Witchcraft in 17th century Norfolk

By Keith Parry

The crime that has attracted the attention of historians more than any other in early modern England is witchcraft. It is a complex subject, not least because early modern beliefs regarding witchcraft and magic were obviously very different from those of today. However, it is not my intention to carry out an extensive investigation into early modern witchcraft beliefs here; that area has already received much coverage elsewhere.[1] My interest here is to look at what the records reveal about those charged with witchcraft in the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts and how these findings compare with current theories. In particular, I look at how complaints arose and developed, and the involvement of the neighbours of the accused in that process.

Woodcut Of A English Witch Hanging
(Original Caption) Picture shows a witch hanging in England in the 17th Century. Undated woodcut.

Prior to the mid-sixteenth century witchcraft cases were normally tried in ecclesiastical courts. Punishments were rarely severe and some form of public penance was the most likely sentence. Witchcraft became a secular crime in England for the first time with the passing of a short-lived act of 1542. Elizabethan legislation in 1563 resurrected the crime and provided for the death penalty when “any p[er]son shall happen to be killed or destroyed”. However, this was repealed in 1604 and replaced by “An Acte against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealinge with evill and wicked Spirits”. This provided for even harsher punishments, extending the list of offences to which the death penalty applied to wasting, consuming or laming persons as well as causing their death. Where the “goods of any p[er]son shall be destroyed” the sentence was a year in prison for a first offence and death for a second offence. However, the major difference between this and the earlier Acts was that it also made it an offence to “consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose”. For the first time a hint appears in the legislation of the fear of a diabolical compact, which was a major element in European legislation where practitioners of witchcraft were thought of as being members of an organised heretical sect.

The activities that witches were accused of were a clear inversion both of community norms and gender roles. However, Keith Thomas has argued that “the idea that witch-prosecutions reflected a war between the sexes must be discounted, not least because the victims and witnesses were themselves as likely to be women as men”. Whilst it has been well established that the majority of people charged with witchcraft in England were women, and the Norfolk records support this, the situation regarding witnesses is more contentious. Based on his findings from Yorkshire witchcraft depositions, James Sharpe has concluded that “the whole business of deciding if an individual was a witch or if an individual act constituted witchcraft, of how witchcraft should be coped with, of how suspicions should be handled, was seen as being fundamentally in the female sphere”. He argued that witchcraft accusations were frequently one of the ways in which disputes between women were resolved. This view has however, been disputed by Clive Holmes. He argued that whilst the gossip and suspicions of women may have been instrumental in bringing the accused to more general notice, it was men who were responsible for organising the process that took the case from suspicion to formal accusation. Holmes claimed that, despite their numerical involvement, women played a largely passive role in the legal process against witches. He noted that in Home Circuit indictments between 1596 and 1642 men acted alone as witnesses in 27.7 per cent of cases and together with women in a further 67.7 per cent. In contrast, in only 4.6 per cent of cases did women testify against an accused witch alone.[7]

V0048920 Witches: five silhouetted figures.

Feminist historians such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have seen witch trials as “a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population”. Their argument is partly based on the premise that old women, often known as ‘cunning women’, who dispensed folk healing were deliberately eradicated when a male-dominated medical profession came into existence. It is also known that some of these cunning women kept small animals such as cats and toads for use in their medical work and this is one explanation for the appearance of familiars in English witchcraft. Other feminists have seen witchcraft prosecutions as symptomatic of a misogynist social structure. Marianne Hester contends that the witch-hunts provided a “means of controlling women socially within a male supremacist society” and were “an instance of male sexual violence against women”.  She claimed that men gained from the linking of women with witchcraft as “it provided them with a greater moral and social status than women”.

Sharpe has argued that the involvement of women in witchcraft prosecutions allowed them to carve out a role for themselves in the male dominated legal world. Not only did they appear as witnesses, they were also involved in the search for what was often a crucial piece of evidence in proving guilt – witch’s marks on the body. The large number of references in the records to women searching for marks suggests that this practice was widely used. Sometimes teams of up to twelve women were appointed to search the accused, a midwife often included in the number. Clearly women did have a vital involvement in the witch trials, not least because, as has already been stated, it was women who were most likely to be charged. Some contemporary commentators recognised the disproportionate number of women accused, the well-quoted sceptic John Gaule complaining that every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr[owe]d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side; is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.

As can be seen from this description, witches were not only seen as women, but often as old women. One of the main reasons put forward for witches being elderly is that often they were only eventually prosecuted after suspicion of them had grown over the years. It has also been suggested that older, vulnerable women, unable to defend themselves in any other way, were forced to rely on their alleged occult powers.

Witchcraft (Witches)

The witch stereotype established by Alan Macfarlane’s Essex findings presents the accused as an economically marginal, elderly female, rarely living with a husband. He argued that, between 1560 and 1680, social and economic pressures led to increasing tensions within communities and to a lessening emphasis on the bonds of neighbourliness. One way in which these pressures manifested themselves was in villagers withholding alms that they had traditionally given to the poor. The fear of counter actions from those refused alms and the guilt produced by the abdication of responsibility then led to accusations of witchcraft, usually after the party withholding charity had suffered some sort of misfortune. However, as Cynthia Herrup found in Sussex, this stereotype was not always matched. Although she found only few examples of the crime they stood out “because of the prominence of male defendants and because of the economic and social parity of the accused and the accuser”. Here there appeared to be no gap in social status and conflict is seen as reflecting ongoing competition rather than guilt produced by a failure to provide alms.

The earliest known references to witches being condemned in Norfolk under the 1563 act date from 1583, when Mother Gabley was probably hanged at King’s Lynn, and 1584, when Elizabeth Butcher and Joan Lingwood were condemned to be hanged at Great Yarmouth. The forty years that followed the 1604 act saw an increase in the number of witchcraft trials in many areas of England, yet during this period there were very few in Norfolk, the only trial of note being that of Mary Smith, hanged in King’s Lynn in 1616. However, after being notable for having so few trials in the first part of the century, the county suddenly saw an eruption of cases in 1645 and 1646, especially in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn – towns visited by the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins.

Witchcraft (Mary Smith)
A stand-in for the face of Mary Smith

Nearly half of all seventeenth-century Norfolk witchcraft trials for which records have survived were prosecuted in the 1640s; prior to that there were under five per annum on average and, in common with other parts of the country, by the end of the century there were hardly any at all. A combination of reasons explains the circumstances under which such an increase in numbers of cases could take place. Firstly, England was in the middle of a civil war, and whilst it cannot be said that East Anglia was in the midst of the fighting, as it was a parliamentary stronghold, there were still threats of Royalist uprisings. Secondly, it has been claimed that, mainly because of the upheaval created by the war, there was a breakdown of authority during this period. The uncertainty created by the civil war and a less effective than usual local government permitted the witch-hunting activities of Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne, who operated among the towns and villages of East Anglia for over two years from 1645. There has been some debate about the typicality of the cases resulting from these activities and I will return to this later.

Of the sixty-nine people charged, fifty-nine or 85.5 per cent were women, so from a simple mathematical point of view the Norfolk evidence supports the view that the crime was gendered. This picture is strengthened by an analysis of the outcome of the trials. Ten cases resulted in the guilty party being sentenced to be hanged and there were four other guilty verdicts for which the sentences were not recorded. All fourteen of those known to have been found guilty were women. (Of the other accused, forty-two were found not guilty, verdicts are not known in twelve cases, and one was found to be non compos mentis.)

Of the women whose marital status is detailed in the court records, thirty-two per cent were described as ‘spinsters’, the same proportion were married and thirty-six per cent were widows. It is possible, of course, that some of those described as spinsters were not, although there is no clue as to this in the records. As ages were not recorded it is impossible to be precise, however, this profile does not seem to suggest that most were elderly women, as often popularly described. Whilst it is difficult to deduce from this whether women on their own were more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, the fact that only one of those found guilty was married suggests that they were possibly not in such a good position to defend themselves without the protection of a man.

Bewitching people                             26                          37.7 %

Bewitching animals                           3                           4.3 %

Bewitching property                         3                           4.3 %

Entertaining the devil                       14                          20.3 %

Consulting with spirits                      11                          15.9 %

Using witchcraft to find property   5                           7.2 %

Non-specific witchcraft                     7                           10.1 %

Table 1. Norfolk witchcraft cases by category

Table 1 shows, in general terms, just what these people were being accused of. By far the biggest category is the bewitching of people and over half of these cases claimed to involve the death of an infant or child. Whilst two other categories combined, entertaining the devil and consulting with spirits, account for an almost equal proportion, these charges, traditionally not associated with the majority of English witchcraft cases, were all brought in trials that Matthew Hopkins and his associates were involved in. A surprisingly small percentage of cases involved bewitching animals or property, acts of maleficium normally found in English witchcraft cases.

Analysing the surviving records for some of these cases allows us to examine the circumstances that led to these charges and how that compares with interpretations developed from other studies. In Norfolk the best surviving sources for background information are the witness statements gathered by the local justices to whom the complaints were made. It is clear from the numbers of witnesses in some of these cases and the stories that they tell, that neighbours must have talked together about their allegations or suspicions. Often there was one recent complaint that started the process off and others then added their stories from the past, sometimes the distant past. Allegations were frequently founded on the reputation that the accused had in the locality.

Thomas Cutting of Runhall, Norfolk, complained in 1679 that Anne Diver of the same town had made his cow sick and bewitched him so that he fell over a stile and broke his leg. He also recalled that on a previous occasion, after he had refused to give her some herbs from his garden, his wife and daughter fell ill and they also suspected that Diver had bewitched them. The collection of back-up stories then followed. John Calfe told how, when he fell ill over a year before, a cunning man showed him the face of Anne Diver in a glass. Seven years previously, Elizabeth Pitts bought a goose from Diver and fell ill for four months after eating it. Ten years earlier, Frances Beales refused to give Diver some beer on a hot day, but when she drank some herself she was ill for three weeks. Susan Major claimed that as much as twenty years before, Diver went to the house of her master to beg some meat for her father, but left before receiving any, saying that she was too proud to accept it. A week later she fell ill, losing her speech and sight and suffering strange fits.

According to Holmes, when women became involved in the accusation process they often retailed older grievances that had not previously been brought to the attention of the authorities, leaving the lead to men, and this case supports that view. However, it is the only one that does. In all other Norfolk cases for which witness information survives women took the lead in making the complaint. On occasions men also voiced older suspicions, but many accusations came from women alone, providing a very different picture from that Holmes found in the Home Circuit indictments. This is much closer to Sharpe’s position that “the background to a witchcraft accusation was something to which women were thought to have privileged access”. Of the surviving witness statements relating to Norfolk witchcraft accusations, exactly fifty per cent were made by female witnesses, a larger proportion than has been reported elsewhere. Of course, we cannot know the extent to which women may have been encouraged to make their statements by men. It is also difficult to assess the extent to which depositions were the product of leading questions from a justice or a clerk’s written interpretation of verbal answers. Care must therefore be taken in the use of these documents.

One aspect of the accusations involving Anne Diver that does conform to the stereotype developed by Macfarlane is the refusal of alms or charity from neighbours; Thomas Cutting had refused herbs from his garden and Frances Beales refused beer on a hot day. Furthermore, John Calfe informed that when “John Castleton … haveing the disposall of some money given to the poore of the … parish yearely gave to the said Anne Diver a lesse p[ro]portion then had bene given her in former yeares”, she said that he should “take heed lest some mischeife came to him or his”. Other cases also contained this element, for example, Elizabeth Scandell informed that her daughter was bewitched after Elizabeth Blade threatened her when she refused to let her have a chicken. Both Cutting and Scandell made the point themselves that their misfortunes came about because they had refused requests for charity, indicating that there was a popular belief in a connection between refusal of alms and acts of witchcraft.

Some of the depositions give the impression that someone who had suffered misfortune was looking for something to blame it on. Sometimes they made an accusation against a neighbour who had not even uttered any curse or threat, but who was simply “taken for a witch” or had maybe fallen out with them recently. When William Tasborowe suffered a series of misfortunes, including the death of his son and a fire at his house, he remembered an argument with widow Betteris. After he made a complaint to the justices other neighbours suddenly remembered similar arguments. “When the s[ai]d Betteris did fall out wth the wif of John Dennys … his child did sicken & dyed wthin three dayes”. “At another tyme after the s[ai]d Betteris had fallen out wth Edmund White the next day was the s[ai]d Edmund taken lame”. Anthony Leland of Saxlingham, Norfolk, did not even mention having seen William Chestney’s wife when, in 1614, he blamed her for the death of a cow and a calf. He could only testify that when he had moved to the area four or five years earlier, “he heard amongst his neighbors that shee was taken for a witch” and so was “persuaded in his conscience” that it must have been her doing.

Witness statements also provide evidence of other early modern popular beliefs about witchcraft and magic. Whilst these informers were ready to complain about their neighbours for their use of supernatural powers, they were also prepared to use such powers themselves as counteractions. In 1670 Margaret Kempe of Great Yarmouth complained that when she had been ill fourteen years previously her friends suspected Margaret Ward of bewitching her. Their response was to make a heart with a piece of red cloth and to put it into a bottle together with some nails and pins. This was then put on the fire for two hours. Within a fortnight she was well again. When Thomas Cutting believed that Anne Diver had bewitched one of his master’s cows he threw a horseshoe with seven nail holes into the fire. Elizabeth Pitts made an almost instant recovery from her bewitchment when she threw thatch from above the door of Anne Diver’s house into the fire. Thomas Burke of Northwold, Norfolk, also recovered from his extreme leg pains when he burned thatch from the house of Alice Lyster. Another remedy often described was that of ‘scratching’ the witch to destroy their power. When Elizabeth Scandell’s child saw Elizabeth Blade, who she believed had bewitched her, she “flew at her & desired to scratch her but was hindered by her mother”. Mary Crispe later testified that the child told her that “if she had scratched … Blade … she should not have had so much power over her”.

Daniel Jecks, another of Diver’s ‘victims’, chose another popular measure and went to a cunning man to seek help. Cunning men and women were believed to have powers to discover who had bewitched someone, to provide folk medicine cures, and to discover the whereabouts of lost property. On occasions they would find themselves prosecuted under the witchcraft legislation for using their supposed magic powers in these ways. Christopher Hall of Harpley found himself before Norfolk quarter sessions after Goodwife Smithbourne of neighbouring Hillington consulted him regarding a lump in her breast. Hall, who admitted to the local justices in his examination that he practiced as a cunning man, told Smithbourne that a Hillington witch had caused her harm. He gave her some powder and wrote out a charm, which, he claimed, would help her.

