Talk of witches is now mainly restricted to Halloween (October 31) which commemorates the dead, with some believing ghosts of the dear departed return that evening, guided to their destinations by the lights of many bonfires.
In some areas of the Pennines it was known as Witch Lating Night when people went up to the moors between 11pm and midnight whilst carrying a lighted candle. If the flame burned steadily, it signified the carrier would remain free from witchcraft for the next twelve months but if the flame went out, it mean the carrier would suffer a great evil.
In former times, the fear of witches and witchcraft dominated rural life in this country and it is difficult to pinpoint a particular time when it began. Certainly, it was at its height around the 14th and 15th centuries, extending into the 19th century and even later. So serious was the belief in witches in this country that the Government enacted the Witchcraft Acts of 1542 and 1563 which made murder by witchcraft a hanging offence. Lesser crimes involving witchcraft, such as injuries caused by witches or spells, attracted punishments such as imprisonment or being pilloried.
In 1604 James I enacted another capital offence which was “to consult, covenant with, employ, feed or reward any evil or wicked spirit” and in 1618 a handbook for judges stressed the importance of familiars that were used by witches. These were small creatures like cats, frogs, insects and so forth that were thought to be evil spirits in animal form; it was believed that a familiar could be controlled and used by its owner for a range of purposes involving witchcraft.
It wasn’t until 1951 that the Fraudulent Mediums Act of that year repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1785 that dealt with fraud used in fortune telling, clairvoyance, telepathy and other mysterious powers. Furthermore, we continue to use one of the most effective measures against witches – an iron horseshoe nailed to the door of the house or animal shelters. Because those shoes were made of iron, and cost nothing to obtain from a blacksmith’s pile of worn-out horseshoes, they were considered the finest of all witch deterrents. And we still use them to symbolise good luck.
Other witch-deterring devices were used at the entrance to houses – for example witch bottles were buried under the main doorstep or even placed up the chimney in the hope they would ward off witches who brought sickness and disease. The bottle contents were themselves quite gruesome including human urine, hair and nail clippings, iron nails or pins, pieces of thread or indeed anything else owned by the householder.
It was believed these bottles terrified any witch that might be threatening the household or its occupants, and so she would not enter to create havoc or illness.
Similar effects were thought to be produced by witch balls. These were large, heavy and colourful glass globes coated with reflective paint. They were hung in windows where it was thought the sun’s rays glinting from the glassware would dazzle the witch and persuade her to leave before inflicting the householders with diseases or infections. These balls are thought to have been first used c.1690 and remained popular into the 19th century; now they are sold as antique decorations - or do some of us believe they actually ward off illness and disease? After all, many of us believe horseshoes bring good luck.
The people of this region continue to re-tell stories about witches although the notion of them flying about the heavens on broomsticks has lost some credibility. However, many topographical books of recent times continue to tell tales about witch hares. These stories, related over a wide range of what is now North Yorkshire, are basically the same tale or at least very similar to the others.
All involved old women who, it was claimed, could turn transform themselves into a hares whereupon they committed damage to crops, stole milk or eggs, or undertook other mischief. The only way to kill or halt a witch hare was to shoot it with a silver bullet.
In various tales of witch hare hunts, the hares are injured in the back or legs by such bullets and escaped. When the hunters hurried to the home of the witch, she would be found alive, but with corresponding injuries. If the hare was hit in a rear leg, so the witch’s leg was injured.
Some of the named witches of the North York Moors include Awd Kathy o’ Ruswarp, Awd Nan Scaife o’ Spaunton Moor, Awd Mother Migg o’ Cropton, Nanny Pierson o’ Goathland, Peggy Devell o’ Hutton-le-Hole and Awd Jeannie o’ Mulgrave. There were others but not all could turn themselves into hares although most were skilled in the black arts, fortune telling and casting spells whilst Sally Craggs o’ Allerston could turn herself into a cat.
Many moorland houses were adorned with all manner of objects both inside and out. They were thought to protect the home and counteract the spells of witches. They included horseshoes, horse brasses, round stones with holes in them, rowan twigs, corn dollies, witch bottles and crosses made from hazel wood.
However, some authorities also believe that oak heck posts carved with an X mark were created to ward off witches; my recent research suggests this is not so. The X-marks were almost certainly cut by a Catholic priest as a sign that a house was safe from attack and regularly used for Catholic services. If those priest-marks, as they were known, were to ward off witches, they would have appeared all over England. As things are, they appear in a small area of the North York Moors, the village of Rawtenstall in Lancashire and farmhouses near Enschede in Eastern Holland where they represent The Five Wounds of Christ. Similar marks also appeared on altar stones and in heraldic symbols but had nothing to do with witches!
MAY DAY MISCHIEF
The arrival of May Day next Sunday reminds me of two tales about maypoles. The decorated poles will be much in evidence this weekend when they provide a happy time for everyone.
However two tales of our local maypoles may not be so jolly. One was at Sinnington near Pickering where in 1701 a band of Puritan “Broadbrims” (so called due to their hats) descended on the May Day festivities to halt the dancing and prevent the people enjoying themselves. It was said that a great dordum of a fight broke out and it seems the local lads beat off the attackers.
High in the Yorkshire Dales, however, the village of Thorpe-sub-Montem was renowned for its shoemakers. One May Day, some of them passed through nearby Burnsall and noticed the splendid maypole in full use, the centrepiece of festivities. The unhappy cobblers had no maypole – so decided to steal the one from Burnsall. That night, they crept into Burnsall and managed to spirit away the maypole without being caught. But the men of Burnsall weren’t daft.
It didn’t take long to find their maypole at Thorpe and so another great dordum of a fight broke out - and Burnsall retrieved its maypole.