Necromancy and the Abbot
By Anthony Roe
Published Samhain 1999
As a child I remember being taken on a Sunday outing to have a picnic at the site of the lost village of Ingarsby, on land that of old had belonged to Leicester abbey, the Monastery of Blessed Mary of the Meadow, before the
Dissolution. But the weather took a dismal turn, racing clouds soon appeared, I shivered, and a storm ensued. Our party took shelter in a dilipated cattle shed. The beasts therein were wild-eyed. There were frightening shadows in the gloom. For a while it felt as though I was suspended in time as I gazed into those wide gleaming eyes ... but it quickly passed as the sun shone out again, and my mind returned happily to the present.
Ingarsby was a chapelry in the parish of Hungerton. The grange belonging to the abbey of Leicester is still standing, close to where Ingarsby railway station stood on the former Great Northern line from Leicester to Melton Mowbray and Market Harborough. The present structure is mainly of the early Tudor period, but is on the site and may incorporate some of the earlier building in which a curious episode took place.
The ruins of the wall of the old abbey of Leicester still exist, and may be seen from the Abbey Park, which derived its name from the abbey on the opposite side of the River Soar. The monks of old had very good taste for natural scenery; and possessed the best knowledge of husbandry among all the people of their time. Hence we find most of the abbeys in England situated in good fat pastures, and many of them near rivers, where the monks could take tithe of the fish caught therein. This was the case with their choice of a site for the abbey of Leicester, the great and eminent abbey of "St Mary in the Meadows" - so called because situated with a pleasing outlook upon river-meadows of the Soar - was first founded by Robert the Hunchback, Earl of Leicester, in the year 1137 CE for the monks of the order of St Augustine, and in honour of the Virgin Mary, "For having been before time very stubborn and undutiful to his prince, when the earl grew in years he founded and endowed this and some other houses of religion. And when the same was finished, he entered it himself, with the consent of his lady, where he lived fifteen years, and died and was buried.”
The son of the Earl Robert married the Lady Petronell, who built a beautiful church for the said abbey, CE 1279, and was buried in the choir thereof, before the high altar. It is memorable of this lady that she made a long rope or plait of her own hair, to be passed over a pulley and used to draw up the great lamp in the choir. This was afterwards kept there for a long time to show as a precious relic.
The abbey was seated on a very rich and fertile soil, had a beautiful prospect, and was provided with rich pastures, tithes, mills, woods, fishing, rents and tenants. Standing just upon the great road from London to the north, it was frequented by, and furnished entertainment to, persons of all ranks. It gave much charitable relief to the neighbourhood, and to the poor of the county. Here, it is recorded, the devout members of the oomnunity said their prayers; the studious gave themselves up to books; the kind-hearted to works of charity and the healing of the sick.
But the monks took delight, too, in mirth and pleasure; for we read that it was a rule of the abbey that they "were forbidden while in a sound state of health to carry on their junketings in the abbey infirmary” - a regulation which would seem to imply that they were not unaccustomed to make themselves merry there.
The abbey lasted four hundred years (from its first foundation in CE 1199), being surrendered in 1537 to Henry VIII, on the suppression of the monasteries in England. The plate and jewels were then seized by the king; the furniture and goods were sold; the buildings were stripped of the lead of their roofs: outside, and of everything removable inside; and the lands were given or sold to the greedy courtiers about the king's person.
Among the most celebrated events that occurred at Leicester Abbey was the visit of Cardinal Wolsey and his death there, in 1530. This remarkable man, whose father is said to have been a butcher, was as noteworthy for his rise as for his sudden fall. He is referred to in the following quaint alliterative couplet: "Begot by butchers but by bishops bred, how high his honour holds his haughty head''. Two of the streets of Leicester were named after him, namely, Cardinal Street and Wolsey Street. But the monks of the abbey where the once eminent cardinal was laid to rest, had earlier busied themselves with othe merely religious devotions.
Processes, which seemed to have a, religious character, but which the Church none the less condemned as dangerous superstitions, were resorted to in the Middle Ages in order to forecast the future. The “Angelic Art”, which consisted in an invocation of the guardian angel, and the “Notorious Art”, which addressed itself directly to God, in order to obtain immediate information as to the future, did not consist of a body of doctrines, but merely of a few prayers and secret ceremonies, by virtue of which the operator believed that he could obtain the Divine Presence. To St Jerome was actually attributed the authorship of two books in which were indicated the practices of the Notorious Art and the Angelic Art. Other prophetic books, to which a not less marked importance was attributed, became popular, so generally were they read, towards the close of the fifteenth century. One, entitled ''Ehchiridion Leonis Papae” (''The Manual of Pope Leo"), the other, "Mirabilis Liber," attributed to St Caesarius, contained nothing to justify these singular pretensions. Moreover, to obtain what were called the 'spells of the saints', a text was taken from the Holy Scriptures and printed in the frontispieoe of the book. Gregory of Tours, in his "History of the Franks”, relates that he himself practised this kind of divination.
