Month: January 2014

Take a wander through 17th Century London

17th Century London

The researching of novels is a wonderful thing. Occasionally you stumble upon something really special like this:


The Hammer of the Witches

When writing my novel ‘The Black Hours’ I researched in depth the methods used to interrogate and persecute suspected witches. This was, on the whole, a rather grim process that occasionally reduced me to tears when I thought about the real women (and sometimes men) behind these often lurid and horrific accounts.

The backbone of my research came from the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of the Witches’. This is a 15th century treatise that is basically a handbook on the way to identify, interrogate and prosecute those suspected of witchcraft. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman, and had three main purposes – to refute allegations that witchcraft did not exist, to set out the forms of witchcraft and the ways in which the craft can be identified and resolved, and to aid and assist magistrates in the prosecution of those accused.


What I found particularly dreadful about this treatise was its terrible attitude towards women. Although acknowledging that both men and women can practice witchcraft, the treatise argues strongly that it is women who are more susceptible due to their gender – women, according to Kramer, are more inclined to submit to temptation due to their inherent weakness as a sex; they are weak in faith and in character and more carnal than men, leading the ‘stronger’ sex into sin. Indeed the word ‘maleficarum’ is the feminine form of the Latin word for ‘witch’.

While I am aware that the times were significantly different, the utter hatred for the female sex is breathtaking.  Here are a few of the horrible assertions:

‘since they (women) are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.’

‘she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.’

‘No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then, as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils.’

‘when girls have been corrupted, and have been scorned by their lovers after they have immodestly copulated with them in the hope and promise of marriage with them, and have found themselves disappointed in all their hopes and everywhere despised, they turn to the help and protection of devils; either for the sake of vengeance by bewitching those lovers or the wives they have married, or for the sake of giving themselves up to every sort of lechery. Alas! experience tells us that there is no number to such girls, and consequently the witches that spring from this class are innumerable.’

‘all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.’

What is also interesting is that Kramer backs up his assertions with references to the Bible. He references Ecclesiastics xxv:

‘There is no head above the head of a serpent: and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman. I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman.’

He also quotes St John Chrysostom commenting on St Matthew:

‘It is not good to marry! What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!’

Kramer then turns to the philosophers, quoting Cicero:

‘The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman’s vices is avarice.’

and Seneca:

‘A woman either loves or hates; there is no third grade. And the tears of woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief, or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.’

Now you might think that these are only one man’s views (The Malleus Maleficarum is attributed to two authors, Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, but some scholars now believe that Sprenger was given joint authorship by Kramer in an attempt to give the treatise more authority) but, due to the development of the printing press, the treatise was able to spread widely through Europe. Who knows how many innocent women were tortured and murdered because of Kramer’s ideas and beliefs – beliefs that were held by many at the time? Is it any surprise that, faced with this utter contempt and hatred of the female sex, thousands of women lost their lives to superstition?



Vexed and Troubled Englishmen

vexed and troubled

I am currently working on a prequel to my dark historical novel ‘The Black Hours’, focusing on Maggie Prentice and her daughter Elizabeth. Looking for a suitable name for the mother of Samuel Pendle, I did a quick Google search for popular names of the time (my research is usually far more involved than that, honestly!) I stumbled upon a 1968 book ‘Vexed and Troubled Englishmen’ by colonial historian Carl Bridenbaugh, concerned with the period from 1590-1642 and using sources such as parish and court records to give an idea of the circumstances that caused people to leave the country and settle elsewhere. Mike Foster compiled a list of names using the book for Besides each name he has given an extremely brief summary of the reason for their inclusion in the book. It is this brief sentence that makes compelling reading, giving as it does a little snapshot into the lives of these real people. Some of them are sad, some baffling and others completely hilarious. Here is a very small selection:

Awdy Bartholomew, South Elmham, Norfolk – vicar, unlearned & useless

Ayres John, London – “poor man”, called Hanna Mobbs a whore

Banks William, Wetherby, Yorks – begat bastard 1614, whipped

Barrett Bridget, Lewes Ct – stuck pins in Mrs Dumbrell in church

Benbury Christopher, Southampton brewer – bad beer 1630

Brooke Ralph, Arlington, Sussex – wore horns in churchyard at wedding

Cauker Katherine, Somerset – had bastard child, whipped 1617

Dell Ann, wife of Sditch butcher – unlicensed surgery 1615

Lincolne Marie, Swanton Morley, Norfolk – jilted 1597

Merrett Thomas, Somerton, Somerset – bawdy thievish alehouse 1627

Laney Julius – branded as dangerous beggar aged 7yrs

Johnson Otilwell, Manchester – lacked chimney for hovel fire

Why on earth did Ralph Brooke wear horns in a churchyard? And what kind of unlicensed surgery was Ann Dell, butcher’s wife, carrying out? Then there are the clutch of unfortunates; poor, jilted Marie Lincolne, and Otilwell Johnson, lacking a chimney! Behind each of these sentences there surely lurks a story and some of these characters will hopefully be turning up in one of my future novels. In the meantime I chose the name Bridget for Samuel’s mother. As a character, she is definitely the type of woman who would stick pins in someone in church!

You can see the full list here

And you can even buy the book here (if you have ninety quid to spare!)


