There are several versions of this tale, which tells of a fearsome dragon who left his layer in Ludham, Norfolk and took up residence underground at St Benet’s Abbey nearby. It may be based upon a real incident which was reported locally in the 18th century, when a large reptile was apparently caught in Ludham and killed. This version comes from a collection of local history documents compiled by William Henry Cooke, a resident of nearby Stalham at the time. He handed them to Russell Colman, a member of the mustard manufacturing family, in 1911. The papers now rest with the Norfolk Record Office.
“Many years ago the good people of Ludham were shocked by the appearance of a hideous monster. It was said to have resembled a dragon or monstrous lizard. It was covered with scales and had wings. It’s frightful mouth was rendered formidable by tremendous teeth. It was supposed to measure from 12 to 15 feet in length.As it was only visible after sunset, none dared to leave their houses when it was dark.
The Dragon, or monster as some would call it, formed a large burrow which was known to extend from the yard at the back of the local public house to just past the old school house. Every morning the exit was filled up with bricks and stones, and then as often, reopened at night by the monster.
One bright sunshiny afternoon, to the horror of the inhabitants, it was seen to leave the burrow. As soon as it had got some distance away, a courageous parishioner dropped a single large round stone into the mouth of the burrow, completely filling it up.
After basking in the sun for some time the monster returned. Not being able to remove the stone it turned away bellowing and lashing its sides furiously with its tail. It then made its way across the fields in the direction of the Bishop’s Palace. Turning to the left it made its way along the dreary causeway leading to the ruined St Benets Abbey Gateway. Round and round it ran, throwing up stones and dirt in its fury and raising its hideous form up against the ruined walls, at last it entered the gloomy archway where it is supposed to have made its way to the vaults beneath and was no more seen.
After a time the burrow was carefully filled up. To the satisfaction of the parishioners, there has been no return of the Ludham Dragon”.
During the first half 17th century the coastal town of Lowestoft in Suffolk, England, witnessed many upheavals – plague, fire, civil strife and a rapid decline in the local fishing industry. It did not end there for the town was involved with an expensive law-suit with the neighbouring town of Great Yarmouth. All this left their mark on this small community of under 2,000 inhabitants.
Then, in the year 1660 another “menace” appeared in their midst, that of the ugly spectre of “witchcraft”. Two elderly widows, Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, were suspected of being “witches”. Within months they were arrested, accused and tried at the Lent Assizes held at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk on March 13th 1662. Both were found guilty and hanged.
The details of their Trial and the accusations against them were recorded at the time and twenty years later they were published in a small booklet entitled “A Tryal of Witches” – the text of which is as follows:
The Links in the dialogue will take you to details of the characters, events, background, etc . . . . Pictures herein were not in the Report but included here to support the text…….
A TRYAL OF WITCHES
This trial of witches hath lain a long time in a private gentleman’s hands in the country, it being given to him by the person that took it at the court for his own satisfaction; but it came lately to my hands, and having perused it, I found it a very remarkable thing, and fit to be published; especially in these times, wherein things of this nature are much controverted, and that by persons of much learning on both sides. I thought that so exact a relation of this trial would probably give more satisfaction to a great many persons, by reason that it is pure matter of fact, and that evidently demonstrated; than the arguments and reasons of other very learned men, that probably may not be so intelligble to all Readers; especially this being held before a Judge, whom for his integrity, Learning, and Law, hardly any Age, either before or since could parallel; who not only took a great deal of paines, and spent much time in this Tryal himself; but had the Assistance and Opinion of several other very Eminent and Learned Persons: So that this being the most perfect Narrative of any thing of this Nature hitherto extant, made me unwillingly to deprive the World of the Benefit of it; which is the sole Motive that induced me to Publish it.
At the Assizes and General Gaol delivery, held at Bury St. Edmonds for the County of Suffolk, the Tenth day of March, in the Sixteenth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King Charles II, before Matthew Hale, Knight, Lord Chief Baron of His Majesties Court of Exchequer; Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, Widows, both of Leystoff in the County aforesaid, were severally indicted for Bewitching Elizabeth and Ann Durent, Jane Bocking, Susan Chandler, William Durent, Elizabeth and Deborah Pacey: And the said Cullender and Duny, being arraigned upon the said Indictments, pleaded Not Guilty: And afterwards, upon a long Evidence, were found Guilty, and thereupon had Judgement to dye for the same.
The Evidence whereupon these Persons were convicted of Witchcraft, stands upon divers particular circumstances.
I. Three of the Parties above-named, viz. Anne Durent, Susan Chandler, and Elizabeth Pacy were brought to Bury to the Assizes and were in reasonable good condition: But that Morning they came into the Hall to give Instructions for the drawing of their Bills of Indictments, the Three Persons fell into strange and violent fits, screeking out in a most sad manner, so that they could not in any wise give any Instructions in the Court who were the cause of their Distemper. And although they did after some certain space recover out of their fits, yet they were every one of them struck Dumb, so that none of them could speak neither at that time, nor during the Assizes until the Conviction of the supposed Witches.
As concerning William Durent, being an Infant, his mother Dorothy Durent sworn and examined deposed in open Court, That about the Tenth of March, Nono Caroli Secundi, she having a special occasion to go from home, and having none in the House to take care of her said Child (it then sucking) desired Amy Duny her Neighbour, to look to her child during her absence, for which she promised her to give her a Penny: but the said Dorothy Durent desired the said Amy not to Suckle her Child, and laid a great charge upon her not to do it. Upon which it was asked by the Court, why she did give that direction, she being an old Woman and not capable of giving Suck? It was answered by the said Dorothy Durent, that she very well knew that she did not give suck, but that for some years before, she had gone under the reputation of a Witch, which was one cause made her give the caution: Another was, that it was customary with old Women, that if they did look after a sucking Child, and nothing would please it but the Breast, they did use to please the Child, but it sucked nothing but Wind, which did the child hurt.
Nevertheless after the departure of this deponent, the said Amy did Suckle the Child: And after the return of the said Dorothy, the said Amy did acquaint her, That she had given Suck to the Child contrary to her command. Whereupon the Deponent was very angry with the said Amy for the same; at which the said Amy was much discontented, and used many high Expressions and Threatening Speeches towards her: telling her, That she had as good to have done otherwise than to have found fault with her, and so departed out of her house: And that very Night her Son fell into strange fits of swounding, and was held in such terrible manner, that she was much affrighted therewith, and so continued for divers weeks. And the said Examinant farther said, that she being exceedingly troubled at her Childs Distemper, did go to a certain Person named Doctor Jacob, who lived at Yarmouth, who had the reputation in the Country, to help children that were Bewitch’d; who advis’d her to hang up the Childs Blanket in the Chimney-corner all day, and at night when she put the Child to Bed, to put it into the said blanket, and if she found any thing in it, she should not be afraid, but to throw it into the fire. And this Deponent did according to his direction; and at night when she took down the Blanket with an intent to put her Child therein, there fell out of the same a great Toad, which ran up and down the hearth, and she having a young youth only with her in the House, desired him to catch the Toad, and throw it into the Fire, which the youth did accordingly, and held it there with the Tongs; and as soon as it was in the Fire it made a great and horrible Noise, and after a space there was a flashing in the Fire like Gun-powder, making the noise like the discharge of a Pistol, and thereupon the Toad was no more seen nor heard. It was asked by the Court, if that after the noise and the flashing, there was not the Substance of the Toad to be seen to consume in the fire? And it was answered by the said Dorothy Durent, That after the flashing and the noise, there was no more seen than if there had been none there.
