How do we protect our homes today? We have locks, alarms, cameras, lights, smoke detectors etc to protect our homes against fire and thieves. But what about in the 1600s? What were the residents of Oak House, Bromwich Hall, and Haden Old Hall concerned with protecting their homes against? Of course they feared thieves and certainly fire (in a world of wooden buildings, wooden furniture and open fires). However, a major fear for people 400 years ago (which we probably find difficult to understand today) was the fear of evil doing, spells, witchcraft, demons, spirits and generally bad luck. What can you do to protect your home from these things?
Apotropaic Marks (protective marks)
If you like looking around old buildings then look a little closer and you might discover some strange marks. The best places to look for these are around entrances, fireplaces, windows or doors (these are not to be mistaken for carpenter’s or mason’s marks used to help put buildings together or show who had built what).
But what were these strange marks for and why were they put there?
You might see a double V like the one above from Bromwich Hall. One theory is that the overlapping Vs represent the initials of the Virgin Mary. It is thought that these marks might be asking the Virgin Mary for protection. We know that even into the 1600s the family at Bromwich Hall had Catholic leanings so the Virgin Mary would have been important in their religious life.
You may see something that looks like a # called a mesh pattern. A famous example of this was found at Knole in Sussex in apartments used by King James I who was notoriously scared of witchcraft and spell casting. These mesh patterns may represent a net to catch the evil.
One of the most popular patterns is what is called a daisy wheel, which looks like the flower pattern you make with a compass. It is believed the circles turn away and confuse evil.
However the specific meanings attached to these marks are just theories as nothing was really written down about them at the time.
We have a number of these marks carved into the entrance at Bromwich Hall built in the 1500s. These include the double V and the mesh pattern but we’ve spotted other marks about the house too. The daisy wheel pattern has also been spotted on the belvedere (tower) at Oak House when works were being undertaken. There is a daisy wheel on a window frame too but this is probably dating from the 1800s (is this ‘fake’ or a continuation of a long tradition?).
There has been much debate as to the full meaning of marks like this and what specific marks mean. The same shaped marks do appear on different buildings across the country and although many seem to have been created between the 1400s and 1700s there are many older and many more recent examples too. In general terms these marks are for protection against witches, demons, spirits and evil generally placed near openings and entrances where evil or spells could get through into the building. These marks are also protection against bad luck more generally and to encourage good luck.
Another way that buildings and furniture were marked was by making taper marks. This is where the mark has been deliberately burnt into the wood. These used to be explained as accidental burn marks but it is now widely believed by experts that these marks are very deliberate and had a clear purpose to protect against bad luck, evil or even maybe, as is suggested at Lower Brockhampton in Herefordshire, to protect the building from fire.
A student studying protective marks came to look at our furniture at Oak House and found many examples of taper marks which are normally hidden from view. These are in places where it is impossible to see how they could be accidental burn marks.
The practice of filling bottles with objects such as nails, hair, pins, urine, small bones and thorns then concealing the bottle, started in the middle of the 1600s. Almost half of these bottles are found near or underneath a hearth and many others are found at a threshold, under the floor or hidden in the walls. Like the carved marks these protective bottles are often found near entrances or weak points where evil might get into the house. There have been around 250 examples recorded in England and they are usually known as ‘witch bottles’. It seems that these bottles were used as a counter-spell against witchcraft and evil doing.
In 2004, a complete witch bottle was found during excavations in Greenwich. It provided a rare opportunity for experts to explore its contents which had been placed in the bottle in the 1600s. When the bottle was opened, bent nails and pins, a nail-pierced leather heart, fingernail clippings, navel fluff and hair were found inside.
You may look back at our ancestors and think this a little strange or even silly. However, it must be remembered that they saw the world and how it worked very differently to how we do. It is very difficult for us to get into their thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes. But this was a world where people really feared witches, demons and bad luck, a world where life was very precarious and many died young, where a failed harvest was devastating, a disease which killed your farm animals could mean starvation and where you could expect to bury several of your children. People explained many of these misfortunes and disasters on evil doing, so were desperate to find ways to protect themselves, their families and their homes. Of course prayer was extremely important to many but what practical measures could people take for themselves? For those in the 1600s it was protective marks, and counter spells.
How would you go about protecting yourself from spells, evil and bad luck today? Do you have any better ideas than our ancestors?