Sunday, 26 April 2015

The End of a Witch, or Spontaneous Combustion? The Tragic Fate of Grace Pett

* Warning for potentially disturbing image. 

You would be forgiven for thinking that tales of people spontaneously igniting are better suited to an episode of The X-Files than a witchcraft blog. In the strange case of Grace Pett, the sixty year old wife of an Ipswich fisherman, however, the two are not so very far apart at all.  

On the evening of 9th April, 1744, Grace and her daughter had been celebrating the return of another daughter from Gibraltar. The women sat up talking and drinking well into the night, making the most of their reunion. At around 10pm, Grace retired to bed, the daughter who shared her room when Mr. Pett was at sea going with her as usual.  Midway through preparing for bed, Grace returned downstairs, something which was again not out of the ordinary in the household. Her daughter, exhausted by the day's celebrations and thinking nothing more of the matter, fell into a deep sleep. 

What happened in the following hours, no one could say for sure. Upon waking at around 6am, Grace's daughter found herself alone in the bed, with no sign of her mother. Concerned, she made her way downstairs, where a most gruesome sight awaited her.  

Grace's body was “burning with a glowing fire without flame”, and although her daughter attempted to extinguish the fire with two bowls of water, she was too late to save her mother. Grace's ankles and feet, sticking out of the fireplace, were the only parts of her untouched by the flames. It was reported that:

“the Trunk of the Body was in a manner burnt to Ashes, and appeared like an Heap of Charcoal cover'd with white Ashes, the Head, Arms, Legs and Thighs were also very much burnt.”  

Image of a body consumed in much the same way as Grace Pett's.

During the investigation that followed, Grace's daughter insisted that she could think of no reason why her mother would have gone downstairs other than to smoke a pipe, of which she was in the habit. She also swore that although gin had been freely consumed the night before, Grace was not addicted to drink.  

A Mr. Love who had attended the coroner's inquest into Grace's death, reported in a letter to his brother that:

“...her Body was found quite burnt, lying upon the Brick-Hearth in the Kitchen, where no Fire had been, with the Candlestick standing by her, and the Candle burnt out with which she had lighted herself down.”

The floor under the body, along with clothes and a paper screen nearby were unscathed. There was nothing in evidence to explain how a fire had been produced that would be hot enough to reduce Grace Pett to ashes.  

After much investigation, a verdict of accidental death was returned, though just what form that “accident” had taken was decidedly unclear. 

There were some, however, who thought they knew the answer. For it turned out that Grace Pett was not well regarded in the area, and, with a reputation amongst her neighbours for being a witch, it was not long before rumours began regarding the real cause of her death.

A Mr Garnham lived at Purdis Farm, two miles outside of Ipswich. The welfare of his sheep had caused him great consternation of late, as they seemed to be stricken by a strange disease that caused them to “whirl around and cut sundry strange capers.” The animals eventually died of their unexplained ailment, and it was suggested to him that the sheep had been bewitched.  

Following the advice of his wife, Mr Garnham consulted Mr. Winter, the local cunning man from Ipswich who was held in high regard. Garnham was duly instructed to burn one of his diseased sheep alive, Winter assuring him that if he did so, the suspected witch would appear at the scene in great distress. The ritual would only work if those present remained silent, but if they did, the person guilty of bewitching the animals would be consumed, just as the burning animal was destroyed by the flames.  

Accordingly, a large fire was set up, though the sheep struggled so much that the plan was modified somewhat, with the poor creature finally being crammed into the oven instead. It was not quite big enough to taken the unfortunate animal however, and the bound feet remained hanging out.  

View of Ipswich from Bishop's Hill.

It was rumoured that the same night, as the sheep burnt, Grace Pett was seen making her way over Bishop's Hill towards Garnham's farm, clearly in great agony as she went. She then, according to the tale that spread, took herself home where she lay down in her own fireplace, only to be consumed by fire, all except for her feet and hands which, like the sheep's feet, were untouched.  

News of Grace's death spread quickly and the curious came from miles around to view the perlexing remains. But what really happened to Grace Pett that night? The coroner's report concluded that there was not enough fuel on the scene to reduce her body to ash, but that was exactly what seemed to have happened. Had the old woman, drunk too much, fallen foul of her enemies, or was something far more sinister at play? The truth, in this case, will probably never be known, but, as always, there is plenty of room to speculate. 

Because you can never miss an opportunity for a picture of Mulder and Scully. 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Bewitchment at Belvoir: The Flowers' Revenge

The imprisonment and eventual execution of the “Belvoir Witches” takes up only a small paragraph in the guidebook to Lincoln Castle, where they spent their last days in 1619. Their sorry fate however was not only the closing chapter to one of England's most infamous witchcraft cases, it also saw the end to the dynastic hopes of Francis Manners, Earl of Rutland, a man of great prominence favoured by James I.

