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The Necromancers

- A Story of Coventry in 1323

by Lyn Clarkson   [based on research done in Coventry Archives]

All was hustle and bustle in Earl Street on that Friday morning in Medieval Coventry, as the tradesmen threw open their doors to the crowds of people wanting to buy their wares. One frowning man seemed unaffected by the festive atmosphere as he pushed through the crowds, clutching his monk's habit close about him. He stopped at the house of William Grauntpee, well known as the leader of the traders.

"Come forth Master Grauntpee," he said menacingly, "and explain why you are trading openly from your own house on a Friday, when you know full well that the Prior has instructed you that trading may take place only in his part of town at his Friday Market."

William, a fat, normally jolly man, came wearily into the street and sighed as he saw who was speaking.

"You again, Richard Sowe?" he said.

"You know full well we have rights under the Charter of Ranulf to trade where and when we will, the same as the traders of other cities and the Prior has no right to deny us or to ruin our profits with his illegal regulations."

"You have been warned; now you must take the consequences."

So saying Richard turned angrily away and went to report to his master the Prior.

Now, this Prior, Henry lrreys, was a petty-minded man who laid all sorts of restrictions on the townspeople, which he was able to get away with as he was a friend of the despised King Edward II and his favourites, the Despensers.

The Prior was enraged to hear that his orders were being flouted and he brought a court case against the traders, which, in spite of their pleadings, they lost and were fined the ruinous sum of 60.

The hatred against the Prior, the King and the Despensers grew, so the tradesmen cast around to see how they could get rid of these oppressors. Soon rumours began to circulate that William Grauntpee and his friends were thinking of dabbling in witchcraft.

"What else can we do?" William asked his fellow tradesmen.

"All legal channels have been exhausted, now we must find other means to defeat our enemies."

That night after dark they went to the home of John de Nottingham, necromancer, who lived in a squalid house just outside Coventry with his apprentice Robert le Mereshall.

Here the tradesmen promised both men a large reward to use their evil arts to destroy the Prior and others by necromancy. A bargain was struck and part of the payment changed hands, together with seven yards of canvas and two pounds of wax, for the magicians to exercise their black arts.

By the Sunday after the feast of St Nicholas they had completed the first part of their task. They had fashioned seven magical images in the likenesses of the King, the Despensers and Prior Henry and four of his monks, one of them being Richard Sowe.

"Now we must choose one on whom to experiment," said the necromancer, "to see what might be done with the rest."

To Robert, his apprentice, he handed a leaden bodkin, instructing him to stick it into the image of Richard Sowe. Robert obeyed with enthusiam, thrusting the bodkin deep into the image's forehead.

When the next day the necromancer sent him to enquire after the health of Richard Sowe, he found the man leaning out of his window, clutching his head and crying out, "harrow harrow". He had gone raving mad.

Robert returned home and told his master, who instantly took the bodkin from the image's head and thrust it into its heart. The following Wednesday, Richard Sowe died.

The conspirators were found out and sent to a preliminary hearing in court but such was the feeling against the King and the Prior that many people in the county of Warwick put up money for the traders and all but the necromancer were bailed. He later died in prison.

Some of the rest of the conspirators fled from justice but when the case was heard those remaining were acquitted by a jury of local people, either because they found the tale too far-fetched to believe or because the sympathy of the jury was with those accused.

This is thought to be England's earliest trial for witchcraft and it greatly embittered the citizens, who afterwards hated the Prior even more and took every chance to do him harm.

2000 Coventry Writers' Group

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This page modified on 10 November 2008 09:49:15AM