The next day there came a young Woman a Kinswoman of the said Amy, and a neighbour of this Deponent, and told this Deponent, that her Aunt (meaning the said Amy) was in a most lamentable condition having her face all scorched with fire, and that she was sitting alone in her House, in her Smock without any fire. And thereupon this Deponent went into the House of the said Amy Duny to see her, and found her in the same condition as was related to her; for her face, her Leggs, and Thighs, which this Deponent saw, seemed very much scorched and burnt with Fire, at which this Deponent seemed much to wonder. And asked the said Amy how she came into that sad condition? and the said Amy replied, she might thank her for it, for that she this Deponent was the cause thereof, but that she should live to see some of her Children dead, and she upon crutches. And this Deponent farther saith, that after the burning of the said Toad, her child recover’d, and was well again, and was living at the time of the Assizes. And this Deponent farther saith, That about the 6th of March, 11 Car. 2. her daughter Elizabeth Durent, being about the age of Ten Years, was taken in a like manner as her first Child was, and in her fits complained much of Amy Duny, and said, That she did appear to her, and Afflict her in such manner as the former. And she this said Deponent going to the Apothecaries for some thing for her said Child, when she did return to her own House, she found the said Amy Duny there, and asked her what she did do there? and her answer was, That she came to see her Child, and to give her some water. But she this Deponent was very angry with her, and thrust her forth of her doors, and when she was out of doors, she said, You need not be so angry, for your Child will not live long: and this was on a Saturday, and the Child dyed on the Monday following. The cause of whose Death this Deponent verily believeth was occasion’d by the Witchcraft of the said Amy Duny: for that the said Amy hath been long reputed to be a Witch, and a person of very evil behaviour, whose Kindred and Relations have been many of them accused for Witchcraft, and some of them have been condemned.
The said Deponent further saith, that not long after the death of her Daughter Elizabeth Durent, she this Deponent was taken with a Lameness in both her Leggs, from the knees downwards, that she was fain to go upon Cruches, and that she had no other use of them but only to bear a little upon them till she did remove her crutches, and so continued till the time of the Assizes, that the Witch came to be Tryed, and was there upon her Crutches, the Court asked her, That at the time she was taken with this Lameness, if it were with her according to the Custom of Women? Her Answer was, that it was so, and that she never had any stoppages of those things, but when she was with Child.
This is the Substance of her Evidence to this Indictment.
There was some thing very remarkable, that after she had gone upon Crutches for upwards of Three Years, and went upon them at the time of the Assizes in the Court when she gave her Evidence, and upon the Juries bringing in their Verdict, by which the said Amy Duny was found Guilty, to the great admiration of all Persons, the said Dorothy Durent was restored to the use of her Limbs, and went home without making use of her Crutches.
II. As concerning Elizabeth and Deborah Pacy, the first of the Age of Eleven Years, the other of the age of Nine Years or thereabouts: as to the Elder, She was brought into the Court at the time of the Instructions given to draw up the Indictments, and afterwards at the time of Tryal of the said Prisoners, but could not speak one Word all the time, and for the most part she remained as one wholly senseless as one in a deep Sleep, and could move no part of her body, and all the Motion of Life that appeared in her was, that as she lay upon Cushions in the Court upon her back, her stomack and belly by the drawing of her breath, would arise to a great height: and after the said Elizabeth had lain a long time on the Table in the Court, she came a little to her self and sate up, but could neither see nor speak, but was sensible of what was said to her, and after a while she laid her Head on the Bar of the Court with a Cushion under it, and her hand and her Apron upon that, and there she lay a good space of time: and by the direction of the Judg, Amy Duny was privately brought to Elizabeth Pacy, and she touched her hand; whereupon the child without so much as seeing her, for her Eyes were closed all the while, suddenly leaped up, and catched Amy Duny by the hand, and afterwards by the face; till Blood came, and would by no means leave her till she was taken from her, and afterwards the Child would still be pressing towards her, and making signs of Anger conceived against her.
Deborah the younger Daughter was held in such extream manner, that her Parents wholly despaired of her life, and therefore could not bring her to the Assizes.
The Evidence which was given concerning these Two Children was to this Effect.
Samuel Pacya Merchant of Leystoff (Lowestoft) aforesaid, (a man who carried himself with much soberness during the Tryal, from whom proceeded no words either of Passion or Malice, though his Children were so greatly Afflicted,) Sworn and Examined, Deposeth, That his younger Daughter Deborah, upon Thursday the Tenth of October last, was suddenly taken with a Lameness in her Leggs, so that she could not stand, neither had she any strength in her Limbs to support her, and so she continued until the Seventeenth day of the same Month, which day being fair and sunshiny, the Child desired to be carryed on the East part of the House, to be set upon the Bank which looketh upon the Sea; and whil’st she was sitting there, Amy Duny came to this Deponents House to buy some Herrings, but being denyed she went away discontented, and presently returned again, and was denyed, and likewise the third time and was denyed as at first; and at her last going away, she went away grumbling; but what she said was not perfectly understood. But at the very same instant of time, the said Child was taken with most violent fits, feeling most extream pain in her Stomach, like the pricking of Pins, and Shreeking out in a Most dreadful manner like unto a Whelp, and not like unto a sensible Creature. And in this extremity the Child continued to the great grief of the Parents until the Thirtieth of the Same Month. During this time this Deponent sent for one Dr. Feavor, a Doctor of Physick, to take his advice concerning his Childs Distemper; the Doctor being come, he saw the child in those firs, but could not conjecture (as he then told this Deponent, and afterwards affirmed in open Court, at this Tryal) what might be the cause of the Childs Affliction. And the Deponent farther saith, That by reason of the circumstances aforesaid, and in regard Amy Duny is a Woman of an ill Fame, & commonly reported to be a Witch & Sorceress, and for that the said Child in her fits would cry out of Amy Duny as the cause of her Malady, and that she did affright her with Apparitions of her Person (as the child in the intervals of her fits related) he this deponent did suspect the said Amy Duny for a Witch, and charged her with the injury and wrong to his child, and caused her to be set in the Stocks on the Twenty eighth of the same October: and during the time of continuance there, one Alice Letteridge and Jane Buxton demanding of her ( as they also affirmed in court upon their Oathes) what should be the reason of Mr. Pacy’s Childs Distemper? telling her, That she was suspected to be the cause thereof; she replyed, Mr. Pacy keeps a great stir about his child, but let him stay until he hath done as much by his children, as I have done by mine. And being further examined, what she had done to her Children? She answered, That she had been fain to open her Child’s Mouth with a Tap to give it Victuals.
And the said Deponent further desposeth, That within two days after speaking of the said words being the Thirtieth of October, the eldest Daughter Elizabeth, fell into extream fits, insomuch, that they could not open her Mouth to give her breath, to preserve her Life without the help of a Tap which they were enforced to use; and the younger Child was in the like manner Afflicted, so that they used the same also for her Relief.
And further the said Children being grievously afflicted would severally complain in their extremity, and also in the intervals, That Amy Duny (together with one other Woman whose person and Cloathes they described) did thus Afflict them, their Apparitions appearing before them, to their great terrour and affrightment: And sometimes they would cry out, saying, There stands Amy Duny, and there Rose Cullender; the other Person troubling them.
