Last summer I visited the Natural History Museum in London. While looking at the displays one item on display caught my eye, a mummified cat! This was of interest to me because kept in a strong room at the History Centre is a mummified cat, who, we’ve affectionately named Bing Clawsby!
In 1989, the then County Archivist Ken Rogers and Archivist Margaret Moles collected the archives of solicitors Mann, Rodway and Green from their offices at 57 Union Street, Trowbridge. While clearing their strong room a dead cat was found amongst the documents. A feeling of sadness was felt for the cat and they decided to bring it back to the Record Office in Trowbridge. “Bing Clawsby” now resides in Strong Room 2 here at the History Centre in Chippenham. Bing’s hearing and eye sight is not what it used to be and now spends most of the day asleep in its box.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, predominately during the witch-trials (first half of the 17th century), people believed that Satan was very active and that witches made pacts with him, they would hand over their soul in exchange for supernatural powers. Witches had the ability to take the form of animals to help them perform their evil deeds. Witches also had the help of familiars. These were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist the witch. Familiars would often appear as animals and could even take the form of humans. It was vitally important to take steps to protect oneself and the family and to destroy witches and their familiars. The house had to be protected by day and night from these evil forms that would enter the home and cause harm to the family.
One important way to protect the home would be to conceal items within the wall, roof space, under the floor but quite often near points of entry, the door, window and chimney area. Concealed items included shoes, horse skulls, witch-bottles, dried animals such as birds, rats, mice and cats. These objects would have been hidden in secrecy because this itself was considered an act of magic and such beliefs were regarded as unlawful.
Mummified cats or “Dried Cats” as they are officially known were used across Europe. It is not known if these cats had died before or after concealment, but some had been placed in a position that looks like they are about to pounce, which must have occurred after death. Cats were regarded as possessing a sixth sense and would carry on hunting in the afterlife. Some cats have been found with a dried rat or mouse next to them, one cat even had a rat in its jaws. Cats have been found from the period when London was rebuilt after the Great Fire. Some of these cats were in building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and could have been put there by Wren’s masons.
As with cats, horses are believed to be able to see things on a spiritual plane and would be able to watch over the family and guide them from witches and spirits.
Wiltshire is well known for its southern chalk and northern rich pasture dairy land, and cheese production was once a well established part of Wiltshire life, from cottage industry to factory production. Chippenham’s cheese market opened in 1850, reported in the London Illustrated News and the market soon became famous. Wiltshire Cheese was renowned from the 18th century and became highly sought after. The Wiltshire Loaf is a semi-hard cheese, smooth and creamy on the outside and crumbly in the centre. The North Wiltshire (or Wiltshire) Loaf reached the peak of its popularity in the 18th & early 19th centuries.
William Nichols was a Chippenham Chemist who developed the use of the substance annatto as a food additive. Annatto comes from the achiote shrub seed and is produced in South America. You can still see it as the orange skin on some cheeses today, and it is used to give colour to dairy products.
The annual tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds’ or ‘perambulations’ has been carried out for many centuries in our parishes in England, Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the tradition was known as ‘Riding the Marshes’; a method of reaffirming the parish boundaries from way before the introduction of maps. In some parishes, this annual ritual is still very much part of village or town life. It is believed that this religious practice was first introduced in Vienne, France, around AD 470 by the Holy bishop Mamertus. There were many reasons for the ceremony but the parishioners believed that it would ‘avert great calamaties’. It would affirm their devotion to God; ask him for forgiveness from sins and for protection from evil and to bless the congregation and the fruits of their labour.
