Witchcraft

A Witchcraft Tour of England

Halloween is a great time to discover some of the places connected to England’s history of witch hunting and witchcraft and there are plenty of them 🙂

Alison Williams Writing

pendle witches

England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic for my novel  ‘The Black Hours’, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to…

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A visit to the Museum of Witchcraft

If you’re looking for somewhere different to visit this Halloween, and you’re lucky enough to be anywhere near beautiful Cornwall, then I recommend the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. This blog post is all about my visit.

Alison Williams Writing

Museum of Witchcraft

Nestled in the lovely village of Boscastle on the Cornish coast in a pretty white cottage is the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft. Step inside this quaint little building and you will find the world’s largest collection of witchcraft related artefacts.

The museum was opened in 1960 by Cecil Williamson, after a rather troubled history. Williamson had first opened a museum on the Isle of Man in 1951, the year in which the Witchcraft Act was repelled. The museum had a resident witch – Gerald Gardner. The two men wanted different things for the museum, so Williamson sold the building to Gardner in 1954 and moved on to Windsor and then to Bourton-in-the-Water in the Cotswolds. Unfortunately, the museum was not welcomed – Williamson received death threats and the museum was fire-bombed several times. Eventually he moved the artefacts to their current home in Cornwall.

This was not the end of…

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The Portrayal of Witches

With Halloween fast approaching and all those hideous witch costumes on display in the shops, I thought it would be a good idea to reblog a few of my posts this week about witches, witchcraft and the real stories behind the warts and the pointy noses. Enjoy 🙂

Alison Williams Writing

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble. 
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes. 

Macbeth witches

Most of us are familiar with these words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and with the gruesome hags that stir the cauldron. They have become the blueprint for the portrayal of witches; ugly, toothless old women; scheming, mysterious and powerful. But is it fair? And why do we see witches in this way – it can’t all be Shakespeare’s fault, can it?

Before the advent of Christianity there were many diverse religions – Druids, Norse Odinists and the witches that had for centuries acted as healers, midwives and wise women and men. However, when the Inquisition was launched, it wasn’t just direct ‘threats’ to the Roman Catholic Church that came under suspicion. Anyone could potentially be accused of heresy, and many of those healers and wise woman came under attack.

Propaganda…

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A Witchcraft Tour of England

pendle witches

England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to be spots where poor, misunderstood and persecuted women (let’s not forget that the majority of the witch hunt victims were women) can be remembered and honoured in some small way. These are the places I’d love to visit and re-visit.

The North West

300px-Pendle_Hill_Lancs

No witchcraft tour would be complete without a visit to Pendle Hill in Lancashire and it’s a great place to start. Pendle was the location of the famous 1612 trial for witchcraft. The accused all lived in the area, and ten were hanged on Gallows Hill. Of course, rumours now abound that the hill is haunted – TV’s Most Haunted has filmed there. As a sceptic I don’t believe that these women haunt the hill – I like to think they are at peace, free from the horrible persecution they suffered and no longer afraid. But I must admit I’m not sure I’d like to spend the night on the hill!

The North East

witch pricking

Margaret Brown and thirteen other poor souls were hanged on the Town Moor in Newcastle in 1650. Margaret was a victim of ‘witch-pricking’ – it was claimed she had a devil’s mark on her body that, when pricked by a pin did not bleed. She protested her innocence right up to the last according to Ralph Gardener’s 1655 book ‘England’s Grievance’:

“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution.”

The Town Moor is a place I’d like to visit, to pause for a moment and think about poor Margaret and the other terrified accused – hoping against hope that something would end their terror.

Yorkshire

mother shipton

I have heard a lot of stories about Mother Shipton and the ‘Petrifying Well’ or ‘dropping well’ in Knaresborough. It used to be believed that the water was magic – turning objects to stone. Now of course we know that the calcifying is due to the high mineral content of the water – but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. And Mother Shipton herself is an interesting character – allegedly born in a cave near the dropping well, she has become a legendary figure of folklore, renowned for her prophecies. There is a whole park devoted to her now, with the dropping well, cave, a museum, castle ruins and gardens. You can even buy a petrified teddy bear in the gift shop!