The origin of magic had been religious fervour carried to excess, and King Solomon was looked upon by the Adepts as the greatest of magicians. Hence came the name of Theurgy (from 'theos', God), which, however, was in many cases the same as Goety ('go-es', enchanter), this latter having for its object the invocation of invisible powers, amongst them being several evil genii. Henry Cornelius Agrippa, magician as he was, or believed himself to be, defined the principle of theurgy as follows: "Our soul, purified and made divine, inflamed by love of God, enabled by hope, guided by faith, raised to the summit of human intelligence, attracts to itself the truth; and in Divine truth, in the mirror of eternity, it beholds the condition of things natural, supernatural, and heavenly, their essence, their causes, and the plenitude of sciences, understanding them all in an instant, Thus, when we are in this state of purity and elevation, we know the things which are above nature, and we understand everything that appertains to this lower world; we know not only things present and past, but we also receive continually the oracles of what will happen in the near and in the far future. This is how men devoted to God, and who practise these theological virtues, are masters of the elements, ward off tempests, raise the winds, cause the clouds to drop rain, heal the sick, raise up the dead." So, according to this Prince of Magicians, as Cornelius Agrippa was surnamed, a magician ought, above all things, to have an ardent and unswerving belief in the assistance of God, in whose name he excercised his celestial or infernal Art.
Jesus Christ had said "Have faith, and ye shall remove mountains". But magic was much earlier than the Christian era, for it was said to have originated with the magi of Chaldea, and to have received the name from them. The demonographers of the sixteenth century asserted that magic had never had any other object than the invocation of demons, and they ascribed the origin of it to Mercury or to Zabulon, who is supposed to be no other thanSatan himself, This sinister science was said to have been inculcated and propagated during the life of Christ by one Banabe Cypriot, who asserted that he drew his doctrines from books of magic, the authorship of which he ascribed to Adam, Abel, Enoch, and Abraham. These wonderful hooks, which the angel Raziel, the counsellor of Adam, end the angel Raphael, the guide of Tobias, had commiunicted to men, were said to be in existence in Abyssinia in the monastery of the IHoly Cross, which was founded by Queen Sheba on her return from the visit which she paid to Solomon.
It must not be supposed that the number of adepts to magic has ever been very great; the majority were never more than mere theorists; that is to say, purely speculative savants, who studied in books the mysterious theory of the art of magic, Those who asserted that they put the art of magic into practice alone merited the name of magicians. Most of these so called magicians were men of true learning, who, after exploring the vast domain of science lapsed into the study of the occult arts. Many were clerics.
The king, Henry V, gave assent to the election of William Sadyngton on 26th October 1420 CE, and after due induction, 'the restitution of temporalities', as abbot Sadyngton he entered upon a rule of between twenty-one and twenty-two years. During his term of office abbot Sadyngton probably underwent four visitations by the bishop, not so much occasions of spiritual edification as judicial proceedings, in which the bishop 'sat as a tribunal'. There is no doubt about the fifth visitation, for on Ist December 1440 Bishop Alnwick, who had been translated from Norwich to Lincoln (under which See Leicester was until 1839) in 1436, 'came with his hoe', as the phrase ran, of his jurisdiction to root out the weeds that grew in the Lord's garden. On December 3rd he came to the Abbey of Leicester where Abbot Sadyngton held sway.
In addition to the Abbot there were fourteen canons. It was obvious that between the self-willed abbot and his brethren there was no love lost. He made no secret of the light estimation in which he held them. He spoke disdainfully of the Bishop and did not appear at the visitation. He showed the foundation charter of the abbey and a set of injunctions which Bishop Sutton had left about a century and a half earlier. He even exhibited a balance-sheet. But the evidences of his title to the abbacy, the certificate of confirmation of his election and of his installation were not forthcoming, nor did he show signs of willingness to bring the at any future date. Alnwick, in the absence of personal documents, abstained from enforcing a profession of obedience from him and waited until he could hear more about his character. Much of what he heard was not to the abbot's credit. The 'comperta' or matters discovered, were drawn up from examination of the 'detecfa', or disclosures made by individuals. The evidence was given privately and the full report made for the Bishop's eyes alone.
