What Makes a Great Ghost Story? 10 Tips for a Rattling Good Read

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Introducing the story: Ghost stories often begin as a fireside entertainment, usually in winter at Christmas or New Year. The narrator is sometimes reluctant to tell his/her story because it is not mere light-hearted entertainment, but the account of a gruesome or disturbing event that would be best forgotten. (Cambridge don and celebrated writer of ghost stories M.R. James wrote his first spine-chilling tales as part of a Christmas entertainment for his friends).

First person narrative: This is a good way for the storyteller to carry the reader with her/him. This is a common device used by many authors. The narrator does not have to communicate directly with the audience. Sometimes their story may consist of a written account set down some years previously and ‘discovered’ by a second narrator who feeds the story to the audience.

Atmosphere: Good examples are the period settings provided by Susan Hill in The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror. In most novels, you need to keep descriptive passages to a minimum or you lose the reader. However, with ghost stories you can let your imagination off the leash. Descriptive scene-setting is used to create atmosphere and build tension. Locations often consist of derelict houses or buildings in remote locations such as islands, moors or woods where the protagonist is cut off from help and humanity.

Unfamiliar surroundings: The sense of psychological disturbance is often created by the protagonist finding her/himself isolated in unfamiliar surroundings. For instance, the governess in The Turn of the Screw takes up a new post; James Monmouth in The Mist in The Mirror returns to Britain from many years abroad; Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black travels to an unfamiliar part of the country to perform an official duty.

Warnings of disaster: These can be conveyed by other characters or by signs communicated to the narrator/protagonist. However, they should not reveal the full story, but merely create a sense of deep unease about a certain subject – a place or person. Instead of protecting the story’s protagonist, such warnings create a tantalising hook, increasing the protagonist’s curiosity to a point where he/she is determined to discover the truth despite all warnings of danger.

Mystery: This drives the plot and is often linked to the warnings/signs of disaster mentioned above. It may consist of unexplained remarks, strange happenings or sightings.

Pathos: This is a frequent element in ghost stories which engages the reader’s emotions. Look for the character that compels compassion and draws the reader into the story. Despite his initial unpleasantness, Scrooge captivates the reader and wins their sympathy. In The Woman in Black, the narrator is drawn in by his sympathy for the mysterious woman.

A distorted sense of reality: Is there really a ghost or are the terrifying events simply a manifestation of a disturbed mind? The best ghost stories have a strong psychological element and some may leave the reader wondering whether the strange happenings really took place or were a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Sensation: The sign of a good ghost story is the thrill or spine-tingling effect. The reader must experience a heightened state of anxiety and fear, experiencing the events through the eyes of the protagonist or characters in the story. A lingering sense of uncertainty about the facts or the ending itself helps to heighten the effect.

Length: Long enough to provide a meaty read but something you can finish in one sitting (preferably in front of a roaring fire with the curtains closed). This helps to maintain the tension.

Note: Further blogs related to writing the supernatural, sinister and unexpected will follow shortly.

Posted in Books, Charles Dickens, ghost stories, Halloween, Henry James, M.R. James, Susan Hill, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Leeds Castle: the tragic romance of a medieval duchess

Leeds Castle where Duchess Eleanor was imprisoned

Leeds Castle where Duchess Eleanor was imprisoned

Leeds Castle has been linked with a number of royal love-affairs, most notably that of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. But there is another tale – less well-known, but equally poignant.

The marriage of Henry V’s brother, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and his wife, Eleanor of Cobham was a love-match doomed to failure. Their story features as a secondary theme in the recent Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare’s historical plays and is worthy of a plot-line in Game of Thrones.

Eleanor of Cobham was born at Sterborough Castle, near Lingfield c. 1400. The daughter of a knight, she was of respectable, but lowly, birth. Described as beautiful, intelligent and ambitious, Eleanor caught the eye of Duke Humphrey when she joined the entourage of his wife. She became Humphrey’s mistress, then his wife, after his first marriage was annulled. From humble origins, Eleanor had ascended into the social stratosphere.

