The belief in witchcraft and the occult dates back to time immemorial. A witch or warlock was a person who practised sorcery, having supernatural powers to work with evil spirits or the devil. The term was applied to anyone who had remarkable or inexplicable means of accomplishment. It is said that between 1484 and 1782, at least 300,000 witches were put to death in
alone. The laws of James 1 against
witchcraft in the early 17th century were particularly severe and
people were accused of witchcraft on the flimsiest ‘evidence’.
It was firmly believed that witches and warlocks could be deprived of their powers by drawing blood and that their bodies had an area that was sensitive to pain but would not bleed. Indeed, a whole profession of ‘witch pickers’ grew up, touring the country to identify witches and sometimes they themselves were convicted of the very crime they were supposed to expose. A popular method employed was ‘the swimming of a witch’, which entailed the suspect being lowered three times into the water with the right thumb tied to the left big toe. If the suspect floated, he or she was guilty of witchcraft. In
penal laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, although supposed witches
were still hounded. One might think
that most of this was superstitious nonsense but people firmly believed
it. There are still many curiosities and
tales to remind us of this strange period, mostly from the 17th and
18th centuries England
We have covered a variety of witch stories under Churches and here are some more :
We have covered a variety of witch stories under Churches and here are some more :
The Pendle witches
Don’t be surprised if you see the figures of three witches huddled outside a shop at Newchurch-in-Pendle in
Lancashire, for this is Pendle witch country of the 17th
century. The models are there to draw
attention to souvenirs on sale in the shop.
In 1612, ten alleged witches from the area were sent to the scaffold under James 1’s new laws against witchcraft. These women and their alleged victims resided in the villages and farms surrounding Pendle Hill, which at 1832ft is a distinctive landmark in this picturesque area, although few traces of their existence remain today.
In the churchyard at Newchurch there is an old gravestone referred to locally as the witches grave, because of the name ‘Nutter’ and a skull and crossbones thereon. A smaller stone close up to the wall of the church is more likely to be the grave of one of the convicted women, Alice Nutter. Old Demdyke and Chattox, another two of the alleged witches were said to have robbed the graveyard at Newchurch, because bones and clay effigies were found in their homes. Apparently all the women freely confessed to being witches.
The church at Newchurch has an unusual ‘eye of God’ built into the fabric of the tower, which is said to have provided additional protection from the evil that once seems to have afflicted these parts.
Of witches and devils
A 17th century notice, preserved in the Drunken Duck Inn at Barngates near Ambleside in
reminds us how seriously
witchcraft was taken at that time : Cumbria
To the People of this hamlet
Cast out all
That have lately annoy’d these parts
Grievous Molestations and Curiosities
Some councils directing a due improvement of
The TERRIBLE THINGS lately occurring
IN THIS NEIGHBOURHOOD
By the Unusual and Amazing range of
Prevent the Wrongs which those Evil Angels may
intend against all sorts of People among us
especially in accusations of the Innocent.
Belief in witches was also very real in the North York Moors and most villages had a known witch, often rejoicing in such names as Old Nan or old Peg – usually well known for their medical powers! But really quite harmless old women who lived alone. Most of the cottages had a witch post , usually an oak post forming part of the fireplace and often quite elaborately carved and all bore a cross. The use of this ancient symbol implied belief that its magic powers would avert evil and give protection against witchcraft. A good example can be seen in a private cottage at
. In later years a cross was actually
cast on the oven door of the kitchen range for the same reason. Many examples can be seen at Newton-Upon-Rawcliffe
in the delightful Ryedale Folk Museum . village
North York Moors
Many Scottish witches were taken to
where they were burned at the stake close to Edinburgh .
A small memorial fountain can be seen at the top of Castle Hill and a plaque
tells us: Edinburgh Castle
‘This fountain designed by John Duncan RSA, is near the site on which many
witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and serene head
signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes
while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good.
The serpent has the dual significance of evil and of wisdom.
The foxglove spray further emphasises the dual purpose of many common objects..
The witches fountain
The burning of witches
Littletown is a tiny hamlet now absorbed by the ancient Burgh of Dornoch in the north of
. In a small garden there, a simple stone
bearing the date 1722, marks the spot where the last witch was burnt in Scotland . Janet Horn had been accused of ‘turning her daughter into a pony and
having her shod by the devil!’ Scotland
Witches were usually burnt in public and the last ‘legal’ witch burning in
took place at Pocklington
in England East Yorkshire. The parish register for 1631 records
that ‘old wife Green was burnt in the
Market Place for acts of witchcraft.’
Pocklington Market Place
Photograph © Copyright Ian Lavender and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
I am grateful to Ian Lavender for the use of his Geograph photograph
The murder of a witch
The Half Moon pub at Wilstone in Hertfordshire was the scene of an unusual Coroner’s Inquest back in 1751, it was held to inquire into the death of an alleged witch. Ruth Osborn had been accused of witchcraft following an incident whilst she was begging for food at Gubblecote, her subsequent mutterings being interpreted as a curse. Notices were posted that she and her husband would be publicly ducked at Wilstone on
21st April 1751. Despite resistance, they were dragged from
their place of refuge in the church vestry by a mob said to number some 4,000
people. They were repeatedly ducked in
the pond at Wilstone, which resulted in the death of Ruth Osborn who had been
physically held under the water by the village chimney sweep, Luke Colley. Colley was subsequently convicted of murder
and was hanged at Hertford Gaol on 24th August 1751 and his body was hung in
chains at Gubblecote.