The fondness of the abbot for lay society was obvious: his tastes were secular. There was a charge of 'incontinence' with one Euphemia Bor against him, but this seems to have been passed over lightly. He trafficked in mares and wool. Moreover, it was his intention to get rich quickly. Among his friends were a clerk and at layman of unknown origin maintained upon the common goods of the house and served by the abbot's orders with the choicest food. There was also an anonymous person who dwelt near the abbey gateway at the charges of the house, at no advantage to its welfare.
The identity of these people is not very clear, but one can hardly doubt that they were the abbot's associates in his experiments in the art of 'multiplying' under the direction of an alchemist named Robert and his clerk, which were becoming well-known in the neighbourhood. The abbot was a devotee of magic arts. Incantations were used in his private circle. A man-servant of his, named William Banastre, had been sent to consult a wise women at Market Harborough about a piece of silver, probably plate, that had disappeared from the house. Five marks or more had been taken from the Abbot's coffer: one of the canons, said the Abbot in chapter, had stolen the money. Failing to extract a confession of theft, he resorted to occult methods.
On the eve of the feast of St Matthew, 1439, being at Ingarsby, he smeared the thumb-nail of a boy called Maurice with some unguent and told him to look at his nail and say what he saw there. Meanwhile he read his charms until Maurice, asked what he had seen and probably knowing what he was expected to answer, answered accordingly. When the abbot returned to Leicester, he summoned the convent to chapter and accused Thomas Asty of the theft. When Asty endeavoured to exculpate himself in confession, the abbot would not absolve him, but went away in a passion and afterwards, because Asty threatened to complain to the bishop, retaliated by repeating what Asty had confessed.
The subsequent indictment against the Abbot read: " ... The same, whether as one wavering in faith or straying from the faith and the fired judgement of the catholic church, did practice in his own person, contrary to such faith and fixed judgement, divinations or incantations after this manner, to wit, an the eve or on the day of the feast of St Matthew (either 20th or 21st September 1439) at Ingarsby, he took to himself a boy, Maurice by name, and, observing a damnable superstition, smeared the boy's thumb-nail, bidding him look upon his nail and discover to him what sort of things he saw there, and, reading or saying his charms the while, asked the same boy what he had seen, incurring the sentence of the greater excommunication passed against such persons in general; and knowing himself to be thus excommunicate, has since then celebrated masses, even in solemn wise, and otherwise has taken part in divine service, incurring irregularity."
Perhaps Sadyngton accepted licence for his art from the authority of Augustine, the founder of his order. Ivo in his "De Divinationibus et Incantationibus" (c. 1100 CE) claimed the authority of Augustine of Hippo ("ln Psalmo XXX") to adjudge ''Sors non est aliquid mall, sed res in dubitandi humana, divinam indicans voluntatem," (Divination is not anything to do with evil, but a human concern with the doubtful, and a means of indicating the divine will.)
In 1419 Joan of Navarre, stepmother of Henry V, was accused of practising magic to encompass the death of her late husband, Henry IV. The charges made against Humphrey of Gloucester's wife, Eleanor Cobham, of using magic against the young Henry VI - were similar to those made against Mahaut of Artois a century earlier. By the mid-fifteenth century, England experienced a succession crisis similar to that of France around 1316, and the key figures involved were so powerful that charges of sorcery were virtually the only ones that could safely be made. Again the victims of the trials were the magicians, in this case the clerics Bolingbroke and Southwell and the professional sorceress Margery Jourdemayne. The accusation of sorcery was hurled 'back and forth among the most powerful figures in the kingdom, but the convictions were of lesser folk, the 'demimonde' of the court and the courtiers. The charges aired in the highest courts struck down a few of the mighty and many of their lesser servants. The convicted magicians were clearly from a far lesser social rank than of the powerful figures they were employed by; they came from an unprotected status - they were not 'magistri', royal relatives, or members of the great religious orders. And they did not necessarily function only at royal or papal courts, although it was in those settings that they first became vulnerable to persecution. Long before the first village sorceresses became witches, the victims of the trials already had created a public image of the magician - one who need not be remote and mysterious but who came from a social order that was supervised and scrutinised by many different law courts and magistrates.
