"Oh unheard-of wickedness and mischievous damnation!"

In the year 1618 a woman named Joan Flower and her two daughters Margaret and Philippa Flower were all employed as servants at Belvoir Castle by Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland. For a number of reasons it appears that the Countess of Rutland had cause to be dissatisfied with the Flowers family. It seems that Philippa had become "lewdly transported with the love of one Thomas Simpson", that Margaret was pilfering articles from the castle, and that the mother was "a monstrous malicious woman, full of oaths, curses, and imprecations irreligious and, for anything they saw by her, a plain Atheist".

Despite such provocations neither the Earl or Countess appear to have been moved to take the obvious course and dismiss the unsatisfactory triad. The only action taken was against Margaret, who as the only one of the three actually resident at the castle, was sent home on account of her frequent absences, and even then was compensated by the payment of "forty shillings, a bolster, and a mattress of wool".

As generous as this treatment might appear it was not to the taste of Joan Flower who vowed she would be revenged on the Manners family for this mistreatment and, if we are to believe the subsequent account of events given by the two daughters, she appears to have been very well placed to exact such a revenge; being an experienced witch with her own familiar by the name of Rutterkin who apparently took the form of a cat.

The eldest son and heir Henry was naturally the obvious target for retribution. Having first obtained one of Henry's gloves, it was said that Joan Flowers dipped it in boiling water, stuck pins in it, rubbed it on the back of Rutterkin, all the while uttering deep and dark curses directed at the young lord. The result of all these magical goings on being that poor Henry "sickened very strangely and after a while died". Other members of the family were also to feel the effects; Henry's younger brother Francis was "most barbarously and inhumanly tortured by a strange sickness" and his half-sister Katherine suffered "extreme maladies and unusual fits" although both appear to have survived. The Earl and Countess were not spared either; a pair of gloves and some feathers from their bed were obtained, then boiled in blood and water; this apparently being a method of rendering the couple barren.

These activities appear to have continued until such time as it "pleased God to discover the villainous practices of these Women". The result was that sometime around the Christmas of the year 1618 the three were arrested and taken to Lincoln gaol, and subsequently examined by Francis himself, his brother George and the Reverend Samuel Fleming, Doctor of Divinity, and a local Justice of the Peace. Joan Flower confidently protested her innocence and demanded to be allowed to prove her case, challenging her inquisitors to provide her with bread and butter, declaring that if she were guilty of witchcraft that she would choke on it. The bread and butter was provided, Joan took a bite, and promptly choked and died on the spot.

Faced with such a dramatic demonstration of the proof of the accusations both the daughters soon confessed. They claimed that they had experienced demonic visions, admitted to possessing their own familiars who sucked at various parts of their bodies, as well as thoroughly incriminating their now deceased mother with a detailed account of her magical attempts to inflict damage on the Earl of Rutland's family. They also named three other women; Anne Baker of Bottesford, Joan Willimot of Goodby, and Ellen Greene of Stathorne, as being involved. They were also arrested and soon confessed to a similar catalogue of crimes including wild sabatical orgies in the woods, possession of familiars etc etc.

If the two Flower sisters had been hoping that a full and frank confession of their involvement would excite the mercy of the court they were to be sadly disappointed. Tried before Sir Henry Hobart and Sir Henry Burnley, Judges of assize they were condemned to death and executed at Lincoln on the the 11th of March 1619.

Despite the execution of the Witches of Belvoir, further tragedy was to visit the Earl of Rutland, as the younger of his two sons Frances died less than a year later on the 5th March 1620. Of course, the family were in no doubt that the death of Frances was as a result of the same bewitchment as had killed his elder brother. After the 6th Earl's own death on the 17th December 1632 he was buried at St. Mary's church in Bottesford, where the the inscription on his tomb still refers to his "two sonnes, both who died in their infancy by wicked practice and sorcery".

All the quotations above are taken from the contemporary pamphlet;

The wonderful discoverie of the witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Joan Flower neere Bever Castle: Executed at Lincolne, March 11, 1618

various extracts from which are reproduced at;

  • http://www.swan.ac.uk/history/teaching/teaching%20resources/Reading%20Texts/homepage.html
  • http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~framland/framland/exam.htm
  • http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~framland/framland/witch.htm

Whether or not this document reflects the truth of what happened is of course questionable. The Manners family certainly believed that the two boys died as a result of witchcraft and a number of women died as a result of that belief; "The wonderful discoverie" simply reflects this view.