In the medieval and early modern period, the malign influence of supernatural beings was a very real concern. The prevalence of protective symbols (more generally known as ‘apotropaics’) like witch marks, hexfoils, pentangles, compass circles, taper marks, and mesh designs recorded in county surveys across the length and breadth of the UK shows just how fearful of evil spirits past populations were. Compass-drawn designs often appear in a church porch, or at the base of a church tower (or, as at St Mary’s church in Newark, Nottinghamshire, on the lock of the tower door). Many roof beams and fireplace lintels are adorned with taper burns, a teardrop-shaped scorch mark created by holding a naked flame against the wood at a 45° angle for around 15 minutes. But perhaps most common of all is the ‘double-V’ witch mark or, if inverted, a ‘marion mark’ like a capital M – a design found in the thousands across the country.
The thinking behind these symbols appears to be steeped in superstitious beliefs. Placing a taper burn on the roof of a building or in a church tower will protect against fire from lightning strikes, literally fighting fire with fire. A compass design or mesh pattern will ensnare any unwitting demon or malevolent spirit, metaphorically ‘pinning’ them against the wall, as will an incised pentangle. And a double-V calls forth the protection of the Virgo Virginum (Virgin of Virgins): Mary, mother of Jesus.
These marks can be viewed as counter-spells in the same vein as the so-called ‘witch-bottles’ (see p.51), shoes hidden in chimneys, and other such ‘physical’ traces of this practical magic that we have in the archaeological record. They can date from anywhere in the medieval period into the 17th and early 18th centuries, though beyond this point there is a noticeable drop-off in evidence – perhaps due to the dawn of the ‘Age of Reason’ and the Enlightenment, when increasing scientific understanding began to edge out superstition. (Such beliefs did not die out entirely, however; see this month’s ‘In Focus’ for an inscription reflecting rather more malevolent magical practices in 19th-century Wales.)
The study of historical graffiti is a growing area of research, and in the last couple of years several high-profile discoveries have thrust the subject into the public eye, not least the intriguing array of protection symbols discovered at Knole in Kent as part of the National Trust’s award-winning ‘Archaeology at Knole’ project. These apotropaics date to 1606 and are thought to have been used to protect a room intended for King James I himself. With witch marks and demon traps scattering the floorboards and fireplace, these markings highlight the lengths to which people would go to protect buildings – and themselves – against witchcraft, the Devil, and malevolent spirits. Recently, however, research at Bolsover Castle in north-east Derbyshire has shown that these magical methods were used to protect animals too.
The ‘Father of Dressage’
The picturesque Jacobean fantasy known as Bolsover Castle was dreamed up by the Cavendish family, major landowners in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire who also built grand houses at Chatsworth in the Peak District, Welbeck in Nottinghamshire, and Hardwick in Derbyshire. A particularly notable scion of this line was the polymath William Cavendish (1592-1676), an avid horseman, swordsman, poet, playwright, and architect, who completed the building of Bolsover’s ‘Little Castle’ (the main tower) in 1621. As a courtier of James I and friend of both Charles I and Charles II, William moved in elite circles; his titles included Viscount of Mansfield (1620) and Earl of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1628), later becoming Marquess (1643) and finally Duke (1665) of Newcastle. Today, though, he is better known by another title, the ‘Father of Dressage’, as he is widely credited with having introduced the equine art to England.
From an early age, horses were extremely important to William – his family kept and trained their own to high standards at Welbeck Abbey, their Nottinghamshire country house – and by the 1630s he had aspirations to becoming the Royal Master of Horse. It was at this time that he built Bolsover’s Riding School, a range of four buildings including a shoeing room and forge (where horseshoes were made and stored), stables, and the main schoolroom where William trained his horses to manoeuvre around a number of ‘pillars’ – fixed white posts – and undertake more acrobatic ‘airs above the ground’. This tradition is continued today in the dressage performances hosted by Bolsover Castle throughout the year: it is the only place in the country where classical dressage displays still regularly take place. William’s care for his horses was also apparent in our recent research.
