Witchcraft in Worcestershire

  • 17 Jan 2012
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Witchcraft in Worcestershire

In olden times every women - or for that matter, man- who led a solitary life was suspected by neighbours of practising the 'black art'. This was particularly the case if the recluse had knowledge of plants. People were willing enough to profit from the superior knowledge of the herbalist, but viewed it with suspicion and dislike. The line which parted the 'wise women' and the witch was very slender, and was considered only one degree removed from being a witch.

In the 19th century there was a fashion for 'gothic' horror stories, and Mrs Henry Wood and James Skipp Borlase used witchcraft in their stories. Borlase, who wrote The White Witch of Worcester which was serialised in the Worcestershire Chronicle in the 1880s, appropiated the historic case of Ursula Corbett of Defford, who on March 14th, 1661, was burnt as a witch at Worcester for poisoning her husband after only tree weeks of their marriage. This linked with the local tradition of subterranean passages to the White Ladies Convent at the Tything, and produced a lurid piece of fiction which was believed by many to be historic fact.

was Lord Coke, the famous English Jurist, who during the great witchcraft epidemic in England during the 16th and 17th centuries when perhaps 1,000 witches were tried and executed, was at pains to define a witch as 'A person that hath conference with the Devil to take counsel to do some act' It was not until 1731 that the statute against witchcraft was removed. The Church remained unconvinced to a later period, and in the remote areas of the countryside, a belief in witchcraft was common during most of the 19th century, indeed in some places, such as in the villages around Bredon and the foothills of the Cotswolds, there is evidence of its practice in the 1940s.

Witchcraft seems to be a survival of earlier customs and beliefs, driven underground many centuries ago by the Christian religion, so that the gods of the older period became the devils of the new order. The Catholic Church with its candles, bells and holy water, provided means of keeping sorcery at bay, which the Protestants denounced as Popish superstitions; but the simple country folk preferred their traditional charms against evil, believing them more effective than the prayers laid down by the Church.

Most witches were old and poor, and perhaps some were not above using a little blackmail, by way of a curse. Some were strangely convinced of their powers, for a curse could be devastating provided the victim knew of it, for auto-suggestion could cause illness and death. Witches were supposed to have 'familiars' (which was claimed to be the Devil himself) but in the form of cats, hares, toads, or black dogs. The black dog in the Meon Hill Murder Case was thought to be most sigificant.

A common magical rite for causing sickness and death to a person or their cattle, was the making of images of clay or wax, and then 'christened' in the name of the victim. Sheep's hearts, named and stuck with pins then cured in the smoke of a chimney, was another way of causing illness; or a written curse containing the names of devils and of the victim, as on the Mary Ellis Curse in Gloucester Folk Museum, and found in a bricked up cavity in a house at Newent.

marks, said to be bites or scrathces made by the Devil, were accepted as a sign of guilt. Witch-hunters called prickers, scrutinised the accused from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head. Any spot, mark or blemish on the skin was pricked with a long brass pin, and should it not bleed, it was regarded as sure proof of guilt. This pricking, or stabbing with a hay-fork was the ancient way of killing a witch, as happened a number of times on the Warwickshire border in the 19th century.

Witchcraft was not made a capital offence in Britain until 1563; and even then, English law required proof of injury to people or domestic animals.