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Guy Fawkes, witch marks and a spiritual midden at the Tower of London

close up of timbers scroched with mesh-like markings

Mesh symbols at the Tower of London © MOLA

How apotropaic witch marks and a hidden spiritual midden helped protect people at the Tower of London from Guy Fawkes and other heretics

Attempts to ward off ‘evil’ spirits in England hundreds of years ago are well known in historic buildings. But rarely have as many apotropaic witch marks carved and burnt into timber roof frames been counted as the 80 symbols discovered in 2015 at the Tower of London’s Queen’s House.

The house was the location where the Lieutenant of the Tower lived and where he interrogated high-profile prisoners, including Guy Fawkes, and other ‘traitors’ on their terrible journey to the tower’s cells and the scaffold.

Created between 1540 and the early 18th century, experts believe the marks symbolise the vulnerability the tower’s inhabitants felt from the evil forces that men like Fawkes – and other heretics – brought with them into the tower.

The marks include compass drawn designs and the popular mesh outlines that were thought to trap and pin demons. There are also the popular double-V shaped marks which invoked the protection of the Virgin Mary and other tear-shaped burn marks made by searing timbers with a wax taper.

photo of a teardrop shaped scorch mark on a timber

Apotropaic scorch marks on a timber in the Queen’s House at The Tower of London, 2015. © MOLA

photo of a book frontispiece laid out out in type with Daemonologie at the top

M0014280 James I: Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogue. Title page. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This perceived threat and the belief in witches and evil spirits was widespread in the seventeenth century and King James I, who was the target of Fawkes and his fellow Gunpowder Plotters in 1605, even wrote a manual about it called Daemonologie.

First published in 1599, the King’s book covered various topics on the innumerable ways of witches and demons and how to defend yourself from them – as well as other manifestations of evil, including vampires and werewolves.

Further findings at the house dating to this fascinating period of state-sanctioned superstition include an assemblage of deliberately placed objects discovered inside a hard to reach ‘void’ in the attic next to a chimney.

The objects, which archaeologists believe could have been placed there as a kind of ‘spiritual midden’ to distract and trap potential evil spirits as they made their way into the house through the chimney stack, include 46 animal bones, scraps of leather, broken blades, spades and a clay pipe. Together with the witch marks they offer an interesting new insight into the lives and fears of the people who lived in the tower – beyond the unfortunate prisoners who passed through there.

a photo of cardboard boxes of bones and other objects including a clay pipe

Animal bones and other objects from spiritual midden discovered at the Tower of London in 2015. © MOLA

As well as Fawkes, those prisoners included Lady Jane Grey, and the last prisoner held in the Great Fire of London-surviving tower – Rudolf Hess in 1941.

“The tower is well-known for historical graffiti associated with high-profile political prisoners,” says James Wright, a Buildings Archaeologist for Museum of London Archaeology, who made the discoveries. “But these discoveries offer a new perspective. They reveal something of the hopes, fears and desires of the everyday occupants of this iconic fortress.

“The spiritual midden, full of assorted objects and intended to protect the palace from evil spirits, is really exciting. These features are rarely, if ever, excavated by archaeologists.”

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Tower of London

London, City of London

The ancient stones reverberate with dark secrets, priceless jewels glint in fortified vaults and ravens strut the grounds. The Tower of London, founded by William the Conqueror in 1066-7, is one of the world's most famous fortresses, and one of Britain's most visited historic sites. Despite a grim reputation as…

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