Monday, 8 December 2014

Maggie Wall: Witch or Landmark?

 Journeying westward and about a half mile from Dunning, we see over the policy wall on a rising ground among the trees, a monument of a kind not to be met with at every town.”
Perthshire Advertiser for 20th September 1855

The monument in question is a fascinating sight indeed, and the source of much debate through the years. Constructed of stone and reaching twenty feet high, the structure is topped with a cross, whilst across the front for all to see is inscribed the intriguing declaration:

Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a witch.”

Popular legend  has several explanations for the identity of Maggie. Some say she was a parlourmaid, accused of witchcraft due to an ill-advised tryst with the son of a local laird. There is also speculation that Maggie had an affair with the lord himself, Lord Rollo, and that the monument was erected either by himself or his wife in pity and remorse after her execution. Others believe her to have been a local healer, persecuted for her work, or one of several women who protested against the treatment of a local minister and punished for her outspokenness. The Saracen's Head pub in Glasgow proudly displays what is purported to be the witch's skull, though how it came to rest there is a matter for speculation in itself. 

 The skull of Maggie Wall

Enduring as local ideas may be, looking closer at the stories surrounding Maggie Wall reveals that matters are not as they seem. Often cited as the last witch to be burnt in Scotland, (a dubious honour that actually belongs to Janet Horne in 1722) there is actually no surviving record of a Maggie Wall, or Walls as she is sometimes known, in any of the documents relating to witchcraft accusations or trials in the period. 

What then is this monument supposedly erected in her name, and did Maggie in fact ever exist at all?

The monument was clearly in evidence from at least 1855 as described in the Perthshire Advertiser, and is visible on the ordnance survey map for 1866. The wooded area that used to surround the monument had the name Maggie's Walls in 1829, but there is no mention or evidence of the monument before the middle of the 19th century.  

Perthsire historian Kenny Laing has put forward the theory that Lord Rollo ordered the monument to be erected after the witch was burnt on his land. He points out that as the local landowner he would have signed the papers sentencing her to death; one legend states that he had the monument erected when his wife was absent in order to repent of the shame he felt for sending Maggie to her fiery fate.

The Dundee Courier for 8th March 1878 references a local minister, Dr. Wilson, who was certain that the whole story of Maggie Wall and her tragic end was a complete fabrication, though for what end is not stated. The reporter however is quick to point out that he at least would argue in favour of Maggie's name simply having been left out of the records, rather than countenance that an entire village had deluded themselves into believing the story to the point of erecting a monument to a person who never existed. 

Geoff Holder believes the monument is actually an 18th century folly, and also that the name is an invention.  He points to the existence of a nearby field known as Maggie's or Muggie's Walls, suggesting this is the origin of the name painted on the monument.  He also maintains that the monument could not have been built earlier than the 18th century.  

Holder reveals that a local schoolmaster, David Balmain, was a tenant of Maggie's Walls – Holder speculates that he may have built the monument in memory of two family members that were accused of witchcraft but escaped being charged in 1662, or that the idea of "Maggie" may have been used as a figurehead to stand for the many accused of witchcraft during the 17th century in Scotland.  

Dr. Louise Yeoman also believes that the story was nothing but myth. She points out that not only does the memorial not fit with any others from the 17th century, but that there were also no other memorials to witches, executed or otherwise. She and archaeologist David Connolly believe that the structure actually originated as a clearance cairn – i.e. a pile of stones that have been removed from a field  to enable greater ease when ploughing or using other tools in pasture or arable land – and was then topped with a cross from a later date. They likewise date the monument to no earlier than the late 18th century.  

A Clearance Cairn

The question must also be asked why a monument was erected to Maggie and not one of the other women and men executed for witchcraft during the 17th century. In 1662, six Dunning witches were arrested and tried by the local gentry, that including Lord Rollo and his brother. Three of these were executed, strangled and the burned in nearby Kincladie wood. Yeoman suggests that by the 19th Century, the Rollo family, feeling somewhat shamed by the part their family played in the witch trials, may have been attempting to re-write history by putting up the monument.  

The 1650s were a time on general unrest in Dunning. Riots broke out in the defence of the Reverend Muschet, and the officials arriving to hold a synod with the intention of disciplining the minister were driven off by a mob of angry women. Some have speculated that Maggie Wall may have been involved in this dramatic event and made to pay the price for her part in the disturbance.