Their fits were various, sometimes they would be lame on one side of their Bodies, sometimes on the other: sometimes a soreness over their whole Bodies, so as they could endure none to touch them: at other times they would be restored to the perfect use of their Limbs, and deprived of the Hearing; at other times of their sight, at other times of their Speech; sometimes by the space of one day, sometimes for two; and once they were wholly deprived of their Speech for Eight days together, and then restored to their Speech again. At other times they would fall into Swounings, and upon the recovery to their Speech they would Cough extreamly, and bring up much Flegme, and with the same crooked Pins, and one time a Two-penny Nail with a very broad head, which Pins (amounting to Forth or more) together with the Two-penny Nail were produced in Court, with the affirmation of the said Deponent, that he was present when the said Nail was Vomited up, and also most of the Pins. Commonly at the end of every fit they would cast up a Pin, and sometimes they would have four or five fits in one day.
In this manner the said Children continued with this Deponent for the space of two Months, during which time in their Intervals this Deponent would cause them to Read some Chapters in the New Testament. Whereupon this Deponent several times observed, that they would read till they came to the Name of Lord, or Jesus, or Christ; and then before they could pronounce either of the said Words they would suddenly fall into their fits. But when they came to the Name of Satan, or Devil, they would clap their Fingers upon the Book, crying out, This bites, but makes me speak right well.
At such time as they be recovered out of their fits (occasion’d as this deponent conceives upon their naming of Lord, or Jesus, or Christ,) this Deponent hath demanded of them, what is the cause they cannot pronounce those words, They reply and say, That Amy Duny saith, I must not use that name.
And farther, the said Children after their fits were past, would tell, how that Amy Duny, and Rose Cullender would appear before them, holding their Fists at them, threatning, That if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them ten times more than ever they did before.
In their fits they would cry out, There stands Amy Duny, or Rose Cullender; and sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, running with great violence to the place where they fancied them to stand, striking at them as if they were present; they would appear to them sometimes spinning, and sometimes reeling, or in other postures, deriding or threatning them.
And this Deponent farther faith, That his Children being thus Tormented by all the space aforesaid, and finding no hopes of amendment, he sent them to his Sisters House, one Margaret Arnold, who lived at Yarmouth, to make tryal, whether the change of the Air might do them any good. Any how, and in what manner they were afterwards held, he this Deponent refers himself to the Testimony of his said Sister.
Margaret Arnold, Sworn and Examined, saith, That the said Elizabeth and Deborah Pacy came to her House about the Thirtieth of November last, her Brother acquainted her, that he thought they were Bewitch’d, for that they vomited Pins; and farther Informed her of the several passages which occurred at his own House. This Deponent said, that she gave no credit to that which was related to her, conceiving possibly the Children might use some deceit in putting Pins in their mouths themselves. Wherefore this Deponent unpinned all their Cloathes, and left not so much as one Pin upon them, bur sewed all the Clothes they wore, instead of pinning of them. But this Deponent saith, that notwithstanding all this care and circumspection of hers, the children afterwards raised at several times at least Thirty Pins in her presence, and had most fierce and violent Fitts upon them.
The Children would in their Fitts cry out against Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, affirming that they saw them; and they threatned to Torment them Ten times more, if they complained of them. At some times the Children (only) would see things run up and down the House in the appearance of Mice; and one of them suddainly snapt one with the Tongs, and threw it into the fire, and it screeched out like a Rat.
At another time, the younger Child being out of her Fitts went out of Doors to take a little fresh Air, and presently a little thing like a Bee flew upon her Face, and would have gone into her Mouth, whereupon the Child ran in all haste to the door to get into the House again, screeking out in a most terrible manner; whereupon this Deponent made haste to come to her, but before she could get to her, the Child fell into her swooning Fitt, and at last with much pain straining herself, she vomited up a Two-penny Nail with a broad Head; and after that the Child had raised up the Nail she came to her understanding; and being demanded by this Deponent, how she came by this Nail? she answered, That the Bee brought this Nail and forced it into her Mouth.
At another time, the Elder Child declared unto this Deponent, that during the time of her Fitts, she saw Flies come unto her, and bring with them in their Mouthes crooked Pins; and after the Child had thus declared the same, she fell again into violent Fits, and afterwards raised several Pins.
At another time, the said Elder Child declared unto this deponent, and sitting by the Fire suddenly started up and said, she saw a Mouse, and she crept under the Table looking after it, and at length, she put something in her Apron, saying, she had caught it; and immediately she ran to the Fire and threw it in, and there did appear upon it to this Deponent, like the flashing of Gunpowder, though she confessed she saw nothing in the Childs hand.
At another time the said Child being speechless, but otherwise of perfect understanding, ran about the House holding her Apron, crying, hush, hush, as if there had been some Poultrey in the House; but this Deponent could perceive nothing: but at last she saw the Child stoop as if she had catch’d at something, and put it into her Apron, and afterwards made as if she had thrown it into the Fire: but this Deponent could not discover anything: but the Child afterwards being restored to her speech, she this Deponent demanded of her what she saw at the time she used such a posture? who answered, That she saw a Duck.
At another time, the Younger daughter being recovered out of her Fitts, declared, That Amy Duny had been with her, and that she tempted her to Drown her self, and to cut her Throat, or otherwise to Destroy her self.
At another time in their Fitts they both of them cryed out upon Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, complaining against them; Why do not you come your selves, but send your Imps to Torment us?
These several passages as most remarkable, the said Deponent did particularly set down as they daily happen’d, and for the reasons aforesaid, she doth verily believe in her conscience, that the Children were bewitched, and by the said Amy Duny, and Rose Cullender; though at first she could hardly be induced to believe it.
As concerning Ann Durent one other of the Parties, supposed to be bewitched, present in Court. Edmund Durent her Father Sworn and Examined; said That he also lived in the said, Town of Leystoff, and that the said Rose Cullender, about the latter end of November last, came into this Deponents House to buy some Herrings of his Wife, but being denyed by her, the said Rose returned in a discontented manner; and upon the first of December after, his Daughter Ann Durent was very sorely Afflicted in her Stomach, and felt great pain, like the pricking of pins, and then fell into swooning fitts, and after the Recovery from her Fitts, she declared, That she had seen the Apparition of the said Rose, who threatned to Torment her. In this manner she continued from the first of December, until this present time of Tryal; having likewise vomited up divers Pins (produced here in Court). This Maid was present in Court, but could not speak to declare her knowledge, but fell into most violent fits when she was brought before Rose Cullender.
Ann BaldwinSworn and Examined, Deposeth the same thing as touching the Bewitching of the said Ann Durent.
As concerning Jane Bocking who was so weak, she could not be brought to the Assizes. Diana Bocking Sworn and Examined, Deposed, That she lived in the same Town of Leystoff, and that he said Daughter having been formerly Afflicted with swooning fitts recovered well of them, and so continued for a certain time; and upon the First of February last, she was taken also with great pain in her Stomach, like pricking with Pins; and afterwards fell into swooning fitts and so continued till the Deponents coming to the Assizes, having during the same time taken little or no food, but daily vomited crooked Pins; and upon Sunday last raised Several Pins. And whilst her fits were upon her she would spread forth her Arms with hands open, and use postures as if she catched at something, and would instantly close her hands again; which being immediately forced open, they found several Pins diversly crooked, but could neither see nor perceive how or in what manner they were conveyed thither. At another time, the same Jane being in another of her fitts, talked as if she were discoursing with some persons in the Room, (though she would give no answer nor seem to take notice of any person then present) and would in like manner cast abroad her Arms, saying, I will not have it, I will not have it; and at last she said, Then I will have it, and so waving her Arm with her hand open, she would presently close the same, which instantly forced open, they found in it a Lath-Nail. In her fitts she would frequently complain of Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, saying, That now she saw Rose Cullender standing at the Beds feet, and another time at the Beds-head, and so in other places. At last she was stricken Dumb and could not speak one Word, though her fitts were not upon her, and so she continued for some days, and at last her speech came to her again, and she desired her Mother to get her some Meat; and being demanded the reason why she could not speak in so long time? She answered, That Amy Duny would not suffer her to speak. This Lath-Nail, and divers of the Pins were produced in Court.
