Sunday, 24 August 2014

Fairy Ring or Ancient Picnic Table? La Table Des Pions, Guernsey

Today we take a hop across to the Channel Islands to visit the famous fairy ring at Pleinmont, Guernsey.

This fascinating feature consists of a circular ditch surrounding a flat grassy area in the middle, the whole contained by a ring of stones. Located at Pezeriez Point, the south-western tip of the Island, it is the furthest point away from the capital, St Peter Port.

According to legend, if you make a wish whilst walking around the ring three times, the fairies will grant your request. Fairies are also rumoured to have danced around the ring in ancient times, and although I've not found any reported cases of wishes coming true, it is a beautiful spot and a pleasant walk enjoyed by many on a late summer evening.

When the fairy association started in unknown, but the more earthly function of the ring is equally fascinating.

The ring's proper name is La Table des Pions, loosely translated as footman's table, or table of the pawns. This name and indeed the original purpose of the ring, originates from the The Chevauchee or Chevaucherie, a procession that took place around the island to assess the condition of the Chemin du Roi (King's Way).

From the year 1264, Corpus Christi (or day de Fete Dieu as it was known in Guernsey) was celebrated yearly, and in accordance with this, the Abbot of St Michel du Valle processed around the island with the holy sacrament. Several days beforehand, officials would travel the route he was to take, making sure the roads were in a good state of repair and that there were no obstructions, levelling fines against those in the areas that failed to meet the required standards. Although the date the procession was named is unclear, The Chauvachee is mentioned in an act of the Court of St Michel du Valle dated 2nd April, 1533, where it is ordained that:

The King's Serjeant should cry in the market place for three Saturdays that the Chevauchee would take place in the following month of May.”

Mention is again made in 16th May, 1573 when:

It is ordered that a round table furnished with a table cloth and with bread and wine, shall be laid out opposite the western gate of the Church of St Peter Port,” (a place the procession was due to pass.)

The custom was, at some point after this, discontinued, but the Chevauchee was revived again in June 1813, with another Chevauchee taking place on 8th June, 1825. Although it may have caused grumbling in official channels, there was a great holiday feel to the day, with the roads packed with people dressed in their best, turned out to see the procession and join in the merrymaking.

But what of our fairy circle? Because the procession took most of the day, (those obliged to participate were to meet at the Court of St Michael at 7am, with penalties for anyone who was late or defaulted) there were frequent stops along the route. One of these took place at the Chateau des Pezeries at Pleinmont, where a large tent was erected and the whole party rested for a while. Only the officials were permitted to partake of the cold meat and wines served in the marquee, however; their footmen, the Pions, were instead seated on the grass, the hollowed out circle of the Table des Pions being created for that purpose.

During the 1825 Chevauchee,the procession halted there until 4pm. Many carriages arrived during that time, and a great deal of dancing and carousing went on until the procession moved on to the next location, finally disbanding around 7pm with further feasting and celebrations.

The Pions who used the table, said to be carefully selected for their looks, had the privilege of being allowed to kiss any woman they met during the procession. However, for the sake of propriety, it was stated that only one Pion could kiss any one lady, a policy that was strictly adhered to. 

The Pion's dress was also highly regulated, and we have a fascinating glimpse of their costume from records planning the Chevauchee for 8th June 1768. It was decreed that the Pions were, on this occasion, to wear ruffled shirts with wristbands of black ribbon, and a matching ribbon to fasten at the neck. With this went black breeches, tied at the knees with red ribbons, and white stockings. Black caps with a red ribbon at the back and red rosettes on their wands were to finish the somewhat dashing ensemble.

Nearly half a decade later in 1813, we find several alterations to reflect the change in fashions; the caps remained the same, but now they were worn with white shirts, circular white waistcoats with a red ribbon border and white cravats or neckerchiefs. The breeches were likewise white this time, and long, though the ribbons at the knees were again red, and the white stockings and red rosettes on the wands remain unchanged.