The Priest Hides of Harvington Hall

Harvington Hall

My new novel ‘Remember, Remember’ tells the story of the Gunpowder Plot from an unusual point of view. I am currently researching the history of the time and have been learning a lot about ‘priest hides’ or ‘priest holes’. These hides were incorporated into the structure of the houses of Catholic recusant families and were used as a hiding place for priests should a search party turn up – it was high treason to be a priest in England at the end of the sixteenth century. But faith was often the most important part of a person’s life, so many risked their very lives in order to house a priest in their home so that they could attend Mass.  As part of my research I read a lot about Harvington Hall, a moated medieval and Elizabethan manor house near Kidderminster in Worcestershire. The hall is renowned for its wealth of priest hides, many of which are still accessible. So, in the name of research I went along to Harvington Hall just before Christmas to have a look for myself.

I was surprised at my first glance of the Hall. You drive down a tiny country lane flanked by cottages and fields until you turn into an open space. On one side is a church, on another some stables and then, surrounded by a moat, to your right rises the great red brick house that is Harvington Hall. There are no imposing gates or sweeping driveways, you simply park your car, walk across the moat and go in.

You can explore the house by yourself, but we decided to join a guided tour. We were really glad we did and I would highly recommend that if you visit you do so too. Our guide, Arthur, was so informative and entertaining, and I’m sure we learnt so much more form him than we could have done otherwise.

harvington kitchen

We started our tour in the kitchen where we learnt about the plight of the kitchen children who, sometimes aged just three or four, worked naked in the heat of the two great fireplaces, turning the heavy spits all day long. We also learnt the origin of many interesting terms – for example, if a kitchen boy lost his job, he was given a piece of sacking in which to wrap his few belongings. Hence losing your job is now known as ‘getting the sack’. We continued through the kitchen to a store room in which meat was kept cold and animals may have been slaughtered. In a passageway adjacent to this was the first priest hide. It is a tiny space, barely room for a man. It was hard to imagine hiding there, sometimes for days, with no heat or food or fresh air, hardly able to move. Arthur explained that the hide was situated underneath a toilet – a woman would be dispatched to sit on the toilet in the hope that the searchers, for modesty’s sake, would not venture in!

We continued on to see the four main priest holes, all of which are located near the central staircase and are believed to have been created by Nicholas Owen. Owen constructed many priest-hides in Catholic homes from around 1588. After the Gunpowder Plot he was arrested and tortured. Our guide explained, in gory detail, how this poor man withstood the torture to the extent that, by the time he died (having never revealed any of the locations of his priest hides) he was practically split in half.

The priest hides we saw in Harvington Hall are a testament to the man’s genius. This one below has been made to so resemble a fireplace that even the back has been coloured black in order to give the impression that fires have been lit. If you stick your head in and look up you can see where the priest would have climbed and the space above where he would have hidden.

fireplace hide

This hide, in the library, was so cleverly concealed that it was not discovered for 300 years after its construction.

library preist hide

And this one is actually under the staircase itself – two steps are hinged so they can be lifted.

stair priest hide

Wandering through the hall it was easy to imagine the former inhabitants going about their daily lives, and to envisage the panic that must have been felt at the approach of searchers looking for the priest. And with the twists and turns of staircases and corridors it is easy to believe that there may be many more secret hides still not discovered. It was a thoroughly interesting visit – the hall was brought to life by our wonderful guide and it really helped me to gain an insight into the turmoil of the times and the constraints placed on those just trying to practice their religion in peace.

Find out more about Harvington Hall here

The Mystery of Alice Molland

When I began writing ‘The Black Hours’ I read many accounts of horrible trials, terrible persecutions and much suffering, mainly inflicted on poor, vulnerable women who have largely been forgotten and denied justice. These women, accused and executed for witchcraft, are all too often merely names on a long list. Their sufferings have become scary stories; the fact they were human beings, with hopes, dreams, fears and families somehow disregarded. Now we picture witches as ugly old hags, flying on broomsticks with cats in tow, casting spells and causing misery.  I wanted to pay homage to these forgotten women in some small way, and decided to name the characters in my book for those that had suffered in reality. So Alice Pendle’s surname is in honour of the Pendle witches, who will be the subject of a future post, and her Christian name is in honour of a certain Alice Molland, reputed to be the last person to be executed for witchcraft in England.

Alice was one of the ‘Devon witches’ also known as the ‘Bideford witches’ commemorated by  a plaque in the ruined gatehouse of Rougemont Castle in Exeter. As can be seen from the plaque, Alice was executed three years after Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles. The trial of the first three women is well documented and has been extensively written about. There has even been a campaign to have them pardoned. Temperance was accused of causing death through witchcraft, while Susannah and Mary faced charges of causing illness in the same way. Under terrible pressure and no doubt utterly terrified, the women blamed each other for their alleged crimes. Not surprisingly, they were all found guilty and were hung in 1682.

Alice Molland plaque

Little is known about Alice, however. In most articles she is merely an afterthought in the last lines. And despite the plaque, her death is sometimes stated as having occurred in 1684. I have been unable to find out exactly what she was accused of, whether she confessed, or even how old she was and whether she had any children or a husband to mourn her passing. If you happen to visit the castle, then please consider spending a moment or two to pause at the plaque, and spare a thought for poor Alice Molland and the many others like her, forgotten by history, her story lost to us. And if anyone knows any more about her, I would be delighted to hear from you.