People without a Parish

Witchcraft : a Somerset thing

Old memories and forgotten Churchyards

f anyone desires a journey into witchcraft,there will be few places better to begin than Somerset.Better,because the evidences are recorded in fine detail over a lengthy period of history with annexed background documentation supporting both factual and folklorist accounts.Here also we encounter acute problematics,for it is this documentation that suggests the unthinkable-that the stories haunting folklore,of pernicious hags,men in black clothes and pictures in wax,may be of witchcrafts not ended at the hangmans noose in those terrible times.If the doings of these wretches can be dismissed as forming principal elements of an hysteria that swept Europe in its early modern period,we can rest easy.

However,when those same elements continue to instill fear into villagers some 400 years down the line,when folklore and superstition become actual belief,when locals refuse to accept official records in favour of a darker oral history,then we cannot rest at all.Such unrest can be found today around the area of Lansdowne generally known as the site of the final phase of the Civil War in 1643 rather than holding any connection to witchcraft.

Here I was assured that the small village of North Stoke in the valley below the high hills that once saw encampments of Parliamentarian troops,was 'cursed'.Specifically this occured due to the post-Civil War land there which,being obtained through 'greed' had left others homeless and in dire poverty.An intrinsic element of a genuine Curse is longevity so a warning in modern times not to live in North Stoke because "no marriage or relationship will last there" was not entirely surprising.Presumably the curse was from a witch although my informant-a local Horse Whisperer,seemed reluctant or unable to furnish further details during a coversation perhaps belonging more to the 1600s rather than the summer of 2018.

The spectre of witchcraft holds incumbency at several villages between coastal Exmoor in the west across to the old forest region north-east in the county.It is a wraith felt though not as easily seen,unless one is fortunate enough to have had first-hand experience afforded by the locals themselves and been given access to otherwise inaccessible documents,original depositions and transcriptions relating to 'vile vvitchcrafts maligning the community'.Alongside,I am entirely indebted to the kindness of those keen to furnish me with precise identification of places referred to in the so-called Witch Trials,as well as hitherto unknown haunts of the witches and interpretation of their sayings and doings.In asking for nothing in return,my oath was to conceal such precise location,names of traceable descendants as well as actual village names in respect of their privacy which otherwise might be invaded by hordes of Pentagram wearing wannabees or crowds of paranormal sensationalists.In true witchcraft loyalty,those people will not be betrayed here.

 Written sources concerning witchcrafts in Somerset past are numerous.In general we are indebted to Ruth Lyndall Tongues Somerset Folklore  for its wide collection of stories,but for most,Joseph Glanvilles Saducismus Triumphatus  has been foremost in detailing the accounts of the Wincanton trials of 1657-1665.Always cited and therefore in error,Glanvilles trial transcript was in fact corrupted and is not faithful to Magistrate Robert Hunts original document.[SRO DD/DT Acc:C/685]which contains vital information appertaining to the depositions given in the Brewham case.

C.Somerville Watson himself deposited a lengthy but racey poem offering an alternative fate for Elizabeth Styles& the 1923 Somerset Year Book ,whilst Somerset&Dorset Notes&Enquiries  contains important local narratives on witchcraft of the area in the 19thC.More specific details and evidences of persons indicted can be seen amongst lists in Dwellys Hearth Tax Exemption Certificates. However,factual records regarding many of the most notorious of those charged with witchcraft are scarce,or have ceased to exist-sometimes having disappeared in  most mysterious circumstances.Ironically,such key documentation said to have been lost or accidentally destroyed has simply fuelled local fires already ablaze with doubts concerning official local histories.Finally on source material,I have also turned to an excellent article on the Somerset Witches given in Arddhu's Legacy  magazine[Yule 2002]written by a lady with an impressive knowledge of local folklore and superstitions.

The old Somerset witches invariably used the same place in which to perform their'vile deeds' though were want to travel further abroad when exacting preliminary meetings.'Over the ditch' is a local expression meaning over the county border,generally into Dorset.Interestingly,it is a saying once used by witches themselves in analogy of crossing over into the otherworldly realms.We know that some of those accused of conspiring with the Stoke Trister witches were not residents of the area but had travelled from other parts of England.Virtually all were male and records indicate they were drawn from groups of wandering farm-hands who travelled from county to county in search of agricultural work.It may not be entirely surprising then,with the economic importance ascribed to these labourers,that records show no formal indictment of such persons even though cited in preliminary accusations.

