Witchmarks at Knole date back to Gunpowder Plot
A series of witchmarks discovered during conservation works in a room built to accommodate King James I at Knole, were carved in the months immediately following the Gunpowder Plot. The engravings, believed to ward off evil spirits, were dated using tree ring dating to early 1606.
Experts believe that craftsmen renovating Knole in anticipation of a visit from James I carved the witchmarks. In the wake of the failed Gunpowder Plot, the marks in the Upper King’s Room were intended to protect the King from evil spirits.
Fear and witchcraft
Mass hysteria swept the country following the assassination attempt on the Protestant King James I by Catholic plotters including Guy Fawkes. Accusations of demonic forces and witches at work were rife at a time which followed decades of religious upheaval.
The practice of carving intersecting lines and symbols was thought to form a ‘demon trap’, warding off evil spirits and preventing demonic possessions. The witchmarks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the early 17th century.
James I was noted for his personal interest in witchcraft and demons. He passed a witchcraft law in 1604 making it an offence punishable by death and even wrote a book, Daemonologie, in support of witch hunting.
Discovering the witchmarks
The witchmarks were uncovered unexpectedly by archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) exploring Knole as part of a five-year project to conserve it. The Heritage Lottery Fund supported project aims to share more of Knole’s rich six hundred year heritage.
The marks, which include chequerboard and mesh designs, were found on beams and joists below the floorboards and on fireplace surrounds in the Upper King’s Room. The room is one of hundreds in the vast complex of Knole and the marks had lain hidden for centuries.
Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) was used to date the timber giving a felling date of the winter of 1605-06. Because the wood was laid whilst the oak was still green - and therefore malleable - it indicates it must have been placed during the spring or summer building season of 1606.
A significant find
“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,” explains MOLA Buildings Archaeologist James Wright.
“Using archaeology to better understand the latent fears of the common man that were heightened by the plot is extremely exciting. It adds huge significance to our research about Knole and what was happening at that time.”
On-going conservation at Knole
Ironically the witchmarks’ purpose was never realised. Thomas Sackville, Lord Treasurer to James I, had begun renovations at Knole to make it fit for a visit from the king but Sackville’s death in 1608, before work was completed and his son’s lesser importance at court, meant the king never visited Knole.
Investigative work to unlock more of Knole’s secrets will continue until 2018. “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,” says archaeologist Nathalie Cohen.
As part of the HLF-funded project at Knole, more rooms, including the Upper King’s Room where the witchmarks were discovered, will open to the public over the next few years.