Three Real Shakespearian Witches

When someone mentions Shakespeare’s witches we naturally assume they are referring to the three weird sisters from Macbeth.  Yet around the same time as the Lancashire Witch Trials were taking place in Northern England, another sinister plot was unraveling closer to King James’ court.  Ironically, it involved a nefarious character who moved in the shadows of Shakespeare’s own circle – a cunning man by the name of Simon Forman (1552-1611). Two years after his death, Forman was implicated in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury through his relationship with two former female patrons, Countess Frances Howard Carr (1590-1632) and Mistress Anne Turner (1576-1615).

Forman

But Simon Forman was neither the fool nor evil magician that Stuart history suggests.  Much more likely he was a self-trained quack whose chief sins concerned the numerous illicit sexual conquests he recorded in his diaries.  Forman was a charismatic, intelligent seducer who dabbled in apothecary, astrology, and the occult arts.  His clients included Emilia Lanier (possibly Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady) and Mrs. Mountjoy, the bard’s landlady.  Interestingly, Macbeth is one of the plays Forman mentions seeing at the Globe Theatre (April 20, 1610).  Yet as Barbara Howard Traister’s biography comments, Forman appeared much more interested in the note-taking doctor than in the supernatural characters, which is intriguing for a man who had already been imprisoned on charges of witchcraft.

 

Although Forman died in 1611, his reputation and influence lived on.  He was accused of having supplied the poison that killed Overbury in a diabolical plot hatched by the two femme-fatales – Carr and Turner – and of providing the countess with the magical means to be rid her former husband (Robert Devereux) in order to win over the king’s favorite courtier, Robert Carr.

Countess

At the center of the controversy stood Countess Frances, a virgin child-bride wedded to the Earl of Essex who had since fallen in love with the dashing Earl of Somerset.  Frances wanted her political marriage annulled so she could marry her beloved, but Carr’s mentor – Sir Thomas Overbury – disapproved of this match and stood in their way.  A plot was hatched to discredit Overbury, and he suddenly found himself confined to the Tower of London on trumped-up charges.

Some years earlier the countess had apparently contacted Simon Forman for a love potion.  It was stated at her trial that the cunning man also supplied her with a range of poisons, that were later mixed with tarts and jellies before being fed to the imprisoned Overbury by his jailor.  He died in September, 1613.  A few weeks later the Devereux marriage was officially annulled leaving Frances free to wed Carr.  But over the following months rumors of the murder plot began circulating at court, finally forcing the king to pay notice and address them.  Under the weight of the overwhelming evidence presented the countess confessed to poisoning her enemy, was found guilty at trial, but eventually received a pardon.  She was released from the Tower in 1622, having served due sentence for her crime.  Her accomplice, however, was not so fortunate.

Turner

 Anne Turner was rumored by some to be the illegitimate child of the conjurer, Simon Forman.  She was widowed from Dr. George Turner in 1610 and then became the mistress of Sir Arthur Mainwaring.  Somehow or other she befriended the countess, perhaps in her capacity as a sought-after dressmaker.  Anne held the patent for the saffron starch that dyed fashionable ruffs and cuffs yellow, a more flattering color for many complexions than the usual ivory white lawn.  She was also an independent business woman who ran houses of ill-repute in Hammersmith and Paternoster Row.  But because she was not of noble birth, the accomplice became the scapegoat for Overbury’s death.  Anne Turner, convicted of being a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon, and a murderer, was hanged at Tyburn in 1615.  She was sent to execution in her own fashionable yellow ruff, by a man wearing the same saffron ruff and cuffs – denouncing the color of her dye and putting an end to that particular fashion.

Of course these were not the three evil ones Shakespeare envisaged when writing Macbeth.  Yet he does add a final statement to the scandal in later versions of All’s Well That Ends Well by having  Parolles mocked for wearing a big ruff starched with “villainous saffron.”

Jacobean witches came in many shapes and guises!

 

Sources:  

The Casebook Project: “Sinon Forman (1552-1611)” (Cambridge: U of Cambridge, 2013)

Downing, Sarah Jane. Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare (Oxford: Shire, 2014)

Traister, Barbara Howard. The Notorious Astrological Physician of London (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001)

Wikipedia: “Simon Forman,” “Anne Turner(Murderer)” and “Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset.”

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Recipe For Disaster

In Act IV – Scene I of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” prepare a “hell-broth” to produce a series of apparitions for Macbeth that set in motion a chain of deadly events.  Written only six years before the Lancashire Witch Trials, this script provides a good insight into some of the magical beliefs of that time.