Another possible source for a cure was the accused him or herself. Some of those who believed that they or members of their family had been bewitched by a neighbour still allowed the accused to have access to them or their property after the event, probably believing that whoever imposed the curse also had the power to lift it. This is evident from the information of Margaret Kemp of Great Yarmouth who, in 1670, believed herself bewitched by Margaret Ward. Not only did she still allow Ward access to her house, but also to her infant son. When Kemp believed that Ward had also bewitched her son causing him to have fits, her husband “forced the said Margarett Ward to take the child into her armes and hold it some tym” in an attempt to stop the condition.

In virtually all of these instances the person accused had been suspected of being a witch over a period of time, sometimes over a very long period. Often the events that led to the accusation were also part of a long-running disagreement and in some cases the charge of witchcraft appears to have been a tactic in such a dispute A typical example of such a long-term dispute between neighbours, which involved accusations of witchcraft, is found in the Norfolk quarter sessions order books. In 1652 Mary Childerhouse petitioned that a group of her neighbours “plotted her ruin and the destruction of her body by witchcraft”. This was, however, only one of a series of complaints she made against her neighbours, with whom she was clearly unpopular. “Idle boys and rude people disturbed her in her trading”, and a “lusty young woman dressed as a man beat down her windows and threatened her”. When she complained, “they imprisoned her unjustly and took her goods”. Two local justices were requested to look into the matter, but no further action appears to have been taken at the time.

Two years later, in 1654, Mary Childerhouse was again petitioning the court regarding further disputes. Here the order book described her as “impoverished … aged and unable to prosecute law”. It is interesting to reflect on whether the response to the complaints would have been the same if it had been a group accusing the aged Childerhouse of witchcraft rather than the other way round. Clearly in this case the complaints of one aged woman against a number of neighbours brought no action, as three years later, in January 1657, Childerhouse was still complaining that six of her neighbours “endeavoured her destruction by poison, and to spoil her estate by witchcraft, fire and knives”. However, it is interesting to note that Childerhouse, a woman so poor that she was “unable to prosecute law”, was still able to take her complaint before the justices. She was another example of someone from the poorest social class who was able to take advantage of the flexible nature of the early modern judicial system to ensure that her complaint was heard, even if she did not get the result she wanted.

The episode that resulted in more witchcraft accusations in East Anglia than at any other time was of course that involving Matthew Hopkins and his associates. However, an interpretation of the Norfolk cases involved is problematic, not least because a lack of surviving documents does not allow for any in-depth analysis. For cases heard at Bury St. Edmunds, in neighbouring Suffolk, there is at least some material that details what those brought to trial were accused of and what they were purported to have confessed to. In Norfolk, however, all we have are the indictments recorded in the quarter sessions books. These are characteristically formulaic and in many cases state only that the accused consulted with spirits, or fed and entertained the devil. Occasionally more specific allegations were made. Maria Vervy of Great Yarmouth was said to have been responsible for the deaths of three children, but was found not guilty; Elizabeth Bradwell, also of Great Yarmouth, was accused of the death of another child, found guilty and hanged. There is no detail that might allow us to know why one was found guilty and the other not. Five others were found guilty at Great Yarmouth, but we are only told that they practiced witchcraft and consulted and compacted with the devil. At King’s Lynn there is even less detail, the sessions books recording only that nine people were charged with consulting with the devil. Again there is nothing to tell us why six were found not guilty, two guilty and one found to be non compus mentis.

Sharpe has claimed that although the context in which the Hopkins and Stearne cases took place was unusual – a country in the midst of a civil war, the involvement of witch-hunters and the interrogation techniques used – the charges against the accused were not – most were women, most were about cases of harm typical of other prosecutions, and the harm followed some kind of falling out. Unfortunately, the lack of surviving documents means that little can be added from Norfolk to that debate. Eighty-four per cent of those charged were women, typical of the English pattern, and, where the charge is given, it is for harm against children, not uncommon in witchcraft cases.

I would, however, point out an additional unusual circumstance. Hopkins was invited to find witches and was paid for that activity. An entry in the Great Yarmouth assembly book dated 15 August 1645 states that “it is agreed that the gentleman Mr. Hopkins imployed in the countie for discovering & finding out of witches shall be sent for hither to come to Towne; to make search for such wicked p[er]sons if any be here”. The following May the King’s Lynn hall book records that “Aldr Revitt be requested to sende for Mr. Hopkins the witch discoverer to come to Lynne and his charges & Recompence to be borne by the Towne”.

However, whilst Hopkins’ appointment may have been a catalyst for the formal accusations, it was still the neighbours of the accused that brought the complaints. Although the law and the teachings of the church may have provided a framework within which accusations of witchcraft could be made, as other historians of the subject also acknowledge, this was not simply a process being imposed from above – accusers, witnesses and accused all normally lived in the same village, town or district and had often known each other over long periods.

Given the high proportion of women involved in making accusations, neither does the Norfolk evidence support the view that this was some means of imposing patriarchal authority; although this does not rule out the possibility that women accusers and accused were not playing out some sort of power battle within a patriarchal society. In many ways the Norfolk evidence supports the stereotype of an early modern English witchcraft prosecution, if not the stereotypical English witch. Nearly all cases arose from disagreement between neighbours and a good proportion of these involving a refusal of charity.

Apart from some aspects of the Hopkins cases there is little to support the view proposed by Robin Briggs that English witchcraft was not very unlike its European counterpart, as has been traditionally maintained. In Europe witches were part of a circle that attended sabbats. In contrast, virtually all of the Norfolk examples concerned accusations against individuals. Although Briggs points out that in English cases the familiars performed the role of the devil, in only two examinations in Norfolk trials is there any mention of a familiar; in most cases words, in the form of threats, seem to have been the medium by which the maleficium was carried out. The European stereotype also emphasises the demonic pact, yet again, outside of Hopkins, there is little mention of this. Even in the Norfolk cases involving the Witchfinder there seems to be an obvious reason why the association with spirits and the devil should be cited, particularly in such formulaic indictments. It was important for the process of law that the indictment was worded correctly and made clear that the act under which the charge had been brought had been breached, and the 1604 act made it an offence to “consult covenant with entertaine employ feed or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose”.

Ideas about witchcraft would have entered early modern popular culture in a number of ways. It is certainly likely that people would have heard about the evils of the devil in church sermons and they would also have been brought up learning about a range of popular beliefs concerning witchcraft and magic. Even those who had no direct access to pamphlet accounts of trials are likely to have heard about them in alehouses, particularly the more sensational trials. The most sensational local case to have been written about in early seventeenth-century Norfolk was that of Mary Smith, who was hanged in King’s Lynn in 1616.

Treatise of WitchcraftDetails of the Mary Smith case appeared in a pamphlet published in 1616 by a King’s Lynn clergyman, Alexander Roberts, entitled A Treatise of Witchcraft. After “sundry propositions … plainely discovering the wickedness of that damnable Art”, in which he considers theoretical points, Roberts moves on to describe Mary Smith’s “contract vocally made [with] the Devill … by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she envied”. The devil is said to have “appeared unto her … in the shape of a blacke man”. This is an interesting early appearance of the devil in this form in one of these narratives. According to Macfarlane the devil never appeared as a man in Essex before 1645, so this may well be an example of a pamphlet that influenced later stories, particularly those that emerged during interrogations by Hopkins and Stearne. The devil is said to have taken advantage of the fact that Mary Smith was “possessed with a wrathful indignation against some of her neighbours, in regard that they made gaine of their buying and selling cheese, which she (using the same trade) could not do, or they better (at the least in her opinion) then she did”.

Roberts goes on to describe the “wicked practise” of Smith against each of her enemies. “The first who tasted the gall of her bitternes was John Orkton a Sailer”, who had hit her son after he had committed some misdemeanours. She “came foorth into the streete, cursing … and wished in a most earnest and bitter manner, that his fingers might rotte off”. Of course when he grew ill “his fingers did corrupt, and were cut off; as his toes putrified & consumed in a very strange and admirable manner”. Another argument, this time over an accusation of stealing hens, led to Smith wishing the pox to light upon Elizabeth Hancocke. Within three or four hours of the curse being made “she felt a sodaine weaknesse in all the parts of her body”. The illness went on for several weeks, during which, one night “the bed upon which she lay, was so tossed, and lifted up and downe, both in her owne feeling, and in the sight of others”. Eventually Hancocke’s father consulted a cunning man who, after showing him Mary Smith’s face in a mirror, gave him a recipe for a ‘witch cake’, which cured her. However, unfortunately for her, her husband became annoyed with Mary Smith’s cat and “thrust it twice through with his sword … and stroke it with all his force upon the head with a great pike staffe”. Not surprisingly, his wife’s condition returned.

The stories continued: she picked a quarrel with Cicely Balye, a neighbouring servant, and the next night a cat sat upon Balye’s breast so that she could not breathe properly and she “fell sicke, languished, and grew exceeding leane”.  The illness continued for six months until she moved away, then she recovered. Edmund Newton, who was also a cheese seller, was able to do a better deal than Mary Smith when buying cheese. However, every time he bought cheese he became grievously afflicted. When he lay suffering in bed Smith appeared to him “and whisked about his face … a wet cloath of very loathsome savour”, after which someone with a “little bush beard” appeared telling him that he had come to heal his sore leg, which by now had cloven feet. Later, imps appeared in the form of a toad and some crabs and crawled about the house until one of the servants caught the toad and put it on the fire, which caused Mary Smith to endure “tortured pains testified by her outcries”. However, Newton’s illness continued, despite his attempts to break the curse by scratching the witch, as whenever he tried “his nailes turned like feathers”.

matthew-hopkins 1These narratives are interesting for several reasons. Not only do they tell us something about early modern popular beliefs regarding witchcraft, but it is also likely that ideas from them were passed on to others at the time, for several of the features of earlier pamphlets such as this recur in later trials. As I have already mentioned the devil in the form of a black man reappears in the 1645 Hopkins trials at Bury St. Edmunds. So do the imps or familiars that Edmund Newton claims appeared to him. Throwing a toad or frog into the fire to cause distress to the witch is another feature that reappears in seventeenth century Norfolk cases. When Amea Winter of Grimston was accused of bewitching Alexander Turner in 1627 “two thinges like unto a frogg & a toade”, presumably Winter’s familiars, appeared, but one was caught by John Piper who “held it in the fire untill such tyme as it was burnt”, causing Amea Winter to become lame.[58] Witch cakes provided by cunning men and scratching the witches face to counter their power both also commonly recur.

However, these narratives leave many more questions to be asked than they answer. The behaviour of Mary Smith is again similar to that which might have seen her charged with scolding – if it hadn’t been for the illnesses that were claimed to have followed. So what was the truth about these claimed illnesses? Presumably at least some of the facts could be checked when complaints were made to the justices. If John Orkton’s fingers had really rotted and been cut off then this would have been apparent. Did Mary Smith perhaps know that he already had a problem with his fingers and made a nasty comment about it that eventually came true, or was Orkton just lying and she never even made such a curse? Elizabeth Hancocke’s bed couldn’t lift up and down on its own, so clearly she and the claimed witnesses to it were lying. And what are we to make of Edmund Newton’s claims that his feet had become cloven? We can, of course, never really know the truth; the main thing was that the justices believed them and the courts believed them. But how much did they question the evidence? The complaints against Mary Smith must have been over a period of time – so why didn’t they complain earlier, or if they did then why wasn’t she charged earlier? Unfortunately the assize records haven’t survived that might have provided some of the answers.

Whilst there has been debate about the usefulness of witchcraft pamphlets as a reflection of what actually happened up to and during the trial, there is no doubt that they are a useful source regarding early modern popular beliefs. They are also interesting because in some ways they stand between elite and popular attitudes towards witchcraft, in that they would have had an educated authorship, often members of the clergy or legal profession who usually had some agenda in writing them, but would have also had to appeal to the tastes of a popular readership. This reflects to an extent the “complex series of transactions between various elite and popular elements” that Clive Holmes has claimed brought about witchcraft prosecutions.

Witchcraft pamphlets would, of course, only have continued to be written whilst there were still witchcraft trials to write about. Towards the end of the seventeenth century there were fewer trials as the authorities became more and more sceptical about the whole issue of witchcraft and courts became much less likely to convict. Although this meant the death of the witchcraft pamphlet it didn’t mean the sudden death of a popular belief in witchcraft. Even in the later seventeenth century people were still making accusations that their misfortunes were the result of witchcraft, and some of the accused still believed that they had the power to carry out the acts. When Mary Neale of Wissenset, Norfolk, confessed in 1678 that she was the cause of the deaths of three local people she also told that two other women were involved with her. Both of these, however, denied the charge. But Neale was only too ready to admit to her witchcraft, signing a confession and crying out, “O wicked wretch that I am, I have destroyed two poore soules”. She was one of the few accused in Norfolk for whom evidence survives who admitted to using familiars in her craft. She claimed to have “sent a mouse” to Alice Atkins “wch did soone dispatch her in five dayes”. She also said that one of her accused accomplices “did send a Duck to John Willis … who soon died”. She also claimed to keep two imps, John and Robert, though did not expand on what form they took. Popular beliefs clearly did not change overnight.

In many respects this analysis of seventeenth-century Norfolk trials supports the models already developed around early modern witchcraft. The gender breakdown of those accused – about eighty-five per cent female, fifteen per cent male – is similar to that found in other English counties. The pattern of prosecutions was obviously affected by the outbreak of cases in the 1640s brought about by the influence of Matthew Hopkins and his associates, but apart from that aberration we see the decline in prosecutions towards the end of the century that was experienced elsewhere. Even the context in which many of the disputes took place fits the stereotype developed by Alan Macfarlane; many cases involved refusal of charity and acts of maleficium occurring after a falling out.

There is little to support the radical feminist view that witchcraft accusations were used as some sort of patriarchal technique to keep women under control. In fact, the main aspect of the Norfolk cases that seems to be somewhat out of line with other studies is that women were in the majority in making the lead, or most recent, complaint; in Norfolk it was often men who backed this up with older stories. As I have already mentioned, one of the main conclusions to come from the surviving evidence, and this agrees with what Macfarlane found in Essex, is that people were accused of witchcraft by their neighbours. Most historians now accept the view that witchcraft accusations were not simply imposed ‘from above’, but that a complex set of relationships existed between local elites and the poor that provided a framework within which these accusations could be made and pursued through to their legal conclusion.

