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.
As many of you are no doubt aware, the Festival of Archaeology was held from 11th to 26th of July 2015. This celebration of the diverse and intriguing archaeology present in the British Isles was 25 years old, and comprised a series of events to allow people a chance to engage with all aspects of archaeology. As part of this, the Wiltshire Council Archaeology Team held two guided walks to explore different parts of the county, and to show off some of the spectacular sites that can be enjoyed here in Wiltshire!
The first walk was held on 11th July at Cherhill, which lies between Calne and Avebury, and principally investigated Oldbury Hillfort and the White Horse hill figure. The day dawned sunny and bright and a party of 30 or so enthusiastic visitors (complete with several dogs!) set off up the hill to explore the Iron Age hillfort and the surrounding landscape and monuments. The intrepid walkers learnt how the distinctive Cherhill White Horse is one of 13 such hill figures in Wiltshire but is the second oldest having been created in 1780, possibly to imitate the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire.
Once the steep climb to the top of the hill was complete, there was a discussion of the Landsdowne Monument, the 120ft high obelisk that many of you will have seen from the A4 Bath Road in your journeys across the county! This was built in 1845 by the Landsdowne family as an ‘eye-catcher’ to commemorate their adventurous relative, Sir William Petty, who made his fortune through trading, banking and ownership of land in Ireland during the 17th century. Looking down to the road also brought to mind the infamous Cherhill Gang; a group of notorious highwaymen that robbed stagecoaches in the 18th century. The group were amused to learn that the robbers carried out their crimes entirely naked so as to conceal their identity – but even this didn’t prevent them from being caught and executed at Devizes!