East Anglia

DSCF1380

This area was the stomping ground of Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General.  There are a wealth of places to visit – though few traces of the man himself remain. I’ve visited Colchester Castle and stood in the cells where Hopkins interrogated his victims (a very spooky and uncomfortable experience). I’ve also eaten dinner in ‘The Mistley Thorn’, a lovely pub that stands on the site of the inn where Hopkins set up his witch finding business and where he is rumoured to have lived. The food is lovely. I did get a bit freaked out when leaving though as we decided to go for a walk in the dark – and I have to say it was incredibly chilling to think we were walking where Hopkins may have walked. My imagination did get the better of me, but that might have been the wine.

 

The South

coven of witches

Burley is a very pretty village in the New Forest known for its connection with the witch Sybil leek. Leek moved to the area in the 1950s and opened a shop – ‘A Coven of Witches’ – still open in the village. There are now other shops in the village selling various witch-related items and a tea shop called ‘The Black Cat’. I’ve been to Burley several times and it is a really beautiful place – and a bit of light relief too!

The South West

Museum of Witchcraft

Two places of note in the South West – the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall and Exeter in Devon.

I won’t say too much about the Witchcraft Museum other than saying again how utterly fabulous it is – quirky and weird, packed full of witchcraft related stuff, but you can read about my visit here.

Alice Molland plaque

I regret not stopping in Exeter on my way to Boscastle as I would have liked to have seen the plaque at Rougemont Castle commemorating the execution of the Bideford witches and Alice Molland – you can find out about Alice here.

I know I have missed out some wonderful places but there are so many that it is hard to choose. And I know I have also ignored Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – I am planning separate posts on the history of witchcraft in these countries.

Do you know of any interesting places connected to witchcraft in England?  I’d love to know about them (any excuse for a holiday – I mean research!).

 

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be.

More tales of witchcraft and sorcery – Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester

Researching my novel ‘The Black Hours’ led me to discover many strange and horrifying stories of persecution, suspicion and murder, most of which seem hard to believe in this day and age. Much of my research centred on Essex, East Anglia and parts of Kent in the period that Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General and antihero of my book, was operating. However, there have been many other instances of accusations of witchcraft in the UK, from both before and after Hopkins’ horrible reign. Predictably, most of them centred on poorer, older women, outcasts or those on the edge of society. However, the rich and powerful didn’t always escape.

Eleanor Cobham was the mistress and second wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. In 1441, she was imprisoned for the impressive sounding crime of treasonable necromancy.

Eleanor Cobham

Eleanor Cobham

Eleanor’s downfall came about through her interest in both astrology and the monarchy. Her husband was the fourth and youngest son of King Henry IV by his first wife Mary de Bohun. His brother was King Henry V. When Humphrey’s older brother died in 1453, Humphrey became heir presumptive to the English throne. Eleanor, perhaps feeling that the crown was within her husband’s grasp, consulted astrologers Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke. They predicted that the king, Henry VI, would suffer a life threatening illness. Word of this reached the court, and the two men were arrested along with Eleanor’s personal confessor, John Home. Under interrogation, Bolingbroke named Eleanor as the instigator of their predictions. She was arrested and tried.

Although she denied most of the accusations, Eleanor did confess to obtaining potions from ‘the witch of Eye’, Margery Jourdemayne. She denied that these potions had anything to do with the predictions however, claiming that they were purchased in order to help her conceive. Poor Margery was also arrested.

Not surprisingly, as a woman of some power and influence, and being such a close relative by marriage to the king, Eleanor escaped rather more lightly than her fellow accused. Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, Southwell died in the Tower and Margery was burned at the stake. Eleanor was sentenced to carry out public penance, forced to divorce her husband and imprisoned for life. She died at Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey in 1452.

Eleanor carrying out her penance

Eleanor carrying out her penance

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.
Find out more about my editing services here.

Summer Solstice

‘As the sun spirals its longest dance,
cleanse us.
As nature shows bounty and fertility
bless us.
Let all things live with loving intent
and to fulfil their truest destiny.’

Wiccan blessing for summer

solstice stonehenge

Were you up early this morning watching the sun rise? If you were, you were joining hundreds of other people marking this year’s summer solstice.