The connection between the Earls of Rutland at Belvoir Castle and the Flower family of nearby Bottesford was not a new one; there are mentions of the family in the Rutland papers from the first half of the sixteenth century. Although once in good fortune, Joan Flower and her daughters Margaret and Philippa had since fallen on hard times, and to help relieve their situation the family were given work at the castle. Margaret especially was accorded particular favour, being given a live-in position where she had work in both the washhouse and with the poultry outside.  

Belvoir Castle, as it is today.

Although well in favour with the Sixth Earl and his wife, the Flower women were not popular with the other servants, and at some point words were spoken to the Countess that meant Margaret was let go from her service. What was said is unclear, but the young woman was not sent away empty handed – indeed she was given a feather bolster, a wool mattress, and the not inconsiderable sum of forty shillings. Joan Flower, however, took the slight to her daughter badly, a fact made worse when the Earl, a supporter of the Flower women before this point, also began to distance himself. His refusal to take the part of Joan Flower in an argument was the final straw, and Joan declared her intention for revenge.   

Whether coincidental or not, the Manners family began to suffer from bouts of unexplained sickness, with both the Earl and the Countess taken ill. More alarmingly, their eldest son and heir, Henry, Lord Roos, became unwell, suffering from convulsions and fits that caused great concern. Despite hopes for his recovery the boy's condition deteriorated, and, despite all attempts to help him he died in 1613, much to the grief of the Earl and Countess. Their hopes for the continuation of the family line were now fixed on their second and only remaining son, Francis, who inherited his brother's title of Lord Roos. Fears heightened as Francis was also showing signs of the same illness as Henry, and by some accounts Katherine, the Earl's daughter from his first marriage, was also unwell. 

Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland

With close connections between castle and village and with the protection of the Earl and Countess removed, it was not long before the many enemies of the Flower women grasped the opportunity to strike against them. There were several accusations made against Joan and her daughters; along with rumours that they were to blame for the death of the Earl's son, it was revealed that Margaret was well known to take items from the castle home to the cottage where her mother and sister lived, which may have been the reason she was dismissed from service. There were also rumours of visitors to the cottage at strange hours, with talk of dissolute company and strange goings on taking place behind closed doors. Philippa Flower's infatuation with a man named Simpson was well known, as was his assertion that she had bewitched him into returning her feelings, so that he was powerless to resist her. 

It was only a matter of time, and Joan and her daughters were apprehended shortly before Christmas, 1618. Enough evidence was gathered against them, and  they set out on the journey to Lincoln where they would be tried at the next assizes. 

Three women set out, but only two were to complete the journey; in a strange twist that further heightened the talk of witchcraft, Joan Flower never arrived in Lincoln. On the journey she made a demand for bread and butter, seeking to use the old saxon trial by ordeal known as corsned to prove her innocence. This required the accused to swallow the bread (which was often consecrated); if they were successful, then they were innocent, but if they were unable to swallow it was proof positive of guilt. Joan failed the test; it was reported that the old woman choked on the food and was buried at Ancaster, leaving her daughters to travel on to their fates alone.

Dungeon at Lincoln Castle where the Flower sisters were held. 

The girls were convicted by the testimony of those who came forward to speak against them, and also by their own admissions. Having accepted the offer of the Devil to be of use to them in their endeavours, the women of the Flower family had received instruction in a variety of charms, curses and spells that could be used to carry out their plans of revenge. Despite keeping a pretence of friendliness towards the Earl and his wife, they had worked actively to harm his family.

Joan and her daughters had appropriated one of Henry Manners' gloves; this was rubbed against the back of Joan's spirit, Rutterkin, and placed in boiling water. When the glove was removed it was pricked several times before being buried in the yard, along with the wish that the young lord would waste away as the glove rotted in the ground, using a form of sympathetic magic that would be well known and feared by those who heard the tale. 

Philippa confessed that she had heard her mother and sister cursing the Earl and Countess, and that they had boiled blood and feathers together whilst saying spells and incantations. Margaret confessed to having two familiar spirits, and Philippa that she had let one suckle from her in return for obtaining the love of Thomas Simpson. Margaret also claimed that she was visited by devils in her prison cell, but became angry with them because she could not understand what they were saying to her.  

Front page of the pamphlet detailing the Belvoir case, 
published not long after the events. 

Margaret and Philippa were found guilty under the Witchcraft Act of 1604, by which causing death by witchcraft and communing with spirits were offences punishable by death. The sisters, apparently remaining unrepentant to the end, were hanged at Lincoln on 11th March 1619 after being tried at the assizes.   