As concerning Susan Chandler, one other of the Parties supposed to be Bewitched and present in Court.
Mary Chandler Mother of the said Susan, Sworn and Examined, Deposed and said, That about the beginning of February last past, the said Rose Cullender and Amy Duny were Charged by Mr. Samuel Pacy for Bewitching of his Daughters. And a Warrant being granted at the request of the said Mr. Pacy, by Sir Edmund Bacon Baronet, one of the Justices of the Peace for the County of Suffolk to bring them before him, and they being brought before him were Examined, and Confessed nothing. He gave order that they should be searched; whereupon this Deponent with five others were appointed to do the same: and coming to the House of Rose Cullender, they did acquaint her with what they were come about, and asked whether she was contented that they should search her? she did not oppose it, whereupon they began at her Head, and so stript her naked, and in the lower part of her Belly they found a thing like a Teat of an Inch long, they questioned her about it, and she said, That she had got a strain by carrying of water which caused that Excrescence. But upon narrower search, they found in her Privy Parts three more Excrescencies or Teats, but smaller than the former: This Deponent farther saith, That in the long Teat at the end thereof there was a little hole, and it appeared unto them as if it had been lately sucked, and upon the straining of it there issued out white milkie Matter.
And this Deponent farther saith, That her said Daughter (being of the Age of Eighteen Years) was then in Service in the said Town of Leystoff, and rising up early the next Morning to Wash, this Rose Cullender appeared to her, and took her by the hand, whereat she was much affrighted, and went forthwith to her Mother, (being in the same town) and acquainted her with what she had seen; but being extreamly terrified, she feel extream sick, much grieved at her Stomach; and that Night after being in Bed with another young Woman, she suddenly scrieked out, and fell into such extream fits as if she were distracted, crying against Rose Cullender; saying she would come to bed to her. She continued in this manner beating and wearing her self, insomuch, that this Deponent was glad to get help to attend her. In her Intervals she would declare, That some time she saw Rose Cullender, at another time with a great Dog with her: She also vomited up divers crooked Pins; and sometimes she was stricken with blindness, and at another time she was Dumb, and so she appeared to be in Court when the Tryal of the Prisoners was; for she was not able to speak her knowledge; but being brought into the Court at the Tryal, she suddenly fell into her fits, and being carryed out of the Court again, within the space of half an hour she came to herself and recovered her speech, and thereupon was immediately brought into the Court, and asked by the Court, whether she was in condition to take an Oath, and to give Evidence, she said she could. But when she was Sworn, and asked what she could say against either of the Prisoners? before she could make any answer, she fell into her fits, screeking out in a miserable manner, crying Burn her, burn her, which were all the words she could speak.
Robert Chandler father of the said Susan gave in the same Evidence, that his wife Mary Chandler had given, only as to the searching of Rose Cullender as aforesaid.
This was the sum and Substance of the Evidence which was given against the Prisoners concerning the Bewitching of the Children before mentioned. At the hearing this Evidence there were divers known persons, as Mr. Serjeant Keeling, Mr. Serjeant Earl, and Mr. Serjeant Barnard, present. Mr Serjeant Keeling seemed much unsatisfied with it, and thought it not sufficient to Convict the Prisoners: for admitting that the children were in Truth Bewitched, yet said he, it can never be applyed to the Prisoners, upon the Imagination only of the Parties Afflicted; For if that might be allowed, no person whatsoever can be in safety, for perhaps they might fancy another person, who might altogether be innocent in such matters. There was also Dr. Brown of Norwich, a Person of great knowledge; who after this Evidence given, and upon view of the three persons in Court, was desired to give his Opinion, what he did conceive of them: and he was clearly of Opinion, that the persons were Bewitched; and said, That in Denmark there had been lately a great Discovery of Witches, who used the very same way of Afflicting Persons, by conveying Pins into them, and crooked as these Pins were, with Needles and Nails. And his Opinion was, That the Devil in such cases did work upon the Bodies of Men and Women, upon a Natural Foundation, (that is) to stir up, and excite such humours super-abounding in their Bodies to a great excess, whereby he did in an extraordinary manner Afflict them with such Distempers as their Bodies were most subject to, as particularly appeared in these Children; for he conceived, that these swounding Fits were Natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightned to a great excess by the subtilty of the Devil, co-operating with the Malice of these which we term Witches, at whose Instance he doth these Villanies.
Besides the particulars above-mention’d touching the said persons Bewitched, there were many other things Objected against them for a further proof and manifestation that the said children were Bewitched.
As First, during the time of the Tryal, there were some experiments made with the Persons Afflicted, by bringing the Persons to touch them; and it was observed, that when they were in the midst of their Fitts, to all Mens apprehension wholly deprived of all sense and understanding, closing their Fists in such manner, as that the strongest Man in the court could not force them open; yet by the least touch of one of these supposed Witches, Rose Cullender by Name, they would suddenly shriek out opening their hands, which accident would not happen by the touch of any other person, And least they might privatly see when they were touched, by the said Rose Cullender, they were blinded with their own Aprons, and the touching took the same Effect as before.
There was an ingenious person that objected, there might be a great fallacy in this experiment, and there ought not to be any stress put upon this to Convict the Parties, for the Children might counterfeit this their Distemper, and perceiving what was done to them, they might in such manner suddenly alter the motion and gesture of their Bodies, on purpose to induce persons to believe that they were not natural, but wrought strangely by the touch of the Prisoners.
Wherefore to avoid this scruple it was privatly desired by the Judge, that the Lord Cornwallis,Sir Edmund Bacon, and Mr. Serjeant Keeling, and some other Gentlemen there in Court, would attend one of the Distempered persons in the farther part of the Hall, whilst she was in her fits, and then to send for one of the Witches, to try what would then happen, which they did accordingly: and Amy Duny was conveyed from the Bar and brought to the Maid: they put an Apron before her Eyes, and then one other person touched her hand, which produced the same effect as the touch of the Witch did in the court. Whereupon the Gentlemen returned, openly protesting, that they did believe the whole transaction of this business was a meer Imposture.
This put the Court and all persons into a stand. But at length Mr. Pacy did declare, That possibly the Maid might be deceived by a suspition that the Witch touched her when she did not. For he had observed divers times, that although they could not speak, but were deprived of the use of their Tongues and Limbs, that their understandings were perfect, for that they have related divers things which have been when they were in their fits, after they were recovered out of them. This saying of Mr. Pacy was found to be true afterwards, when his Daughter was fully recovered (as she afterwards was) as shall in due time be related: For she was asked, whither she did hear and understand any thing that was dine and acted in the Court, during the time that she lay as one deprived of her understanding? and she said, she did: and by the Opinions of some, this experiment, (which others would have a Fallacy) was rather a confirmation that the Parties were really Bewitched, than otherwise: for say they, it is not possible that any should counterfeit such Distempers, being accompanied with various Circumstances, much less Children; and for so long time, and yet undiscovered by their Parents and Relations : For no man can suppose that they should all Conspire together, (being out of several families, and, as they Affirm, no way related one to the other, and scarce of familiar acquaintance) to do an Act of this nature whereby no benefit or advantage could redound to any of the Parties, but a guilty Conscience for Perjuring themselves in taking the Lives of two poor simple Women away, and there appears no Malice in the Case. For the Prisoners themselves did scarce so much as Object it. Wherefore, say they, it is very evident that the Parties were Bewitched, and that when they apprehend or understand by any means, that the persons who have done them this wrong are near, or touch them; then their spirits being more than ordinarily moved with rage and anger at them being present, they do use more violent gestures of their Bodies, and extend forth their hands, as desirous to lay hold upon them; which at other times not having the same occasion, the instance there falls not out the same.
