The following article appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on 2 February 1908:-
“A luminous owl (for there may be more than one!) was captured on Wednesday morning by Mr Edward Cannell at Lower Hellesdon and died from purely natural causes a few minutes afterwards.
A “John Knowlittle”, wrote “A Daily Press reporter, who has enquired into the circumstances, may be relied upon to weep for the luminous fowl. I have only to do with the facts, which are these”:-
“Mr Edward S Cannell is the engineer at the Norwich City Asylum (John Knowlittle will chuckle at that, I have no doubt) but Mr Cannell does not live at the Asylum – he is a trained and highly responsible man and is known to nearly everybody). I asked Mr Cannell to tell me how he came to find the owl.
“Yesterday morning” said Mr Cannell, between 6.00 and 6.30 when it was still dark, I went out into my garden. I had my dog with me. There is a grass bank about 2.5 feet high on one side and a grape vine on a wall on the other. I saw something shining on the grass bank, which for a moment startled me. It fluttered down, crossed the path and got up against the grape vine. I had no trouble in catching it and I did not hurt it in any way. It was an owl and it was bright and luminous. I should say that it was an ordinary owl, but the taxidermist will tell you all about that.
I carried it indoors and put it on a stool, then went out into the garden again. I do not think the dog saw the bird at all. When I came back into the house the bird was dying. It was still luminous, but perhaps the glow was not so strong as when I first saw it.
When I came into breakfast the bird was quite dead. Of course it was daylight then and I could see no luminosity in the bird; it’s light had gone out. I have no doubt at all that the bird was luminous when I saw it first. It was the diffused light which first attracted my attention. The luminosity appeared to me to be phosphorescent in its nature”. – “There are a number of owls that fly about among the trees at the Asylum every night but I have never seen a luminous one before”!
St. Nicholas’ church in East Dereham, Norfolk has a tower detached from the building. It is said the bells were originally hung in the 13th century lantern tower rising from the centre, but they became too heavy for the structure and were removed to the bell-tower in the churchyard, specially built in the 16th century. In 1797 it was used as a temporary gaol for French prisoners on their way from Great Yarmouth. One tried to escape by hiding in a tree, but was shot and buried in the graveyard (his memorial is near St. Withburga’s Well.)
By tradition the tower was once attached to the church, but the builder forgot to use the proper mortar and it was never watertight. The parson ordered the tower to be pitched all over, but while it was still hot and sticky, all the birds of Dereham (some say a flock of starlings) flew over to see what the fuss was. They landed on the tower, but on finding their feet stuck, kicked up a commotion and fluttered their wings so hard that they flew away with the tower. But before they’d flown far, their feet came unstuck and the tower fell where it stands.
R. H. Mottram: ‘East Anglia’ (Chapman & Hall, 1933), pp.179-80.
Noel Boston & Eric Puddy: ‘Dereham’ (G. A. Coleby, 1952), pp. 148-9.
Eastern Daily Press & Norfolk Churches
Where do fairies come from? Folklorists, philosophers, historians, mystics and others have debated this question for centuries. No one really knows how fairies originated — unless it’s the fairies themselves, and they’re not telling. What we do know is that tales of the fairies can be found on every continent around the globe, and that belief in the existence of the “Hidden People” is surprisingly widespread today.
Some scholars see the vestiges of pagan religions in tales about the fairies — who are, they say, the diminished remnants of once powerful gods and goddesses. Other scholars insist that fairies are really just the early, indigenous peoples of each land, who may have been viewed as magical and otherworldly by conquering tribes. Many people once thought that fairies were fallen angels who’d been ejected from Heaven but weren’t quite wicked enough for Hell, or else that they were the wandering souls of children who’d died unbaptized. Some read the following words from the Bible as proof that God had created the fairy race in addition to mankind: “And other sheep have I that are not of this fold.” (John 10:16). The most widespread belief, still prevalent today, is that fairies are simply nature spirits and thus as ancient as wind and rain. In this view, they’re the manifestations of the living spirit in all organic matter.
In the 15th century, an alchemist named Paracelus divided fairies into four elemental groups: sylphs (air), gnomes (earth), undines (water), and salamanders (fire). They are made of flesh and blood, he said, and procreate like human beings but are longer lived than man and do not possess immortal souls. In the 17th century, Scottish minister and scholar Robert Kirk wrote that fairies “are of a middle nature betwixt man and angel,” with “light changeable bodies, like those called astral, somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen at twilight.”(1)
In the 19th century, the physiology of fairies was of great interest to spiritualists (2), who divided them into two basic types: nature spirits tied to features of the landscape (a river, a pool, a copse of trees), and higher spirits who lived on an astral plane between flesh and thought. In the early 20th century, Theosophist (3) Charles W. Leadbeater developed an elaborate system of fairy classification inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Leadbeater maintained that fairies live on an astral plane divided into seven levels. He believed the fairy race to be the original inhabitants of England, driven to its margins by the invasion of mankind; and he drew elaborate diagrams showing how the fairies had evolved. His chart began with mineral life and then rose upward through water and earth, and through seaweed, fungi, and bacteria. Further up the evolutionary ladder he showed how fairies developed through grasses and cereals, reptiles and birds, sea flora and fauna, until they matured into nature spirits linked to each of the four elements. But evolution didn’t stop there; these nature spirits would in turn evolve into sylphs, then devas, and then into angels. On the top rung of the ladder the fairies would become what he called “solar spirits,” where they’d join with evolved humans in a more enlightened age. (4)
Another Theosophist, Edward Garner, argued that fairies are allied to the butterfly genus, and are made of a substance lighter than gas which renders them invisible to human beings (except clairvoyants). The function of fairies in nature, he said, is to provide a link between plants and the energy of the sun. He wrote that the “growth of a plant which we regard as the customary and inevitable result of associating the three factors of sun, seed, and soil would never take place if the fairy builders were absent.” (5) Franz Hartmann, a medical doctor, believed that fairies have a role in human psychology, explaining that “the spirits of nature have their dwellings within us as well as outside of us, and no man is perfectly master of himself unless he thoroughly knows his own nature and its inhabitants.” (6)
While spiritualists, in their journals and lectures, argued how many fairies could fit on the head of a pin or swim through the higher astral plane, unlettered country people were taking great pains to avoid the fairies’ notice. Charms, talismans, and spells were used to keep troublesome fairies at bay — to chase them away from the house, the livestock, newborn children, and unmarried girls. Although fairies had been known to give aid to mortals, more often they were seen as irksome creatures, quick to take offense and dangerous when riled. Fairy bargains were notoriously tricky things and fairy treasure was often cursed. Mortals who stumbled into Fairyland could end up trapped in that realm forever, or emerge from it aged and withered, even though it had seemed like little time had passed. Fairies were blamed for soured milk, blighted crops, and barren cows; for illness, madness, birth defects and other mysterious ills. Even good fairies followed rules and taboos that could be unfathomable to humans — thus it was wise to be scrupulously polite and to treat all fairies with great caution. Folklore is filled with cautionary tales outlining the perils of fairy encounters. Do not eat fairy food, they say, for it will trap you in Fairyland. Avoid using a fairy’s name, and don’t ever tell them your own. Don’t bargain with the fairies, or join their dances, or spy on their courtly revels. Wear your shirt inside out and carry iron to avoid abduction.
