Protection and Public Places: Warding Off Witches at The Red Lion, Adderbury, Oxfordshire.


The Red Lion, Adderbury, Oxfordshire: front (above); location (below).[i]

Having had ‘in-laws’ residing in the quintessentially English village of Adderbury (I believe that its the epicentre of Morris dancing!), near Banbury in North Oxfordshire, I’ve visited the Red Lion Inn many times. Bearing in mind that archaeology is pretty much always at the forefront of my mind, the building itself inevitably appeals to me even more than the numerous tasty meals and refreshing drinks that I’ve enjoyed on the premises. According to the Red Lion webpage, the inn, reputedly built during the early Jacobean period, at the beginning of the 17th century (such a construction date is feasible, and the building might be earlier), may appeal to those interested in postmedieval vernacular architecture.[ii]

The Red Lion is located on the old route between Oxford and Birmingham, and functioned as a coaching inn for travellers (without further research, I am unsure whether this building was first constructed as an inn, or as a house that was subsequently converted for commercial use – which may have a bearing on interpreting the features discussed below). In relationship to the village it is opposite Adderbury Green, and  adjacent Adderbury Hall (the seat of the Wilmot family, of whom Henry – father to the infamous Restoration ‘libertine’  poet John – was entitled 1st Earl of Rochester during the Commonwealth Period in the mid 17th century, for service to the Royalist cause).

Without detailed archaeological survey, it is difficult to determine the layout of the early building, but from brief and casual consideration, it perhaps comprised at least three rooms on the ground floor, each lit by a large window, two of which are of interest to this study. An early door indicates that at least one of these spaces (the window of which can just be seen to the far left of the above photo of the exterior) was enclosed. A sign painted on this door indicates that this space has for some time (the lettering style suggesting a 19th – early 20th century date) been known as the ‘Tudor Room’, surely due to the surviving carved timber wainscoting and cupboards (which appear to date variously to the late 16th or early 17th century, and early 18th century). This room also contains a contemporaneous stone fireplace, which is of particular interest to this project, and to which I shall now turn.

Tudor room door front

Door to the ‘Tudor Room’: front (above); back (below).

‘Tudor Room’ fireplace


‘Tudor Room’ (above), showing fireplace (below).


As can just be seen in the above photo, the fireplace bears a multitude of graffiti. While the majority of the letters cut into the stone are likely to represent personal initials – with regard to this feature, principally the pairs of letters, particularly those framed by an inscribed square (see the previous post for a brief discussion of this practice) – some may have had an apotropaic purpose (see another previous post). There is at least one ‘M’ form, and several large ‘A’ forms, which seem noteworthy, although I must conduct more research on this topic before I might more confidently assign a ritual purpose (at this stage all I can say is that the form of the ‘A’s, with a straight rather than pointed cross-bar, does not seem to indicate a very early date).

More certainly of interest are the numerous compass-drawn motifs, in forms that are commonly recognised during graffiti surveys elsewhere, and believed to represent ritual protection marks – see the previous posts here and here. The markings found on this fireplace include circles, one of which is of the hexafoil, or ‘daisy wheel’, type (a circle containing compass-drawn ‘petals’ – seem in the bottom left corner, highlighted in red in the photo below) and arcs, including the ‘spectacles’ motif (two adjacent circles – in this case arcs – intersected by a horizontal line).[iii] A previous post mentioned that such markings occur within church and domestic contexts, and  touched upon the interpretation of this motif when found within particular locations (especially on and around church doorways; and in houses, in the area of entrances – doors, windows, and chimneys, passages, and stair wells) – as possible ritual protection against the intrusion of evil forces.

tudor_room circle scale

Examples of circular motifs, within the smaller of which ‘daisy petals’ can just be seen when examined closely (above); highlighted markings, excluding what are more likely to represent personal initials (below); ‘Tudor Room’ fireplace.


Furthermore, by standing on the hearth, with my upper body partially within the chimney, I was able to see an alcove that appears cut or built into the bricks, above a stone ledge (see below); my informal and quick visit not permitting the use of adequate lighting or accurate measurements, I’d estimate very roughly that it was located at least 2 m above the hearth. I’ve previously come across various features within chimneys (more usually within larger fireplaces, particularly inglenooks – see an example of this type below; also see a post that discuss the fireplaces of an early 17th century building in Derbyshire, on the website of another of my projects). This has included alcoves and cupboards used for the storage of dry goods; iron bars that span the chimney interior to brace brickwork, and / or used for the suspension of pots and kettles etc.; and shorter, usually hooked, fixed iron bars and brackets for the suspension of kettles, pots and spit jacks etc., as well as pivoting chimney crooks that serve the same purpose. But these features are usually placed much lower in the chimney, and are often visible from without.

chimney shelf red lion

Ledge and alcove inside the chimney of ‘Tudor Room’ fireplace.

This feature was perhaps constructed for the storage of curing or smoking of meat etc.. Nevertheless, it is not inconceivable that it functioned secondarily as a repository for objects connected with protection from malevolent forces – bearing in mind the numerous discoveries of assemblages (comprising a restricted range of artefacts) deliberately placed within chimneys during the 17th century (see previous post, here): ‘concealed deposits’ that are believed to have served as ‘spiritual traps’ (see previous post here).[iv] At this stage, without closer investigation and more detailed comparative studies, this suggestion must remain as conjecture; even if this context did in the past receive ritual deposits, they are likely to have been swept away long ago.

Public Bar Fireplace


Inglenook fireplace in bar (above), showing arcs burn marks.

