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SOME REPRESENTATIVE ENGLISH WITCHES
HAVING seen how the witch in general lived and went about her evil business, it may be well to consider the personality of individual members of the craft. There have been, needless to say, many women famous in other directions, who have been incidentally regarded by their contemporaries as possessing superhuman powers. Indeed, to be condemned as a witch was but to have an official seal set upon the highest compliment payable to a woman in more than one period of the earth's history, seeing that it marked her out from the dead level of mediocrity to which her sex was legally and socially condemned. It is as unnecessary as it is unfair to believe that the English and French worthies who burnt Joan of Arc were hypocrites. That a woman could do as she had done was to them capable only of two explanations. Either she must be inspired from above or from below, according to the point of view. As it was too much to expect that those whom she had defeated should regard her victories as divine, it followed that they could seem nothing but infernal. From Cleopatra or the Witch of Endor onwards, the exceptional woman has had the choice of effacing her individuality or of being regarded as an agent of the devil. It is true that in our own more squeamish days, we prefer to regard her as either eccentric or improper, according to her social position and other attendant circumstances.
then disregard such historical characters as have other claims to fame, and
confine our attention to those whose activities were concentrated upon
witchcraft pure and simple. Nor have we to go far afield for noteworthy examples, seeing that they abound, not only in England, but even
in London itself. Perhaps the most generally respected of English witches,
alike by her contemporaries and succeeding generations is Mother Shipton, who
flourished in the reign of Henry VII. More fortunate than the majority of her
colleagues, she died a natural death, and it is scarcely too much to say that
her memory is green even to-day among certain classes of society, at any
rate. In common with the Marquess of Granby, Lord Nelson, and other popular
idols, Mother Shipton has acted as sponsor for more than one public house in
different English counties; the most familiar to Londoners being perhaps that
at the corner of Malden Road, Camden Town, a stopping-place on the tram and
omnibus route to Hampstead Heath. I have not been able to trace any definite
connection between the witch and the hostelry probably the choice of a sign
was made in order to rival another inn named after Mother Redcap herself a
witch of some eminence in the same district. Mother Shipton was a native of
the gloomy forest of Knaresborough, in Yorkshire, a famous forcing-ground of
Black Magic, and, although few details of her life have been preserved, we
know, so far as tradition may be trusted, that despite her evil reputation and
the certainty that she had sold herself to the devil, she was granted Christian
burial in the churchyard at Clifton, in Yorkshire, where she died. Whether this
implies that she repented, and cheated the devil of his bargain, before her
death, or only that the local authorities were lax in their supervision of the
parish cemetery, is an open question. At least, a tombstone is said to have
been there erected to her memory with the following inscription:
Here lies she who never lied,
Whose skill often has been tried.
Her prophecies shall still survive
And ever keep her name alive.
No doubt Mother Shipton was as gifted as her fellows in the customary arts of witchcraft, but tradition draws a merciful veil over her exploits as poisoner or spell-caster. Her fame rests upon her prophecies, and whether she actually uttered them herself or they were attributed to her after the event, by admiring biographers, they have ever since been accepted as worthy of all respect even when not attended by the result she anticipated. Thus, although she is said to have foretold the coming of the Stuarts in the person of James I. with the uncomplimentary comment that with him:
From the cold North
Every evil shall come forth.
the British Solon yet placed the greatest reliance upon her prognostications, as did Elizabeth before him. It is even said that his attempts by various pronunciamentos to stay the increase in the size of London were prompted by Mother Shipton's well-known prophecy that:
When Highgate Hill stands in the midst of London,
Then shall the folk of England be undone.
If it be argued by the sceptical that, although the London boundaries are now considerably beyond Highgate Hill, the country has so far prospered, it is to be remembered that the prophetess gave no date for the undoing of the English people, and that, if we may believe the mournful views taken of our national future by the leaders of whichever political party happens to be out of office, Mother Shipton's reliability is in a fair way of being vindicated within a very few years.
Yet another of her predictions perhaps the most famous, indeed may have been verified already in the days of Marlborough, Nelson, or any of several eminent commanders, or may be still in process of fulfilment. It runs as follows:
The time shall come when seas of blood
Shall mingle with a greater flood;
Great noise shall then be heard;
Great shouts and cries
And seas shall thunder louder than the skies;
Then shall three lions fight with three, and bring
Joy to a people, honour to a king.
That fiery year as soon as o'er
Peace shall then be as before;
Plenty shall everywhere be found,
And men with swords shall plough the ground.