OneJohn Soamof Leystoff aforesaid, Yeoman, a sufficient Person, Deposeth, That not long since, in harvest time he had three Carts which brought home his Harvest, and as they were going into the field to load, one of the Carts wrenched the Window of Rose Cullenders House, whereupon she came out in a great rage and threatned this Deponent for doing that wrong, and so they passed along into the Fields and loaded all the Three Carts, the other two Carts returned safe home, and back again, twice loaded that day afterwards; but as to this Cart which touched Rose Cullenders House, after it was loaded it again the second or third time, as they brought it through the Gate which leadeth out of the Field into the Town, the Cart stuck so fast in the Gates-head, that they could not possibly get it through, but were inforced to cut down the Post of the Gate to make the Cart pass through, although they could not perceive that the Cart did of either side touch the Gate-posts. And this Deponent further saith, That after they had got it through the Gate-way, they did with much difficulty get it home into the Yard; but for all that they could do, they could not get the Cart near unto the place where they should unload the Corn, but were fain to unload it at a great distance from the place, and when they began to unload they found much difficulty therein, it being so hand a labour that they were tired that first came; and when others came to assist them, their Noses burst forth a bleeding: so they were fain to desist and leave it until the next Morning; and then they unloaded it without any difficulty at all.
Robert Sherringhamalso Deposeth against Rose Cullender, That about Two Years since, passing along the Street with his Cart and Horses, the Axletree of his Cart touched her House, and broke down some part of it, at which, she was very much displeased, threatning him, that his Horses should suffer for it; and so it happen’d, for all those Horses, being Four in Number, died within a short time after: since that time he hath had great Losses by the suddain dying of his other cattle; so soon as his Sows pigged, the Pigs would leap and caper, and immediately fall down and dye. Also, not long after, he was taken with a Lameness in his Limbs that he could neither go nor stand for some days. After all this, he was very much vexed with great Number of Lice of an extraordinary bigness, and although he many times shifted himself, yet he was not anything the better, but would swarm again with them; so that in the Conclusion he was forc’d to burn all his Clothes, being two suits of Apparel, and then was clean from them.
As concerning Amy Duny, oneRichard SpencerDeposeth, That about the first of September last, he heard her say at his House, That the Devil would not let her rest until she were Revenged on one Cornelius Sandeswell’s Wife.
Ann SandeswelWife unto the above-said Cornelius, Deposed, That about Seven or Eight Years since, she having bought a certain number of Geese, meeting with Amy Duny, she told her, If she did not fetch her Geese home they would all be Destroyed: which in a few days after came to pass.
Afterwards the said Amy became Tenant to this Deponents Husband for a House, who told her, That if she looked not well to such a Chimney in her House, that the same would fall: Whereupon this Deponent replyed, That it was a new one; but not minding much her Words, at that time they parted. But in a short time the Chimney fell down according as the said Amy had said.
Also this Deponent farther saith, That her Brother being a Fisherman, and using to go into the Northern Seas, she desired him to send her a Firkin of Fish, which he did accordingly; and she having notice that the said Firkin was brought into Leystoff-Road, she desired a Boatman to bring it ashore with the other Goods they were to bring; and she going down to meet the Boat-man to receive her Fish, desired the said Amy to go along with her to help her home with it; Amy Replyed, She would go when she had it. And thereupon this Deponent went to the Shoar without her, and demanded of the Boat-man the Firkin, they told her, That they could not keep it in the Boat from falling into the Sea, and they thought it was gone to the Divel, for they never saw the like before. And being demanded by this Deponent, whether any other Goods in the Boat were likewise lost as well as hers? They answered, Not any.
This was the substance of the whole Evidence given against the Prisoners at the Bar; who being demanded, what they had to say for themselves? They replyed, Nothing material to any thing that was proved against them. Whereupon, the Judge in giving his direction to the Jury, told them, That he would not repeat the Evidence unto them, least by so doing he should wrong the Evidence on the one side or on the other. Only this acquainted them, That they had Two things to enquire after. First, Whether or no these Children were Bewitched? Secondly, Whether the Prisoners at the Bar were Guilty of it?
That there were such creatures as Witches he made no doubt at all; For First, the Scriptures had affirmed so much. Secondly, The wisdom of all Nations had provided Laws against such Persons, which is an Argument of their confidence of such a crime. And such hath been the judgment of this Kingdom, as appears by thatAct of Parliamentwhich hath provided Punishments proportionable to the quality of the Offence. And desired them, strictly to observe their Evidence; and desired the great God of Heaven to direct their Hearts in this weighty thing they had in hand: For to Condemn the Innocent, and to let the Guilty go free, were both an Abomination to the Lord.
With this short Direction the Jury departed from the Bar, and within the space of half an hour returned, and brought them in both Guilty upon theseveral Indictments, which were Thirteen in Number, whereupon they stood Indicted.
This was upon Thursday in the Afternoon, March 13. 1662.
The next Morning, the Three Children with their Parents came to the Lord Chief Baron Hale’s Lodging, who all of them spake perfectly, and were as in good Health as ever they were; only Susan Chandler, by reason of her very much Affliction, did look very thin and wan. And their friends were asked, At what time they were restored thus to their Speech and Health? And Mr. Pacy did Affirm, That within less than half an hour after the Witches were Convicted, they were all of them Restored, and slept well that Night, feeling no pain; only Susan Chandler felt a pain like pricking of Pins in her Stomach.
After, they were all of them brought down to the Court, but Ann Durent was so fearful to behold them, that she desired she might not see them. The other Two continued in the Court, and they Affirmed in the face of the Country, and before the Witches themselves, what before hath been deposed by their Friends and Relations; the Prisoners not much contradicting them. In Conclusion, the Judge and all the Court were fully satisfied with the Verdict, and thereupon gave Judgment against the Witches that they should be Hanged.
They were much urged to confess, but would not.
That Morning we departed for Cambridge, but no Reprieve was granted: And they wereExecuted on Monday, the Seventeenth of March following, but they confessed nothing.
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.
The thing about waterways is that they have bridges – nothing surprising about that because people and vehicles need to cross them and keep dry at the same time. Very occasionally, when these waterway are diverted, for whatever reason, a second bridge is necessary to span the new cut. What happens to the older structure? Well, depending on circumstances; if the old course is not needed then, presumably, it is filled in and put to other uses. If, of course, water still has a need to flow along that old course then the old bridge remains to do its job.
That was a case in point here, in Norfolk where the River Bure flows near Coltishall at Horstead with Stanninghall. As with other parts along the Bure’s lower reaches, the road crossings here tend to be both large and infrequent. For those travelling up stream, there are various examples of bridges built to connect Coltishall with Horstead and beyond, but the one that we are interested in is Mayton Bridge, or to put it more accurately, Mayton Bridges – plural, near to the now disused Coltishall RAF airbase.
The first and widely recognised Mayton Bridge is the flat topped construction with two cylindrical holes cut in the abutments to increase flood water capacity. This bridge was never part of the Aylsham Navigation although an earlier bridge must have stood on the site. This bridge occurs mid way along a long straight canalised section of the river, with the old watercourse winding off to the west as it approaches Buxton. Many in the past must have spent their summer days swimming or wading around this bridge for the depth of water under the span is rarely anything more than 18 inches, with the bridge itself originally built on a raft of huge oak logs.
