Witchmarks or apotropaic marks at Knole (c) National Trust/ Martin Havens

Shapiro book features ritual protection mark research

James Wright

Eminent Shakespearean academic, Professor James Shapiro, has just released a new book 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. The book is a micro-biography of the life and times of William Shakespeare during the year 1606, with a particular focus on the authorship of Macbeth.  Discoveries and research carried out by our historic building recording team are featured.

Our historic building survey for the National Trust at Knole near Sevenoaks, Kent, led to the discovery of a significant collection of carved symbols and burn marks, known as apotropaic or ritual protection marks, beneath the floorboards and dating to the year 1606. The owner of the property at that time was Thomas Sackville, who was Lord Treasurer and a member of the Privy Council to King James I.

The Gunpowder Plot in November 1605 led to widespread government propaganda which sought to link the Catholic conspiracy against King James to witches and demonic forces. This was at a time when evil was seen as a real force in the world. James himself had written a book called Daemonologie about how to cope with the threat posed by witches.

Tree-ring dating has shown that in 1606 Sackville’s carpenters were working on beams in the royal suite known as the King’s Tower. The post-Gunpowder Plot propaganda had such an effect that a zone of ritual protection marks were carved and burned on a beam laid between the bed and fireplace to protect the occupant of the tower from possession. Witches were believed to enter a building wherever the air flowed and therefore the fireplace was seen as particularly vulnerable.

The discovery of these ritual protection marks in a part of Knole that was being remodelled specifically for James I in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot is hugely significant and our findings are explored in James Shapiro’s latest book. He has linked the cultural anxieties experienced by the carpenters at Knole to those observed by Shakespeare as he began to pen the play that became Macbeth.

James Shapiro’s previous micro-biography 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare garnered the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2006. His latest book on 1606 is available now and is published by Faber & Faber Ltd.

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