Archie McKerracher in Perthshire in History and Legend wonders if the events that led to her execution were so shameful that local officials and clergy determined to forget it, hence the lack of mention in records. This is unlikely however due to the plentiful records elsewhere. He also posts that perhaps Maggie fell victim to “unofficial” justice by her neighbours, a more plausible explanation for the absence of Maggie's name in the documents. 

Writing in 1988 he remarks that the words are given a fresh coat of paint every year and that a wreath appears on the monument, with the words “In Memory of Maggie Wall, Burnt by the Church in the Name of Christianity.”  

Perhaps Maggie existed and indeed met the fate legend has ascribed to her, the Perthshire monument the only evidence left with official records long since lost.  It may also be that the legend grew up instead from the name of the local field and woodland, stories created and shared until they became established fact. It would not have taken much for someone to paint the words on one day, confirming what had already passed into local legend and serving to keep the story alive into the following generations. 

Whatever the case, one thing is for certain - Maggie Wall is a prominent and enduring part of Perthshire history, inviting speculation, no doubt, for many years to come. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Read it in the Papers: The Persecution of Susannah Sellick

Old newspapers are one of my favourite places to find stories, and a recent dip into the archives didn't fail to disappoint. Under the tantalising headline of Witchcraft, the following appeared in the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 18th July, 1860.  

At the Woodbury Petty Sessions on Monday, the 9th int, Susanah Sellick, a respectable dressed woman, and healthy, complained that Virginia Ebdon, a lace-maker, had maliciously assaulted her at Colaton Raleigh on the 8th June.

Map showing location of Colaton Raleigh

Sellick complained that, whilst tending her cow one day, Virginia Ebdon accosted and threatened her, during which the following exchange took place:

Sellick: “How you frightened me!”

Ebdon: “You wanted to be frightened for what you ha' done to me.”

Sellick: “I have'nt a doo'd nothing to you.”

With that, Virginia Ebdon attacked Selleck, scratching her face and hands with a sharp object. Blood was drawn multiple times, and Sellick professed a fear that the younger woman intended to kill her. 

A Mr Toby, acting for the Ebdons, told a different story. Virginia Ebdon had been looking after her grandfather's donkey; Sellick called her names and chased her with a stick until they reached where her grandfather was waiting, a version of events supported by Ebdon and the grandfather himself. 

At this, Sellick denied holding a stick over the younger woman, although she admitted to having a small umbrella stick with her that she used to drive the cow with. Despite the protestations of Ebdon and her grandfather, the court declared in favour of Sellick, and Virginia Ebdon was fined fourteen shillings to cover costs. The newspaper account ends with a lamentation that witchcraft is very prevalent amongst the illiterate in the "neighborough" of Colyton, Satterton and Woodbury.

Church of St John the Baptist, Colaton Raleigh 
where Susannah Bolt married Henry Sellick in 1808

The original reporting of the case in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on 14th July has the intriguing additional postscript, revealing that Sellick had been assaulted in a similar fashion a few years previous. Indeed in The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette for 24th April 1852, we learn that a Mary Pile and Walter Gooding were brought before the Magistrates for assaulting Susannah Sellick, a poor widow woman then aged seventy. Sellick stated that she was walking when she saw the defendants walking towards her, Mary Pile demanding:

Why have you hurted my daughter?”

With that, she attacked Sellick, scratching her face badly. Gooding, meanwhile, was kneeling on the ground, in, it transpired, an attempt to drive a nail into the ground on which Sellick stood in the belief that this would break her power.  

Sellick was rescued by the arrival of William Shute, upon which Pile and Gooding quickly left, leaving Shute to help the poor woman. Shute also gave evidence, describing Sellick's bloodied state and distress at the unprovoked attack. Sellick insisted to the courts that she did not know Pile's daughter, and had most certainly never done her any harm.

In her defence, Mary Pile, aged forty-five, insisted that she was fully justified in attacking Sellick and that it was necessary for her to draw blood from the older woman because she had bewitched her daughter. Gooding, the husband of Pile's twenty year old daughter Amy, was also convinced that he had only done what was needed to help his ailing wife.  

Iron nail such as that used by Walter Gooding

The young woman herself was present in the courtroom and had, by her own account, been very ill throughout the last two years, a time through which she insisted that Sellick was often in the house. A fortnight prior to the attack, Amy Gooding told the Magistrates, she had been wearing a string around her neck, only to find it vanished one night when she was in bed. As midnight approached, suddenly a loud knock sounded at the door, then at the foot of the bed and, finally, against the foot-board itself. The young woman however could not move, a heavy weight against her chest keeping her from doing so. What transpired next is unrecorded, but when she awoke in the morning, the string was once more around her neck. After this incident, Amy Gooding insisted that “Susan Sellick was continually with her” and from that point on they could not keep a candle lighted in the house, as they were constantly extinguished by the apparent presence of the witch.  

