Sunday, 31 May 2015

Introducing Folklore Thursday!

Writing and researching on the subject of witches inevitably brings you into contact with the varied and eclectic world of folklore. During the last year of writing here at The Witch, the Weird, and The Wonderful, I've noticed two things. One is the never-ending supply of fascinating tales and intriguing images out there to share. The other is how many fabulous like-minded folks there are about, with fabulous blog posts and tales just waiting to be shared.  

Discussing the matter with the lovely @DeeDeeChainey, an idea was born. A year on and many emails later, here we are to excitedly introduce #FolkloreThursday, the new hashtag for all things folklore! 

On Thursday 18th June, we will be launching #FolkloreThursday. Following the format of several other blogging hashtag days, Folklore Thursday is pretty much what it says on the tin – all day on a Thursday, post your folklore related posts, images and links under the #FolkloreThursday hashtag and we will retweet you!

We'll be going “live” on the 18th, but before then, there are several things you can do to get involved.

  • Follow us at @FolkloreThurs
  • Spread the word to anyone who might be interested – a hashtag day is only as good as those who join in!
  • Get writing/sourcing your best folklore related content – whether new or old, we'd love to see it.

Any questions, drop us a line at @FolkloreThurs or we can be found at our own accounts at @WillowCWinsham and @DeeDeeChainey

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Burning Matter of English Witches

The image of the witch being burnt for her crimes is a familiar one, well established in the popular imagination. It might be surprising to learn therefore, that although a frequent occurrence in Scotland and on the Continent, there were only a handful of suspected witches burnt in England, and even those few that come down to us through various sources cannot always be verified. (It must also be noted that if a suspected witch was burnt it tended to be for another crime such as treason or petty treason - the fact that witchcraft was involved did not legally lead to burning.)

An example of death by burning is related in the 1652 pamphlet, The Witch of Wapping, which includes the execution of Prudence Lee for murdering her husband.

Then the Executioner setting her in a pitch barrel, bound her to the stake, and placed the straw and Faggots about her; whereupon she lifting her eyes towards Heaven, desired all that were present t pray for her; and the Executioner putting fire to the straw, she cried out, Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul; and after the fire was kindled she was heard to shrike out terribly some five or six several times.” 

But who actually met this fate? In The History and Antiquities of the Flourishing Corporation of Kings Lynn, published by Benjamin Mackerell in 1738, there is the following entry:

1590 One Margaret Read was this Year Burnt at Lynn for Witchcraft. 

 Although there is very little know regarding this case, and some doubts as to whether it took place at all, an enduring legend has grown up around Margaret Read. In the brickwork of a house in the Tuesday Market Place in Kings Lynn, is the mark of the Witch's Heart. The story goes that as the unfortunate Margaret was being burnt for her crimes, her heart burst from her body with such force that it hit the wall of the house, marking the stone in the process. There are various versions of what happened next, but what cannot be disputed is that the mark remains there to this day.  

Witch's Heart - Kings Lynn

Whatever the truth of the matter, there are two possible contenders for the identity of Margaret. If she were unmarried, a Margrett Read is recorded in the parish registers for Kings Lynn, baptised on 25th March, 1568, daughter of William and Joane Read. This would make Margaret only twenty-two years of age at her death, not unheard of but potentially unlikely for a witchcraft trial. More likely is Margrett Hammond who married Thomas Read at St. Margaret's church in Kings Lynn on 8th April, 1562. No children appear in the register to this couple, and it is unclear what happened to her husband. 

Another tantalising glimpse of a woman who may have gone to the stake is Mother Green. An article in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal quotes the Pocklington Parish Registers for 1630:

Old wife Green burnt in Market for a witch.”

Often erroneously cited as the last witch to be burnt in England, there is nothing else known of this woman or what sent her to such a fate. 

Two other mentions of women burnt for witchcraft are found in Browne's 1814 History of Norwich. It is related that around Christmas time in 1648:

Two old women, (one of whom, named Tirrel, belonged to the hospital) were burnt on a charge of witchcraft.”

In the same period, eight people had been condemned and executed for participating in recent riots, whilst others had been fined and imprisoned during this period of great unrest. 

Although in some sources Tirrel's unnamed companion is listed as Mary Oliver, it seems that Mary Oliver actually met her fate a decade later. Browne himself counts her case separately, stating that in 1659:

Mary Oliver burnt for witchcraft and her goods confiscated for the use of the city.”

The Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology says Mary was burned because she killed her husband, but it is unclear where that reference originated. There is a possibility that Mary was the wife of Thomas Oliver, a couple who left for Boston on the Mary Anne in 1632 but returned in 1649 due to Mary's inability to control her tongue and Thomas' inability to control Mary. After his first wife's death, Thomas Oliver went on to marry Bridget Bishop who in turn was executed as a witch in 1692 in Salem. Bridget was previously accused (and cleared in that instance) of killing Thomas, and it might be that Thomas' two wives were confused in some tellings of the story. 

Norwich Castle, where Mary Oliver may have been executed. 

The case that can be best verified and about which the most is known is that of Mary Lakeland, the “Ipswich Witch” who was burnt in 1645. Found guilty of causing wasting and death by witchcraft and with consorting with familiar spirits, Mary's crimes were punishable by death under the 1604 Witchcraft Act. It was because she had committed Petit or Petty Treason, in the form of murdering her husband, however, that she was condemned to burn, and burning remained the punishment for this crime until it was finally removed from law in 1828.

There are several theories for Mary's untimely demise. These range from the belief that she was actually guilty of the crimes she was accused of - which included bewitching to death several people to whom she owed money, as well as getting revenge on a man who had rejected her grand daughter - to the more mundane explanation that  she, like many other poor widows, was a burden and an embarrassment to the town, and her conviction was a way to remove her. The most fantastical suggestion is that Mary Lakeland was in fact  a secret Royalist informer, who, when discovered, was duly punished. 

The burning of a witch was a costly practice, perhaps one reason why it did not take off as a regular method of execution during the periods of witchcraft accusations. In Mary Lakeland's time for instance, it cost the rate payers £3 3s 6d, as opposed to the £1 it would have cost to hang her.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Giles Fenderlin: A Pact with the Devil

It is very often said that very little in life comes without a price.  Giles Fenderlin discovered this the hard way when he found himself in prison, awaiting execution because he had:

"...made a Covenant with the Devil for 14 years, written with the blood of his two forefingers, and afterwards kill'd his wife.”

The year was 1652. As confessed by Fenderlin himself, eleven years previously,  he had been serving as a soldier in Flanders. He and two companions had paid a visit to a Jesuit priest, during which the priest offered:

to procure them a protection from the Devil, which should secure either of them from any hurt or danger, either by iron, steel or lead; or from any would by Gun-shot, stab, or cut by sword, dagger or knife.”

For soldiers who found themselves in danger of their lives, this was a heady promise indeed. Somewhat sceptical, however, the men said they would not agree until they had seen proof with their own eyes; accordingly, it was tested on both a cock and a cat – when both remained unscathed, the men were convinced, paying the priest forty-five shillings in return for a written covenant that was to protect them for the period of five years. 

Flemish Soldiers, 17th Century

Miraculously so it seemed, the deal worked well for Fenderlin, as, by his own admission,

During the time that he remained a soldier in those parts, he never received any wound, notwithstanding he had often times been in several battles before the face of his enemy, when he hath taken 10,12, or 14 several bullets at a time out of his clothes, which did never enter his body or limbs, only leaving some blue spots upon his skin.”

So impressed was he with this, that in 1643 he renewed and extended the deal for a further fourteen years: either as a reward or because the priest was now certain he had his man hooked, this new arrangement consisted of a covenant with the Devil himself, drawn up and written with the blood of Fenderlin's own forefingers. The substance of this agreement was the same as before, only with the somewhat crucial addition that once the time was up, the Devil was to claim his own, taking Fenderlin's body and soul to do with what he wanted.

Signing a pact with the Devil

Despite the decidedly gloomy prognosis, there were benefits to this new agreement. Along with the protection from harm, the priest also presented him with a ring which contained a stone which: it if he came to any house where there was money buried, or conveyed into any private place, that he could by the direction of the ring find it out.”

Not just that, but if he were in danger, all he had to do was turn the stone of the ring downwards on his finger and then he would be transported away to a place of safety, up to forty or fifty miles, out of harms way.

The total paid for the ring and new was three pounds, seventeen shillings. The ring was only his for five years, however, and it was taken from him in 1648. This was, Fenderlin was sure, the cause of his downfall, for if he had the money to extend the arrangement with the ring, he would not have come to such a sorry state.

Quite what had led to Fenderlin killing the woman - he stated that although he lived with her, she was not actually his wife - is unknown. Sentenced to death for his crime, however, the man was in a bad way. He was tormented by an evil spirit that came to him at night, and had been so since the 5th March. This spirit, in the form of a lawyer in a long gown, seemed to have one aim – to convince him to kill himself, either by hanging or cutting his own throat.

