1619 The Witches of Belvoir
On the 11th of March 1619, two women named Margaret and Philippa Flower, were burnt at Lincoln for the alleged crime of witchcraft. With their mother, Joan Flower, they had been confidential servants of the Earl and Countess of Rutland, at Belvoir Castle. Dissatisfaction with their employers seems to have gradually seduced these three women into the practice of hidden arts in order to obtain revenge. According to their own confession, they had entered into communion with familiar spirits, by which they were assisted in their wicked designs.
Joan Flower, the mother, had hers in the bodily form of a cat, which she called Rutterkin. They used to get the hair of a member of the family and burn it: they would steal one of his gloves and plunge it in boiling water, or rub it on the back of Rutterkin, in order to effect bodily harm to its owner. They would also use frightful imprecations of wrath and malice towards the objects of their hatred. In these ways they were believed to have accomplished the death of Lord Ross, the Earl of Rutland’s son, besides inflicting frightful sicknesses upon other members of the family.
It was long before the earl and countess, who were an amiable couple, suspected any harm in these servants, although we are told that for some years there was a manifest change in the countenance of the mother, a diabolic expression being assumed. At length, at Christmas, 1618, the noble pair became convinced that they were the victims of a hellish plot, and the three women were apprehended, taken to Lincoln jail, and examined. The mother loudly protested innocence, and, calling for bread and butter, wished it might choke her if she were guilty of the offences laid to her charge. Immediately, taking a piece into her mouth, she fell down dead, probably, as we may allowably conjecture, overpowered by consciousness of the contrariety between these protestations and the guilty design which she had entertained in her mind.
Margaret Flower, on being examined, acknowledged that she had stolen the glove of the young heir of the family, and given it to her mother, who stroked Rutterkin with it, dipped it in hot water, and pricked it: whereupon Lord Ross fell ill and suffered extremely. In order to prevent Lord and Lady Rutland from having any more children, they had taken some feathers from their bed, and a pair of gloves, which they boiled in water, mingled with a little blood. In all these particulars, Philippa corroborated her sister. Both women admitted that they had familiar spirits, which came and sucked them at various parts of their bodies: and they also described visions of devils in various forms which they had had from time to time.
The examinations of these wretched women were taken by magistrates of rank and credit, and when the judges came to Lincoln the two surviving Flowers were duly tried, and on their own confessions condemned to death by the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Sir Henry Hobbert.
The above account from Chambers’ Book of Days omits several interesting points: the death of another of the earl’s children, the possible escape from the gallows of one of the accused, and the recent suggestion that the boys were poisoned to leave the earl without a male heir, allowing the poisoner to inherit the estate by marrying one of the earl’s daughters.