The Magistrates' attempts to make the defendants see reason went in vain, and they ended with suggesting that they should visit the local clergyman to ask his opinion on the matter, no doubt in the hope that he would be able to talk more sense into them. Mary Pile was fined one pound and thirteen shillings, whilst Walter Gooding was fined one pound and three shillings, both including costs. The fines were paid on the spot, proving that the families involved were not without money. The Magistrates informed Sellick herself that if she had further trouble she should not hesitate to return, adding that this was the third case within as many months regarding assault on old women suspected of witchcraft.  

That Susannah Sellick was considered a witch by at least some in her home village of Colaton Raleigh and beyond, is clear, though what started this reputation cannot be more than guessed at. The small village is eleven miles from Exeter and only a couple of miles from East Budleigh, where Mary Pile and the Goodings lived. Colaton Raleigh had a population of 841 in 1850, while East Budleigh was decidedly larger, the three-part village totalling around 2,000 inhabitants. It is possible that Susannah Sellick spoke the truth when she said she had no knowledge of Amy Gooding, although there is much evidence that the families of the local area were closely intertwined; Virginia Ebdon's daughter Elizabeth married a Frederick Pile, and intermarriage between Ebdons, Sellicks, Bolts and Goodings can be seen throughout the period in question and beyond. 

East Budleigh, Devon

Susannah Sellick nee Bolt was born in 1783, making her seventy-seven at the time of the second attack by those suspecting she was a witch. Henry Sellick was a farmer, with five acres to his name, a not insubstantial property for the couple. That she is mentioned as being well-dressed indicates that she was not in greatly reduced circumstaces, and there is no evidence that she was guilty of begging or otherwise bothering her neighbours, complaints that commonly accompany accusations of witchcraft.

As with many cases however the accused was a widow, Henry Sellick having died not long before the first incident. It is interesting to note that Mary Pile's husband had also died shortly prior to her attack on Sellick, the removal of the menfolk perhaps serving to reduce protection and also providing the freedom to act on long-held dislikes and suspicions. 

Whether Susannah Sellick had any further trouble from her neighbours is unknown, although one cannot help but hope that two court appearances and the injuries that led there saw an end to the persecution of the old woman.  She was buried at the age of ninety-six on 23rd March, 1879 at Colaton Raleigh. Her sister-in-law and house-mate during her later years, Caroline Bolt, was buried a week later at the age of ninety. 


Thursday, 13 November 2014

Lingering Legends: The Witch of Wookey Hole.

In the caves of Wookey Hole, Somerset, rests a witch. She was, as legend goes, turned to stone, many, many years ago, and has remained there ever since, trapped in the glittering limestone caves carved out by the River Axe. 

As with most tales, the details vary in the telling, but the basic legend asserts that there was once a witch who tormented the local villagers of Wookey Hole. She worried their cattle, spoilt their butter, and generally made a nuisance of herself, striking terror into the hearts of those she lived amongst. This unnamed witch had an especial hatred towards young lovers, and delighted in using her powers to destroy any fledgling relationship that came to her attention. One young man, his love affair in tatters, was so affected by the experience that he swore never to love again, taking, in his desolation, Holy Orders and dedicating his life to the Church.  

After years of such treatment, the villagers appealed for help against the terrible woman who plagued them. As chance would have it, the Abbot of Glastonbury sent a Father Bernard to their aid, the self-same monk who had take the cloth so long before when the Witch foiled his own plans of romance. 

Prepared and with the support of the people of Wookey behind him, Father Bernard pursued the Witch to the caves, following her into the darkness as she fled before him. There they did battle, and eventually Father Bernard triumphed, the Witch's ill-gained magic no match against his prayers and chants. With an incantation and the wave of his hand, the Witch turned to stone, petrified into the shape that has drawn visitors ever since. 

The Witch at a distance

Other variations add that the Witch was once crossed in love herself; discovering her lover to have been unfaithful she retreated, heartbroken, to the cave, whereupon she called upon the Devil to help her. Promising her soul in exchange for his assistance, she accepted the deal, and was given her magical powers in return. Not satisfied with cursing her perfidious lover, she continued to upset relationships throughout the area, until the brave monk stopped her once and for all. Some tellings also have the monk sprinkling the Witch with Holy Water at the crucial moment, further highlighting the triumph of good over evil. 

