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Witchmarks at Knole and the Gunpowder Plot

Witchmarks etched into wooden beam in the Upper Kings Room at Knole, Kent
Hidden witchmarks discovered at Knole in the Upper King Rooms | © National Trust/Andreas von Einseidel

A series of witchmarks discovered during conservation work in a room built to accommodate James I at Knole, were carved in the months immediately following the Gunpowder Plot. The engravings, believed to ward off evil spirits, were dated to early 1606 using tree ring dating.

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 in the 17th century

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 the time, following 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 by archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology). They were exploring Knole as part of the huge conservation project, Inspired by Knole, which was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The purpose of the project was 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 that make up the vast complex of Knole and the marks had lain hidden for centuries.

Portrait of King James I of England and VI of Scotland by John de Critz the elder at Montacute, Somerset
King James I of England and VI of Scotland by John de Critz the elder | © National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

‘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. It adds huge significance to our research about Knole and what was happening at that time.’

- James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, MOLA.

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.

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.

Inspired by Knole project

Investigative work to unlock more of Knole’s secrets continued until 2019 when the Inspired by Knole project culminated in the re-opening of the entire suite of showrooms, including the attics and Upper King's Room. These rooms are visited as part of the attic tours that run at Knole.

‘It was 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. Cohen went on to co-author Knole Revealed with Curator Frances Parton, about the archaeological, architectural and artistic discoveries during the project. The book is published by the Museum of London Archaeology and available in Knole's bookshop.

A family of four walking across the grass parkland at Knole in Kent looking for clues on a family trail activity

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