Duke Humphrey was the younger brother of warrior-king, Henry V, who died unexpectedly leaving an infant son (later Henry VI). Humphrey lost no time in assuming the mantle of regent with all its attendant powers. With Eleanor, he established his own, splendid court and was a patron of the arts. He also enriched himself and his followers with royal lands which, if he died first, would revert, not to the Crown, but to Eleanor. Moreover, if the child-king died, Humphrey would succeed to the throne and Eleanor would be his queen.

The long regency proved fatal to the stability of England. Court and country were torn apart by aristocratic in-fighting as noble families jostled for power. Humphrey headed a group that wished to pursue war with France; but he was opposed by an equally powerful faction which favoured peace. As the young king approached adulthood, Humphrey’s hold on power became more tenuous. Eleanor – the woman he had married for love – was his Achilles heel.

Possibly driven by her husband’s growing insecurity, Eleanor consulted two astrologers, requiring them to draw up a horoscope for the youthful king with a view to predicting her own fortunes. Unfortunately, the astrologers predicted that the king would soon fall seriously ill. Rumours began to spread until finally, they reached the court. The astrologers were arrested and charged with necromancy and heresy. The instruments of their trade were “openly showed to all men at the Cross” in St Paul’s churchyard upon a purpose-built scaffold along with one of the accused, Roger Bolingbroke.

Terrified, Eleanor sought sanctuary at Westminster before fleeing to the castle at Lesnes, near Erith. When questioned, Bolingbroke named Eleanor as the instigator of a treasonous plot. Her innocent pursuit of a horoscope was swiftly translated into a conspiracy to poison the king and she was incarcerated at Leeds Castle.

Her terror can only be imagined as, friendless and alone, stripped of power and deprived of the companionship of her husband, she awaited trial. Potentially, necromancy, heresy or treason meant execution – and some methods were even more terrible than others. Just 40 years previously, a new statute had introduced death at the stake for heretics.

At trial, Eleanor protested her innocence. While admitting that she had procured various potions from Margery Jourdemayne (the witch of Eye), she insisted that these were only to help her conceive a child. Yet she was unable to save her associates. Margery was burned at Smithfield; Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn and Eleanor’s chaplain, one of the two astrologers, “died in the Tower for sorrow”.

While Eleanor escaped with her life, her enemies were bent on revenge. She was forcibly divorced from Humphrey and made to do public penance, walking bare-footed and carrying a lighted taper through London to pray at various churches. She was then condemned to life-long imprisonment, being moved around the country from one remote gaol to another until she died, lonely and forgotten, eleven years later.

As for Humphrey, although a loyal servant of the Crown, he was charged with treason. He died while awaiting trial, probably from a stroke although many, including Shakespeare, believed his death to have been due to more sinister forces; a murder arranged by his political enemies.

Click here for my previous blog ‘The Devil’s Advocate? Witches vs The Law’ for more on Eleanor and Queen Joan of  Navarre who was also accused of witchcraft.

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Posted in Castles, Eleanor of Cobham, Henry V, Henry VI, History, Kent, Leeds Castle, Plantagenets, Shakespeare, Wars of the Roses, Witches | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Publishing: what I learned from the gurus

Some hints from the gurus

Some hints from the gurus

Self-publishing has come of age. According to one respected academic, it is now just another arm of the publishing industry.

This is one of the inspiring messages that I brought away from the recent Matador self-publishing conference.

In this third blog on the subject, I thought it would be of interest to list some of the comments and tips from two experts whose lectures I attended.

Professor Alison Baverstock of Kingston University, the academic referred to above, has a background in the traditional publishing industry and has taught and written about the subject for many years. Her research reveals some fascinating facts which challenge many of the old preconceptions about self-publishing.

One such is that self-publishing is for sub-standard, uneducated writers.

However, Professor Baverstock’s research debunks this supposition. She revealed that 32% of self-publishers interviewed by her had a degree while 44% had a higher degree. (See her blog for the Guardian for more on this subject)

The results of her survey also show that 65% of self-publishers are female.

While this is encouraging, I suspect that the high preponderance of female self-publishers may also highlight a darker side to the publishing industry: that is, a distinct gender-bias. This continuing inequality in the traditional literary and publishing industry is the topic of frequent research by the American-based organisation, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts

My suspicion is, that finding themselves largely excluded from a traditional publishing industry which seems to focus heavily on crime-writing and romantic fiction (traditional genres for female writers), many women with original ideas are turning to self-publishing.