Our involvement with Bolsover Castle came about as part of the Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Medieval Graffiti Survey (DNMGS). Led by Involve Heritage CIC and MBArchaeology, this work began in 2016 and is ongoing – to date we have recorded hundreds of examples of graffiti, including dozens of protection marks, mostly clustered in very specific places or access points. For example, in the rear stairwell of the Little Castle, several doors are protected with a symbol placed at exactly the same height on both sides of the frame, as if creating some kind of invisible forcefield. These are generally witch marks or partial compass circles, although symbols usually described as mason’s marks were also noted – on this occasion, these too might be apotropaics.
Even William Cavendish’s toilet closet in the corner of his bedroom (whose tiny window overlooks the Riding School) is adorned with several compass circles and hexfoil designs. Evil spirits, it seems, will enter a building through any portal they can. Perhaps the most intriguing protection symbols, though, were discovered in Cavendish’s Riding School – they appear to have been specifically located to protect the horses from evil spirits.
Writing on the wall
Our survey of the Riding School buildings was separated into three areas: the shoeing room and forge building, which is set over three floors; the Riding School itself; and the stables area, which currently houses the Discovery Room exhibition space. The final part of the building has been converted into toilet facilities, so any graffiti there have now gone.
Let’s begin by exploring the shoeing room and the forge. On the ground floor, both areas were completely void of graffiti, as were the two rooms on the second floor – a surprise, given that this loft space had exposed roof beams where you might expect to find such markings. But on the first floor, home to two rooms believed to have served as accommodation for grooms or William’s Master of the Horse, our search was rather more fruitful. Two small, partial compass circle designs were spotted on the doorframe leading into the first room, and in the chamber itself six (possibly seven) double-V witch marks have been inscribed on the right-hand side of the window frame.
Enigmatic etchings could also be seen in the second room, where a series of scored ‘tally’ marks have been inscribed, again on the right-hand side of the window frame. Although it is far from certain that tally marks represent protection symbols, a fairly contemporary 17th-century German illustration of a witch’s sabbat clearly shows both tally marks and double-V symbols on a fireplace lintel, placed in order to prevent a witch from entering the building via the chimney. What is particularly interesting about this floor, though, is that both rooms and the landing space also have south-facing windows, yet none are protected with graffiti. Why only the northern perimeter required safeguarding remains elusive, and contradicts what we often see in medieval churches where it is the south porch that is usually inscribed with protective graffiti.
Moving into the Discovery Room – once the 17th-century stable block – we did note a few examples of historical graffiti, but these were mainly mason’s marks that, unlike those in the Little Castle, probably had a more mundane meaning. Given the modern renovation of the room and the removal of the stable boxes themselves, any protective symbology that had existed appears to have been lost, unfortunately. But on the wooden door that leads from the stables into the Riding School, a large, compass-drawn ‘double circle’ design has survived, hinting that further apotropaics may once have been present in this area too. Meanwhile, the markings in the Riding School itself were on another scale altogether.
Safeguarding the school
Within the school we recorded a flurry of protective graffiti, totalling 20 marks altogether. These included hexfoils/daisy wheels (7), compass circle designs (6), pentangles (3), tally marks (1), starbursts (1), ‘X’ motifs (1), and mesh designs (1). All three of the Riding School’s doors had a compass circle inscribed on the door or frame (with the west door also having a triple ‘X’ design), and six of the nine windows also bore protective marks. Two of these boasted particularly impressive clusters: window three (numbered clockwise from the west door entrance) had two hexfoils/daisy wheels, a pentangle, a compass circle, and a set of tally marks, while window five was marked with three hexfoils/daisy wheels.
