Alongside the histories of the families who lived in Bishops’ House there is another history, hidden from the world and from history books. You won’t find this history written down. You will hardly ever find it spoken about nowadays. But it is there, scratched or burned into the timber beams of this old house. It tells us about fear of the unknown, and seeking to find a way to protect against witches and demons.
To try to understand, we must go back hundreds of years, to a time when Bishops’ House was part of the small Derbyshire village of Norton Leys and Sheffield itself was a small town of perhaps one or two thousand souls nestled in the valleys of the Sheaf and the Don.
Apotropaic marks, also known as witches’ marks, are patterns scratched or drawn on the fabric of old buildings which were placed there superstitiously, to ward off evil spirits. Whilst difficult to discern to the naked eye (after all they have gone unnoticed for the last forty years) it turns out Bishops’ House has no shortage of these marks. If you visit and want to see them, ask a volunteer, as they are difficult to find.
As well as the scratched patterns Bishops’ House also has burn marks. Timber buildings were prone to burning down and burn marks were made deliberately as a form of sympathetic magic, using fire to bless the building against fire or to protect it from the fires of hell. We think that some of them were made after 1580 but the others are impossible to date.
Daisy wheels are circles with six petals inscribed in them. In Bishops’ House we have only found them on two doors on the ground floor. They were used to ward off evil spirits and protect against witches but were also considered to be good luck symbols. Daisy wheels are found in buildings all across Europe, and commonly date as being from the mid-16 th century to the early 18th century when the fear of witches was at its height.
Marian marks invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary and usually appear as a V (for virgin) or a double V for virgo virginum (virgin of virgins) which can also be seen as an M (for Mary virgin). We think they were probably made by Roman Catholics. The door on which they were found dates to about 1630. This was a troubled time in English history. Although the country was largely Protestant, many Catholics clung to their religion and were persecuted. We all remember Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fawkes and his associates were Catholics. Perhaps a Catholic visitor to Bishops’ House recorded his or her devotion secretly.