It is a matter of pure speculation whether the original bridge collapsed as a result of a past flood, or was torn down and rebuilt during World War II to allow heavy lorries to move between a local sand quarry on the west bank and the RAF base being built on the east – to become ‘RAF Coltishall’. The current bridge certainly seems to sit on top of a huge pile of rubble.
But the real interest of the ‘Mayton Bridges’ lies a couple of hundred yards to the west of the main, straight flowing, river where the road rises over a second bridge; this much older bridge comes complete with a couple of very unusual little shelters. This bridge has two arches spanning what some believe to be the original course of navigation. The bridge itself is very fine and in an excellent state of repair for its age although it was repaired in 1984. It is unusual in that it’s two arches are peaked in a manner not seen elsewhere on the river. Maybe this was how they were all built originally, or maybe this was a one off – it’s anyone’s guess!
Very little seems to be available to describe Mayton Hall and I have not be able to find any photographs of it. For the moment, and until a kind and knowledgeable reader can provide something, I am left with the following brief outline: – Mayton Hall stands on the site of an earlier medieval moated manor and parts of the moat still remains. The earliest parts of the Hall date from the 15th century. This timber framed building was extended to the north in the late 16th century, further alterations were made in the 18th century, and a new façade was built in the 19th century. It was severely damaged by fire in 1984.
As for the old brick bridge, this dates back to around early to mid-16th century; it is a scheduled monument. It has two arches, although it has been suggested that it has four; only one of these now crosses the stream. On west side there is a large central cutwater with a sloping top. The water which used to flow beneath it is thought to have been an outflow from the moat at nearby Mayton Hall, once keeping the water fresh and preventing it from stagnating. The moat inflow was some distance upstream from the bridge. The suggestion that the bridge was built over the original course of the river is considered by some to be improbable. On each side of the bridge and facing the road are small shelters which may have been for the toll collector to sit.
To the more nostalgic amongst us, it is easy to imagine wherries being quanted (poled) up against the current and those in charge thankful for a second arch to relieve the water pressure against the bows – Dream on!.
Will o’ the Wisps are not unique to Norfolk – but the ones who frequent this County have their own special characteristics and tales. Today, we know that the name is given to little flickers of marsh gas, which many in the distant past thought to be evil spirits waiting to lure lone night travellers to their deaths! Our ancestors were ignorant of the fact that Will o’ the Wisps were the spontaneous combustion of marsh gas which occurred on warm nights in rotten swamps and bogs. Nowadays, better drainage has turned these apparitions into memories. We are told that past folk called them by various names like Hob o’ Lanterns, Corpse Candles or Jenny Burnt Arses.
In Norfolk there used to be a 19th century wise women by the name of Mrs Lubbock who lived in Irstead, near Neatishead. According to her, Will o’ the Wisp, or Jack o’ Lantern if you prefer, was often to be seen walking around her village before the Irstead enclosure of 1810. Today, Irstead is still an isolated village by the side of the river Ant, but unlike in Mrs Lubbock’s time the village is now a very desirable place, parts of which looking like an archetypal English village. It has held on to some of its thatched cottages and its church is a delight. Up until the 20th century’s better methods of drainage the village and surrounds would have been a very damp and unhealthy place, miles away from towns and the city of Norwich. It should be no surprise therefore that such remote communities were full of tales of the supernatural and paranormal.
Mrs Lubbock’s view of those Will o’ the Wisps was of the spirit of a man named Heard, who turned into this Lantern Man and was frequently seen in and around the village on a misty or ‘roky’ night, but particularly at a spot called Heard’s Holde in the Alder Carr Fen Broad, on the Neatishead side. We are told that it was there that a man of that name, and one who was guilty of many terrible crimes did drown in the peat stained water. In Mrs Lubbock’s own words:
“I have often see it there, rising up and falling and twisting about, and then up again – it looked exactly like a candle in a lantern”. What would be the ignition of natural gas to us was, to her, the unhappy man’s spirit. “If anyone were walking along the road with a lantern at the time when Jack appeared and did not put out the light, he could come against it and dash it to pieces; and that a gentleman who made a mock of him and called him “Will o’the Wisp”, was riding on horseback one evening in the adjoining parish of Horning, when he (Jack) came at him and knocked him off his horse”
Mrs Lubbock also remembered that, as a small child, her father had told her that once when he was returning from money spending at the end of the harvest, in the company of an old man who whistled and jeered at Jack, the spirit followed them home and ‘torched up’ at the windows. However, many local folk were keen to lay Heard’s spirit to rest and did visit the places frequented by Heard when alive. Three men, in particular, tried to exorcise the ghost by reading verses from the Scriptures, but Jack always kept a verse ahead of them! Until, that is, a boy brought a pair of pigeons and laid them down at the apparition’s feet. Jack looked down at those birds and lost his verse, the one opportunity for those three men to “bound his spirit.”
Another tale relating to a Norfolk ‘Lantern Man’ comes from the seaside town of Cromer on the north-east edge of the County, as told by an old fisherman; this appeared in the Eastern Counties Magazine in 1900:
“There’s no saying what that will du to you, if that light on you! There was a young fellow coming home one evening and he see the Lantern Man coming for him and he run; and that run and he run again; and that run again! Now there was a silly old man lived down there who didn’t believe in none o’ them things and this young fellow he run to his house and say “O Giles, for Heaven’s sake, let me in – the Lantern Man’s coming!” And old Giles he say “You silly fool, there ain’t no such thing as a Lantern Man.” But when he see the Lantern Man coming for him, Giles let the young fellow in, and that come for them two, till that was the beginner of a pint pot!”
“And old Giles, he thought he would play a trick on the Lantern Man so he got a candle and held that out right high; and the Lantern Man, he come right low and the Lantern Man he come up above it. And then he held out right steady, and the Lantern Man he come for that and he burst it all to pieces. But they du say, if the Lantern Man light upon you, the best thing is to throw yourself flat on your face and hold your breath.”
Is Norfolk England’s most secretive and strange literary County?
Critics and commentators are always prey to big ideas – the bigger the better, in fact – and so tend to overestimate certain factors in the production and formation of books, preferring to emphasise the influence of some particular social, historical, political, institutional, linguistic or psychological fact or force and to ignore certain others. These explanatory fashions come and go. Thus we currently have cognitive poetics, ecocriticism, and post-colonial theories all being successfully applied to explain various aspects of our national literatures. But as yet – alas – we have no County Theory of English Lit. This is my big idea.
If we were to apply some of the quantatitive methods for analysing literature developed by the great maverick literary theorist Franco Moretti, a map of the UK as a whole adjusted for size according to literary production might produce a hunched, swollen-headed creature with an enormous Scotland, a bulging Northern Ireland, withered limbs, an empty heart, and a vast and protuberant Norfolk.
In popular culture, Norfolk represents nice but naff, a kind of watery, dandelion pleasantness. And yet the literary landscape of this most remote and unassuming of the English counties – just over 2,000 square miles of agricultural land, rivers, fens, towns and forests – is subtly strange and wild. In 2012, Norwich became England’s first and only Unesco city of literature (the others are Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa, Dublin and Reykjavik). The title alone suggests the panoramic sweep of the county town’s literary achievements and associations, extending all the way from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, one of the first books published by a female author, to the UK’s first MA in creative writing, established in 1970 by Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. An untiring advocate of the joys and merits of his adopted home county, Bradbury figured Norfolk as a place of writing parsons, farmer-writers and sensitive poets: John Skelton, Rider Haggard, John Middleton Murry, William Cowper, George MacBeth, George Szirtes. Bradbury’s Norfolk rather resembles John Betjeman’s, in fact, in whose poem “Norfolk” the lanes “recall lost innocence” – a land untouched by time.