His state of mind might be brought into question, but a fellow prisoner also saw an apparition in the cell. According to this man, standing close to Giles Fenderlin was a spirit in the form of a bishop, identifiable by the white lawn sleeves it wore. Fenderlin, agitated, argued with the form, declaring that:

If you come from God, you are welcome, but if you come from the Devil, I do renounce you; for you have no right nor interest in me: therefore depart from me, and get you to the lowermost parts of Hell from whence you came; for I do both renounce, and defy you.”

After spitting fire in Fenderlin's face, the apparition vanished, leaving the men once more alone.

A 17th Century Bishop such as seen by Fenderlin in his cell. 

The next night, they were also to get no rest. A loud thundering noise was heard up above; upon looking out of the window, what appeared to be a man was seen walking up and down in the yard below. Rob Bull, another prisoner, called out to the man, thinking him one of the servants of the house, but upon seeing the figure in full moonlight realised to his horror that although it looked as a man, it was lacking both head and arms. This was, it was declared, a familiar spirit, sent to further torment the unhappy Fenderlin.

Things only got worse with the following night, when three men of “honest repute” witnessed the appearance in the room of a form in the shape of a dog. The dog jumped at Fenderlin several times, but each time the man pushed it away, telling the others to keep away as it was Satan.

The next night, the last before he was due to be executed, several others were with the wakeful Fenderlin. Again, around midnight, it was reported that the prisoner was visited by more evil spirits – this was all according to Fenderlin however, as they were not witnessed this time by those with him. Indeed, one man ventured,

Truly, I believe it is the guilt of your own Conscience, and nothing else; for we are all rational men, and cannot discern anything.”

Whatever the truth, it mattered little to Fenderlin. The last that is known of him was that:

The said Giles Fenderlin was hanged in chains on Friday, being the 11th of March, 1652, upon Leaven Heath, within a mile and a half of Naylon, [Nayland] where the aforesaid bloody murder was committed.”

Monday, 11 May 2015

Savage Magic: A Magical Must-Read.

There are very few books that would have me up until gone midnight, huddled in the cramped bathroom of a London Travel lodge. Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd, however, is one of them. 

[NB I'm not weird – the other half was out gathering beer to review for his blog, the kids were asleep and you have to snatch these opportunities with both hands.

This is the first review here at The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful, and there is not a better book to set the standard than Shepherd's tale of madness, magic and maleficium. The year is 1814, and Charles Horton, a water constable with the Wapping River Police, is left distraught when his beloved wife, Abigail, leaves him to voluntarily become a patient at Brook House, home for the deranged. His worries are only just beginning however, when he is contacted by top London magistrate, Aaron Graham. There are strange things going on at Thorpe Lee House in the Surrey village of Thorpe, and Horton is charged with getting to the bottom of these mysterious circumstances. 

Elizabeth Hook, the cook at Thorpe Lee House, has been dismissed, suspected of using witchcraft to harm the household, including Graham's estranged wife and daughter. Is she to blame, or are there more sinister forces at work? As Horton throws himself into dealing with the less than welcoming inhabitants, at Brook House, Abigail finds herself drawn to a mysterious and disturbed young woman, Maria, who appears to be in possession of strange abilities. The urgency increases when a series of gruesome and unexplained deaths leave Aaron Graham baffled and in a race against time as, all the while, a dark presence can be felt closing in on all concerned. What binds together the aristocratic members of a club called the Sybarites, the women in Brook House and the household at Thorpe Lee House? And, more importantly, will Charles Horton manage to figure things out in time?

 Brook House was a real house for the deranged, pictured here in 1800.

It was during a late-night browse that I came across Shepherd's page and instantly fell in love. With a book cover. My husband can vouch for that – he very indulgently looked as I waved the laptop in front of him and declared that  the cover of Savage Magic was the most beautiful cover I had ever seen in my life. Add the fact that the book promised magic, mystery and witchcraft and I was guaranteed to buy it. I don't tend to buy on impulse, but on this occasion, I was most definitely not disappointed. 

