The Castles that held Magic at Bay

The excitement of Halloween has quickly set upon us at the Castle Studies Trust, and we thought we would explore the connection between witchcraft and castles. Castles have a long history as the walls that confined accused witches; the prisons that kept their magic at bay.

Grab your brooms and cauldrons, we are headed to Leeds Castle in Kent. Leeds Castle was famously purchased by Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of King Edward I, in 1278. The queen enhanced its defences and possibly commissioned the lake that surrounds the residence. In 1321, the castle saw military action when it was captured by the forces of Edward II from Margaret de Clare, Baroness Badlesmere. The winter of 1381 witnessed Anne of Bohemia, Richard II’s first wife, stay at the castle on her way to her wedding. The castle, thus, had a long history of the seat of female agency and power. It was not until the fifteenth century that the castle was used to enclose and suppress queenly authority.

Joan of Navarre, Queen of England and wife of Henry IV is the only queen of England to be imprisoned for witchcraft. In the autumn of 1419, the duke of Bedford and Henry V’s council reported a case of suspected witchcraft in the highest possible circles. Queen Joan was accused ‘of compassing the death and destruction of our lord the king in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised’.[1] The queen along with her confessor, John Randolf, a friar of Shrewsbury, had according to contemporary chroniclers dabbled in sorcery and necromancy. The royal court and much of the public opinion quickly became ‘feverish with rumours of witchcraft’.[2] Queen Joan was imprisoned for nearly three years, and all her servants and property were taken from her. She was first imprisoned in Pevensey Castle in Sussex and in the last two years of her house arrest she appears to have been kept at Leeds Castle.

Leeds Castle in Kent, photo by Chensiyuan, licensed CC by-SA 4.0

Although imprisoned in the castle, Queen Joan’s surviving household accounts detail the purchase of luxury items, including minever and other furs, tartarin, silk laces, ords, and thread, sindon and Flanders linen.[3] The cash flow in the household accounts has led Alec Myers to conclude that these surely shows that the king did not believe that she had been practicing witchcraft in a treasonous way. The move to accuse and imprison Queen Joan had its obvious political and financial advantages for the king. Indeed, with the accusations of witchcraft the king was able seize all her possessions and revenues. Nevertheless, Queen Joan paid the price of her freedom for the accusation, whether it was false or not. The crime of witchcraft was used – in this particular instance – for the political manoeuvring of powerful men and the castle walls were meant to ensure the enclosure of a powerful woman.

Two of the Pendle witches, tried at Lancaster in 1612, in an illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1849 novel The Lancashire Witches. From Wiki Commons.

From Leeds Castle, we move to Lancaster Castle; a castle with medieval origins was used as a prison starting in at least the Tudor period. Nearly two centuries after Queen Joan was imprisoned, a castle would again contain the power of witches. In 1612, ten people convicted of witchcraft were held in Lancaster Castle soon to be facing the gallows. Their crimes included laming, causing madness and what was termed ‘simple’ witchcraft as well as sixteen unexplained deaths stretching back decades. Those accused included members of two major families which were headed by older widows, including Elizabeth Southernes and her two children, Elizabeth and James, and Anne Whittle and her daughter Anne Redfearne. Others were dragged into the affair: John and Jane Bulcock (a mother and son) Alice Nutter, Margaret Pearson, and Katherine Hewitt were all also involved in the trial as co-conspirators.

A watercolour by Thomas Hearne from 1778 of the west of Lancaster’s keep. The round tower next to the keep was demolished in 1796. From Wiki Commons.

Five of the ten people were tried at the castle itself with Judge Bromley presiding, accompanied by Judge Altham. The judges were assisted by Lord Gerard and Sir Richard Hoghton. The prosecutor was a former high sheriff of Lancashire, Roger Nowell, and the clerk of the court was Thomas Potts of London. A year later, Thomas Potts published his account of these events in a book entitled: The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Potts chose to dedicate his book to Lord Knyvett, the man who had arrested Guy Fawkes in 1605; the Gunpowder Plot still a fresh memory for many across the country. The political and religious atmosphere played a clear role in the prosecutions and convictions of those imprisoned in Lancaster Castle in 1612.

The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the Covntie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts (1613). From Wiki Commons.