Although there is evidence that the caves have been in human use for 45,000 years, and apparent reference to the caves is found in writings from Clement of Alexandria in 3AD, the stalagmite formation now known as the Witch is first mentioned by William of Worcester in 1470 where he suggests that it may be described as “the figure of a woman, clad and holding in her girdle a spinning distaff.” The first recorded naming of the Witch herself, however, was a poem by Dr Henry Harrington, The Duke of York's physician, published in 1756, where we are told:

In anciente days tradition showes,
A base and wicked elf arose,
The Witch of Wokey hight.

There are various mentions of the Witch of Wookey throughout the years that followed, ranging from the Reverend Shaw's 1788 dismissal of the legend as “silly tales", to his fellow clergyman, Richard Warner's reporting as fact their cave tour guide's assertion that:

 The cavern had never had but one inmate, an old witch who had been turned years ago into stone, by a parson, as she was cooking a child, which she had stolen from the village." 

He then went on to record that the guide's own grandmother had memories of the Witch, along with the acts of maleficium she visited upon the unfortunate villagers.

Illustration from Drayton's Polyolbion 1612
showing the "Witch" of Ochy Hole outside her cave.

Hebert Balch, the pioneering archaeologist who, between 1904 and 1954, led extensive explorations into the cave system at Wookey, believed that the witch actually existed. In his 1912 expedition a skeleton of a goatherd was discovered, along with the remains of two goats, a milking pot, a knife described as sacrificial in nature, and a round stalagmite ball. He suggested that these were the actual very real remains of the woman who inspired the legend so many years before.  

The Witch of Wookey Hole
Now at Wells and Mendip Museum

Balch went on to link the story of the Witch to folk memories of events that actually took place prior to an evacuation of the cave around the start of the 5th Century. He referenced the story of Yspadaddon Penkawr, chief of the giants whom it was foretold would die when his daughter married, an event he worked to prevent  at all costs. Kulhwch, either a cousin or friend of the mythical King Arthur, vowed to win her hand however, and was set a series of impossible tasks to carry out. Despite expectations he completed all apart from the final task, to bring back the blood of the black witch who lived "in the cave at the head of the Stream of Sorrow on the Confines of Hell". When several of Kulhwch's men had been driven back without success, Arthur himself stepped in to help his desperate friend. He went to the cave, where he slayed the witch, cutting her into parts with his dagger.  

Balch also discovered a socket had been made in the Witch's chest, and the remains of a wooden stake were found on the floor beneath. He speculated that this could be evidence of a monument to a real sacrifice, carried out to an Underworld deity, citing the presence of human bones nearby that had been broken in the same manner as animal bones for eating.  

Eschewing the more familiar companion of a cat, there is even evidence of the witch's dog. A little "bowl" has been uncovered at its side, and bones discovered in the dirt around the figure. It has been suggested that it was tradition at some point in the caves' long history to bring bones for the dog, in order to appease his mistress. 

The Witch's Dog

The Reverend Thomas Scott Holmes however had another explanation for the Witch.  In his 1886 The History of the Parish and Manor of Wookey,  He postulated that the “witch” or “wych” actually refers to the cave itself, and described the cavern from which the Rive Axe flows. He suggested that “Wookey” came from “wocob” or “wocor”, words that are linked to the Welsh “gogof” or “ogo” that mean cave.  

Interest in her legend and the caves where she makes her home has not diminished, as illustrated by the fact that the Witch of Wookey is once again in human form during daylight hours at least. She now welcomes visitors to the ever-popular cave attractions, including the recently opened Witch's Laboratory. 


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Mary Lakeland: An Ipswich Witch

Almost everyone knows the name of Matthew Hopkins; self-styled Witchfinder General, he was responsible for the death of approximately one hundred accused witches in the period 1645-47. The majority of these witches were women, and Mary or Mother Lakeland, the wife of an Ipswich Barber, was one of many who fell foul of the witch panic in 1645.  

Accused along with a neighbour, Alice Denham, of practicing witchcraft with the intention to cause harm, Lakeland was said to have admitted to murdering her husband, causing William Lawrence and his son upset and eventual death after he asked for the repayment of a loan she could not afford, and murdering the maid servant of a Mrs Jennings who had also asked for the repayment of a small loan made to Lakeland. Lakeland further admitted to bringing illness to a former suitor of her grand daughter – the man had spurned the girl and so she, Lakeland, had taken revenge by sinking his ship and causing a wasting illness that had ravaged his body. Furthermore, she confessed to making a pact with the Devil, where he had scratched her hand with his claw, the contract between them signed with her own blood.