There are numerous stories of human beings abducted into Fairyland — particularly newborn babies, attractive young children, midwives, and musicians. When human babies are snatched from the cradle, a fairy changeling is left behind. Sometimes this creature is merely a piece of wood enchanted to look like a child; other times it is a sickly fairy baby, or an old and peevish fairy. The stolen human children are petted and cosseted for a while — until they grow big and lumpish, or until the fairy court grows bored with them — whereupon they are turned into household slaves for the rest of their mortal lives, or banished from the Realm (for which they’ll pine from that day forward). Some say the fairies are required to pay a blood-tithe to Hell every seven years, and that they steal mortals for this purpose so as not to sacrifice one of their own. A human knight named Tam Lin was destined to be the tithe in one famous old tale, until his true love tricked the Fairy Queen into releasing him on All Hallows Eve.
Some fairy lore makes a clear division between good and wicked types of fairies — between those who are friendly to mankind, and those who seek to cause us harm. In Scottish tales, good fairies make up the Seelie Court, which means the Blessed Court, while bad fairies congregate in the Unseelie Court, ruled by the dark queen Nicnivin. In old Norse myth, the Liosálfar (Light Elves) are regal, compassionate creatures who live in the sky in the realm of Alfheim, while the Döckálfar (the Dark Elves) live underground and are greatly feared. Yet in other traditions, a fairy can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance or on the fairy’s whim. They are often portrayed as amoral beings, rather than as immoral ones, who simply have little comprehension of human notions of right and wrong.
The great English folklorist Katherine Briggs tended to avoid the “good” and “bad” division, preferring the categorizations of Solitary and Trooping Fairies instead. She noted that the fairies in either group “may be evil, dealing death or sickness to every man and creature they pass on their way, like the Sluagh of the Highlands; they may steal unchurched wives from child-bed, or snatch away unchristened babes leaving animated stocks [pieces of wood] or sickly children of their own in their place, or they may be harmless and even beneficial — fertility spirits watching over the growth of flowers or bringing good luck to herds or children.” Solitary Fairies are generally those associated with a certain location: a bog, a lake, the roots of a tree, a particular hill or household. The Trooping Fairies, by contrast, are gregarious creatures fond of hunting, feasting, dancing, and holding court. “This is perhaps particularly true of the British Isles,” writes Briggs, “though in France, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany there are the same tales of dancing, revelry and processions.” (7)
Other folklorists divide the fairies by their elemental, rather than their temperament, harking back to Paracelus’ classification system of earth, air, water, and fire. Fairies associated with the earth are the most numerous group. Earth elementals include those who live in caves, barrows, and deep underground, and who often have a special facility for working with precious metals. This group includes the Coblynau in the hills of Wales, the Gandharvas of India, the Erdluitle of northern Italy, the Maanväki of Finland, the Thrussers of Norway, the Karzalek of Poland, the Illes of Iceland, the various Dwarves of Old Norse legends, and the Gans of the Apache tribe. Forest fairies are also earth elementals, and are the most numerous type of fairy around the world. Fairies of this type include the shy Aziza in the forests of West Africa, the Mu of Papua New Guinea, the Shinseen of China, the Silvanni of Italy, the Oakmen of the British Isles, the Skogsra of Sweden, the Kulaks of Burma, the Hantu Hutan of the Malay Peninsula, the Bela of Indonesia, the Patu–Paiarehe of the Maori, and the Manitou of the Algonquin tribe. Other earth fairies are those who guard standing stones, such as the web–footed Couril of Brittany, and sand fairies in desert environments, such as the Ahl Al-trab found in Arabic lands.
Fairies associated with water include all the magical merfolk of the sea, such as the Merrows of Ireland, the Daoine Mara of Scotland, the Mal-de-Mer of Brittany, the Nereides of Greece, and the selkies (seal people) who haunt the coasts of Scandinavia and the British Isles. Rivers, lakes, pools, and other fresh water sources are also home to water fairies both gentle and malign, including the nixies and kelpies of English rivers, the Rhinemaidens of Germany, the Kludde of Belgium, the Draks of France, the Laminak of the Basque region, the Hotots of Armenia, the Judi of Macedonia, the Cacce-Halde of Lapland, the sweet-voiced Nakk of Estonia, and the bashful Nokke who appeared only at dusk and dawn in Sweden.
