The 7th of August in the year 1606 saw the first recorded performance of Macbeth, in the Great Hall at Hampton Court. Shakespeare’s addition of three witches into the historical brew was tailored to grab the interest of the evening’s host, King James VI & I, himself an author with a well-known interest in the occult. His Dæmonology had first been published in Scotland in 1597, and later again in England following his accession to the throne in 1603, with a view, among other things, to validate the persecution of witches under rule of Canonical law. But as the historic record reveals, it wasn’t always the accused sorceress who ended up in jail.
Another fascinating document available to view in the Map and Large Document Reading Room of The National Archives at Kew is the Petition filed in Chancery by John Knyght, chaplain and servant of Lord Straunge [step-father of Henry Tudor], against the Steward of Marshalsea Prison. His complaint is summarised in the Discovery Catalogue as arising from his “Arrest for searching under warrant for one Alice, wife of John Huntley, a witch, in a house called ‘the Lasour Loke,’ in Kent street, Southwark, where ‘mamettes for wychecraftes’ were found. Corpus cum causa” – ‘mammet’ being a Middle English word of Old French origin, meaning a doll or image.
The catalogue dates this petition to “1475-1480, or 1483-1485” on the basis of the full title of the Lord Chancellor addressed, but there is an endorsement in abbreviated Latin on the back which supplies an additional clue in “die Martii videl[ice]t xxvij die Octobr[is]” – (on) the day of Mars (i.e. Tuesday), that is to say, the 27[th] day of October – which fits with the year 1478:
The National Archives of the U.K., C 1/66/296, verso
One of the things I love most about Mediæval documents is that, because words are spelled as they sound, one can hear the dialect pronunciation of a long-dead voice dictating what needs to be transcribed in the mind’s ear.
TNA C 1/66/296, recto
To the right reu[er]ent ffader in god the Bisshop
of Lincoln and Chauncellar of England
Humble besecheth your good Lordship[pe] John Knyght Chapellayn tenderly to considre that where it pleased the Kyng oure sou[er]aigne Lord to com[m]aunde your said Orato[ur] amonge other of his liege people
and s[er]u[a]nt[es] of the Lord Straunge to goo and make serche in S[uth]werk w[i]t[h]in the Countie of Surr[ey] for oon Alyce the wife of John Huntley which of long tyme hath vsed and ex[er]cised the
feet[es] of Wychecraft and sorsery ayenst the Lawe of the Chirche and of the Kyng Wherupon your said Besecher by auctorite of the said Com[m]aundement went w[i]t[h] the said Lord Straunge
s[er]u[a]nt[es] into an house called the Lasour Loke in Suthwerk in Kentstrete and there founde dyu[er]ses mamett[es] for Wychecraft[es] and enchauntementez w[i]t[h] other stuffe beryed and depely hydd
Le Lock, originally a Leper Hospital,
in 1478 an Almshouse or Infirmary
vnder the erthe The which be redy to be shewed before youre good Lordship[pe] And it is soo nowe g[ra]cious Lord that your said Oratour w[i]t[h]oute eny cause resonable is arrested and hath ben
by the space of vj dayes kept in dyu[er]s prisones And howe be it that he hath offered sufficient suerte to aunswere to all man[ner] of accions kan not be let to bayle but is brought w[i]t[h]oute
eny man[ner] cause as is aforsaid into the Marchalsie cont[ra]ry to the fo[r]me of the statute where nether party is of the Kyng[es] house ayenst all reason and conscience Pleaseth therfore
your good Lordship[pe] the p[re]misses considered to g[ra]unte a Corpus cum causa to be direct vnto the Steward of the said Marchalsie com[m]aundyng hym by the same to bryng vp
the body of your said Orato[ur] w[i]t[h] the cause before the Kyng in his Chaunc[er]ye at a c[er]ten day by your Lordship[pe] to be lymytted there to doo as right and conscience requiren And
this at the reu[er]ence of god and in way of charite
This suit has left no second footprint in the catalogued national historic record, but I hope the wheels of Justice turned slowly enough for Alice Huntley to find sanctuary outside Le Lock before the Marshalsea’s Steward released Knyght from his cell – she may, after all, have been guilty of no greater crime than burying her possessions to keep them safe while staying in the equivalent of a poorhouse during a time of need.
On the other hand, sticking a pin into one of her dolls could explain how Knyght came to be locked up in the first place …