The Witches Of Knole

Christopher Fowler
166218432__797914c My mother lives very close to 600 year-old Knole House in Sevenoaks, Kent, and on a sunny day we visit the house.
Knole is vast,
complex and full of hidden treasures. Originally
an Archbishop's
palace, the house passed
through royal hands to the Sackville family —
Knole's inhabitants from 1603 to today. There are paintings by
Reynolds, Gainsborough and Van Dyck, 17th-century tapestries and furniture. There's a juicy backstory involving Virginia Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West, who couldn't inherit her beloved house and watched it go to an uncle. And there was a great fear of witches. For it turns out that during the recent renovations,
witch-marks newly discovered under 17th-century floorboards. These are a series of criss-crosses that protect the building from attack by witches. The protection signs were put in at
a time of national paranoia — within months of the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 — for the anticipated visit of a king, James I, known to be fascinated by and terrified of witchcraft. Archaeologists have discovered the symbols not just in the bed chamber prepared for James, but carved into the joists and around the fireplace of the room directly overhead, which would probably have been occupied by one of his sons or a close member of his retinue. The house carpenters probably put the demon traps in themselves without the owners' knowledge. But are
witch-marks really just carpenters' marks to guide the placing of timbers? Not in this case, say experts, because they were made before the timbers were put in place. The house has just undergone refurbishments that open up previously closed spaces to visitors. It's an enjoyable afternoon out from London, less than one hour by train. article-1322970-0BB624C2000005DC-620_468x337


Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 07/11/2014 - 17:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Marvelous! This has to go to a friend who has been fascinated by the Sackville-Wests for a long time. (This is where the white garden is, isn't it?)

Vivienne (not verified) Fri, 07/11/2014 - 22:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This sort of history is so fascinating as it reveals people's thinking. I read an article not long ago ( but I am hopeless at remembering the provenance) which discussed the old habit of burying or concealing, articles of clothing within the walls of houses, presumably to ward off evil spirits. Who would know that? When do traditions die?

snowy (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 00:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was tempted to write a great long [and frankly rather dull piece] about 'spooky' marks in old buildings, but even thinking about it was making me nod off. So I didn't, it's all out there on the less sensational part of the Internet for those inclined. The short version goes: a lot of very large timbers were recycled and could carry multiple marks, a lot of construction was pre-fabricated away from its final destination, marked up, then dismantled and moved by cart to the final site. The list goes on, but it's not very 'sexy' [and won't get you any grant money!]

It's common to find these and other sorts of things if you get into the core structure of an old building, shoes are very common as are horseshoes. Clothing not so common, dessicated cats occasionally, coins very seldom and the rarest things are 'witch bottles', these tend to shatter when breaking down walls, which is doubly unfortunate given what they generally contain!

It still goes on today, recently one particular place I know had the front steps rebuilt and before they were closed in a pair of childrens shoes, some coins and few other sundry objects were placed within to 'guard the threshold'.

[There is even a story about a very rare Eddie VII coin, one of only a handfull not recalled when he 'waltzed off with his American piece'* encased in concrete somewhere.]

[*As Granny would have said.]

Helen Martin (not verified) Sat, 08/11/2014 - 16:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Newspapers often - we put one along with some coins up above our renovated kitchen cupboards - and in the wall we found three copies of a Wrigley gum advertising booklet using rewritten nursery rhymes to extol the health giving qualities of chewing gum, especially spearmint.

Brian Evans (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 10:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen- The white garden is in Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West and husband Harold Nicolson

Reuben (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 15:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm sure I've been there. It has deer wondering around in the grounds if I remember right.

Helen Martin (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 21:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Reuben - Knole or Sissinghurst?
Thank you, Brian. As soon as you said it I knew you were right.

Reuben (not verified) Sun, 09/11/2014 - 23:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh, Knole. Though I'm sure my grandparents dragged me to Sissinghurst at some point. All these National Trust properties start to blend into one after a while.

