Monday, October 29, 2012

Tudor Superstitions: The 'Witching Time of Night'

‘Tis now the very witching time of night - Hamlet

Tudor superstitions were an expression of total belief. And when you consider how the Tudors experienced the hours of darkness, that is hardly surprising. Despite the growth of London, the streets would remain unlit until 1684. Just like their country cousins, Londoners would wake in the middle of the night, in the pitch-dark. Imagine a mini-Halloween every night, in a city made of creaking timber, where criminals and outlawed religions conducted their secret meetings. Add into that a medieval psychology that absolutely believed the ghosts of the dead walked the earth.

The night was a time when witches flew and communed with their familiars. Decent folk stayed abed until dawn, and said their prayers to ward off spirits from their curtained beds.
Witchcraft was a fact of life, not something only a few believed in. If your milk soured, a witch's curse was to blame. If your pregnancy miscarried, your elderly female neighbour was behind it, especially if she lived alone and knew how to heal the sick. Witches were hanged in England, burnt in Europe. But they were not the only bugbears of the Tudor imagination. Suicides were still buried at crossroads to confuse their way back from the land of the dead, stakes were put though their hearts to pin them to the ground. What the modern mind sees as psychological, the Tudor perceived as real exterior force. Sin was a living thing, and sin-eaters would be employed to consume food that had been passed over the corpse of a dead person.

If you could imagine it, it existed, however evil and perverted, and you needed to protect yourself against it.
The very dreams that disturbed you were the product of the night – mare, an evil spirit entering your head, and the things that you saw on waking, or heard in the night, really were right there with you.

In response to this supernatural assault, the Tudor mind devised rituals and charms to protect the disturbed soul. Fire, iron and salt were protectors. Tudor entrepreneurial skill created a thriving business where people could buy charms to ward off evil and vermin, change luck, prevent drunkenness, encourage children to sleep, even put out fires – all of which were deemed to be under the control of outside forces. This was part of everyday life, not seen as evil, and apparently compatible with religious belief of the day.

That is until things went wrong, and an accusation of witchcraft was made. Then all their belief in supernatural forces was turned onto the outside world with a vengeance.

Victoria Lamb is the author of Witchstruck, first in the Tudor Witch series with Random House, set during Princess Elizabeth's imprisonment at Woodstock Palace.

She is also the author of The Queen's Secret, a novel of the Tudor court, also with Random House.


  1. A timely post, Victoria. Readers may be interested in the archeologist Margaret Murray's remarkable book The God of the Witches that identifies witchcraft with the surviving pre-Christian faith of England with its dying god, cunningman, knot magic, aphrodisiac filled grail and link to the Order of the Garter. For decades Murray's books were all but banned. Now the God of the Witches has been reprinted by Oxford University Press.

  2. That sounds utterly fascinating, Katherine. Thanks for the heads-up. Good on OUP for the reprints.

  3. I wonder that we are still here


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