The courts concentrated upon the efficacy of the magician's acts, their intention, and the status of their victim, not particularly upon the magicien's learning and skill. The magician need no longer be be a'magister', not even a 'magister necronomtiae'; his skills could be more easily acquired, and behind him, or her, lurked the shadow of the demon. The warning of thirteenth-century magic books had come true: the sorcerer's apprentice could indeed run into difficulty by carelessly or ignorantly employing the art. But the difficulties were far more consequential than being carried off by a demon· They consisted of being brought to trial in a real court by fearful judges. Considering the serious nature of the evidence brought against him, it must be owned that Abbot Sadyngton was treated with extreme lenience in the carefully composed injunctions issued by the Bishop in the course of the month. Yet little more than a year later the Abbot died.
For the use of magic by an abbot, we may compare the extraordinary case of Thomas Whalley, abbot of Selby, deposed 1279-80 CE, who procured one Elyas Fawelle, 'incantorem et sortilegum', to find the body of his brother, drowned in the River Ouse. And in 1641 William Byg or Leche of Wombwell was charged before the ecclesiastical court at York with practising crystal-gazing with ceremonies similar to those used by Sadyngton. It is interesting to note that he said that he had learned his art some three years before from one Arthur Mitton of Leicester. Also, one of the most curious of all recorded instances of the mediaeval use of magic is the story (1510) of the treasure said to be buried at Mixendale-head in the parish of Halifax, in the rites for recovering which an Austin canon of Drax and two secular priests took part. Readers of fiction will remember how the time-honoured practice employed by Sadyngton was used by the 'soi-disant' Indian jugglers in Willkie Collins' "The Moonstone”.
We possess one earlier narrative of the kind of magic practised by Sadyngton. In 1159 CE John of Salisbury wrote his "Policraticus", the second book of which is devoted to the varieties of magic known and feared in the twelfth century. In chapter 28 of book two John interrupts his discussion of crystal-gazing and other forms of divination and tells a story of his own experience. It is not a passage that has been widely noted before, but it does cast some light on little noticed practices in early England.
“During my boyhood I was placed under the direction of a priest, to teach me psalms. As he practised the art of crystal gazing, it chanced that he after preliminary magical rites made use of me and a boy somewhat older, as we sat at his feet, for his sacrilegious art, in order that what he was seeking by means of finger nails moistened with some sort of sacred oil of crism, or the smooth polished surface of a basin, might be made manifest to him by information imparted by us, and so after pronouncing names which by the horror they inspired seemed to me, child though I was, to belong to demons, and after administering oaths of which, at God's instance, I know nothing, my companion asserted that he saw certain misty figures, but dimly, while I was so blind to all this that nothing appeared to me except the nails or basin and the other objects I had seen there before."
The making of this clerical underworld preoccupied with the occult is detailed in the works of Richard Kieckhefer. His extracts from a fifteenth-century necromancer's handbook, the edition of which has been reviewed in a previous issue of White Dragon, details the orisons employed in some half-dozen experiments of 'onychcmancy', or nail divination, which I forbear to quote here. Some such would no doubt have been used by Sadyngton, or other words and names, as those thought by John of Salisbury "to belong to demons", though more likely a litany of the divine seventy-two fold nomenclature of the Saviour, given by Honorius, beginning 'Trinitas' and ending 'Infinitas'.
In his Canterbury Tales Chaucer's doctor was no mere specialist in simples and antidotes; his practice was guided by 'magic naturel', the observation of the heavens and the task of keeping his patient in hours by the precepts of judicial astrology. His handbook was that on the "Choice of Hours" by Haly, Ali Ibn Ahmed, which was in the Leicester abbey library, probably in the version of Plato of Tivoli. It is possible that the tastes of Abbot Sadyngton, who had enriched the library especially on its medical side, may have increased its resources in kindred sciences. Its alchemical holding if not rich was adequate. The ''Lumen Luminum” attributed to Basis, al-Basi, also a medical writer, was there, and the "Experimenta", noted under his name was probably a work of the same character. There are one or two anonymous works on the same subject, the "Speculum" of Roger Bacon, a volume by one Archelaus, which is rare and the name of whose titular author may be a corruption of Arisleus, a legendary philosopher who figures as a member of the "Turba. Philosophorum" in its search for the philosopher's stone. Of astronomical works there were plenty: 'Compoti' or calculation-books for the reckoning of times and seasons, calendars and tables on the Alphonsine model from Toledo, including those of the Oxford astronomer William Bede, Bishop of Chichester, practical works on the astrolabe, the cylinder and the quadrant, together with a small collection of instruments.
