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Examples of a king’s mark, person, and witch mark carved into trees in the New Forest, Hampshire, England. Source: New Forest National Park

Symbols of the Enchanted Forest? Witch and King’s Marks Carved into English Trees

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How have these ancient markings carved into trees in the New Forest in Hampshire, including witch and king’s marks, gone unrecorded for so long?

The Enchanted Forest of Symbolic Secrets

Some over-achieving modern humans left flags at the poles of planet Earth while others left their footprints on the surface of the moon, and our early hunting ancestors painted abstract designs on cave walls, all saying the same thing: “we are human, and we were here.” However, those of us who did not manage to explore the uncharted regions of this planet, or others, are left with only a few options to make our marks in history, and one of the most favored ‘we were here’ stamps, was tree carving.

The newly discovered tree markings in an English forest include “ witch marks ,” which we will return to, and the most common marking, which is being called a “King’s Mark” - that authorities say was used from the mid-18th to early 19th century. One message even commemorates the “summer of love” in 1967.

A witch mark carved into one of the trees. (New Forest National Park)

A witch mark carved into one of the trees. ( New Forest National Park )

Forestry authorities have described these marks as “ancient graffiti” (of the good kind) and each one has been photographed and compiled in a new New Forest National Park Authority database, but what on earth are “witch” and “king’s” marks? And why were they all carved in this one patch of trees?

The Lost Signs of King’s, Soldiers, and Witches

Archaeological officer Lawrence Shaw said in a press release that some of the trees in the forest are up to 1,000-years-old, which means that the markings could be centuries old.

Tree graffiti from 1870. ( New Forest National Park )

He also explained that many of the trees remained untouched once iron and steel were introduced to shipbuilding, although those trees had been given their royal mark, a “kings mark,” which was chipped into the tree bark to identify trees to be axed for shipbuilding.

And he said many other markings and carved initials are thought to have been made by U.S. serviceman during WWII while they were stationed at the nearby airfield RAF Stoney Cross.

King’s mark on one of the trees in New Forest, Hampshire, England. (New Forest National Park)

King’s mark on one of the trees in New Forest, Hampshire, England. ( New Forest National Park )

There are also examples of concentric circles, or 'witch marks', which the forestry archaeologists say were carved into trees to ward off evil spirits. According to witch-hunters during the height of the European witch trials , the “witch or devil’s mark” indicated that an individual was a witch. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, circular symbols were carved into south facing windows and doorways in the belief that witches feared the wholeness and perfection of the circle, which conflicted with the witches’ inherent chaos.

In the following photograph I am inspecting a “circumpunct” or witch’s mark that was carved into an 18th century church doorway at Balnacoil cemetery outside Brora, in the north east of Scotland.

Ash inspecting a witch’s mark at Balnacoil cemetery dating to the mid-18th century. (Ashley Cowie)

Ash inspecting a witch’s mark at Balnacoil cemetery dating to the mid-18th century. ( Ashley Cowie )

The ‘Lucky’ Trees Sporting the King’s Marks

As the lock down restrictions ease and folk across England attempt to rebuild a semblance of “normality” into their lives, reports are showing many people are taking to the hills, beaches, and forests. But if it pops into your head to go and leave your mark at the New Forest , Lawrence Shaw urges you to think again, as he is “not encouraging new graffiti marks,” fearing they might damage the trees. What the Archaeology Officer suggests we do instead is to “appreciate what has been done in the past and understanding how people have interacted with the New Forest over time.”

Now, let’s return to the so-called “king’s mark,” which is correctly known as a “broad arrow,” representing a metal arrowhead. This symbol was used traditionally in English heraldry, and later by the British government, to mark government property intended for  shipbuilding use, but it will never be known how these trees that had been selected for the chop survived, and what might have got in the way of the axe men - witches perhaps?

Top Image: Examples of a king’s mark, person, and witch mark carved into trees in the New Forest, Hampshire, England. Source: New Forest National Park

By Ashley Cowie

References

Malone, Joseph J. (1979).  Pine Trees and Politics . Ayer Publishing.

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