Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Wednesday Weirdness: The Black Cat as Witch’s Familiar

 It is a delight to welcome HJ Blenkinsop to The Witch, The Weird and The Wonderful this fortnight with a subject close to my own heart: witches and their close companions, black cats....


Halloween is right around the corner and we will soon be awash with caricatures of black cats in pointy hats sitting by cauldrons and brooms. The cat, typically black, bubbles up in the popular imagination when we speak of witches’ familiars. But where does this stereotype originate and how did it develop?

In Essex Witches, Peter C. Brown writes, “a 'familiar'... is a supernatural being that helps support a witch and in western culture the stereotypical familiar is a black cat.”

Of course, familiars were not limited to feline form and could be dogs, hares, toads, rats, donkeys or even flies, among many others. George Gifford’s Dialogue Concerning Witches describes witches’ familiars as “spirits, some hath one, some hath more… some in one likeness, some in another, as cattes, weasils, toads, or mise.”

Weren't they just pets?

Why were these living animals considered familiars at all and not simply pets? Christina Hole notes in Witchcraft in England, that keeping domesticated pets by Elizabethan times was not only unusual but grounds for suspicion.

"In an age when fondness for small animals was nothing like as general in England as it is now, the actual possession of any beast that might be supposed to be a familiar was a clear danger to anyone suspected of witchcraft, especially if he or she were known to treat it with affection. It was not even necessary for the creature to live in the house; a dog bounding towards a suspected person in the fields, or a cat jumping through a window might be enough to confirm an already existing suspicion" (Hole 1991).

However, such suspicion was overwhelmingly leveled at elderly women of lower social class. The more vulnerable members of society who lacked the ability to properly defend themselves against any resulting charges. It’s interesting that during the same period in history, small dogs were popular among middle class ladies, but because of their class privilege, they were immune from suspicion - as were their pets.

Fantastic familiars and their names.

In Nine Lives, the Folklore of Cats, Katherine Briggs offers descriptions of familiars and their names allegedly given by accused women at trial. Of course the most salacious familiar named must be Sathan, a white spotted cat and familiar of Elizabeth Francis, named during one of the earliest Elizabethan Witch trials, that of the Chelmsford Witches in 1566. But as we will see, familiars came in many forms, both living and supernatural.

Notorious Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who later published The Discovery of Witches, claims to have watched the accused Elizabeth Clark for four nights and seen her six familiars (but could only name five). These included a fat spaniel without legs called Jamara, and ox headed shaggy hound called Vinegar Tom, a rabbit by the name of Sacke-and-sugar, Newes the polecat and a white kitten called Holt. Another witch confessed to having the following imps as familiars: Ilemanzer, Pyewacket, Peck in the Crown and Grizzel -Greedigut.

Ursula Kemp, tried at the St Osyth with trials of 1582, confessed to having the following familiars; a black toad named Pigin, a black lamb called Tyffin, four imps, a grey cat called Tittey and a black cat called Jack.

In A Discourse on Witchcraft, Edward Fairfax records the familiars of six women to include three Lilliputlean sheep, three dragonesque beasts, a goat, a seal, a monkey, a lizard, a pig and three fish. In another case, he records the familiars as being a devil, a humanoid figure with a dog’s head, two cats and an assortment of birds.

Fairfax also documents the names of two cats; Inges, a white cat spotted black belonging to Margaret Waite’s daughter and Gibbe, a big black cat of forty years, belonging to the old widow Jennet Dibble.

There are numerous other examples containing equally fantastic description of familiars and names for them. What’s especially interesting is that the majority of them were not cats at all. Of the cats identified, only two were described as black, Jack and Gibbe. Poor old Jennet Dribble most likely had several black cats over those forty years, but no one noticed them come and go.

How did cats become witches’ familiars?

The evidence so far suggests that myriad creatures could be witches’ familiars, very few of them cats. Metzler, writing on Witchcraft and Cats in the Middle Ages, reminds us that “in the Middle Ages as such (i.e. before 1500) cats were primarily associated with heretics and only rarely with witches.”