We can now only speculate as to why neighbours made these complaints. Given the contemporary belief in the powers of witches, it is perhaps not surprising that when they needed an explanation for why things had gone inexplicably wrong they should blame someone they thought capable of witchcraft. This might well lead us to ask the question, originally posed by Robin Briggs, why were there not even more prosecutions than there were? Some of the Norfolk depositions give the impression that there may also have been strategic accusations, either to gain some sort of revenge for a past wrong or to enable the accusers to rid themselves of someone who they did not like or with whom they had been involved in some sort of interpersonal dispute. The very fact that witches were often only accused after a long period of suspicion means that there had been time for disagreements to develop and fester until an opportunity to solve it once and for all presented itself.

By Keith Parry


[1] Over the last thirty years or so witchcraft has been the subject of an enormous amount of research and a wealth of literature has been produced. Amongst the most accessible works on witchcraft in early modern England are James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness. Witchcraft in England 1550 – 1750 (London, 1996) and Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts, eds., Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge, 1996) and Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours. The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (London, 1996) draw on both the English and continental European experience.

[2] 33 Henry VIII, cap. 8.

[3] 5 Eliz I, cap. 16.

[4] 1 James I, cap. 12.

[5] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 568.

[6] J.A. Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women in seventeenth-century England: some Northern evidence”, Continuity and Change volume 6, no. 2 (1991), p. 192.

[7] Clive Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, Past and Present 140 (1993), pp. 56

[8] B. Ehrenreich and D. English, Witches, Midwives and Healers: A History of Women Healers (London, 1974), p. 6.

[9] Hester, Lewd Women and Wicked Witches, pp. 108, 199.

[10] Marianne Hester, “Patriarchal reconstruction and witch hunting”, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, Witchcraft in early modern Europe, p. 296.

[11] J.A. Sharpe, “Women, Witchcraft and the Legal Process”, in Kermode and Walker, Women, Crime and the Courts,  p. 120.

[12] John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts (London, 1646), pp. 4 – 5.

[13] B.P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London, 1987), p. 143.

[14] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 161.

[15] Herrup, Common Peace, p. 33.

[16] Norfolk Record Office. Wells Parish Register. PD 679/1, fol. 43, records the burials of four men “whose deaths were brought to pass by the detestable working of an Excerable Witch of King’s Lynn whose name was Mother Gabley, by the Boiling or rather labouring of Certain Eggs in a pail full of cold water. Afterwards approv’d sufficiently at the arraignment of the said witch”; Palmer, History of Great Yarmouth, volume 1, p. 273.

[17] Due to the lack of surviving assize records for this period, the most detailed account of the  alleged activities and the trial of Mary Smith is a pamphlet written by Alexander Roberts entitled A Treatise of Witchcraft (London, 1616).

[18] See especially Underdown Revel, Riot and Rebellion, chapter 2.

[19] For a discussion of the circumstances surrounding these cases, see J.A. Sharpe, “The devil in East Anglia: the Matthew Hopkins trials reconsidered”, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, pp. 237 – 254.

[20] This compares with ninety-two per cent in the 1645 Essex trials.  Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 160.

[21] This compares with Kent assizes where widows accounted for twenty-six per cent of prosecuted witches between 1565 and 1635 and thirty-seven per cent during the Interregnum. Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, p. 49.

[22] Sharpe has claimed that “English witches … were rarely accused of … consorting with evil spirits”. J.A. Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Harlow, 2001), p. 40. Whilst it is true that the depositions do not contain this allegation, the formulaic Norfolk indictments often do.

[23] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting, John Calfe, Elizabeth Pitts, Frances Beales, Susan Major, 22.5.1679.

[24] Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, pp. 54 – 5.

[25] Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women”, p. 191 – 2.

[26] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of John Calfe, 22.5.1679.

[27] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, February 1678.

[28] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/15 part 1, articles against [blank] Betteris, undated.

[29] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/19, examination of Anthony Leland, 28.5.1614.

[30] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe, 30.9.1670.

[31] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting; information of Elizabeth Pitts, 22.5.1679.

[32] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/13a, information of Thomas Burke, 2.3.1602.

[33] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 634; Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England, p. 53.

[34] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, Mary Crispe, February 1678.

[35] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Daniel Jecks, 22.5.1679.

[36] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, chapter 8; Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, chapter 5.

[37] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/41a, examination of Christopher Hall, 26.8.1654. See also NRO, Great Yarmouth quarter sessions, Y/S1/3, fol. 122: Thomas Wolterton prosecuted for using enchantments and charms to find lost property; Y/S1/2, fol. 196: Marcus Prynne prosecuted for using witchcraft to discover the whereabouts of lost money.

[38] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe 30.9.1670.

[39] See Annabel Gregory, “Witchcraft, Politics and ‘Good Neighbourhood’ in Early Seventeenth-Century Rye”, Past and Present 133 (1991), pp. 31 – 66, regarding the argument that some witchcraft accusations may have been strategic.

[40] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions order book, C/S2/1, petitions of Mary Childerhouse 13.1.1652, 10.1.1654, 13.1.1657.

[41] British Library, Add. MSS. 27402, fols. 104 – 21.

[42] NRO, Great Yarmouth assembly book 1642 – 1662, Y/C19/7, fol. 71v.

[43] NRO, King’s Lynn hall book 8, 1637 – 1658, KL/C7/10, fol. 187.

[44] For this view see Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze. A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco, 1994) and Hester, Lewd women and wicked witches.

[45] Willis, Malevolent Nurture.

[46] Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, pp. 28 – 53.

[47] Although, as I have pointed out, there are a large number of cases where details of events leading up to a trial have not survived.

[48] 1 James I, cap. 12.

[49] Interestingly, John Stearne claimed that sermons drawing attention to the power of the devil and his ability to torment the wicked had actually attracted some people to him. See John Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (London, 1648), p. 59.

[50] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 46.

[51] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 189. Although this may be an early reference to the devil appearing in this form, the fact that witchcraft was carried out in the devil’s name was popularly believed in early modern England. According to William Perkins “a witch is a magician, who either by open or secret league, wittingly and willingly, consenteth to use the aide and assistance of the Devil, in the working of Wonders”. William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1608), p. 3. The devil appeared in other forms in other early witchcraft pamphlets. The Apprehension and Confession of three notorious Witches, concerning the trial and execution of three women condemned at Chelmsford, Essex, in 1589, tells that Joan Cunny, one of the three, learned her art from one “Mother Humphrey … who told her that she must kneel down on her knees, and make a circle on the ground, and pray unto Satan the chief of the devils”. One of the other accused, Joan Prentiss, told that “the Devil appeared unto her … in the shape and proportion of a dunnish-colored ferret” who then carried out her evil work. The other two also admitted to having familiars to do their work, two black frogs, a mole and two toads. Reprinted in Joseph H. Marshburn and Alan R. Velie, Blood and Knavery. A Collection of English Renaissance Pamphlets and Ballads of Crime and Sin (Cranbury, NJ, 1973), pp. 80 – 8.

[52] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 45.

[53] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 48.

[54] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 50 – 4.

[55] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 55 – 6.

[56] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 57 – 8.

[57] The devil appeared in this form to Mary Bush of Bacton, Suffolk. He promised her that she would never want and “us’d to have the use of her body two or three times a weeke”. Stearne, Confirmation and Discovery, p. 29.

[58] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/26, articles against Amea Winter, dated 23.5 1627.

[59] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 85; Walker, “Demons in female form”, p.124.

[60] Clive Holmes “Popular Culture? Witches, Magistrates, and Divines in Early Modern England”, in S.L. Kaplan, ed., Understanding Popular Culture. Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Berlin, 1984), p. 87. See also Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, p. 179.

[61] Freely given confessions such as Neale’s illustrate that accused witches were not always the victims of malicious prosecution. See also Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, p. 71.

[62] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, Information of Mary Neale, 25.2.1678.

[63] For a case of a mentally disturbed woman who confessed that she had the power to use imps to carry out acts of maleficium, see Malcolm Gaskill, “Witchcraft and power in early modern England: the case of Margaret Moore”, in Kermode and Walker, Women, Crime and the Courts.

[64] Robin Briggs, Communities of Belief: Cultural and Social Tensions in Early Modern France (Oxford, 1989), p. 22.

________________________________________________________________

© Keith Parry

Which is the Real Syderstone Ghost?

Amy Robsart:

img_3395
Thomas Francis Dicksee (d.1895); Amy Robsart

The death of Amy Robsart on the 8th September 1560 is an Elizabethan mystery that has caused controversy and speculation for over 458 years with historians still debating whether it was accident, suicide or murder……and if it was murder, who ordered the deed?

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The small but picturesque village of Syderstone is situated in the county of Norfolk in the United Kingdom; midway between Kings Lynn and Norwich and about five miles west of the town of Fakenham.  It is about ten miles inland from the North Norfolk coast. Although small, Syderstone dates back well over a thousand years and pre-dates the Domesday Book of 1066 in which the village is recorded.  Its original Anglo Saxon name was Sidsterne; meaning “large estate”, from the Old English “sid” for an area broad or extensive and “sterne” meaning property.

Syderstone (Main Street)

In the 16th century Syderstone Hall was the home of Sir John Robsart, a wealthy gentleman-farmer, Sheriff of Norfolk and also Suffolk. He had a daughter named Amy, whose initials, by the way, are still to be seen on the churchyard gate and over the entrance to the Norman church tower. Amy was born in 1532 and in 1549, just before she was 18, married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, at Sheen (Richmond) Palace. The young King Edward VI, no less, was present at their wedding. As for Robert Dudley, the bridegroom, he also happened to be the son of the powerful John Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

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Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicesters-Visit to his Wife Amy Robsart at Cumnor Place

On her accession in November 1558 Elizabeth I made Robert Dudley ‘Master of the Horse’, an important post which brought him in close contact with Queen Elizabeth I. It also meant that Dudley’s periods of absence from his wife, Amy, would increase further from those he was already committed to. In any case, it was not customary for courtiers’ wives to live at Court and Elizabeth, for her part, would also have wanted to keep Amy out of the way – for she was strongly attracted by Robert, who was “a magnificent, princely looking man”.

Syderstone (1st_earl_leicester_dancing)
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, dancing with Elizabeth I, c.1580.

Both Elizabeth and Dudley were much together so it was inevitable that there would be a great deal of gossip about the affair…….which Amy must have known about! Within a year of Dudley’s appointment, rumours were indeed rife that the Queen was smitten with him – and it seemed that the feelings were mutual. In March 1560 the Spanish Ambassador wrote about the possibility of Dudley divorcing his wife! It would seem that Amy’s continued existence may have been something that he could have done without? Certainly, his actions indicated that his thoughts were elsewhere for amongst other things, he began to neglect Amy. He sent her to live at Cumnor Place, a ramshackled two-story house about 4 miles from Oxford and formerly a 14th-century country house of the abbots of Abingdon. 

Syderstone (Cumnor Place)2
Cumnor Place where Amy Robsart was sent to live – formerly a 14th-century country house of the abbots of Abingdon. 
There, under the care and watchful eye of Anthony Forster, a sort of ‘dependent’ of Dudley and with few servants, Amy dragged out a lonely miserable life. Ten years after her marriage to Dudley, her situation came to a climax!
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William Frederick Yeames; The death of Amy Robsart (1877)

On September 8th 1560 and still only twenty eight years of age, Amy was found dead at the foot of a staircase at Cumnor Place. Apparently, Amy had insisted that her servants attended Abingdon Fair leaving her alone in the house; when they returned they found her dead – from head injuries and a broken neck. She appeared to have fallen down the stairs?

At the time there was speculation as to whether she had fallen accidentally, had been murdered or even committed suicide, although this latter point was dismissed by those who thought of another reason for Amy’s ‘desperation’ and death. It appears that in April, 1559 seventeen months before her death, the Spanish Ambassador reported that people talked of Elizabeth and Dudley’s friendship so freely that:

“they go so far as to say his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”

It was argued that this was cancer and had spread to the bones of Amy’s spine, which could have caused her neck to break spontaneously from any jolt or fall. Clearly, many subsequent historians were to speculate about her death, perhaps more furiously than contemporaries. However, the one suspicion that stood out from all others, was the belief that Amy had been murdered so that Robert Dudley could marry Elizabeth I – a suspicion which became the subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Kenilworth”.

Syderstone (Robert_Dudley)
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, c. 1564. In the background are the devices of the Order of Saint Michael and the Order of the Garter; Robert Dudley was a knight of both.

Amy Dudley, nee Robsart, was buried in the chancel of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, her body having been first taken to Gloucester (Worcester) College – where there is a relatively modern tablet recording her burial. Eighty poor men and women were said to have marched in procession, followed by members of the University, a choir and heralds. Her funeral cost Robert £500; but he was not present.

Syderstone (Amy Robsart Tomb)

Possibly, no one will ever know how Amy died but the jurors were there and their view may be as near to the truth as one can get. As for Dudley, the Queen blew hot and cold in her attitude towards him. Of course she never married him, nor anyone else, though Dudley married again. However, she gave him Kenilworth Castle and large areas of North Wales. He commanded the army at Tilbury when Elizabeth made her famous speech on August 9th 1588 just after the Spanish fleet had been defeated. Later that month Robert set off for Kenilworth on his way to a cure at some spa or other. There was some belief at the time that Amy’s ghost was supposed to have met him in the park there saying that “in ten days he’d be with her”. As it turned out, Dudley stayed a night at Lord Norreys’ home at Rycote, and while there wrote a letter to Elizabeth. She had afterwards wrote on it “his last letter”, for he got no further than Cornbury Park, where he died!

Syderstone (Robert Dudley Tomb)
Tomb of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester and his wife Lettice Knollys.
Church of St Mary in Warwick.

If others are to be believed, it was chiefly the people of Cumnor who remembered Amy’s mournful end. Apparently, according to them, Amy’s ghost haunted Cumnor Place, made people fear to go near it and “destroyed the peace of the village”. The ghost had to be exorcised by nine clergymen from Oxford who claimed to have drowned it in a pond in the adjoining close – and the water never again froze over the spot! Clearly, that did not work because it was claimed thereafter that the ghost of Amy Robsart walked the grounds each Christmas – for almost 250 years. Her pale shape also appeared near the staircase where she had died, and when she returned every Christmas she also stared ‘tragically and accusingly’ at all who still lived in the Hall.

After Cumnor Place was demolished in 1810 Amy’s ghost moved to her parents home at Syderstone Hall in Norfolk – so it was said! Well, that must have been true because poltergeist activity was reported there………and many of the locals said so and believed that it was the ghost of Amy! How come? Were the villagers there ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ as it were? Not only that, the folk there were also to claim that she continued to appear at the Old Hall until that too was also demolished. Apparently, Amy’s ghost would appear by the staircase, re-inacting in exactly the same way its actions at Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire……..and with exactly the same story, villagers would claim that Amy’s ghost also walked the grounds of Syderstone Hall at Christmas time. But some around the County went a step further with claims that Amy’s ghost also revisited her childhood home of Rainthorpe Hall, Tasburg near Norwich on the anniversary of her death. There, she appeared in the garden with a gentleman who may be either her half brother, John Appleyard or her husband Robert Dudley. A somewhat cynical historian of Berkshire, William Clarke, wrote that when he visited Cumnor in 1817, after the building was pulled down, “there were no traditions current about it among the villagers”. Well, these ‘traditions’ of myths and ghosts soon sprang up plentifully in both Oxfordshire and Norfolk after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Kenilworth’ in 1821!