Fairies associated with air include the various winged fairies and sylphs that are so numerous in modern picture books, popularized by Tinkerbell and Victorian-era fairy paintings. Examples of air fairies include the luminous Soulth of Irish fairy lore, the Star Folk of the Algonquin tribe, the Atua of Fairies bearing lanterns by Arthur RackhamPolynesia, and the Peri, the “good fairies” of Persian legends, who are said to dine exclusively on perfume and other delicate scents. Fairies who account for weather phenomena, such as mistral winds, whirlwinds, and storms, are associated with the air element, including the Spriggans of Cornwall, the Vily of Slavonia, the Vintoasele of Serbia and Crotia, the Rusali of Romania, and the mischievous Folletti of Italy.
The most common type of fire fairy is the salamander, an elemental spirit much prized by Renaissance alchemists. Also associated with fire are the Djinn, who are the “bad fairies” of Persian lore, and the Drakes (or Drachen), fire fairies found across the British Isles and western Europe who resemble streaking balls of fire and smell like rotten eggs. Luminous, will-o’-the-wisp type fire fairies are famous for leading travelers astray — including the Ellylldan of Welsh marshland, the Teine Sith of the Scottish Hebrides, the Spunkies of southwest England, Le Faeu Boulanger of the Channel Islands, the Candelas of Sardinia, and the Fouchi Fatui of northern Italy. The various fairies who guard hearth fires are also associated with this element, such as the Gabija of Lithuania and Natrou-Monsieur of France. The Muzayyara are fiery, seductive fairies in old Egyptian tales; and the Akamu is a particularly dangerous fire fairy found in Japan.
Although (as the brief list above indicates) fairies are known all around the world, nowhere are they quite so varied and populous as they are in the British Isles — which is probably why we find so many of them in English literature. Fairies can be found in many of the courtly Romances of the medieval period, although they’re rarely named as such, “fairy” being a relatively late term. These ancient stories are filled with fairy-like men and women who wield magic, live in enchanted palaces, forge magical weaponry, and bewitch or beguile innocent mortals — such as the Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur. The tales of King Arthur and his court are particular rife with fairy-like beings, especially in the Welsh and Breton traditions — as are the splendid Lays of Marie de France, written for the English court sometime around the 12th century. The Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales speaks wistfully of an elf queen and her merry court in the old days of King Arthur, when “al was this land fulfild of fayerye” — as opposed to the Wife of Bath’s own time (the 14th century), when fairies were rarely seen.
A 13th century French Romance called Huon of Bordeaux was popular among English readers. This sprightly story of King Oberon, Queen Mab, and assorted knights of the fairy court is notable for providing inspiration for the fairy plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare seems to have been well versed in traditional English fairy lore, for he borrowed liberally from this tradition to create the fairies who quarrel, scheme, and cavort in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Along with Queen Mab from Mercutio’s famous speech in Romeo and Juliet, these are the best known and most influential fairies in all English literature — which is why diminutive fairies “no bigger than an agate-stone on the fore-finger of an alderman” are better known today than their human-sized cousins found in many older stories. Fairies are also the subject, of course, in Edmund Spenser’s extraordinary poem, The Faerie Queene, written in the late 16th century — although Spenser’s fairy court owes more to Italian Romance than to homegrown English fairy legends.
In the 17th century, fairies inspired Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia, the Court of Fayre, a satirical work featuring King Oberon, Queen Mab and a hapless knight named Pigwiggen. A series of poems in Robert Herrick’s Hesperides also feature King Oberon, and also have a satirical edge, but this is a darker, more sensual look at Fairyland than Drayton’s. In the 18th century, the fairies appeared in Alexander Pope’s arch tale, The Rape of the Lock; and also, covertly, in Gulliver’s Travels, the great satire by Jonathan Swift, for Swift used many elements of fairy lore to create his tiny Lilliputians.
It was in the same century that Bishop Thomas Percy began to collect old British folk ballads, which he published in an influential volume called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Without Percy’s labors, many traditional ballads might have been lost forever — he rescued one old manuscript from kitchen maids who were using it to light the fire. Percy’s work had a notable influence on the writers of the German Romantic movement, who in turn influenced such English Romantics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and John Keats. All three of these writers wrote fairy poems, but the ones that are best known and loved today are Keats’ evocative “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Other writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who were much beloved by the fairies, and vice versa, were Tom Moore, Thomas Hood, Allan Cunningham, and especially James Hogg. Known as The Ettrick Shepherd, Hogg was a working shepherd for most of his life as well as a writer of popular tales that drew upon old Scottish legends.
James Hogg’s good friend Sir Walter Scott was another writer who found inspiration in Bishop Thomas Percy’s efforts to preserve the folk heritage of Britain. Scott’s fiction is permeated with the fairy lore of his native Scotland, and he was an enormously influential figure in the 19th century folklore movement. As a collector of tales and ballads himself, Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border preserved important fairy ballads such as Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and did much to educate readers about the value of Scotland’s rich folk history. In addition, Scott gathered around him a group of poets and antiquarians who were likewise interested in preserving the old country tales of a nation that was rapidly urbanizing. Scott was fond of fairy lore in particular — for he’d believed in fairies in his youth, and never entirely lost faith in “things invisible to mortal sight.”