Rev.Barnes in Dorset Notes  tells us that the Somerset witches came down to Leigh Common to hold meetings in an area called 'Witches Corner' and holds this as 'proof' of the accusation against Elizabeth Styles and her cohorts.In the same paper he gives an account of the nearby 'Miz-Maze'-labyrinths cut into the turf and often refered to as of 'Troy'.This led to speculation that the mazes were ground-plans of the ancient city,which says Barnes,came about from a misunderstanding of the welsh Troi  meaning simply a turning or winding.However,and despite Barnes refusal to believe the maze was used for anything other than 'Merry-making by local young men perhaps on May Day',this has not stopped local insistence it was once used in heathenish ceremony before ending up a prime meeting point for witches.Certainly,depositions given at the Wincanton Trial confirm witches would travel to meet if necessary.Motcombe,just over into Dorset gets special mention as a meeting place and the whole area between there and Stoke Trister is still designated by some locals as 'Lost Country' ie. 'lost' to witches. 


Witchcraft has always been important as it provides explanations that alleviate the mystery of misfortune,suffering and illness that might fall upon a community.Early studies in anthropology illustrate the universal belief that witches 'steal' other peoples good fortune or health by magic tricks.Thus,according to Pascal Boyers interpretation,witches are 'cheats' who try to reap benefit at no cost through the medium of other peoples misfortune.The witch gains from the deprivation afforded by evil spirits who act as agents of unfair deals.Witchcraft does not really belong to the domain of religion but its presence indicate religious agents are active.[Why do Gods and Spirits matter?In Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion Continuum 2002.Ed.Pyysiainen&Antonen]These agents were active even without the physical presence of witches simply because people knew more about the causal effects of malefic spirits from hearsay and church instigated finger-pointing than from experiential encounters.

Despite this,fear of witchcraft and of the spirits operational within its necrotic and ruining effects upon the community as a whole,swept into rural areas sometimes as a tempest,and often remaining like a stagnant air hovering menacingly nearby.How near no-one seemed quite sure but we can surmise it close enough to fuel those who were to preach and warn against it.
What is certain is that witchcraft once inaugurated changed the spiritual geography of a locale,first by stealth then finally by brute force inversion of sacred spaces ironically enabled by those who had carried the assumption it was already there.[A fine treatment of sacred place function and belief is Sacred Place Ed.Holm&Bowker Continuum 1994]

One of the earliest accounts of witchcraft  in the county was that of Christian Shirston.In 1530 at Castle Cary she had been refused milk and ale on two seperate occassions,thereafter the owners cow produced only blood and water and gave no milk,whilst the owner of the ale found it boiled away into nothing.Similar charges were brought against Catherine Axford at Mere in 1561-4{Dean of Salisbury court records cit.D/5/21/1}In such accounts caution is urged as beggars were often accused of being witches in order to escape criticism of inhospitality towards unfortunates.That current social stigma had a parallel apologetic in accusations of lunacy directed at waifs and strays knocking at doors or begging at fetes and fairs by those too miserly to offer handout.In 1653 at Glastonbury,Elizabeth Castle** threatened those who refused to 'borrow or buy' from her.To one she chillingly remarked 'I have seen the fall of three already'.

This inherent possession of the ability to curse both audible and silently no doubt lay behind the dread of the Hinton woman Elizabeth Busher.Indicted at the Somerset Quarter Sessions in 1612 the records state her 'Feared to be a dangerous witch..' Those same Western Circuit hearings pronounced the non cul verdict on other indictments during the period including the case of the three Harris sisters who were lucky to escape several charges of injury by witchcraft.

As the years rolled on toward the so-called Age of Enlightenment it is true that accusations of this type saw decline.In the period 1575-1600 the cause of death by 'Blasting'(Bewitchment)had dispatched 1% of the populace.By 1635 this had dropped to 0.8% and by 1800 had ceased to appear in the records as a cause of death.The same cannot be said of 'Lunacy'.In 1629 0.5% were recorded with death 'Lunacy related',by 1679 this fell slightly at 0.4% before rocketing to a startling 8% of the population of London in 1835.Such data inevitably orchestrated attempts to interpret the witch trials-and witchcraft per se using psychopathological analyses and whilst this approach had been popular over the last two decades,today it is in decline due to its unreliability.[Criticisms of the Psychopathological Interpretations of Witch Hunts Thomas J.Schoeneman]