The summer solstice happens when the tilt of the Earth’s semi-axis is most inclined towards the sun. In fact, the word ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin ‘solstitium’ which translates as ‘sun stands still’. On this day there are the most hours of sunlight – let’s hope this year’s solstice also marks the advent of some actual summer weather!

Humans have long been amazed by the power of the sun and light has a key role in many rituals, beliefs and superstitions. For Pagans in particular, this day has a particular significance. They believe that the Goddess (who they worship along with the horned God) took over the earth at the beginning of spring. The solstice marks the day when she is at her most powerful. Some Pagans believe the day marks the marriage of the Goddess and God – their union creating the abundance of the harvest.

Although they come together to celebrate life and growth at the time of the solstice, Pagans also recognise that the sun will now begin to decline, days will slowly get shorter, and we will edge slowly towards winter.

If you live in the UK, then you probably associate the summer solstice with Stonehenge. Many Pagans and, indeed, non-Pagans, gather at this ancient stone circle to watch the sun rise. The Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone are set just outside the main circle, and these stones align with the rising sun.

solstice henge 2

Although Stonehenge is the focal point for many, Pagans will gather outdoors to take part in rituals and celebrations that date back for thousands of years. These traditions have largely been forgotten or are now overlooked, but it is worth remembering that, although many were wiped from the history books once Christianity took hold, these ancient rites and beliefs were here long before the relatively modern Christian tradition. Because of the passage of time, and also because of the banning of many traditions and beliefs under Christianity, there is not much documented evidence of traditional celebrations marking Litha, or Midsummer, of which the Solstice is a part. There is some information to be found however; some of it, ironically, in the writings of monks.

One tradition that is known about is that of setting large wheels on fire and then rolling them down a hill into water. This may have been used to signify the fact that although the sun is strongest in midsummer, it will then weaken. Water also reduces the heat of the sun; subordinating heat (the fire) to water signified the prevention of drought.

wheelburning

The setting of hilltop bonfires was also a midsummer’s tradition, again linking fire to the sun and honouring the space between the earth and the sun. This tradition was brought to the British Isles by Saxon invaders celebrating the power of the sun over darkness.
Pagans today see the solstice as a time for focusing on inner lightness and power. Whether you are religious or not, Pagan, Wiccan, Christian or atheist, getting up early on the morning of the summer solstice and watching the sun rise is sure to fill you with awe. It is a tradition we should probably all embrace.

Witch Hunts – Alive and Kicking in the 21st Century

witch hunts

When researching ‘The Black Hours’ I was horrified to learn of the dreadful persecution of the vulnerable that allowed thousands of people to be tortured and executed on trumped up charges of witchcraft. But that’s all in the past isn’t it? People don’t behave like that anymore do they? Well, sadly they do. Even now, in the 21st Century, the old, the young, the vulnerable, those who have no protection or who live on the edges of society, are still being accused, tortured, beaten and murdered for crimes they cannot possibly have committed.  Here is a brief tour of the ignorance, cruelty and shame that is still going on.

Central African Republic: It is estimated that hundreds of people are convicted (that’s convicted, not just accused) of witchcraft every year.

Democratic Republic of Congo: As of 2006, it is estimated that between 25,000 and 50,000 have been accused of witchcraft. These children are known as enfants sorciers (child witches) or enfants dits sorciers (children accused of witchcraft). They are often subject to violent exorcisms carried out by religious pastors and are thrown out of their homes. It is believed that sometimes accusations of witchcraft are used as a way for a poor family to abandon children they cannot afford.

Gambia: in 2009, Amnesty International reported that 1000 alleged ‘witches’ were put into detention centres where they were forced to drink a hallucinogenic potion in order to secure confessions.

Ghana: So many women have been accused of witchcraft in Ghana that there are actually witch camps where they can go for safety, thought to hold around 1000 women. These women, mostly elderly, live in dreadful poverty, often without running water or electricity. An ActionAid report into the Kukuo camp states that the majority of women were accused of witchcraft after their husbands died – suggesting that an accusation of this type may be used as a way for families to take the widow’s property. In a quote that could have been written in 1647, Lamnatu Adam of women’s rights group Songtaba says that it is women who do not conform that are in danger of being accused of witchcraft:

‘Women are expected to be submissive so once you start to be outspoken in your views or even successful in your trade; people assume you must be possessed.’

