Monday, 27 October 2014

Witchcraft in Somerset

 Samhain, otherwise know as All Hallows Eve and most commonly Halloween, is
 one of the biggest festivals in the witches’ calendar, it marks the end of the 
Celtic old year and the start of the new. It is on this night that the veil between
 the world of the living and that of the dead is at it’s thinnest, allowing the souls
 of the departed to cross over. It is also the time that witches gather together 
 to celebrate one of their biggest sabbats. In medieval time on nights like this 
when witches were believed to be about, church bells would be rung to stop
 them flying over the villages and towns; all of the inhabitants would come out
 into the streets armed with hand bells, old pots and pans, anything that would
 add to the noise. It was believed that the noise of the bells ringing in the night
 would cause the witch to fall off her broomstick and fall to the ground.
 Belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout the county and according to an 
historical document written in 1681 Somerset was awash with witches; one
 could almost imagine the night skies filled with flying hags!
 Joseph Glanvil, a demonologist and clergyman living in Frome, gives a detailed 
account in his Sadducismus Triumphatus of the two great covens, one at Brewham 
and the other at Wincanton, situated just miles from Glastonbury, which was and 
still is the ancient seat of Pagan forces. 
 As well as the ringing and wearing of bells the people of Somerset took other steps 
to protect themselves against witchcraft as the many artifacts found will testify. 

A number of witch bottles have been discovered hidden in old buildings, these
 were a favourite tool to counter any evil spells. Anybody thinking they had
 been bewitched would fill the bottle with pins, their urine and nail clippings 
and then hide it somewhere, usually beneath the front doorstep or the fireplace. 
Bullocks hearts stuffed with pins were placed in chimneys to stop entry by a witch; 
horseshoes, often seen over doorways,were placed there to break the spell of an
 evil wisher and even animals, usually cats, were crucified in the roof space of
 houses. But the simplest witch deterrent was urine, it was sprinkled over the 
doorstep to prevent entry and in some cases sprinkled over people to prevent 

Less common was the finding of any witches belongings although an interesting
 discovery was made in Wellington in 1878 when workmen broke into a secret
 room in an old house  that was being demolished. Inside they found a Witch’s 
Ladder, an armchair and six well used brooms. The ladder, which is now in the 
Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, is a long length of knotted cord with feathers 
woven into it and would have been used to cast spells, usually a death spell. 
Strangely enough the room situated in the roof space was inaccessible from 
the main house but according to many, witches were able to fly by anointing 
themselves with ointment made of the fat of young babies, hemlock, aconite, 
poplar leaves and soot. 

It was also a common belief that witches were able to transform themselves by using 
a magical spell into ‘familiars’, a toad or frog but most frequently a hare.  

“ I shall go into a hare
With sorrow and such and muckle care
And I shall go in the devil’s name
Ay ‘till I come home again”

   There is a story of a witch in Wambrook, who having caused much trouble and 
strife in the area, was shot by a resident of the village. He spotted a hare running
 through the village and believing it was the witch who in the form of her familiar
 had been suckling milk from his neighbour’s cow  ran to get his gun. His first shot
 had no effect so he loaded his gun with silver pennies. With his second shot he hit 
the hare. Chasing it back to the old woman’s cottage  he found her crouched in the 
corner of the room with blood pouring from her leg. There are many tales of old 
women transforming themselves to escape pursuit; Black Smock Inn at Stathe was 
named after a witch who flew up the chimney and ran off across the moors in the 
shape of a hare, although she avoided the flames her clothing got scorched in the 
hot chimney. Mother Weller from Milborne Port was another witch who could 
transform at will but her favourite form was a toad. Greatly feared in the area she 
was known to possess the evil eye. Whole litters of pigs would die, horses would go 
lame and cattle would sicken and die; any misfortune that occurred in 
the area would be laid at her  door. She met her end at the hands of a disgruntled 
local farmer, who finding a toad sat in the doorway of her cottage stabbed it with
 a fork. Mother Weller was found dead the next morning with stab wounds in her back.