The Pendle witch trials, like the imprisonment of Queen Joan, were bound up in the political, religious, and economic turmoil of the period. The role that the castle played in these persecutions may seem minimal at first glance; however, the power and significance that they held in these situation needs further investigation. The stone walls were thought strong enough to contain the magic that these people were accused of conjuring and that in itself is telling in terms of the force castles held in the minds of society. Castles did not only need to keep people out, but they were also used to keep people – and magic – from escaping.


[1] Rot. Parl., IV. 1186.

[2] Chronicles of London, ed. by C.L. Kingsford (Oxford, 1905), p. 73; Chronicle of London, 1089-1483, ed. by N.H. Nicolas and E. Tyrell (London, 1827), p. 107.

[3] See ‘The Captivity of a Royal Witch’ for the printed household account.

4 women who made their mark on castles

The Barons’ War and Lady Nicolaa de la Haye

King John’s reign is notorious for his disagreements with his barons, leading to the signing of Magna Carta, civil war, and an attempt to Prince Louis of France on the throne. In 1215 Nicolaa de la Haye became castellan of Lincoln Castle, a title previously held by her father. She held the castle for John, and established a truce with one of the rebellious barons when they invaded the town of Lincoln.

King John visited Lincoln in 1216 and Nicolaa asked the king to be relieved of guardianship of the castle, saying that she was too old and wanted to be unburdened by the duty. John valued her staunch support, and declined her request. In fact, on 18 October he made Nicolaa sheriff of Lincolnshire – it was very unusual for a women to have such a position of direct power at the time, and shows how important Nicolaa was to the king’s efforts.

The battle of Lincoln (1217) from Matthew Paris’ Chronica Majora

Though John died on 19 October 1216, the war continued with his supporters fighting for his son, the young King Henry III, while the rebellious barons continued to back the French prince. The war came to a head at the battle of Lincoln on 20 May 1217, resulting in a royalist victory which turned the tide in favour of Henry III. Nicolaa was instrumental in defending Lincoln Castle, but was removed as sheriff just a few days later.

Alice Knyvet stands up to the king

Buckenham Castle lays close to the village of New Buckenham in Norfolk. The circular keep, remains of which are the only surviving building works of the castle, is the earliest known in England dating to c. 1145-50. The castle was demolished in the 1640s by Sir Philip Knyvet, perhaps as a request from Parliament.

The Easter Sepulchre at St Martin’s church in New Buckenham reputedly once contained the remains of Alice Knyvet. Photo by Evelyn Simak, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Contained in the Patent Rolls of King Edward IV’s reign is a story detailing the defence of Bokenham Castle by Alice Knyvet. In 1461, Edward IV claimed Bokenham Castle by virtue of legal inquisition. The castle was, at the time, owned and occupied by John and Alice Knyvet, who did not easily relinquish their estate. The king sent nine commissioners and an escheator to take the castle, possibly knowing that John was away and the castle would be easily handed over.

However, as they approach the outer ward, Alice appeared in the gatehouse tower with the drawbridge raised who kept the castle ‘with slings, parveises, fagots, timber, and other armaments of war’ (CPR, 1461-7, p. 67). We are told that Alice along with William Toby of Old Bokenham, gentleman, and fifty other persons were ‘armed with swords, glaives, bows and arrows’. Alice addressed the commissioners thus:

Maister Twyer ye be a Justice of the Peace. I require you to keep the peace, for I will not leave possession of this castle to die therefor and if ye being to break the peace or make any war to get the place of me, I shall defend me, for liever I had in such wise to die than to be slain when my husband cometh home, for he charged me to keep it (CPR, 1461-7, p. 67).

The narrative described in the Patent Rolls is telling for a number of reasons. Fistly, Alice does not appear to hesitate when royal officials approached her castle demanding that they legally had the right to seize it. Secondly, the fact that the royal commission waited until Alice husband, John, left speaks to their utter miscalculation of her authority and ability to militarily command the battlements. Ultimately, no actual physical fight took place, but Alice’s strategic placement of armed people on the towers meant the castle, at least, appeared to be well defended.

Queen Mary takes control

James II and Queen Mary

Though little remains of Roxburgh, in the Middle Ages it was one of the most important castles in Scotland. King David I ruled Scotland from here and it changed hands several times during the wars between England and Scotland. In 1460 King James II besieged the English-held Roxburgh in an attempt to capture the castle. He died when a cannon he was stood next to exploded. The gun might have been fired to mark Queen Mary’s arrival.

