Throughout history witches, from the old English wicca for the masculine and wicce feminine, have been revered and feared. Wise women who were able to heal and accordingly appeared to have knowledge beyond the understanding of others were sometimes considered a threat as they were ‘different’ and possibly rebellious and needed to be castigated accordingly. This was especially true when Christianity began to spread its wings, as the power of these ‘witches’ seemed to emanate from somewhere other than God. Witches were sometimes assisted in their work by ‘familiars’ who were generally animals of some description and explains why witches are so often associated with cats who are themselves of course independently minded creatures!
Prince Rupert the royalist general who is not traditionally thought of as dabbling in the occult, had a large poodle named Boye, who would accompany him into battle. Boye was greatly feared by the parliamentarian army as he was credited with supernatural powers. If one were to conjure up the thought of the most evil dog imaginable, a poodle has to be the last one to spring to mind. However, when the war was over, Boye was shot apparently with a silver bullet.
Witch hunters employed several tests to discover witches. The suspects would be stripped, often in public as this provided entertainment for the masses, and checked over for birthmarks as these were considered to be the marks of the devil. They would be cut, as it was a well known fact that witches did not bleed, blunt knives were often used to prove their guilt. Another test was to tie the right thumb and toe together and then throw the victim in a pond or river. If they floated they were obviously rejecting the water of baptism and were accordingly guilty, if they sank however they were innocent. They might have been dead of course, but at least their soul would have gone to heaven happy in the knowledge of being guilt free.
Witch hunts first became prevalent in southern France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th century, but probably the most famous was in Salem Massachusetts in 1692 where 150 people were arrested and tried for witchcraft. 29 were found guilty and 19 hanged. One man who refused to enter a plea, had a wooden board placed on top of him onto which stones were piled in an attempt to persuade him. He refused to answer and was crushed to death.
Although in the popular imagination burning was the best way to execute witches, in actual fact, more were hanged. Admitting guilt was the best way to avoid death, as it was then possible to obtain absolution via a trip to a convent or a monastery. Part of the deal was to name other witches who were themselves arrested and tried. After torture it’s no surprise that many confessed and named others simply to save themselves. Arthur Miller’s masterpiece The Crucible was based on the Salem witch trials and mirrored in so many ways the wicked events of the McCarthy hearings of 1954. Simply substitute the word communist for witch and you get an idea of how events were conducted.
In August 1605 King James 1st paid his first visit to Oxford and at St John’s College he was treated to a small play written in Latin by Mathew Gwinn a former fellow of the college. During the play he was greatly impressed when he was addressed by three witches. Some say that his enthusiasm for this performance encouraged Shakespeare to write Macbeth where the three witches of course have a pivotal role. James1st of England who was also James V1 of Scotland, had a great interest in witchcraft and attended the North Berwick Witch trials where Agnes Sampson was accused of using witchcraft to summon up storms against James’s ship. He is also known to have personally supervised the torture of witches.
A quick search on the internet throws up lots of intriguing tales of witches. As mentioned in my first blog, one of my favourites is Lady Tanfield an unpopular landlady from the 16th Century whose fiery chariot was seen to fly across the rooftops of Burford in her never ending quest to “grind the people of Burford to powder beneath her chariot’s wheels”. If that weren’t bad enough, her ghostly chariot was said to be accompanied by an ominous dark cloud. If this cloud were to envelope you, it was said that your mind would be sucked out and you would be rendered insane!
Those of you interested in hunting down some witches artefacts should pay a visit to the excellent Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Amongst their fascinating collection, you’ll find a witch’s ladder, a rope with feathers and the victims hair woven into it, which would be hidden under their bed and would apparently make them ill. A bottle that holds a trapped witch is also on view, could this be the same type of bottle that holds the spirit of Lady Tanfield herself, and is currently lodged under Burford Bridge?
Witches are an intriguing subject and in the old days were a handy scapegoat for Man’s misfortunes. We human beings like to have someone to blame when things go wrong, if there were no witches we would have needed to invent them. Nowadays we have other scapegoats, religion, politics, foreigners the list is endless!