The strong belief in the power of ‘overlooking ‘or the evil eye formed the basis
 of many of  the witch craft trials that swept the country in the 16th and 17th century.
Mathew Hopkins was the most notorious Witch Finder General in Britain but 
Somerset had it’s own witch finder; Richard Hunt JP. He personally led a zealous
 hunt for eight years, tracking down ‘a hellish knot of witches’ in Somerset and 
presided over the  many cases of suspected witchcraft  brought forward at the
 Assizes  held in Taunton Castle. 
 Elizabeth Stile, a member of the Wincanton witches, was accused in 1665 of 
bewitching Elizabeth Hall into having such severe fits that she was unable to speak.
 Stile wildly confessed to having made a pact with the Devil. She was examined in
 court by five  women, two of which historical records show were professional 
witch finders. Known as ‘prickers’ they searched the accused’s body for witches 
marks; which would signify that they had been touched by the Devil. Any blemish, 
birthmark or spot would be suspect. Once a mark was found it would be pricked
 with a bodkin or needle to see if the witch could feel any pain. These people 
would travel from town to town to uncover witches for a hefty fee; one ‘pricker’ 
was reputed to earn 20 shillings for each witch that was uncovered. However they  
were not averse to falsifying evidence, some of the bodkins, a sharp instrument
 made for punching holes through cloth, and needles they used had hollow 
wooden handles and a retractable needle so although it looked as though the 
needle had entered the body it had in fact disappeared up into the handle. 
On being found guilty Elizabeth Stile was condemned to be hanged but thwarted 
her gaolers by dying a day before her sentence was due to be carried out.

One of the most bizarre case was that of Mary Hill of Beckington, who in 1689 
accused Elizabeth Carrier, an elderly women of bewitching her after she began 
to have severe fits during which she vomited up a number of strange objects.
 Beginning with pins then nails then within a month it progressed to handles of 
spoons, lumps of lead, iron, more pins tied up with thread and large nails. 
The woman she accused  were searched and found to have several witches marks. 
After being ‘cross bound,’ her right thumb tied to her left big toe, she was thrown 
into the river near the town.

  Ducking or ‘swimming the witch’ was another popular method in determining 
the guilt of a suspected witch. If she floated after being thrown into deep water 
it was a sure sign that she was a witch.  Margery Coombes and Ann More, both
 elderly woman, were also accused by Mary as she continued to vomit up strange 
objects.  Elizabeth Carrier died as soon as she was in prison but the other two 
were tried at the Assizes and acquitted due to lack of evidence.
Authorities were becoming increasingly sceptical of so called evidence but many
 maintained that Mary was possessed of a diabolical presence.

But of course the most well known witch in Somerset is the Witch of Wookey. 
According to locals the witch had been spurned in love and had retreated to the
 cave where she spent her time casting evil spells on the young of the village. 
In desperation they appealed to the Abbot of Glastonbury to rid them of the witch
 so a monk was dispatched to confront her. On seeing him she tried to flee her 
cave but the monk managed to sprinkle her with Holy Water as she rushed past, 
as soon as the Holy Water touched her skin the witch turned to stone and there 
she remains to this day.

Many innocent women were also accused of being witches, the exact amount
 executed vary wildly according to different historians. Elderly, single, infirm 
or simple, anybody that was outside the mainstream of village life, or even
 owning a pet was suspect behaviour. 
The so called wise women who were proficient in the use of herbs and midwives 
also began to fall under suspicion as well but by the late 17th century thanks 
to a growing scepticism, the cases of witchcraft began to decrease with the 
 Witch craft Act being repealed in 1736. The last case in Somerset was that of 
Maria Stevens in 1707 who was accused of bewitching Dorothy Reeves, she 
was acquitted after the judge and jury failed to believe any of the evidence.

 Contrary to popular opinion witchcraft is still alive and well in Somerset, although 
changed somewhat from the image of old, gone are the pointed hats and broomsticks. 
The modern day witch is usually a devotee of Wicca;  whose practices involves working
 in harmony with nature, magic, folk medicine, spiritual healing and shamanism.
 The popular Wytches Market held twice yearly in Glastonbury is a  testament to 
the enduring draw of this ancient and sacred site for all types of pilgrims, pagans, 
witches, druids and Christians alike. 

Just adding this postscript Feb 2017 as I have been kindly contacted by email with regard to the Elizabeth Stiles mentioned in the above post.
When writing the article I drew on various old documents and 'eyewitness' accounts, however there is always the problem of verifying the facts ( usually impossible due to the length of time that has expired) so it is always interesting to receive another version of events. So Samantha has kindly given me permission to add her comments onto this blog. If, like myself, you are interested in the history of witchcraft I am sure you will find this addition interesting.

"You might like to know that the accused witch Elizabeth Stiles of Bayford was never formally indicted.She was therefore not sentenced and we do not know where she died.There are no records of the trial at the Quarter Sessions and in fact we only have magistrate Robert Hunts word that the preliminary hearing later reported by Joseph Glanville actually took place.The reason for the reports may have been a complex interaction between Hunt and Glanville who were likely to have planned to use them to present to the Royal Society in an effort to bolster failing belief in witchcraft.Both were advocates of Natural Philosophy- which sought to explain magical power in the approaching Age of Enlightenment and scientific rationale."

Always happy to receive any comments from interested readers

1 comment:

  1. Dear Elizabeth
    I really enjoyed reading this detailed blog about the history of withcraft in Somerset.
    Many thanks
    Christopher 😀