Example of a written contract with the devil, 
signed by several demons

Unlike their continental counterparts, the use of torture was forbidden by law in English trials, but Hopkins and his fellow witchfinders got around this prohibition by using less overt methods such as sleep deprivation and walking the suspect up and down for days on end. Through such methods, the accused was so befuddled and tired that they would say whatever was wanted of them, and many a confession was gained that way.   

Lakeland was duly found guilty, and, in a rare example of the time, burned at the stake on Tuesday 9th September, 1645. In England, hanging was the usual method of disposing of witches, but because she was found guilty of killing her husband, Lakeland was in fact guilty of petty-treason, and thus subject to the punishment attached to that crime.  

Attracting great interest, a pamphlet was published within the month to report on the case, and some speculate that it was written by Hopkins himself. Henry Reade, the fickle suitor, started to recover shortly after Lakeland's execution.  

There is a further interesting post-script to the tale, suggesting that Ipswich did not see the last of Mary Lakeland on that fateful Autumn day. In 1997, staff of the coincidentally-named Lakeland Store located in the Ancient House in the Butter Market, Ipswich, experienced a series of strange happenings. Flowers were rearranged when no one was in the building, belongings vanished and reappeared, and a staff member was locked in the cellar, until the door inexplicably burst open again. Later research uncovered the fact that John Lakeland's barbers shop was in that very area, and some say that Mary Lakeland did not leave Ipswich for good after all.

The Ancient House, Ipswich

Friday, 31 October 2014

Murder at Hindhead: The Curse of the Sailor's Stone

Although described by William Cobbet as "certainly the most villainous spot that God ever made," my own memories of Hindhead in Surrey are somewhat fonder. As a young girl I spent a lot of time visiting my maternal grandmother there, wandering across the Common, with my mother sharing the tales she had been told as a child. 

One that stuck with me was that of a terrible murder committed many years ago; a poor sailor brutally struck down, the site of the gibbet where his murderers were brought to justice, the stone erected to commemorate the event, clear in my mind all these years later. 

“The stone is cursed,” I was told firmly, “Anyone who moves it or does it any harm – well, bad things happen.”  

It was only many years later that I learnt the facts behind the rumours and murmurings. 

On 24th September 1786, an unnamed sailor stopped at the Red Lion Inn, Thursley, for rest and refreshment. Travelling on foot along the coach road, from London to Portsmouth to rejoin his ship at Spithead, it was a journey he was fated never to complete. 

Whilst enjoying his drink, our sailor made the acquaintance of three men; James Marshall, Edward Lonegan and Michael Casey. They were happy to accept food and drink paid for by the generous traveller, and the man was last seen alive leaving the inn with his three new friends, heading in the direction of nearby Hindhead. 

Later that day, a shepherd boy tending his flock on the Common spotted a ragged bundle on the ground in the distance. On closer examination he discovered it to be the unfortunate sailor, now stripped of his clothes and belongings and with his throat cut. The boy raised the alarm, and the three men who had accompanied the victim were apprehended a short while later, attempting to sell the dead man's belongings further down the road at an inn at Rake, Hampshire.

Six months later, Marshall, Lonegan and Casey were tried and declared guilty before the courts in Kingston. On 7th April, 1787, they were hanged on a gibbet in Hindhead, close to the scene of their crime. Along with drawing great attention from the surrounding area, the occasion drew the dubious boast that it was the only gibbet in the country at the time to have held the weight of three bodies. The unknown sailor himself was buried in Thursley Churchyard, where his grave can still be seen today. 

19th Century painting of the crime, artist unknown

The bodies were left in chains for several years, a grisly reminder and deterrent to anyone considering committing a similar crime. It is reported that the gibbet was damaged by a storm in 1790 but it is unclear how long it remained intact after that point, or exactly how long the bodies remained there. The main wooden post was still standing, however, in 1827. 

Hindhead Common was a location much feared even before the murder.  The route was indeed a dangerous one, with highwaymen and footpads waiting to relieve the unsuspecting traveller of their belongings and lives, with strange lights and unexplained shadows lurking to frighten even the hardiest soul who strayed there after dark.  In an attempt to counteract the negative associations with the spot, in 1851 a celtic cross was erected on Gibbet Hill, paid for by Sir William Erle. This did little to quell stories of figures looming in the gloom around the memorial stone, believed to be the ghosts of the three murderers, unable to rest. The murder retained a hold on the popular imagination and has been referred to by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, S. Baring-Gould's 1896 novel, The Broom-Squire, and was the inspiration behind a painting by J.M.W Turner.

