When I was at uni, I spent an awful lot of time digging through dusty old books. Our uni library was perfect for someone like me: the history section had loads of history journals and Victorian reprints of medieval documents, and the law section had a whole row dedicated to the records of the Court of King’s Bench – the highest court in the land in medieval England, presiding over by the king’s representatives – and sometimes the king himself.
Medieval court records were surprisingly thorough. They contained accusations, names, and simple transcripts of the arguments put forward by defendants and prosecutors. They painted these tiny stories from hundreds of years ago in granular detail, and I loved flicking through them.
By an insane stroke of luck (or coincidence), I stumbled across the story of Edward II and the necromancer. It turns out this is quite a famous story: we covered it in a seminar shortly after, and Kathryn Warner, who has the best blog on Edward II’s reign out there and has written books about it, has also blogged about it. Check that out if you want a deep-dive into this story.
The case was told to the court by a man named Robert le Mareschal, in October/November 1324. He’d been lodging in Coventry (a city just down the road from where I live) with a strange man named John of Nottingham. John was a professed necromancer, and Robert was his assistant.
On 30 November 1323, their shared house was visited by 27 merchants. After John and Robert had sworn to keep their secrets, the men complained about the harshness imposed on them by the prior of Coventry, the king, and his two hated favourites, Hugh Despenser the elder and younger. By this point in his reign, Edward II was ruling with an iron fist, and the Despensers were using their connections to the king to enrich themselves. They were hated across the country, so it’s no surprise some people were willing to resort to magic to get rid of them.
The men promised £35 in payment – an astronomical sum at the time – and paid part up front. The necromancers bought some wax and canvas and fashioned images of their targets: the aforementioned men, two men who worked for the prior of Coventry, and a man named Richard de Sowe, a Coventry resident who was to serve as a test of their magic before they tried it on their actual targets. In December 1323 they retreated to an ‘old house’ half a league from Coventry and started working magic over Richard de Sowe’s image.
They spent six months working their magic: they finally made their move in summer 1324, when, at midnight, they made a spike from a feather and drove it into Richard de Sowe’s forehead.
The next day, the two necromancers travelled to Richard’s house to see if their magic had affected him. They found him in a confused and distressed state, having lost his memory and being incapable of recognising anyone. He remained in this state for some days, until John removed the spike and drove it into the heart instead. Richard died shortly afterwards.
It was around this time that Robert lost his nerve and ratted them out to the authorities. John was imprisoned, and died shortly after, before he could be put on trial. It seems that the incident reached royal ears, and spooked the younger Despenser enough for him to send a letter to the pope asking for advice. The pope, it seems, was more sceptical, because he just replied by telling him to “turn to God with his whole heart and make a good confession,” and that no other action was needed.