The advantage of this is that female authors such as Kit Berry have begun to invent their own genres. Once successful, they have a route into traditional publishing houses and, because of their strong commercial position, are more likely to be able to dictate the terms of their contracts.

Helen Lewis, Director, Literally PR discussed the secrets of running a successful book launch. This is a tiger-trap for many debut authors (including me!) who are so keen to get their first book published that they forget to plan any form of advance PR. It’s simple, really. If you don’t tell anyone your book is out there, how will they find it?

Firstly, consider whether you really need a book launch. Launches cost money and this could be spent more usefully on a publicity campaign

Calculate the total cost. Factor in items such as: the cost of a venue, building your guest list, food and drink, goody bags, décor and entertainment.

If you decide on a book launch, set a date and allow at least 5 months to organise it. Work on your mailing lists and social media to create a buzz. Give journalist invitees 3 – 6 months advance notice of the launch.

Consider filming your launch (and the preparations for it) and posting clips on YouTube.

And for all those authors (most of us, I think) who get hung up about the subject of bookshop signings, here’s a pearl of wisdom. Don’t bother. Bookshops are not expert at creating publicity and the press are unlikely to attend.

Phew! That’s one less thing to worry about.

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Posted in Books, conferences, publishing, self-publishing, women self-publishers, women writers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Publishing: 7 ways to get the most from a conference

Write up conference notes asap!

Write up conference notes asap!

Having recently attended Matador’s conference on self-publishing, I thought it would be useful to jot down a list of essentials to help you to get the most from a conference whatever the topic.

Prep your questions in advance. Why are you going? What do you want to learn? Which lectures would help you most? Try to identify the gaps in your knowledge.

Take lots of writing materials. You always need more. Write up notes asap. It will be fresh in your mind so you should still be able to decipher illegible text.

Remember your business cards. You will get through a stack of these at an event. If you haven’t got them, then get some quick. You will regret it if you don’t. Always remember to get other people’s cards. They can provide a valuable follow-up.

Make friends. You can learn a lot from speaking to other people. At the self-publishing conference, I met a couple who had started their own self-publishing business, a lady who was ghost-writing the story of a disabled celebrity and a fisherman who was planning to crowd-fund his book. Most pertinent to my interests was a former Reuter’s correspondent who had worked in Ceylon in 1956, the year that provided a turbulent setting for my historical novel The Devil Dancers.

Share concepts without giving away unique information. A lady behind me in the lunch queue was describing the intricacies of her novel’s plot to a complete stranger (and anyone else within earshot). A very bad idea. Most people are honest but, as a young and inexperienced freelance journalist, I had a raft of ideas stolen by a national magazine. It was extremely galling to see my story ideas being written by staff writers without a penny paid to me. There is no copyright in ideas so your only recourse is to rant to thin air.

Keep an open mind. Even if you think you know a subject inside out, there is always something new to learn. Try to let go of prejudices. Things are done very differently in this media-savvy age. While it may be galling for a vlogger who can hardly string a sentence together to be offered a book deal, it’s because he/she has a large following. Don’t get sniffy. Get down with the kids and follow their example. Traditional publishers are no longer able to give long-term nurturing to the next generation of great writers. They can’t afford to. Margins are too tight. What counts now is the bottom line. If you can show commercial nous – and a healthy media following – you have a better chance of both getting your work accepted and selling it once it is published.

Ask for advice. Don’t be shy. No question is silly. You’re here to learn. Speak up and you will find that there are lots of other people wrestling with similar problems.

Next: Self-publishing: What I learned from the gurus

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Posted in book festivals, Books, Ceylon, conferences, Copyright, Fiction, History, publishing, self-publishing, The Devil Dancers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-publishing? Take a tip from Leicester

Be a self-publishing warrior!

Be a self-publishing warrior!

On the same day that Leicester celebrated its Premier League win, the city also hosted Matador’s annual self-publishing conference.

