I attended a viva voce examination last week, in which the candidate stuck out his neck and suggested that the anonymous author of The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower Daughters of Joan Flower, by Beaver Castle, and executed at Lincolne the 11 of March 1618 had not actually believed his own pamphlet’s tale of deaths by witchcraft. His external examiner noted that the best guess was that the writer was Samuel Fleming, D.D., a local J.P. and often named in the text. Fleming would then have to have been a sceptic who concurred with the fatal verdicts because, in the end, to quote the examiner herself, “a witch is a person in front of a court accused of witchcraft”.
I had missed any such subtleties in a pamphlet I’d read (after a fashion), so I decided to take another look. The basic narrative is graspable enough: Joan Flower, and her daughters Margaret and Philip (“The Charwoman, and her daughters Pocketing and Filch”, as Richard Bernard quipped in 1626) were in service at Belvoir Castle, Margaret actually living at the castle, until they were dismissed for pilfering. In their revenge, a glove of young Henry Manners was stolen, rubbed on the back of their cat familiar Rutterkin, then buried, causing the young nobleman to waste away and die.
Fleming, if it is him, starts off quite well. A reason for the veracity of witchcraft lies in “those infinite Treatises of many of them convinced [‘convicted] by Law, and condemned to death”. He has also had access to sceptical positions on witchcraft: “there be certain men and women grown in years, and over-grown with Melancholy and Atheism, who out of a malicious disposition against their betters, or others thriving by them; but most times from a heart-burning desire of revenge, having entertained some impression of displeasure, and unkindness, study nothing but mischief and exotic practises of loathsome Arts and Sciences: yet I must needs say, that sometimes the fained reputation of wisdom, cunning, and to be reputed a dangerous and skilful person, hath so prevailed with divers, that they have taken upon them indeed to know more then God ever afforded any creature, & to perform no less then the Creator both of Heaven & earth.” Age, craziness, malice, the desire in the self-fashioned witch to be feared or respected; the impossibility of God allowing such powers to such people - such points touch on good, solid objections to the veracity of witchcraft and the eligibility of confession from such people.
Fleming could supplement his treatise with other papers, examinations of further local suspects: “These Examinations and some others were taken and charily preserved for the contriving of sufficient evidences against them, and when the Judges of Assise came down to Lincoln about the first week of March, being Sr. Henry Hobert, Lord chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and Sr. Ed: Bromley one of the Barons of the Exchequer.” The phrasing is unfortunate here, but the sense of ‘contriving’ was neutral.
So, ‘some’ of these ‘charily preserved’ papers he adds to his account in the most baffling way: we have been reading about Joan Flower and her daughters, Margaret and Philip. Suddenly, we have Anne Baker, Joane Willimot, and Ellen Greene brought in as further suspects, with some of the evidence taken from them post-dating the executions of Joan Flower’s daughters. Then Fleming lurches back in time to provide examinations of Margaret and Philip Flower, taken in January and February.
The pamphlet says more than once that the accused women killed both of the children of Francis Manners and his second wife Cecily. But the younger son did not die until March 5th 1619-20:
If March 1620 was the new style date of the younger boy’s death, we have a pamphlet describing the convictions of the murderers on March 11th 1618 (if that’s an old style date, then we still have a year to close).
In 1688 ‘R.B’ (Richard Bouvet) attempted to summarise the Belvoir Castle case in his compilation of paraphrases, The kingdom of darkness. R.B. cannot make sense of the chronology, so he falls back on vagueness: “About the same time Joan Willimot of Goadby a Witch was examined by Sir Henry Hastings and Dr. Fleming Justices in Leicestershire about the murder of Henry Lord Ross…”
He cannot work out why we are not told about the outcomes of the examinations of Anne Baker, Joane Willimot, and Ellen Greene: “and the rest questionless suffered according to their deserts.”
R.B. does quote this passage from the 1618 pamphlet, a passage in which the young Lord Francis Manners is still alive, though afflicted:
“At last as malice increased in them so the Earls Family felt the smart of their revenge, for Henry Lord Ross his eldest Son fell sick of a very unusual disease and soon after died; His second Son the Lord Francis was likewise miserably tortured by their wicked contrivances; And his Daughter the Lady Katherine was oft in great danger of her life by their barbarous dealings, with strange Fits, &c. the Honourable Parents bore all these afflictions with Christian magnanimity.”
R.B. sensibly leaves out all the inconsistent references in the 1618 pamphlet to the Earl having lost more than one child to the diabolic conspirators:
“I have presumed to present on the Stage of verity for the good of my Country & the love of truth, the late woeful Tragedy of the destruction of the Right Honourable the Earle of Rutlands Children …”
“the Right Honorable Earl had sufficient grief for the loss of his Children; yet no doubt it was the greater to consider the manner, and how it pleased God to inflict on him such a fashion of visitation …”
“Notwithstanding all this did the noble Earle attend his Majesty, both at New-market before Christmas, and at Christmas at Whitehall; bearing the loss of his Children most nobly, and little suspecting that they had miscarried by Witch-craft, or such like inventions of the Divell …”
What had been happening in Leicestershire? Tracy Borman was encouraged by the opacities of the case to produce a conspiracy theory (the man who sought to profit by the deaths of the boys was the Duke of Buckingham, set to marry Katherine Manners as sole heir to her father’s fortune).
