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A Revisionist Look at the Countess of Salisbury (Witch)
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Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: January 24th. 2010
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What follows are my own observations and thinking, prepared as part of my present writing project, Prelude to the Burning Times, a look at Europe in the few centuries prior to the Great Burnings of the 1400s-1600s. It is not drawn from Margaret Murray or Gerald Gardner or any of the usual Wiccan writers upon the subject of the English King Edward III and his lover, the beautiful Joan of Kent, Countess of Salisbury- said to be a Witch.
The conventional version of the story goes: in or about the year 1348, the dashing King (exemplar of the Arthurian code of chivalry) was dancing with his paramour, when on a sudden- her garter fell from her leg and lay exposed on the floor for all to see! Certain of the knights present began to laugh and jeer at the garter (they were childishly immature knights, you see) .
Heroic Edward saved his lady from mortification and shame by scooping up the straying undergarment and fastening it about his own leg, as if to say- if you intend to laugh, let the laughter be at me. He then uttered the motto of the Order of the Garter: “Honi soit qui mal y pense¨- medieval French for “Shame on him who evil thinks, ¨ and told the knights that soon they would hold the garter in the highest esteem, as he meant to found a knightly Order, taking inspiration from Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.
This is the story first told two hundred years after the fact, in 1534, in the Historia Anglica of Polydore Vergil.
Another version of the tale proceeds thus: Edward and the glamorous Countess were dancing at a ball- when the lady’s garter became loosened, falling from beneath her skirts. A horrified gasp arose from all on-lookers- for a garter was the Insignia of Rank for a Witch-Queen! The Countess of Salisbury, the beauty of her time, consort (unmarried, but still) to the King- was a revealed as a trafficker in the Arts of Sorcery!
Somehow in spite of the fact that the Inquisition has not yet begun Witch-Hunting (that will not commence until the 1400s) , the Witch-Countess is in dreadful danger! At this moment of tension- Edward III, military hero of CreƒVcy and Calais, strides forth. With great determination, he places the garter about his own manly leg and stares down the spectators with regal fury. “Honi soit qui mal y pense¨- he roars into crowd. (“Shame on him who evil thinks! ¨)
It was now clear that the King meant to protect not only the Countess, his Witch-Lover, but also indeed- all Witches and keepers of the Ancient Ways in England. Despite the fact that the Burning Times has not begun and no one is Hunting Witches yet.
This is the version of the story told by Margaret Murray in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches, repeated by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente and the Farrars.
It must be conceded that the conventional tale behind the Order’s founding- the non-Witch version- is a bit unconvincing; it is difficult to imagine a lady of any standing in court not being able to handle such a situation with composure. A fallen garter would seem, after all, a fairly minor state of dishabille; numerous women today can manage bra straps that slip without having to take a champion.
The story may have become popular in the time of Victoria, as Gerald Gardner notes that the “the mid-Victorians, to whom a garter was slightly naughty, made pretty Christmas cards of the ‘Blushing Countess’¨ (Witchcraft Today, p. 119) . It does seem like just the sort of interpretation that would appeal to mawkish Victorians.
It is also difficult to imagine a court of knights so adolescent as to find a fallen garter the subject of ribald merriment. This is out of character for Edward’s court- Edward consciously encourages chivalry. For knights, who are the same knights participating in the chivalrous displays that mark Edward’s reign, to jeer at (1) a lady (2) a lady attached to the king, (3) for an accident of fortune, (4) in the presence of the king- does not seem logical.
On the other hand, we wish to offer the opinion that it might not be out of the question for the Countess of Salisbury to have practiced Sorcery or Witchcraft. This has less to do with her garter than it has to do with the fact that she lives in the fourteenth century- when Magic and recourse to Sorcery is still common.
The absolute first woman in Europe (as is yet known) targeted as a ‘Demonic Witch’ was an Irish noble named Dame Alice Kyteler, charged in the early 1300s. (Although there is no precedent for Witch-Hunting prior to Dame Alice, she does not seem to inspire precedent after her either- she remains somewhat isolated in the 1300s and the dreadful tide that would become the Burning Times does not truly start to turn until the 1400s.) However, once it began its flow- another noblewoman- Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester- was pegged as a Wicked-Working Witch by her husband’s political enemies in 1441.
The interesting thing is that both Dame Alice and Duchess Gloucester genuinely seem to have practiced Sorcery- perhaps not for the venal purposes of which they were accused- but Sorcery, of the for-real, medieval kind.
Walter Scott, in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, gives the impression that the Scots aristocracy of the 1500s uniformly made resort to Sorcery- apparently Sorcery of a dark and vehement nature- but Sorcery all the same. (Of course, by the 1500s, Scotland has already commenced horribly torturing and burning poor wretches as Demonic Witches- but these wretches were of the lower classes, whilst we are talking about nobles, who- Sorcerers though they might have been- were too high-born to condemn. Study of the Burning Times is a terrible study in unfairness and cruelty.)
