On the 9th of March 2016 I travelled to Sheffield for a talk on so called Witch Marks. In this case, not marks made by witches or even those made by the Devil and placed on witches. No, these were marks made to deter witches and to defend against witchcraft. Having seen a rather fine example of the ‘daisy’ form at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, placed opposite the fireplace to prevent witches from entering the building down it, I found this subject to be of personal interest.
The talk, ‘Scribbles, Scorch Marks and Scribed Symbols’ was to be given by Andy Bentam at Bishops’ House. This charming, quaint Tudor, wood framed building is situated in Meersbrook Park of Norton Lees and is something of a little known treasure. An historical and aesthetic gem. The area itself is now a suburb of Sheffield but was only a few centuries ago, part of northern Derbyshire.
The building dates from the early sixteenth century and is a two story farmstead type building, not as grand as Little Moreton Hall but far above that of a peasant’s cottage. This was the home of a yeomanry family, landholding farmers that would eventually join the gentry and receive a grant of arms. This family of early owners were called Blythe. A remarkable local family that served at the Tudor court, produced two bishops in the form of two brothers. One brother became Bishop of Salisbury and Chancellor of Cambridge University, the other became Bishop of Lichfield, Coventry and Chester. High flyers indeed.
Arriving with friends from Sheffield, I was able to view the house in the semi darkness and standing on the hill, look across the city, lit up as it was on a clear night. Stepping inside we met up with friends from Nottingham, although there was some confusion here. One of my friends habitually travels with his Bengal and for a few moments, there was a discussion as to whether this qualified or not as a disabled companion animal. Once the guide cat was accepted however, we were able to enter and view the building.
The interior of the house is sparse to allow room for events but has exhibits of a local interest situated on both floors. This includes a room set up for a meal, a scold’s bridle upstairs and some attractive seventeenth century furniture. The timber framing and other items of interest, would form a subject for part of the talk.
Andy Bentam is a Peak Park Ranger and in the course of his work in the Peak District, he has come across many unusual marks left on the woodwork of several medieval and Tudor buildings. This fired his interest, encouraging him to begin documenting their occurrence in Derbyshire and the border counties of the Peak District.
This short but highly informative slideshow presentation, barely touched the surface that could have been explored. It was a taster, an overview of the fascinating apotropaic activities across the nearby Peakland. I could have listened to this man for hours and delved further into this ‘enchanting’ subject, the slides and his commentary were an absolute delight. Never before had I realised that such treasures lay hidden on my doorstep. Although admittedly and unfortunately, many are not accessible to the public. Mr Bentam’s professional activities gain him access to halls and houses, which your average member of the National Trust is not privy to.
Mr Bentam explained with obvious enthusiasm, that these apotropaic markings are divided broadly into two forms, although these two broad divisions can be divided further by the experts. In the basic form the two types are either of a straight line, scored in the wood or an actual graphic design, usually a daily or sun wheel. However, neither is easily identifiable in all cases and those consisting of straight lines are sometimes confused with construction marks and obviously, visa versa.
Indeed that last point was very important. Many construction and levelling marks can be found on the timber frames of building of this age. They were a common and necessary part of the building process. A timber frame would often be assembled and adjusted at a builder’s yard, the marks identified up and down, left, right and which part joined with another. Later when the frame was erected in situ, these marks would identify the correct order and assemblage. Rather like a giant flat packed wardrobe from Ikea. I can only hope that all the parts were there and the instructions in clear terms.
Many construction marks consisting as they do, of a series of straight lines, scored on the outer visible service of the frames, are mistaken for Marion marks. These marks consist of four lines placed to form the letter M. It is suggested that they are a charm calling upon the Blessed Virgin for protection. It is important to note that apotropaic marks habitually date from before the Reformation, they are of a predominately Catholic meaning and this would obviously include the crucifix type mark. Sometimes, possibly in representation of the Holy Trinity, such marks are grouped in a unit of three.
The second form of mark is the daisy or sun wheel type, often geometrically perfect and formed using the traditional joiner’s tools. An attractive design that is both reminiscent of the Pennsylvania Dutch or more correctly, Deutche hex-marks and symbols found (am I told) in Slavic indigenous religion.
Once the presentation had ended we were as a group, able to explore the building itself. Bishops’ House has dozens of visible construction, carpenter’s or builder’s marks. There are equally of interest to those wishing to view the apotropaic marks, deliberate scorch marks on some of the doors. It was pointed out to us how clearly, by viewing the shape of the scorch mark; that they had been made with obvious intent. The shape suggested a candle had been held close to the wooden surface of the door, for a considerable length of time. It is believed that such scorch marks were placed to protect the house from fire and possibly lightning.
Of particular interest were the daisy marks, as Bishops’ House has on three of the ground floor doors, over fifty documented examples of these wheels. Many are small and difficult to see, many others are quite clear and distinct.
My trip was both enjoyable and educational, I came away with a list of further reading and an appreciation for the craft of the timber frame builder that I lacked before. I recommend to anyone visiting Sheffield to call at Bishops’ House if they can, noting that the Friends of Bishops’ House Trust regularly hold activities, lectures and displays.
An illustrated guide to Bishops’ House is available from the Friends of Bishops’ House Trust.