A tenuous connection? Perhaps. But there are similarities between the trials of the football team and the tribulations of the self-publisher.

Both stories have a David-and-Goliath quality. A few years ago, success in either case both would have been unthinkable.

Just six years ago, when I attended the London Book Fair, self-publishing was still synonymous with ‘vanity’ publishing. The disdain shown by agents, booksellers and traditional publishers was tangible.

The fact that Matador’s annual conference is only in its 4th year is testament both to the growing importance of self-publishing and the willingness of the industry to take it seriously.

Self-publishers are now giving the industry a serious run for its money, challenging preconceptions and business models. Unlike their counterparts in the behemoths of the publishing industry, they are all-rounders; IT literate, technically-skilled and both business and media savvy.

So what does a self-publishing conference offer?

  • It can provide novices with a clear plan of action. The problem today is not that there is too little information on this subject, but too much. It can be daunting for the beginner.
  • It can help those with more experience to identify gaps in their skills and keep them up to date with changes in the market. For example, choosing the right book-cover is a tricky exercise. A few years ago, a glossy cover was acceptable. Today, it is not.
  • Writers also benefit from attending self-publishing conferences. They will get an idea of what services are available, who can provide them and how much they can do themselves within a restricted budget. Crucially, they will also get advice on PR – either doing it all themselves or buying in help from an expert.

While writers tend to be a retiring by nature, there has never been a greater need for them to promote their own work. This is true, not just of self-published authors, but also of those who are traditionally-published. Unless you are one of the big names (e.g. a celebrity or blogger with a huge following), it is unlikely that publishers will provide any money for your marketing – if at all.

This was borne out a few years ago when I attended a joint book promotion with a number of other authors. One was a debut author with a traditional publisher who had not been instructed to arrange her own publicity or organise her campaign in advance. She sat forlornly at her stall without completing a single signing while her desperate parents canvassed us for advice. What should she do?

I did not have the heart to tell them that it was too late, that her book would probably be remaindered within a matter of weeks because, without pre-publicity, it could never achieve the sales required by a traditional bookseller during its limited shelf-life (about 12 weeks).

These days, no writer is an island. Whether famous or not, they must all take an active part in publicity and the planning of their pre-launch campaign.

In this respect, self-published authors have an advantage over those who are traditionally-published. They are free to continue promoting their books and selling them through whichever media best suits them. Slow-burning, long-tail sales may be frustrating but they eventually bring rewards and extend the life of a book.

As a self-published author, you have more control over your work. If you are traditionally-published and the book does not sell, you are spared tedious negotiations with the publisher to re-acquire the rights to your material.

And what will you do with your manuscript once it has been reclaimed?

Why, self-publish, of course!

Next: 7 ways to get the most from a conference

To find out more about my books and interests, click here for my website

Posted in Books, publishing, self-publishing, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Canterbury Tale: sudden death and a hint of poison

At the east end of Canterbury Cathedral is a mysterious tomb. Placed awkwardly between two pillars, it lies in one of the Cathedral’s most prestigious burial sites, the Trinity Chapel, formerly the location of Becket’s shrine. This unadorned tomb is so plain that visitors pass by unaware of its fascinating history: one that involves murder, betrayal and attempted grave robbery. Who is the occupant of that humble tomb resting near to the Black Prince?


The Huguenot Cardinal

Attached to one of the pillars above the tomb, a scrolled memorial tablet declares: ODET DE COLIGNY CARDINAL DE CHATILLON Bishop of Beauvais 1517 – 1571.

Odet was born into one of the most influential families in France. Brought up at the Renaissance court of King Francis I, Odet’s early life was one of privilege. Although never ordained, he became a Cardinal at 16, attended papal elections in Rome and added the wealthy Bishopric of Beauvais to his clutch of spiritual titles.

Yet despite this cynical acquisition of power – largely engineered by his uncle, the Constable of France – Odet was a man of conscience. When his friend Rabelais was accused of heresy, Odet protected him. To express his gratitude, Rabelais dedicated a book to “The most illustrious prince and most revered Odet Cardinal of Chastillon”.

