The Witches of Belvoir Castle

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Belvoir Castle
By Iain Merchant
Belvoir Castle, which is located in Leicestershire, England, currently serves as home to the Duke of Rutland. The present structure, which was built after a fire devastated the previous castle in 1816, and is one of many built at the location, the first castle being erected in the 1080s by William the Conqueror’s standard bearer, Robert de Todeni.

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However, it fell into disrepair shortly after the Wars of the Roses in the mid-15th century. From 1523 to 1555, the castle underwent a transformation as rebuilding efforts lasted more than three decades. In 1645, the castle was besieged for four months during the English Civil War, which led to an order regarding its destruction by Oliver Cromwell in 1649. Five years later, construction of a new castle was initiated. However, this castle would also be demolished.

Belvoir Castle however, apart from its rich history, also serves as the location for an interesting story involving witchcraft, death and executions.

In the early years of the 17th century, a Bottesford woman named Joan Flower and her two daughters, Margaret and Phillipa, fell on hard times and took employment at the castle as servants, They were not a popular family, Joan’s neighbours considered her to be monstrous and malicious. She was an unkempt woman, with sunken eyes, who boasted of her atheism, consorting with familiar spirits, and revelled in the terror that her curses and foul-mouthed oaths instilled in her unfortunate neighbours.

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Most people, including the Countess Cecilia, who became increasingly suspicious of them, were in no doubt that the three women were witches. When Margaret Flower was caught pilfering food and other items from the castle, the countess dismissed her on the spot along with her daughters. In so doing, she incurred the wrath of the women who had become known as the Belvoir witches.
Joan was the only one compensated with a payoff of “40 shillings, a bolster (pillow), and a mattress of wool.”

Enraged by the dismissals, the three women began casting spells on the earl and his family in revenge. Soon afterwards, Cecilia became sick with vomiting and suffered extraordinary convulsions. Although she recovered, their eldest son, Henry, Baron de Ross, was stricken by a sudden illness and died. Then the couple’s other son, Francis, was also taken ill, and he also died. Their daughter, Lady Katherine, was next to feel the smart of the witches’ revenge, although she recovered.

The final straw came when the earl and countess were again brought into their snares to keep them from having any more children.

Charges were brought against the three women and they were arrested. While being examined by a Justice of the Peace, she asked for bread as a substitute for the Eucharist. She claimed that something so blessed could not be consumed by a witch but after putting the bread into her mouth, she mumbled a few words and promptly choked to death. Her guilt affirmed, and with it the fate of her two daughters. At Lincoln, Margaret was to accuse her mother of witchcraft, while Phillipa admitted to witchcraft on behalf of herself, Margaret and Joan. The sisters said they had entered into communion with familiar spirits that had assisted them with their schemes, and named their mother’s familiar as a cat named Rutterkin.

Hunhed witches

The women admitted that they stole the glove of Lord Ross and gave it to their mother, who had dipped it in boiling water, stroked it along Rutterkin’s back, and pricked it. Combined with some incantations this supposedly caused Lord Ross to become ill and die. An attempt to harm Lady Katherine, the Earl’s daughter, had failed when it was found that Rutterkin had no power over her.

The women had also taken some feathers from the quilt of Rutland’s bed and a pair of gloves. By boiling these in water mixed with blood they cast spells to prevent the Earl and Countess from having any more children. Both daughters were hanged in Lincoln jail on March 11, 1618, although it is said however that Phillipa drugged the guards and managed to escape and made her way to Kent where she died after having 3 children.

Today, the effigy of Francis, 6th Earl of Rutland, reclines in the nearby church of St. Mary the Virgin, sandwiched between those of his first wife, Frances, and his second wife Cecilia. His two sons kneel at the foot of the tombs, both holding skulls as symbols of their tragic deaths. Part of the long-winded inscription recalls how, in 1608 he “married Lady Cecilia Hungerford … by whom he had two sons, both who died in their infancy by wicked practice and sorcery”.

By Paul Middleton, source: Ghosts, the paranormal, myths and legends

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