The last recorded Chevauchee took place on 31st May 1837. A re-enactment of the old Chevauchee procession took place in 1966, however, to celebrate the 900th Anniversary of the Norman Conquest.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Witch of Fraddam – The Most Powerful Sorceress of the West Country

Witches are often associated with the sea, and today we take a trip to windswept Cornwall to hear tales of the fearful Witch of Fraddam who to this day, it is said, still torments those who stray far from the shore.

The Village of Fraddam lies eight miles Northeast of Penzance, and nowadays only contains fourteen houses. In its heyday, however, it was a busy, bustling place, villagers working in the local mines and quarry or on the thriving surrounding land.

According to legend, the tale began when the First Lord of nearby Pengersick sought the help of the Witch of Fraddam to persuade his son to marry the woman he had chosen as a suitable bride. Despite the witch's potions and incantations, the son, however, was having none of it, and in time, Lord Pengersick gave up and married the lady himself.

It transpired that the witch's niece, Bitha, had fallen in love with the young man herself. With a view to catching his eye, she took up employment with the new Lady Pengersick, and before long the young couple were very much in love.

Lady Pengersick, far from being happy for her stepson, determined to bring about his ruin. Calling on the same witch who had tried to bring them together, she ordered the sorceress to produce spells to achieve her aim. Bitha, however, well versed in witchcraft herself due to working with her aunt, set about thwarting her employer's aim, countering the magic with powerful spells of her own. When the witch could not help her, Lady Pengersick resorted to more earthly means and alleged her stepson had been paying her rather too much attention. Believed by her husband, young Pengersick was seized by a group of ruffians and taken to Morocco where he was sold as a slave.

In the following years, both Bitha and Lady Pengersick suffered terribly, as did Lord Pengersick who finally passed away after being poisoned by Bitha. Nothing is known or told of the Witch of Fraddam herself at this time, though it is intimated that she continued to create mayhem throughout the area.

The Lord's heir finally returned home after long years away, bringing with him a new bride from the East. He was, by all accounts, very much in love with his wife, and other than her company, kept to himself, reading strange books and conducting experiments with many odd looking instruments and even odder smells.

Because of their previous history, the Witch of Fraddam became his sworn enemy. Having learnt the magic arts during his absence, he spent his time thwarting the witch's many spells aimed at causing mischief and mayhem, using his white magic against her black and wicked variety.

Determined to be rid of her nemesis, the Witch took herself down to Kynance Cove one wild and windy night, where she summoned the Devil, promising her soul in return for total power over Pengersick. The Devil told her that to do so, Pengersick's mare must be made to drink poisoned water, and Pengersick himself must be covered with hell-broth. 

The Witch accordingly brewed her potions and set in wait for her intended victim, but, the Devil, fearing he could not win against such an accomplished enchanter as Pengersick, double-crossed his ally. Forewarned, the horse reared up, and in the ensuing commotion, the Witch herself ended up in the tub of poisoned water. With some well chosen words from Pengersick, the tub, still holding the witch, turned into a coffin shape and rose up into the air.

According to legend, she still floats along the Cornish coast in her coffin, causing mischief as she stirs up the sea to mountain high waves. It is said that if any seaman or person straying from the shore is to see The Witch of Fraddam, misfortune will befall them not long after. The Enchanter is still said to have power over her, however; all he has to do is stand in his tower and blow trumpet three times to bring her to shore and tell her to be peaceful. 

Witch of Fraddam by Sara Silcock

Unlike many tales, this does seem to be just that, and if there were once a  real Witch of Fraddam, her identity has been lost to the mists of time. Novelist Joseph Hocking utilised the legend in his stories The Birthright and Roger Trewinion, where Betsey Fraddam, daughter of Granfer Fraddam the smuggler, admits to being a white witch. There are also many tales attached to the Pengersick family and the castle that bears their name, most, however, do not appear rooted in fact. 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Interesting Individuals: Agnes Waterhouse - The First Witch Hanged in England

With a glass of wine and the sound of bird song on a glorious summer evening, the world of 16th Century Essex could not feel further away. Turning to the dusty tome before me however, the story of Agnes Waterhouse beckons; the sixty-four year old witch from Hatfield Peverel, the first woman to be executed for witchcraft in England.