One thing that particularly leaps out about Shepherd's style is that it is so easy to read. Crisp, clean sentences conjure up the characters and their world effortlessly, and the only complaint I have is that once I picked the book up, it was incredibly hard to put it down! The colourful cast of characters is best left for the reader to discover, but this review wouldn't be complete without giving one a particular mention. Abigail Horton is one of those all-too-are female characters that are interesting in their own right. Her personality can be felt from the first moment we see her, her strength of character coming through loud and clear. She's intelligent, confident and witty without the fact being rammed down the reader's throat, and, most of all, she comes across as being real

Savage Magic is a well-written, vibrantly populated page-turner, but now to the nitty-gritty: does the magic element pass muster? I'm the first to admit to being picky when it comes to fiction dealing with a subject area close to my heart, and nothing could be closer than tales of magic and witchcraft. Savage Magic escapes the pitfalls that so many other novels fall into, however, and it is clear that Shepherd has done his research. There was no point where the story jars or throws the reader out, the careful blending of fact and fiction seamless, entertaining, and highly satisfying. 

River Police Headquarters at Wapping, 1891

If it wasn't already obvious, I would highly recommend Savage Magic, and it is on my re-read list – after Shepherd's first two novels, The English Monster and The Poisoned Island of course.  Check out Lloyd Shepherd on Twitter at @lloydshep, and at his Amazon Author Page.

Update: The Fourth and final book in the Horton series, The Devil and the Detective, is due out on April 21st, and can be pre-ordered here. It promises to be as fantastic as the rest of the series, so go and order your copy now! 

Lloyd Shepherd is also currently working on the exciting Riddle of the Sands project. Check it out, and if it captures your interest, you can pledge support in exchange for some exciting rewards and a dose of adventure here

Monday, 4 May 2015

Condemned at York: The Gruesome Crime of Isabella Billington

Treason, rebellion, arson and infanticide were just some of the varied crimes that were tried at the Spring Assizes at York in 1649. Fourteen men and seven women were found guilty and condemned to die, a total of twenty-one from across Yorkshire. 

York Castle, 1644.

The men were all found guilty on charges of treason and rebellion and sentenced to hang. Of the women, forty-three year old Jane Lickiss from Shipton had strangled her maid, Mary Lumley, whilst she slept. Emma Robinson from Masham, also know as “Fair Emma”, had poisoned Mary Wood, a fellow maid, due to jealousy between them. Hannah Meynell was charged with attacking George Meyers with the intent to kill him. Two women were guilty of arson; Grace Bland who set fire to the house of her mistress, and Ellen Nicholson from Selby, who likewise burnt her master's house to the ground. Twenty-seven year old Elizabeth Thomlinson was found guilty of murdering her bastard child. Thomlinson, Robinson and Lickess were hanged and then burned, the rest presumed hanged, with Meynell's body being given to the surgeons to be dissected.

By far the most fascinating and disturbing case tried however was that of Isabella Billington. Recorded in Records of York Castle: Fortress, Court House, and Prison, Isabella, aged thirty-two:

"...was sentenced to death for crucifying her mother, at Pocklington, on the 5th January, 1649, and offering a calf and a cock as a burnt sacrifice.”

"Isabella Billington" at York Dungeon.
(Some more recent sources say that she was burnt for her crimes, but this is not stated in the original account.) 

Just what the events were that led to this violent outcome have been lost, and the only reference to Isabella and her crime is that in the 1880 publication, Records of York Castle. Interestingly, she is not named as a witch, but the offering of a sacrifice suggests that this might well have been the implication drawn from her deeds. Isabella's husband was also found guilty of assisting in the grisly crime, and was sentenced to death along with her.

On Saturday 30th April, 1649, the condemned were processed to Knavesmire in York. The men were on sledges, with seven on each one and guarded by the sheriff's officers and a total of twenty-four dragoons. The women, however, were transported in two carts, fifteen dragoons guarding them on each side as they went along.

                     Knavesmire, York. A large part of the area is now York Racecourse. 

“On entering Castlegate that street appeared one mass of human beings, and the solemn procession was stopped for some time before it could proceed, the people were so closely jammed together. The whole of the twenty-one culprits joined as one voice in singing psalms from this street to the gallows.”

Isabella and her fellow condemned were not alone in meeting their fate at York; between 1379 and 1879, it is believed that at least five hundred and sixty four people were executed at York, through beheading or hanging. Knavesmire was the location of the gallows until the last execution there in 1801, when they were moved closer to York Castle. 

Stone to mark the location of the execution site at Knavesmire, York

Although Isabella was tried and executed at York, Pocklington itself was not a stranger to witches. Petronel Haxby was executed there in 1642, and Old Wife Green was, in 1631 “burnt for being a witch," both meeting their end in Pocklington Market Place. A Thomas Dobson was also buried on 24th March, 1643, apparently dying due to a bewitchment.

Pocklington Market Place today.