Odet’s conscience also inspired him to champion the Huguenot reformers and become a Protestant. Despite being excommunicated by the Pope – and having married – Odet was initially protected by the French court, remaining close to the Dauphin and the Queen Mother Catherine de Medici. However, Catherine subsequently turned against Odet and his powerful brothers, issuing an order for their arrest. While his brother Gaspard, the Admiral of France, fled with his followers to La Rochelle, Odet sought refuge in England.

When he landed at Dover “somewhat sickly of sea”, his arrival with some 30 retainers caused consternation. The Governor of Dover, not knowing what to do, wrote a frantic message to Lord Cecil, the Queen’s chief adviser, marked “haste, haste, haste … for the Queen’s Majesty’s Affairs.”

In an attempt to find temporary lodgings for Odet, Cecil wrote to Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London. However, Grindal proved reluctant, possibly due to the size of Odet’s retinue. Replying to Cecil’s enquiry, he wrote: “I pray you to spare me, for surely I lack convenient furniture”.

Further problems arose when Thomas Sackville was ordered to house Odet and his followers at the Palace of Sheen. Unable to provide sufficient furniture, plate and linen for the needs of Odet and his companions and stung by the criticisms of the Queen’s agents, Sackville retorted that not only had he had to give up his own basin and ewer but that his wife’s waiting women had had to give up their bed and sleep on the floor!

Hoping to move to London, Odet was to experience problems similar to those experienced by many modern flat-hunters. He refused one house because “he found the walls and windows in so great decay that it would be hard for my lord Cardinal to repair it in so short a time.”

Although England provided a refuge from immediate danger, Odet’s movements were closely watched by both the French and Spanish ambassadors. Having invited Odet to stay with him, Sir Thomas Gresham noted that “the Cardinal had not been a quarter of an hour in my house, but the French ambassador came to visit him” and that the two had “long communications”.

When Odet visited the French Huguenot church in Threadneedle Street, he abandoned his Cardinal’s robes for “a short cloak with a rapier” and – as the Spanish ambassador noted – a jewel in his cap.

A dashing figure, Odet was described by one observer as “a handsome old man with a good figure, a long white beard, dressed always in black with a great ‘saye’ of velvet or satin and a long cloak.”

A man of great personal charm, he won the favour of Queen Elizabeth causing her favourite, the Earl of Leicester, to note: “Her Majesty had a marvellous liking of him: and one thing more than I looked for, which is, her liking to hear of his wife, and is very desirous to see her, and hath sent one expressly to visit her.”


Leicester’s surprise at this gesture was due to the fact that Elizabeth disapproved of clergy wives.

While in England, Odet tried to enlist the Queen’s help for his co-religionists – especially those at La Rochelle. Disguised as Odet’s retainers, Huguenots obtained access to Elizabeth’s court and were given loans from her Treasury. However, they never received the military help in terms of men and materiel that they desired. As the leader of a small Protestant nation, Elizabeth was treading a tight-rope between the great Catholic powers of Spain and France. She could not afford to attract their combined hostility.

In 1570, Odet’s brother Gaspard marched on Paris and forced Queen Catherine to agree a treaty. Odet was eager to return home but bad weather and his wife’s illness caused him to postpone his plans.

Finally, he set out for Dover, breaking his journey at Canterbury where he lodged with prebendary John Bungay whose house at ‘the Homors’ was located near the east end of the Cathedral. During this visit, Odet was presented with a gift of “ducks, mallards, teeles, wood-koks and partridges” by the Corporation of Canterbury.

Sadly, Odet never returned home. He fell ill with a fever and, after languishing for several weeks, died on 23 March 1571.

 A murder mystery?

Odet’s brother, Francis, had died two years earlier amid rumours of foul play by Queen Catherine. Although she denied the accusations, Catherine wrote of her “great pleasure” at his demise and her “hope that God will give to the others [i.e. Huguenots] the treatment they deserve…”

When Odet died, his widow claimed that he had been murdered. At the post-mortem, Odet’s physician said that spots on Odet’s stomach indicated poisoning. In a subsequent report, Queen Elizabeth’s Commissioners said: “There appears to be no ground for suspicion that he had been poisoned.” Nonetheless, they failed to reach a final verdict.

