Witches of Belvoir 'may have been framed'

Image caption The Witches of Belvoir stood accused of cursing the Earl of Rutland's two sons

While the Halloween stereotype of a witch is of a wizened evil crone, witches were often ordinary women persecuted over disputes or because they had "ideas above their station".

Now, fresh research suggests three so-called witches blamed for cursing a nobleman's sons may have been framed.

The year is 1619 and sisters Margaret and Philippa Flower are hanged.

The two sons of the Earl of Rutland have died - believed cursed - and the prime suspects are the Flower sisters.

They had recently been sacked from their jobs at the earl's home, Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, and revenge was believed to be their motive.

Their mother is also accused of witchcraft but dies before the women's "trial".

The sisters were two of about 100,000 people sentenced to death for being witches in Britain between the 15th and 18th Centuries.

Many were victims of nothing more than a neighbourhood dispute or a community vendetta.

'Pacts with devil'

And for those who were considered to be witches, the public mood towards them had changed across Europe. Witches went from being seen as healers - often more effective than doctors - to being seen as an evil force.

According to historian Tracey Borman witches were accused of making "pacts with the devil", poisoning cattle and causing famine.

And, she says, the case of the "Witches of Belvoir" highlights how those accused stood little chance of survival.

The Flower sisters had been employed by the earl as servants in preparation for a visit by King James I.

But they proved unpopular with the rest of the staff and were accused of stealing and other misdemeanours, said Ms Borman.

The sisters, who were known to be herbal healers, swore their revenge, the story goes.

They got hold of a glove belonging to one of the earl's young sons and buried it, chanting "as the glove does rot, so will the lord".

The Flower family had fallen on hard times but still "tried to lord it over their neighbours", said Ms Borman

"Their case is typical of the witch hunts," the historian added.

"It involved fairly obscure women, with little evidence to support any of the accusations against them.

'Welcomed men to home'

"Most trials involved pretty much local squabbles - it was a way of getting rid of a neighbour you didn't like - or getting a bit of revenge if they were doing better than you."

She said the Flower women were known for "being obnoxious and welcoming the men of Bottesford to their home in the middle of the night" and were generally regarded as "a thoroughly bad lot".

However, she said new evidence she had uncovered in documents pointed to a possibility the woman might have actually been framed by a member of the aristocracy.

The rumours were James I's favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, had wanted to marry the Earl of Rutland's daughter.

Ms Borman claims that with the sons out of the way, the Duke of Buckingham stood to inherit all of the earl's wealth.

"There is evidence to suggest he put those boys to death - he had them poisoned - then framed Joan Flower and her two daughters as witches to create a smokescreen to cover up his own guilt," she says.

However, Belvoir Castle guide Rhi Clark says local people at the time were convinced of the curse and believed the Flower family were witches.

"People were terrified of these women - and witches in general - because once a witch pointed a finger at you that was you cursed forever," she said.

She said that for years people had believed the curse.

Image caption Witches were often uneducated and forced to try and defend themselves in court

"But our present duchess, who is a very enlightened lady, decided to blow the curse," said Mrs Clark.

"And about 12 years ago we started doing re-enactments here at the castle."

But whoever was responsible for the death of the boys, if anyone - the fact remains the Flower sisters stood "no chance" at the trial.

"They were uneducated and had to defend themselves - the average witch trial lasted just 20 minutes," says Ms Borman.

"[The authorities] conducted them at lightning speed - then sent the guilty for execution."

The sisters were hanged at Lincoln Castle, while the Earl and Countess of Rutland remained convinced their sons had been killed by witchcraft.

So much so, it is inscribed on the family monument at Bottesford Church, and reads, "Two sons - both died in infancy by wicked practice and sorcery".

As for Joan Flower - she is buried on the crossroads at Ancaster.

"It's very important to bury a witch at crossroads - so when they come back they don't know which way to go," said Mrs Clark.

"And, if you can possibly put a tree on them, all the better."

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