Imagine being alone, sentenced to death. Now you’re waiting in a cell, possibly underground, before they take you to a place where you’ll be beheaded and then burned.
But there’s a reprieve on the way written by the Duke of Furstenberg himself. The first one he wrote was ignored, so he’s written a second one. Even the Pope has been approached to demand the execution be called off.
The Duke’s reprieve arrives . . . thirty minutes after your execution.
It sounds like fiction, but the above events happened to a woman called Dorothea Flock, the wife of a councillor from Bamberg, caught up in the maelstrom of the Bamberg witch trials. I first came across Dorothea’s story when I was researching The Fine Art of Necromancy. What struck me was why the authorities were so determined to execute this particular woman.
An immediate clue is Dorothea’s background. She came from a wealthy Protestant family in Nuremberg called the Hoffmanns. Academics believe a central factor in the witch hunt craze in Europe was fuelled by the Catholic-Protestant conflict of the Thirty Years War, and Bamberg was ruled by the Catholic Prince Bishop Johann Georg Fuchs von Dornheim.
The help sought by Dorothea’s husband and family came from Holland, a Protestant country, but also the Spanish infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, governor of the Netherlands and Catholic. This cross-religious help suggests that Dorothea was not a victim because of her Protestantism, more likely the grudge against her was Bambergian.
The trial process was more rigorous in larger cities like Nuremberg, but in smaller towns like Bamberg the accused had fewer rights. Von Dornheim established a torture and execution machine on an industrial scale and the process from accusation to the disposal of ashes was designed to be as economical as possible. Executions were carried out on the towers of the city walls and the bodies thrown onto a grate fuelled from below.
In the absence of clues to Dorothea’s accusation, the questions turn to her husband George Heinrich Flock. Historian Britta Gehm researched the victims of the Bamberg witch trials and a startling fact was revealed. Under Prince Bishop von Dornheim’s rule the entire council of Bamberg had been executed in the fours years from 1626 to 1630. With the families out of the way their properties could be confiscated.
George Heinrich had already lost his first wife to the witch trials and the murderous intimidation didn’t appear to have ended with her execution. The same pattern emerged in nearby Wurzburg under the rule of Bishop Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn. Council members and wealthy traders wiped out; the killings in both towns an obvious grab for wealth and influence, energised by Catholic rulers perceiving an approaching victory for the Counter-Reformation.
The execution of Dorothea Flock eventually stirred up formal opposition to the out-of-control witch hunts and led to changes in judicial proceedings. Vienna, seat of the Holy Roman Empire, demanded to see the court files of the trials and ordered more stringent adherence to the rule of law. The Hoffmann family paid for their own lawyers to represent others accused of witchcraft.
Dorothea was twenty-two years old when she perished, a few months after giving birth to a daughter, Thomasina. Nothing is known what became of her and whilst the witch hunts may have turned into an orgy of mass murder to consolidate the power of a few Prince Bishops its origins came from a heavy frost one night in May 1626. A destructive frost blamed on local witches.
“Some details from the trial,” Bertie said. I glanced at the sheet containing a haphazard list of items. “They planted evidence then just as they do now.”
“You conspiracy theorist, Bertie.” I wondered what Thomasina looked like and pondered the possibility that big noses ran through the female line.
The Fine Art of Necromancy is released on April 30th, free to download from this website.