But there’s more to literary Norfolk than the merely bucolic. My own first encounter with Norfolk in literature came in the form of the heroic and crime-solving adventures of Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club, a plucky little gang of boys and girls who live around Horning on the Norfolk Broads, in the Swallows and Amazons series of novels, a world as far from my own upbringing as was imaginable. For me, Norfolk became a place of fantasy, derring-do and detection – a place of mysteries and obscurities. In perhaps her greatest novel, Devices and Desires, (1989) PD James sends off the lugubrious Adam Dalgliesh to a fictional remote Norfolk community, Larksoken, somewhere on the coast between Cromer and Great Yarmouth, where he has inherited a windmill – but of course! – and is on the trail of a serial killer known as the Norfolk Whisperer. James dwells not only on the conflicts between the people of Larksoken but also on the continual interplay between sea and sky, where the “never-ceasing moaning of the tide” can be forever heard below lowering clouds. Norfolk-based writer Henry Sutton explores similar dark territory in his novels, which one might describe as droll Norfolk gothic. Sutton’s Bank Holiday Monday (1997) should be required reading for any middle-class couples considering renting a holiday home in Norfolk this summer. Ditto Ali Smith’s characteristically odd, delightful and polysemic The Accidental (2005).
Even more off-putting and alluring is WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), where the mysterious narrator begins the book in a “state of almost total immobility” in the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, and so begins to write his great account of his wanderings through East Anglia. His memories and musings begin with a lengthy discourse on the fate of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull. In Sebald, Norfolk is never the focus but rather the beginning of a digression.
There are writers, however, who have made the county explicitly their subject. The excellent Ruth Galloway series of crime novels by Elly Griffiths are all set in Norfolk, with Galloway, the head of forensic archaeology at the fictional University of North Norfolk, digging deep into Norfolk’s past to solve the crimes of the present.
But perhaps the Norfolkest of Norfolk novelists, the Norfolkiest of them all, is DJ Taylor. Born in Norfolk, living in Norfolk, often writing about Norfolk, Taylor has waged a one-man campaign against smug, shiny literary metropolitanism since his first non-fiction book ‘A Vain Conceit’: British Fiction in the 1980s (1989). Proud to be a “provincial” writer, in his novel Kept (2006) Taylor begins with a bravura passage describing his home county: “A land of winding backroads and creaking carts and windmills, a land of flood, and eels and elvers and all that comes from water, a land of silence and subterfuge, of things not said but only whispered, where much is kept secret which would be better laid open to scrutiny.”
In my own new novel I hope to contribute in some small way to the subterfuges of what may be England’s most secretive literary county. My protagonist, Swanton Morley, is named after a Norfolk village. Morley lives in Norfolk, in a house called St George’s – which I suppose is intended to suggest all of England. The novel is titled simply The Norfolk Mystery in honour of the many hours of dark-bright pleasure that the county and its writers have given me. “Do different” runs the Norfolk motto: I have done my best.
Ian Sansom’s ‘The Norfolk Mystery’ was published by Fourth Estate
The cold fact of the case is that George Granville Barker was born in Loughton, near Epping Forest in Essex, England in 1913; he was the elder brother of the painter Kit Barker. George was raised by his Irish mother and English father in Battersea, London and was educated at an L.C.C. school and at Regent Street Polytechnic. Having left school at an early age he pursued several odd jobs before settling on a career in writing.
Having said that – George Barker’s birthplace is not a place of pilgrimage, simply because Barker is one of those forgotten poets – well at least for the last decade or so. During all that time and possibly to the present day, hardly anyone has read him, most of his work is out of print, and has been barely mentioned in literary histories. Yet he was no minor poet. His work was passionate, intellectually challenging and highly original. At 22, Barker was a literary phenomenon. T.S. Eliot declared him a genius and Yeats thought him the finest poet of his generation.
Apparently, many critics thought the young Barker a better poet than the young Dylan Thomas, who had called Barker’s poems “masturbatory monologues”, a term which may have been a clue to the possibility that Thomas was madly jealous. Barker’s output never flagged for he regarded poetry as a full-time occupation and, save for a few visiting university lectureships, never had anything resembling a full-time job. He composed poetry until the day he died.
If you like your poets to be wild, irresponsible and dangerous then Barker would make you feel ecstatic! He was a prodigious drinker, womaniser and an habitual user of Methedrine and Benzedrine. He never owned a home – his sole attempt at property purchase ended when a fraudulent estate agent absconded with his entire savings – and he scarcely had a fixed address. As a young man, he accidentally stabbed his brother’s eye out while they were fencing, an episode that haunted him all his life. Also, for years, he was at the heart of the bohemian crowd in London’s Soho. He fathered 15 children by four different women. One of them, the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, determined to marry him and bear his children when she discovered his poetry in a London bookshop in the 1930’s – long before she met him.
He quarrelled bitterly and sometimes violently with friends as well as lovers and once threw one of his works on the fire – because, he said, his then partner had read it with a sneer. When a visitor tried to rescue it, he hit him over the head with a shovel. The same partner threw an ashtray at him and broke his teeth. Another bit his upper lip so firmly he required 40 stitches. A third partner, who left him for his nephew, was so terrified of the consequences that she settled and married in Birmingham. In America Barker wrote pornography with Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. His poems, read on the BBC Third Programme, were criticised for obscenity, and he never lost the capacity to cause outrage. Brought up a Catholic by his Irish mother, he took confession not long before he died, for the first time in 30 years. He had broken every commandment, he told the priest, except the sixth, “thou shalt not kill”.
So why did he fall so out of fashion. Why, despite settling for the last 24 years of his life in the idylic hamlet of Itteringham, Norfolk, just 15 miles or so miles from Norwich, the University of East Anglia and pioneer of creative writing courses, never invited him to take a single class? His second wife Elspeth once said:
“he never did anything to promote himself, never went to literary parties, and was too difficult and argumentative to belong to anything like a literary school”. He was, she said, “a very perverse poet who would often bugger up a perfectly good poem with a pun in the last line”.
By the mid-1950s, he was out of tune with the age. “He remained “mystical and mythical” when the new mood among poets stressed common sense,” wrote his biographer, Robert Fraser. Despite his neglect of church attendance, and frequent assertions that he didn’t believe in God, Barker feared hellfire and damnation; he was “a very superstitious Catholic,” observed Elspeth. Even at the age of nine and inspired by Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”, he first resolved to be a poet: “While other urchins were blowing up toads with pipes of straw stuck in the arse, So was I, but I also wrote odes.”
Barker was also conscious that “I had been cast a little low in the social register.” and, after he left school at 15, was never very comfortable with better-educated writers. Writing of Auden he said “behind the poetry I discern a clumsy interrogatory finger questioning me about my matriculation certificate, my antecedents and my annual income”.
Discovering his girlfriend Jessica was pregnant, he married at 20. Since she, too, was from a Catholic family, the child was born in secret and given up for adoption, another source of lifelong guilt. Though they lived apart from the mid-1940s, she and Barker never divorced. Only when Jessica died, two years before Barker’s own death, did he marry Elspeth, his last love.
Barker had little time for politics and was apparently only dimly aware that Japan was allied with the fascist powers when he agreed to take a university lectureship there, starting in March 1940. His lectures were attended by only three students.