Jan (not verified) Mon, 10/11/2014 - 15:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

hope this doesn't make u 2 snoozy Snowy ................ These carved signs on timblers within buildings are common in most parts of the UK theres a cottage near Toller Porcorum in West Dorset that has a series of carvings - well more like scratches really quite crudely done on a large timber on the front of the structure at about the height of the floor/ ceiling between ground and 1st floors. Sometimes these carvings can be mixed up with makers marks the signs or carvings the illeterate carpenters would create on timbers so they would identify and be paid for their work on buildings but in the case of the TP cottage the sign of the protection from the witch is a series of circles non unlike a Catherine wheel - not the firework but the wheel like structure St Catherine was crucified upon.
Ancient churches sometimes have a wheel or sun carving on the outer structure St Candida in Whitchurch Canicorium has such a carving maybe a represetation of a sundial or some historians say its a representation of an ancient local game.. theres a couple of churches on the IOW with similar sundial carvings.

What is also interesting to hark back to Snowy's theme inside of the chimney breasts of very old cottages small iron structures horseshoes, blacksmiths tools, kitchen implements are often found. A couple of years ago one turned up in an ancient cottage being renovated in Askerswell. Iron is the natural enemy of the devil and was thought to protect the inhabitents of a building from the devils influence. i think the whole topic of these votives, these offerings
to buildings is really interesting an ancient practice which has gone on throughout time. When the incomers from Eastern europe started working in Britain this whole thing was given a new lease of life the builders from Poland and Latvia continued the traditions from their own nations incorporating "offerrings" to ensure safety of the builders creating a structure and later the inhabitants of the new structures. Right am sure u r all snoring deeply by now

snowy (not verified) Tue, 11/11/2014 - 02:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jan, fear not. :-) having more perspectives is invaluable. Stops me getting caught in a 'mental rut'.

Buildings, even comparatively new ones are plastered with all sorts of odd squiggles, whose real function will never be known. But it is fun to try to puzzle them out.

[I could take you to a place that has concealled within it a full length portrait of 'Yours Truly'. I should point out that I didn't commision it, knew nothing about it and was mightily baffled when it was shown to me. Thankfully it is dissappearing under multiple layers of Anaglypta. Heaven only knows what people will make of that in years to come!]

An after thought, or question.
Isn't the use of Iron related back to the nails from the cross? Not sure? got any ideas?

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 12/11/2014 - 02:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Did a quick search to remind myself. Blood smells of iron (which it contains) and so does ochre, one of the earliest dyes, and most peoples considered blood to be the life force. Iron carries the power of human life, I guess. There were other references but not that particularly Christian one, Snowy.

jan (not verified) Wed, 12/11/2014 - 16:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think its probably older than the crucifixion but like lots of similar stuff theres a biblical interpretation or spin that can be put on it ...........at one point i knew for definate but i'm not at home i access the internet in a public libnary so leave it with me i'll have a think.

Loads of ideas about metallurgy seemed to resonate and have long lasting influence like King Arthur and the stone - drawing the sword out of the stone is probably a legend woven around a blacksmith or his apprentice breaking a mould around a sword he just created. Anyone with these skills would be a v powerful godlike figure in a communtiy. i actually had a go at trying to locate such a site within the city of London where this legend could have originated but it was a bit much for me!!

jan (not verified) Fri, 14/11/2014 - 10:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy after a gr8 deal of thought and headscratching the best I can come up with is iron being a lightening conductor I know that's not gr8 and theres probably lots more to it but that's the best my feeble old brain can come up with. I've sort of warmed to this idea of the beginnings of metallurgy being deep in human memory as a thing of gr8 importance. The Norse and Anglosaxon interpretations of the tale of Waylands Smithy( - in fact theres a site in Oxfordshire I think where monoliths are named after Waylands smithy -) were of some importance in the same way as the tale of the Sword in the Stone which gets tangled up with the Arthur stories. Anyway can't hang about am in Wells public library w8ing for the museum library to open so I can do a bit of research there. I'm really up this way to see Well's carnival this evening but might as well use my time efficiently!!! all the best jan

snowy (not verified) Fri, 14/11/2014 - 20:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks jan, I hope you enjoy/enjoyed* the carnival..

*depending on what day it is. :-)