First published in 2014.
In September 1613, in Belvoir Castle in the north-eastern corner of Leicestershire, the heir of ‘one of England’s great noble families falls suddenly and dangerously ill. Within a few short weeks he will suffer an excrutiating death’. His entire family then succumb to the same ‘terrifying symptoms’, and the blame is soon pressed upon a local family of women, believed to be witches. This case is the one which Tracy Borman has decided to focus upon in her newest book, Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts, and has aimed to bring to light ‘a conspiracy that has remained hidden for centuries’.
The widespread European ‘witch craze’ which Borman discusses within her introduction, took place between the 15th and 18th centuries. She then sets out the often barbaric historical events which occurred during this period: in the south of Germany, for example, ’63 women were executed as witches between 1562 and 1563 for causing a violent hailstorm’. Borman also muses upon the subject of what a witch is – a ‘deceptively simple question’, she believes – and the distinction between white (good) and black (bad) witches.
Borman writes of the way in which ‘suspected witches were believed to have caused many thousands of deaths, injuries and illnesses in England alone during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Little wonder that they were feared and reviled in equal measure’. James I, who ruled England and Ireland between 1603 and 1625, was ‘one of the most famous witch hunters in history’, whose ‘personal crusade’ meant that thousands of women in both England and Scotland were murdered on suspicion of witchcraft. Borman discusses the conditions which led to his fanaticism with regard to witches, and the ways in which he went about eradicating them.
Embroiled within this were the Manners family, who lived within Belvoir Castle. Francis Manners, the sixth Earl of Rutland, believed that ‘wicked practice and sorcerye’ was to blame for the deaths of his two infant sons. Their ‘alleged murderers’ were Joan Flower and her two daughters, Margaret and Phillipa, who have come to be known as ‘the witches of Belvoir’. Borman believes that the case of the Belvoir witches has been overshadowed by the more notorious cases throughout history – that of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, for example. She believes that the Belvoir trial is ‘one of the most extraordinary’ to take place during the entire seventeenth century, merely due to the ‘murderous conspiracy’ at its heart.
Witches has been split into fourteen chapters, some of which are relatively concise. Borman has also included, as one would expect, an extensive section of notes and a thorough bibliography. Throughout, she makes use of quotes from varied sources – those of the period, and the more contemporary introspectives which have been made into the history of witchcraft. Borman takes into account the social standing of women at the time, and the way in which very few trial records were kept by councils across the country. Throughout, she considers many points: the standard diet and the scarcity of food within Britain, the advent of the Plague, the tight-knit communities around the country, the nationwide growth of population, the high rates of unemployment, high death rates, superstition and how people were affected by religious change. As well as focusing upon Britain, Borman constantly asserts the situation within the rest of Europe too.
Witches has been well received by critics, and it is easy to see why; Borman’s interesting and thorough account is really well written, and is both scholarly and easily accessible. She has created a rich sense of history, and has put together her sources and own opinion incredibly well.