Tower of London wards off evil spirits with discovery of Britain’s largest collection of ‘witchmarks’
In total over 59 apotropaic symbols, or ‘witchmarks’ as they are commonly known, were found either carved or burnt into the timber frame of the roof along with what is believed to be the first archaeological excavated spiritual midden, an assortment of domestic objects purposely hidden in a void next to one of the chimneys that included 46 animal bones, scraps of leather, a broken bladed tool, a broken spade shoe and a clay pipe.
The marks are thought to have been created between the construction of the building around 1540 until the early 18th century a time when many people feared demonic possession. It was commonly believed that houses were vulnerable to witches setting fire to them encouraging the occupants of the timber-framed Queen’s House to protect themselves. These talismans were most likely created by lower status occupants of the building such as service staff or by craftsmen in order to prevent evil by warding off witches, evil spirits and demons, a widely accepted practice at the time.
Many of the markings were found clustered around openings such as doors, windows and fireplaces. Although doors and windows could be shuttered, fireplaces were always open and therefore vulnerable to possession by evil spirits. To ensure fireplaces were protected, items were built into or next to the chimneys to form a spiritual midden. The presence of so many domestic objects would divert the witch to the midden and away from the actual hearth, protecting the home.
Historic Royal Palaces surveyors and curators commissioned the conservation project to conserve the Queen’s House roof in early 2015 working with archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology, work completed October 2015.
Alden Gregory, Buildings Curator Historic Royal Palaces said: “The conservation project that we've just finished has provided us with a fantastic opportunity to research the history of the Queen's House. This was historically where the Lieutenant of the Tower lived and where he interrogated high-profile prisoners, including Guy Fawkes.
The discovery of so many ’witchmarks’ and other signs of superstition in the house has given us an interesting new insight into the lives and fears of the people who lived in the Tower. Although ‘witchmarks’ are not particularly rare in historic buildings, the exceptionally large number of them in the Queen's House is very unusual.
It suggests that the people living in the Queen's House felt that they needed extra protection from the evil forces that they believed were brought into the Tower by the heretics and traitors who were confined in its prison cells.”
James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), said: “The Tower of London is well known for historical graffiti associated with high profile political prisoners but the recent discoveries offer a new perspective. Scribed and burned into the very timbers of the building, they reveal something of the hopes, fears and desires of the everyday occupants of this iconic fortress."
The discovery of over fifty burn marks and a number of scribed symbols at the Tower London represents one of the largest collections of apotropaic symbols, or witchmarks, ever found in a building of this size in this country. The spiritual midden, full of assorted objects and intended to protect the palace from evil spirits, is really exciting, as these features are rarely, if ever, excavated by archaeologists.”
The Queen's House is currently the home of the Constable of the Tower of London. Originally, the Lieutenant of the Tower resided there and it has also held several famous prisoners, including Lady Jane Grey, Guy Fawkes and the last prisoner held in the Tower, Rudolf Hess in 1941 and it is one of few such buildings to survive the Great Fire of London of 1666.
Notes to editors
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MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) provides independent advice and professional services in archaeology and built heritage. With offices in London, Northampton and Birmingham, MOLA’s 250 staff help to discharge planning conditions expertly and swiftly. MOLA works in partnership to develop far-reaching research and community programmes. Find out more at mola.org.uk, on Twitter @MOLArchaeology or on Facebook MOLArchaeology.
Historic Royal Palaces is the independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle. We help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest palaces ever built. We raise all our own funds and depend on the support of our visitors, members, donors, sponsors and volunteers. With the exception of Hillsborough Castle, these palaces are owned by The Queen on behalf of the nation, and we manage them for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Historic Royal Palaces cares for Hillsborough Castle under a separate contract with the Northern Ireland Office. Registered charity number 1068852. For more information visit www.hrp.org.uk