Buildings Archaeologist James Wright, inspects apotropaic scorch marks at Tower of London (c) MOLA

Protecting the Tower of London from evil spirits

James Wright
20.10.2015

James Wright is a Buildings Archaeologist at MOLA and has been undertaking a historic buildings survey at the Queen’s House, Tower of London, for Historic Royal Palaces. He explains his intriguing findings.

Our survey of the Tower of London took us in to the attics of the Queen’s House, an area used by servants. Experts at Historic Royal Palaces were keen to learn more about the many marks burned and scribed into the fabric of the building. The building dates from the reign of Henry VIII and was the residence of the Lieutenant of the Tower. It is best known as the place of Guy Fawkes’ interrogation following the failure of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

Our investigations uncovered a number of logos made by merchants and assembly marks scribed by carpenters. It also brought to light one of the largest collection of apotropaic or witch marks, found in a building of this size.

Witch marks were intended to protect a building and its occupants from a perceived threat from evil spirits. Belief in witches and demons was widespread during the early modern period and evil was considered to be a real force in the world. King James I himself wrote a manual called Daemonologie on how to detect witches.

The witch marks we recorded at the Queen’s House took three forms: compass drawn designs and mesh patterns thought to trap and pin demons to the building, double-V shaped marks which invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary and tear-shaped burn marks fashioned by carefully scorching the faces of timbers with a taper (a wax coated wick). In excess of 80 burn marks were found altogether. Their purpose was to act as sympathetic magic to ward off malignant or accidental fires, literally fighting hellfire with fire. Many of the marks we found were near doors, windows and hearths - areas of buildings vulnerable to evil spirits who were believed to travel through the air.

It is unclear just how much of the pseudo-theology behind these marks was understood by the occupants who made them. To many people they may have represented ‘good luck’, protection from ‘bad luck’ or simply the power to deter witches.

One of the roofs also contained a spiritual midden – a void behind the walls, next to a chimney and accessible from the attic. This void contained a deliberately placed group of objects: 46 animal bones, pieces of leather, a broken bladed tool, part of a spade and an 18th century clay pipe. This is no normal rubbish midden, as it is only accessible through a very narrow and hard to reach hatch in the ceiling. Several similar discoveries have been made in East Anglia, here they were interpreted as ritual deposits, intended to act as a decoy trap for evil spirits attempting to enter and possess the house via the chimney. As far as we know this was the first time that one of these spiritual middens has been excavated under archaeological supervision.

The discovery of witch marks and a spiritual midden give us an insight into the psychology of the early modern period and, perhaps more interesting for experts at Historic Royal Palaces, reveals something of the hopes and fears of people living and working at the Tower of London.

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