The vagueness of this and other prophecies by Mother Shipton, however much they may exasperate the stickler for exactitude, bear witness to her direct descent from the ancient sibyls and pythons, few, if any, of whom ever vouchsafed anything more definite.
Passing by Young Nixon, the dwarf, who, although a prophet scarcely less inferior in fame to Mother Shipton, scarcely falls within the limit of this volume though it may be noted that one of his best-known prophecies, that he would starve to death, did actually come true we may next consider the life-history of a witch less legendary than Mother Shipton the Mother Redcap referred to above as having provided a sign for a Camden Town public house. Her career is detailed with such care in Palmer's "St. Pancras and its History," and at the same time provides so vivid a sketch of the probable career of many another witch, that I may be excused for quoting the extract at length:
"This singular character, known as Mother Damnable, is also called Mother Redcap and sometimes the Shrew of Kentish Town. Her father's name was Jacob Bingham, by trade a brickmaker, in the neighbourhood of Kentish Town. He enlisted in the army, and went with it to Scotland, where he married a Scotch pedlar's daughter. They had one daughter, this Mother Damnable. This daughter they named Jinney. Her father, on leaving the army, took again to his old trade of brick-making, occasionally travelling with his wife and child as a pedlar. When the girl had reached her sixteenth year, she had a child by one Coulter, who was better known as Gipsy George. This man lived no one knew how, but he was a great trouble to the magistrates. Jinney and Coulter after this lived together, but being brought into trouble for stealing sheep from some lands near Holloway, Coulter was sent to Newgate, tried at the Old Bailey, and hung at Tyburn. Jinney then associated with one Darby, but this union produced a cat and dog life, for Darby was constantly drunk; so Jinney and her mother consulted together; Darby was suddenly missed, and no one knew whither he went. About this time, her parents were carried before the justices for practising the black art, and therewith causing the death of a maiden, for which they were both hung. Jinney then associated herself with one Pitcher, though who or what he was never was known; but after a time his body was found crouched up in the oven, burnt to a cinder. Jinney was tried for the murder, but acquitted because one of her associates proved he had 'often got into the oven to hide himself from her tongue.' Jinney was now a lone woman, for her former companions were afraid of her. She was scarcely ever seen, or if she were it was at nightfall, under the hedges or in the lane; but how she subsisted was a miracle to her neighbours. It happened during the troubles of the Commonwealth that a man, sorely pressed by his pursuers, got into her house by the back-door, and begged on his knees for a night's lodging. He was haggard in his countenance and full of trouble. He offered Jinney money, of which he had plenty, and she gave him a lodging. This man, it is said, lived with her many years, during which time she wanted for nothing, though hard words and sometimes blows were heard from her cottage. The man at length died, and an inquest was held on the body, but, though everyone thought him poisoned, no proof could be found, and so she again escaped harmless. After this Jinney never wanted money, as the cottage she lived in was her own, built on waste land by her father. Years thus passed, Jinney using her foul tongue against everyone, and the rabble in return baiting her as if she were a wild beast. The occasion of this arose principally from Jinney being reputed a practiser of the black art a very witch. She was resorted to by numbers, as a fortune-teller and healer of strange diseases; and when any mishap occurred, then the old crone was set upon by the mob, and hooted without mercy. The old, ill-favoured creature would at such times lean out of her hatch door, with a grotesque red cap on her head. She had a large broad nose, heavy shaggy eyebrows, sunken eyes, and lank and leathern cheeks; her forehead wrinkled, her mouth wide, and her look sullen and unmoved. On her shoulders was thrown a dark grey striped frieze with black patches, which looked at a distance like flying bats. Suddenly she would let her huge black cat jump upon the hatch by her side, when the mob instantly retreated from a superstitious dread of the double foe.
"The extraordinary death of this singular character is given in an old pamphlet. Hundreds of men, women, and children were witnesses of the devil entering her house, in his very appearance and state, and that although his return was narrowly watched for, he was not seen again; and that Mother Damnable was found dead on the following morning, sitting before the fireplace holding a crutch over it with a teapot full of herbs, drugs, and liquid, part of which being given to the cat, the hair fell off in two hours and the cat soon after died; that the body was stiff when found and that the undertaker was obliged to break her limbs before he could place them in the coffin, and that the justices have put men in possession of the house to examine its contents.
"Such is the history of this strange being whose name will ever be associated with Camden Town, and whose reminiscence will ever be revived by the old wayside house which, built on the site of the old beldame's cottage, wears her head as the sign of the tavern."
