Witches of old may have been persecuted and condemned by the church before being passed over to civil authorities for execution but, in more enlightened times, they occasionally found themselves in a position of some favour by those in need. In the 19th century, one such ‘wise woman’ received a discreet Royal Command no less! That person happened to be an old woman living in the Norfolk Village of Flitcham and was considered by some to be a witch while others thought her a ‘wise woman’. As the writer, Walter H. Barrett put it:
“……not only was she supposed to have the power of putting a curse on people, she was also reputed to have a vast knowledge of herbal cures when other remedies failed. She would wander miles in search of a certain herb she required. Lots of folk sought her aid when they needed a ‘starter’ or ‘stopper’ in times of distress.”
All this has the ingredients of a very curious story; what with a wise woman, or witch on one hand, and a Prince on the other hand. That Prince was none other than Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, who later was to become King Edward VII. He was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert who fondly called their son ‘Bertie’, as did the rest of the family. It was said that Bertie was a privileged lazy individual; he was easily bored and uninterested in serious matters; instead, he took pleasure in the social and pleasurable aspects of life. His infidelities, without putting too fine a point on them, began in the first years of his marriage. The fact was that he loved women and found beautiful intelligent women irresistible.
It is said that amongst all his titles that he held, one was called “Protector of the Craft”; a title assumed to refer to Freemasonry in which he was a leading light in forming that organisation into what it is today. However, if the scribes of the time had made a better job of recording the significance of such a title, in other words, if they had recorded the facts, then the appellation of “Protector of the Craft” may not have applied to Freemasonry at all – would it be possible for it to hint at the crafts of ‘wise women’ of which the nearby village of Flitcham certainly had one?
It should be remembered that when the Prince bought Sandringham in 1863, he expelled “several wise women” who lived in a group of cottages there which he had torn down and replaced by modern ones for his servants. Only one old “wise woman” was allowed to remain near the Estate; it was further said that the Prince’s Agent dared not remove her! That woman’s name, was never recorded; however, it was known that she was a herbal medic, an abortionist and a practitioner of the use of Rue Tea. All this indicates that the cures and craft of the ‘old wives’ or ‘wise women’ of the area were respected and indeed used by the highest in the land – when nothing else would work! This ambivalent attitude in law of the upper classes to many things is probably something one might expect from any privileged class.
However, that apart, our story says that in 1880, Bertie was taken ill and he lost much of his usual ‘energy’ – certainly for his two beloved hobbies; one was his stud of thoroughbred horses on the Sandringham Estate, the other was the thoroughbred ladies he entertained inside his grand House. They were there, as Walter H. Barrett further put it:
“As a result of having to keep one eye on the brood mares in the stables, and the other eye on the females inside the house……., (unsurprisingly perhaps) his health broke down. He was very ill for a considerable period”.
Bertie’s wife, Princess Alexandra, consulted with her sister-in-law, the Grand Duchess Olga of Russia. The topic discussed was said to be about what could be done to get Bertie back on his feet and active again. Both women could see that the preferred medicines and efforts prescribed thus far had not been up to the job; both women agreed that another opinion should be obtained; also, the only other possible solution to the Prince’s problem was maybe a combination of the Danish faith in the supernatural and the longstanding Russian belief in sorcery and black magic. As things were to turn out, neither needed to be imported, for the answer lay on their doorstep.
It could well be imagined that the utmost discretion had to be applied to their inquiries, both within their immediate circle of contacts but particularly, in their mind, down through the social class system. It was, in fact, down below where the answer lay, as some of Princess Alexandra’s kitchen staff politely reminded her. If indeed the Princess needed to be reminded of a certain elderly woman, a supposed witch no less, who still lived at Flitcham – she might be able to be of assistance! Summoned to her royal presence, this old woman produced a bottle of wine which she had made and instructed Her Royal Highness to give the Prince three glasses of the wine each day, advising her that HRH would be fully recovered in three days if he managed to avoid the undertaker – such was the elixir’s potency if misused. In due course, as the old woman had predicted, the Prince recovered and the grateful Princess, apparently, sent a purse of gold coins to the woman – along with a request for some more wine!
In a postscript to this short story, Walter Barrett later recalled that around the mid-1920s he visited The Bell Public House in Flitcham for nothing more than refreshments, although, remembering the incident of the Prince of Wale’s period of illness some forty years previously at Sandringham House, asked the Publican, Edward Cocks, about the old woman who had, apparently, supplied the Prince with some special wine. The publican said he knew nothing of her, adding that she had died years before he had come to the village. However, if this Mr Barrett would care to buy a pint, or two, for the elderly local man who was clearly having a quiet moment in front of the fire, he would obtain all that he wanted to know.
The placing of a freshly pulled pint of beer in the hand of this elderly local immediately had the desired response from him. He did, indeed, remember the “old gal” when he was just a young man; a time when his mother and she had been longstanding friends. Not only could he recall how she was regularly used by the locals, in preference to the local quack, to supply curative medication, but he remembered what her brew of rue tea was like; it was something he described as being like ‘liquid gunpowder’. He went on to say that she had lots of cures in her cottage, and that she stocked her own ‘special’ home-made wine, which he claimed she never drank herself. She, it seems, preferred to stick with the gin that she collected from the back door of The Bell – always knocking back one before taking the rest home.
Many came to the conclusion that this ‘special wine’ of hers was made from the mandrake root and was particularly sought after by the local gentry “to supply a much-wanted energy” – No names, no pack drill as they say! Who better placed than the ‘wise woman’ of Flitcham, and as Walter Barrett, himself, suggested, this old woman was probably well aware of the Biblical story (Genesis 30.14) wherein Reuben collects mandrake root to assist his mother Leah in regaining Jacob’s affections, much to the consternation of her jealous sister Rachel who was well aware of the herb’s powers.
Thus said, the flow of information which had freely flown from the elderly local’s lips following each gulp of beer in The Bell that day, abruptly stopped when his pint pot ran dry. He declined another, having really had sufficient beforehand and the reason why he was dozing in the first place. However, as a gesture of gratitude to the inquirer, he offered the comment of claiming that he remembered hearing that the old woman had shown his mother a handful of gold coins which she said had been given to her by Princess Alexandra for services rendered. We know nothing more!
FOOTNOTE (1): An examination of the 1881 census shows that the oldest female residents of Flitcham were the widows: Lydia Bridges – (105 years), Mary Chilvers (92 years), Jane Bridges (83 years old and resident at the Bell Inn, being the mother of the then landlady) and the vicar’s mother, Irish born Honora O Malley (83 years). It would seem that the last two women do not fit the ‘wise woman’ of this story – suggesting that either Lydia or Mary might possibly be her – but we do not know and probably never will.
FOOTNOTE (2): Mandrake root was said to resemble the human form and was used in mediaeval times as a painkiller and anaesthetic as well as an aphrodisiac. However, as a member of the belladonna and potato family, it is apparently highly toxic in all its forms and should not be used today except for ornamental purposes.
Feature Heading Photo: Sandringham, Norfolk: https://www.womanandhome.com/life/royal-news/inside-sandringham-house-queens-norfolk-home-284289/
Prince of Wales Photo, 1858: https://archive.org/details/kingedwardviiass00wats/page/n17