SHROPSHIRE ‘WITCH-MARKS’ by Malcolm Gaskill
Early in November this year, I spent a weekend in Shropshire visiting my parents, who moved there quite recently. My wife rented a cottage a couple of miles up the road in a small place called Alkington, near the town of Whitchurch.
The cottage was a converted hayloft, one of several farm buildings at Alkington Grange. Like the estate to which it belonged, these buildings had early seventeenth-century antecedents, but were remodelled in the Victorian period. Some of the beams seemed ancient, although whether they were part of an old frame upon which a brick structure was superimposed, or had been salvaged from demolished Elizabethan and Jacobean buildings, was hard for me, without much architectural historical experience, to tell.
Whenever I visit old houses and churches, I do keep an eye out for apotropaic marks. And almost at once I noticed one – a classic ‘VV’ or inverted ‘M’– carved in a central position on a cross-beam to the right of the modern main staircase:
As you can see, it appears to have been done quickly and carelessly with a knife. It attracted a fair bit of interest in my immediate family who, apart from me, have little or no interest in history. My father, who is interested in old things, had a look and said: ‘perhaps that was just the sort of thing you did when you built something back then’, by which he meant that it didn’t need to be invested with great religious solemnity of ritual significance by whoever carved it.
I’m sure he’s right. For a Jacobean joiner or farmer to have scratched such a thing is not necessarily evidence of his terror of witches, but suggests a less focused and less engaged desire for good luck, and a casual aversion to doing the wrong thing. He took an easy opportunity to improve his chances of being lucky, rather than courting misfortune by an almost wilful failure not to take such an easy opportunity. I guess that’s how most superstition works.
As a historian of witchcraft, I thought it was a lovely and fascinating relic, and it was a thrill to run my fingers over it, and to stay in the house that the charm had been intended to protect – and for all I know, had protected all these years!
I did find another ‘witch-mark’, in the master bedroom, on an exposed horizontal timber in the stud wall to the left of the door:
It’s not that easy to see in the photo, but the mark consists of two boxes side by side, each filled with a diagonal cross, again very crudely and hastily done with a sharp blade. Visible here are the several repetitions of the verticals, which confuses the image, but the marks would certainly appear to be Saltires, crosses of St Andrew. I believe these are more commonly found as apotropaic marks in houses in northern England than in the south.
On the Sunday, we all went to visit my sister’s family near Market Drayton. She lives in a farmhouse on the Shavington estate that appears to date from the first half of the nineteenth century, but may well have an older core. My nephew’s girlfriend, hearing about my Alkington discoveries, said that there were strange marks all over the beams in Rob’s bedroom, situated at the top of the house. Rob had never noticed them before, but led the way upstairs.
I didn’t count them, but they are all similar and look like this:
They appear to have been cut or hammered in using some kind of pattern. They may just be a carpenter’s marks, put there to guide the construction of prefabricated timbers; doubtless an expert will be able to tell me. But the day before, I did see some marks that looked very similar – at least I think I did – on a half-timbered Tudor building, c. 1590, in the Shrewsbury high street, the façade of which was covered in all sorts of strange marks and symbols. I didn’t take a note of what it was, but if anyone’s interested it’s next to a branch of Joules, as you can see here:
So, a weekend of witch-marks in Shropshire, all discovered pretty much accidentally. What a systematic search of the county would reveal is anyone’s guess.