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.
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’.
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.
‘Wiltshire Murders’ by Nicola Sly (AAA.343) in our local studies collection describes an unpleasant case of the murder of Judith Pearce. It tells of Edward Buckland, a gypsy who had been begging and odd-jobbing around the area of Seagry for many years. Judith Pearce had been known to give him the odd crust, but one evening, refused his request to come into her cottage to warm himself by the fire. Later that evening the thatched roof of Judith’s cottage caught fire. The fire was extinguished without too much damage, but it was widely believed to have been deliberately started by Buckland, who swiftly left the area.
Later in the year, Judith and her grand-daughter Elizabeth were woken by the sounds of someone trying to enter the cottage. They barred the kitchen door, but the intruder attempted to break through with a hatchet. Judith and Elizabeth succeeded in breaking through the lathe wall of the cottage into the garden, but were pursued by the assailant. Elizabeth managed to escape and ran to relatives for help. Sadly by the time they returned Judith Pearce was dead. Nothing from the house was stolen, suggesting it was likely to be a personal grudge.
Edward Buckland, having recently returned to the area, was apprehended close to the scene the following morning, tried at the Lent Assizes in Salisbury, 1821 where he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
‘I am damned if I killed the old woman’
Records of Assize trials are held at the National Archives in Kew, and Buckland does not appear in the calendar of prisoner. However, the fact of his trial is recorded in the criminal register, viewable on Ancestry, along with the guilty verdict.
The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette March 22nd 1821 provides a detailed account of the trial and account of the murder.