Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing
Mark Burrows looks at how Dorset dealt with ‘witches’ in the 16th and 17th centuries
Published in February ’17
Even deep into Queen Victoria’s reign, objects were inserted into chimneys or sealed inside wall and ceiling cavities by the superstitious. This was practised to bring luck or specifically to protect against witchcraft. Bottles of potions were concocted to counteract malevolent spells; cats were strategically entombed to deter witches’ familiars from entering within. Portland Museum displays three mummified cats plus some children’s shoes discovered in the tell-tale loci of properties that suggest their deliberate placement for such purposes. It had been thus for centuries.
First published in 1487 Germany Malleus Maleficarum (which usual translates as Hammer of Witches) was one of several reasons ‘witches’ were persecuted in late medieval Europe. Britain mercifully lagged behind Europe in such slaughter. Henry VIII’s Act of 1542 introduced the first serious attempt to tackle perceived sorcery and witchcraft, spawning successive Acts of generally increasing rigour until the Witchcraft Act of 1735 marked a significant reversal of this trend. The surge in accusations that began here in the 16th century continued into the 17th. By involving the three witches, Shakespeare’s Macbeth reflected the heightened preoccupation with witchcraft following James I’s 1603 accession and his published treatise, Daemonologie. Some of the surviving legal documents detailing Dorset’s witch examinations from these centuries are extensive.
Lacking in most, however, is information about the outcomes – though in some cases we can make plausible guesses not least because the last executions for witchcraft in England took place in 1682.
Agnes Mondaye was arrested in 1565 for bewitching Mistress Chettell, and in the same year a Mother Waterhouse was also accused. The following year John Walsh of Netherbury underwent examination, and allegations against Ellen Walker and John Meere were made in 1569 and 1585 respectively. In the Lyme Regis area it was recorded that ‘We do find that Johane Ellesdon, widow, upon her othe, hathe declared before us that Ellen Walker is a wytche, and that she will approve, and also that James Lugbase, upon his othe hath declared before us, that the said Ellen Walker did saie unto the saide Johane Elsdon, that she could witche her no more.’
Before the Bishop of Exeter’s commissary, John Walsh admitted that he performed both ‘physic and surgery’ for the sick. Walsh initially insisted that his form of medicine was an art devoid of ill or secret means, and additionally that he had no familiars. There can be little doubt that Walsh’s subsequent and elaborate confession had been invented under duress to stop the torture inflicted to extract it. His description of the ‘kindes of Feries, white, greene, & black’ with whom he professed to cavort would not at the time have been dismissed as nonsensical ramblings. Walsh confessed to having a familiar – a peculiarly English notion – that variously took the form of a pigeon, a dog or a man who appeared normal except for cloven feet. Witches, their familiars and shift-shaping were realities for the general public. Despite Walsh referring to his knowledge of harming people by using a toad or models of wax and clay he was probably spared the death penalty: church courts were more lenient than secular versions, and Walsh had not been deemed to have harmed any person or animal.
In 1605 South Perrott healer Jone Guppie was scratched and pricked in the face by Margaret Abington and her sister Judith Gibbs. Accompanied by two armed men they had ambushed Jone in Dorset on her way to Crewkerne. After being pulled off her horse and accused of witchcraft Jone fled for her life, and to prevent further assaults she and her husband filed a complaint. Under oath, defendant Judith Gibbs claimed that for several years she had been ‘tormented with strange swellings and hardness within her body for the curing whereof her friends spent much tyme and coste upon learned doctors and other physicons without any help or hope’. With contemporary medical knowledge so limited it should be unsurprising that these physicians had ultimately concluded her illnesses to be caused by witchcraft. Further, the two sisters claimed amongst a catalogue of other accusations that drawing drops of Jone’s blood had ‘amended in [Judith Gibbs] said swellings and greife of her body’. To such a magnitude was the finger pointed that an escalating vendetta was probably behind this. Jone had previously angered Gibbs by refusing to use her skills to alleviate the latter’s symptoms. Ironically the counter-accusations of the defendants might have proved fatal for Jone but for a statement signed by the rest of the small community insisting that far from harming anyone she had done many people much good.
