In the year 1324 England was groaning under the tyranny of king Edward II's new favourites the Despenser duo. Such was the state of affairs that a number of the leading citizens of Coventry became so fed up with matters, in particular with the way in which they were being treated by the local representative of royal authority namely one Hugh, Prior of Coventry, that they decided on a drastic course of action. They approached a 'nigromauncer' that is, a practitioner of black magic, by the name of John of Nottingham and requested his assistance.

John was happy to oblige them and the price of twenty pounds sterling together with the "lodging of any religious house in England", and another fifteen pounds for the assistance of his servant Robert Marshall of Leicester was agreed upon. This might have seemed a bargain as for this price John agreed to despatch not only Hugh the Prior of Coventry, but also his steward and his cellarer, and what's more for good measure, the king himself, Hugh Despenser, Earl of Winchester, his son Hugh Despenser the Younger and a courtier by the name of Richard de Sowe.

Now Richard de Sowe was a prominent courtier of the time and thus a close friend of the king but it doesn't appear as if either the citizens of Coventry or John of Nottingham bore particular animosity towards him. It was rather that they needed someone to practice on to see what would happen. (Quite possibly the good men of Coventry were reluctant to hand over the full amount of the agreed price until such time as they had a practical demonstration of John's capabilities.)

John of Nottingham therefore instructed his servant Robert Marshall to make seven wax figures representing each of the intended victims. It appears that on the 3rd May 1324 John set to work and stuck a lead pin in head of the figure representing Richard de Sowe and then sent Robert Marshall on an errand to de Sowe's house to see what was going on. Robert Marshall duly reported that de Sowe was unwell and that his "memory was distraught". Thus encouraged John struck a pin through the heart of the figure. The very next day news reached them that de Sowe had breathed his last.

It was at this point that Robert Marshall took fright and contacted the authorities, eventually confessing all to the deputy magistrate Simon Crozier, with the result that John and the gang of conspirators were all arrested.

On the 30th November 1324 Robert Marshall is recorded as giving evidence before the Coroner in the investigation into Richard de Sowe's death, whilst the criminal investigation into the charges of witchcraft were brought before the King's Bench in June 1325. By this time John of Nottingham had died in prison and the twenty-seven burghers of Coventry were eventually all acquitted. The fate of Robert Marshall is not known, but he was presumably released and lived the remainder of his life in obscurity.


SOURCES

  • The Malleus Maleficarum: Introduction to 1928 Edition
    http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/mm00c3.html
  • Calendar of Witchcraft Trials 1300-1500
    http://members.tripod.com/~Epona_Seaborn/
  • Witches and Witchtrials in England, the Channel Islands, Ireland and Scotland - Compiled by Marc Carlson http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/witchtrial/eis.html

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