 

out of; (c) Royal Shakespeare Company Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights hast thirty one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,

Make the gruel thick and slab:

Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,

For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.”

The Jacobean audience believed that witches brewed such diabolical charms, and seeing this dramatic scene live on stage they would likely have been terrified, fascinated, mesmerized, and revolted by the disgusting ingredients – exactly as Shakespeare intended.  But let us take a closer look at his recipe.

The bard was not only a master playwright, he was also a shrewd psychologist who understood the minds of the masses who flocked to the London theatres. Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the first things thrown in the pot is the fenny snake, a nod to the snake who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The Catholic Church claimed that all women were necessarily evil because of Eve’s transgression, and that explains why the majority of accused witches were female.  The next three ingredients – eye of newt, toe of frog, and wool of bat – are added to the first item swelter’d toad venom – highlighting four nocturnal creatures that are often associated with witches and their familiar spirits.  The liver of blaspheming Jew endorses the common anti-Semitic beliefs of that era, alongside the racial prejudices held against the Turk and Tartar.  And Shakespeare further played into the beliefs of his class-conscious, biased audience by having a good man like Macbeth brought down by his scheming wife and a band of wicked hags.

A country audience, however, may have interpreted Macbeth’s cauldron quite differently from the royal courtiers and city dwellers.  Many of these exotic ingredients are actually poetic variants on the common names for herbs.  Fenny snake = chickweed; Eye of newt=mustard seed; Toe of frog = frog’s foot or bulbous buttercup; Wool of bat = bog moss; Tongue of dog = hound’s tongue; Adder’s tongue = adder’s tongue fern; Lizard’s leg = ivy; Howlet’s wing = henbane; Scale of dragon = dragonwort; Tooth of Wolf = wolf’s bane; Hemlock root = hemlock; Liver of Jew = Jew’s myrtle or box holly; Gall of goat = St. John’s Wort or honeysuckle;  Slips of Yew = yew tree bark; Nose of Turk = Turk’s cap; Tartar’s lips = ginseng or tartar root; Tiger’s chaudron = lady’s mantle; and the Finger of birth-strangled babe= foxglove, also known as “bloody fingers”.   The remaining items – toad venom, powdered mummy, shark, and baboon’s blood – were all widely thought to have medicinal properties.

Why did Shakespeare choose these fierce-sounding ingredients?  Joyce Froome (Wicked Enchantments) argues that, for the wise women of Pendle, these herbs would be part of their everyday folk magic.  Catt Foy (Witches & Pagans) suggests that maybe “Shakespeare knew a little more about herbcraft than he was letting on,” and Nigel Beale (Literary Tourists Blog) believes he chose names “designed to gross out the masses, to stop them from practicing magic.”

But William Shakespeare was  also a poet.  He knew the magic of words and  rhythmical power of his hypnotic witch chant.  It did not matter that these characters may have been throwing armfuls of common hedgerow roots and leaves into a boiling cook pot.  Much more important were the awful-sounding names that conjured up terrifying images in the minds of his audience – and at this he was an unsurpassed wizard!

Witch Circle

Sources:

Beale, Nigel. “Macbeth and what was in the Witches Brew” (Literary Tourist) http://literarytourist.com/2009/10/macbeth-and-what-was-in-the-witches-brew/ accessed 2/2/2015

Foy, Catt. “A Witch’s Brew: Recipe by Shakespeare” in Witches & Pagans #29 (Oregon: BBI Media, Spring, 2014) pages 24-26.

Froome, Joyce. Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and their Magic (Lancaster: Carnegie Books, 2010)

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Macdonald & Co., 1987)

Old Demdike: Seven

Go Love-Nuts On Halloween!

“Can’t choose between two lovers? Here’s a spell to help – but it must be cast on All Hallows:
Light a fire and take three walnuts. Name one for yourself and one for each suitor.

Shell Walnut Walnuts Nuts

Place the three nuts on the fire with yours in the middle of the other two.
If either nut cracks – or jumps away – that union is not meant to be.
The two nuts that blaze closest together will make the best marriage!”

Old Demdike: Six

From my voluntarie Confession and Examination (April 2, 1612)

” . . . the speediest way to take a mans life away by Witchcraft, is to make a Picture of Clay, like unto the shape of the person whom they meane to kill,& dry it thorowly: and when they would have them to be ill in any one place more then the other; then take a Thorne or Pinne, and pricke it in that part of the Picture you would so have to be ill: and when you would have any part of the Body to consume away, then take that part of the Picture, and burne it. And when you would have the whole body to consume away, then take the remnant of the sayd Picture, and burne it: and so thereupon by that meanes, the body shall die.”

