British History: The Witches Marks

April 26, 2019


There are many important aspects of British history that can be found in the various barns, country homes and medieval churches that are located all around the country. One of these historical features are the ‘witches marks’ or apotropaic symbols. Historic England tells us the symbols to protect those from witches and evil spirits were carved into entry points, doorways mainly, windows and fireplaces as form of protection for the inhabitants of the dwellings.


Most of the symbols that can be found today were made in the 16th century to the early 19th century when the practise of witchcraft was a common practise by some of the locals. 


The most common apotropaic marks was the ‘daisy wheel’ or often referred to as ‘hexafoils’ and can be found in a variety of sizes.


Historic England tells us of the hexafoils :


“The purpose of hexafoils is disputed. For example, the world of Wicca, which is a contemporary Pagan religious movement, sees them as sun motifs. Another school of thought suggests they are purely secular and could be geometric exercises for apprentices - they certainly do appear as geometry exercises or in manuals. However, their interpretation as a ritual protection mark is the most widely accepted theory at present.”


The most notable location for the witches marks can be found in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, at the birthplace of William Shakespeare. The etchings have been found by a cellar door that stored beer and the Tithe Barn, Bradford-on-Avon.


The Independent reports Duncan Wilson of Historic England saying:


"Witches' marks are a physical reminder of how our ancestors saw the world. They really fire the imagination and can teach us about previously-held beliefs and common rituals.”


"Ritual marks were cut, scratched or carved into our ancestors' homes and churches in the hope of making the world a safer, less hostile place.”


"They were such a common part of everyday life that they were unremarkable and because they are easy to overlook, the recorded evidence we hold about where they appear and what form they take is thin.


"We now need the public's help to create a fuller record of them and better understand them.”


The origins are thought to have been started during the Reformation of England and continued up to the industrial revolution.


The Knole House


In the Kent countryside and built in the 15th century is one of the largest homes in Britain, the Knole house. The building was the setting for Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ and was used by the Beatles for location filming by the Beatles for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.


The building has been undergoing a £20 million six-year renovation supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund in a recent report by the Financial Times (FT).


While renovation was being undertaken the apotropaic markings were found by the restorers. 


Nathalie Cohen, a National Trust archaeologist tells the FT : 


“I have found them before. They are surprisingly common. Once you start looking for them they are everywhere.”


“Ritual protection marks were very deliberately designed to create a virtual barrier.”


Marks found above the royal bedroom were designed to entrap witches and demons thus making it impossible to descend any further into the bedroom.


Ms. Cohen:


“A witch or demon would follow a line and it would become trapped.” 


“It relied on the witch or demon being quite stupid.”


Marks that are V-shaped were used to has a powerful symbol of the Virgin Mary to maximise protection.


Nick Molyneux, principal inspector of historic buildings for Historic England tells FT:


“They are often precise and beautifully done — windows, fireplaces, doors, and you can find them anywhere, from the grand to ordinary. I’ve seen them in the whole range of houses and farm buildings — medieval tythe barns, close to the door, probably made to protect the crops.”


“It’s pure archaeology in the sense that people didn’t write down why they were doing it. They just did it.”


But it was not just carvings used for warding off evil spirits and witches but even a pair of 17th century shoes, ‘witch bottles’ or beer bottles with hair, nail clippings and urine were placed in walls and other locations in order to keep protect the home.


But perhaps the most odd is the discovery of dried cats placed behind chimneys. Mr. Molyneux says:


“They are too common in terms of the numbers; it’s not purely accidental.”


Witches marks have also been discovered in the old homes of New England in America and Australia.





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