Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Devil's Own: Devil Marks

Present in literature and trial reports from the 16th century onward, a devil mark was the physical sign of a witch's contract with the devil. 

Often confused with “Witch marks” (physical abnormalities on the body such as an extra nipple or teat), the presence of a devil mark or seal was a popular way of establishing the guilt of a witch. Any discolouration or blemish of the skin was suspect – the unfortunate presence of birthmarks, moles and scars was seen as instant confirmation that the witch had made a pact with the devil.

The mark was believed to be caused by the devil's claws or a hot iron used for the purpose of branding the witch. There is also mention of the devil licking a witch in order to mark her. The marks were often applied to secret places to avoid detection; under the eyelids and inside creases or cavities of the body were among the locations frequently cited.

Suspected witches were shaved all over in order to locate the mark, with such searches often conducted in public in front of large crowds. There was a belief that a “natural” mark would be easy to distinguish from the mark of the devil, and therefore any protests that a discovered mark was natural were often ignored.

Once a mark was discovered, guilt was confirmed by testing whether the mark would bleed or feel pain. A needle was inserted into the mark; a lack of blood or feeling marked the end for many suspected of witchcraft. 

Theories for the origins of devil marks include tattoos of allegiance to an organised pagan religion in the middle ages, folk belief established over time, and lyme disease.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The First to Burn: Petronilla de Meath

Century-hopping this morning, with the sad tale of Petronilla de Meath. The maid servant of Dame Alice Kyteler, Petronilla bears the dubious honour of being the first known case of death by fire for heresy in Ireland. 

Place setting for Petronilla de Meath from Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party
© Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography

When, in 1324, her mistress was accused of practicing witchcraft, Petronilla was arrested as her accomplice. Kyteler was charged with committing sorcery and demonism, murdering several husbands (she had just buried her fourth) and was claimed to have illegally acquired her substantial wealth by witchcraft.

Petronilla confessed to denying the faith of Christ and the Church and to sacrificing three times to devils. She admitted she had made many ointments and powders in the skull of a beheaded criminal, with the purpose of tormenting the bodies of those who remained faithful to the Church. There was also the admission of rubbing an ointment onto a beam, that then allowed the women to fly.

The trial pre-dated any formal witchcraft statute in Ireland, so the women were tried under ecclesiastical law and charged with heresy. Pope John XXII added Witchcraft to the list of heresies in 1320.

Alice Kyteler escaped to England, taking with her Petronilla's daughter, Basilia; no further record of their whereabouts exists.

Petronilla was not so fortunate; she was flogged and burnt at the stake before a crowd on 3rd November, 1324 in Kilkenny, Ireland.

The house where Petronilla worked in Kilkenny, now a popular inn.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Breaking the Spell: Witch Bottles

As usual, when researching something else entirely, I came across this fascinating item – a witch bottle.

Used as a form of counter magic, they were believed to release the owner from the power of the witch who had “overlooked” them, and were most popular during the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Made of stoneware or glass, a witch bottle would be made up by another witch, or a cunning man or woman consulted for the purpose. The contents varied; liquid (often the urine of the bewitched person), nails, bent pins, hair and nail clippings, herbs and even navel fluff have are among the items documented in recent finds. The Navenby witch bottle contained pins, hair and a leather strap.

Witch bottles worked on the principal of sympathetic magic. The belief was that the nails and bent pins would aggravate the witch when she passed water, causing her such pain and distraction that she would break the spell.

Another variation involved the disposal of the bottle; the bottle was to be cast into the fire, the witch's hold broken when the bottle exploded, perhaps even leaving her dead in the process. 

It was very important that a bottle not be disturbed if it was to perform its function. Accordingly, they were hidden beneath floors or hearths, up chimneys or plastered into walls to avoid detection. 

In Purbeck, Dorset, a bottle was discovered under a stone boundary wall. This was believed to be warding off spirits and disease that would target the cattle in the field there.

Purbeck Witch Bottle, containing a
mix of saltwater, nicotine and decayed animal fat.

Not satisfied with the traditional stoneware or glass, John Hepworth of Bradford, decided to try his luck with iron bottles. In May 1804 he achieved notoriety when his experimental bottle exploded, killing the person who had come to consult him in the process.

Although their popularity diminished over the following centuries, witch bottles have seen a revival and are still in use today. The intention is somewhat different, the focus on capturing negative energies aimed at the creator of the bottle, rather than to cause harm or pain. The contents, however, are much the same today.

X-ray showing contents of a Witch Bottle found at Greenwich

Monday, 21 July 2014

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern

Often credited with being the last person convicted of Witchcraft in England, Jane Wenham fit the stereotypical image of a witch – old, living alone, with very little in the way of money or possessions. She had, by all accounts, lived in the village of Walkern for most of her life, but in 1712, events transpired to turn that existence upside down.