Other phrases were used for this ancient custom; ‘Rogation Week’ (from the Latin word ‘rogare’ meaning to ask or to pray), the ‘Common Walk’, ‘Gangdays’ and ‘going a- ganging’. Rogation Week is also known as Rogantide, the week in which Ascension Day falls in May, beginning with Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before Ascension Day. Religious ceremonies would take place over a period of three days of this week; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, involving the parish priest, churchwardens and other officiates of the church. Old parishioners mixed with the young to pass on the knowledge of the boundaries. The youngsters of the parish, usually boys, would be armed with long birch or willow twigs to beat the specific landmarks such as an old tree or stones. In some cases, the boys themselves were beaten with the sticks, so they should never forget the crucial information passed on to them by their elders. Usually, the boys would have their heads bumped against the boundary marker whilst prayers were read from the Litany of Saints. The girls and women would wear and carry garlands of flowers and foliage. The Milkwort flower (Polygala vulgaris) is also dubbed the Rogation flower and was often used in the garlands.
This printed account inside a parish register held in our archives at the History Centre, give details of the 12-14 mile route taken during the ceremony along the parish boundary of Leigh Delamere. The start of the route begins with; ‘from the old ditch on the Streta Fosseway. Here there is a cottage and a junction of a road to Littleton drew. The cottagers came out and joined in the short service, the sign of the Cross was made on the ancient roadway and the long walk began along the old Roman road...’
My previous blog looked at herbal lore with reference to wise women putting Wiltshire’s natural resources to good use. Even so, there was always the possibility, especially during the 17th century when even educated people believed in the dark arts, that they could be accused of witchcraft, and so I thought it would be timely to delve into Wiltshire’s past yet again; this time in hunt of witches.
Europe had fallen under the spell of what R. S. Holland calls ’witch mania’ in the 17th century, partly as a consequence of the reoccurrence of bubonic plague and also due to the rise of religious zeal in the Renaissance period. Men and women could be accused for many reasons: jealousy and spite, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being the victim to money or property grabbing friends or relatives, or trying to help a patient who unfortunately died of their illness when little was known about the true causes of disease.
Wiltshire’s Churchwarden’s Presentments offer a glimpse into the psyche of local communities at this time, although cases of suspected witchcraft had been presented as early as 1565 (D5/28/1) if not before. Those accused in the 17th and early 18th centuries included Margaret Pilton, 1613; ‘Goodwife’ Barlowe, 1630; William Starr, 1652; Joan Baker, Elizabeth Beeman, Anne Bodenham, Joan Price, 1653; Elizabeth Loudon, Christina Weekes, 1654; Margaret Gyngell, 1655; ‘Widow Orchard’, 1658; Jane Mereweather, 1655; Elizabeth Peacock and Jane Townsend, 1670; Elizabeth Mills, Ann Tilling, the appropriately named Judith Witchell, 1672; Elizabeth Peacock, Ann Tilling and Judith Witchell, 1685 (for the second time); M Parle, 1687; Christiana Dunne and Margaret Young, 1689; Ruth Young, 1698; Joanna Tanner, 1702.
The case of Widow ‘Goody’ Orchard of Malmesbury is described in R.S. Holland’s book ‘Legends & Folklore’, of which ‘extraordinary tales’ were told. Goody was fond of begging for scraps from door to door but had a reputation for threatening those who would not be charitable. Widow Goody came upon one such girl and was seen to pace out a circle around the cottage where the girl was residing. She sat in the middle of the circle and appeared to ‘mumble an incantation’. The procedure was repeated twice over. Not long after the girl’s hands seized up and Goody was detained. She maintained that bad water must have caused the disablement, and unfortunately offered to cure the girl by bathing her fingers whilst casting another spell! She was found guilty and hanged at Salisbury after the girl was cured.
Jane Townsend of Latton was accused of using a ’poppet’ (an English version of a voodoo doll) to cause harm to others, but another notorious case was that of Anne Bodenham who was accused of conjuring spirits. The original statement in the case was quoted in a book by Nicholas Crouch, published in 1688 and entitled ‘Kingdom of Darkness’.