Then, when receiving fan mail from the affluent and well-connected Elizabeth Smart, Barker appealed to her for financial help in escaping to America. She readily agreed and so came about their first meeting, which forms the celebrated opening passage of “By Grand Central Station”, a fictional re-creation of their turbulent and passionate affair. Barker’s account of it was less nuanced: “I stepped down into your lap, just as truly as I stepped down from my mother, and I have loved you completely and perfectly from that moment.” Cynics would say Barker really fell in love with the freedom of classless America and that Smart was an infatuated groupie. But their on-off affair ranged over four countries and 18 years, and produced four children.
Barker didn’t formally leave most of his women. Rather, he drifted off, seeming to believe they should wait patiently in the kitchen while his absences grew longer. “Poets are terrifying people to live with,” wrote one daughter, then 15. “They rush off at odd moments and are neither seen nor heard of for months. Then . . . they suddenly appear on the threshold as if nothing had ever happened.”
From 1959, Barker lived in Italy with Dede Farrelly, estranged wife of his friend John Farrelly. Then he met Elspeth Langlands, a 22-year-old from the Scottish Highlands, on a visit to London in 1963. “He asked me what I thought of his most recent volume,” she recalled, “and I said I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as some of his earlier ones. He flew into a rage.” But his relationship with Dede was deteriorating and, when Elspeth arrived in Italy with a young painter called Tony Kingsmill, Barker prised her away.
From 1967 he settled with Elspeth at Bintree House in Itteringham, Norfolk, a flint and brick house which lies just off the main street – close to the River Bure. The couple were able to acquire the house with financial support from the novelist Graham Greene who was a long-term admirer of Barker’s poetry. In her essay ‘Thoughts in a Garden’, Elspeth Barker describes the watery location of the house.
‘Mine is a riverine garden, and even indoors one is aware of this, not just by gazing through the window but by simply sitting still, committing words to paper in the intense cold, while a great numbness seeps up through feet and lower limbs. Hemlock and the death of Socrates come forward in the mind. The tiled floor is laid straight on the earth in the manner of 17th century folk, and beneath this floor and a thin layer of earth lie the black sullen waters of an underground lake.’
They had five children and, for the first time, Barker lived with a family more or less uninterruptedly. According to Elspeth he became disciplined enough to stay off drink and rise at six to start work. She flushed the drugs down the lavatory; only on Saturday nights, when it was open house for friends and relatives, did he indulge and fight as of old. “People wanted to sit next to him,” Elspeth recalled. “Then they knew they wouldn’t have anything thrown at them.” It seemed that he prided himself on being an outsider.”
It seems the Barker was a notoriously uneven writer and in describing the difficulties in writing his own biography, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve stirred the facts around too much ……. It simply can’t be done.” In 1969 his visit to All Saints Church, in the village in Thurgarton and only a short distance from Itteringham, inspired George Barker to write one of his finest later poems “At Thurgarton Church” (see below). The poem concerned Barker’s sense of sin and his fear of Judgement day.
On his grave at St Mary’s Church in Itteringham, Norfolk, a stone book – erected by a young bank robber whom Barker had befriended – states: “No Compromise”. It was a phrase Barker often used, and it is a good epitaph for both his extraordinary life and his attitude to poetry.
At Thurgarton Church
by George Barker
To the memory of my father:
At Thurgarton Church the sun
burns the winter clouds over
the gaunt Danish stone
and thatched reeds that cover
the barest chapel I know.
I could compare it with
the Norse longboats that bore
burning the body forth
in honour from the shore
of great fjords long ago.
The sky is red and cold
overhead, and three small
sturdy trees keep a hold
on the world and the stone wall
that encloses the dead below.
I enter and find I stand
in a great barn, bleak and bare.
Like ice the winter ghosts and
the white walls gleam and flare
and flame as the sun drops low.
And I see, then, that slowly
the December day has gone.
I stand in the silence, not wholly
believing I am alone.
Somehow I cannot go.
Then a small wind rose, and the trees
began to crackle and stir
and I watched the moon by degrees
ascend in the window till her
light cut a wing in the shadow.
I thought: the House of the Dead.
The dead moon inherits it.
And I seem in a sense to have died
as I rise from where I sit
and out into darkness go.
I know as I leave I shall pass
where Thurgarton’s dead lie
at those old stones in the grass
under the cold moon’s eye.
I see the old bones glow.
No, they do not sleep here
in the long holy night of
the serene soul, but keep here
a dark tenancy and the right of
rising up to go.
Here the owl and soul shriek with
the voice of the dead as they turn
on the polar spit and burn
without hope and seek with
out hope the holy home below.
Yet to them the mole and
mouse bring a wreath and a breath
of the flowering leaves of the soul, and
it is from the Tree of Death
the leaves of life grow.
The rain, the sometime summer
rain on a memory of roses
will fall lightly and come
among them as it erases
summers so long ago.
And the voices of those
once so much loved will flitter
over the nettled rows
of graves, and the holly tree twitter
like friends they used to know.
And not far away the
icy and paralysed stream
has found it also, that day the
flesh became glass and a dream
with no where to go.
Haunting the December
fields their bitter lives
entreat us to remember
the lost spirit that grieves
over these fields like a scarecrow.
That grieves over all it ever
did and all, all not
done, that grieves over
its cross-purposed lot:
to know and not to know.
The masterless dog sits
outside the church door
with dereliction haunting its
heart that hankers for
the hand that loved it so.
Not in a small grave
outside the stone wall
will the love that it gave
ever be returned, not for all
time or tracks in the snow.
More mourned the death of the dog
than our bones ever shall
receive from the hand of god
this bone again, or all
that high hand could bestow.
As I stand by the porch
I believe that no one has heard
here in Thurgarton Church
a single veritable word
save the unspoken No.
The godfathered negative
that responds to our mistaken
incredulous and heartbroken
desire above all to live
as though things were not so.
Desire to live as though the
two-footed clay stood up
proud never to know the
tempests that rage in the cup
under a rainbow.
Desire above all to live
as though the soul was stone,
believing we cannot give
or love since we are alone
and always will be so.
That heartbroken desire
to live as though no light
ever set the seas on fire
and no sun burned at night
or Mercy walked to and fro.
The proud flesh cries: I am not
caught up in the great cloud
of my unknowing. But that
proud flesh had endowed
us with the cloud we know.
To this the unspoken No
of the dead god responds
and then the whirlwinds blow
over all the things and beyond
and the dead mop and mow.
And there in the livid dust
and bones of death we search
until we find as we must
outside Thurgarton Church
only wild grasses blow.
I hear the old bone in me cry
and the dying spirit call:
I have forfeited all
and once and for all must die
and this is all that I know.
For now in a wild way we
know that justice is served
and that we die in the clay we
dread, desired, and deserved,
awaiting no Judgement Day.
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.”
It was one of the most exciting, turbulent and transformative eras in history, but the Middle Ages were also fraught with danger. Here are ten of the biggest risks people faced…
The plague was one of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages – it had a devastating effect on the population of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Also known as the Black Death, the plague (caused by the bacterium called Yersinia pestis) was carried by fleas most often found on rats. It had arrived in Europe by 1348, and thousands died in places ranging from Italy, France and Germany to Scandinavia, England, Wales, Spain and Russia.
The deadly bubonic plague caused oozing swellings (buboes) all over the body. With the septicaemic plague, victims suffered from skin that was darkly discoloured (turning black) as a result of toxins in the bloodstream (one reason why the…