Horror befell three women
As it is Hallowe'en, here's a horrific and disturbing tale – but not as you may imagine...
The story starts back in 1603, when James I became king. By his own account, he was a very religious man, on a personal crusade against witchcraft. He believed, like many theologians of the time, that because the Bible stated Eve had been tempted by an apple, women were therefore susceptible to the Devil's temptations.
Public scientific knowledge was basic, so if crops failed or children were stillborn, witches were to blame.
This belief transcended class and educational backgrounds and there is little doubt that the king's friend, Francis Manners, sixth Earl of Rutland, 18th Baron de Ros, of Belvoir Castle, was a firm believer.
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Tragically, his first wife, Frances, died in 1608. He remarried, to Cecilia, but his son and heir, Henry, died suddenly, soon followed by their second child, Francis.
The grief-stricken Earl believed evil must be close at hand – and he wanted answers.
He remembered he had sacked three servants Joan, Philippa and Margaret Flowers, of Bottesford.
Philippa, papers allege, was lustful: "lewdly transported with the love of one Thomas Simpson", while Margaret was accused of theft.
Their mother, Joan, was considered "a bit odd", "a monstrous, malicious woman, full of oaths, curses and imprecations, irreligious... a plain atheist".
She had lived at the castle and worked in its washhouse.
As they were fired, Joan had allegedly flown into a rage and had placed a curse on the Earl's family.
It was then that the Earl, his wife and son, Henry, suffered convulsions and sickness. Their other son Francis, died soon after. Their only daughter, Lady Katherine, nearly died, but recovered.
The Earl figured the three women had taken spiteful revenge for their dismissal. He had the three arrested and taken to Lincoln Gaol for questioning.
Joan was accused of murder by witchcraft, while Philippa and Margaret were treated as accomplices.
Early 17th century questioning was different to today: no solicitor and recorded interview – choice implements and brute force drew the answers required.
The inquisitors – who included the Earl – claimed Phillipa allegedly confessed an evil spirit visited her in the form of a white rat. She allowed it to suckle from her left breast and in return, the spirit had enabled her to make Thomas Simpson fall in love with her.
Margaret later admitted in court to a similar accusation, but with two spirits, one white, one black. She also claimed that since her arrest, she had been visited by four devils, including a black-headed ape which spoke in a tongue she could not understand.
Fatefully, Margaret claimed her mother had told her to steal one of Henry's gloves. She said her mother had boiled the glove, repeatedly pricked it with a knife and rubbed it on her cat, Rutterkin, before burning it.
She also claimed the same was done to one of Francis's gloves, before it was left in a dungheap to rot.
Locals reasoned that burning the clothing caused Henry to perish, while his brother's life rotted away with the glove in the dung heap.
To make the Earl and Countess barren, it was alleged the women took feathers from the Earl's bed and a pair of gloves, which they boiled in water mingled with blood.
But their fate was sealed by their mother's death in Lincoln Gaol. Joan had maintained her innocence throughout and to prove it, allegedly put some bread in her mouth, "wishing it would never go through her if she was guilty".
As she ate, "mumbling it in her mouth", she fell dead.
Convicted of murder, in March 1618, her daughters were executed at Lincoln Gaol .
Anne Baker, from Bottesford, Joan Willimott, from Goodby, and Ellen Greene, from Stathern – dubbed the Belvoir Witches – were accused of accessory but appear to have survived.
When the Earl died in 1632, he was buried at St Mary the Virgin church, Bottesford. His tomb carries the only reference to witchcraft in an English church, stating his "two sonnes died in their infancy by wicked practise and sorcerye".
Today, many believe that what befell Joan Flower and her daughters was, to put it mildly, a gross miscarriage of justice.
Quite what horrors and injustices the women suffered at the hands of the Earl and his inquisitors – who were sure of the women's guilt – will never be known.
I spoke to the Rector of Bottesford, the Rev Dr Mark Smith, who said succinctly: "The story is not about supernatural evil, but is more serious than that – about human wickedness.
"It reflects not supernatural traits, but very human ones – scapegoating and public paranoia – and persecuting people on the simple basis they are different."
Sadly, almost 400 years on, in some parts of society, little has changed.