Before 1500, cats, specifically ones black, were associated with the devil. Writing on Satanic Rituals around 1180, Walter Map explained that during these affairs “the Devil descends as a black cat before his devotees.” While in The Classical Cat, Engles suggests that by the thirteenth century, some in the church supported the idea that evil spirits, such as strigae, incubi, sylvani and others could inhabit the bodies of cats.

Certainly, the deck was already stacked against the black cat. To make matters worse for cats and cat ladies, in 1233 Pope Gregory IX issued the Vox in Rama, sanctioning the extermination of cats, especially black ones. Not surprisingly, after this time, any association with cats, black or otherwise, brought dire consequences.

The association of witches and cat familiars became so ingrained, that simply having a cat was enough grounds to be accused of witchcraft. Briggs writes that as late as the 19th century, an old woman was thrown down a pit at Monk Soham in Suffolk purely for having a pet cat. The logic being; she has a cat, she must be a witch! The only other corroborating evidence was that she went to church in a black silk dress.

Why was wearing black a cause for concern? Black was associated with the devil (and of course heretics who were associated with cats). And it’s easy enough to imagine a poor old women, living alone, feeding a stray cat or letting it into her home for company. So emerged the stereotype and stories of witches and their ‘familiars.’

“Ah! cats are a mysterious kind of folk. There is more passing in their minds than we are aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar with warlocks and witches.” Sir Walter Scott


Katharine M. Briggs, Nine Lives: The Folklore of Cats, 1980
Peter C. Brown, Essex Witches, 2014
Donald Engles, Classical Cats, the rise and fall of the sacred cat, 1999
Christina Hole, Witchcraft in England, 1991

Irina Metzler, Witchcraft and Cats in the Middle Ages (revisited), 2013, revisited/

HJ Blenkinsop Ph.D. is the author of Kitty Tweddle and the Wishing Well. She dabbles in soap making, potion mixing, has a passion for tweed, and blogs about the bazaar at Chicken Road Diaries. She lives with her partner and their three-legged ’tuxedo’ cat in New York. 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Drowned Churches and Ghostly Peals: Britain's Lost Bells

Tales of bells that have been lost to the sea are a familiar occurrence in many legends, especially those that take place around Britain's coastline. Whether lost by bad weather, bad luck, or punishment for a rash word spoken in anger, here are a selection of Britain's drowned bells. 

The Legend of Kilgrimol:

This tale is located at Lytham St Anne's near Blackpool in Lancashire. Not far from the shore it is said that a church and its churchyard lie submerged beneath the waves. Known as Kilgrimol, there have been several explanations for what happened to the ill-fated church. Walter Thornber in his History of Blackpool and it's Neighbourhood states that an earthquake caused the disaster, whereas other sources report a violent storm as the cause of the disappearance. 

This story is founded on a degree of fact, and according to a 17th century source there was indeed a church at Kilgrimol since the 7th or 8th centuries:

In the days before the missionaries came there were evil spirits in the water marshes around Marton Mere, who were propitiated by the Britons. When Grim, the priest from Kilgrimol, came teaching the people, he cast the chief spirits into the mere and it took the form of a great worm or conga eel.”

There are several places that contend for the location of Kilgrimol, some of which are out to sea, but one of which is at Cross Slack, now part of the St Anne's Old Links Golf Course. Interestingly, it seems that in the mid-1500s an event occurred that hit the West Coast and destroyed twelve villages in total; in some sources, the destruction of Kilgrimol is dated to this time.

 Kilgrimol is remembered in many local place names today, and it is said that during a storm or on New Year's Eve the bells of the ill-fated church can be heard tolling.

 Cross Slack

The Bells of Boscastle:

As legend goes, the people of Boscastle, Cornwall, had long been unhappy with the fact that their church was lacking in bells. This fact was made all the more sore by the delightful peal from nearby Tintagel that could regularly be heard, and over time, funds were raised so that they could purchase their own.  It took a while, but there was much satisfaction when the total needed was reached and the bells duly purchased. 