Two years later, the stories of poisoning re-surfaced. According to one theory, the murderer was Odet’s valet-de-chambre, a Basque called Vuillin working for Queen Catherine.

Truth or rumour? Who knows.

What is clear is that a year after Odet’s death, Queen Catherine ordered the assassination of his brother Gaspard and the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day.

Meantime, Odet had been given a temporary tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. (It was not even recorded in The Chapter Burial Register). Quickly bricked over and covered with a layer of plaster, his coffin awaited collection by his family. But, overtaken by war and death, they never came.



A tale of tomb robbers

In August 1990, two ex-Foreign Legionnaires were arrested in the Cathedral precincts. They were equipped with an impressive burglar’s toolkit and a map of the Cathedral. The explanation for their escapade bemused Canterbury magistrates. The two men claimed that they were hoping to open Odet de Coligny’s tomb and prove that it held, not the bones of the Huguenot exile, but those of Thomas Becket whose tomb was dismantled during the Dissolution of 1538.

*For further information on Becket – especially some of the less well-known facts – see my previous article: Murder, Martyrdom and the Quest for Bones.

Posted in Canterbury, Cathedrals, Exiles, History, Huguenots, Odet de Coligny | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Devil’s Advocate? Witches vs The Law


What images are conjured up by the word ‘witch’? Hags silhouetted against the night-sky performing aerial acrobatics on broomsticks or brewing strange potions in a cauldron? Strange old ladies accompanied by black cats? Or children with black pointed hats and painted faces hammering on your door at Halloween and demanding sweets with menaces?

For most of us, a witch is just a caricature, a figure of fun. However, history – and the law in particular – tell another story. Often poignant and frequently gory, legal records provide an insight into changing social attitudes to magic through the centuries.

What’s in a name?

Definitions are essential in legal documents so it seems appropriate to consider some of the words relating to witches and their pursuits:

Magic – thought to be derived from the Old Persian word “maqush” which means ‘to be able, to have power’. This formed the root of the Ancient Greek word ‘magike’ and the word ‘magos’ which referred to learned men of the priestly class. Remember the Magi or Wise Men in the Bible?

Necromancy – ultimately derived from Greek and referring to divination by communication with the dead. For example, the Biblical example of the Witch of Endor who conjured up the spirit of Samuel in order to answer King Saul’s questions about the outcome of a battle.

Sorcery – in Medieval Latin, the word sortiarius means “a teller of fortunes by lot”. The words for sorcery (sorcerie) and sorcerer (sorcier) first appeared in medieval French c. 1300.

Witch – from Old English ‘wicce’ a female magician or sorceress and ‘wicca’ a wizard who practised magic or witchcraft.

An ancient fear

Treated as a capital offence in Ancient Greece and Rome, necromancy was punishable by burning.

By comparison, the early legal codes of European tribes such as the Franks offered some less stringent forms of punishment including fines.

Dealing with the in-laws (and their loot)

In the Middle Ages, accusations of witchcraft were a useful means of discrediting otherwise guiltless parties and, more importantly, grabbing their assets. Two examples of this can be found in Henry V’s family. His stepmother, Joan of Navarre, had been endowed with a generous sum of 10,000 marks per annum – the largest amount granted to an English queen to date.


Joan of Navarre, Queen of England

Although Henry V enjoyed cordial relations with his stepmother, Joan had close French ties while Henry, pursuing expensive campaigns in France was casting covetous eyes on her income. The result? Joan was accused of trying to bring about Henry’s death by means of sorcery and witchcraft. She was arrested and her possessions seized. The benefit to Henry in just 14 months amounted to £8,000 (the modern equivalent of £3,754,800). Joan was never brought to trial and lived under a comfortable form of house arrest until she was pardoned a few weeks before Henry’s death. She now rests beside her husband, Henry IV, in Canterbury Cathedral.

Henry V’s sister-in-law, Eleanor of Cobham, was subjected to similar accusations although the outcome was less happy. The daughter of a low-ranking knight, Eleanor had made a love match with Henry’s popular brother, Humphrey duke of Gloucester. The couple amassed great wealth and created a glittering court at Greenwich.

