National Trust archaeologist Nathalie Cohen inspect witchmarks (c) National Trust/ Martin Havens

Gunpowder, demons and King: concealed witchmarks discovered at Knole

Nicola Kalimeris

MOLA buildings archaeologists exploring National Trust property Knole, in Kent, have uncovered a series of 17th century witchmarks with an intriguing history. Discovered in a room built to accommodate royalty, the marks lay hidden for centuries. The discovery comes as part of the National Trust’s five-year project, supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, to conserve Knole, one of Britain’s most important historic houses.

Using dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, our archaeologists precisely dated the marks to early 1606 and the reign of King James I, thereby connecting their engraving to a fascinating episode in Britain’s history. A few months before the marks were engraved the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 had caused mass hysteria to sweep across the county. Accusations of demonic forces and witches at work were rife.

The marks at Knole were found on beams and joists below the floorboards and on fireplace surrounds in the Upper King’s Room. Experts believe that craftsmen working for then owner of Knole, Thomas Sackville, carved the marks in anticipation of a visit from King James I with the intention of protecting him from evil spirits.

Also known as apotropaic marks, the carved intersecting lines and symbols found in the Upper King’s Room were thought to form a ‘demon trap’ warding off evil spirits and preventing demonic possessions.

“King James I had a keen interest in witchcraft and passed a witchcraft law, making it an offence punishable by death and even wrote a book on the topic entitled Daemonologie,” explains James Wright, MOLA Buildings Archaeologist. “These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century. 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 and adds huge significance to our research about Knole and what was happening at that time.”

This insight into the everyday folk beliefs of the past is just one chapter in the history of Knole’s 600 year past. It is part of investigative work that will continue throughout the house until 2018. Although the showrooms are closed to the public for winter conservation work, Knole is hosting a series of behind the scenes tours led by project archaeologist Nathalie Cohen on 20th and 21st November 2014 so that visitors can discover the witchmarks for themselves.

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