The new acquisitions were being delivered by sea and the man navigating the ship happened to be from Tintagel. At the sound of the bells from his own church the man, deeply religious, crossed himself and thanked God – at that an argument broke out with the captain who was of the opinion that the ship and the sea she sailed on should be thanked instead for the safe voyage. Many heated words were uttered by the captain along with much blaspheming; as if in answer a fierce storm rose up that sent the ship onto the rocks, killing all on board apart from the man who had demanded God be given his due. 

The bells were ringing as the ship went down, and it is said that they can still be heard before a storm even today.  

The church featured in the story is St. Symphorian's Church at Forrabury, positioned high on a hill overlooking the sea. A version of the story of the missing bells is told in the poem The Silent Tower of Bottreaux.

The pilot heard his native bells
hang on the breeze in fitful swells.
‘Thank God’ with reverent brow he cried,
‘We make the shore on evening’s tide.’
‘Come to thy God in time.’
It was his marriage chime.
Youth, manhood, old age past,
his bells must ring at last.

‘Thank God, thou whining knave, on land
but thank at sea the steersman’s hand’,
the captain’s voice above the gale,
‘Thank the good ship and ready sail.’
‘Come to thy God in time.’
Sad grew the boding chime.
‘Come to thy God at last.’
Boomed on the heavy blast.

Up rose the sea as if it heard
the Mighty Master’s signal word.
What thrills the captain’s whitening lip?
The death groans of his sinking ship.
‘Come to thy God in time.’
Swung deep the funeral chime.
Grace, mercy, kindness past,
‘Come to thy God at last.’

Long did the rescued pilot tell,
when greying hairs o’er his forehead fell,
while those around would hear and weep,
that fearful judgement of the deep.
‘Come to thy God in time.’
Swung the deep funeral chime,
he read his native chime,
youth, manhood, old age past,
his bell rung out at last.

Still when the storm of Bottreau’s waves
is wakening in his weedy caves,
those bells that sudden surges hide
peal their deep notes beneath the tide.
‘Come to thy God in time.’
Thus saith the ocean’s chime.
‘Storm, billow, whirlwind past,
come to thy God at last.

"Forrabury church Bocastle by Herbythyme
 Licensed under GFDL via Commons 

Bells for Sale:

There is a legend that speaks of how all the church bells in Jersey were once sold to the French. The dreadful act was punished when the ship sank in St. Ouen's Bay, taking all the bells with it. At least into the 19th Century the sound of those bells were said to be heard, a bad omen that told fishermen to stay ashore as a storm was coming and lives would be lost.

There are suggestions that there is some grounding in fact for the story. Sir Henry Spelman, in his 1632 The History and Fate of Sacrilige devotes a section to the fate of the many church bells that were deemed surplus to requirements as Mary Tudor's reign gave way to that of the Protestant Elizabeth. There were many tales regarding the pulling down and sale of these bells, and it is from this time that the legend of the Jersey bells seems to stem. 

At the end of Queen Mary's days (Calais being taken) Sir Hugh Paulet pulled down the bells of the churches of Jersey; and sending them to St Malo's, in Bretagne, fourteen of them were drowned at the entrance of that harbour. Whereupon it is a by word at this day in these parts, when any strong east wind bloweth there, to say “The bells of Jersey now ring.”

The tale of the bells was in fact used to explain a booming noise made by a combination of the wind and the sea, and it was said that drowned sailors knew of their approaching death as they heard the bells ringing beforehand.  

St Ouen's Bay, Jersey

A Viking Raid:

A tale from the south coast relates how the monastery at Bosham, West Sussex, was attacked by Vikings. The much-prized tenor bell was carried off but the monks did not give chase; as soon as the invaders were gone they rang the remaining bells, the sound carrying out to sea. The stolen bell added its own note to the peal, the sound so strong and true that it caused the planks of the ship to break and both the ship and the bell were lost to the sea.

There are two variations of the story, one where all aboard were lost, the other more positive outcome being the conversion of the raiders to Christianity.

Incidentally, this isn't Bosham's only claim to fame; it is also one place of several believed to have been the place where King Canute held back the tide.   


Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Wednesday Weirdness: The Burning Beds

It is with great pleasure that I welcome Chris Woodyard to The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful for this week's Wednesday Weirdness with a curious tale of burning beds in Cleveland, Ohio. Was it witchcraft, poltergeists or was something else to blame for the terror that struck the Busch family?


In studying that most elusive of supernatural creatures, the poltergeist, it becomes obvious that poltergeist manifestations go far beyond the species’ signature rappings. While some poltergeists knock, others throw and break objects or make them vanish. “Stone-throwing devils” hurl mysterious showers of stones that never do more than lightly bruise. Still others, less benign, slash clothing and set fires.

In 1880 a German family living in Cleveland, Ohio found themselves at the centre of an extraordinary and terrifying incendiary poltergeist incident.  


"Cleveland, Ohio, April 28th. An extraordinary series of mysterious fires has occasioned an unusual sensation in one of the outlying wards of this city, and as yet no solution to their strange cause has been furnished. Bedding and articles of domestic use have caught fire from no apparent cause, and an entire family has not only been kept in constant terror of flames, but has been subject to pecuniary loss that falls hard upon a man who can ill afford to lose even so much as a dollar.

“A short time ago there came to this city from North Amherst, a hard-working and honest German named John Busch, whose principal worldly goods were a “poor man’s blessing” of eleven children. Two of these latter were twins at their mother’s breast…

Shortly after Busch removed to Cleveland his family began to be troubled by fires breaking out in various parts of the house without any apparent cause. Busch was living in a house on Lincoln Avenue, and, becoming imbued with the belief that the place was haunted, he removed to 77 Lussenden Avenue, where he thought he would find relief from the annoyance…”

The new house was a small one and the front parlour was set up as a bedroom with three beds for children, as well as a baby’s crib in one corner. On Sunday, April 18th, shortly after moving in, the parents, several children, and a few friends were sitting in this room chatting, when someone noticed a thread of smoke coming through the key-hole of an unused closet behind one of the beds. An old suit of clothes—the only garment in the closet—was found burning briskly. The fire was quickly put out, but the family was baffled as to how it had started. Worse was to follow.

“On Monday when Mrs. Busch, in going about her domestic duties, entered a pantry used for dishes, she was startled to see flames rising from the shelves. In a moment the paper which had been used for lining the shelves was consumed, and nothing remained but the ashes, while the dishes were blackened with the smoke. Some relatives were summoned to the house by one of the children, and while they stood in the kitchen discussing the strange occurrence the child’s crib in the front room began smoking, and upon their hastening to extinguish it a hole was found burned clear through the bed-tick.”
In the next few days fires flared up in several rooms of the house. After yet another mattress was consumed by fire, the terrified family fled. But the first day at the new house, one of the beds was burned to ashes; the next day a hen’s nest in the back yard was consumed.

“Saturday, while Mrs. Busch was in the coal-shed adjoining the kitchen, she saw smoke rising from an old coat that was hanging on a nail. She says that the fire seemed to begin about the middle of the back. It was ruined before she could put the fire out.

“The terror of the family increased day by day. The children were kept out of school to watch for fear the house would be burned. On Sunday a number of friends and relatives stayed during the day with the terrified people… Shortly after the bed caught fire, and was burned for a space of several feet before it could be extinguished. The stock of straw-beds was now exhausted, except one which on Monday met with the fate of the others.”

A correspondent for the Cincinnati Enquirer visited the family and found the family in a “pitiable state,” while the Busch’s friends and neighbours corroborated their incredible story. The mysterious flames were reported to be a hellish blue and they had a particular target: the household beds. As an aside, would it be possible for straw-beds to spontaneously combust? Straw was usually thoroughly dried before being stuffed into ticks.

Wrote the reporter: “The fire had absolutely burned all of their bedding except a couple of feather-pillows and a feather-tick. The mother was almost distracted, while the father acted like a man bereft of his senses.”
Enter an accusation of witchcraft:

“A rather strange feature of the mystery was called out by the declaration of an old German lady that if they would look in the feathers of the feather tick they would find a solid wreath of feathers, which was “the witch” that was causing the trouble. She said that if they would boil this “the witch” would be destroyed and they would suffer no more annoyance. Acting on her advice, they ripped open the tick, and, sure enough, there was a wreath of feathers several inches thick, forming a ring about ten inches in diameter. On Monday they gave it a vigorous boiling, but it did not prevent the return of the fires.