The whole matter, put simply, revolved around a cat. Gifted to Agnes by Elizabeth Francis (a neighbour and, possibly, sister), the pet was a white cat called Satan or Sathan,that had belonged to the woman for the best part of fifteen years. Satan would, Elizabeth assured Agnes, do whatever she asked of it,in exchange for milk and a drop of blood. 

Eager to put the claim to the test, Agnes fed Satan as instructed, before ordering the cat to bring about the death of one of her own pigs. When this proved successful, it was said that she killed three of Father Kersey's hogs, drowned Widow Gooday's cow, and ruined the brewing and butter of other neighbours with whom she had disagreements. 

After a spate of such events, Agnes, her eighteen year old daughter Joan, and Elizabeth Francis were finally arrested in 1566. Agnes was put on trial, charged with causing illness to William Fynne, who had died in November of the previous year. She was also accused of using magic to kill livestock, cause illness, and bring about the death of her own husband.

More damning evidence came from a young girl named Agnes Brown. She swore that she had been visited by a demon in the guise of a large black dog, that, when questioned, indicated it had come from Agnes Waterhouse. This was corroborated by Agnes' daughter, Joan, who testified to the existence of the cat, Satan, and also the dog demon, whom she herself had sent to terrorise the neighbourhood girl.

Agnes also confessed to turning the cat into a toad. Her own poverty, was, she insisted, the motivating factor. The cat had slept on some wool, but, when forced to take the wool back due to her own need, she reasoned that a toad could more happily live happily in a pot without such comforts. 

Although the newly passed Witchcraft Act of 1562 was somewhat more lenient than it's predecessor, the Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts was firm on one point. If such actions resulted in the death of the victim, the accused was to be punished by death.  

According to witnesses, Agnes repented, adding to her previously confessed crimes that of sending Satan to harm the goods of a tailor named Wardol and the fact she had performed sorcery for the last twenty five years. She was hanged on 29th July at Chelmsford.

Her daughter, Joan Waterhouse was set free. Elizabeth Francis was given a lighter sentence, (despite being charged first and also confessing to using the cat to cause harm) but was hanged after a second conviction thirteen years later. 

Another interesting feature of the case was the prominence of those attending: Queen Elizabeth's attorney and  the justice of the Queen's bench both attended Agnes' second examination. 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Neither Toad Nor Stone - The Mystery of the Toadstone.

A delve into the library today turned up this fascinating object - the toadstone.

These much-sought after “jewels” were actually the fossilized teeth of a of ray-finned fish called lepidotes. Possibly so called because they resembled the dull colouring of toads, they were credited with magical properties as early as the first century, where they are mentioned in the writings of Pliny the Elder.

Believed to be formed in the head of a toad, these stones were reported to have many properties and uses, including keeping newborn infants safe, protecting the wearer against epilepsy and kidney disease, along with being a useful cure for sores, fevers, bowel problems, and pain in labour. Also credited with preventing ships from sinking and houses from burning, toadstones would, according to the Aberdeen Bestiary, a document written and illuminated in England around 1200, bring victory to the wearer in war.

Toadstones were also said to be able to detect the presence of poison; a toadstone ring would give heat to the finger if poison was detected, or change colour to alert the wearer to the threat.

15th Century gold ring 
set with a toadstone

Several methods of extraction were available to someone requiring a toadstone. Placing the creature on a red blanket was said to be efficacious; the toad would then, after a time, spit out the stone. Another method was to place a toad in a pot; the pot should then be placed in an anthill, allowing the ants to eat away the toad and leave behind the bones, and, more importantly the coveted stone.

Illustration of how to extract
and use a toadstone.

A ring containing a toadstone was part of a treasure find in 1940 near Lemmetts Hole, by an unsuspecting dog walker, and has been linked with the tale of theft of treasure from Thame Abbey in the 16th Century.