Owl-Blasting was also called 'Over-Looking'(or 'wishting') in Somerset and is more commonly known as 'having or giving the evil-eye'.As late as 1870 a man was charged at Wincanton with stabbing a young girl called Mary Crees for 'overlooking him'.Just one year later,William Higham,again at Wincanton stabbed Anne Green because she had bewitched him and this was his way of breaking her spell.Oddly both victims were lacerated only on their arms.At East Wells in 1655,Jane Redwood fell into the old witch category of being an 'Unfortunate',that is one who brings misfortune and ill-luck.[Som.Rec.Soc.vol.28 Iv]

Literature from the period 1615-1690 indicates the Owl and its iconic witchcraft partner the Hare were of interest to readers.Within that period other popular subjects included necromancy,evil spirits,cursing,the Herbalist and Enchanter-all having attained to the pinnacle of their mention within literature.In understanding the modes of 17thC religious thought it is crucial to point out how non-belief in the Devil was tantamount to denial of the God that combated him.By 1645 Christian inspired polemics had elevated satan through personification and we then fully encounter 'Satan'-enemy of God.In turn this paradigm ordained a certain requirement of belief in the existence of the Witch,seen as in league with the Devil and operating her malefic power through the agency of evil spirits.

The Witch is more popular than the Devil in 1610-20 literature but the old adversary had regained control of the writers pen by 1680.By 1720 interest in both the Devil and Witch rapidly declined and by the early 19thC both received minimal literary coverage.(Data supplied by by Google Ngram)


E.O.Begg collected some interesting stories from Exmoor locals in 1945.Of interest here is his account submitted to the Folklore Society which concerned a family called Sloley.Consisting of two sisters and their brother,the Sloleys slotted neatly into the historical accounts of old witch malefics,turning up at fetes and fairs to curse those who crossed them.Using the now mandatory formula of enchantment by remark,the family were regularly accused of Overlooking with one of their victims claiming they had sent toad familiars onto his land,blighting his crops and livestock.This then at Porlock in the 1890s.The village has also been associated with Pope-another family of similar persuasions and the area brought an observation by J.Lloyd Warden-Page in his Exploration of Exmoor (1895) wherein he remarks how he had "lately met with an astonishing instance of belief in witchcraft" there.J.J.Hissey felt the same thirteen years on.In An English Holiday  he wrote "From what I have gleaned(on Exmoor)they hold a lingering belief in witchcraft"

F.T.Elworthy found 'overlooking',that art of visually guided cursing peculiar to witches,an extermely popular belief in Somersets rural areas:'Here in Somerset,the pig is taken ill and dies...he was overlooked'[The Evil Eye  London 1895]Such matter of fact statements perhaps reflect how entrenched popular belief was and there appears little to demarcate the boundaries seperating fact and accepted truth.Elworthy continues:'A murrain affects a farmers cattle...he goes off to the witchfinder-these farriers aint no good'.

Remaining in that period,local newspapers in 1907 had made report of 'two men apprehended for witchcraft' at Crowcombe,a small village on the Quantock Hills with a history of witchcrafts and strange happenings.Five years later,a Dodington man was able to recount how a wicked old witch would fly over the Quantocks on a broomstick during November nights[Owen Davies Witchcraft,Magic and Culture 1736-1951 Manchester UP 1999] First recorded in 854 as Cerawicombe,the name-despite the crow icon that welcomes visitors upon its road signs,is likely not connected to that bird but derives from the Carew family(the village pub is the Carew Arms)However,this would probably not have stopped locals carrying an onion in their pocket to protect them from the crows who were regarded a bird of ill omen.

As this village,its church and local woodland holds a considerable amount of folklore,it will be worthwhile to look at in more detail later.In regard to words,names and other terminologies,one should always be aware of how the English language has evolved to conceal original meaning at times.This is evident in respect of the Shakespearian era where,it was pointed out to me by a scholar of that period,names still in current usage today often had different meaning when viewed in specific context.An example is 'Band' which in Ye Olde days could mean 'a Contract' or group of renegade soldiers.Specifically this word is one to feature prominently in the Wincanton depositions regarding the 'Man in black clothes' whom those accused were convinced was the Devil.As witches were often accused of making infernal Pacts,the inclusion of this word within the narratives cannot be easily dismissed as being employed coincidentally.Like Crowcombe and other specifics,we need to look into the Wincanton affair in more depth.

     Updated,re-evaluated and new information:  April 15 2022



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