Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: witch

From bullets to stones: the history of a woodcut

This woodcut is from the title page of A dog’s elegy, or, Rupert’s tears (London, 1644), and is probably familiar to anyone who knows about the life of Prince Rupert:

The woodcut shows Prince Rupert’s dog, Boye, being shot in a hail of bullets at Marston Moor as a witch stands by his side. Boye was reputed in various earlier pamphlets to have magical powers and to be impervious to shot, and his death did not escape the notice of London’s writers.

This particular account of Boye’s death was printed on 27 July 1644 by an unknown printer for the bookseller G. B. This may have been George Badger, based in St Dunstan’s near Fleet Street.

The woodcut must have been commissioned specifically for the pamplet, since it reproduces various details in the text such as beanfields, the city of York, and the witch who is alleged to have given birth to the dog.

Despite this, the image of the soldier may not be as new as it seems. A chance conversation on Twitter with Sir James Pennyman (@HistoryNeedsYou), a reenactor from Sir William Pennyman’s regiment, revealed a couple of details that I would never have spotted.

First, the musketeer’s helmet is a morion: a type of crested helmet common amongst foot soldiers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. By the 1640s this was starting to become slightly old-fashioned, although it was still used by many soldiers in the civil wars and examples of surviving morions from the period do seem to exist. Nevertheless, it is a clue that all may not be as it seems with the image.

However, the big giveaway according to Sir James is that the musketeer is left handed and has his bandolier on back to front. If he fired in that position it would probably blind him or at the very least leave him burned. What seems most likely is that the artist has traced the image from another, earlier print onto the block, and it has been flipped into a mirror image when printed. Either he didn’t know enough about military equipment to spot the error, or he needed to produce an image of a soldier at short notice and speed, rather than accuracy, was his paramount consideration.

I haven’t yet been able to trace an original from which the artist may have copied this image. What I have traced, however, is a subsequent reworking of the image. This collage of woodcuts appeared thirty-seven years later in Strange and wonderful news from Yowel in Surry (London, 1681):

Printed for a bookseller called John Clarke, the pamphlet told the story of Joan Butts, who was alleged to be a witch and to have harrassed Elizabeth Burgess and her master Mr Tuers in Ewell in Surrey. The story starts in 1680 with a young girl called Mary Farborough who sickened and died. Meanwhile Joan called at the home of Mr Tuers begging for a pair of gloves but was turned away. Shortly afterwards lumps of clay flew from Elizabeth’s back and stones, dishes and candlesticks threw themselves at her. In 1682 Joan was put on trial but found not guilty: her fate thereafter is unknown.

What is interesting is how this pamphlet was able to be reworked. The witch on the left is Butts, and the bullets have become stones. None of the other details really match, but the parts that do have been deemed sufficient. The other woodcuts it’s been teamed with look like standard stock illustrations for ballads, although I haven’t yet been able to trace any of them. Intriguingly, the illustration are all on the inside front cover, not the title page. Instead, the title page is taken up with a lengthy précis of the contents. So they are not designed to draw the reader’s eye when on the bookstand. Perhaps they were there to clinch a sale for the browsing reader, or were being used to fill an otherwise empty page.

Where I draw a blank is how the woodcut came to be knocking around thirty-seven years later. Were the two pamphlets produced by the same printer? Was the block passed around printers or inherited by a junior partner in the business? At this point there is nothing I can find that gives any clues.


A Halloween ghost story, from a pamphlet I came across on EEBO a while ago.

The year is 1645. Our protagonist is Paul Fox, a silk-weaver, who lived in Plaistow in the parish of West Ham, about four miles from London. He’s a man of “honest life and conversation”, with a wife, children and servants.

His troubles started when a sword hung in one of his rooms:

came flourishing about the roome, flying up and downe, no hand touching of it, nor any thing but the Sword possibly appearing.

Fox grabbed hold of it and, struggling to keep it in his hand, ran with it into the next room and put it down on a bench. Then he went back into the original room and locked the door, only for the sword to reappear there with no obvious sign of how it had got through the door.

This incident proved the start of a great deal of poltergeist activity. A walking stick hopped from the kitchen up the stairs, and danced around a table on which the sword lay for nearly ten minutes. Another evening, Fox was disturbed by a loud knocking on the door. Asking who it was, a soft hollow voice announced that it was a spirit, who wanted to live in the house. Fox bravely replied that:

He thought it to be an evill Spirit nd that he had nothing to doe there, wishing it to returne to Hell Gates, where hee thought he might have entrance without knocking.

Another day, when Fox, his sons and his servants were hard at work, objects like tiles, brickbats, oyster shells and pieces of bread started whirling round the room breaking all the glass in the windows. A great stone, “of about halfe a hundred weight”, lifted itself up from the yard and tumbled up the stairs. Fox’s wife was disturbed while making porridge: the porridge suddenly forced itself out of the pot and sprayed itself around the room.

Hundreds of people came to watch the strange events in Fox’s house. Some gentry even gave Fox money in return for seeing the strange sights. Fox put the money in a handkerchief, only for the money to fly out into the middle of the room. Only Fox’s collection of godly books escaped unscathed. When the spirit tried to scatter Fox’s book collection, other papers and books fell victim to the poltergeist, but the Bible and Fox’s other religious tracts were left untouched.

Many “Ministers, Gentlemen & great Scholers” were called to try to account for the wondrous events in Fox’s house, but none was able to. As the writer relating Fox’s tale concluded:

That which is manifest appertaineth to us, and our children, but hidden things belong unto God.

But the author also notes in closing other events in Essex: the Assizes which had reslted in many witches being condemned and executed. Were Fox’s misfortunes the result of “wicked persons”, in “confederacy with the Devill”, setting out to “make spoyle and havock of their neighbours goods”? Or is it as the author concludes:

There cannot any solid reason be given from where [these events] exceed.

My illustration is of a child levitating and is a woodcut from the frontispiece of Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus (1681).

1. Anonymous, Strange and fearfull newes from Plaisto (London, 1645).