The fireplace in the public bar  (the window of which is shown in the photo of the inn, third from left) is also of interest – not least due to the inscription of other compass-drawn arc motifs on the timber inglenook lintel. But what particularly stands out here are the many burn marks to this feature. While at first glance it might be supposed that they were idly produced by some loafer by the fire, hot poker in hand, they are very clearly produced by naked flames – here perhaps using tapers, as well as candles. Previous posts discussed the form and possible functions of such marks, and noted that, while some see these marks as either accidental, or mischievous / vandalism, such interpretations are less likely than an apotropaic purpose, representing acts that aimed to guard against malevolent forces. Such features were especially common in the first half of the 17th century, but were also executed before and after this time.[v]


Circular motifs and other markings on the lintel of the inglenook fireplace in the bar.

Considering these mark in particular, it would be difficult to conceive how they might have been produced either accidentally, or as acts of vandalism, bearing in mind the absence of any indications (and limited likelihood) for the positioning of any surface, or sconce, on which candles or tapers might be left to burn into the timber (and some even appear to be inverted), the time that it takes to burn deeply into hard wood, the resultant odour, and the potential hazards of such acts. The addition of circular motifs further supports the prospect of a ritual function.

The evidence in context

I have yet to look in detail at the social and cultural history of this building, and the village in which it is located; investigations of other early public and private houses in the area would also surely be informative. I have taken a brief look at one of the fireplaces of another nearby pub, and found no comparable markings. However, while some early timbers survive, this fireplace was clearly largely replaced in the early – mid 20th century; one panel is decorated with what appears to be a 16th – early 17th century zoomorphic carving, about which I shall write (and illustrate) on my general blog (Notes of an Antiquary), when I have gathered sufficient information.

Several years ago, I began to examine the gravestones in the parish churchyard (photographs of which can be viewed here, with a particularly fine example pictured below), as comparison for some of the other sites that I explore in considering death and burial during the 17th – 19th centuries.[vi] In depth consideration of this material might provide some idea of local society, cultural influences, and attitudes surrounding the afterlife – an interesting adjunct to the study of domestic and community beliefs regarding malevolent forces. Thanks to the availability of free accommodation for a few more weeks at least, I hope to return to Adderbury, when, if possible, I shall examine other buildings (hopefully including the church, and other public, as well as private, houses) and other local material (including written sources), and consider the wider landscape. This may enable contextualisation of the above findings (and I shall present any subsequent findings of relevance to this project on this website).


18th century gravestone in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, Adderbury, Oxon..

This brief exploration provokes a number of questions that might be considered during subsequent research, including relationships between the religio-political affinities of landowners, local aristocracy, and ecclesiastical organisations, and the ‘ordinary people’ that lived in and past through particular locales. At the very least, what it shows is that that ritual and the everyday were closely entwined – a situation that many today might find difficult to imagine; and that, however quaint and picturesque to the modern eye, dark forces were thought to be a real and present danger to previous inhabitants of this beautiful village.


[i] With thanks to the manager for permission to photograph (and publish these photos) of the building interior. My recommendations of the pub & restaurant are from personal experience, and not due to this helpful attitude! (My only complaint is that cauliflower cheese is no longer on the menu: please bring it back!!) More information on the facilities offered by The Red Lion is available on the website of the chain that owns the pub, here; information on the village is here.

[ii] Nicholas Allen (1995) Adderbury. A Thousand Years of History (Sussex: Phillimore & Co. Ltd.), p. 62, mention gambling within the 1603 court rolls, then notes the frequent fines of local publicans, and goes on to indicate that the Red Lion is the oldest pub; it is unclear whether the publicans named are recorded in the 1603 document, and whether they were landlords of the Red Lion – that is, whether the court rolls provide secure documentary dating evidence for the building. The discovery of a trading token nearby suggests that the building functioned as an inn by 1669.

While nowadays the terms ‘pub’, ‘tavern’ and ‘inn’ are frequently perceived as interchangeable, they previously had specific meanings, with ‘inn’ usually indicating the availability of accommodation and food, as well as alcohol, for the traveller.

[iii] For recent discussions of this topic, see in Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, ed. Ronald Hutton, 2016 (London: Palgrave Macmillan): Timothy Easton ‘Apotropaic Symbols and Other Measures’, pp. 39-67, especially pp. 56-9; Matthew Champion ‘Magic on the Walls’, pp. 15-38. Also, Matthew Champion’s blog, here, and the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey; and Brian Hoggard’s blog.

[iv] For studies of deliberately concealed objects see in Physical Evidence (op. cit., note ii): Brian Hoggard, ‘Witch Bottles: Their Contents, Contexts and Uses’, pp. 99-105; ‘Concealed Animals’, pp. 106-17; June Swann, ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings ‘, pp. 118-30; Dinah Eastrop ‘Garments Concealed within Buildings: Following the Evidence’, pp. 131-46;  Timothy Easton ‘Spiritual Middens’, pp. 147-63. Also June Swann, ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings, Costume no.30, 1996, p.56-69, re-published here; and see Ceri Houlbrook’s website, here, which discusses concealed objects in general; and Dinah Eastop’s website, which discusses concealed garments in particular. Also, Ralph Merrifield The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic (New York: New Amsterdam Books).

[v] Ibid. & note iii.

[vi] The Adderbury gravestones illustrated here and on Flickr are on the whole pretty standard for rural churchyards; the main point of interest for my purposes is that there are quite a few early 18th century memorials, perhaps suggesting the residency of a relatively large number of sufficiently affluent people in the parish at this time (although any quantitative analysis must account for the possibility of bias due to survival rate).


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