Mother Redcap who, to judge from the above account, would have had little cause of complaint had she suffered at the hands of the executioner instead of those of the devil, was more fortunate than many other London witches. Wapping, nowadays, is a sufficiently prosaic spot. In the seventeenth century it was the abode of one Joan Peterson, widely famous as the witch of Wapping. She was hanged at Tyburn in 1652 on evidence such as it must be confessed would nowadays scarcely satisfy even a country J.P. trying a poacher. A black cat had alarmed a woman by entering a house near Joan's abode. The woman consulted a local baker, who replied that "on his conscience he thought it was old Mother Peterson, for he had met her going towards the island a little while before." He clenched the matter when giving evidence at the trial by declaring that although he had never before been frightened by a cat, the sight of this one had terrified him exceedingly. After which no reasonable jury could entertain a doubt of Mother Peterson's guilt. Fifty years before, as recorded in Sinclair's "Satan's Invisible World Displayed," another notorious witch, Mother Jackson by name, was hanged for having bewitched Mary Glover, of Thames Street, and similar cases are common enough to show that the seventeenth-century Londoner was as open to this form of the devil's assaults as he now is to others more subtle. It is true that some professed victims of the black art were proved to be impostors. Thus in 1574, as we learn from Stow, Rachel Pinder and Agnes Briggs did penance at Paul's Cross for having pretended to be diabolically possessed, vomiting pins and so forth, much, no doubt, to the relief of the witch accused of besetting them.
The earliest English witch to attain any individual immortality was she of Berkeley, who differed from most of her successors by being extremely well off. Possibly because of this for even in the ninth century money had its value she was accorded Christian burial, and the prayers of the church thereafter. They were not, however, sufficent to ensure her salvation, for under the very nose of the priest the devil carried her body away from where it lay at the foot of the high altar. Although sufficiently historical to have inspired one of Southey's ballads, the Witch of Berkeley is a shadowy figure enough. Another who, seeing that she was acquitted, does not perhaps deserve to be here considered was Gideon, accused of sorcery by Agnes, wife of the merchant Odo, in the tenth year of King John's reign. Although less popular as a legendary figure, Gideon has a definite claim to regard in that her trial is the first to be found in English legal records the "Abbrevatio Placitorum," quoted by Thomas Wright in his narrative of sorcery and magic. It is satisfactory to know that Gideon, having passed through the ordeal by red-hot iron, was acquitted in due course.
A famous witch was Margery Jourdemain, better known as the Witch of Eye, who gains a reflected halo of respectability in that she was burnt at Smithfield in 1441 as an accomplice of Eleanor of Gloucester, elsewhere referred to. The Duchess of Bedford, charged in 1478 with having bewitched Edward IV. by means of a leaden image "made lyke a man of arms, conteyning the lengthy of a mannes finger, and broken in the myddes and made fast with the wyre," as well as the unhappy Jane Shore, come under the heading of political offenders against whom witchcraft was alleged only as a side issue. More apt to our purpose, in that she was charged with the offence of witchcraft only, and for it condemned to death by Henry VIII., and executed at Tyburn in 1534, was Elizabeth Barton of Aldington, better known as the Fair Maid of Kent. It is true that she was a crazed enthusiast, suffering from a religious mania, rather than a witch, and that she was, further, a pawn in a political intrigue whereby the Catholic party endeavoured to influence the King's matrimonial schemes.
Mother Demdyke, of Pendle Forest, in Lancashire, immortalised by Harrison Ainsworth in "The Lancashire Witches," is elsewhere referred to Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch of Edmonton, though during her life gaining only local fame, yet achieved the posthumous glory of providing Ford and Dekker with the material for a play. In this, indeed, she did but plagiarise Mr. Peter Fabell of the same town, otherwise known as the Merry Devil of Edmonton, who there lived and died in Henry VIII.'s reign, and upon whose pranks was founded the play called after him, and long attributed to no less an author than Shakespeare. But whereas Mr. Fabell was a sorcerer of no mean power, in that he successfully cheated the devil and died in his bed, poor Elizabeth was no more than a common witch, and as such came to the usual end. The manner of her death in 1621 may be found in the chap-book published in that year and entitled, "The Wonderfull Discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, A Witch late of Edmonton: Her Conviction, Condemnation and Death: Together with the relation of the Devil's Accesse to her and their Conference together. Written by Henry Goodcole, Minister of the Word of God, and her Continual Visitor in the Gaol of Newgate."