“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
How to combat the malevolent threat of witchcraft? Our ancestors were never short of ideas. Apart from terrorising lonely old women and killing their cats, they also used witches’ marks (aka apotropaic marks).
Scratched into the walls of houses, churches and other buildings, people used these symbols to protect themselves from witches. Most often they would take the form of circles scratched again and again into the wood.
In this photo above, we see two other, different kinds of marks. The interlinked VV in the top right of the picture means ‘Virgin of virgins’ and invokes Mary. Below it, there is a pentangle. Today, people associate the pentangle as a device of the devil, but in Medieval times it was looked upon as a ward of protection.
The five points of the Pentangle date back to the star of Solomon which gave the king power over demons. It is also referred to in the Medieval poem Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain bears a golden pentangle on his shield for protection when he sets off to face the sinister giant who continues to draw breath long after his head has been lopped off. In Medieval Graffiti, Matthew Champion explains that the geometric perfection of the pentangle represented a pure and unbroken line, a solid defence against supernatural beings of this type.
The marks in my photo above are inside the tower in Boston Stump in Lincolnshire, which is England’s tallest parish church, and a landmark for miles around, rising over the damp flat land known as the Lincolnshire fens.
It was in such country that the Anglo-Saxon monk Botolph, or Botwulf, fought demons and other fell creatures of the marsh. With such a history of battle against sorcery, it seems natural that people would have carved witches’ marks into the walls of the major local church.
Its American namesake Boston, Massachusetts is not named after Boston, Lincolnshire by chance. Many of the Pilgrim Fathers came from the Lincolnshire area, and indeed, they were locked up in Boston jail before they began their voyage to the new world.
Salem, Massachusetts was famously was the site of the some of the most extensive witchcraft trials in American history, and lies just a stone’s throw from Boston, USA, some twenty miles away. The notorious trials took place from 1692-1693 and I wonder if there is a direct link between the fears of the Bostonians who carved these witches’ marks in England, and those colonists who set about hanging innocent women on the other side of the Atlantic some years later.
It could be argued that the ‘1753’ here suggests that the marks on the Stump are later, but of course, the graffiti could have been written at any time and there seems to be another date, 167- below. We know that the tower where these marks appear was completed in 1520, giving plenty of time for these symbols to have been gouged out before the colonisation of the Americas.
It seems the Pilgrim Fathers brought their fears with them across the seas, as well as their hopes for the future.
You can help Historic England hunt for Witches’ Marks here.