Partially due to Scott’s influence, two extensive volumes of fairy lore appeared in the early 19th century: Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology and Thomas Crofton Crocker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. They proved to be enormously popular and kicked off an explosion of folklore books by Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Anna Eliza Bray, Joseph Jacobs, and many others. These books are important when looking at English literature and art of the 19th century, for they were avidly read by a wide variety of Victorian writers and artists. Folklore was still a new field back then — the name itself wasn’t coined until 1846 — and these groundbreaking publications generated talk and excitement among the intellectuals of London. At the same time, the magical tales and poems of the folklore-loving German Romantic writers (Goethe, Tieck, Novalis, etc.) frequently appeared in English magazines of the period. One German story, in particular, captivated Victorian readers: “Undine” by Baron de la Motte Fouqué, about a water nymph’s love for a mortal knight and her attempt to gain an immortal soul. “Undine” inspired a large number of subsequent stories, paintings, and dramatic productions about doomed fairy lovers of various kinds (including, over in Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”). Such stories were particularly appealing to readers who were interested in matters of the occult and in psychic phenomena — which was a substantial segment of the reading public once the spiritualist movement crossed the sea from America and took England by storm. These various influences came together to create a wide-spread interest in the fairy race that was unprecedented. At no other time in British history have the fairies been so popular among all types of people, from the working class to the aristocracy.
In visual art, following in the footsteps of the 18th century painters Henry Fuseli and William Blake, artists such as Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, Eleanor Fortesque-Brickdale, and many, many others created an entire genre of Victorian Fairy Art. These were paintings intended or adults, not children. John Anster Fitzgerald’s fairy imagery, for instance, was often dark and hallucinatory, full of references to opium pipes and opium medicines (9) ; and Richard Dadd’s obsessively detailed fairy paintings were created in a mental hospital where Dadd was interred after he went mad and killed his father. Many fairy paintings were distinctly salacious, such as Sir Joseph Noël Paton’s huge canvases of luscious fairy maidens in various states of undress. Fairies enabled Victorian painters to explore the subject of sexuality during the very years when that subject was most repressed in polite society. Paintings of the nude were deemed acceptable so long as those nudes sported fairy wings.
The passion for fairies among Victorian adults must also be viewed in light of the rapid changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, as Britain moved from the rhythms of its rural past toward the mechanized future. With factories and suburban blight transforming huge tracts of English countryside, fairy paintings and stories were rich in nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. In particular, the art of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — depicting scenes from Romance, legend and myth — promoted a dreamy medievalism and the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship to counter what they saw as a soul-less new world created by modern forms of mass production. (“For every locomotive they build,” vowed artist Edward Burne-Jones, “I shall paint another angel.”) The Arts & Crafts movement, which grew out of Pre-Raphaelitism, embraced folklore and fairies to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century fairies could be found in middle class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc. Advances in printing methods allowed the production of lavishly illustrated fairy tale books, ostensibly aimed at children but with production values calculated to please adults (and the growing breed of book collectors). Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Warwick Goble, Laurence Housman, Jessie M. King and numerous others produced wonderful fairy pictures for these volumes. (Jessie King, like William Blake before her, was an artist who passionately believed in the fairies. Her lovely illustrations were based, she said, on visions seen with her “third eye.”)
In the pre-cinema world of the Victorians, theatre, ballet, and opera had greater importance as forms of popular entertainment than they enjoy today — as well as a greater influence on the visual and literary arts. In the 1830s, the new Romantic ballet (as opposed to formal, classical ballet) thrilled large audiences in London with productions that dramatized tales of love between mortals and fairy spirits. Aided by innovations in “point work” (dancing on the points of one’s toes), and improvements in
theatre gas-lighting techniques, sumptuous fairylands were created in hit productions such as La Sylphide, the tragic story of a mortal man in love with an elfin maid. In theater, fairy plays were staged with stunningly elaborate special effects, each new production striving to be even more spectacular than the last.
Fairy music was another popular phenomenon, much of it imported from Germany — such as Weber’s fairy opera Oberon, Hoffman’s Undine (based on Fouqué’s novella), Wagner’s Die Feen (The Fairies), and Mendelssohn’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairy music for the harp was composed and performed by charismatic musicians as popular then as pop stars are now, and young women swooned and followed their favorite harpists from concert to concert. Magical music and dance reached its height in the works of Tchaikovsky, the brilliant Russian composer who took London — indeed, all of Europe — by storm. The popularity of his fairy tale ballets (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker) fuelled the Victorian public’s love of all things magical and fey.
In literature (as in art, theater, and ballet) the fairies made their presence known, turning up in numerous books written and published during the Victorian era. Some of these works were for adult readers, such as Anne Thackaray Ritchie’s Fairy Tales for Grown-ups, the Arthurian poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Morris, and (at the turn of the century) the remarkable fairy poetry of Celtic Twilight writers such as William Sharp (writing as Fiona McCleod) and William Butler Yeats. But one of the major shifts we see in fairy literature from the 19th century onward is that more and more of it was published in books intended for small children.
There were two major reasons why this shift occurred, despite the fact that adult fascination with fantasy and fairies had rarely been so high. First, the Victorians romanticized the very idea of “childhood” to a degree never seen before; earlier, childhood had not been viewed as something quite so separate from adult life. Children, according to this earlier view, came into the world in sin and had to be strictly civilized into God-fearing members of society. By Victorian times, this belief was changing to one in which children were inherently innocent, rather than inherently sinful — and childhood became a special Golden Age, a time of fanciful play and exploration before the burdens of adulthood were assumed. Mothers were encouraged to have a more doting attitude toward their little ones (following the example of Queen Victoria herself), and this, combined with the rising wealth of the Victorian middle class, led to an explosion in the market for children’s books.