(BBC News Magazine, 01/09/2012)

India: It is estimated that 750 people have been killed in witch-hunts in the states of Assam and West Bengal since 2003. Lynchings are often reported in the local press.

Kenya: On the 21st of May 2008, it was reported that at least 11 people accused of witchcraft had been burnt to death by a mob. The mob, comprised of up to 300 young men, hunted down and killed eight women and three men, most over the age of seventy.

Nigeria: Some 15,000 children have been accused of witchcraft. They may suffer horrible violence and exorcisms and mostly end up living on the streets. Lancaster-based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria has compiled reports of more than 250 cases of violence against children accused of witchcraft in Akwa Ibom state.

Papua New Guinea: In 2008 a local newspaper reported that more than 50 people had been killed for practising witchcraft.

Saudi Arabia: In 2006 Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali  was condemned to death for practicing witchcraft. In April 2009, Amina Bint Abdulhalim Nassar was arrested and later sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. She was beheaded in December 2011. And in June 2012, a Saudi man, Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded for sorcery and witchcraft. Few details of the cases are released by the Saudi government, but in the 2012 case, the defendant was found in possession of books and talismans, and also admitted committing adultery with two women.

Tanzania: in the Meatu district, it is estimated that half of all murders are witch-killings.

United Kingdom: On Christmas day 2010, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu died in a bath in Newham, east London after undergoing horrific tortures and beatings.  He had been visiting his sister Magalie Bamu and her partner, Eric Bikubi. The couple were apparently obsessed with kindoki (the word for witchcraft in their native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo) and accused the boy of putting spells on a younger child. A couple have been jailed for life for torturing and drowning a teenage boy they accused of being a witch. After the couple were convicted and sentenced, detectives said that other children in Britain had been subjected to terrible ordeals after being accused of witchcraft. Children’s charities have called for churches and carers to be more aware of this type of abuse.

It seems, then, that centuries later, there are people in the world who think the same way as Matthew Hopkins did, and there are still hundreds of people willing to back those views, often with the approval and help of the authorities, and continue the persecution, torture and murder of innocents. As always, it is the vulnerable and the powerless that suffer the most.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18503550

http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/Clinical-Programs/international-human-rights/upload/-1-Witch-Hunt-Brief-2.pdf

 http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/jan/24/witchcraft-children-congo-drc-poverty

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19437130

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/kenyan-witchhunt-leaves-11-burned-to-death/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1383732/Buried-alive-New-report-reveals-suffering-Nigerias-child-witches.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/19/gambia-witchcraft-hallucinogenics

http://www.unicef.org/wcaro/english/4501_5144.html

http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/mar/05/witchcraft-couple-jailed-for-life

The Pendle Witches – a high price to pay for some pins!

As mentioned before here on my blog, the characters in ‘The Black Hours’ are named after real victims of the witch hunts. Alice Pendle is an amalgamation of the first name of Alice Molland, a woman executed in Devon in 1685 (find her story here) and the location of a famous prosecution in 1612 in Pendle Hill in Lancashire.

300px-Pendle_Hill_Lancs

This trial and the subsequent executions are perhaps the most famous of the prosecutions in England. Many were accused in the interrogations that followed, including members of the same families: Elizabeth Southerns, a woman in her eighties (also known as Demdike, another name used in ‘The Black Hours’), her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device; Anne Whittle, also known as Chattox (the surname given to poor Mary, who suffers in childbirth in ‘The Black Hours’) and her daughter Anne Redferne. Others accused at various points were Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray, Jennet Preston (whose first name was used for Jennet Everard in ‘the Black Hours’), Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Brierly, Isabel Robey and Margaret Pearson.

Pendle

The trial of the Pendle witches was played out against a background of religious turmoil and intolerance, in a place with a strong Catholic background. Under Catholic Queen Mary, the people of Pendle were safe to follow Catholicism, but when Elizabeth came to the throne, Catholic priests had to go into hiding. In Pendle, and other remote areas, however, Mass continued to be celebrated, albeit in secret (leading to the use of priest hides, such as those in Harvington Hall.