Mary took charge of the siege and summoned her young son to be present when the castle fell. The Scots captured the castle they chose to demolish it. James II’s prize had come at too high a price. The 9-year-old James III was too young to rule on his own so Mary was the power behind the throne for the next few years until her death in 1463.

Lady Anne Clifford and Brougham, Brough, and Appleby

Lady Anne Clifford with her family

By the time the English Civil War broke out in 1641, many castles were neglected or downright ruinous. While some were pressed into action during the conflict, many suffered further damage from siege or slighting.

Lady Anne Clifford had spent years trying to secure her inheritance which included a number of castles. In Westmorland, her castles at Appleby and Brougham had been besieged and damaged during the war, as was the case with Skipton in Yorkshire. From 1650 Anne used her considerable well to repair and restore these castles, as well as Brough which was gutted by fire in 1521. She established Brougham Castle as her main residence and created a garden on the site of the adjacent Roman fort. It is likely that without Anne’s intervention these historic sites would have slipped further into decay and may have become lost to us.

Tudor Castles and the Use of the Past

This post was written by Dr Audrey Thorstad, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Bangor University.

As castle scholars and enthusiasts, we enjoy learning about history, exploring how the remains of the past can teach us about the lives of people who came before us, and perhaps what we might learn about ourselves through their experiences. Did those in the past feel the same way? How did they view their own history? How did they embrace or even manipulate the history of the landscape in which they lived?

The physical and material remains tell us a story of a layered history. Any given castle can have centuries of history layered and intertwined with one another. For Tudor castle owners, builders, and renovators, the past played an important role in how they used and interpreted the building and the landscape.

An interesting example, though just one of many, is Cowdray House or Castle in West Sussex. The building that survives today had two main phases of construction during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The first phase started by Sir David Owen from around 1492 and saw the completion of the eastern and northern ranges. The second phase began when Sir William Fitzwilliam, later earl of Southampton bought the estate in the late 1520s and completed the southern and western ranges. Although it appears that the surviving physical remains depict a completely new build, thirteenth-century floor tiles indicate there may have been an earlier residence on the site.

The placement and building of Cowdray was no mistake. To the west, the residence looks out onto the town of Midhurst; to the north and east the castle looks out onto parkland. Fitzwilliam received a licence to impark and crenellate in 1533 from Henry VIII. The licence allowed him to impark 600 acres of land, meadow, pasture and wood.[1] To the south of Cowdray is St Ann’s Hill, the location of a Saxon cemetery dating from the fifth and sixth centuries as well as a Norman castle owned by the Bohun family until the 15th century.[2] These views were meant for those in the castle as well as those approaching the castle. The town and parkland scenery evoked lordly privilege and status, while the closeness of the newly built Cowdray and the old Norman castle gave the observer a sense of historical significance.

Map detailing Cowdray Castle and St Ann’s Hill. Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right (2017).

By rebuilding the castle not on the original site of St Ann’s Hill, but approximately 400 meters away, the Tudor builders were using the past in very interesting ways. The new build broke away from the Norman past and the Bohun family tradition, yet kept the site as a physical memory of that history. Cowdray does not have a completely new history starting in 1492 when Owen started building the castle, but an intertwining and connected history to the town and historical sites around it.

Owen and Fitzwilliam were not alone in their endeavour to create their own legacy by shaping the past. John de Vere, thirteenth earl of Oxford renovated his familial stronghold at Hedingham Castle making the Norman great tower the central building of the inner bailey with his late-fifteenth-century brick towers surrounding the twelfth-century great tower like a monument to his ancestors. It was not just castle building that allowed the Tudor nobility and gentry to use the past. Sir Rhys ap Thomas, for example, used the coat of arms of Urien of Rheged as his own, claiming descent from the sixth-century king of Gower. The use, and arguably manipulation, of history by the sixteenth century elite was nothing new. The nobility and gentry throughout the Middle Ages were interpreting and adopting the past. What sets castles apart is the constant, and at times, unbridled incorporation of structures, materials, landscapes, and histories that came before.

Eastern range of Cowdray including the great hall and chapel. ©Audrey Thorstad

 


[1]  Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII Vol. 6 p. 44 No. 105.25

[2] For more information on the castle, see Bill Woodburn and Neil Guy, ‘St Ann’s Castle’, Castle Studies Group Journal, 19 (2005-6), 28-30.