Elder is the witch’s ‘particular tree’ and they were said to have lived in the tree at times and there was a superstition that the tree could bleed if it was cut down. Apologies would be made if cutting was attempted.‘Old gal, old gal, gi Oi yer wood, an’ when Oi be a tree, Oi’ll gi’ yer mine.’ You must never, ever fall asleep under an elder bush for fear of putting yourself under the power of a witch. Hawthorn was also a special tree to a witch but St. John’s wort was a great protector against witches, and pious people would often hang pieces of the herb over doorways on St. John’s Eve to keep witches away. The plant was also renowned for preserving you against tempest, thunderstorm and evil spirits in general. Called the ‘Rose of Sharon’ in Wiltshire, it was the ‘pleasant golden flower’ of the garden.
Cats are most well known as a witch’s accessory, but hares are also particularly noted in association with witches; did you know they too were also called ‘pusses’? (I didn’t!). Lyddie Shears from Winterslow was lucky to have been alive in the 19th century instead of the 17th, and was never tried for witchcraft, but she was reputed to have the ability to turn herself into a hare. This was supposedly discovered to be true when a local farmer shot a hare near Lyddie’s house with a silver bullet (said to destroy witches). Low and behold, Lyddie was discovered dead in her house with a silver bullet in her heart. Ravens were also said to be a witch’s favourite.
In times gone by, the Rev. W. Zapprell Allan of Broad Chalke claimed that there was no wise woman better than Old Dame Zargett with her knowledge of herbs and simples.
The most highly regarded of all the herbs were hellebore, rosemary, lavender, sage, comfrey, rue, wormwood, marjoram and vervain, with verbena, mint and chamomile following close on their heels. Kathleen Wiltshire, long-term resident of All Cannings, lists almost 60 in her book ‘Wiltshire Folklore’, available at WSHC, and I have listed just a few for you here.
Betony was the one herb not to be without. It is a woodland plant with purple-red flowers that bloom from June to September and, excepting the roots, the whole plant is of good use. ‘Sell your coat and buy betony’ is an old Wiltshire saying. It was said to have still surpassed modern drugs during WWII being especially helpful for the burns of RAF pilots.
I don’t know about you, but I usually try to avoid brambles, especially when picking blackberries, but they were very good at easing scalds. Just dip nine leaves in water and apply to the wound whilst repeating a chant three times to each leaf:
‘Three ladies came from the east,
One brought fire, and two brought frost,
Out with the fire, and in with the frost,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy ghost,
The bramble was considered to be a sacred plant, in the same vein as the rowan and oak. Brambles could also be used as a cure for whooping-cough if they were forming an arch with the tip of the arch sending down a new root. Initially the treatment was just to crawl under the arch, but it was later modified, usually by repeating the process nine times on nine consecutive days.
Fleabane does what it says on the tin! It was burnt to drive out fleas and other insects from the straw used on floors in rooms.
With the final of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing approaching, it seemed a good chance to explore the history of dancing in Wiltshire and the archival documents and historic photographs we have in our collections… there are some gems!
The English country dance was an ordinary, everyday dance, danced for pleasure, without ceremony and relatively easy to learn. Many people are familiar with country dancing from their school days, and it was an integral part of the social life of many English villages for several centuries.
Dancing often formed the focus of a community festival or celebration. A spring time festival known as ‘clipping the church’ involved parishioners assembling in the church yard, holding hands and enclosing the church before performing a short dance. This was sometimes performed by school children, including in Warminster, Trowbridge and in Bradford-in-Avon, where the Shrove Tuesday tradition continued until the mid-19th century.
Morris dancing was more ceremonial, spectacular and only performed by men. The first reference to Morris dancing dates back to 15th century, and by the end of the 16th century it had become particularly associated with May Day and village fairs and fetes.
Although Morris Dancing declined during the 19th century, this 1856 broadside advertising ‘Celebration of Peace’ in Salisbury, celebrating the end of the Crimean War included ‘Morrice Dancers’ as part of the procession.