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The Witches of Belvoir Castle

Belvoir Castle is a simply magnificent stately home that stands on a prominent hilltop just inside Leicestershire. Although beginning its life as a “proper” medieval stronghold, the castle has been completely rebuilt at least three times over with very little remaining of its past. The current incarnation is a Neo-gothic palace with crenelated walls and towers that stands overlooking a beautiful estate that slopes down into a natural bowl, formed by the movements of glaciers thousands of years ago.

The castle is the ancestral seat of the Duke of Rutland and while he and his family still live there, the upkeep of this enormous pile is paid for largely by paying visitors. The Duke's worth is valued at around £120 million but he had to resort to selling one of his paintings to keep the castle going – admittedly it was a Poussin that sold for £20 million itself! You're probably wondering if any ghosts or phantoms lurk around the stately rooms and stairs, but something arguably far worse happened to one of the Duke's ancestors, the 6th Earl of Rutland. This is the very true tale of the Belvoir Witches.

Francis Manners lived at the castle from 1572 until his death in 1632. He married twice, his second wife bearing a daughter, Katherine, and two sons named Henry and Francis. The fabulously wealthy Earl was close to King James I and when the monarch announced a visit to Belvoir Castle a great reception was planned for him. To this end some extra casual staff were needed and so the steward was asked to find some people locally. A woman named Joan Flower was known locally as a cunning woman, a herbalist, healer, fortune teller, and what we today might perhaps describe as a witch. However, at that time the two were very different, the cunning or wise folk using various means to achieve a healed and happy answer to the community's problems when all else had failed. Witchcraft on the other hand was considered a dark art, aimed at causing harm and nothing else. Joan had two daughters named Margaret and Philippa and with no income other than the occasional request for their cunning work they all readily accepted the offer of employment at Belvoir Castle.

Things didn't go well for the three, with Joan the mother described as “...a monstrous, malicious woman, full of oaths, curses and imprecations, irreligious and, for anything they saw by her, a plain atheist.”. Philippa was said to have embarked on a fling with a stable lad while Margaret was accused of theft. The trio were fired, with Joan being given a payoff of 40 shillings and some bedding. Some years after this the entire Manners family fell ill, with the three children getting the worst of it. Vomiting and fever were the symptoms, with Henry sadly dying as a result. Francis appears to have sustained permanent damage to his nervous system and a couple of years later he too died. James I was famous for his fascination and fear of witchcraft, writing his treatise Daemonologie in 1597, and would undoubtedly have had conversations with the Earl of Rutland on the subject, then, around the time of Francis's death, nine women were rounded up locally and accused of witchcraft, with all of them being hanged as a result.

This spurred the Earl into action, he had his three ex-employees tracked down and accused them of witchcraft, specifically that they caused the death of his children through their dark arts. All three were “examined” then sent to Lincoln jail to await trial. On the way there Joan begged the guards to procure her a piece of Eucharist bread or wafer, saying that if she ate and digested it without incident then she could not be a witch. They obliged by handing her a chunk of normal bread which she gulped down and...Joan choked on it and died! The two daughters continued their journey to Lincoln and eventual trial, panic setting in now as their mother seemingly being struck down by divine justice would not have helped their case. They confessed all, saying that they worked with familiar spirits including a diabolical cat named Rutterkin. They said that they stole young Henry's glove which they stroked Rutterkin with then stuck with a pin. Hearing of his death they tried the same thing with the Lady Katherine but it appeared Rutterkin had no power to kill women. They claimed they stole feathers from the Earl's bed then boiled them in blood, chanting incantations to render he and his wife sterile. Both young women also said they communed with the Devil in their dreams and nursed various familiars with both their milk and their blood.

They accused three other local cunning women as being members of their coven, with Anne Baker, Joan Willimot and Ellen Greene being arrested and put on trial. All three turned on each other, each blaming the others on consorting with familiars in the shape of a kitten and a mole, and an indistinct entity they called “Pretty”, however they all maintained that they were benevolent cunning folk and nothing else.

Margaret and Philippa Flower were found guilty of witchcraft and hanged at Lincoln Castle, while the other three ladies dragged into the case seem to have actually been released with no further action taken. The Earl of Rutland commissioned a colossal marble and alabaster memorial for his family, to be erected upon his death, and had his sons immortalised as tiny figures holding skulls. In the long inscription detailing his titles, marriages and various accomplishments his sons are actually noted as having “...died in their infancy by wicked practises and sorcerye...”, making this the only known reference to witchcraft in a church in Britain. On his death, it was noted that the Earl's clothing was worth £ incredible £100,000 in today's money! If the Manners family were cursed then it must have ended with the 6th Earl's immediate family as the line has been unbroken ever since.

If you like these posts you might like my book The Mystery Of Mercia, available here -

Belvoir Castle today

Belvoir Castle

Cannons set on the defensive turret at the rear of the castle

Belvoir Castle

Little Henry and Francis Manners, immortalised in alabaster

The only known reference to witchcraft in a British Church

Turrets and towers abound at Belvoir Castle

Francis Manners the VI - Earl of Rutland

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