Mr. Busch has had to abandon his work to watch over his family, all of whose members are in constant dread of some serious calamity.”

The “wreath of feathers” or feather crown, was a well-known sign in German lore that the family had been bewitched. Boiling the crown was supposed to either bring the malefactor to the house so they could be forced to remove the curse or neutralize the witch’s power.

Although the wreath-boiling did not work immediately, apparently the fires ceased without any of the family being incinerated, for here the story ends, as far the newspaper coverage goes. According to the census, the Busch family was still alive and well in 1900 Cleveland.

What was termed “witchcraft” in an 1880 German community today might be labelled “telekinesis” or “poltergeist activity.” Some who study poltergeists say that the attacks are highly symbolic and often reflect—quite literally—difficult family dynamics and stressors. What the mechanism might be is not specified.

If we care to play psychologist, we might note that the family bedding was the main target for the fires. Perhaps Mrs. Busch, who was about 37 at the time of the fires and went on to have at least two other children, was exhausted by fulfilling her marital and maternal duties. No beds, no bedclothes, no “bedding,” and no more babies? It’s a theory impossible to prove. Poltergeist activity has also been linked to adolescents--possibly one of the eleven children was a fire-starter in a very real sense. But whether witchcraft or a Fortean “wild talent,” the mystery, I fear, is long past solving. Ashes to ashes…

The full story of the Busch family may be found in The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales. All quotes in this story are from Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 April 1880: p. 4

Thanks to Undine of Strange Company for the Illustrated Police News Images. 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. She blogs on international fortean topics here and on costume and the ephemera of history here. You may find her on Facebook at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard, The Victorian Book of the Dead, and Mrs Daffodil and on twitter @hauntedohiobook.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Surgeon's Wife: A Case of Sussex Witchcraft

There are very few witchcraft cases recorded for Sussex, but one of those for which details does exist proves interesting reading. Margaret Cooper, wife of William Cooper of Kirdford, Sussex, went before the Sussex Lent Sessions on 18th February, 1575 at East Grinstead. The indictments against her were as follows:

Margaret Cooper, wife of William Cooper of Kerdforde, surgeon, on 1st April [1574] at Kerdforde bewitched Henry Stoner, who languished until 20th April following, when he died at Kerdforde.

Also on 1st September [1572] bewitched William Fowler, who languished until 4th September following when he died.

On 1st June, [1574] at Kerdforde, bewitched Elizabeth Fowler, wife of Thomas Fowler, who languished until 20th June following when she died at Kirdford. 

There are no further details of what happened to Margaret, but it was recorded that she admitted her guilt and was sentenced to hang, and it is generally assumed that the punishment was carried out. Margaret would have been found guilty under the 1563 Witchcraft Act for causing the death of three people by witchcraft, a crime that carried the death penalty.

Although the parish registers for Kirdford begin in 1558, there is no mention of the Cooper family until the late 1600s when Thomas Cooper and his wife Sarah had several children baptised at the church of St John the Baptist. The Fowler family are likewise absent until the early 17th century and in both cases were either not recorded or lived in a nearby village. The Stoner family however are present in the registers, with the children of Richard Stoner, the earliest baptised in 1582. A Richard Stoner married Anis Hole on 4th September, 1563 at Kirdford, and another married Joan Aylie 25th June 1590. 

Another accused Sussex witch, Agnes Mowser from Fletching was luckier: Tried and found guilty in 1591 for bewitching Anne Clemans, the daughter of Henry Flemens or Clemans, she was sentenced to a year's imprisonment. Anne was her first offence, and the girl "languished" but did not die. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Wednesday Weirdness: The Magic of Yester Castle

Another Wednesday brings another welcome guest to The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful. This fortnight Alan Montgomery shares with us the magic of Yester Castle: be warned, after reading, you may well find yourself with the urge to visit the place yourself! 


