Monday, 11 November 2013



The belief in  witchcraft and the occult  dates back to time immemorial.  A witch or warlock was a person who practised sorcery, having supernatural powers to work with evil spirits  or the devil.  The term was applied to anyone who had remarkable or inexplicable means of accomplishment.   It is said that between 1484 and 1782, at least 300,000 witches were put to death in Europe alone.  The laws of James 1 against witchcraft in the early 17th century were particularly severe and people were accused of witchcraft on the flimsiest ‘evidence’.
It was firmly  believed that witches and warlocks could be deprived of their powers by drawing blood and that their bodies had an area that was sensitive to pain but would not bleed.  Indeed, a whole profession of ‘witch pickers’ grew up, touring the country to identify witches and sometimes they themselves were convicted of the very crime they were supposed to expose.   A popular method employed was ‘the swimming of a witch’, which entailed the suspect being lowered three times into the water with the right thumb tied to the left big toe.  If the suspect floated, he or she was guilty of witchcraft.  In England the penal laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, although supposed witches were still hounded.    One might think that most of this was superstitious nonsense but people firmly believed it.  There are still many curiosities and tales to remind us of this strange period, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries 

We have covered a variety of witch stories under Churches and here are some more :

The  Pendle  witches



 Don’t be surprised if you see the figures of three witches huddled outside a shop at Newchurch-in-Pendle in Lancashire, for this is Pendle witch country of the 17th century.  The models are there to draw attention to souvenirs on sale in the shop.

In 1612, ten alleged witches from the area were sent to the scaffold under James 1’s new laws against witchcraft.  These women and their alleged victims resided in the villages and farms surrounding Pendle Hill, which at 1832ft is a distinctive landmark in this picturesque area, although few traces of their existence remain today.

In the churchyard at Newchurch there is an old gravestone referred to locally as  the witches  grave,  because of the name ‘Nutter’ and a skull and crossbones thereon.   A smaller stone close up to the wall of the church is more likely to be the grave of one of the convicted women, Alice Nutter.   Old Demdyke and Chattox, another two of the alleged witches were said to have robbed the graveyard at Newchurch, because bones and clay effigies were found in their homes.  Apparently all the women freely confessed to being witches.

The church at Newchurch has an unusual  ‘eye of God’ built into the fabric of the tower, which is said to have provided additional protection from the evil that once seems to have afflicted these parts.

 Pendle Hill


Of  witches  and  devils


A 17th century notice, preserved in the Drunken Duck Inn at Barngates near Ambleside in Cumbria reminds us how seriously witchcraft was taken at that time :
To the People of this hamlet
Cast   out  all
That have lately annoy’d these parts
with several
Grievous Molestations and Curiosities
Some councils directing a due improvement of
The TERRIBLE THINGS lately occurring
By the Unusual and Amazing range of
Prevent the Wrongs which those Evil Angels may
intend against all sorts of People among us
especially in accusations of the Innocent.



Witch  posts


Belief in witches was also very real in the North York Moors and most villages had a known witch, often rejoicing in such names as Old Nan or old Peg – usually well known for their medical powers! But really quite harmless old women who lived alone.  Most of the cottages had a  witch  post  , usually an oak post forming part of the fireplace and often quite elaborately carved and all bore a cross.  The use of this ancient symbol implied belief that its magic powers would avert evil and give protection against witchcraft.  A good example can be seen in a private cottage at Newton-Upon-Rawcliffe. .  In later years a cross was actually cast on the oven door of the kitchen range for the same reason.    Many examples can be seen at Ryedale Folk Museum in the delightful village of Hutton-le-Hole.

North York Moors 

Witches memorial


Many Scottish witches were taken to Edinburgh where they were burned at the stake close to Edinburgh Castle. A small memorial fountain can be seen at the top of Castle Hill and a plaque tells us:

‘This fountain designed by John Duncan RSA, is near the site on which many

witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and serene head

signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes

while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good.

The serpent has the dual significance of evil and of wisdom.

The foxglove spray further emphasises the dual purpose of many common objects..

The witches fountain


The burning of witches



Littletown is a tiny hamlet now absorbed by the ancient Burgh of Dornoch in the north of Scotland.   In a small garden there, a simple stone bearing the date 1722, marks the spot where the last witch was burnt in Scotland.  Janet Horn had been accused of  ‘turning her daughter into a pony and having her shod by the devil!’




Witches were usually burnt in public and the last ‘legal’ witch burning in England took place at Pocklington in East Yorkshire.  The parish register for 1631 records that  ‘old wife Green was burnt in the Market Place for acts of witchcraft.’
Pocklington Market Place

Photograph © Copyright Ian Lavender and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


I am grateful to Ian Lavender for the use of his Geograph photograph





The  murder of  a  witch

The Half Moon pub at Wilstone in Hertfordshire was the scene of an unusual Coroner’s Inquest back in 1751, it was held to inquire into the death of an alleged witch.    Ruth Osborn had been accused of witchcraft following an incident whilst she was begging for food at Gubblecote, her subsequent mutterings being interpreted as a curse.  Notices were posted that she and her husband would be publicly ducked at Wilstone on 21st April 1751.   Despite resistance, they were dragged from their place of refuge in the church vestry by a mob said to number some 4,000 people.  They were repeatedly ducked in the pond at Wilstone, which resulted in the death of Ruth Osborn who had been physically held under the water by the village chimney sweep, Luke Colley.  Colley was subsequently convicted of murder and was hanged at Hertford Gaol on 24th August 1751 and his body was hung in chains at Gubblecote.
 The Half Moon Inn


Granny  Kempock’s  stone


On the cliff top overlooking the Clyde at Kempock Point in Scotland is a curious standing stone, six feet high and shaped somewhat like an old woman.   Known as Granny Kempock’s stone, it is thought that this local witch,  much feared by seafarers,  believed she had the power to control the winds in those parts.  It is said that sailors and fishermen would walk seven times round the stone to ensure favourable weather. Wedded couples would also receive a blessing if they walked around the stone.


