built in the 1730s, it’s extraordinary to see that people here still felt compelled to use these special marks in an important and prestigious ground floor room like the Speakers’ Parlour. Where evil spirits are concerned, perhaps it’s always better to be safe than sorry…