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Rainthorpe Hall, Tasburg near Norwich

Were these beliefs behind the folks of Syderstone not wanting to lose Amy when its Old Hall too was demolitished? – for it was said after this event that her ghost moved to the Parsonage nearby.

Parsonage Hauntings:

In 1833, Reverend Stewart and his family were well settled in the Parsonage. On the 8 May of the same year the Bury and Norwich Post carried a story about a series of daily hauntings at the Parsonage. The original letter that sparked this story came from the same Revd J. Stewart, the Rector of Syderstone at the time, around whom this story revolves, and concerns what he refers to as ‘The House of Mystery’.

According the Revd Stewart, this particular ghost had taken up residence at his Parsonage and liked to move around, though nothing in the house was ever disturbed. It also varied its activity such that:

sometimes it was a low moaning which the Rev. says reminds him very much of the moans of a soldier on being whipped; and sometimes it is like the sounding of brass, the rattling of iron or the clashing of earthenware or glass’. The noises frightened the household to such an extent that ‘the maids … were actually incapable of motion’ and some of the staff were so scared they ran away’.

The Revd Stewart opened his house to all and sundry, so that they could satisfy themselves of the goings on, including no less than four local priests – Revd & Mrs Spurgin, Revds Goggs, Lloyd & Titlow, plus a local surgeon, Mr Banks, on one particular night. It seemed that they were not disappointed, with a display that started:

like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey’ and included knocking, ‘some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between eleven and twelve o’clock until near two hours after sunrise’. One is quoted as saying ‘We had a variety of thoughts and explanations passing in our minds before we were on the spot, but we left it all equally bewildered’.

All those present on the night felt compelled to contact the paper, stating that their investigations, and subsequent independent examinations, were unable to find the cause. But, the one thing on which they could all agree; this was not any kind of deception on the part of Revd Stewart or his family. A section of the actual newspaper article is as follows:

“The following circumstance has been creating great alarm in the neighbourhood of Fakenham for the last six weeks. In Syderstone Parsonage lives the Rev. Mr. Steward, Curate, and Rector of Thwaighte. The house has a modern appearance, and not at all calculated for concealment. About six weeks since an unaccountable knocking was heard in it in the middle of the night. The family became alarmed, not being able to discover the cause. Since then it has gradually been becoming more violent until it has now arrived at such a frightful pitch that one of the servants has left through absolute terror, and the family, we understand, intend removing as early as possible.”

Syderstone (Newspaper)

Three weeks after this first article, on 29 May 1833, the same paper carried a story describing how a number of investigators (all named in the article) had gone to witness the phenomenon for themselves.

“The first commencement was in the bed-chamber of Miss Stewart, and seemed like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey. Mrs. Spurgeon was at the moment leaning against the bed post, and the effect on all present was like a shock of electricity. The bed was on all sides clear from the wall; — but nothing was visible. Three powerful knocks were then given to the sideboard, whilst the hand of Mr. Goggs was upon it. The disturber was conjured to speak, but answered only by a low hollow moaning; but on being requested to give three knocks, it gave three most tremendous blows apparently in the wall. The noises, some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between 11 and 12 o’clock until near two hours after sunrise.”

Having described a number of events and the baffled reaction of the visiting gentlemen, the article ends by calling the haunting an “unaccountable mystery”. Then, on 12 June, a letter from one of those present, Reverend Samuel Titlow, was published drawing attention to a few inaccuracies, as he saw it, of the previous letter.

“The noises were not loud; they commenced in the bed room of Miss Steward and the female servants, and the time of the commencement was, as we had been prepared to expect, exactly at half past one o’clock a.m. It is true that knocks seemed to be given, or were actually given, on the side-board of a bed in an adjoining room, where two little boys were sleeping, whilst Mr. Goggs’ hands were upon it, but they were not ” powerful knock. If the writer of the paragraph had been present with us, he would not have said that we were terrified, as if we had experienced ” a shock of electricity;” but rather, that though there was no want of proper decorum, we were all in good humour”

He seemed convinced that there was nothing supernatural behind the events, also adding that he couldn’t believe that a ghost would appear:

“for trifling purposes, or accompanied with trifling effects.”

On 22 June, the Norfolk Chronicle carried a number of witness statements regarding the hauntings going back many years. These statements had been submitted to the magistrates as Affidavits, but since it was not clear if the magistrate could legally accept Affidavits on a subject of this nature, they were published in the local paper. The earliest event described was from 1785, when a Rev Mantle moved in to the parish. He immediately boarded up two rooms, and there was one occasion when his sister saw something “which had greatly terrified her”.

Revd Stewart was able to attribute the origin of his ghost to some 60 years previous, to about the time when this Revd Mantle had moved in – he with an emerging reputation for vice and drunkenness, having ‘formed an intimacy with a very dissipated circle of gentleman farmers’ one of whom had ‘an improper admiration of Mrs Mantle’ and ‘seduced the curate into the vilest debaucheries’. Indeed, Revd Mantle would have to be held upright during burial ceremonies ‘lest he should fall into the grave on top of the corpse’.

Needless to say, the Revd Mantle died in a miserable state but, before being buried, ‘strange noises began to be heard in the parsonage’. It was these noises which greeted Revd Stewart and his family and, at the time these articles were written, ‘the ‘noises’ occasionally recur and my ‘diary’ occasionally progresses until it has, now, assumed rather a formidable appearance’.

The Phantom Highwayman Etc. Etc:

 So, it seems, Amy Robsart and the one that haunts the Parsonage are not the only ghosts of Syderstone. It is further claimed that the village is also haunted by a phantom highwayman, who has been seen on his ghostly mount, silently galloping towards the village green…….and as recently as 2017 a local resident, stated:

I live in Syderstone and was aware of these spectral stories. But, there are a few more as we also have, a lady in Rectory Gardens – [her name is also Amy by the way] – and something on a local track named Burnham Green Lane. “My normally amenable Labrador was extremely reluctant to walk up there at dusk last summer – heckles up”!

Answers on a postcard please!

THE END

May Day and Victorian Spring Traditions

 

Primroses

The Victorian era is famous for its nostalgia and love of sentimental customs. Many Victorian traditions had their roots going back hundreds of years and often included veiled references to Medieval Celtic folklore and pagan deities.  In the Victorian era, May Day, was May 1 and considered to be the middle of spring, and was marked with a fair, parade, dances, and lots of floral decorations.  The traditional celebrations often began with “bringing in the May”, which involved getting up very early in the morning on May Day, and going into the country to pick flowers to decorate the town. This was as well as making preparations for the parade and other festivities.  Women were also said to bathe their faces with dew from the grass and flowers on May morning, to preserve their beauty.

Cowslips

Flowers were woven into garlands and wreaths, posies for people to wear, and bouquets to fill May Baskets, which were heavily decorated and hung on doors around town.  Making and filling these baskets and then secretly delivering them to friends’ and neighbours’, knocking on the door and running away without being seen, was a favourite May Day amusement. If the recipient caught the one delivering the basket, they could claim a kiss!  During the Victorian era, it was also considered an exercise in true generosity, giving without expecting anything in return.

Pansies

The parade was traditionally led by a May Queen, supposedly the most beautiful teenage girl in the village, who was crowned with flowers and attended by several other girls.  The girls all wore white, with flowers in their hair and danced and sang as they followed the May Queen, who wwould opened the fair with a speech.  According to folklore, the May Queen represented the Roman goddess Flora, or the Celtic Earth goddess, the personification of Spring, and it was considered an honour for a girl to be chosen.

Morris Dancing

Dances at the May Fair included traditional Morris dancing, which was performed by groups of men dressed in green and white with flowers on their hats, often with masks or painted faces; they tied bells to their legs which would ring as they danced with swords, sticks and handkerchiefs. The movements, costumes, and noise of Morris dancers symbolized scaring away evil from the community.

Violets

Dancing around a May pole was another type of dance for May Day; the Maypole was a tall pole erected in the middle of a clearing, decorated with flowers and long ribbons attached to the top.  Different age groups – especially children and the young adults – danced in specific patterns, each holding the end of a ribbon, and wove the ribbons in a pattern around the pole as they danced round and round. The May pole dance celebrated youth, fertility, and the changing of the seasons.

Lily-of-the-Valley

Other May Day activities included riding hobby horses in races, having archery tournaments, and feasting.  The May Day celebrations were often concluded with a bonfire and more alcohol, which led to more rowdy and less-proper entertainments like ribald songs and unrestrained sexual activity.  In response, proper Victorians minimized the connection with pagan religious tradition, and instead enjoyed the sunshine, flowers, giving gifts, and dressing up, with secular, community-oriented festivals that enabled people to take a break for some music, dancing, feasting and games.

Well Dressing:

Well dressing, also known as well flowering, remains a tradition practised in some parts of rural England in which wells, springs and other water sources are decorated with designs created from flower petals. The custom is most closely associated with the Peak District of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The custom of well dressing in its present form probably began in the late 18th century, and evolved from “the more widespread, but less picturesque” decoration of wells with ribbons and simple floral garlands.

,The location identified most closely with well dressing is Tissington, Derbyshire, though the origins of the tradition are obscure. It has been speculated that it began as a pagan custom of offering thanks to gods for a reliable water supply; other suggested explanations include villagers celebrating the purity of their water supply after surviving the Black Death in 1348, or alternatively celebrating their water’s constancy during a prolonged drought in 1615. The practice of well dressing using clay boards at Tissington is not recorded before 1818, however, and the earliest record for the wells being adorned by simple garlands occurs in 1758.

Well or Tap Dressing in Wirksworth in the 1860’s

Well dressing was celebrated in at least 12 villages in Derbyshire by the late 19th century, and was introduced in Buxton in 1840, “to commemorate the beneficence of the Duke of Devonshire who, at his own expense, made arrangements for supplying the Upper Town, which had been much inconvenienced by the distance to St Anne’s well on the Wye, with a fountain of excellent water within easy reach of all”. Similarly, well dressing was revived at this time in Youlgreave, to celebrate the supplying of water to the village “from a hill at some distance, by means of pipes laid under the stream of an intervening valley.” With the arrival of piped water the tradition was adapted to include public taps, although the resulting creations were still described as well dressings.

THE END

A Most Scandalous Priory!

God’s own County of Norfolk is blessed with many religious establishments – large, small, dissolved into ruins or still conducting holy practices as they should; most of these religious establishments even have a history worth talking about. However, it is the investigation of this history which, from time to time, snaps one out of any tendency to be naive about the fact that misdeeds and misdemeanours are not only possible in these places but probable! In a previous blog ‘A Most Disorderly Abbey’, the Premonstratensian Canons of Langley Abbey in the south of the County were given the treament of exposure. This blog targets the Benedictine monks of Binham in the north of the same County. Fortunately, we are talking of the past!

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The Priory Church of ‘St Mary and the Holy Cross’ in Binham is simply classed as the Binham Village parish church (see above), but the ruins, precinct walls and gatehouse that surround it tell quite a different story. This is the site of a once grand and wealthy Benedictine monastery known as Binham Priory. It was founded in 1091 as a cell of St Albans Abbey by Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. Peter was a nephew of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who gave Peter de Valoines the land in the west and north of Norfolk, including the entire village of Binham. According to the Domesday Book the land in and around the village was originally owned by a freeman named Esket. The Priory subsequently built was endowed with the entire manor of Binham, making the Prior the ‘Lord of the Manor’, together with the tithes of 13 other churches in Norfolk.

For over 400 years, Binham Priory used to be home to a community of monks. This community was always small, with 14 monks at its peak in 1320, dropping to 11 in 1381 and by the time of the Priory’s suppression in 1539 the community had been reduced to just six monks and the Priory’s annual income low at £140. However, despite its small numbers, the Priory managed to establish a history of almost continuous scandal with many of its Priors proving to be unscrupulous and irresponsible.

About 1212, the Priory was besieged by Robert Fitzwalter because the Abbot of St Albans had removed the Prior. Fitzwalter claimed, by way of a forged ‘Deed of Patronage’, that the Prior could not be moved without his consent. The result of this seige resulted in the monks being forced to eat bran and drink water from the drain-pipes. When King John heard about it he swore ‘By God’s feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King of England’ and he sent an armed force to relieve the Priory. Fitzwalter fled for his life. Then there followed the deaths of about twelve monks of Binham, as recorded in an Obituary of St Albans from 1216 to 1253; it included the story of Alexander de Langley, one-time Prior of Wymondham who became insane through overstudy. When his outbursts of frenzy could no longer be tolerated, he was flogged and kept in solitary confinement at Binham until his death. He was buried in chains in the churchyard.

In 1317 William de Somerton became Prior of Binham and was to spend vast sums on the pursuit of alchemy, selling during his time in charge – two chalices, six copes, three chasubles, seven gold rings, silk cloths, silver cups and spoons and the silver cup and crown – not quite what you would expect of a holy man! For this, William was suspended before the altar. In addition, the Abbot, Hugh of St Albans was making exorbitant demands on Binham Priory so that it was difficult to buy food for the monks there. This did not go down well and when Abbot Hugh proposed to visit Binham, the Prior and his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole forcibly resisted the visitation. Edward I ordered the arrest of de Somerton and the monks, who at this time numbered thirteen. Six monks were imprisoned but de Somerton escaped to Rome. Eventually he was reinstated but in 1335 debts again caused him to flee, leaving a deficit of £600.

 If all this was not enough, there existed continual quarrelling with the Abbot of St Albans Abbey, wasting money on expensive lawsuits, the charge of ‘scandalous behaviour’ levied at the Binham’s community. Then there was the ‘irresponsibility’, such as when, in 1433, the Prior and the monks resisted the visit of the Bishop of Norwich whilst the village people, who were on bad terms with the Priory at the time, made the Bishop welcome. One could, of course, go on and on in this vein, but no self respecting Tale of an Abbey or Priory would be complete without a reference, or two about myths or ghosts. Binham Priory is no exception. But before we go there, let us satisfy possible curiousity about the fabric of the monastery, its structure and architectural quality without the emotive topic of behaviour.

The Church:

The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross is so named because the Priory was dedicated to St Mary, and its Church to the Holy Cross. What remains today is the former Nave of that Priory Church which is now simply the Village Parish Church.