Children’s fiction in the previous century had been diabolically dreary, consisting primarily of pious, tedious books of moral instruction. But in the 19th century, new European fairy tale collections by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were proving enormously popular with English children. Publishers and writers took note of this and soon began producing volumes of magical tales set in the British Isles — including tales inspired by English fairy lore, toned down and de-sexed for younger readers. A lot of these fairy tale volumes, marred by these heavy-handed alterations, make abysmal reading today — but some retained enough of the magic of their source material to have stood the test of time, such as the famous series co-edited by Andrew & Jane Lang: The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.
In addition to re-telling traditional tales, Victorian writers created original fairy stories for children using the tropes of folklore in charming and innovative ways — including John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Charlotte Yonge’s The History of Tom Thumb, Christina Rossetti’s extraordinary Goblin Market, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Jean Ingelow’s Mopsa the Fairy, George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, to name just a few.
In his excellent book Victorian Fairy Tales, folklorist Jack Zipes divides the magical children’s fiction published from 1860 onward into two basic types: conventional stories, and stories written in a utopian mode. Although there were some good fantasy tales of the conventional type, such as the fairy stories of Jean Ingelow and the ghost stories of Mary Louisa Molesworth, many others were forgettable confections full of twinkly fairies with butterfly wings and good little boys and girls who caused no disturbance to the status quo. Utopian fantasies, Zipes notes, demonstrated “a profound belief in the power of the imagination as a potent force” to change English society, and these books were written by some of the very finest authors of the day. George Macdonald, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Laurence Housman, Ford Maddox Ford, E. Nesbit (in her later works), and many other writers created magical tales that were archly critical of Victorian life, promoting the possibility of a better society. The prevalence of utopian fantasy is explained by looking at the context of the culture which produced it — a society in the grip of great upheaval due to rapid industrialization. Fairies flittered across London stages and nested in bucolic scenes on gallery walls, but outside on the city streets it was a long, long way from Never Land, crowded as they were with beggars, cripples, prostitutes (many of them children), and with homeless, desperate men and women displaced by the new economy.
While the upper classes charmed themselves with fairy books and dancing nymphs, and clapped to bring Tinkerbell back to life, in the lower classes, both urban and rural, fairies remained a different matter altogether. Here, the delicate winged maidens depicted by painters and ballet dancers were superseded by the fearsome creatures of the still-living oral tradition. Throughout the 19th century, the British newspapers reported cases of fairy sightings, curses, and abductions. The most famous of these incidents occurred as late as 1895, and riveted newspaper readers all across the British Isles. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a spirited young woman in Ireland who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling. Bridget Cleary had fallen gravely ill, and the family had consulted a Fairy Doctor. He claimed that Bridget had been abducted and taken under a fairy hill, and that the sickly creature in her bed was a fairy changeling in disguise. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself — ordeals that soon grew so extreme that poor Bridget died. Convinced it was a fairy he had killed, Bridget’s husband then went to the fairy fort to wait for his “real” wife to ride out seated on a milk white horse. Bridget’s disappearance was soon noted, the body found, the horrible crime brought to light, and Michael and other family members and neighbors found themselves prosecuted for murder. Although this was the most flamboyant case of changeling-murder in the Victorian press, sadly it was not the only account of brutal mistreatment of those deemed to be fairies. Usually the poor victims were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden wasting illnesses. It wasn’t until the 20th century that reports of fairy abductions began to dwindle — when reports of abductions by aliens began to take their place.
The last major fairy encounter reported widely by the British press took place in the tranquil countryside of Yorkshire in 1917 — when Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, and Frances Griffith, her ten year old cousin, contrived to take photographs of fairies at play in their Cottingley garden. Elsie’s mother had the photographs sent to Edward Gardner, head of the Theosophical Society, who then passed them on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes). (10) Although the pictures are distinctly unconvincing by today’s standards, professionals at the time could find no evidence of photographic doctoring. Championed by Gardner and Conan Doyle, the photos caused an absolute sensation. Only when Elsie and Frances were old ladies did they finally admit that the Cottingley fairies were paper cut-outs held in place by hat-pins. Despite this admission, their final deathbed statements on the subject were more ambiguous, implying that the fairies, if not the photographs, had been real after all.
In her fascinating book Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Carole G. Silver points out that the Cottingley incident, despite briefly reviving interest in the fairies, was actually one of the factors that ended the Golden Age of fairy art and literature. “Ironically,” she says, “the photographs, the ostensible proof of the actual existence of the fairies, deprived the elfin people of the grandeur and their stature….The
theories that Piper of Dreams by Estella Canziani Gardner formulated to explain the fairies’ nature and function reduced them to the intelligence level of household pets and the size of insects.”
In addition to this, the massive popularity that the fairies had enjoyed throughout the 19th century insured that they’d be branded old-fashioned by the generations that followed. Those who’d survived the hard trials of World War I had little interest in the faux-medievalism and fairies of their grandparents’ day. And yet, it is interesting to note that one of the most popular art prints of the war era depicted a simple country boy playing a pipe, surrounded by fairies. This was “The Piper of Dreams,” a painting by the Anglo-Italian artist Estella Canziani — an image as ubiquitous in England then as Monet’s water lilies are now. Canziani’s gentle, forgotten fairy picture once rivaled William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” in popularity, and was said to be a favorite of English soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
During the middle years of the 20th century, the fairies seemed to go underground, rarely leaving the Twilight Realm to interact with the world of men — except to appear in sugar-sweet guise in children’s books and Disney cartoons. One could find them if one looked hard enough — in Ireland, for instance, in the fiction of James Stephens and Lord Dunsany; or in Lud-in-the-Mist, the early fantasy classic by English author Hope Mirrlees. But in general, it was not until an Oxford don named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about elves in a place called Middle-Earth that fairies came back to popular art in any numbers. And then they came with a vengeance.
