Wiltshire's Witches

on Monday, 04 January 2016. Posted in Archives, Traditions and Folklore

My previous blog looked at herbal lore with reference to wise women putting Wiltshire’s natural resources to good use. Even so, there was always the possibility, especially during the 17th century when even educated people believed in the dark arts, that they could be accused of witchcraft, and so I thought it would be timely to delve into Wiltshire’s past yet again; this time in hunt of witches.

Europe had fallen under the spell of what R. S. Holland calls ’witch mania’ in the 17th century, partly as a consequence of the reoccurrence of bubonic plague and also due to the rise of religious zeal in the Renaissance period. Men and women could be accused for many reasons: jealousy and spite, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being the victim to money or property grabbing friends or relatives, or trying to help a patient who unfortunately died of their illness when little was known about the true causes of disease.

Wiltshire’s Churchwarden’s Presentments offer a glimpse into the psyche of local communities at this time, although cases of suspected witchcraft had been presented as early as 1565 (D5/28/1) if not before. Those accused in the 17th and early 18th centuries included Margaret Pilton, 1613; ‘Goodwife’ Barlowe, 1630; William Starr, 1652; Joan Baker, Elizabeth Beeman, Anne Bodenham, Joan Price, 1653; Elizabeth Loudon, Christina Weekes, 1654; Margaret Gyngell, 1655; ‘Widow Orchard’, 1658; Jane Mereweather, 1655; Elizabeth Peacock and Jane Townsend, 1670; Elizabeth Mills, Ann Tilling, the appropriately named Judith Witchell, 1672; Elizabeth Peacock, Ann Tilling and Judith Witchell, 1685 (for the second time); M Parle, 1687; Christiana Dunne and Margaret Young, 1689; Ruth Young, 1698; Joanna Tanner, 1702.

 

One of the Churchwarden’s presentments, 1565, for Thomas Horton the elder of Bishopstone who was suspected of witchcraft (Ref: D5/28/1)

The case of Widow ‘Goody’ Orchard of Malmesbury is described in R.S. Holland’s book ‘Legends & Folklore’, of which ‘extraordinary tales’ were told. Goody was fond of begging for scraps from door to door but had a reputation for threatening those who would not be charitable. Widow Goody came upon one such girl and was seen to pace out a circle around the cottage where the girl was residing. She sat in the middle of the circle and appeared to ‘mumble an incantation’. The procedure was repeated twice over. Not long after the girl’s hands seized up and Goody was detained. She maintained that bad water must have caused the disablement, and unfortunately offered to cure the girl by bathing her fingers whilst casting another spell! She was found guilty and hanged at Salisbury after the girl was cured.

Jane Townsend of Latton was accused of using a ’poppet’ (an English version of a voodoo doll) to cause harm to others, but another notorious case was that of Anne Bodenham who was accused of conjuring spirits. The original statement in the case was quoted in a book by Nicholas Crouch, published in 1688 and entitled ‘Kingdom of Darkness’.

Images of witches in a manuscript dated 1451. By Martin Le France (1410-1461) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Elder is the witch’s ‘particular tree’ and they were said to have lived in the tree at times and there was a superstition that the tree could bleed if it was cut down. Apologies would be made if cutting was attempted.‘Old gal, old gal, gi Oi yer wood, an’ when Oi be a tree, Oi’ll gi’ yer mine.’ You must never, ever fall asleep under an elder bush for fear of putting yourself under the power of a witch. Hawthorn was also a special tree to a witch but St. John’s wort was a great protector against witches, and pious people would often hang pieces of the herb over doorways on St. John’s Eve to keep witches away. The plant was also renowned for preserving you against tempest, thunderstorm and evil spirits in general. Called the ‘Rose of Sharon’ in Wiltshire, it was the ‘pleasant golden flower’ of the garden.

Cats are most well known as a witch’s accessory, but hares are also particularly noted in association with witches; did you know they too were also called ‘pusses’? (I didn’t!). Lyddie Shears from Winterslow was lucky to have been alive in the 19th century instead of the 17th, and was never tried for witchcraft, but she was reputed to have the ability to turn herself into a hare. This was supposedly discovered to be true when a local farmer shot a hare near Lyddie’s house with a silver bullet (said to destroy witches). Low and behold, Lyddie was discovered dead in her house with a silver bullet in her heart. Ravens were also said to be a witch’s favourite.

Ralph Whitlock reported that at certain times of the year on Winklebury Hill overlooking Berwick St. John, a Witches’ Festival was held which focused on a thorn bush, its ancestor having been known as the Witches’ Scrag Tree. The hill itself was associated with witches. A folk story notes that the witches became caught on the bushes as they flew over the hill on their broomsticks in the light of the full moon. John Chadwick reports that the hillside was meant to have been ‘scattered with their corpses’. Leigh Common, near Wimbourne, was also said to be the meeting place of witches, where they pricked a waxen effigy of their victim with pins and held the imitation over the fire to melt away. This was the 17th century, and the magistrates felt a need to act. It is presumed they did, as the area, sited close to a ducking pond, was known as the Witches’ Corner.

There is a Witches Cottage at The Street, Luckington. I wonder what stories that property has to tell...

Julie Davis, Local Studies Assistant

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