Astrological books were numerous in the library. One comprehensive treatise is the Book of the Nine Judges, "Ars judiciaria secundum novem Judices", compounded of the dicta of authors whose names at once command
our confidence: Albohali, Albumasar, Alkindi, Aristotle, Dorotheus, Jergis, Messahala, Omar called al-Farghani, and Zael or Saul ibn Bischar. Of these worthies Albumasa, Messahala, Omar, a native of Tiberias, and Zael, to say nothing of Aristotle, occur in the catalogue as authors of separate works, together with others of whom we may say with Macbeth that in the catalogue they count as men. Such is Alphadog filius Zael, to whom a book "De Stellicis auguris" is ascribed. This seems to be the "Liber Alfadhol filii Schel" contained in a book of such manuscripts at Clare College, Cambridge, and Moritz Steinschneider, the devout tracker of translations into Latin from Arabic, notes in his pithy way a "Liber judiciorum" by Fadhl ibn Sahl al-Saraksi. The names are substantially the same, and the writer was evidently a son of Saul ibn Bischar, but the tract is not common and may easily be confused with another on the same subject, the “De Judiciis Nativitatum" of Albohali.
The Abbey library was thus well provided with guides to the esoteric life on its shelves. Primed with these and cognate sources, it is possible to recreate the circumstances of the actual rite carried out by Sadyngton and performed by Maurice. Onychomancy is a mode of divination under the auspices of the Sun. This prompts an astrological analysis as being most apposite. The Sun is most potent at noon, and given this time for the enactment of the rite, a horoscope cast for 2oth September 1439 Old Style (St Matthew's Eve), gives Sagittary its ascendant, the Sun being in the fifth degree of Libra, the Sign designated in the ancient papyri of Graeco-Roman Egypt for works of necromancy, the effective demon at that time being 'Serneuth', 'a spirit of justice and truth'.
In horary astrology, which provides answers to specific queries, the 2nd House deals with 'lost' items. Sadynton likely used the Campanus system, current at that time, which gives the cusp of the 2nd house as nineteen degrees of Capricorn. Jupiter, which governs priests, is conjunct this point within two degrees. Moreover Jupiter is Lord of the Ascoendant, and in close sextile aspect with Venus, ruler of the Sun in this chart. The Sun is also conjunct Mercury in Libra, and Mercury, the Prince of Thieves, is Lord of the Seventh, yet posited in the Eleventh House, betokening 'some friend or person in trust, or one that has done the querent service:', (This would certainly include the canon Asty whom Sedyngton accused.)
Thus the astrological scenario is well elected, to use the astrological term, for the performance of the nail divination. The meridional prayers used, recited between the canonical hours of sect and none, would no doubt have included the customary Psalm 119 for that hour of the day. This is unique in having the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as the initial words of each verse in turn, the perfect psalm to facilitate the required concatenation of sounds to enunciate the divine names. The solar rite would most probably have used the name of the Sun. revealed in the Secret Book of Enoch and applied the Seal of the Sun taken from Zael. An appropriate incense for a matutinal rite would be frankincense. All this would have concentrated the mind of Maurice and provoked his vision. Interestingly, September was anciently 'Halegmonath' or 'mensis sacrorum', the month of rituals or sacrifices, according to Bede.
On July 25th, 1910, the Leicestershire Archaelogical Society had a half-day excursion to Houghton-on-the-Hill , Ingarsby, and Quenby. An account of this outing by the Reverend Winckley contains some notes upon the building at Ingarsby, with some drawings. The journey along the road to Ingarsby, not a good road, was jnteresting from the fact that in the history of Leicestershire it is alluded to as being one of the two highways in the bronze age between the Continent and Ireland. Oddly enough both these highways would appear to have passed close by Ingarsby. The Old Hall there is a stone building of the Tudor period, situated in the midst of a Roman camp - part of the vallum of which had been used as a moat. As the Manor of Ingarsby formerly belonged to Leicester Abbey, the building was called by local tradition 'the Chapel', and is evidently much as it was at the time of its original construction, though it is a three-storied building of which the first floor was evidently a guest-room. No sign of any chapel remains. At the Dissolution, the Manor of Ingarsby was granted to Brian Cave, whose armorial bearings, with those of Whalley, are carved in alabaster above the fireplace in the sitting room. The Manor granted to Sir Brian Cave, lying six miles east by north of Leicester, contained about 1200 acres of land, and afterwards passed to Robert Banister, whose daughter, about 1640, carried it in marriage to William, Lord Maynard. My fifth great grandmother, Elizabeth, was another Banister, married to William Corner at Melton Mowbray on 25th November 1721. Were these Banisters descended from the William Banastre that the abbot sent to consult the wise woman at Market Harborough I wonder? Perhaps the passing shadows at my childhood picnic were not dark spirits released by the boy Maurice, but the shades of my own forbears.