Over the years I have visited many weird and wonderful places in search of the uncanny and unusual while researching for my blog mysterious standing stones, dark and damp caves and fading country houses across Britain and beyond have all featured in my regular posts. Most of these places have been fascinating, several incredibly atmospheric, but none has been quite as magical, not to say downright spooky, as Yester Castle.

You won’t find Yester Castle in any guidebooks or on any tourist maps. In fact, the castle is not officially open to the public, with its fragile ruins lying hidden in deep forest not far from the quiet East Lothian village of Gifford. Its notorious reputation, however, means that a steady stream of visitors still make the journey to Yester to investigate its unique aura of magic, with most drawn by tales of its intriguing underground chamber, a huge vaulted room known as the Goblin Ha’ or Hobgoblin Ha’ (Ha’ being the old Scots word for Hall).

The castle’s history has been long and eventful. Although only a few fragments of its walls now remain above ground, this was once a huge and impressive fortress which was begun in the mid thirteenth century by Sir Hugo de Giffard, whose grandfather had been granted the land decades before by Richard the Lion. Giffard was a powerful man, and guardian to the young Scottish king Alexander III, who is reputed to have stayed at Yester in 1278. The castle was rebuilt on a larger scale in the late thirteenth century, later passed into the hands of the Hay family, and in 1547 it was successfully defended by John, 4th Lord Hay against raiding English troops. Not long after, however, the castle was abandoned in favour of a nearby towerhouse, which would eventually be rebuilt as the fine Georgian mansion of Yester House. The castle itself was left to fall into ruins, with only the elaborate carving on its remaining walls giving an indication of its former glories.

Hugo de Giffard is remembered today for more than just his role as royal guardian; in fact it is his reputed dabblings in the dark arts which have led to the mythical status of Yester Castle and encouraged the various strange stories attached to this curious place. During his lifetime Hugo was known far and wide as the ‘Wizard of Yester’, and was believed to be a necromancer with incredible powers and a hotline to Old Nick himself. It was said that he used his dark arts to raise an army of goblins, who he then used to build his impenetrable fortress at Yester. And where else would he practise his black magic than in a dark, subterranean vault? As early as the fourteenth century a large cavern created by magic was said to be located underneath the castle, it existence recorded by Scotland’s first national historian, John of Fordun. Inevitably, the sorcerer Giffard and his deeds in this shadowy lair inspired a number of legends, with one tale telling how he gave his future son in law, one Broun of Coulston, a magical pear, instructing him to keep it safe to ensure the prosperity of this family. The pear was held securely in a silver casket by generations of Brouns, until a rash young lady who was about to marry into the family took a bite of the still-perfect fruit in 1692, with tragic events for her family; subsequent gambling debts eventually led to the loss of the Coulston Estate and an untimely death for her husband. The pear itself is still (almost) intact, and is kept at nearby Coulston House.

Today, despite Yester Castle’s ruinous state, the infamous Goblin Ha’ remains miraculously preserved, a wonderfully creepy reminder of the castle’s magical past. It lies beneath a large section of the castle’s curtain wall, with two doors into the vault allowing visitors to peer past stout metal grilles into its gloomy interior. Those who are particularly brave can search out the tiny passageway, hidden down a banking on the other side of the wall, which gives access to the Ha’ itself. A short crawl down a narrow, low tunnel leads into the incredible underground space, the vast room crowned with an unusual Gothic vault. If you have a torch and a stern disposition, you may even want to investigate the dark staircase which descends from one corner of the Ha’ into the shadowy depths below.

Sir Hugo may be long gone, but his Goblin Ha’ certainly retains a magically spooky ambience, and a visit there is not recommended for the faint hearted. Tales persist of strange goings-on amongst the ruins, including visitors hearing voices and experiencing ghostly apparitions. Apparently some locals even refuse to go near the place, scared off by rumours of an ancient curse on the castle. A visit to Yester Castle is highly recommended for lovers of the mystical and arcane. You can read all about my visit here.

Alan Montgomery writes a blog dedicated to his ongoing search for the weird and wonderful, uncanny and magical at
He also tweets as @MSFMagic