Professor Tolkien was a scholar of folklore, myth, and Old English literature, so when he created the elves of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he knew what he was doing. Although written and published some years earlier, it was not until the 1970s that Tolkien’s books dominated the bestsellers lists and became part of British and American popular culture. This in turn created an enormous interest in all things magical, wondrous, and fey. Suddenly there were fairies, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and wizards everywhere. People started seeking out folklore texts, and teaching themselves to speak Elvish. “What is the reason for this preoccupation?” asked Alison Lurie in an article for the New York Review of Books. “Possibly it is a bi-product of the overly material and commercial world we live in: the result of an imaginatively deprived childhood.” (11)
Lurie believed that the reason college students were embracing Tolkien and folklore with such passion was that they’d been raised on the thin gruel on television and Disney films, instead of the great classics of children’s literature. Having been imaginatively deprived in youth, she argued, they had taken now “possession of a fantasy world that should have been theirs at eight or ten, with the intellectual enthusiasm, the romantic eagerness — and the purchasing power — of eighteen and twenty.” While this was undoubtedly true of some readers, I find it an unsatisfactory explanation overall, for there were many other readers (and I was among them) who had read classic children’s literature when young and had embraced classic fantasy worlds at ages eight and ten. What Tolkien did was to prove to us that we needn’t give up these worlds at age eighteen – or at twenty-eight or forty-eight, for that matter. Back in the 1970s, this was a radical notion. Tolkien dismissed the post-Victorian idea that fantasy was fit only for children, and reached back to an older adult fantasy tradition running from Beowulf to William Morris. He opened a door to Fäerie, and readers discovered this door was not child-sized after all, but tall and wide, leading to lands one could spend a lifetime wandering in.
In the mid-70s, another book lured adult readers into the Twilight Realm. This was Faeries, an international bestseller by the British artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud — a sequel, of sorts, to a book called Gnomes by the Dutch artist Wil Huygen. But whereas Gnomes depicted cheerful little creatures who had little in common with the dour, clever, metal-working gnomes of the European folk tradition, Faeries was deeply rooted in traditional fairy lore. Here, in all their beautiful, horrible glory were the fairies of old British legends: gorgeous and grotesque (often at the same time), creatures of ivy, oak, and stone, born out of the British landscape, as potent and wild as a force of nature. Lee and Froud had taken inspiration from Victorian Fairy Art and updated the tradition for a new generation. Faeries, in turn, would go on to inspire young artists in the years ahead — indeed, it’s rare to find fairy art today (or fairies in film, or fairy fiction) that doesn’t owe a debt, to some degree, to this influential book.
From the mid-70s onward, numerous other books on fairy lore appeared, including several “field guides” and the peerless folklore studies of Katherine Briggs. In fiction, the great success of The Lord of the Rings helped to establish an entire new publishing genre of fantasy fiction for adult readers; and as a result, a new generation of writers turned to folklore and myth for inspiration — in North America as well as in England. (12) Fairies found their way into a number of their books, some of which were set in days gone past or in the land of Fäerie, and some of which were urban tales of fairies in the modern world.
John Crowley, for example, in his brilliant novel Little, Big, draws on a host of Victorian ideas about the fairies to create a modern fairy tale set in rural and urban New York. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fairy story that could have been penned by Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen; it’s a wonderful tale of a magical English history that never was. Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer follows a figure from a
classic Scottish border ballad into the halls of the Fairy Queen, and Patricia A. McKillip’s Winter Rose took a slant-wise look at the fairy ballad of Tam Lin. Fairies haunt the woodlands of Leicestershire in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, and roam the streets of contemporary London in Lisa Tuttle’s The Mysteries. Lisa Goldstein goes back to in Elizabethan London in Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon, while Poul Andersen (A Midsummer Tempest) and Sara A. Hoyt (Ill Met by Moonlight) revisit the fairies of William Shakespeare. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks brings fairies to the 1980s Minneapolis music scene; Midori Snyder’s Hannah’s Garden plants a fairy fiddler in an Irish bar in the American Midwest; and Charles de Lint’s Widdershins pits immigrant fairies against the native spirits of the Canadian wilderness. Holly Black’s Tithe tells the story of a fairy changeling living on the Jersey shore; while Delia Sherman’s Changeling conjurs an entire fairy realm in the shadows of New York City. British fairy lore provides inspiration for Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia, Alice Thomas Ellis’ A Fairy Tale, Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin. See the Further Reading list below for more fiction recommendations.
In visual art, the English painter Brian Froud has been exploring Fäerie for over twenty-five years, beginning with the publication of Faeries and continuing on with Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, Brian Froud’s World of Faerie, the “Lady Cottington” series, and many other fine books. As a result, he is arguably the best known and most authoritative fairy artist in the world today. His wife, Wendy Froud, creates Fäerie sculptures and fine art dolls with a Pre-Raphaelite touch. Her distinctive work has been photographed and published in the “Old Oak Wood” series of children’s books, in The Art of Wendy Froud, and in sumptuous collaborations with her husband, including Trolls and Faeries’ Tales. Charles Vess has depicted fairy imagery in illustrated books and comics, most notably in Stardust, created in collaboration with writer Neil Gaiman, in The Book of Ballads, and in his illustrations for Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Yoshitaka Amano gives a unique interpretation of British and Japanese folklore in his beautiful art collection Fairies, which includes an essay by Kimie Imura expoloring differences between the Western and Eastern traditions. Tony DiTerlizzi, creates a vast fairy realm in his much-loved children’s series, The Spiderwick Chronicles, created in collaboration with writer Holly Black. Suza Scalora, Ashley Lebedev, and Kristy Mitchell have conjured fairies and the Twilight Realm in their magical photography.
