The Goadby Witch

The idea of black and white witches can be traced back to Roman times, however, in the sixteenth century a new theory developed based on Christian theology, canon law and philosophical ideas. This theory assumed that a witch had made a deliberate pact with the devil but did not act alone, and therefore, if one witch existed in the local area, there had to be more. This idea led to a shift in the persecution of witches.

The wholesale persecution of witches started in Scotland around 1590 when James VI (the future James I of England) was king. Witchcraft had been a criminal offence in Scotland prior to 1590 but action against suspected witches was limited. However, after 1590 Scotland fully accepted the Christian witch theory so that when one witch was found, others were hunted out. The year 1590 saw the start of a series of trials when three hundred witches were accused of gathering to plot the murder of King James. James had a morbid fear of violent death, these trials were therefore of special interest to him and he developed a keen interest in demonology and witchcraft. In 1597, James felt sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject that he wrote Daemonologie, an eighty-page book that set out his views on the topic and was meant to add to the intellectual debate that was taking place throughout Europe. 

However, in England James found a very different environment. The whole issue of demonic behaviour and the Christian witch theory had never been readily accepted in England, and for James, any association with the topic was now seen as a potential embarrassment. A few prosecutions for witchcraft did occur in England while James was king, for example, the Pendle witch trial in Lancashire in 1612. These trials were covered in great detail by the press of the day and so gave the impression that such events were common when in fact they were not. This makes the case of the Belvoir witch trial all the more unusual.

Joan Flower, a woman from Bottesford, and her two daughters, Margaret and Philippa, were employed as servants by the 6th Earl and Countess of Rutland at Belvoir Castle. Joan was unpopular and feared in the local community. She is described as “… a monstrous malicious woman, full of oathes, curses, and imprecations irreligious … her eyes were fiery and hollow, her speech fell and envious, her demeanour strange and exotic”. She is said to have boasted of her atheism and of consorting with familiars – supernatural entities that would assist witches in their practice of magic.

Joan’s daughter, Margaret, was dismissed from the castle for stealing and, not long after, the Earl’s whole family became sick, suffering from fever and convulsions. Although the Earl and Countess recovered, the eldest son, Henry Manners, Lord Roos, died, and about a year later his younger brother, Francis Manners, also died. The Earl and Countess became convinced that Joan Flower and her daughters were to blame. All three women were arrested at Christmas 1618 and were taken to Lincoln gaol to be examined as witches.

Joan Flower died in Lincoln gaol supposedly having choked on a piece of bread after stating that she wished that she should choke on the food if she was not innocent. Following her death, her two daughters confessed to witchcraft claiming to have entered into communion with familiars who had assisted them with their schemes. 

During their examination, the sisters revealed the names of three other women whom they said had aided them, Anne Baker of Bottesford, Ellen Greene of Stathern and Joane Willimot of Goadby. All three women were taken for examination and revealed that they too had had visions and consorted with familiar spirits.

Willimot of Goadby was examined by the authorities in February and March 1618. She said her familiar was called Pretty, and had been blown into her mouth by her former master in the form of a fairy, later reappearing in the form of a woman who asked her to give up her soul. However, she stated that she had only used the spirit to enquire about the health of people, claiming that she “… did help divers persons that sent for her, which were stricken or fore-spoken [bewitched]: and that her Spirit came weekly to her, and would tell of divers persons that were stricken and fore-spoken: and she saith that the use which she had of the spirit, was to know how those did which she had undertaken to amend; and she did help them by certain prayers which she used, and not by her own spirit; …”

Sisters, Margaret and Philippa Flowers, were tried before the Judges of Assize, Sir Henry Hobart and Sir Henry Burnley. They were found guilty and hanged in Lincoln gaol. The Earl and Countess remained so convinced that their sons had been killed by witchcraft that they had it inscribed on their monument which now forms part on their father’s tomb in Bottesford Church. It is the only known tomb in England to record a death by witchcraft. The inscription reads: “In 1608 he married ye lady Cecila Hungerford, daughter to ye Honorable Knight Sir John Tufton, by whom he had two sons, both of which died in their infancy by wicked practises and sorcerye.”

Lincolnshire historian, Tracy Borman, Chief Curator for the Historic Royal Palaces, who regularly appears in BBC history programmes, has written an extensive account of the Belvoir Witch Trial. In her book, Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction, she speculates that James I's favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who spent his adolescence at Goadby Marwood Hall, was the real murderer of the Earl of Rutland’s two sons. Buckingham was determined to marry Rutland's daughter, Catherine, whom he seduced by persuading her to stay the night under the same roof as him, thus tainting her honour. Borman theorises that by poisoning the potential heirs and forcing through the marriage, he made himself heir to Rutland's vast fortune.

The name Willimot or Wilmot does not appear in the parish records for Goadby, the earliest surviving of which date from 1656, and there is nothing in the records that gives any clue as to what ultimately became of Joane Willimot or whether she had any family in the village. The last known execution of a witch in England took place in Devon in 1685, and the last witchcraft trials were held in Leicester in 1717, the charges in the case being dismissed by the judge. Overall, some 500 people in England are believed to have been executed for practising witchcraft.

Daemonologie written by James I.jpg

The cover of Daemonologie by James I.

First published in 1597, this edition was printed

in 1603, the year in which he ascended the

English throne.

Witches - Baker, Willimot and Greene.jpg

Anne Baker of Bottesford, Joan Willimot of Goadby and Ellen Greene of Stathern. A woodcut from a contemporary account of the trial.

Memorial of Henry and Francis Manners St

The memorial to Henry and Francis Manners,

sons of the 6th Earl and Countess of Rutland,

St. Mary's Church, Bottesford

George Villiers Duke of Buckingham Cathe

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, with his wife, Catherine Manners, and their children, Mary and George.

The examination of Anne Baker, Joane Willimot and Ellen Green