‘Witchmarks’ discovered at the Tower of London

In 2015, conservation of the Queen’s House at the Tower of London revealed something quite extraordinary… over 59 apotropaic symbols, or ‘witchmarks’ as they are commonly known. These were found carved and burnt into the timber frame of the roof along with what is believed to be the first archaeological excavated spiritual midden, an assortment of domestic objects purposely hidden in a void next to one of the chimneys that included 46 animal bones, scraps of leather, a broken bladed tool, a broken spade shoe and a clay pipe.

2015-04-27_TOL_QueensHouseConservation (13)The marks are thought to date back from around 1540 to the early 18th century. It was commonly believed that houses were vulnerable to witches setting fire to them encouraging the occupants of the timber-framed Queen’s House to protect themselves. To ensure fireplaces were protected, items were built into or next to the chimneys to form a spiritual midden. The presence of so many domestic objects would divert the witch to the midden and away from the actual hearth, protecting the home.

MOLA archaeologist James Wright examines animal bone from the spiritual midden © MOLA
MOLA archaeologist James Wright examines animal bone from the spiritual midden © MOLA

Buildings Curator Alden Gregory said, “the discovery of so many ’witchmarks’ and other signs of superstition in the house has given us an interesting new insight into the lives and fears of the people who lived in the Tower. Although ‘witchmarks’ are not particularly rare in historic buildings, the exceptionally large number of them in the Queen’s House is very unusual. It suggests that the people living in the Queen’s House felt that they needed extra protection from the evil forces that they believed were brought into the Tower by the heretics and traitors who were confined in its prison cells.”

The Queen’s House is currently the home of the Constable of the Tower of London. Originally, the Lieutenant of the Tower resided there and it has also held several famous prisoners, including Lady Jane Grey, Guy Fawkes and the last prisoner held in the Tower, Rudolf Hess in 1941 and it is one of few such buildings to survive the Great Fire of London of 1666.

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