19 April, 2016

Edward II and the Necromancer: Death by Magical and Secret Dealings

Something most curious happened in England in 1323/24: a group of people in Coventry plotted to kill Edward II and his 'favourites' Hugh Despenser father and son by necromancy. Here's a post about it.

A man named Robert le Mareschal of Leicester gave evidence before Simon Croyser, coroner of Edward II's household, on Wednesday 31 October 1324, or 'Wednesday the eve of All Saints in the eighteenth year of our lord King Edward's reign' as it appeared on record, and the case was referred to King's Bench a few days later. Mareschal stated that he was lodging in Coventry with a John of Nottingham, a necromancer (nigromauncer in the Anglo-Norman records of King's Bench), when on 30 November 1323 ('Wednesday before Saint Nicholas in the seventeenth year') twenty-seven men came to visit the necromancer. Mareschal named all of them; they included Richard le Latoner, John de Siflet, Richard le Taillour, Robert le Mercer, Philip le Hosier, Robert de Stone, Piers Baroun, Richard de la Grene, Reynauld de Alesleye who was a girdler, and John le Redclerk who was a hosier. Judging by the men's names, they were mostly craftsmen, merchants and traders: a hosier sold hosiery, a girdler made and sold girdles, a latoner worked with a kind of metal called latten, a mercer sold textiles, and the name taillour means tailor.

The men complained to the necromancer John of Nottingham that they could no longer live because of the harshness (duresce) the prior of Coventry was imposing on them every day with the support of the king, Hugh Despenser the Elder and Hugh Despenser the Younger (I have no idea what this 'harshness' involved, or who the prior of Coventry was and how Edward II was supposedly helping him). They therefore asked John of Nottingham if he might undertake to kill Edward II, the earl of Winchester, i.e. Hugh Despenser the Elder, Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger, the prior of Coventry "and others whom they named" by necromancy "and his arts." John of Nottingham, having first promised to keep whatever they told him secret - as did his lodger and assistant Robert le Mareschal, a promise he broke - agreed to do so. The men made a covenant with him promising to pay him the extremely large sum of twenty pounds (the equivalent of a few years' wages for most people in England at the time) and another fifteen pounds to Robert le Mareschal for helping. They also promised the necromancer board and lodging at any religious house he chose in England, presumably because he would have to escape and live in hiding after murdering the king. The twenty-seven men paid eleven marks (a mark was two-thirds of a pound) of the twenty pounds they owed to the necromancer, and four pounds of the fifteen they owed to his assistant Robert le Mareschal, in the house of Richard le Latoner on 7 December 1323, 'the Wednesday after the feast of Saint Nicholas in the seventeenth year'.

John of Nottingham and Robert le Marechal acquired seven pounds of wax (cire) and two ells of canvas (canevace), and formed seven images of seven men: Edward II, for whom they fashioned a crown of wax; Hugh Despenser the Elder, earl of Winchester; Hugh Despenser the Younger; the prior of Coventry; the prior's cellarer and his steward Nichol Crumpe; and 'a Richard de Sowe'. The latter's identity is not explained, but he seems to have been a local inhabitant who would act as a test case for the efficacy of John of Nottingham's powers of necromancy. Robert le Mareschal stated that on Monday 12 December 1323, he and John of Nottingham began performing their tricks over the image representing Richard de Sowe, in an "old house" half a league from the town of Coventry (a une demie luwe de la ville de Coventre) beneath the park of 'Shorteleye' (looking at the map, there's still a Shortley Road in Coventry, a mile or so south of the cathedral). They continued working on the wax and canvas image of the unfortunate Richard de Sowe for many months, until the Saturday after the feast of the Ascension in the following year, 1324; I don't know the exact date of Ascension in 1324, but it falls in May or early June, so approximately six months later. Finally, in the old house on the Friday before the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, around midnight (entour la my nuyt), John of Nottingham and Robert le Mareschal made a pointed spike out of a sharpened feather and drove it two thumbs deep into the forehead of Richard de Sowe's wax/canvas image, to see what might be expected to happen when they did the same thing to the others.

The following day, John of Nottingham sent Robert le Mareschal to Richard de Sowe's house to see what kind of condition he was in. Robert found the poor man howling and crying out Harrou!, an expression of distress in Middle English. He had lost his memory and was unable to recognise anyone. He remained alive and in this distressed state until John of Nottingham removed the sharpened feather from the forehead of his image some days later and plunged it instead into the heart (of the image), whereupon Richard de Sowe died soon afterwards. Before they could try out the wax figures of Edward II and the Despensers, however, Robert le Mareschal was seized with an attack of conscience and gave the game away to the authorities.

Hugh Despenser the Younger wrote to Pope John XXII to complain about the "magical and secret dealings" threatening him, and received the notably unsympathetic response on 1 September 1324 that he should "turn to God with his whole heart and make a good confession" and that no other remedy was necessary. [1] The royal clerk who wrote the Vita Edwardi Secundi came to hear of the story, and says of Edward that his "meanness is laid at Hugh's door, like the other evils that afflict the court. Hence, many conspired to kill him [Despenser], but the plot was discovered, some were captured and the others fled." [2] John of Nottingham died in prison; the others either fled and could not be found, or were acquitted (at least as far as I can tell; I admit that my ability to read several paragraphs of Latin legalese is not the greatest).

The case is cited in full in the Latin and Anglo-Norman original (no translation) in Thomas Wright, Contemporary Narrative of the Proceedings against Dame Alice Kyteler (1843), pp. xxiii-xxix. A summary of the case appears in Natalie Fryde, The Tyranny And Fall of Edward II 1321-1326, pp. 162-4 (which I only read after I'd translated it myself).

1) Calendar of Papal Letters 1305-1341, p. 461.

2) Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. N. Denholm-Young, p. 136.


churchaholic said...

With a C21st cynical eye I wonder if Robert Marshall was gulled by John Nottingham to such an extent that he recanted necromancy and confessed in the hope of saving his immortal soul?

The Pope certainly seems to have taken a cynical view of Hugh's complaint.

Anerje said...

What a fascinating post - never come across this story before!

Anonymous said...

I think I came across mention of this event in one of Michael Jenks' novels (he is one writer of historical fiction who says where he has used his imagination and where he has used names of people who actually existed he says the person may not necessarily have been like his interpretation). This is certainly an interesting feature and it looks like the necromancer wasn't very good at his job!

I'm not anonymous - I'm Patricia O but my google account is something like 'ye olde crone'.

Anonymous said...

Patricia O again here - was the person surnamed 'de Sowe' so named from the River Sowe (tributary of the Warwickshire Avon) which flows through the town do you think? Stafford has the River Sow (as in female pig without the 'e' - a tributary of the Trent).

Sarah Fezio said...

You mentioned their names had something to do with their trades. What is/does a Siflet do? Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous/Patricia O: The Malice of Unnatural Death? I was wondering why it was familiar-sounding.

Kathryn, thanks for the blog. It's been entertaining and informative.