Originally, the Priory Church was a cruciform building with a central crossing tower (now fallen), supported on massive piers. The monks sat in wooden stalls facing one another in the area immediately beneath the tower. This area was separated off from the public Nave by a stone screen. East of the tower would have been the Presbytery, where the high altar was located.

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Reconstruction of the church presbytery in about 1500, looking towards the rood- screen with the nave beyond. © Historic England (illustration by Jill Atherton)

As a Benedictine foundation the Nave has always been used as the village church, identified as such today by the presence of a font, which would not have been needed by a monastic congregation. Nearby are the remains of the rood screen which was originally located where the east wall of the church now stands. This screen was painted over after the Reformation, but traces of medieval painting of saints can still be seen showing through. The present east end was formed by extending the original pulpitum, a low wall which divided the lay area from the monastic area.

Church Exterior

The church was built of local flint and Barnack limestone, brought from Northamptonshire by river and sea in barges, and travelling up the river Stiffkey. Its construction spanned close to 150 years from when it started in the 1090s. Thereafter, the buildings were adapted and extended throughout the medieval period. Bear in mind that most medieval churches looked very different from how they appear today; they were usually covered, both inside and out, with lime-washed plaster. Traces of this can still be seen on the west front.

The Church’s west front is not the earliest part of the Church, but it is the first thing you see as you approach; it is beautiful and, to the informed, of great architectural interest. According to Matthew Paris, the thirteenth century monk and chronicler, this facade was built between 1226 and 1244 when Richard de Parco was Prior. For the less informed of you, the Facade is divided into three parts, the centre part containing the large west window, which could be the earliest example of bar tracery in England in which the design is made up of slender shafts and shaped stones continuing and branching out from the mullions to form a decorative pattern. This was first used at Rheims in 1211 and at Westminster Abbey some time after 1245. Before this date, the space between lancets placed together, was pierced with an open pattern, cut directly through the masonry — known as ‘plate tracery’. The window must have been magnificent before it fell into disrepair and was bricked up in 1809; maybe to avoid the cost of reglazing? Below the window is the Early English arcaded screen, with much dog-tooth ornament, in the centre of which is the main portal. This doorway is flanked on each side by five shafts, topped by crocket capitals beautifully carved from a single stone — each a masterpiece.

The bell-cote is a later addition. The domed interior is constructed of brick. An indenture of 1432 made between the Prior and the parishioners ordered that:

‘they have one bell, of the weight of eight hundred pounds or under, purchased at the cost and charge of the said tenants and parishioners, to hang in the further-most western part of the said parish church, that is to say above the roof of the church next the gable, and without any detriment to or lessening of the walls or windows of the said church, to warn and call the said parishioners to divine service, so that they may hear it and be present’.

The north and south walls correspond with the former aisles which were pulled down. The south aisle disappeared soon after the dissolution of the monasteries but the north aisle survived until 1809.The windows in the north aisle are the original windows but re-set.

The Cloisters:

The remains of the monastic buildings are extensive. They were arranged around the central cloister, a garden court that was enclosed on all four sides by covered walkways. These gave access to the principal rooms used by the monks in their daily life, including the chapter house (where they met daily to discuss business) and refectory or dining hall. Rebuilt several times during the life of the priory, by the 16th century the cloisters were lit by large windows opening onto the central garden. After the closure of the priory, some of the glass was moved to the nave wall of the church.

A reconstruction of the cloister as it may have appeared in 1500, looking north-east towards the church crossing tower © Historic England (illustration by Jill Atherton)

The Precinct:

Binham Priory is one of the few monastic foundations in Norfolk where the precinct surrounding the priory buildings remains essentially intact, including part of its boundary wall. This monastic precinct, built on the Benedictine plan was once a glorious collection of buildings, built around the open garth and its cloisters. One could imagine it as being a smaller version of Norwich Cathedral. Great wealth was always lavished on such buildings, with the master masons perhaps coming from Normandy. As for the ruins of the gatehouse beyond, it dates mostly from the 15th century and still serves today as the main entrance to the site. South of the cloister area are the earthwork remains of the priory’s surviving agricultural buildings, including what was probably a large barn or granary. One supposes that the outer court contained other buildings such as storehouses and workshops. Beyond these earthworks, bordering the stream, is the site of the priory’s mill and fishponds and the monks’ cemetery lays beyond the east end of the church. What stories could they tell if given the opportunity?

An engraving of Binham Priory in about 1738 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck

Suppression:

At the dissolution in 1539, the King’s examiner Sir Robert Ryche had no difficulty in finding a pretext for suppression: As they levied fines, ‘not naymyng the Abbot of Saynt Albanys, and granted leases under their own seal, not naymyng the Abbot.’ The site and possessions were granted to Sir Thomas Paston, a local man and an important royal servant by Henry VIII, in the 33rd year of his reign and four hundred and fifty years after the Priory’s foundation. The Paston Letters relate that the sum of 13/7½ d being paid to Sir Thomas in 1533 for ‘rubble and stone from Binham Priory’ which was used to build a large house in the High St at Wells, and his grandson Edward Paston pulled down some of the monastic buildings intending to build himself a house on the site, at the southern corner of the refectory. However a workman was killed by a fall of masonry and this was considered a bad omen. The workmen refused to continue and the house was built at Appleton instead. Stone from the Priory was even sold and reused in many local Binham houses, particularly around doors and windows.

Myths associated with Binham Priory: 

Places such as Binham Priory, in times of ignorance and superstition, inevitably spawned legends and myths of its own –  not forgetting that we are in Norfolk and here it seems obligatory for any famous place to boast a tale, or two. Frequently, such tales are about tunnels, quite a favourite topic; so too are ghostly spectres. Binham is not the sort of historical place to be left out; indeed, it has a monk and a tunnel. Maybe this is the moment to mention them.

1.The Hooded Monk:

When the night is dark and dismal the stranger standing amongst the fragments of old walls of Binham Priory would not find it difficult to visualise his eerie surroundings as a setting for a ghost story. The inhabitants of Binham have long discuss a report of the appearance of the “ghost”; of a black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church.

It seems that a newspaper reporter interviewed the Vicar, Rev. C. F. Carroll, on the matter. It was said at the time that the story told to him was offered in the strictest confidence by a lady of position, and that he, the Vicar, would only repeat it if persons’ names were kept out of any published story.

“Some time ago this woman was present at an evening service of mine in the Parish Church, where she saw a figure on a ledge near the church door. She watched the phantom form, which resembled a Benedictine monk wearing a black cowl, walk slowly along the ledge for the full length of the church before disappearing. During its journey this spectre, for that is what this lady said it was, climbed some spiral steps, which were only there for the duration of this spectacle. The ledge itself is several feet from the floor of the church and, as you can see, there appears to be ample room for one to walk thereon”.

“I do believe that such an occurence is possible, but I would not go so far as to state that it had not taken place. The lady can be, in my opinion, imaginative at times but she was certain that she had seen the monk-like figure, so much so that she felt compelled to tell me – and remember. There were many other people at that service and it might have been that the other members of the congregation did not have the faculty to see in such a way. At any spiritualistic seance, for instance, it is only some people who may see a spirit appear; and, of course, you would know that illustrations on that point can be found in Biblical stories; such as the sory of St. Paul seeing the vision and the men who were accompanying him failing to see it. I must also say that on other occasions, villagers have stated that they have seen the figure of a Benedictine monk near the entrance to the Priory – the Gaol Gate.”

After leaving the Vicar, the newspaper reporter interviewed a lady in the village, not the one referred to earlier by the way. She related a story which was similar to that told to the Rev C. F. Carroll. She said that some years ago she was sitting with the choir when during the sermon she saw a dark figure, just like a monk; it was on a ledge in the church. Thinking that she was “seeing double” or that her eyes were playing tricks, she purposely looked away for a few seconds before again looking at the ledge; she saw that the figure was still there. Puzzled but wanting further confirmation, she once more turned her gaze away, but when she looked at the ledge for the third time there was no thing there. This same lady added, as if there may be some possible connection, that she and others had been warned that no one should go near the Gaol Gate at midnight. Why, it was never said but, from another source, the reporter was informed that the ” Porter ” was reputed to walk about near that gate, inside of which there had once been a gaol – and there had also been chambers for a Porter!

2. The Fiddler of Binham Priory:

Myths about entering into the earth through a tunnel that takes you to another place or different land are common across the world. Such tunnels, connecting us to such ‘underworlds’ or ‘Hades’, can be found in Greek and Roman myths, as well as in German and Eastern European folktales. In Britain, these myths are often associated with musician’s tunnels such as those in Northamptonshire, Culross, Fife with its piper, Richmond Castle with its drummer and Norfolk with its own fiddler, as depicted in tales Blakeney, nearby, and Binham Priory. In these tales, the musician enters a passage under the ground and is always followed above the ground by people listening to his music, which suddenly stops. It is very strange that he has a dog with him, and that this dog always gets out of the tunnel but the man is never seen again. The myth is often connected to a ‘barrow’ – which, to the uninitiated, is an underground burial place.

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The ancient Barrow called ‘Fiddlers Hill’ – between the villages of Bingam and Walsingham in Norfolk.

Now, Binham Priory seems to be an ideal place for the Norfolk version of this particular myth or legend, simply because of the ‘barrow’ named Fiddler’s Hill, a burial mound nearby which dates from the early Bronze Age, and nowadays a popular picnic spot. Of course, this tale needs a fiddler, a dog and tunnel, and what better than to have one leading to and from Walsingham Abbey, some three miles away. Certainly, local people think so and their tale goes along the following lines:

A spectre of a monk called “The Black Monk” haunted the grounds around Binham Priory during the hours between dusk and dawn. The monk emerged each night from a tunnel that linked the Benedictine Priory of Binham to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingam some three miles away. One day a fiddler and his dog sauntered into the village of Binham and upon hearing about this spectre offered to explore the tunnel to see what caused the monk to haunt this particular spot. Before entering the passage he advised the sizeable crowd of locals who had gathered to see him off, that he would play his fiddle as he went so that the villagers could follow his progress above ground. Now, bear in mind that we are talking of a time when candles and lanterns were the main weapons against the night, or to battle subterranean gloom.

So it was with this in mind that the Fiddler called his dog to heel and lighting his way by means of a small lantern of his own, suspended on a rod so that he could free his hands for playing, he and his small dog entered the tunnel and the villagers were able to hear the strains of his music and followed his path. They knew that a fiddle plays a piercing and true sound and felt sure that its sound would vibrate upwards through the layers of soil. So they all followed, Lollygaggers (idlers), dawdlers, street vendors, interested onlookers – and the odd dog.

However, when the fiddler reached the place, at a point where two roads crossed, his music suddently stopped. The villagers looked around at each other in consternation. Why, they thought would he stop? Maybe he was just taking a rest? They waited, but the sound never returned. There was talk of digging down, but everyone held off despite the possibly that this could be an emergency. If the truth were to be known, the villagers were, in fact, too scared to enter the tunnel themselves, for they had no candles or lanterns – on the basis that, being on the surface, they would not need such items. So they just retraced their steps back to Binham and waited, for quite a long time as it turned out.

Eventually, the poor Fiddler’s little dog emerged from the tunnel, shivering and whining with his tail between his legs – but there was no sign of the Fiddler. Later that night a violent storm broke out, and the following morning the villagers woke to find that the passage entrance had been completely demolished. Over the years the hill where the fiddler disappeared became known as Fiddlers Hill, in memory of the brave Fiddler……..and remember the final twist to this story?….. In 1933 when the road was widened around Fiddlers Hill, three skeletons were found one of which was a dog!

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A diagram of ‘Fiddlers Hill’ showing, approximately, where the road was altered – removing part of the barrow,

They do say that on still, dark nights, you can still hear a solitary violin playing along the fields between Walsingham and Binham Priory.

THE END

In Search of the ‘Stewkey Blues’!

Outside of Norfolk most people have never heard of them; come to think about it – some inside the County would also be at a loss to know! Follow me then – and bring a pair of ‘wellie’ boots with you. But don’t wear them just yet unless, of course, you particularly like their weight and feel for we are heading first to Skiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, the place where those ‘Stewkey Blues’ may be found.

Stiffkey (Village-Sign)

The village of Stiffkey lies, as we now know, on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes (see below). There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.

The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, particularly in wellie boots, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature not only creates traffic jams, but sometimes the occasional ‘incident’ caused by those vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!

High above the village sits Stiffkey Old Hall and the church of St. John the Baptist (or is it St Mary’s? – but that is another story) both in close proximity and with impressive structures. The nearby Rectory was one time infamous during the 1930’s, all because of the activities of its incumbent, the Reverend Harold Francis Davidson. His neglect of his parish work, his family and his frequent trips to London to carry out his work as the so called “Prostitutes’ Padre” started local tongues wagging. In 1932 he was defrocked by the Church after being convicted by a Consistory Court in Norwich on immorality charges. But, Davidson went on to make a new career as a performer to raise funds, principally for his proposed appeal – which obviously wasn’t successful by the way. He finally met his demise at Skegness when he was supposed to have been killed by a lion after he entered its cage – a kind of action replay of Daniel in the lion’s den. Despite his experiences and end, Davidson still had many friends and it was they who provided the funds for his funeral back at Stiffkey. The church and the churchyard were packed with people and estimates at the time numbered the crowd at 3000 plus; even the Marques and Marchioness Townshend, from their stately seat at Raynham Hall near Fakenham, were among the mourners.

Stiffkey (davidson grave)

In modern times Davidson has come to be regarded as a victim of an antiquated church legal system and his reputation has, to some extent, been restored. But, enough of this slight digression and a tale which has received more than its fair share of coverage over the years. For those who are still curious and would like to follow his story in more detail; click on the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Davidson . We must move on to other digressions before homing in on the main reason for this blog.

Stiffkey (H Williamson)In 1937 Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, purchased Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey for £2250 – or so we are led to believe. He was anxious to contribute to Sir Oswald Mosley’s new vision of Britain but, unfortunately, he had no experience of farming and after eight years he abandoned the farm and his task to return to his beloved Devon. There, he recorded his experiences in ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’ (1941). The book contains some memorable descriptions of the north Norfolk coast:

‘The sea was half a mile from the village, and the field ended in a plantation or land-fringe of stunted trees, and then steeply down to a pebbly shore and a creek where a fisherman’s boat was moored.