John Chapman, a local farmer, believed Wenham to have bewitched his cattle, causing the death of livestock to the tune of £200. Matters came to a head, however, after an incident where Wenham requested some straw from a labourer of Chapman's; Chapman's man refused and Wenham went away muttering (and, in some accounts took the straw anyway). Later that day, the labourer told his employer a most strange account – after the encounter with Wenham, he had felt compelled to remove his shirt and run very fast across the fields to gather straw from elsewhere, a journey that included running through a deep river. Chapman is documented as calling Wenham “A witch and a bitch,” and, after a good deal of abuse from the man, Wenham sought protection from the local magistrate, Sir Henry Chauncy.

Chauncy however was unwilling to arbitrate; instead the case was taken to the Reverend Gardiner, who, after listening to both sides, ordered Chapman to pay a shilling to Wenham for the matter to be dropped, advising them to live together in peace from now on. Clearly still aggrieved that he treatment had not been taken seriously, Wenham was heard to declare how she would find justice elsewhere before returning to her home.

As you would expect from such ominous mutterings, the case did not end there. A young maid in Gardiner's household by the name of Anne Thorn began to act in the strangest manner. She suffered from terrible fits, falling down speechless and insensible. Once recovered, she told of feeling a similar compulsion to Chapman's man, where she was forced to run through the fields to gather twigs. These were, according to Gardiner, his wife and a neighbour, Mr Bragge, found in her clothing and fastened with a pin. The bundle, viewed with all certainty as a witch's charm, was quickly burnt in the hope of releasing the hold the witch had on the girl. As soon as this was done, Wenham herself appeared. Ostensibly to discuss some washing with Thorn's mother, this coincidence was taken as a sure sign that not only was Wenham a witch, but that she had bewitched the maid out of spite towards Gardiner for his handling of her grievance.

The next morning, Wenham and Anne had a direct altercation; Anne stood by her assertion that Wenham was a witch, while Wenham scolded Anne for speaking against her, threatening, if Anne's story is to be believed, dire consequences if she did not desist in such talk.

Over the next few days, Anne grew increasingly disturbed. The fits continued, increasing in intensity, and she made several attempts to drown or stab herself, all the while saying that Wenham compelled her to do so. In her delirium, the girl was said to be pointing at Wenham's house, lamenting that she would never be well until she had collected more sticks. As things grew worse, accounts started of pins appearing in Anne's hands, although where she found them was professed a mystery. The girl repeatedly threatened to harm herself and made to swallow these crooked pins, much to the horror of those around her. Wenham was brought to Anne on several occasions; the young girl scratched the woman in an attempt to break her hold, but to no avail.

It is clear, in hindsight, that disquiet had been building for some time. More people came forward to accuse Wenham. Thomas Adams said that Wenham had been caught stealing turnips from his field, citing hunger as an excuse. His best sheep then died, with three more following not long after. She was also accused of being responsible for the death of Richard Harvey's wife and the death of two children in the village that fell ill and passed away not long after Wenham touched them.

As Anne's condition worsened and the stories against Wenham mounted, she was eventually arrested and committed to Hertford Gaol where she would await trial. Wenham was searched for marks (evidence that she was in league with the devil), but none were found. On several occasions, the old woman was asked to say the Lord's Prayer, and each time she was unable to do so, struggling at the line “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,” even when someone said each line before her. Chauncey's son pricked her with a pin up to the head several times but failed to draw blood; only a watery liquid appeared instead, another sure sign of guilt. When her lodgings were searched, a potion was discovered, and, when Anne Thorn's pillow was pulled apart, several cakes of feathers were found there, stuck together with an ointment said to be made from dead man's flesh.

Wenham asked Chauncy if she could be swum, the traditional method of determining if someone was a witch, in order to clear her name. Chauncy refused, on the grounds that it was illegal and unjustifiable, the other tests to determine her guilt considered all the proof that was needed.

Wenham finally confessed to Reverend Strutt, Vicar of nearby Ardley, before Reverend Gardiner and a kinsman of hers by the name of Archer. She accused three other women of the village along with herself, but it seems this came to nothing as they were cleared without incident. Wenham confessed to making a contract with the Devil himself sixteen years ago, and said that although he followed her around, but she could give no more details. She was also certain that he could compel her to hang herself or drown herself at any given moment if he so wished. She was, she said, certain that a malicious and wicked mind had induced her to enter into this agreement.

Wenham was brought before Judge John Powell on 4th March, 1712. Powell, appears to have been sympathetic to the old woman's plight, and is quoted as dismissing accusations of flying with the assertion that there was hardly a law against that. Despite Powell's recommendations to the contrary, the jury found Wenham guilty of witchcraft, a verdict that meant death. Through the intervention of Powell, however, the death penalty was suspended, and it is said that Jane was granted a royal pardon from Queen Anne herself. 

The case received great attention and a pamphlet war ensued, with at least nine written to condemn or exonerate Wenham during that time. Influential names rallied to the cause, and Jane finally lived out her days on the estate of William, First Earl Cowper, where she lived out her days until her death in 1729.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Witchcraft Act: The End of Witchcraft?

As a writer and a historian, I count the 18th Century among my historical "homes". It was hardly surprising therefore to find my modern day novel with roots there, or that I would find myself happily exploring magic and witchcraft in that period. 