 

Source: Potts, Thomas. The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, 1613.

Anne Boleyn, the Witch: Part Four

Anne Boleyn 4

 Witch Crime #4: Anne Boleyn was presented as a seductress by her early suitor, Sir Thomas Wyatt.

In Poem XI he writes –

“Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”
Wyatt is thought to be describing his own romantic pursuit of Mistress Anne, in direct competition with the reigning “Caesar” (King Henry).  With his characteristic play on words he presents “an (Anne) hind (deer)” – “Dear Anne” as their beautiful prey.  But as Karen Lindsey points out, “everyone knew what happened to the wild creature at the hunt’s end”(59) – it was captured, possessed, and destroyed.  Further, by alluding to the ingrained imagery from the Malleus Maleficarum, Wyatt’s line, “Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind” unfortunately conjured up the witches described by the two Catholic Inquisitors: “Their face is like a burning wind . . . and when it is said that her heart is a net, it speaks of the inscrutable malice which reigns in their hearts” (46).  Yet while Wyatt’s word-choice was most likely an unconscious literary device intended to portray the beloved as an illusive free spirit, his subliminal portrayal of Anne as a wild woman was not in her best interests, especially when the courtiers familiar with the Malleus, who had access to his early manuscript poems, were most likely the same men who sat at her trial.  The pretty doe of the hunt soon turned into a dangerously seductive temptress.
Even Wyatt’s enigmatic riddle (Poem LIV) implicates the Queen –
“What word is that that changeth not,
Though it be turned and made in twain?
It is mine answer, God it wot,
And eke the causer of my pain.
It love rewardeth with disdain:
Yet is it loved. What would ye more?
It is my health eke and my sore.”
Again, not intentionally associating his “answer” (Anne, sir) with witch craft, the poet’s ambiguous phrasing lends itself to a potentially sinister interpretation.  For although both the “causer of my pain” and “my sore” are common terms from the Courtly Tradition, they are also reminders of the Inquisitor’s warning  that, “a woman is beautiful to look upon, contaminating to touch, and deadly to keep” (46), and one of her many “injuries towards men” is the agony of “bewitching into an inordinate love”(47).  Wyatt’s poems stand in acknowledgement of Anne Boleyn’s seductive powers.  They may further have reminded her enemies of the old Queen Catherine because of this statement from the Malleus: “. . . how many adulterers have put away the most beautiful wives to lust after the vilest of women!” (51).
Perhaps one of Wyatt’s most damning poems is XXV –
“The lively sparks that issue from those eyes
Against the which ne vaileth no defence
Have pressed mine heart and done it none offence
With quaking pleasure more than once or twice.
Was never man could anything devise
The sunbeams to turn with so great vehemence
To daze man’s sight, as by their bright presence
Dazed am I, much like unto the guise
Of one ystricken with dint of lightning,
Blinded with the stroke, erring here and there.
So call I for help, I not when ne where,
The pain of my fall patiently bearing.
For after the blaze, as is no wonder,
Of deadly ‘Nay’ hear I the fearful thunder.”
 
It is thought that “The lively sparks” may be a reference to Anne Boleyn’s “striking and unusual” dark eyes (Chapman, 21).  The second line, “Against the which (witch) ne vaileth no defence,” suggests that the lover has no protection against the sorceress, and the phrase, “Have pressed mine heart ” recalls one of the punishments dealt to witches when their bodies are “pressed” under heavy stones to extract a confession.  The speaker of the poem is “ystricken with dint of lightning” as if falling under a spell, and though he should say “Nay”(No), her power over him is too strong to resist. Ironically, this young man’s heart-felt love poems may have helped pave the way for his sweetheart’s execution.
It is doubtful if any of the Queen’s friends actually believed she was a witch.  And though she was condemned for treason and adultery, her own conscience was apparently clear.  Shortly before her death Anne told her jailor that she “would be a saint in Heaven, because I have done many good deeds in my days” (Lindsey, 100).   But unfortunately, over the centuries,  Wyatt’s damning words have reached far more ears than her last cry of innocence.
Sources for Part Four:
Chapman, Hester W. Anne Boleyn (London: cape, 1974)
Kramer, Heinrich; and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum (New York: Dover, 1971)
 (Worldwide: Addison-Wesley, 1996)
Wyatt, Thomas. The Complete Poems Ed. R.A. Rebholz. (Worldwide: Penguin,1978)