An incident at a Lyme Regis bakery in 1698 sparked the events culminating in accusations against Anne Traull and Margaret Wray. Traull had been suspected of stealing some dough by fifteen-year-old Frances Callway at her family’s business. Her parents testified that Traull had not only advised Frances that she should not have made the accusation but also threatened to do her harm. Within hours, it was claimed, Frances felt dreadful pain. Eleven days later she began suffering violent fits and struggling with a terrifying apparition invisible to everyone else. The physicians who examined Frances told her parents ‘they could do their daughter no good by reason it was not a natural distemper’. Other significant factors in this case contributed to the defendants’ committal to gaol while awaiting trial. It was believed that by pricking a witch one could break the affliction-causing spell as demonstrated in the Guppie case. Conversely an obsession with witches pricking their victims abounded, and Frances claimed that apparitions of the defendants appeared to her ‘like Lions sometimes pinching and at other times pricking her’.
That supposed bedridden victims claimed to see apparitions of those bewitching them is also cited in the earlier case of Deanes Grimmerton. Whether or not the victims were claiming to experience what they determined they should either through malicious scheming or by psychological phenomena is unclear. It might be that a frightened Frances Callway reacted hysterically with what is now called a conversion disorder: fear can induce physical symptoms entailing pain, excessive convulsions or paralysis, and occasionally hallucinations. There is, though, a third possibility. The consciousness of sleep paralysis is a state between wakefulness and sleeping. During such episodes one is prone to vividly realistic and terrifying hallucinations that most commonly take the form of a figure by the bed or holding the perceiver down. Latterly often aliens or ghosts, way back visitors included succubi and winged demons. Sleep paralysis hallucinations during Renaissance Europe would have conjured up witches.
Pipe-smoking wife Deanes Grimmerton was accused by Richard Scorch of bewitching his eighteen year-old son, Nathaniel, at Lyme Regis in 1687. Minutes after returning from a sea voyage Scorch witnessed his son’s symptoms for the first time: violent fits requiring up to eight people to hold Nathaniel down. Complaining of being pricked, pins were found in bed around Nathaniel’s body without having caused bleeding. Nathaniel too reported seeing visions of the accused, describing an attire conforming to 17th-century conceptualisation of a witch’s costume. He wasn’t alone in reporting visitations from Deanes – and would likely have known it. A few years earlier eighteen year-old Elizabeth Tillman, possibly an epileptic, had died after displaying similar symptoms to Nathaniel for three years. These included apparitions of Deanes sitting on her bed or holding her down.
Although black magic was widely feared most accusations stemmed from commonplace neighbour disputes or the propensity to attribute misfortune to scapegoats. Certainly nothing supernatural occurred, and the determinants of reported symptoms are matters for conjecture. The 1638 Wareham examination of Mary Shepherd provides another representative case. Joane Coward testified that after one of her stockings had been pulled down by the accused she suffered paralysis of her limbs, being unable to ‘stur hand or foot’. Joane quickly recovered after the mayor had intervened by ordering the accused to shake her hand. Following a relapse Joane again recovered after Mary Shepherd was summoned and ‘pulled (her) by the hands’. This bizarre testimony might not in itself have been sufficient for Mary to be committed to trial. But there was more. Local spinster Ann Trew testified that she had witnessed Mary pull a legging onto Ed Gillingame who ‘fell instantly both lame and sick’. Crucially we don’t know if the second victim was aware at that time of the first’s accusation and symptoms but can assume it likely in a small community.
Frances Callway’s alleged symptoms included vomiting several crooked pins and part of a needle. This would have complied with what a victim of witchcraft was expected to do. Following Dr John Cotta’s similar manual of 1616, Dr William Drage published in 1665 a book widely consulted by physicians entitled, Daimonomageia: a Small Treatise of Sicknesses and Diseases From Witchcraft. Drage specifies the vomiting of crooked nails, pins and needles as symptomatic of being bewitched. He adds, ‘A Physician of my Acquaintance told me he examined strictly Eye-Witnesses ….. and where it was a report, that a Maid bewitched, vomited ..… Hair, Needles, Pins, and they assured him of the Truth, that it was so; and the like have I heard of some tried formerly at some Assizes of this Kingdom’. Another key symptom emphasised by Drage is ‘convulsions of the whole Body by intervals’. If the witchcraft victims of Dorset and elsewhere had reacted or been reported as reacting in a manner consistent with being bewitched it should be clear that they would have been familiar with how to do so, whether wittingly or otherwise.