Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman

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Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An account of the case of the witches of Belvoir during the reign of King James I, though to a certain extent it is also a study of British attitudes and the authorities' response to witchcraft through the ages.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 318 Date: October 2014
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099549147

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Gossip is as old as human nature, but generally harmless. It was a different matter in medieval times, when what might start as relatively innocuous tittle-tattle could breed suspicion, paranoia, and ultimately accusations against women and girls of witchcraft. More often than not, it would end in a horrible death by execution - drowning, strangulation on the gallows, or being burned alive. The unsavoury business of witchcraft trials in early seventeenth-century England was encouraged by King James I, who with his obsession with and knowledge of the black arts and his firm belief in the threat of demonic forces believed that witches had been responsible for fierce storms that had come close to drowning his future bride on her voyage by sea from Scotland to England.

Tracy Borman’s book is part a study of attitudes to witchcraft down the ages in Britain and to some extent in Europe, with some emphasis on the British monarch who took the greatest interest. It is also partly a reconstruction of a single case, that of the ‘Belvoir witches’, in early Jacobean England.

Francis Manners, Earl of Rutland, owner of Belvoir Castle, was one of the richest men in England and also a particular friend of the royal family. The full facts are unclear, but among their employees were Joan Flower, who was probably a widow, and her daughters Margaret and Phillipa. They were particularly well regarded by the Earl and Countess, and the other servants may have been jealous of the favour shown to them. At length the three women were rumoured to be petty pilferers and at the same time notorious for their lack of morals, constantly carrying on with men in the neighbourhood. Their employment was terminated by the Countess, who was responsible for the management of the household. She gave them a generous parting settlement, which leads us to believe that they were not dismissed, so much as released in order to keep the peace among their other servants who would no longer work with them.

When both the infant sons of the Earl and Countess fell ill and died, the Flowers were accused of casting a spell on them as an act of revenge. After a strangely long interval of about five years the women were arrested, charged with causing the deaths by witchcraft, and brought to justice – or what passed as justice in an age when any woman suspected of being a witch would almost certainly have to resign herself to a death sentence. Joan was fortunate enough to die in captivity, probably by natural causes, but her daughters paid the full penalty of the law.

Pamphlets were circulated about the case, imagination ran riot, and legends proliferated. If this book was merely concerned with the case of the Flower family and their trial, it would be a very slender volume indeed. The author has interspersed her account with many an observation about other cases throughout the centuries, as well as changing attitudes to witchcraft. It does arguably have the effect of obscuring slightly the basic story of the noble family and their most notorious employees at times.

But were the Flowers genuinely wicked people, or were they victims of an appalling miscarriage of justice? George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, was engaged to the Earl’s daughter. He was King James’s notorious favourite at court, and had a reputation for getting anything he wanted in life. It is said that he had sound financial reasons for wanting both her brothers out of the way, and was the evil genius behind a plot to kill them, having found the perfect scapegoats to take the blame.

Some historians and biographers have dismissed it as an interesting story but no more, a murder theory which does not hold water. Others maintain that the boys died of natural causes. There was a high incidence of illness and child mortality in those days, and once one sibling sickened and died, there was a strong chance that another would follow suit. It is all too easy to make the suggestion, as has been voiced elsewhere, that the author has taken a real life story, added the ingredients of conspiracy and a long-hidden secret in order to spice up the episode (or as was said a few years ago about the notorious ‘Dodgy dossier’, ‘sex up’ the story – in my view, a frightful distortion of language, but let’s not go off-topic). On the other hand, there is no smoke without fire.

Leaving that apart, this book does go into thorough detail not only about the Belvoir case, but also about the whole business of witchcraft and the paranoia which surrounded it for so long. Heaven help the woman who was accused of sorcery in those days, for it is apparent that nobody else would.

For an account of another 17th-century true life case, may we also recommend The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux. You might also appreciate The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey.

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Buy Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman at Amazon.com. Booklists.jpg Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman is in the Top Ten History Books of 2014.


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