Hindhead Hill, by J.M.W Turner c.1808
The gibbet can be seen in the distance. 

 A less stomach-churning reminder of the murder was a stone erected on the coaching road to mark the area where the murder took place, bearing the following inscription:

In detestation of a barbarous
Murder committed here on an
unknown sailor, on September
24th, 1786.
By Edward Lonegan, Michael
Casey, and James Marshall, who
were all taken the same day and
hung in chains near this place.
Whoso sheddeth man's blood by
man shall his blood be shed.
Genesis ix, verse 6

On the reverse of the stone is the later addition of: 

This stone was erected by order
and at the cost of James Stillwell,
Esq of Cosford, 1786. Cursed be the
man who injureth or removeth this stone.

The curse actually relates to local politics involved with the stone's location. In 1826 a section of the coaching road through Hindhead was moved, and an ongoing feud between the Turnpike Trustees and Mr Hawkins, Mr Stilwell's nephew began. The Sailor's Stone was renovated and moved to the side of the new road, whereupon, after a great deal of argument, it was returned to its original location at Mr Hawkin's behest. It was at this time that the "curse" was added to the back of the stone, along with some additional and long-since removed insults aimed at those who had moved it in the first place. In response to Hawkins' obstinacy, a replica stone was erected by the new road instead. This stone was abused and vandalised and although it is not known when, by 1889 there was again only the original stone remaining. It was returned to the new road, but moved for a final time to the original site in 1932, where it has remained since.  

But what of the curse? When the stone was moved to it's final resting place, opinion was divided.  Amongst all the rumours and hear-say however, there are some verifiable cases of  ill-luck for people involved with the moving of the stone.

Rupert Chandler, manager of a local garage, laughed at the curse and volunteered his employee, Charles Harris to help move the stone. Chandler died in January 1937 after a short, unexpected, illness.

Charles Harris himself broke his shoulder when he fell from a ladder, the injury so bad that it prevented him from working again.

An unnamed worker also died of a heart-attack a short while after helping move the stone.

Were there others? Or were these just coincidence, the story a convenient way to keep vandals at bay and discourage any further dispute over where the stone was to rest?

As for the identity of the poor sailor himself, Edward Moorey has posited that he was an Edward Hardman, brother to Hussar Samuel Hardman of Lambeth. He also provides the gruesome addition to the story that the bones of the middle fingers of the perpetrators were removed and turned into gold tipped toothpicks, mementos that remain in Hardman's family to this day.  

The Celtic Cross on Gibbet Hill

Monday, 27 October 2014

Prince Arthur's Vision: A Tudor Spectre

What better way to start Halloween week than with a ghost story? Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales and ill-fated heir to King Henry VII, although not as widely known as his more infamous younger brother, has attracted an intriguing legend of his own.

One September day in 1501, Arthur, or so the story goes, was enjoying one of many visits to Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. After a day of hunting he decided to go for a walk along the riverbank, finding himself in the nearby village of Hassop. As evening drew on and growing tired, he paused to rest by an old stone cross. As he rested, the ghostly form of a woman appeared to him; dressed in white, and of spectral countenance, she told him that he would marry a foreign bride and that the girl would soon be a widow. With that she vanished, leaving Arthur to return to Haddon Hall, to be told that his intended Spanish bride had arrived at last in England.  

There are many variations of the tale. Some have Arthur sleeping, the encounter with the woman happening in a dream. Others locate the events within the grounds of Haddon Hall itself. There are also variations on whether Arthur is told of his bride's arrival or merely that he is to be married.  They all contain the same basic fact however; a ghostly woman telling Arthur of his impending fate. 

Haddon Hall, Derbyshire

Spectres aside, what truth does the story hold? Sir Henry Vernon of Haddon Hall was Governor and Treasurer to Prince Arthur between 1494 and the Prince's death, providing a link that would make visits to the hall a possibility. In Highways and Byways in Derbyshire, J.B. Firth upholds the tradition that Arthur spent much of his time at Haddon, though there is no mention of the Prince's supposed vision or a record of when exactly such visits took place. 

The dating of the tale, September 1501 is supported by what we know of Arthur's life. On 27th September 1501, Catherine of Aragon set sail on her second attempt to reach England, the first having been scuppered by bad weather back in August. This matches the news that Arthur's bride had set sail but not, as some versions state, that she had arrived in England itself. Catherine in fact arrived in October, and she and Arthur were married in London on 14th November, 1501, moving to Ludlow Castle where they were to start their lives together early in 1502. 