I haven’t read Borman’s book, having been put off by that review. But there is undeniably a curious and unusual strand to the witchcraft in the pamphlet, with the witches boasting that their practices will prevent to the Earl and Countess having any more children: “She further saith, that her Mother and she, and her Sister agreed together to bewitch the Earle and his Lady, that they might have no more children.”
There are certainly some things left unsaid in the text. Fleming ascribes to Francis Manners, Lord Rutland, an exemplary acceptance of God’s inscrutable will in allowing the innocent to be tormented. Fleming is adopting the official (and rather comfortless) church line on witchcraft: that you must accept your trials. The problem was that Manners and his family were Catholics, so this exemplary Christian behaviour just has to be treated as part of Manners’ general nobility of character.
But the main unmentioned, un-located, and unidentified person has to be a Leicestershire witchfinder. Who had pushed the 1616 case in Leicester, leading to the hanging of nine women on the testimony of a demoniac boy? King James had disconcerted his circuit judges by declaring that the case had been fraudulent. But a variant upon the sentiment in The Late Lancashire Witches ‘once and ever a witch, though knowest’ could be offered: ‘once and ever a witchfinder, thou knowest’. The pleasure, at once sadistic and righteous, of sending to the gallows those you have proved to be wicked seems to have been irresistible to some. I think it might have been this same person who is proving his point in the 1618 case. Someone had broadened the investigations, drawing in Anne Baker, Joane Willimot, and Ellen Greene. They seem to have been local wise women, whose general expertise was in pronouncing whether a sick child had been ‘forespoken” or not.
Everybody accused in this case is strikingly free with their confessions: “for here you see the learned and religious Judges cried out with our Saviour, Ex ore tuo.” The triumphant allusion is to Luke 19, 22, ‘And he saith unto him, Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant.’ This aligns the court with one of Christ’s most harshly judgemental moments, in the parable of the talents. They were also willing to name names: both Willemot and Greene have been induced to say where they got their familiar spirits from. “This Examinate [Willemot] saith, That she hath a Spirit which she calleth Pretty, which was given unto her by William Berry of Langholme in Rutlandshire, whom she served three years”… “She saith further, that Gamaliel Greete of Waltham in the said County Shepheard, had a Spirit like a white Mouse put into him in his swearing; and that if he did look upon any thing with an intent to hurt, it should be hurt, and that he had a mark on his left arm, which was cut away; and that her own spirit did tell her all this before it went from her.”
Ellen Greene “saith, that one Joan Willimot of Goadby came about six years since to her in the Wolds, and persuaded this Examinate to forsake God, and betake her to the divel, and she would give her two spirits, to which she gave her consent, and thereupon the said Joan Willimot called two spirits, one in the likeness of a Kitlin, and the other of a Moldiwarp”. The author uses such anecdotes and accusations to suggest a hinterland of cunning folk who have actually bartered their souls to the devil: “They admit of those execrable conditions of commutation of souls for the entertaining of the spirits, and so fall to their abominable practises, continuing in the same till God laugh them to scorn.”
The 1618 pamphlet makes a passing reference to torture: “because the mind of man may be carried away with many idle conjectures, either that women confessed these things by extremity of torture”. Again, an off-note: torture of women, minors in the view of the law, was not legally allowed. There’s something collusive about ‘extremity of torture’, as though a little bit of torture was only to be expected.
This pamphlet was re-printed in 1621, perhaps as part of the backwash from the Elizabeth Sawyer case, or maybe because the younger son had by then died. Whoever put this reprint together added in an account of how to set about verifying witchcraft by ‘swimming’ suspects. This notion came from other sources, but its inclusion just might have been prompted by a rumour of such rough handling having been used in Leicestershire, and used successfully.
Was this Leicestershire witchfinder in fact Samuel Fleming himself? As a Doctor of Divinity and a J.P., he had the right sort of credentials and position. He was an eager reader of witchcraft tracts (his pamphlet begins with a commentary on the books he approves, King James, John Cotta, Alexander Roberts and the rest; he has examined sceptical positions).
His fractured account of the Belvoir witches would then not be the product of a man who didn’t believe what he was saying, but rather someone who believed it all too well, masking his role, playing down the strength of his opinions. He evidently regards young Francis Manners as doomed, dead already. He pushes Baker, Willemot and Greene into the reader’s attention because they were products of his newest investigations. If you look closely at the pamphlet, you see that Fleming was working on Anne Baker on March 1st, 2nd and 3rd. On the first day, in front of Francis Manners, his brother George, and Fleming, Baker resisted quite successfully. She then had a day being interrogated by Fleming alone, and he established a connection to the main inquiry when she repeated (or was lead to repeat) the story of the buried glove. By the third day, back in front of George Manners and Fleming, she confessed to having a familiar spirit in the form of a white dog: far better for a conviction than her previous baffling talk of their being four colours of planets that can strike people.
In demonological theory, the deaths of Joan, Margaret and Philip Flower should have seen young Francis Manners recover quickly. Francis Manners, Lord Rutland, had showed little appetite for the investigation of witchcraft, but he obviously believed in it: his own memorial records the death of both of his sons as a result of witchcraft. There might have been some pressure to find other suspects when young Manners did not recover after March 11th, the date of the executions.
To conclude, there is a sense of the stories not being told in this pamphlet. Leicestershire was not at this time an area liable to foster disbelief. Samuel Fleming, D.D. and J.P. might have been a covert sceptic. But he might instead have been a covert witchfinder. 'Utinam tam facile vera invenire possem, quam falsa convincere', ends the pamphlet, Cicero's 'Would that I could find the true as easily as I can detect the false'.