Numerous children’s book illustrators have wandered into Fäerie (following the footsteps of Rackham and Dulac), such as Angela Barrett (The Night Fairy), Michael Hague (Good Night, Fairies), Stephen Mackey (The Fairies’ Ring), and Lauren Mills (The Book of Little Folk). Other artists who have spent time with the fairy folk include Anna Brahams, Alice Dufeu, Erlé Ferronnière, Julia Jeffrey, Virginia Lee, Yoann Lossel, Iain McCaig, Ed Org, Séverine Pineaux, Linda Ravenscroft, Virginia Ropars, David Thiérrée, Olivier Villoingt, Josephine Wall, David Wyatt, and Lisbeth Zwerger. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you’ll find more fairy art in two magazines devoted to the subject: Faerie (US) and Fae (UK).
The revival of interest in Victorian fairy art led to an important traveling exhibition curated by The University of Iowa and the Royal Academy of London in 1997. In 2002, Abbaye Daoulas in Brittany presented an extensive exhibition of fairy art, beginning with 12th century manuscripts right up to the present day. I recommend the following related art books: Victorian Fairy Painting, with text by Jeremy Maas and others; Fairies in Victorian Art by Christopher Wood; and Fées, elfes, dragons, and autres créatures des royaumes de féerie (Fairies, elves, dragons, and other creatures of the fairy realm), edited by Michel Le Bris and Claudine Glot.
In film, fairies are the subject of two movies inspired by the Cottingley photographs: A Fairy Tale and Photographing Fairies (based on the novel of that name by Steven Szilagyi). Fairies are also at the heart of Stardust, based on the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; and goblins (and a fairy or two) can be found Labyrinth, the children’s classic directed by Jim Henson and designed by Brian Froud.
“Fairy fashions” have appear in New York shop windows, on Paris runways, at British music festivals (where pixie ears and Amy Brown-style fashions are ubiquitous these days), and in an illustrated book: Fairie-ality: The Fashion Collection from the House of Ellwand by David Ellwand, Eugenie Bird, and David Downton. Fairy ballads from the British Isles, Brittany, and Scandinavia have been recorded by many folk bands and musicians such as Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy, Robin Williamson, Kate Rusby, Cécile Corbel, Loreena McKennitt, and Anaïs Mitchell. Elizabeth Jane Baldry has recorded Victorian fairy music for the harp on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain, and Aine Minogue’s The Twilight Realm is a lovely CD of music inspired by traditional fairy lore. The fairies have also appeared in pop music, in songs by musicians and bands as diverse as Donovan, Queen, The Waterboys, and Tori Amos.
In his famous poem “Blow, Bugle, Blow,” Tennyson wrote that even the echoes of elfland’s horns are growing faint and dying away as the fairies disappear from the woods and fields, chased away by modern life. This was a favorite theme of the Victorians, who believed that the fairies were taking their leave of us and that magic would soon vanish from the world forever….
But as far as I can see, the Victorians were dead wrong. The British Isles, and other parts of the world, are still thickly populated by the elfin tribes, if the present abundance of fairies in popular culture is any indication. Fairies are everywhere: in books and paintings, on t-shirts and teacups, in children’s toyshops and in grown-up art museums, as well as flying through cyberspace. If Tennyson’s elfin bugles have dimmed…well, never mind. The fairies play electric bagpipes now.
Instead of Tennyson, I’m more inclined to listen to the poet William Butler Yeats, who knew a thing or two about the fairies for he believed in them all his life. He said that “you can not lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes of them.”
There’s a famous story of a Scottish house fairy who proved to be so terribly annoying that the family in the house tried and tried to make him leave, to no avail. Finally there was no help for it. The family packed to go themselves. But as they drove down the road,
their worldly goods strapped to the old farm cart, they noticed the fairy perched on top, saying, “Ah, but it’s a fine day to be moving!” And so they sighed and went back home, knowing they were stuck with him for good. The fairy haunts that cottage and their descendants to this day.
So it is with fairies in literature and art. Fairy stories go in and out of fashion. But just when you think they’re gone for good, cast out by book and art critics who insist we move on to weightier matters, the fairies are still there, grinning, saying, “Ah, it’s a fine day to be moving!” — determined to move along with us, and be a part of whatever the future has in store.
Quoted from The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk, 1893.
Spiritualism was a practice in which “spirit mediums” provided contact with the spirits of the dead and with supernatural creatures. The movement was started in America by the Fox sisters in 1848, who claimed to communicate with the dead through mysterious knocks upon a table. Soon “table–turning” parties were all the rage in all levels of English society, right up to the Royal Court. Spiritualist societies sponsored lecture tours, opened reading rooms and published newspapers, and popular spirit mediums developed huge followings.
Theosophy was a Spiritualist and philosophical movement founded by Madame Blavatsky at the end of the 19th century. Many prominent Theosophists believed in fairies.
Quoted from The Hidden Side of Things by Charles W. Leadbeater, 1913.
Quoted from The Coming of the Faires by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1922.
Quoted from “Some Remarks About the Spirits of Nature,” published in The Occult Review, 1911.
Quoted from The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends by Katherine Briggs, 1978.
Painter and poet William Blake firmly believed in faeries, and once wrote about witnessing a fairy funeral.
Opium derivatives like laudanum, called “the aspirin of the 19th century,” were available without prescription in Victorian England, and were commonly used for insomnia, headaches and “women’s troubles.” It may be no accident that the Victorian’s obsessions with fairies and Spiritualism occurred during the same span of years when casual opium use was widespread.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the son of the fairy painter Charles Doyle who, like Richard Dadd, had been confined to an insane asylum and whose imagery came from his personal visions. The fairy painter Richard Doyle (by all accounts a sane, sweet–tempered man) was Arthur Conan Doyle’s uncle.
Quoted from Alison Lurie’s “Braking for Elves,” first published in The New York Review of Books and reprinted in her excellent book Don’t Tell the Grown–ups: Why Kids Love the Books They Do.