Photographs © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
I am grateful to Thomas Nugent for the use of his Geograph photographs.
Old  Mother  Shipton

The legendary sorceress and soothsayer, Old Mother Shipton,  is said to have been born in the cave at Knaresborough in North Yorkshire in 1488. She died in 1561 at the age of 73 years.
Born Ursula Southill, she married York builder Tobias Shipton when she was 24 years old. Every woman is entitled to be ugly but it seems that Ursula abused the privilege. ‘She was very morose, big boned, her head was long  with great goggling sharp and fiery eyes; her nose of an incredible and un- proportionate length, having in it many crooks and turnings and adorned with many strange purples and diverse colours, which like vapours of brimstone gas, gave such a lustre in the dead of night.’  So said a contemporary writer who went on to say, ‘ She had in addition a chin of the nutcracker order, yellow skin shrivelled and wrinkled with one solitary big tooth standing out of her mouth like a tusk. Her neck was so distorted that her right shoulder supported her head, her legs crooked, with feet and toes turned towards her left side so that when she walked to the right it seemed as if she were travelling to the left.’  That may be so but apparently her understanding was extraordinary and her strange powers of prophesy became known throughout the land. Over one hundred years after her death, Samuel Pepys had recorded in his diary that Mother Shipton had foretold the great fire of London. Her predictions were widespread, she is said to have foretold of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the defeat of the Armada, the Civil Warf, the Great Plague and so on. ‘Carriages without horses shall go and accidents fill the world with woe. Around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of and eye. Iron in the water shall float as easy as a wooden boat. Gold shall be found in a foreign land that’s not now known.’ Is how some of her predictions have been quoted. In his Collection of Prophesies of 1645, Astrologer W. Lilley quoted that 16 of her predictions had been fulfilled.
Many people thought that she was a witch, especially Cardinal Wolsey whom Mother Shipton predicted would never be Archbishop of York. Apparently he sent her a message that when he did enter York he would have her burned as a witch. Fortunately for her she was right.                     Equally fortunate, one of her predictions did not come true, the end of the world in 1881!

The  Old  Dun  Cow


An old cottage in Halfpenny Lane, just outside Longridge in Lancashire, bears the date 1616 above the door, together with the rib bone of a cow  The story goes that during a severe drought in the 17th century,  the old dun cow  provided enough milk for all,  long after the wells had run dry.  Legend has it that a local witch was caught milking the cow into a sieve and the cow died.

The Old Dun Cow


A  queen’s  pardon


Jane Wenham of Walkern in Hertfordshire was probably the last witch to be condemned to death in England.  In 1712 she was convicted of  ‘bewitching sheep and farm workers,’  but she was granted the Queen’s pardon.

It is said that  Walkern was built in the middle ages with the help of the devil!  According to legend, the residents of Boxberry began to build a church but each night the materials were moved to a new site near the river.   Apparently the devil, who thought it was a better site, was responsible and was heard to encourage the movement with the word ‘walk on  walk on’.   Inevitably the villager’s accepted the devil’s choice and indeed the name for their new settlement!

St Mary's Church, Walkern

Photograph © Copyright John Salmon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
I am grateful to John Salmon for the use of his Geograph photograph


Turning  the  devil’s  stone


A huge boulder outside the east gateway to the church at Shebbear near Holsworthy in Devon is said to belong to the devil.  This lump of quartz conglomerate, 6ft long and 4ft wide, and weighing more than 1 ton, is the subject of an annual ritual when the stone is turned over.  On the 5th November each year, local men with ropes and crowbars and accompanied by the jangling of the church bell to frighten the devil off, turn the stone over to defy the devil’s power.


Photograph © Copyright Andrew Longton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
I am grateful to Andrew Longton for the use of his Geograph photograph

Gransden  Mill


An eerie post mill, fully restored, stands in the attractive village of Great Gransden near St Neots in Cambridgeshire.  In the 1860’s, the mill was owned by one William Webb, who found a book called  'The Infidel’s Bible'  amongst the belongings of his deceased brother – all about black magic!  Webb hid the book away in the mill which promptly stopped working, and it stayed that way for three years until the book was removed and burnt.   Apparently, at that time the sails started to turn again.


Gransden Mill


Vampirism, the superstition that a ghost or evil spirit leaves the grave at night to suck the blood of a sleeping person is vividly portrayed by Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula.   Stoker was in fact visiting the port of Whitby in North Yorkshire when he wrote the novel and part of the story entails a shipwreck off the coast at Whitby, when Count Dracula, in the shape of a huge dog, swims ashore, runs up the 199 steps to the churchyard and takes refuge in the grave of a suicide.   There is a grave, which would be pointed out by officials at the church, bearing a skull and crossbones and said to be the very grave!  The stark remains of Whitby Abbey are a fitting background.


Whitby churchyard
The  Dent  Vampire


George Hodgson of Dent in the Yorkshire Dales, is said to have been a vampire!    He died in 1715 at the ripe old age of 94 years and it is said that his previous good health and longevity was due to his dealings with the devil and, it is pointed out, he had canine teeth,  a sure sign was he was a vampire!   Apparently he was first buried in a far corner of the churchyard, but after he was seen walking in the moonlight  and after some mysterious deaths in the area, his body was exhumed.  When the coffin was opened it was said that his flesh was glowing pink and his hair had grown long.   The body was re-buried near to the church porch with a stake through the heart!  There is a hole through the gravestone – maybe to make a quick replacement of the stake?



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