What of the cross that Arthur was supposed to have rested under? Whether he did or not, or whatever he saw there, there is a possibility that fragments of that cross may still exist today, resting in the churchyard of All Saints Church, Bakewell, not far from Haddon Hall.  

A leaflet entitled Look At Bakewell links Arthur's tale to the cross fragments in the churchyard, asserting that it was the one Arthur sat under when he had his vision. An excavation around the cross shaft at Bakewell confirms that it had been moved to the churchyard from its original setting, and there are assertions by many 19th Century writers that the cross had been moved from another location to the churchyard, although there is no indication of where it was moved from. In 2012 a geographical survey took place at Hassop Crossroads near Bakewell, and during this time it was ascertained that there was indeed an intersection of many tracks, possibly marking the original setting of the cross. 

The ghostly woman's words were destined, sadly, to come true. In March 1502,  Arthur was struck down with an illness that has been described as anything from tuberculosis to a form of the sweating sickness. Arthur died at the age of 15, on 2nd April, 1502, leaving Catherine a widow and thus fulfilling the last part of his mysterious vision. That his last words were “O, the vision of the cross at Hassop!” (or Haddon depending on which version you follow) is, however, unverifiable. He was buried in Worcester Cathedral in 1502 and his widow went on to eventually become the first wife of Henry VIII.

Arthur's tomb in Worcester Cathedral

Friday, 24 October 2014

Role Reversal: The Complaint of Elizabeth Williams.

Although the passing of the Witchcraft Act did not bring belief in witchcraft to an end overnight, it did mean that those accused and hounded by neighbours could now in turn bring their own grievances before the courts. A fascinating example of this process can be glimpsed in 1867 in the Somerset village of Wedmore, when Elizabeth Williams summoned Ann Davis for cutting her arm with a knife.

Williams told the court that on the 22nd June, she was passing Davis' house, when the other woman offered to sell her a flower. Whether Williams entered the cottage or not is unrecorded, but as the conversation progressed, Davis suddenly flew at Williams with a knife and cut her in three places on the arm.

Davis' justification, when questioned by the court, was that Williams was always “hagging her to death.” When probed further, she asserted that Williams was a witch and had, furthermore, caused her much harm. Not only had she killed her donkey and her cat, but she had also caused Davis herself to be thrown from a cart. She had even, Davis asserted, appeared at her bedside – when she had tried to grab the other woman however, Williams had, to evade capture, turned into a cat. It seems that Davis' husband, Jonathan, also shared his wife's opinions on Elizabeth Williams.

Ann Davis' defence of her actions contains many easily recognised elements from countless witchcraft accusations from the preceding two centuries. The appearance of a witch in the bedroom of a victim was a well-known way in which a witch could make herself a nuisance, with the ability of the accused to turn into an animal to elude capture also well documented. Injury to animals, both domestic and livestock, were common in such cases, often as a final addition to a long list of grievances such as those presented by Davis. Davis also duly admitted that she had scratched Williams, asserting the long-held belief that drawing blood would break the witch's power over her victim.

Did Davis truly believe her assertions? Or was it simply a convenient and familiar way of dealing with an ongoing feud or discord within the community? Elizabeth Williams is listed as a widow in the 1871 census, and although her husband Edmund is present in 1861, it is possible that he died prior to the incident with Davis. It may indeed have been that this removal of someone to intervene on Williams' behalf led to Davis feeling bold enough to act on feelings that had been building for some time.

Ann and Jonathan Davis were approaching sixty at the time of the case, while Elizabeth Davis was anything between fifty-five and seventy depending which census information is used. There is the possibility that Williams was actually Davis' sister-in-law; an Elizabeth Davis married Edmund Williams in 1848 with the same birth year as a Betty Davis who was Jonathan Davis' sister. If this were the case, then it adds another layer of intrigue to the story, a family feud perhaps sparking the animosity that led to Davis making such accusations and resulting in her scratching the other woman.

Wedmore Parish Church, where Elizabeth and 
Edmund Williams were married in 1848

Whether she truly believed Williams to be a witch or not, it was the victim who gained the sympathy of the courts in this case, and it is interesting to observe that the judge was utterly unsympathetic to Davis' views, remarking that Davis was best suited to the local asylum for harbouring and spreading such dangerous ideas. In the end however, no doubt in part to save the parish any further expense, Davis was bound over to keep the peace for three months instead.