This is totally true- please check biographies for confirmation. In the latter 1500s, the legendary Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was attended by the Four Maries- four ladies-in-waiting who faithfully served Mary, all of whom were equally named Mary. One of these women- Mary Fleming- had a sister, Margaret Fleming, Countess of Atholl. This woman was apparently a skilled and experienced Magic-User and so Magically sought to alleviate the queen’s sufferings when her Majesty went into labor with the future King James of Scotland and England.
This does not mean that Mary Stuart was a closet Witch- every indication is that Mary was an uncommonly devout Catholic who faced her execution with the serenity of a Saint. However- I gather that child-birth in the 1500s was a perilous enough affair that even a hard-core Daughter of the Church would not say no to a bit of helpful Magic-Use. Mary’s third husband, the Earl of Bothwell, was said to have bewitched her into marrying him and Mary was obliged to deny to Elizabeth rumors that she herself was an Enchantress.
My point being- it is not out of the question that the Countess of Salisbury was a Witch, as she lived in an age (the 1300s) when Witchcraft and Magic-Use were widespread.
Moreover- there is the puzzling “confirmation¨ of her Witchcraft- her slipped garter. A very intriguing element- an element possibly untrue, as it does not appear until after two centuries, in an account that calls it a ‘popular tradition’- hence an element that may well be a fable. But a fable that perhaps reveals a hidden truth.
For the story of the Countess with her lost garter is a version of the Cinderella story- and as such, it belongs to a lineage that stretches back through the vales of misty time, in a tradition called the Shamanic Journey.
This subject is brilliantly covered by Carlo Ginzburg, in Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (Pantheon Books, 1991, p. 243-9) . Basically Ginzburg discusses the Mythological/ Archetypal Theme of the Shaman- the One whose journey between the worlds is ¡§marked by an asymmetry¡¨ (p. 247) . This theme Ginzburg finds distributed from Lapp shamans to Lombardy worshippers of the Folk-Goddess Oriente to Nordic tales of Thor and a slain goat.
Oedipus and his lameness fit into this category, as does Cinderella- whose legend was first told in China in the ninth century CE. From there, it commenced an incredible dispersion, versions being found from India and Russia, to Scotland and Finland (famously pausing in Germany to be collected by Grimm and then Disney) . In the original Chinese fable, the girl is without question a Shaman, her unique footwear part of a Shaman’s outfit (Ecstasies, p. 248) .
In the Cinderella story, the Magical Girl (aided by her enthusiastic and equally Magical Animal Guide/ Helpers) goes to the Enchanted Place (the palace) , where she meets the Prince. Upon the fateful Hour of Midnight, she must flee- leaving behind One Shoe- as a Sign of her Magical Journey.
Her one-shoed status is the symbolic lameness identified by Ginzburg as a Mark of the Shamanic Journey.
The Countess of Salisbury goes to a ball (the Enchanted Place) . She meets the King. Her garter falls from beneath her skirt- a symbolic lameness, an accident to one leg- this is said to reveal that she is a Witch.
Is it not possible that this fable- lacking better proof, we must treat it as a fable, I fear- but might not this fable reveal to us the Truth- the Countess was One who journeyed Between the Worlds.
Might this not mean the Countess was a Witch?
Edward seems to have had interesting mistresses; another, much later in his life, was an unpopular woman who was thought to give herself airs and (worse) riches. Her name was Alice Perrers and she was for-real accused of Witchcraft. According to the Monk of St. Albans, Perrers had in her employ a friar who reportedly made images of wax and other charms with which to infatuate the king. (This was a common means of attacking powerful women who had attained their power through their male mates- assailing the legitimacy of the relationship as caused by Bewitchment. It is also quite common in the 1300s to find Magic-Working friars.)
In a famous medieval story- when the friar was arrested in 1376, one of Alice’s maids jeered at him. “Could not you, who were wont to prophesy to others, foresee what would happen to yourself? ¨ (Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p.105) Perrers had to face Parliament to answer charges of Witchcraft and mismanagement of public funds.
How fascinating that History (one way or another) has given Edward III two Witch-Lovers. You just have to admire a man who loves Witches so much that he falls madly head over heels for two of them.
At kinda/sorta the same time as Edward starts the Order of the Garter, an Unknown Someone writes the extraordinary epic/verse poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight- a masterpiece of English writing, all the more remarkable for its quite apparent Pagan themes. Sir Gawain bears the Pentacle as his symbol on his shield; the castle in which he stays is ultimately revealed to be overseen by ‘Morgane the Goddess’ (whose Magics have thus implicitly set the entire story into motion) ; the Green Knight (an aspect of the Green Man) and the Beheading Game that the Knight plays with Gawain have plain origins in Celtic lore.
Therefore the girdle that the Lady of the Castle (an aspect of Morgane the Goddess) slips from her waist and drapes gently over Sir Gawain’s shoulder and chest, and which all the knights of Arthur’s court subsequently adopt as a common badge, might (1) be a Pagan symbol of some significance, thereby explaining (2) Edward’s adaptation of the sash into a garter, Edward who admires the Legends of Arthur so that he (3) founds an Order of Knights in imitation.
Relevant to this line of thought might be the fact that the epic concludes by quoting Edward’s motto: Hony Soyt Qui Mal [y] Pense.
Location: New York City, New York
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