Elizabeth was succeeded in 1603 by James I (James VI of Scotland). His ascension was met with hope by Catholics; however, these hopes were soon dashed. And King James also had a strong interest in witchcraft. He believed that witches had caused a storm that threatened a ship carrying him and his wife to Scotland.  He even wrote a book’ Daemonologie’, that instructed his subjects to denounce and prosecute any supporters or practitioners of witchcraft.

daemonologie

Into this atmosphere of religious intolerance, suspicion and superstition came Roger Nowell, Justice of the Peace for Pendle. In 1612 Nowell, along with other JPs in Lancashire, was instructed to compile a list of recusants in the area. These were Catholics who refused to attend the English church and take communion. While compiling this list, Nowell heard a complaint from the family of a pedlar, John Law, who claimed to be a victim of witchcraft.

According to John Law’s family, the poor man was ‘afflicted’ and fell to the ground after refusing to give Alizon Device some pins. This is the accusation that Nowell investigated, and in the course of these investigations, the two families were implicated. The Device family, Demdike, Chattox and Redferne were sent to Lancaster Castle to await their trial for witchcraft. In nearby Salmesbury, another JP, Robert Holden, arrested another eight suspected witches.

Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.

Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.

Of course, most of those accused never stood a chance of acquittal. Jennet Preston was charged with the murder by witchcraft of a local landowner and was tried first, at the York assizes. Apparently, the corpse bled fresh blood when she touched it. She was duly sentenced to death by hanging and was executed on the 29th of July 1612 on the Knavesmire, which is now the site of York racecourse.

At the Lancaster Assizes, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock and Isabel Robey  (who was from Windle, St Helens) were found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill. Elizabeth Southerns died while awaiting trial and Alice Gray was found not guilty.

pendle witches

Of the eight Salmesbury witches, five were released. The other three, Jane Southworth, Jennet Brierley, and Ellen Brierley were accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft, and the charges brought against them included child murder and cannibalism. However, under questioning, Sowerbutts admitted that she was lying, and all three were acquitted.

Margaret Pearson was acquitted of both murder and of bewitching a neighbour. She was, however, found guilty of bewitching a horse – a crime for which she was punished by being made to stand upon the pillory for four successive market days in Clitheroe, Padiham and Colne with a sign on her head stating her offence.

These trials are well documented and have spawned many books including Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Daylight Gate’ which is apparently being adapted by Hammer Films. A search for the Pendle Witches brings up a myriad of results; images, news articles, gift shops selling Pendle witches merchandise, even videos claiming ghostly sightings including ‘Most Haunted’ (watch if you dare!):

There is even a photograph of snow melting on Pendle Hill, seemingly making the form of a witch on a broomstick:

snow witch pendle

It seems then,  more than 400 years on, we are still fascinated by the tale of these poor accused ‘witches’, sacrificed in the name of superstition and ignorance, and all for the sake of a few pins!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wonderfull_Discoverie_of_Witches_in_the_Countie_of_Lancaster

http://www.visitlancashire.com/inspire-me/pendle-witches/the-story-of-the-lancashire-witches

Click to access isabel_robey.pdf

 

 

 

A visit to the Museum of Witchcraft

Museum of Witchcraft

Nestled in the lovely village of Boscastle on the Cornish coast in a pretty white cottage is the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft. Step inside this quaint little building and you will find the world’s largest collection of witchcraft related artefacts.

The museum was opened in 1960 by Cecil Williamson, after a rather troubled history. Williamson had first opened a museum on the Isle of Man in 1951, the year in which the Witchcraft Act was repelled. The museum had a resident witch – Gerald Gardner. The two men wanted different things for the museum, so Williamson sold the building to Gardner in 1954 and moved on to Windsor and then to Bourton-in-the-Water in the Cotswolds. Unfortunately, the museum was not welcomed – Williamson received death threats and the museum was fire-bombed several times. Eventually he moved the artefacts to their current home in Cornwall.

This was not the end of the troubles. In 2004 Boscastle was hit by flooding. The ground floor of the museum was filled with two metres of sewage, and walls were damaged. However, after months of painstaking salvaging, cleaning, restoration and rebuilding walls the museum reopened its doors. The flood line is marked on the walls for visitors to see.