Humphrey stood next in line to the throne if his nephew, Henry VI, died unmarried. In an attempt to assess her chances becoming queen, Eleanor consulted an astrologer. She also bought potions from Margery Jourdemayne, the witch of Eye, to help her conceive a child. Unfortunately, rumours of these activities began to circulate, playing into the hands of Humphrey’s enemies. Their first move was to have Eleanor accused of trying to poison the young king by witchcraft.

She was forced to divorce Humphrey and to do penance by walking barefoot through the streets of London holding a candle and dressed only in her shift. For the next eight years, Eleanor was imprisoned and moved around a succession of castles – all remote from London – until she died, abandoned and forgotten, at Beaumaris.

Leeds Castle where Joan and Eleanor were imprisoned

Leeds Castle where Joan and Eleanor were imprisoned

A bumpy ride

When King James VI returned to Scotland with his Danish bride in 1590, the royal fleet experienced such bad weather that it was forced to divert to Norway where it had to sit out the storm for several weeks. Possibly due to embarrassment and frustration, the Danish admiral blamed the bad weather on the wife of an official in Copenhagen. This resulted in a series of witch trials which began in Denmark and continued in Scotland with the encouragement of King James. So began an ugly two-year episode of accusations, torture, trials and executions at North Berwick. Even the Earl of Bothwell – the king’s cousin and something of a thorn in the royal side – was accused of treasonable necromancy.

Fortunately for Bothwell, he managed to force his way into the king’s bedchamber and plead his innocence. He was subsequently pardoned and acquitted at trial. Not so many of the other, humbler accused such as Agnes Sampson, healer and midwife, who was personally questioned by the king and confessed to sorcery under torture. She was garrotted and burned at the stake.

The North Berwick witch trials were the first major prosecutions in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act 1563 which treated both the practice of witchcraft and consulting of witches as capital offences. It seems likely that the North Berwick trials only whetted King James’s obsession with witches. In 1593, he wrote a book called Daemonologie a treatise on magic and witches which not only reveals James’s superstitions but also many of the classical sources on which he based his arguments.

17th century sport

The 17th century witnessed a spate of witch trials across Europe and America, including the infamous persecutions at Salem. However, while witch trials and hangings were still taking place in provincial Devon in 1682, the Capital seems to have lost its appetite for witch-hunting. Accusations of witchcraft against two elderly women – Jane Kent and Jane Dodson – were dismissed at the Old Bailey in 1682 and 1683.

In 1699, the case of Mary Poole indicated the future direction – and downgrading – of witchcraft laws. Poole was a gypsy who appears to have made her living by playing on people’s fears and using sleight of hand to steal their money. The Plaintiff claimed that she “showed him some Juggling Tricks, till she had Juggled away his Money”. Another witness told how she had caused his horse to fall down and had mysteriously appeared at a point in front of him in the road. However, the judge and jury were not taken in by Poole’s prophecies and tricks and found her guilty of grand larceny.

It is thought that the last person to be executed for witchcraft was Janet Horne at Dornoch, Scotland in 1727.

The triumph of Enlightenment

In 1735, a new Witchcraft Act was passed which, contrary to its title, marked a triumph in enlightened thinking and a shift in the law. At a stroke, the old laws based on a belief in the existence of witches became obsolete. Aiming to punish charlatans who conned gullible people out of their money, the new Act foreshadowed modern consumer law.

Helen_Duncan_fake_ectoplasm-blogsizeIt was even invoked in 1944 in the case of Helen Duncan, a medium whose ‘ectoplasm’ was revealed to be a long length of cheesecloth and who attracted the attention of the naval authorities in war-time by claiming to have had a message from a sailor drowned on HMS Barham. At the time, it was thought that few people knew of the Barham’s sinking, although subsequently it was shown that the news had circulated quite widely and that Duncan had probably picked up the information by listening to gossip. Fearing that she might betray secrets relating to the D-day landings, the military authorities used the Witchcraft Act to get Duncan jailed for 9 months in 1944.

In 1951 the Witchcraft Act was repealed and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act which, in turn, was superseded in 2008 by new Consumer Protection Regulations based on an EU directive.

As far as the law is concerned, witches no longer exist!

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