Their death was not enough to break the misfortune of the Earl, however, and further tragedy was to strike the Manners' family. In 1620 the earl's new heir and only remaining son, Francis, also died. Francis Manners remained convinced that witchcraft had been behind the death of his sons to the end of his days, and on his death in 1632 his tomb bore the inscription: 

"In 1608 he married ye lady Cecila Hungerford, daughter to ye Honorable Knight Sir John Tufton, by whom he had two sons, both of which died in their infancy by wicked practises and sorcerye"

Statues of the bewitched Manners boys 
from Bottesford Church

With no male heir remaining, the Earl was succeeded by his brother, George, who became the seventh earl upon his death. But were the Flower women really responsible for bringing Francis Manners' dynastic hopes to an end? In her book "Witches", Tracy Borman argues that Joan and her daughters actually fell foul of a sinister conspiracy headed by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. With his eye on marrying Katherine, the earl's only surviving child, it was rumoured that Villiers, favourite of James I, had the boys poisoned in order to remove them from the picture. 

Whatever his role, Buckingham got his wish; after a great deal of negotiation and scandal he and Katherine were married in 1620, and remained together until the Duke's murder in 1628. The death of her brothers and the fate of the women held responsible passed into popular legend, a chilling reminder of what happened to those who took part in 'wicked practises and sorcerye'.

The Duke and Duchess of Buckingham and their family. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

Dulle Griet: The Many Faces of Mad Meg

I came across the following painting in a recently purchased book, mislabelled as "The Witch." True, the woman does conform to several witch-related stereotypes; she is old, carrying a broom and dealing with demons. It  turns out, however, that "Dulle Griet" or "Mad Meg" is very likely not a witch at all. 

Dulle Griet, David Ryckaert III c.1650

So who was Dulle Griet? A familiar figure from Flemish folklore, she is best known as the peasant who led an army of women into hell. It is possible that she shares a connection with "Gret Sauermal", a woman who quarrelled with her husband and had the ability to enter hell and come back unharmed, due to her unpleasant and un-ladylike behaviour. 

In Ryckaert's depiction, Meg is shown beating back the creatures of hell with her broom. Her apron is overflowing with treasures that she has presumably just liberated from the underworld, a fact that is variously seen as a triumph for Meg or as overwhelming greed on the old woman's part, battling for more gold when she already has more than she can carry. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder also captured Meg in his 1562 painting. She can be seen advancing towards the entrance of hell, while her female followers pillage a nearby house.  

Dulle Griet - Pieter Bruegel 

As with the first image, Dulle Griet is often labelled as a witch, and indeed Bruegel may have been passing comment on the witch hunts that were taking place across Europe. The ability to enter hell is certainly otherworldly, and demons are strongly linked to witches and witchcraft, and the painter may well have been making his views known on a central topic of the time. One suggestion runs that Bruegel was mocking the culture of magic and belief that the elite in Flemish society were desperate to drum out of the lower orders. 

There are, however, other fascinating interpretations regarding Meg's identity. It turns out that "Meg" was in fact a term used to refer to a woman who possessed the undesirable qualities of being quarrelsome or shrewish, and it has also been argued that Bruegel was observing on the perceived behaviour of women in the 16th century. It has been noted that during this time there were several powerful female monarchs on the thrones of Europe, adding to a general unease caused by the religious and societal upheavals of the period. Women were not, it has been argued, staying in their places, and Meg personified this concern. 

There are also links to several Flemish sayings that support this theory. The idea of a woman tying the devil to a cushion is pictured literally by Bruegel, and refers to a woman being either brave or domineering, or, in some cases, a combination of the two. The breast plate worn by Meg herself is also significant, as to "get into armour" meant to be angry or full of rage. These are typically masculine attributes, and it is arguable that Meg and her fellow women are usurping the role traditionally occupied by men. 

Detail of Dulle Griet

A more positive interpretation has been suggested more recently by Miranda Nesler. Nesler argues that Meg and her companions are actually on a mission to retrieve what has been stolen or squandered unwisely by mankind. Instead of "looting", in this more favourable interpretation, the women are engaged in slaying the demons that have kept the treasures locked away. Another modern interpretation suggests that Meg might be suffering from schizophrenia, citing her fixed expression and isolated, fearful dishevelled appearance. 

David Teniers the Younger was also drawn to the image of Dulle Griet. Here, Meg is shown wielding a kitchen knife, the significance of this highlighted by Liz Lochhead who has pointed out that the knife is the most common weapon used when a woman kills a man in a domestic setting. It could thus be seen as representing a woman being driven to drastic ends, unable to stand the life imposed upon her by a masculine-dominated society. 
Dulle Griet, David Teniers the Younger, c. 1645

The name "Meg" is also fascinating in itself. Meg or Margaret is a name shared by enough characters in both history and legend with the same negative connotations for it to be entirely coincidence.  Margot la Folle, or "The Mad" is Dulle Griet's French counterpart, and the Danish Queen, Black Margaret, was rumoured to owe her military victories to the Devil himself. The German Countess Rantzau, another Margaret, was so feared that she was locked into her coffin to keep her from returning after death. Large guns have also been given the name in Scotland, Ireland and Ghent. 