Some claim that North America has no fairies, which is stuff and nonsense. What it has is a melting pot of fairies and stories carried over by numerous immigrant groups, transplanted to new soil and bearing fruit both familiar and strange. Mixed into this pot are Native American tales from a variety of tribal traditions — including tales about magical little people who live under the hills or deep in the woods, and are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and who tend to play tricks on human beings — fairies, in other words, in everything but name.
Artists are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
The text above is from The Journal of Mythic Arts, copyright c 2004 by Terri Windling. A version of this article appeared in The Faery Reel, edited by Datlow & Windling (Viking, 2004). It may not be reproduced without the author’s permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go to: http://www.terriwindling.com/
This year of 2018 should be another good year for the foxgloves, which have started their blooms early in June and should still brightening the woods and hills over many weeks to come…….
Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of “folksglove,” associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as “fox fingers,” its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a “gleow” being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.
Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:
“An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one
evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.”
“After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians.”
Girl With Foxglove by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904)
Foxglove by Christie Newman
From Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist. William Curtis (1746-1799)
Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a domestic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from Foxglove bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and pixies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.
In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since — as well as with “white witches” (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks. In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.
A lovely old legend told in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.
In the fairy tale of “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine’s brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to
gather nettles in a graveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell — all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done — running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men — except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)
This was one of my favourite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm’s way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.
I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: “common nettles” or “stinging nettles.” I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking — and although they’re actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women’s arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.
According to the Anglo-Saxon “Nine Herbs Charm,” recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against “elf-shot” (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and”flying venom” (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.
Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles,” said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, “I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”
“Nettles have numerous virtues,” writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. “Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.
“Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient’s name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits.”
The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:
“Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle’s high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as ‘Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.’ This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.
“Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica ‘syringes’ of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful.”
Bumblehill Nettle Soup
Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.
Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.
Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.
Preparing nettle soup.
Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle tops, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.
Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.)
Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey. Or try these two other good recipes: nettle pancakes and wild nettle bread.
Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women’s domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to “enrich the soil” wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.
The illustrations for “The Wild Swans” above are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, & Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Related posts: “Swan’s Wing” and “The Folklore of Food.”
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Details 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”.
These 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. 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
 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.
 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.
 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).
 See especially Underdown Revel, Riot and Rebellion, chapter 2.
 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.
 This compares with ninety-two per cent in the 1645 Essex trials. Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 160.
 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.
 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.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting, John Calfe, Elizabeth Pitts, Frances Beales, Susan Major, 22.5.1679.
 Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, pp. 54 – 5.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of John Calfe, 22.5.1679.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, February 1678.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/15 part 1, articles against [blank] Betteris, undated.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/19, examination of Anthony Leland, 28.5.1614.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe, 30.9.1670.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting; information of Elizabeth Pitts, 22.5.1679.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/13a, information of Thomas Burke, 2.3.1602.
 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 634; Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England, p. 53.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, Mary Crispe, February 1678.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Daniel Jecks, 22.5.1679.
 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, chapter 8; Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, chapter 5.
 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.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe 30.9.1670.
 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.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions order book, C/S2/1, petitions of Mary Childerhouse 13.1.1652, 10.1.1654, 13.1.1657.
 British Library, Add. MSS. 27402, fols. 104 – 21.
 NRO, Great Yarmouth assembly book 1642 – 1662, Y/C19/7, fol. 71v.
 NRO, King’s Lynn hall book 8, 1637 – 1658, KL/C7/10, fol. 187.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 85; Walker, “Demons in female form”, p.124.
 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.
 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.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, Information of Mary Neale, 25.2.1678.
 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.
 Robin Briggs, Communities of Belief: Cultural and Social Tensions in Early Modern France (Oxford, 1989), p. 22.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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:
The stranger, choosing nightime to stand amongst the fragments of old walls of Binham Priory, would not find it difficult to visualise such eerie surroundings as a perfect setting for a mythical ghost story. The same is true for those who venture inside. Take the inhabitants of Binham for instance who have, in the past, discussed a report of the appearance of the “ghostly” black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church.
The story goes that a newspaper reporter once interviewed the Vicar, Rev. C. F. Carroll, on the matter and 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.
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 thought so and their tale goes, broadly, along the following lines – bearing in mind that one can come across more than a few variants of the same tale (see below):
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, again, 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 that with this in mind 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 followed listening to his jigs and reels, the strains of which were clearly audible. They knew that a fiddle plays a piercing and true sound which easily vibrates through the layers of soil. So they were able to follow, Lollygaggers (idlers), dawdlers, street vendors and interested onlookers – some with their own dogs which were, possibly, sensing a ‘hunt’.
However, when the fiddler reached 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 – being on the surface. 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. The spectre, in the form of a monk dressed in a black habit of the Benedictine Order that had founded Binham Priory in 1091, continued to wander the tunnel thereafter. It was believed that it was this Black Monk which spirited the fiddler away……..Over the years the hill where the fiddler disappeared became known as Fiddlers Hill, in memory of the brave Fiddler……..and always remember the final twist in this story?….. In 1933 when the road was widened around Fiddlers Hill, three skeletons were found one of which was a dog!…..They do say that still, during dark nights, you can sometimes hear a solitary violin playing along the fields between Walsingham and Binham Priory..
A further story goes that a tunnel also ran between Blakeney Guildhall and Binham Priory; again, a fiddler was the only person brave enough to enter. Along with his dog, he too once set off while the Mayor and Corporation of Blakeney followed above ground, guided by the sound of the fiddle. When the fiddle music stopped they too believed that the Devil had taken him and the dog.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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’.
“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.
So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The body text is attributed to ‘The Field’ Magazine.