We sat down on the grass, gazing out over the marshes, one vast gut-channelled prairie of pale blue sea-lavender. Afar was the sea merging in summer mist and the palest azure sky. There was no sound: the air was still: not a bird stirring. This was the sun I remembered from boyhood days, the ancient harvest sunshine of that perished time when the earth was fresh……’

For some of his time in Norfolk, Williamson lived in a small cottage off the village street in Stiffkey, while there he collaborated with Miss Lilias Rider Haggard on ‘Norfolk Life’ (1943), a journal of the years 1936-7. It is, in fact, an anthology of unusual extracts from old books on husbandry, farmers’ calendars and herbals. It is a gardener’s book, a farmer’s book, a field naturalist’s notebook — with some especially good observations on birds. It is a book of jottings that somehow manage to get the very heart of Norfolk in them.

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The cottage where Henry Williamson once lived. A commemorative plaque has now been erected by the Henry Williamson Society. 
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The Henry Williamson Plaque

At the northern end of the village is a long concrete road called Green Way that leads down to the Stiffkey salt marshes. This road was first laid by the army during WW2, as was its camp at the end of the road. The camp was used for training anti-aircraft gunners then and into the 1960’s before being abandoned, to be used as a camping site with its original guardroom still standing and in use by campers. It is worth saying, for those who cannot do without their cars, that there is what you might call a ‘rough’ car park area here, at the edge of the marsh. It is, in fact, on the Norfolk Coastal Path for you walkers and it belongs to the National Trust – so its members get a bonus of guaranteed free parking! The topic of parking gets a particular mentioned here because Stiffkey is another of those small places where parking within its environs is very limited, very limited indeed. The above mentioned National Trust car park is also a long way from the village itself; a village that can just about manage a general store that contains the village Post Office counter. The village also an antique shop that some say is worth a visit and as for food and drink, it has a pub, the Red Lion at the northern end of the village; again, some say it has ‘a good reputation’ and would offer a welcome pause for those on the way to seeking out those ‘Stewkey Blues’.

Stiffkey (Saltmarsh-Sign)

The Location of Stiffkey Freshes:

Stiffkey Freshes is located between Stiffkey and Morston adjacent to the coastline. The easiest way to reach the area is via the coastal path, having parked at the National Trust car park at Stiffkey. It is a walk east along the path for approximately one and a half miles until you reach the creek on your left. Alternatively, park on the NT car park at Morston and walk along the coast path towards Stiffkey – this is slightly further by the way.  When you have reached the Freshes you will see some moored fishing boats in the creek and dinghies hauled up onto the grass.

Stiffkey (Marshes)

There is, of course, an alternative and much shorter route from the A149 coast road at White Bridges, a location not named on the map so you would have to ask! But, a word of warning at this point. As already meentioned, the A149 through Stiffkey can be very busy in the summer months and is quite a dangerous road to walk along, because there are no pavements or flat verges. The advice is against using this route, particularly if you have children with you – carrying whatever you have for about 200 yards on this road, whilst supervising children, is fraught with danger from passing traffic. In addition, and not to rub the difficulties in, the only parking available is in a lay-by on the north side of the road near two farm buildings. This lay-by is frequently used by bait diggers who make their way down to the marsh via the footpath beside the buildings. So, do not go that way.

But, assuming that one has successfully surmounted all the obstacles, we find that this part of the North Norfolk coast that we speak of, is in a permanent state of flux. You have the cliffs between Weybourne and their vanishing point at Happisburgh to the east which are constantly being eroded. Sandbars, banks and dunes there, having been formed by the tides, gales and wave action over many months and years, can be ripped from their roots by simply one ferocious winter gale from the north-west. Stiffkey Freshes is somewhat lucky in this respect; the two-mile long Blakeney Point curves around offshore like a comforting arm and gives vital protection. This guardian prevents major erosion on the southern side of the channel and, as a result, the dunes edging the Stiffkey Freshes creek and abutting the beach itself have not changed a great deal over the years.

Stiffkey (Freshes)
Stiffkey Freshes

Now, the locals advise that visits to the Freshes should be made about one hour before low water in order to reach the marram-topped dunes that are ideal picnic venues. It would be here where those wellies would prove temporarily very useful; that is. if you did not wish to take off walking boots and paddle bare footed across the creek. From there, it is a walk along the dividing line between the dunes and the ribbed hard sand that runs down to the channel several hundred yards away. Only then would that ideal secluded and sheltered spot be found, with the added possible bonus of seeing a hare or two – they seem to favour living amongst the dunes.

Be still and listen:

Once you have established your base, take time to be still and look around you. Attune your ears to the constant calling of the seabirds and wildfowl that can be seen going about their business on the sands and in the shallows that lie in front of you. Take your binoculars and scan the north-west where you will see seals hauled out on the sandbanks. You may also spot a mussel fisherman wading up the creek, pulling his heavy boat behind him because the water is too shallow to run the outboard engine. It will be laden with the day’s catch to be shovelled into net bags on the bank of the creek.

Stiffkey (Mussel Man)
A mussel fisherman – a painting by Wendy Haws.

A ‘wild’ place:

There are just a few places left in Norfolk that can be described as ‘wild’; Stiffkey Freshes is one of those. If you are an early bird and can get to the dunes as dawn breaks, or you are prepared to stay as dusk approaches, you will witness nature at its most impressive. These are the times of day that you will see a great deal of bird activity, with skeins of geese and flights of duck going to or returning from their feeding grounds. You may also see a fox hunting along the foreshore or a muntjak trotting along amongst the dunes. Again. do not visit only on hot summer days – wrap up warm and come in winter when the north westerly’s blow and the clouds skitter across the sky like the sails of racing yachts. Watch the waters of the channel being whipped up and spume dancing off the crests of the waves. The fine sand that blows in drifts across the landscape will sting your face and you will taste salt on your lips; you may never feel as cold again anywhere else, but what a rewarding experience you will have had.

Revelation!

Where the hell are those ‘Stewkey Blues’ you may be asking by now, having been dragged through the village and down on to and over the marshes. Well, all that was to give you a flavour of the place; and talking of flavour, the good news is that you have finally arrived at your destination and the source of ‘Stewkey Blues’  It is here, on the marshes, that you will need those Wellies – and, sorry, it should have been mentioned before that a rake and bucket would be a further advantage! Let Alan Savory – the Norfolk wildfowler tell you what you have been dying to know since you started reading this Blog; revealed by way of his writings which, whilst about duck shooting on the North Norfolk marshes including Stiffkey, mention that the Stiffkey marshes are famous for the ‘Stewkey Blues’ – a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour. Let this extract from his book ‘Norfolk Fowler’ (1953) explain further:

‘There is a place far out on the sands somewhere between High Sand Creek and Stone Mell Creek that is called Blacknock. It is a patch of mud covered with zos grass and full of blue shelled cockles known as “Stewkey Blues”. It is a famous place for widgeon, but very dangerous to get on to and off, if one is not too certain of the way on a dark night. The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.’

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Here they are – Stewkey Blues!

It is the geography of this region that helped create perfect conditions for these special cockles: nowadays they can be found a few kilometers north of Stiffkey, on the seaward side of a saltmarsh, where muddy creeks flooded with tide create a good habitat for them to live in. They are usually buried an inch under the muddy sand which, it is claimed, gives the cockle its blue colour. Traditionally the cockles were raked from the mud by the women and then washed in seawater, and it is still as it was that the Stiffkey fishermen and inhabitants collect them. Some fishermen add flour or oatmeal to assist this process.

Stewkey Blues is a popular nickname for Stiffkey Blue Cockles which are only found at Stiffkey. The name ‘Stiffkey’ is actually pronounced ‘Stewkey’ and the cockles have a dark grey-blue shell – hence the name. They indeed have a different colour from other types of cockles around England. When they colonise, they form shells of a distinctive blue tinge, ranging from mauve to slate-blue. Its colour has always been thought noteworthy and that is why it is mentioned in their name. They have a rich shellfish flavour, refreshing and slightly salty. Stiffkey cockles open when they are steamed, and are eaten fresh, or used for soups and pies. Traditional seaside style is to boil and sell from stalls, with pepper and vinegar to taste. They have long been considered a delicacy in East England, but unfortunately, the cold winter of 1989 killed many cockles and its trade has never really recovered to the level that it once was. Indeed, it is unfortunately recognized that, year by year, the number of Stiffkey cockles declines.

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Cheltenham Newpaper cutting 1902

Very few tales of Norfolk are without a myth or a ‘scary’ story. Stiffkey and cockle gathering is no exception. Rest a while longer from your long trek and hear this from a past Cockler:

The Screaming Cockler of Stiffkey:

In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work, as the tides race in cruel and fast over these marshes. But the cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles. Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’.

Stiffkey (Scream)

“We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter. It’s hard work cockling, you know! You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you might have to go hungry? Or one of your children? Then, we have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village. You can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.

But she just wouldn’t listen.

We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack and your life and a night with an empty stomach is far better than no life at all.

So we left the girl Nancy. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back, came back home to our families and to safety. There was nothing we could have done – she just wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad and that quickly. Of course when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. Don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.

Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her, see. Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing. Raging against the roke and the tide, even against God himself. Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So they turned back – had to. Too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.

She’s still out there of course.

No not her body. No, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.

Now, don’t you be thinking of going out there, not now!

No it’s not ’cause of the tide. The tide has already turned on its way back out. But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea. That fog – It’s her! – she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisy. Probably cause it was foggy when she drowned. No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her, with all that seaweed still in her hair.

Stiffkey (screaming-faces)

So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”

THE END

Why We Are All Mad About Hares!

We have long been fascinated by the hare – Britain’s fastest land mammal, surrounded by myth and infamous for their ‘mad’ March courtship rituals. This Blog explores and explodes the mythology surrounding this iconic lagomorph.

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Brown hares boxing, a spring mating ritual which actually lasts much longer than just March. 

Hares have never failed to fascinate. Hare mythology has had an important role in our legends, stories and history ever since the Roman first introduced them to Britain, from the otherworldly White Hare of Cornish legend to the time Alice attended the Mad Hatter’s tea party courtesy of Lewis Carroll. And yet, hares are not confined to the pages of legend, myth and history. To see a pair boxing is to witness a spring rite of passage, but did you know that hares remain mad long after March?

Hare Mythology:

In her bestselling novel of 1930, The Edwardians, the writer Vita Sackville-West evoked essentially unchanging English country life. Around the house at the centre of the novel – a loosely fictionalised version of her ancestral home, Knole – she imagined a parkland setting unchanged over many centuries: “The background was the same: the grey walls, the flag on the tower, the verdure of the trees, the hares and the deer feeding on the glades.” Like a vignette from a medieval hunting tapestry, the creatures that animate Sackville-West’s vision of timeless pastoralism are the quarry of the chase: deer and hare.

Half human half hare figure sculptures by Sophie Ryder displayed outside the Pump Rooms and Abbey in Bath.

The brown hare is Britain’s fastest land mammal. Propelled by those powerful hind legs which define its shape as surely as its long, black-tipped ears, the hare has been known to run at speeds exceeding 40mph. Added to its shyness, this astonishing turn of speed accounts for the apparent elusiveness of the hare. Sighted only rarely in some areas for much of the year, it retains a mystique long forfeited by rabbits.

In hare mythology, the hare is a creature with pagan, sacred and mystic associations, by turns benign, cunning, romantic or, most famously, in its March courtship rituals, mad. It is largely silent, preferring to feed at night or, in summer, as the last light fades from the day, a shadowy existence which adds to its mysteriousness in hare mythology. In Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit stories the character of Hare is superior and strutting, occasionally pernickety, always aloof – a rendering for children of the animal’s natural reserve as well his appropriateness as a denizen of that world of aristocratic entitlement evoked by Sackville-West. For example, it is Hare who keeps Grey Rabbit up to scratch in the matter of housekeeping: “Where’s the milk, Grey Rabbit?” asked Hare. “We can’t drink tea without milk.”

Local Legend:

In hare mythology and folklore, hares are invested with a similar remoteness. The otherworldly White Hare, which in Cornish legend wove a path between the fishing smacks of the county’s harbours at sundown, was thought to be either a warning of imminent tempest or the spirit of a broken-hearted maiden determined to haunt her faithless lover (a tempest of a different variety) and, in both cases, a sight to inspire foreboding and trepidation. In 1883, in the Folk-Lore Journal, William Black wrote that, “From India we learn that it is as unlucky to meet a hare as it is to meet a one-eyed man, an empty water-pot, a carrier without a load, a fox, a jackal, a crow, a widow, or a funeral.”

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In Michael Fishwick’s “The White Hare”, local legend has it that a woman who dies abandoned by her lover can return in rabbit form to seek revenge.

Such superstition surrounding hare mythology appears not to have been confined to India. A book on British folklore published in 1875 recognised the status of the hare as an associate of disaster, and recommended repeating, “Hare before, Trouble behind: Change ye, Cross, and free me.” In Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, published in 1920, Lady Gregory recorded one of the most famous legends from hare mythology, despite its origins being not in Ireland but in Somerset. It concerned the trial for witchcraft in 1663 of an old woman called Julian Cox. A witness at the trial stated: “A huntsman swore that he went out with a pack of hounds to hunt a hare, and not far from Julian Cox’s house he at last started a hare: the dogs hunted her very close… till at last the huntsman perceiving the hare almost spent and making towards a great bush, he ran on the other side of the bush to take her up and preserve her from the dogs; but as soon as he laid hands on her it proved to be Julian Cox, who had her head grovelling on the ground and her globes (as he expressed it) upward. He knowing her, was so affrighted that his hair on his head stood on end; and yet he spake to her and ask’d her what brought her there; but she was so far out of breath that she could not make him any answer; his dogs also came up full cry to recover the game and smelled at her and so left off hunting any further. And the huntsman and his dogs went home presently sadly affrighted.”

Hares In Britain:

The Romans are credited with introducing brown hares to Britain more than 2,000 years ago. If we are to believe the story of the Iceni queen Boudica consulting the entrails of a hare as an augury of victory in her uprising against the Romans in AD61, the animals had established themselves quickly. Their preference then as now was for open country and grassland, downs and flat marshlands. In succeeding centuries, farmland, particularly arable land, also proved popular with hares. Their chosen habitat is one that offers shelter in the form of long grass or heather; food in the form of herbs, grasses and cereal crops; and the broad expanses which afford a canvas for hares’ remarkable speed. Before the advent of hare coursing and beagling, that speed was exercised principally in escaping foxes, the hare’s principal natural predator. More recently, despite the greater speed of the sighthounds used for coursing, hares frequently outwitted their pursuers by their ability to turn and corner with unrivalled agility.

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Mad hare days: March is the start of the mating season.