The abundance, quality, and variety of protection marks in this part of the building is astounding, especially when considering that several examples are located around 10-12ft above ground level. (The windows were purposefully built high up in the walls in order that the horses would not be distracted from their training by outside views.) Most intriguing, though, is their dispersal. Every piece of protective graffiti is located on or around a door or window – this is a clear case of ‘spiritually barricading’ a room against evil spirits.
The location of some of the symbols and the difficulty of reaching them, let alone accurately inscribing them at such a height, may well suggest that they were created as the room was being built and before the stones were set in place. If so, this shows purposeful and deliberate planning, and is also one of the few occasions where we can accurately date examples of historic graffiti, as we know that the Riding School was built in the early 1630s. Interestingly, the same situation seems to have occurred at Knole – there, protective symbols had been carved onto wooden beams while they were still in the carpenter’s yard and before they were set in place within the building.
What do these markings mean? In his excellent chapter in the book Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain (2016), Timothy Easton discusses the use of apotropaic symbols to protect buildings, describing a wide range of designs including all of the motifs seen at Bolsover. For the double-V marks, he points out that the phrase Virgo Virginum would have featured in the pre-Reformation (that is, Catholic) prayers and laments that were familiar to English worshippers of this period. Indeed, in her book on William Cavendish, Cavalier, Lucy Worsley notes that the family were crypto-papists – seemingly Protestant in public, but continuing to practise Catholicism behind closed doors. Perhaps the presence of double-Vs at Bolsover might represent physical evidence of this adherence to the ‘old ways’.
Interestingly, Easton also points out that, although compass circles and hexfoils are found in all manner of buildings, their most common setting is in agricultural buildings and stables. It therefore comes as no surprise that 65% of the protective symbols in the Riding School use these designs. What they mean is still widely debated – interpretations range from sun wheels and Catherine wheels to Wheels of Fortune and protection against the evil eye. What is clear, however, is that they were frequently used to protect against malevolent spirits, and especially against witches.
In folklore, one belief associated with witches relates to horses being ‘hag ridden’: that is, witches taking the animal and riding them at night – if a horse was found to be sweating first thing in the morning, it was thought to be a clear sign of it having been ‘borrowed’ in this way. Applying protective symbols around doors, windows, and chimneys would prevent the witch from being able to gain access and steal the horse. Another common protective symbol specifically used to protect against witches is the ‘X’ design. This is often found on so-called ‘witch posts’, located near the fireplace in many old houses and cottages. The X, it seems, is a symbol that literally blocks the witch from entering, much as we might erect an X-shaped tape barricade across a doorway that we do not want people to enter. It is not a physical barrier, but the symbology of the design prevents us from entering.
The final design seen at Bolsover is the pentangle, or five-pointed star. While this motif is often associated with the dark arts in the present, historically it was a protective symbol, used from at least the medieval period. References to the design being employed in this way can be found in the 14th-century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which Gawain heads off on his quest with a pentangle symbol decorating his shield to safeguard him against the Green Knight. Given its use in post-medieval buildings too, the potency of the symbolism must have lasted through the centuries.
The range of historical protective symbols seen at Bolsover is impressive – yet they may only be a fraction of the apotropaics that were once used to keep the horses safe. Other practices of the time included the hanging of herbs, branches, or horseshoes; the placement of hag stones (small stones with a hole drilled through them); or taper burns on the wooden stable fixings – physical symbology that, if employed here, would not have survived the restoration/renovation that has occurred within the Riding School buildings since the 17th century. But the graffiti that does survive is an important testament – a window, if you will – into the fears and belief systems that once existed in all levels of society, from the lowly peasant right up to members of the Royal Court and even the King himself. It is a belief system that may appear alien to us in the present, but to our predecessors it was very real indeed.
Matt Beresford is a freelance archaeologist at MBArchaeology and Project Director for the Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Medieval Graffiti Survey. More on the project can be found at https://dnmgs.wordpress.com/.
ALL images: courtesy of Matt Beresford.