Anne Boleyn, the Witch: Part Three

 

In today’s enlightened age, few would believe that Anne Boleyn was actually guilty of witchcraft.  She may have had traces of an extra nail growing on her little finger, and possibly a mole on her neck, as reported by early biographer George Wyatt (grandson of Sir Thomas) who based his information from interviews with Anne’s former attendants.  But who does not have any form of blemish on their body?  Such flaws were obviously acceptable to King Henry when he desired her, but they appear to have been greatly magnified by her detractors in later years.  By the time Nicholas Sanders gave his account a half-century later, the disgraced Queen was said to have buck teeth and a whole extra finger on her right hand!  Yet the remains of a body thought to be Anne Boleyn’s, exhumed in the nineteenth century, showed no signs of skeletal abnormality.  Of course, after three hundred years there would be scant trace of a mole or extra finger-nail remaining, but the evidence suggests that any imperfections Anne had were minor. So why were they interpreted as signs of devilry? A clue may be found in the English language.

 Boleyn 2

The Malleus Maleficarum states that “The word ‘woman’ means ‘the lust of the flesh'”(43), which today can be understood as a psychological projection of blame onto the object of male desire.  Women were seen as fickle, seductive creatures who would lead good Christian men astray.  They made easy prey for demons to recruit, and then these familiar spirits would claim their victims with “witches marks” (moles, skin tags, supernumerary nipples, or birth marks) – places on the body where they could suckle human blood.  Therefore every sexually-active woman was potentially the devil’s gateway. 

Unfortunately, the dual concepts of wickedness and blame worked their way into everyday language.  If a man found a woman attractive it was because she was consciously bewitching, beguiling, enchanting, charming, captivating, or seductive.  Now as part of every day speech, such terms were harmless.  But when certain courtiers wrote them into love songs and sonnets, then  they became exceedingly dangerous.  Especially for a suspect Queen.

It seems unlikely that Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Anne Boleyn ever consummated their close relationship, despite the fact he was an ardent suitor of Mistress Boleyn before King Henry started noticing her. With the reputation for being one of the best poets of his age, Wyatt used clever wordplay and an ambiguous “I” speaker in the poems thought to have been written with her in mind: “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,” “What word is that that changeth not,” “If waker care, if sudden pale colour,” and “Sometime I fled the fire that me brent.”  The poet was arrested in May 1536, charged with committing adultery with the Queen.  Five other men were also accused, but he was the only one who escaped execution – proof enough that Henry believed his relationship with Anne was platonic.

And yet the beautiful words in Wyatt’s love sonnets may have ultimately  helped to condemn his lady.  Find out how in Part Four.

Sources for Part Three:

Daalder, Joost.  Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems  (Worldwide: Oxford UP, 1975)

Foley, Stephen Mirriam. Sir Thomas Wyatt (Boston: Twayne, 1990)

Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum (New York: Dover, 1971)

Wiatt, William H. “Sir Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn” in English Language Notes, Vol. VI (December, 1968). Colorado: U of Colorado, 1968. 94-102.

Old Demdike: Five

A Charme to Cure the Bewitched.

(Francisco de Goya y Lucientes)

“Upon Good-Friday, I will fast while I may
Untill I heare them knell
Our Lords owne Bell,
Lord in his messe
With his twelve Apostles good,
What hath he in his hand
Ligh in leath wand:
What hath he in his other hand?
Heavens doore key,
Open, open Heaven doore keyes,
Steck, steck hell doore.
Let Crizum child
Goe to it Mother mild,
What is yonder that casts a light so farrandly,
Mine owne deare Sonne that’s naild to the Tree.
He is naild sore by the heart and hand,
And holy barne Panne,
Well is that man
That Fryday spell can,
His childe to learne;
A Crosse of Blew, and another of Red,
As good Lord was to the Roode.
Gabriel laid him downe to sleepe
Upon the ground of holy weepe:
Good Lord came walking by,
Slep’st thou, wak’st thou Gabriel,
No Lord I am sted with sticke abd stake,
That I can neither sleepe nor wake:
Rise up Gabriel and goe with me,
The stick nor the stake shall never deere thee.
Sweete Jesus our Lord, Amen.”

Taken from Jennet Device’s testimony against her bother, James (August, 1612)