The Half Moon Inn
Granny Kempock’s stone
On the cliff top overlooking the
at Kempock Point in Scotland is a curious standing stone, six feet high and shaped somewhat like
an old woman. Known as Granny Kempock’s
stone, it is thought that this local witch,
much feared by seafarers,
believed she had the power to control the winds in those parts. It is said that sailors and fishermen would
walk seven times round the stone to ensure favourable weather. Wedded couples would also receive a blessing if they walked around the stone.
I am grateful to Thomas Nugent for the use of his Geograph photographs.
Old Mother Shipton
The legendary sorceress and soothsayer, Old Mother Shipton, is said to have been born in the cave at Knaresborough in North Yorkshire in 1488. She died in 1561 at the age of 73 years.
Born Ursula Southill, she married York builder Tobias Shipton when she was 24 years old. Every woman is entitled to be ugly but it seems that Ursula abused the privilege. ‘She was very morose, big boned, her head was long with great goggling sharp and fiery eyes; her nose of an incredible and un- proportionate length, having in it many crooks and turnings and adorned with many strange purples and diverse colours, which like vapours of brimstone gas, gave such a lustre in the dead of night.’ So said a contemporary writer who went on to say, ‘ She had in addition a chin of the nutcracker order, yellow skin shrivelled and wrinkled with one solitary big tooth standing out of her mouth like a tusk. Her neck was so distorted that her right shoulder supported her head, her legs crooked, with feet and toes turned towards her left side so that when she walked to the right it seemed as if she were travelling to the left.’ That may be so but apparently her understanding was extraordinary and her strange powers of prophesy became known throughout the land. Over one hundred years after her death, Samuel Pepys had recorded in his diary that Mother Shipton had foretold the great fire of London. Her predictions were widespread, she is said to have foretold of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the defeat of the Armada, the Civil Warf, the Great Plague and so on. ‘Carriages without horses shall go and accidents fill the world with woe. Around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of and eye. Iron in the water shall float as easy as a wooden boat. Gold shall be found in a foreign land that’s not now known.’ Is how some of her predictions have been quoted. In his Collection of Prophesies of 1645, Astrologer W. Lilley quoted that 16 of her predictions had been fulfilled.
Many people thought that she was a witch, especially Cardinal Wolsey whom Mother Shipton predicted would never be Archbishop of York. Apparently he sent her a message that when he did enter York he would have her burned as a witch. Fortunately for her she was right. Equally fortunate, one of her predictions did not come true, the end of the world in 1881!
The Old Dun Cow
An old cottage in
just outside Longridge in Lancashire, bears
the date 1616 above the door, together with the rib bone of a cow The story goes that during a severe drought
in the 17th century, the
old dun cow provided enough milk for
all, long after the wells had run
dry. Legend has it that a local witch
was caught milking the cow into a sieve and the cow died.
The Old Dun Cow
A queen’s pardon
Jane Wenham of Walkern in Hertfordshire was probably the last witch to be condemned to death in
. In 1712 she was convicted of ‘bewitching sheep and farm workers,’ but she was granted the Queen’s pardon. England
It is said that
St Mary's Church, Walkern
Photograph © Copyright John Salmon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
I am grateful to John Salmon for the use of his Geograph photograph
Turning the devil’s stone
A huge boulder outside the east gateway to the church at Shebbear near Holsworthy in
Devon is said to belong
to the devil. This lump of quartz
conglomerate, 6ft long and 4ft wide, and weighing more than 1 ton, is the
subject of an annual ritual when the stone is turned over. On the 5th November each year,
local men with ropes and crowbars and accompanied by the jangling of the church
bell to frighten the devil off, turn the stone over to defy the devil’s power.
I am grateful to Andrew Longton for the use of his Geograph photograph
An eerie post mill, fully restored, stands in the attractive
Neots in Cambridgeshire. In the 1860’s,
the mill was owned by one William Webb, who found a book called 'The Infidel’s Bible' amongst the belongings of his deceased
brother – all about black magic! Webb
hid the book away in the mill which promptly stopped working, and it stayed
that way for three years until the book was removed and burnt. Apparently, at that time the sails started
to turn again. village
of Great Gransden
Vampirism, the superstition that a ghost or evil spirit leaves the grave at night to suck the blood of a sleeping person is vividly portrayed by Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula. Stoker was in fact visiting the
in port of Whitby North Yorkshire when he wrote the novel and
part of the story entails a shipwreck off the coast at , when Count Dracula, in the shape of a
huge dog, swims ashore, runs up the 199 steps to the churchyard and takes
refuge in the grave of a suicide. There
is a grave, which would be pointed out by officials at the church, bearing a
skull and crossbones and said to be the very grave! The stark remains of Whitby Abbey are a
fitting background. Whitby
The Dent Vampire
George Hodgson of Dent in the Yorkshire Dales, is said to have been a vampire! He died in 1715 at the ripe old age of 94 years and it is said that his previous good health and longevity was due to his dealings with the devil and, it is pointed out, he had canine teeth, a sure sign was he was a vampire! Apparently he was first buried in a far corner of the churchyard, but after he was seen walking in the moonlight and after some mysterious deaths in the area, his body was exhumed. When the coffin was opened it was said that his flesh was glowing pink and his hair had grown long. The body was re-buried near to the church porch with a stake through the heart! There is a hole through the gravestone – maybe to make a quick replacement of the stake?