4 R

The museum includes a display of images of witches. We have come to imagine witches as ugly old hags, toothless and covered in warts, cackling as they ride their broomsticks or stir frogs and newts into cauldrons. But the images on display in Boscastle have a different story to tell.  Alongside these ‘traditional’ images there are beautiful images of witches as seductive and mysterious, and some really interesting examples of witches used in advertising like this one for Pears soap:

pears soap witch

The display concerning the witch hunts was obviously hugely interesting for me, and extremely poignant. The horribly lengthy list of names of those persecuted is chilling; a stark reminder of the real lives that were caught up in the hysteria that swept through Europe, resulting in the murder of so many innocent people.

But this museum is not just a place of horror, torture and persecution, although there is plenty of that. The museum also has information and artefacts relating to sacred sites, the magic of Christianity, wise women and herbs and healing, protection magic, curses and divination. I found it really interesting to find out about how the pagan rituals and beliefs of early society were incorporated into Christian festivals – a very clever way of ensuring that the original beliefs were stamped out.

There is so much to discover at the museum that it is impossible to describe it all here. It is definitely well worth a visit. Details of opening times and admission prices can be found on the website here.

Spot the witch!!!

Spot the witch!!!

 

Britain’s Last Witch?

Today would have been the birthday of Helen Duncan, a woman widely known as the last person to be convicted of witchcraft in Britain – Google her name and that’s what you’ll see.  However, despite this modern myth, there are two things wrong with this assumption.

Helen was born in a small Scottish town in 1897. Once married, she supplemented her income from a part time job in a bleach factory by holding séances during which the dead allegedly appeared, walked and even spoke to their relatives. Helen apparently achieved this through producing copious amounts of ‘ectoplasm’ from her mouth from which the dead would emerge.

Helen Duncan with a roll of cheesecloth 'ectoplasm' coming from her mouth.

Helen Duncan with a roll of cheesecloth ‘ectoplasm’ coming from her mouth.

However, photographs of the séances show ‘spirits’ made of sheets, coat hangers and masks. A sample of ‘ectoplasm’ was analysed by Harry Price, director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, and found to be made from cheesecloth. You may think that those who paid Helen for her ‘gifts’ should have been more sceptical and that her activities would be a cause for concern, but it was not for this that she found herself in trouble.

'Spirits' emerging from 'ectoplasm'.

‘Spirits’ emerging from ‘ectoplasm’.

During the Second World War, Helen held séances in Portsmouth. On one occasion, she claimed that the spirit of a young sailor appeared and told her that he had died when the HMS Barham sank. The details of the ship’s loss had not yet been made public and had only been revealed to the relatives of the injured and deceased. It is possible, though, that these relatives told others and that Helen could have heard about it. It was this incident that drew the attention of the authorities – understandably they were concerned that confidential information could find its way into the wrong hands.

Helen was initially arrested under the Vagrancy Act. However, her actions were thought to be more serious than the act allowed for. The authorities turned to Section 4 of the 1735 Witchcraft Act – which, rather than being used to convict witches, was actually used to prosecute fraudulent spiritual activity. So Helen was not actually convicted of being a witch, or practising witchcraft; in fact she was convicted of completely the opposite – the act makes it a crime for someone to claim that anyone (including oneself) has magical powers or practises witchcraft. So Helen served nine months in prison not for being a witch, but for pretending to have magical powers.

The second issue with the claim that Helen Duncan was the last person to be convicted of witchcraft is that she wasn’t, in fact, the last person to be tried under the Act. In September 1944, 72-year-old medium Jane Rebecca Yorke was found guilty of seven counts under the Witchcraft Act. Due to her age she was fined rather than imprisoned. Her trial was brought because it was feared that she was defrauding concerned friends and relatives of those fighting in the war by claiming to be able to contact their loved ones. The Witchcraft Act then, rather than being a tool for persecuting witches, was an act that was set up in order to supress the superstitions and ignorance that had led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Neither Helen Duncan nor Jane Rebecca Yorke were accused of witchcraft and their stories have nothing to do with the terrible history of intolerance and superstition that cost many innocents their lives.

Photographs:

Harry Price. Leaves from a Psychist’s Case-Book (Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1933)

Harry Price (1931) Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship (Bulletin I of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, 120pp with 44 illustrations.)

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Duncan

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/jan/24/comment.comment3

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-18456106

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/modern/oddities_modern.shtml

http://writingwomenshistory.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/jane-rebecca-yorke-britains-last-witch.html