As with so many forms of British wildlife, today’s hares are threatened by changing agricultural practice. Larger fields with a single cereal crop a year curtail hares’ year-round food supply while offering them diminished cover, and their forms – shallow depressions in the ground – offer limited shelter and, potentially, a degree of exposure and vulnerability. A survey in 2008 estimated current brown hare numbers in Britain in the region of 800,000, a figure which represents a consistent if gradual decline since the Sixties. Unlike rabbits, hares are resistant to myxomatosis and have suffered no equivalent cull.

Merchandising The Hare:

If few town-based people are fortunate enough to see a hare in the wild, there can be no Britons unfamiliar with its appearance. Today hare mythology has extended and the hare motif is to be found on fabric, wallpaper, cushions, lampshades and ties; it has been used as a letterhead, a heraldic device and in the design of stock pins, cuff-links, brooches and charms for bracelets.

Stained glass in Long Melford, Suffolk, thought to suggest the indivisibility of the Trinity.

Hare mythology and particularly the ubiquity of hares in children’s fiction and television programmes ensures a continual stream of merchandising. Hares remain a popular subject with sculptors and visual artists. Their spring-time “boxing”, a mating ritual in which unreceptive females fend off amorous males, lends itself to a degree of anthropomorphism which appeals to an art-buying public largely ignorant of the truth behind this “mad” March ritual, once thought to be a fight between males. Ceramic and porcelain hares have been made by the Munich-based Nymphenburg factory, the Lomonosov factory in St Petersburg and by Meissen. Contemporary animaliers, such as sculptors Rupert Till and Sophie Ryder and ceramicist Elaine Peto, explore a continuing fascination with these enigmatic creatures.

For an earlier arts audience hare mythology and the hare itself possessed a similar magnetism. An image of three running hares formed into a circle has been found in medieval churches, cathedrals and even inns across Britain. A floor tile dated to around 1400, found in the nave of Chester Cathedral, depicts a trio of hares separated by trefoil-shaped vegetation. Joined at their tips, their ears form a triangle, each hare apparently with two ears, though the tile artist has drawn only three in total.

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Wooden boss at Sampford Courtenay, Devon.

Varying in sophistication and elaboration, this icononography characterises all the “three hares” of church architecture in Britain, from a late-15th-century carved wooden boss in the chapel at Cotehele in Cornwall to a stained glass roundel at Holy Trinity church, Long Melford in Suffolk, and a painted stone boss in the Lady Chapel of St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.

Research has failed to unearth any contemporary account of the symbolism of this recurring image, formerly dismissed as a popular signature among masons and carpenters. It is more likely that the intertwined imagery was intended to suggest the indivisibility of the Trinity. Another possible explanation is an association with the Virgin Mary, since hares were believed to possess hermaphrodite powers and therefore the ability to reproduce without loss of virginity. It is a far cry from the Romans’ perception of hares as symbolic of lust, abundance and fecundity: Pliny the Elder advocated a diet of hare as a means of increasing sexual attractiveness and also claimed that hare meat had the power to cure sterility.

The Current Outlook:

If Pliny is right, the outlook for Britain’s birth rate is dim. Jugged hare, in which hare is stewed in wine and juniper berries and served with the last-minute addition of its own blood, has virtually disappeared from our tables. A recent survey conducted by a television cookery programme found that virtually no British youngsters recognised the dish and just as few would be willing to try it. The recipe is attributed to Hannah Glasse, who included it in The Art of Cookery, published in 1747: today it is chiefly confined to the ultra-traditional menus of London’s clubland.

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It’s difficult to decide who’s sane at the Hatter’s tea party.

With hare coursing banned in England and Wales in 2004, and fewer hares on British tables than at any point over the past three centuries, the chances of spotting boxing hares have never been so good. Here’s a tip for the tardy: the mating season of the hare is not confined to March; this “mad March” ritual is actually played out over a period of seven months from February to August, a treat for the sharp of eye. But, Lewis Carroll aside, none of the participants has been known to follow courtship with a tea party.

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The “Mad March” ritual is actually played out over a period of seven months from February to August.

The body text is attributed to ‘The Field’ Magazine.

THE END

Deterring Witches

Today we use locks, burglar alarms and timer-set lighting to protect our homes, but 300 to 400 years ago householders were not just worried about human intruders. They believed their homes were also at risk from supernatural forces – evil spirits, ill luck, ghosts and witches. Strong magic was therefore needed in a world beset by disease, failed harvests, disastrous fires and unexplained deaths. So, wherever evil might enter a building they buried magic charms, be it in doorways, up chimneys and beneath fireplaces; they even protected roof spaces with dead animals and would ‘brick up’ a bottle full of urine, human hair and nails – of which witches and bad fairies were known to be frightened! Importantly, all these spells against supernatural harm were concealed in secrecy, because secrecy was part of ‘charm’s’ power to protect against demons, witches and curses.

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The brick with magical symbols found at Earlham Hall, Norwich.

Today, witch bottles and mummified animals are still being discovered during renovations and demolitions, In Hethersett, near Norwich in Norfolk, a bottle with iron pins and nails was found buried beneath a cottage fireplace. A dead cat was concealed in a room in King’s Lynn, a horse skull was hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, and a jar of urine, human hair and nails was unearthed in King Street, Norwich.

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horse skull hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, Norfolk

The practice of trying to turn away evil with magic charms and potions is called apotropaios and was common for centuries. The “apotropaic” terminology comes from the Greek term “apotropaios,” meaning “averting evil.” Witches or their evil conjured spirits were thought to attempt to enter homes via doorways, hearths, and windows, and hide in shadows made by the nooks and crannies of the house. It was believed that once they had entered the property, witches and evil spirits would want to attack the inhabitants, or ruin the most valuable possessions of the owner. Tudor proprietors took a proactive approach to the issue, and carved the apotropaic marks near where items of value were storedIn Britain it was particularly prevalent during the peak period of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was still seen into the 20th century.

These protective measures were taken inside all types and sizes of buildings, irrespective of the status of their occupants. Marks have been found in lowly cottages and high status buildings including the Tower of London. It seemed that homes, businesses, churches and grand houses all had a need of protection.

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The Red Cat of the Red Cat Hotel in North Wootton.

Animals were believed to have special powers, Particularly dead cats, sometimes positioned as if hunting. Cats were also believed to have a sixth sense and might have been hidden as a sacrifice to ward off bad luck and black magic. During the 17th Century, it was common in England to bury mummified cats in the walls or ceilings to deter witches or evil spirits from entering the property. Remains of a cat were found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011.

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Mummified Cat

It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Partly because of the cat’s sleek movements and eyes that ‘glow’ at night, they became the embodiment of darkness, mystery, and evil, possessing frightening powers. If a black cat walked into the room of an ill person, and the person later died, it was blamed on the cat’s supernatural powers. If a black cat crossed a person’s path without harming them, this indicated that the person was then protected by the devil. Often times, a cat would find shelter with older women who were living in solitude. The cat became a source of comfort and companionship, and the old woman would curse anyone who mistreated it. If one of these tormentors became ill, the witch and her familiar were blamed.

Witches (Bottle)Witch bottles a common counter spell against illness caused by witchcraft was to put the sick person’s urine (and sometimes also hair and fingernails clippings) in a bottle with nails, pins, or threads, cork it tightly, and either set it to heat by the hearth or bury it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in 1671, ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’ (The Astrological Practice of Physick (1671). Usually buried beneath the hearth or near entrances to buildings, their recipe was still known in a Norfolk village in 1939:

“Take a stone bottle, make water in it, fill it with your own toe-nails and finger-nails, iron nails and anything which belongs to you. Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. The room must be in darkness; you must not speak or make a noise. The witch will come to your door and make a lot of noise and beg you to open the door and let her in. If you do not take any notice, but keep silent, the witch will burst. The strain on the mind of the person when the witch is begging to be let in is usually so great that the person often speaks and the witch is set free.” (E. G. Bales, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 67).

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A 16th-century Bellarmine jar found on the site of The Forum in Norwich.

Witch bottles are usually found beneath hearths or front-doors, but have also been uncovered from beneath floors and inside walls. Around 200 have been recorded in England, dating back to the 16th century. More than half are grey stoneware bottles and jars called bellarmine, decorated with the faces of grim-looking bearded men. As well as the ingredients mentioned above, they sometimes contained small bones, thorns, pieces of wood and heart-shaped scraps of fabric.

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A witch bottle found in Bury St Edmunds, containing the remains of rusty iron objects

Witches (Candle)‘Candle Smoke Marks’ have been found on ceilings, often in bedrooms or hallways near bedrooms. They consist of magical symbols written on the ceiling with the smoke from a candle. There were also spells written in words on rolls of paper, or scratched in pictures and diagrams on walls.

But perhaps the most common hidden charms of all were old shoes – almost always patched and repaired, usually single, often a child’s. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes, such as coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones. This superstition dates back at least as far as the 14th century when Buckinghamshire rector, and unofficial English saint, John Schorn is said to have trapped the devil in a boot – something which is depicted on several Norfolk rood screens. More than 1,200 examples have been recorded with one of the earliest found so far hidden in Winchester Cathedral in 1308. And the practise survived into the 20th century. Strange as it may seem, modern shoes are regularly encountered; there was an example not so long ago of a Nike trainer being found in the roof of a central London bank and the clues seemed to indicate that it had been deliberately placed there.

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The lonesome shoe at St. John’s, Cambridge University was discovered while staff members were removing panels to install electrical cables in the Senior Combination Room located in the College’s Tudor-era Second Court. This building was constructed between 1598 and 1602 and was originally home to the Master of the College. However, experts believe it was placed behind the panels between the end of the 17th century and mid-way through the 18th.

In homes, shoes were often placed on a ledge inside a chimney where it was thought they would trap bad spirits. Nothing unusual here; hidden charms were generally placed at entry and exit points, including the hearth which would have been open to the sky. Any supernatural harm circling the house would, hopefully, be put off trying to gain access.

It has been found that some houses had shoes, bottles, marks and cats, all from the same period, hidden together, evidence that there was a very strong urge to protect the property and occupants. Others have been found with many layers of protection, such as the three witch-bottles found mortared into the hearth of a grand house in Essex, at a time when the mistress was known to have been very ill. Maybe it was believed that she was bewitched!

Many hidden charms will still be concealed in buildings so, anyone keen to search for magic charms in their own houses, should try under floorboards or above lintels near doors, in walls and roofs, and around hearths and chimneys. Simply shining the beam of a torch obliquely across hearths or door lintels could reveal ritual marks carved into the stone.

It is known that buildings from the 17th and 18th century are frequently found to contain hidden charms. By their very nature, these charms are concealed so they are often only found by luck or during repairs or demolition. Many, of course, will have vanished without trace into builders skips or the antiques trade so they may have been far more common that we imagine.

Objects such as witch-bottles, dried cats, concealed shoes, horse skulls and written charms – amongst others – have all been found in buildings in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia. These are mainly found during demolition, restoration or sometimes just by exploring the nooks and crannies of a building.

It is a fact that secrecy and mystery still surrounds many of hidden charms, even after they are discovered. Unlike superstitions such as up-turned horseshoes, which are displayed openly, it was thought that magic lost its potency if uncovered and even modern-day householders often don’t want items removed or even discussed – perhaps because a vestige of those old beliefs still remains. It is quite common for extremely sensible, non-superstitious and professional people to suddenly become very superstitious and acutely tuned-in to the supernatural when they find these objects in their home. It is said that one home-owner refused to allow the contents of a bottle found in his home to be examined and insisted that it be re-buried with a small ritual with some nuns. Others have insisted that concealed shoes are returned to their find-spot and that cats be re-concealed.

THE END

British Folklore: Ten Dragons

Although Beowulf and Saint George are the most famous dragon slayers in British mythology, even they cannot defeat all the dragons that appear in the larger folklore of England, Wales, and Scotland. Many of these dragons, or “worms” as they are frequently called, have stories which link them with fixed locations throughout the UK. As such, a large portion of Britain’s dragons are part of local folktales that have been handed down over centuries.

1 The Red And White Dragons

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Photo via Wikimedia

The image of the dragon is an integral part of Welsh identity. As evidence of this, a red dragon is emblazoned on the country’s flag as a symbol of Welsh pride and nationalism. This dragon, along with a white dragon, appear in The Mabinogion—one of the earliest examples of British prose literature and an important collection of Welsh mythology. Compiled sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries, the Mabinogion contains numerous tales that have become famous across the world, such as some of the earliest accounts of the Celtic leader King Arthur. “Lludd and Llefelys,” another famous tale, details the important war between the red dragon and the invading white dragon.

In the story, the foreign white dragon is so fearsome that its cries cause women to miscarry and its mere presence is enough to kill livestock and ruin crops. Determined to rid his kingdom of this menace, King Lludd of Britain visits his brother Llefelys in France. Llefelys tells his brother to prepare a pit filled with mead and cover it with cloth. After Lludd completes this task, the white dragon begins to drink from the pit and falls into a drunken stupor. With the monster asleep, Lludd captures the dragon and imprisons it in Dinas Emrys, a wooden hillock in Wales.

One of the more common interpretations of this story is that the red dragon represents the native Celtic inhabitants of Britain while the white dragon is a symbol of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons who began invading England in the fifth century. A related idea is that the white dragon is the symbol of the Saxon warlord Vortigern while the red dragon is the flag of King Arthur’s forces. Either way, “Lludd and Llefelys” does show a close relationship between Celtic Britain and Gaul (today’s France), which may make this story’s origins even older than the fifth century.

2 Dragon Of Loschy Hill

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“The Dragon of Loschy Hill” is a tragic Yorkshire tale that is recounted by Reverend Thomas Parkinson in his 1888 book Yorkshire Legends and Traditions. According to Parkinson’s account, a large dragon once haunted a wooded area later known as Loschy’s Hill in the parish of Stonegrave. As the dragon terrified local villagers, a brave knight named Peter Loschy decided to kill the beast once and for all. While wearing a special suit of armor that featured several razor blades, Loschy and a trusted dog set out to find the dragon.

Feeling confident that the knight would be just another meal, the dragon wrapped itself around Loschy’s armor and tried to squeeze the human into eternal submission. Loschy’s armour gave the dragon numerous cuts, but all of them healed quickly. Although stunned by the dragon’s supernatural powers, Loschy managed to cut off pieces of the dragon’s skin with his sword. His dog then carried the pieces to Nunnington Church. Loschy and his dog managed to dismember the dragon so thoroughly that it could not regenerate. Loschy was so overjoyed that he didn’t realize that his face was coated in the dragon’s poison. Upon licking his master’s face, the faithful dog ingested the poison and died. In turn, the poison fumes became too much for Loschy, and he died by his dog’s side. As a show of gratitude, the villagers of Stonegrave buried Loschy next his dog in Nunnington Church, where stone engravings retell the story for all to see.

