In a time when the Christian faith is itself subject to so much questioning and where atheism is no longer seen as the domain of the wicked and profane, it is hard to comprehend that only three or four hundred years ago witchcraft was seen not as a superstition but as an everyday fact of life. The last witch executed in England was Alice Molland at Exeter as recently as 1684. The last execution for witchcraft in Europe was as recently as 1782 in that famed hotbed of social upheaval and anarchy - Switzerland! That’s 5 years after the American Declaration of Independence and 7 years before the French Revolution.
The facts of the Belvoir case as we know them is that Joan Flower of Bottesford and her daughter Margaret were dismissed from the service of the Earl and Countess for theft. When the Earl’s son, Lord Ross, experienced a number of illness and eventually died, and the Earl and Countess themselves suffered “dreadful convulsions” suspicion fell on the two dismissed women. They were arrested on the Earl’s orders in Christmas 1617 or 1618, along with Margaret’s other daughter Philippa, and “examined” at Lincoln. Joan Flower fatefully asked for bread and butter and said she wished she might choke on the food if she was guilty. Rather conveniently, you might think, she promptly did just that! Cynics such as myself might ask whether the bread and butter had been poisoned, bearing in mind that the “authorities” presumably bent over backwards to please the Earl. Others speculate that the woman poisoned herself to avoid the agonies that she knew were to come.
The two daughters now admitted to a variety of fantastical machinations. Their mother’s cat, Rutterkin, was her “familiar”. They had stolen the glove of Lord Ross, dipped it in boiling water, stroked it along Rutterkin’s back and pricked it. Feathers from the Rutlands’ bed and pair of gloves had been boiled in water and mixed with blood and spells cast to prevent the Rutlands’ conceiving more children...and so on and so on. They implicated three other unfortunate women one of whom, Anne Baker, was a resident of Bottesford. They too confessed to all manner of iniquities.
The daughters were hanged at Lincoln. There seems to be no record of what happened to the three they had implicated. Such was the depth of the Rutlands’ belief in the malevolent power of these unfortunate women that they even attributed the death of their daughter to them after they were all dead!
We can reasonably speculate that the daughters knew that their own fates were sealed when their mother failed her self-initiated test. Lincoln Gaol would have been no place for the faint-hearted and we all accept nowadays that, if sufficient pressure is applied, a tortured soul will confess to just about anything. I had wondered if the women’s confessions were to ensure hanging rather than burning as a means of death, but I was surprised to find that the burning of witches was not common practice in England, although rather more so in Scotland. As a felony, hanging was the normal punishment in England.