Witchcraft first entered the statue books in England as a felony in 1542 under Henry VIII. This law was repealed in 1547 by Edward VI, but witchcraft become a capital offence again in Britain in 1562, a fact that remained unchanged for the next century and a half. It is estimated that between 400 and 500 people were executed for witchcraft in England during this time, with 90% of these being women.

This era came to an end on 24th June, 1736. Passed the year before, The Witchcraft Act came into force on this date, and with it, witchcraft at last ceased to be a crime in England.

The act stated that:

No prosecution, suit or Proceeding, shall be commenced or carried on against any Person or Persons for Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or conjuration, or for charging another with any such Offence, in any Court whatsoever in Great Britain.”

This abrupt turnaround had far reaching implications. Now, in theory at least, it was no longer possible for someone to accuse their neighbour of bewitching them or their property, or to use the damning slur of “Witch” against someone they disliked. The crime, in fact, was now in the accusation itself, and in the very belief that magical powers existed.

The extent to which the act filtered down through society varied however, depending on such factors as distance from London, the enthusiasm of the local gentry, justices and clergy to enact the new legislation, and whether people were actually inclined to take it on board. In reality, many were simply not aware of the act, and, if they were, still expected local officials to act on their behalf when there was a case of suspected witchcraft. Simply stating that Witchcraft did not exist was not, after all, enough to change deep-seated beliefs over night. Finding their usual avenues closed, many took justice into their own hands, carrying out public and private acts of retribution against those they still saw as a threat. 

Under the act, the penalty for pretending to use the powers of witchcraft was a year's imprisonment. The offender was also to be pilloried, once every quarter of that year for an hour. This punishment was also extended to anyone telling fortunes, conjuring or attempting to divine where missing goods were to be found, although these were increasingly dealt with under the Vagrancy Act from the early 19th Century.

Perhaps most surprising, the Witchcraft Act remained on the statute books until 1951, when it was finally replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of that year - testament in itself to the continued belief in the existence and power of witches. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Research Ramblings: Mother Shipton

Research is a wonderful thing. Since starting reading for my current novel, I have come across many fascinating characters and objects, the pile of notes and references accumulating at almost the same speed as I'm writing the book. Most of them won't have anything to do with the finished story, but instead of letting all those scribblings go to waste, from time to time, I'll be sharing what I've found here in the library.

Having previously lived in Yorkshire for the best part of six years, a name that was instantly familiar was that of 16th Century cunning woman and prophetess, Ursula Shipton.

She was, according to legend, born as Ursula Southill in a cave in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. Her dates are given as circa 1488-1561, though there is debate over whether she actually existed at all. Ursula's mother, Agatha, was apparently seduced by the Devil, and Ursula was said to have been the result of that union. (It would be interesting as a side project to find out just how many others were credited with that paternal line!)

Many strange tales surround her younger years, the most bizarre and oft repeated being an incident where baby and basket vanished for several hours, only to reappear safe and well up a chimney. Early on she established a reputation for foresight, and speaking of the future, skills that, in those days, went hand in hand with accusations of witchcraft.

She was, by all accounts, a very ugly child, her appearance little improving as she grew older. That did not hold her back however, and at the age of twenty-four she married Toby Shipton, a carpenter.. Sources differ on the happiness of this union, but the couple made a home in Knaresborough, and here she began in earnest the prophecies that were to make her name. Mother Shipton is said to have successfully prophesied, among other things, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the reign of Elizabeth the First and The Great Fire of London. She also developed a reputation for solving issues of lost property, and people came from far and wide to hear her pronouncements.

The first publication of prophecies attributed to Mother Shipton was in 1641, many years after her death. An account of her life was published in 1684, and these combined to create the body of information we have regarding her today. One of the most famous prophecies attributed to her was that concerning the end of the world in 1881. People were so fearful that they left their houses and retreated to the local churches or hid in the fields. Needless to say, the end never came, but that does not seem to have dampened enthusiasm for Mother Shipton's powers of prophecy, and there are some still waiting for the end she predicted today.

She is also associated with the Petrifying Well situated close to the cave where she was supposedly born. People feared to go there in case they were themselves petrified; today, you can still see the waters work their magic, as seven hundred gallons flow over the well every hour, slowly turning objects thrown there into stone.

Mother Shipton died at the ripe old age of seventy-three, but her legend lived on, with her prophecies printed in many editions throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Over this time many new pronouncements were added to the original sayings, and she has been credited in recent years with foretelling the advent of flight, the two World Wars, and possibly even the invention of the television.

Did Ursula Shipton exist? Perhaps a woman by that name did indeed live in Knaresborough at that time, though whether she was truly the daughter of the Devil is clearly up for dispute. One thing that cannot be denied however is that her story and the words attributed to her have captured the imagination of many from her own days until the present time, and are still going strong today.

The Mother Shipton Moth.
So-called because of the crone-shaped markings on the wings.

Through towering hills proud men shall ride
No horse or ass move by his side.
Beneath the water, men shall walk
Shall ride, shall sleep, shall even talk.
And in the air men shall be seen
In white and black and even green.