3 Sockburn Worm

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Photo credit: Timothy Dawson

The Sockburn worm is a wyvern, not a dragon. Although a relative of the dragon, northern European folklore depicts wyverns as smaller creatures with the head of a dragon, the body of a snake, the wings of a bat, and two legs that protrude above a long, serpentlike tail. Despite being smaller than dragons, wyverns were known for being exceptionally vicious. The Sockburn worm was no different.

Not long after the Norman Conquest, the Sockburn worm began terrorizing the country surrounding the River Tees in County Durham. The Sockburn worm used its ability to fly and its poisonous breath to wreak havoc all across the Sockburn Peninsula. Realizing that the wyvern must be killed to save the realm, a knight named Sir John Conyers visited a church and offered up the life of his only son to God in preparation for the battle. A document known as the Bowes Manuscript asserts that Conyers not only killed the wyvern but earned land and a title because of his heroism.

Some historians have suggested that the Sockburn worm represents a marauding Danish warrior while others see Conyers as a Norman knight who helped to legitimize Anglo-French rule in the northeast. Whatever the truth, the weapon that Conyers supposedly used to kill the Sockburn worm is still on display in the Durham Cathedral and is called the Conyers falchion.

4 Mester Stoor Worm

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Photo credit: M.H. Squire

Located in the far north of Scotland, the Orkney Islands have an ancient history that stretches all the way back to the Stone Age. During the ninth century, Orkney fell prey to numerous Viking raids from Norway. Ultimately, the islands were settled by Scandinavians who helped to annex the islands for Norwegian and later Dano-Norwegian kings. As the Orkneys offered a way for Germanic and Celtic cultures to interact, the islands became home to unique folklore. As part of that folklore, the Mester stoor worm remains a thoroughly Orcadian tale.

As the legend goes, the Mester stoor worm was a gigantic sea serpent that could wrap itself around the entire world. When it moved, the Mester stoor worm caused earthquakes and other natural disasters. Owing to the monster’s poisonous breath and its habit of smashing ships to pieces, most knights steered clear of the creature. One day, a powerful wizard promised the king that the sea beast could be killed if the king gave up his daughter to the wizard. Not wanting to lose his daughter, the king offered the entire kingdom to any brave warrior who killed the Mester stoor worm.

An unlikely hero emerged by the name of Assipattle, a slow-witted farm boy who killed the dragon by guiding a ship into the dragon’s stomach. There, Assipattle applied burning peat to the dragon’s liver, which eventually caused an explosion that forever rid the world of the Mester stoor worm. According to the legend, the dead beast did bring about a positive change, for the dragon’s scattered teeth created the Orkney Islands.

5 Bignor Hill Dragon

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Photo credit: Simon Carey

Not much is known about the Bignor Hill dragon. Its name appears only sporadically in the historical record, yet the few clues about the beast are quite tantalizing. In the 19th century, The Gentleman’s Magazine recorded that the local inhabitants of Bignor Hill, an area in Sussex dotted with Roman roads, believed that an ancient Celtic dragon lived on top of a nearby hill.

Some folktales spoke of the surrounding hills as being part of the dragon’s skinfolds while others pointed out that the dragon’s den was close to a ruined Roman villa. This later tale is interesting because it may highlight an interpretation of the Bignor Hill dragon as some sort of holdout from the Roman occupation of Britain, which introduced the Roman religion on the island. The notion that the dragon is of Celtic origin likewise points to a Christian demonization of pagan practices.

Although the origins of the Bignor Hill dragon are unknown, Sussex is awash in dragon tales, making it a treasure trove of dragon folklore.

6 Lyminster Knucker

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Lyminster, Sussex, was once home to a knucker. Based on the Old English word nicor, which means “water dragon,” knuckers are predominately found in knuckerholes, ponds that are present throughout Sussex. The Lyminster knucker lived in one such knuckerhole near the major church of Lyminster. The knucker began its reign of terror by snatching away livestock. Then the water dragon began dragging away all the young girls from the village until the only maiden left was the king’s daughter. With few options left, the king of Sussex offered his daughter as the prize for anyone who could slay the dragon.

Three different versions of the legend record three different heroes. One legend has it that a wandering knight killed the dragon before taking the princess as his wife. In another version, a local man named Jim Puttock kills the dragon by feeding it poisoned pudding. A third version says that a man named Jim Pulk slays the dragon with poisoned pudding but forgets to wash the dragon’s poison off his skin and dies as a result. These competing versions merely highlight the importance of the Lyminster knucker story to Sussex folklore. St. Mary Magdalene’s Church in Lyminster is still known as the home of the “Slayer’s Slab“—a tomb that supposedly houses the bones of the man who killed the Lyminster knucker.

7 Laidly Worm Of Spindleston Heugh

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Photo credit: Joseph Jacobs

“The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh” began as a Northumbrian ballad that was passed down through song in northern England. The story begins with the king of Northumbria, who lived inside Bamburgh Castle with his wife and children. When the first queen died, the king took a malicious witch as his bride. The king’s strong son, Childe Wynd, is out to sea, so there is no one in the castle who can stop the witch’s evil plans. Jealous of the beautiful Princess Margaret, the witch turns the young girl into a dragon. The princess remains that way until Childe Wynd returns and kisses the dragon. The prince’s kiss breaks the spell, which allows the prince to claim the throne. As revenge, Childe Wynde curses the witch and turns her into a toad.

This is just one version of this classic tale. In another version, the castle is called Bamborough and the witch’s curse is far worse. Princess Margaret becomes an uncontrollably hungry dragon that must feast upon the area livestock. However, both versions draw inspiration from the Icelandic saga of the shape-shifter Alsol and her lover Hjalmter.

8 The Mordiford Wyvern

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The story of Maud and the Mordiford wyvern is a rather unusual legend. Set in the Herefordshire village of Mordiford, the story concerns a young girl named Maud who finds a baby wyvern while out walking one morning. Maud takes the small creature back to her home as a pet and feeds it milk regularly. As the creature grows older, it develops a taste for human flesh and begins dining on the Mordiford villagers. Despite its cruelty, the wyvern remains loyal to Maud and refuses to eat her. However, even Maud cannot get the wyvern to stop its killing spree. It makes its home on a nearby ridge and its constant movements back and forth create the Serpent Path, a twisting road that ends at a local river.

Several versions of the creature’s demise exist. In one, the scion of the Garston family manages to kill the beast after a fierce ambush. Another version says that a condemned criminal killed the wyvern to escape capital punishment.

9 The Dragon Of Longwitton

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For a time, the inhabitants of Longwitton, Northumberland, were barred from three holy wells. This was not because the water was poisoned but rather because a fearsome dragon kept them away. A hero did not appear until a knight named Sir Guy, Earl of Warwick accepted the task of killing the dragon. For three days, Sir Guy and the dragon fought each other. During that time, Sir Guy grew disenchanted because each cut and stab did nothing to the dragon. Once struck, the dragon simply used magic to heal its own wounds. On the third day, Sir Guy noticed that the dragon kept its tail inside one of the wells throughout the battle. Realizing that the sacred waters allowed the dragon to constantly heal itself, Sir Guy persuaded the dragon to move away from the wells entirely, thereby leaving it vulnerable. Once away from the holy waters, Sir Guy easily managed to kill the creature.

More detailed versions of the story proclaim that the waters were known for their healing properties throughout Northumbria, and as such, the dragon coveted the wells for its own purposes. In some tales, the brave knight also uses a magic ointment to protect himself from the dragon’s breath.

1 Worm Of Linton

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Photo credit: Pasicles

According to 12th-century stories from the Scottish Borders, the Linton worm lived in the “Worm’s Den”—a hill near the village of Linton in Roxburghshire. At dusk and dawn, the dragon left its den to prey upon sheep, cows, and people. All the weapons used against the creature proved useless, and before long, Linton had been reduced to a wasteland.

When word of the dragon reached the ears of William (or John) de Somerville, the Laird of Lariston, the courageous knight decided to act. Riding north, de Somerville noticed that the dragon frequently consumed everything that stood in its way. However, when faced with something too large to swallow, the dragon would lie still with its mouth open. Realizing that this made the dragon vulnerable, de Somerville had a blacksmith create an iron spear with a wheel on its tip. De Somerville placed burning peat on top of the wheel. When he journeyed inside the worm’s mouth on horseback, he placed the fire inside of the dragon, creating a fatal wound. In its death throes, the Linton worm’s thrashing body created the many hills that today populate the region. For his actions, Linton Church (or Kirk) created a carved stone to record the story for posterity.

In some versions, the death of the Linton worm occurred during the reign of King William the Lion, who ruled Scotland from 1143 until 1214. Supposedly, King William greeted de Somerville as “my gallant Saint George” to enhance the nobleman’s confidence. Also, besides the carved stone in Linton Church, de Somerville’s victory is supposedly commemorated by the de Somerville coat of arms, which features a green, fire-breathing dragon on top of the tympanum.

By Benjamin Welton

The Pagan Origins of Easter

Is it worth mentioning that Easter is both a festival for western Christian religions and a holiday for both those with an ecumenical bent and for those of a more secular disposition? Maybe not for we know that for many it is a win win situation, the best of both worlds as they say.

The religious know that Easter is a celebration in honour of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as described in the New Testament as having occurred three days after his crucifixion at Calvary. It is also the weekend when children excitedly wait for the Easter bunny to arrive, along with the delivery of their chocolate egg treat.

Easter is, as everyone knows, is a ‘movable feast’ which corresponds with the first Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox. It therefore occurs on different dates around the world because western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while eastern churches use the Julian calendar. So where did this ‘movable feast’ begin, and what are the origins of the traditions and customs celebrated on this important day around the world?

Christian’s today celebrate Easter Sunday as the resurrection of Jesus. Image source.

Most historians, including Biblical scholars, agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival and the word Easter is of Saxon origin, namely, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered at Passover time each year. By the eighth century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. However, even among those who maintain that Easter has pagan roots, there is some disagreement over which pagan tradition the festival emerged from. Here we will explore some of those perspectives.

Resurrection as a symbol of rebirth

One theory that has been put forward is that the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection is symbolic of rebirth and renewal and retells the cycle of the seasons, the death and return of the sun.

According to some, the Easter story comes from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife Inanna (Ishtar), an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC. When Tammuz dies, Ishtar is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld. In the underworld, she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed. “Naked and bowed low” she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end.

After Inanna has been missing for three days her assistant goes to other gods for help. Finally one of them Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and Damuzi, resurrecting them, and giving them the power to return to the earth as the light of the sun for six months. After the six months are up, Tammuz returns to the underworld of the dead, remaining there for another six months, and Ishtar pursues him, prompting the water god to rescue them both. Thus were the cycles of winter death and spring life.

The Descent of Inanna. Image source.

Drawing parallels between the story of Jesus and the epic of Inanna “does not mean that there wasn’t a real person, Jesus, who was crucified, but rather that the story about it is structured and embellished in accordance with a pattern that was very ancient and widespread.”

The Sumerian goddess Inanna is known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, “Ishtar”. In ancient Canaan, Ishtar is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus. In the 4th Century, when Christians identified the exact site in Jerusalem where the empty tomb of Jesus had been located, they selected the spot where a temple of Aphrodite (Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna) stood. The temple was torn down and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, the holiest church in the Christian world.

The story of Inanna and Damuzi is just one of a number of accounts of dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars. For example, the resurrection of Egyptian Horus; the story of Mithras, who was worshipped at Springtime; and the tale of Dionysus, resurrected by his grandmother. Among these stories are prevailing themes of fertility, conception, renewal, descent into darkness, and the triumph of light over darkness or good over evil.

Easter as a celebration of the Goddess of Spring

A related perspective is that, rather than being a representation of the story of Ishtar, Easter was originally a celebration of Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, and Eastre. One of the most revered aspects of Ostara for both ancient and modern observers is a spirit of renewal.

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Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra or Eastre.

Celebrated at Spring Equinox on March 21, Ostara marks the day when light is equal to darkness, and will continue to grow. As the bringer of light after a long dark winter, the goddess was often depicted with the hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fertility of the season. The idea of resurrection was ingrained within the celebration of Ostara: “Ostara, Eástre and seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of up-springing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God.

Most analyses of the origin of the word ‘Easter’ maintain that it was named after a goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.

The origins of Easter customs

The most widely-practiced customs on Easter Sunday relate to the symbol of the rabbit (‘Easter bunny’) and the egg.  As outlined previously, the rabbit was a symbol associated with Eostre, representing the beginning of Springtime. Likewise, the egg has come to represent Spring, fertility and renewal.  In Germanic mythology, it is said that Ostara healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.

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Ostara/Eostre

The Encyclopedia Britannica clearly explains the pagan traditions associated with the egg: “The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival.” In ancient Egypt, an egg symbolised the sun, while for the Babylonians, the egg represents the hatching of the Venus Ishtar, who fell from heaven to the Euphrates.

Relief with Phanes, c. 2nd century A.D. Orphic god Phanes emerging from the cosmic egg, surrounded by the zodiac. Image source.

In many Christian traditions, the custom of giving eggs at Easter celebrates new life. Christians remember that Jesus, after dying on the cross, rose from the dead, showing that life could win over death. For Christians the egg is a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection, as when they are cracked open, they stand for the empty tomb. Regardless of the very ancient origins of the symbol of the egg, most people agree that nothing symbolises renewal more perfectly than the egg – round, endless, and full of the promise of life.

While many of the pagan customs associated with the celebration of Spring were at one stage practised alongside Christian Easter traditions, they eventually came to be absorbed within Christianity, as symbols of the resurrection of Jesus.  The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox.

Whether it is observed as a religious holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or a time for families in the northern hemisphere to enjoy the coming of Spring and celebrate with egg decorating and Easter bunnies, the celebration of Easter still retains the same spirit of rebirth and renewal, as it has for thousands of years.

Text after April Holloway

March Hares & Witches

The Customs and Traditons of Spring

The ‘Spring’ or ‘Vernal Equinox’, which was once called ‘Ostara’, occurs on either 20th, 21st or 22nd March when the sun enters ‘Aries’ according to the Earth’s orbit and the insertion of leap years. The Spring Equinox marks the time when the sun crosses the celestial equator northwards or the ‘half way point’ resulting in equal twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. At the equinox the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west after which the daylight hours grow increasingly longer until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky at the ‘Summer Solstice’, which occurs in June. 

The Oestra Hare in folklore and tradition

Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival? The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival’s connection with the pagan goddess Eostre.

Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word “oestrogen” and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.

In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake – the Easter “bunny” is more likely to have been a hare, since it is the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.

Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance.

The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively.  The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there. 

Witch Hares

It is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion. When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches’ familiars.

THE END