Today we use locks, burglar alarms and timer-set lighting to protect our homes, but 300 to 400 years ago householders were not just worried about human intruders. They believed their homes were also at risk from supernatural forces – evil spirits, ill luck, ghosts and witches. Strong magic was therefore needed in a world beset by disease, failed harvests, disastrous fires and unexplained deaths. So, wherever evil might enter a building they buried magic charms, be it in doorways, up chimneys and beneath fireplaces; they even protected roof spaces with dead animals and would ‘brick up’ a bottle full of urine, human hair and nails – of which witches and bad fairies were known to be frightened! Importantly, all these spells against supernatural harm were concealed in secrecy, because secrecy was part of ‘charm’s’ power to protect against demons, witches and curses.
Today, witch bottles and mummified animals are still being discovered during renovations and demolitions, In Hethersett, near Norwich in Norfolk, a bottle with iron pins and nails was found buried beneath a cottage fireplace. A dead cat was concealed in a room in King’s Lynn, a horse skull was hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, and a jar of urine, human hair and nails was unearthed in King Street, Norwich.
The practice of trying to turn away evil with magic charms and potions is called apotropaios and was common for centuries. The “apotropaic” terminology comes from the Greek term “apotropaios,” meaning “averting evil.” Witches or their evil conjured spirits were thought to attempt to enter homes via doorways, hearths, and windows, and hide in shadows made by the nooks and crannies of the house. It was believed that once they had entered the property, witches and evil spirits would want to attack the inhabitants, or ruin the most valuable possessions of the owner. Tudor proprietors took a proactive approach to the issue, and carved the apotropaic marks near where items of value were storedIn Britain it was particularly prevalent during the peak period of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was still seen into the 20th century.
These protective measures were taken inside all types and sizes of buildings, irrespective of the status of their occupants. Marks have been found in lowly cottages and high status buildings including the Tower of London. It seemed that homes, businesses, churches and grand houses all had a need of protection.
Animals were believed to have special powers, Particularly dead cats, sometimes positioned as if hunting. Cats were also believed to have a sixth sense and might have been hidden as a sacrifice to ward off bad luck and black magic. During the 17th Century, it was common in England to bury mummified cats in the walls or ceilings to deter witches or evil spirits from entering the property. Remains of a cat were found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011.
It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Partly because of the cat’s sleek movements and eyes that ‘glow’ at night, they became the embodiment of darkness, mystery, and evil, possessing frightening powers. If a black cat walked into the room of an ill person, and the person later died, it was blamed on the cat’s supernatural powers. If a black cat crossed a person’s path without harming them, this indicated that the person was then protected by the devil. Often times, a cat would find shelter with older women who were living in solitude. The cat became a source of comfort and companionship, and the old woman would curse anyone who mistreated it. If one of these tormentors became ill, the witch and her familiar were blamed.
Witch bottles a common counter spell against illness caused by witchcraft was to put the sick person’s urine (and sometimes also hair and fingernails clippings) in a bottle with nails, pins, or threads, cork it tightly, and either set it to heat by the hearth or bury it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in 1671, ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’ (The Astrological Practice of Physick (1671). Usually buried beneath the hearth or near entrances to buildings, their recipe was still known in a Norfolk village in 1939:
“Take a stone bottle, make water in it, fill it with your own toe-nails and finger-nails, iron nails and anything which belongs to you. Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. The room must be in darkness; you must not speak or make a noise. The witch will come to your door and make a lot of noise and beg you to open the door and let her in. If you do not take any notice, but keep silent, the witch will burst. The strain on the mind of the person when the witch is begging to be let in is usually so great that the person often speaks and the witch is set free.” (E. G. Bales, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 67).
Witch bottles are usually found beneath hearths or front-doors, but have also been uncovered from beneath floors and inside walls. Around 200 have been recorded in England, dating back to the 16th century. More than half are grey stoneware bottles and jars called bellarmine, decorated with the faces of grim-looking bearded men. As well as the ingredients mentioned above, they sometimes contained small bones, thorns, pieces of wood and heart-shaped scraps of fabric.
‘Candle Smoke Marks’ have been found on ceilings, often in bedrooms or hallways near bedrooms. They consist of magical symbols written on the ceiling with the smoke from a candle. There were also spells written in words on rolls of paper, or scratched in pictures and diagrams on walls.
But perhaps the most common hidden charms of all were old shoes – almost always patched and repaired, usually single, often a child’s. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes, such as coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones. This superstition dates back at least as far as the 14th century when Buckinghamshire rector, and unofficial English saint, John Schorn is said to have trapped the devil in a boot – something which is depicted on several Norfolk rood screens. More than 1,200 examples have been recorded with one of the earliest found so far hidden in Winchester Cathedral in 1308. And the practise survived into the 20th century. Strange as it may seem, modern shoes are regularly encountered; there was an example not so long ago of a Nike trainer being found in the roof of a central London bank and the clues seemed to indicate that it had been deliberately placed there.
In homes, shoes were often placed on a ledge inside a chimney where it was thought they would trap bad spirits. Nothing unusual here; hidden charms were generally placed at entry and exit points, including the hearth which would have been open to the sky. Any supernatural harm circling the house would, hopefully, be put off trying to gain access.
It has been found that some houses had shoes, bottles, marks and cats, all from the same period, hidden together, evidence that there was a very strong urge to protect the property and occupants. Others have been found with many layers of protection, such as the three witch-bottles found mortared into the hearth of a grand house in Essex, at a time when the mistress was known to have been very ill. Maybe it was believed that she was bewitched!
Many hidden charms will still be concealed in buildings so, anyone keen to search for magic charms in their own houses, should try under floorboards or above lintels near doors, in walls and roofs, and around hearths and chimneys. Simply shining the beam of a torch obliquely across hearths or door lintels could reveal ritual marks carved into the stone.
It is known that buildings from the 17th and 18th century are frequently found to contain hidden charms. By their very nature, these charms are concealed so they are often only found by luck or during repairs or demolition. Many, of course, will have vanished without trace into builders skips or the antiques trade so they may have been far more common that we imagine.
Objects such as witch-bottles, dried cats, concealed shoes, horse skulls and written charms – amongst others – have all been found in buildings in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia. These are mainly found during demolition, restoration or sometimes just by exploring the nooks and crannies of a building.
It is a fact that secrecy and mystery still surrounds many of hidden charms, even after they are discovered. Unlike superstitions such as up-turned horseshoes, which are displayed openly, it was thought that magic lost its potency if uncovered and even modern-day householders often don’t want items removed or even discussed – perhaps because a vestige of those old beliefs still remains. It is quite common for extremely sensible, non-superstitious and professional people to suddenly become very superstitious and acutely tuned-in to the supernatural when they find these objects in their home. It is said that one home-owner refused to allow the contents of a bottle found in his home to be examined and insisted that it be re-buried with a small ritual with some nuns. Others have insisted that concealed shoes are returned to their find-spot and that cats be re-concealed.