Friday, 1 August 2014

From Hogs to Hanging: The Story of Mother and Mary Sutton

Today we take a trip to the village of Milton in Bedfordshire at the start of the 17th Century. The close-knit nature of village life meant that tensions often ran high, a fact made painfully evident in the case of Mother and Mary Sutton, two hog tenders accused of bewitching horses and cattle, paralysing a servant, and tormenting a seven year old boy to death.

Mother Sutton had apparently lived for the best part of twenty years in the area without incident, her daughter Mary moving in at a later date to help in her advanced age. This came to an end however when Mother Sutton had cause to fall out with Master Enger, a gentleman landowner in the local area. Over a period of time he found his horses and swine were destroyed and driven mad by an unseen hand, the animals cannibalising or drowning themselves in their frenzy. Previous injuries to his livestock were also seen in a new light, and he and several other villagers grew to believe them caused by the machinations of the Sutton women.

Matters came to a head, however, when Henry Sutton, (one of Mary Sutton's three “bastard” children) was apprehended by one of Enger's servants for throwing stones and mud at local children in the Mill Dam. When he didn't stop, the man struck the boy round the ears. In umbrage, the child ran home to tell his mother, thus setting a fatal chain of events in motion.

The next day, as Enger's cart was taking corn to market, a fat black sow appeared before the horses. According to reports, it turned and spun in the road, bewitching the horses who dragged the cart this way and that, before finally running off with their load. Although the goods were recovered and the horses calmed, the very same thing occurred again on the way home. To further compound matters, the same sow was seen by a servant going into Mother Sutton's house the day after.

The same servant who had boxed Henry Sutton's ears and accompanied the cart, then suffered an incident in the fields where he worked. After being stung by a beetle he fell into a trance, incapable of movement or speech, much to the horror and bewilderment of his fellow workers. Enger was summoned and helped his servant home, where he was confined to bed, with very little hope given for his recovery. During this torment, it was claimed that Mary Sutton entered through his window to sit at the foot of his bed. There she worked at her knitting or stared at him, making lewd suggestions as to how he could cure himself by taking her to bed. Upon being rebuffed, Mary departed, freeing the servant to speak and tell his master what had happened.

To help the man, Master Enger found Mary tending her hogs; when she would not come willingly with him to his house, she was forced onto horseback and dragged there with considerable force. Taken to the suffering man's bedside, blood was drawn from her, upon which the servant's condition was said to noticeably improve. Before leaving, however, Mary was seen to touch the man's neck, causing him to fall back into a state once more.

Amidst a great deal of gossip and hearsay, Enger's seven year old son, hearing reports of Mary and Mother Sutton's supposed behaviour, threw stones at Mother Sutton and called her a witch. Not long after this incident the boy fell ill and died. The grief-stricken Enger, in no doubt that Mary and her mother were to blame, sought advice from a friend, who suggested he have the women swum to ascertain their guilt.

Accordingly, Mary was again accosted by Enger, beaten senseless, and dragged to the Mill Dam where she was throw into the water with a rope around her middle. She is said to have sunk a little before floating, before being taken from the water. A group of local women were ordered to search Sutton for signs or marks, and a teat was supposedly found under her left thigh. She was floated a second time, bound toe to thumb; this time Sutton was reported to have spun around as if caught in a whirlpool. It is said that even with servants on either end of the rope tossing her up and down, she could not be made to sink.

A woodcut of the swimming of Mary Sutton.
Taken from the 1613 Pamphlet,
Witches Apprehended.

With Mary still professing her innocence, it was Henry Sutton who allegedly informed against his mother and grandmother, securing their conviction. Either voluntarily or under duress, the boy repeated that he had heard the two women discussing revenge on Enger, through the use of their familiar spirits, Dicke and Jude, with the aim of tormenting the man and killing his son. After this, Mary broke down and confessed, confirming the story told by her son.

Mother and Mary Sutton were imprisoned in Bedford Gaol, put on trial and found guilty of witchcraft on Monday 30th March, 1612. Both were hanged a few days later on 7th April.

This case is of particular note as it is the first example of using water to test a witch in England. (Although the practice had been used on the continent much earlier, and the cold water ordeal had been used on women suspected of other crimes prior to this date.)