During the early part of the 17th century, ‘herbal healers’ Joan Flowers and her two daughters, Margaret and Philippa, suffered from a financial setback. They began working at Belvoir Castle, to help the 6th Earl and Countess of Rutland to prepare for a visit from King James I. The family was generally disliked among the other staff members; because of the impression they gave that they were superior to others, and they were accused of stealing. This resulted in their dismissal, without even compensation for the daughters. It is reported that during their departure, the Flowers swore that they would have their revenge upon the earl and his family.
After the women left the castle, the entire family became ill and the earl’s first son died. Shortly before Christmas in 1618, five years after the family’s dismissal, their second son perished. The noble family accused the Flowers of cursing them, and had the women arrested. Initial investigations took place and it was ordered that the women be transported to Lincoln gaol. During the journey, Joan, who had adamantly maintained her innocence, offered to consume a piece of bread as a substitute for the Eucharist. This would have been proof that she was innocent, as witches were believed to be servants of the devil and would not be able to partake of Holy Communion. Unfortunately, the girls’ mother choked on the morsel, dying and proving her guilt.
At the prison Margaret confessed that Joan had been a witch, and Philippa confirmed that the girls also practiced witchcraft alongside her. They used spirits to assist them in their spells, and their mother’s cat, Rutterkin, was a familiar. Margaret and Philippa admitted to having visions of devils, and allowed the spirits to visit them at night and suck their blood. They admitted to playing a large part in the cursing of the earl’s family, naming three other villagers as co-conspirators.
Following their mother’s instructions, the girls stole the older son’s glove from the castle. Joan then dipped it in boiling water, rubbed it along the cat’s back and pricked it. While chanting incantations including ‘as the glove done rot, so will the lord’ their mother buried the item. A similar spell was done with one belonging to the younger son, and this was the cause of both boys becoming ill and dying. The reason that the daughter hadn’t perished was because Rutterkin had no power over her. The women had also cast spells to prevent the earl and his wife from being able to have any more children.
The daughters were tried and found guilty of witchcraft, and both hanged on 11th March 1619. Evidence has recently been uncovered that suggests they may have been framed by another member of the aristocracy, that wanted to marry the earl’s daughter. This has caused many people to question whether The Witches of Belvoir were ever really witches at all?