The story was reported in newspapers across the county throughout July and August, making news in Manchester, Oxford, Hampshire and Liverpool before the Autumn. It appears that the Davis family moved house in the wake of the incident to another area of Wedmore, perhaps in order to limit any further contact with the woman they believed had bewitched them. 

A sad postscript to the case comes in a newspaper article of 18th February, 1876. It describes how a “pauper lunatic” named Elizabeth Williams of Wedmore had swallowed thirteen screws and was for a good while in danger of her life. This desperate act unintentionally parodies the common complaint by witchcraft victims of being made to vomit screws, pins and needles by their tormentor, reinforcing how, in the case of Elizabeth Williams, the "witch" had become the afflicted.

 It is unclear when Elizabeth died, but it is likely that she may never have left the asylum that the judge recommended for her former accuser.   

The Former Wells Lunatic Asylum where Elizabeth Williams was transferred in 1876.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Witches, Graces or Family Secret? Albrecht Durer and The Four Witches

Commonly referred to as The Four Witches, there is very little actually known for certain about this intriguing engraving by fifteenth-century German painter, engraver, print maker, mathemetician and theorist, Albrecht Dürer.  With four naked women, a monster of some description in the corner and bones scattered on the floor, however, there are interpretations aplenty of what Dürer had in mind when he created this work. 

Popular ideas include the four women representing either the Four Seasons or likewise the Elements of earth, wind, air and fire. The wreath-wearing figure has also been identified as Aphrodite, with the other three women cast as The Graces or Three Fates, the classical poses and the wreath lending weight to such a classical inspiration for the work. The idea that the engraving was created as a warning against discord, with the inevitable conclusion of hell and death, is also often cited, as is the belief that the figures are actually young women working in a brothel. 

The letters of "OGH" on the ball above the figures' heads have also received various interpretations depending on which theory one subscribes to, among the most common being:

Odium generis humani – Odium of the human race
Oh Gotte Hute – Oh God Forbid  
Ordo Graciarum Horarumque – Order of the Graces and Hours

Marcel Briton has put forward the arguably refreshing idea that there is no actual meaning to the engraving at all, hidden or otherwise, and is simply what it appears – a portrayal of four nude women!

The interpretation that interests us here and has led to the engraving's common title, is that it depicts three older witches welcoming a new member, (the younger woman on the far right of the picture) into their coven. The skull and bones beneath the feet of the women represent their connection to the devil and the malicious magic they intend to carry out on their unsuspecting victims, while the demon lurking in the corner reinforces the belief that witches were allied with the devil. The nudity of the women is also consistent with tales of witches dancing naked at their sabbats.  

Closeup of the demonic figure in the corner

The timing of the piece is also greatly significant, as, if the numbers on the ball of 1497 do indeed indicate the year of completion, it marks a period when witchcraft was a preoccupation throughout Germany. The Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull issued by Innocent VIII in 1484, gave permission to inquisitors to do whatever might be necessary to punish and correct those who had given in to the temptation of witchcraft. Inspired by the warnings of Heinrich Kramer, the bull confirmed the view that witchcraft had contaminated areas of Germany, urging local authorities to cooperate with the inquisition as it carried out the task of uprooting those who had signed a pact with the Devil. 

The vastly influential Malleus Maleficarum (or, in it's fully translated title, The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword) was first published in 1486. Although condemned by the Church three years later, it was a highly influential text, both at the time and in the later mass persecution of witches throughout Europe and beyond.

It has been posited, however, by Dr. Elizabeth Garner that the figures cannot be witches at all. She points out the fact that witches were not portrayed in the nude in the medieval period, and therefore would not have been recognised as such by the picture's intended audience. Instead she suggests an interpretation that the work is revealing a series of truths about the Dürer family and their connections, linking the engraving with the Dürer's status as crypto-Jews and the artist's work on the Apocalypse series of prints. Garner likewise argues that the demon is in fact a dragon, the lack of horns meaning it is unlikely to be a devil. It is also, she points out, the same dragon Dürer produced as part of his father's coat of arms in a work in 1490, again supporting the family rather than diabolical connection. 

Witches, by Hans Baldung Grien, 1508.
Apprentice to Dürer, the artist was one of the first to portray 
witches in the nude.

Whether witches or graces or something else entirely, Dürer's piece has inspired many copies and interpretations, from Austrian artist Adolf Frohner's vision (in which the women are portrayed in bras and garter belts) to the piece below by Ukrainian artist Olga Grichanok. 

Interpretation by Olga Grichanok

What do you think Dürer's four nudes represent? Have you come across a piece inspired by this elusive engraving? Comments are always welcome here are the library, as are artworks to add to the collection!