The ambiguity as to whether Meg has been successful or not in her mission to hell, and whether she is a woman liberated or condemned, continues in the work of Judith Schaechter. In this depiction, Meg stands on top of a plinth or pedestal that is made up of strange creatures and flowers. As in the earlier artworks, it is unclear whether Meg is returning victorious or, in a more sinister interpretation, being taken over by madness. 

Finally, there is the Ghent bar that takes its name from Mad Meg. The story claims that "Meg" was in fact the name given to Johanna, daughter to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, when she was hidden with a bourgeois family in Ghent after it became clear that she had inherited her grandmother's tendencies towards insanity. Although it makes for a good story, I've found absolutely nothing to support this claim, and much against it, but am always willing to be proved wrong!

Monday, 6 April 2015

A Ramble in the Peak District: The Search for Doll Tor

Last summer was our first living in Derbyshire, and we spent the six weeks of the summer holidays exploring everywhere we could. My husband has a thing about stone circles (part of our honeymoon was spent checking out Stone Henge and the less well-known stones in the area) and so we found ourselves on a mission to discover a local circle - Doll Tor. 

To cut a long story short, we utterly failed to find it. True, we found several other interesting stones, including the Nine Ladies Stone Circle, but Doll Tor eluded us entirely. Now, nine months later, we decided to give it another go, and, after a few false starts, were finally successful.

Doll Tor or The Six Stones

The circle is located near the village of Birchover in the Derbyshire Peak District, and is made up of six standing stones. The helpful sign at the site tells interested visitors that:

This ritual monument was used by people who lived and farmed on the surrounding land in the Bronze Age between 3000 and 4000 years ago.

The stone circle was built around 2000 to 1500BC. The standing stones were set at the edge of a platform which was probably designed to stage seasonal and family ceremonies. The rites relating to death left buried deposits. Cremations, urns and other funerary goods were recovered from within the circle when it was almost completely excavated in the 1930s. Other ceremonies, such as seasonal celebrations or marriages, left no traces in the ground.

The first excavation at the site was actually in 1852 by Thomas Bateman, where he discovered that "a grave had been dug for the reception of three or four cinerary urns and as many 'incense cups'." He recorded the site as being twenty feet across, and that the discovered urns and cups had apparently been disturbed and broken by previous diggers. 

In 1993 the circle was "rebuilt", but incorrectly, and was finally returned close to it's original and current state in 1994 by the Peak National Park authority and English Heritage. 

Cairn at Doll Tor

As well as the original circle, there is also a low cairn that was added at the eastern side of the formation. Further burials and related artefacts were discovered here. This was excavated properly for the first time by the Heathcotes between 1931 and 1933. In the centre was a large flat stone, surrounded by a  rectangle of smaller upright stones. A grave was discovered under the central stone, and three other burials were also discovered. Cremation urns, scrapers, and two faience beads - one segmented and the other in the shape of a star - were also found, dating the cairn to the early Bronze Age. 

Layout of Doll Tor

What surprised us was how little known Doll Tor seemed to be - several people we asked along the way had never heard of it, and even a local farmer only knew what we were talking about when we explained we meant "the stone circle that is meant to be somewhere over in those woods." A few walkers came through while we were there, but we mostly had the place to ourselves, visitors to the area seemingly preferring the more well-known Nine Sisters across on nearby Stanton Moor. We enjoyed a lovely half an hour or so at the site, also exploring a nearby shelter and rolling our easter eggs down the hill in time-honoured tradition. 

Enjoying the spoils of egg rolling. (complete with my finger to the left, whoops.)

On our way down through the fields towards the woods that hide Doll Tor, we had passed the impressive Andle Stone, and on the way back up we stopped for a proper look.  Fifteen feet long and with a series of foot and handholds for those who fancy a climb and an impressive view (no, we didn't give in to temptation!) it is also known as the Oundle or Anvil stone, or, more imaginatively, the Twopenny Loaf. It is a natural formation made of gritstone rock, and a very striking feature, well worth a stop. 

The Andle Stone

We stopped for a play and a snack, and a venture round to the other side of the stone revealed the following inscriptions:

All in all it was a lovely day out, (marred only by our youngest projectile vomiting all over the car on the way home due to an over abundance of chocolate and a tendency towards travel sickness!) A return trip to the nearby Nine Ladies is definitely planned for the future, along with searches for other nearby stones. Who knows what we might come across next?

Going on a Tor hunt...