“The popularity of conspiracy theories is explained by people’s desire to believe that there is some group of folks who know what they’re doing” – Damon Knight
King Edward II of England (1284-1327) was having a crappy 14th Century. The Earls of Arundel, Gloucester, Hereford, Pembroke and Warwick, led by the Earl of Lancaster had just murdered his trusted friend and adviser Gaveston, and were busy chipping away at royal authority. Scottish forces of Robert the Bruce defeated Edward’s army at the Battle of Bannock and the Scots were making forays into northern England. The Great Famine had just begun due to several years of horrific weather that destroyed agriculture and killed livestock. Food prices were skyrocketing, wool exports plummeting, and tax money started drying up. Edward Bruce (brother of Robert the Bruce) invaded Ireland and declared himself king. Revolts were breaking out in Lancashire, Bristol, and Wales. A crazy dude named John of Powderham was running around Oxford claiming that he was the real Edward II and that the King was a changeling swapped at birth by faeries. By 1321, the civil war referred to as “The Despenser War” had erupted.
Hugh Despenser the Elder had served as chief adviser to Edward I, and continued to serve Edward II, while his son Hugh Despenser the Younger was a royal favorite. The Despenser family was despised by a powerful Baronial faction led by the Earl of Lancaster. The war raged across the countryside until the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, where the Earl of Lancaster was captured and executed, solidifying his position and that of the Despensers while effectively ending baronial oligarchy in England and Wales during the rest of his reign (until 1327). Obviously, Edward II was rarely in a good mood between the uppity barons, rowdy Scots, a war with France over Gascony, and the looming threat of imminent starvation. These sorts of circumstances tend to make kings cranky. And Edward was no exception. Consequently, as the years progressed, he became increasingly oppressive and despotic, as unpopular kings tend to do. An assassination attempt against Edward and Hugh Despesnser was foiled, but this did not improve the mood of the king.
The King was especially unpopular in the Warwickshire city of Coventry. The Prior of Coventry (an ecclesiastical position) was levying burdensome taxes on the local populace with the blessings of Edward II and his Despenser cronies. Sadly, open rebellion wasn’t a healthy option, given the recent results of the Despenser War should one wish to keep one’s head attached to one’s neck. Twenty-seven of Coventry’s leading citizens convened a cabal to discuss solutions to their problems, and in 1324 they approached a notable local sorcerer named John of Nottingham. John of Nottingham was presented with a hit list including Edward II, Hugh Despenser (the Elder and the Younger), and the Prior of Coventry and asked to utilize his prodigious skill in necromancy to usher in their demise.
John of Nottingham called in his assistant Robert Marshall and collected seven pounds of wax and two yards of cloth, intending to make effigies of his primary targets for use in his murderously dark rituals. Now, if you’re going to kill a king with sorcery, you want to make sure you get it right on the first go, as medieval kings don’t look too favorably on such things. Somebody usually winds up burned at the stake if things go south. Thus, John of Nottingham decided to proceed with caution and do a trial run before tackling the main event. He made wax effigies of the Prior’s caterer and steward, as well as a local man named Richard de Lowe, designated simply as a control subject rather than for any particular political leanings. John of Nottingham and Robert Marshall commenced their operations.
The two wizards retired to an old ruined house at Shorteley Park, about half a league from Coventry, where they remained at work for several days, and about midnight on the Friday following Holy Cross Day, the said Master John gave to the said Robert a sharp-pointed leaden branch, and commanded him to insert it about two inches deep in the forehead of the image representing Richard de Lowe, this being intended as an experiment. It was done, and next morning Master John sent his servant to Lowe’s house to inquire after his condition, who found him screaming and crying ‘Harrow!’ He had lost his memory, and knew no one, and in this state he continued until dawn on the Sunday before Ascension, when Master John withdrew the branch from the forehead of the image and thrust it into the heart. There it remained until the following Wednesday, when the unfortunate man expired (Adams, 1889, p214-215).
Having developed a methodology for his necromantic attacks, John of Nottingham seemed ready (for adequate compensation, 20 pounds it is said, with 15 for Marshall) to commence with the sorcerous assassination attempt. Unfortunately, “Robert Marshall, perhaps in consequence of a quarrel with his master, sought his revenge by laying information against the other confederates. He said that John of Nottingham and himself having agreed for a certain sum of money to do as they were requested by the citizens” (Wright, 1851, p13). In short, John of Nottingham was ratted out to the local authorities by a disgruntled employee. This led to the 1324 trial of John of Nottingham before the King’s Bench for the murder of Robert de Lowe, one of the earliest cases of sorcery in England for which there are any details. John, Robert, and the 27 conspiring citizens were put on trial, plead not guilty, and were acquitted, as the jury concluded there was insufficient evidence to warrant a conviction. This is of course, illustrative of some of the difference between being tried for witchcraft under the common law vs. ecclesiastical trial by torture. John of Nottingham died in prison before the conclusion of the trial and his exoneration, further suggesting that necromancy is ultimately a dubious career choice, even if you manage to evade conviction. Robert Marshall disappears from the historical record as well.
Necromancy is a dodgy business. You tend to rub shoulders with a lot of unsavory characters, both dead and living. This is why, ignoring the clubby atmosphere of modern Harry Potter versions of wizards, most sorcerers are relatively solitary folk. When you’re raising the dead to kill a king, the last thing you need is the distraction of a labor dispute.
Adams, W. H. Davenport 1828-1891. Witch, Warlock, and Magician: Historical Sketches of Magic and Witchcraft in England And Scotland. New York: J. W. Bouton, 1889.
Grant, James. The Mysteries of All Nations: Rise And Progress of Superstition, Laws Against And Trials of Witches, Ancient And Modern Delusions, Together With Strange Customs, Fables, And Tales … Leith: Reid & Son, 1880.
Lea, Henry Charles, 1825-1909. A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper, 1887.
Linton, E. Lynn 1822-1898. Witch Stories. London: Chapman and Hall, 1861.
Wright, Thomas, 1810-1877. Narratives of Sorcery and Magic; From the Most Authentic Sources. London: R. Bentley, 1851.