I’m talking about Fairies and the Witch Trials on the Folklore Podcast!


Hello everyone. Today’s blog post isn’t quite like my usual ones: it’s not an article in its own right, but instead a digest of things that I mentioned in the interview I did for the Folklore Podcast episode that went live today, but didn’t have time/the memory to develop on. If you want to listen to the cast, you can do it at the address below:


You can find my episode (“Fairy Belief and the Witch Trials”) in Season Two.

The Era of the English Witch Trial

There certainly were witch trials before the Reformation, but until Henry VIII’s Act Against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Enchantments (1541/2) witchcraft was the purview of the Ecclesiastical courts, and seems not to have had the same hold on the public consciousness. (This being despite the fact that the 1541/2 Act seems to have been more interested in controlling Grimoire-using ritual magicians rather than the sorts of ‘rustic’ or ‘Satanic’ witch the English witch hunt would later become obsessed with.

By the late 1550s, campaigners like Bishop Edmund Grindal and Bishop John Jewell called for a return of secular legislation against Witches, since the Henrician Act was repealed in 1547, leading to the 1563 act against witchraft, which went into greater detail on various different kinds of witchcraft, and was more even in its coverage of the ‘rustic’, non-ritual magic using witch.

Here, the era of the English witch trial started in earnest, reaching peaks that included the Puritan-led possession hysteria of the 1580s-90s, and the renewed surge of trials in the wake of the tougher Witchcraft Act of 1604.

By the 1630s, however, trials were on the wane. Scepticism was taking hold. Child witnesses had long been downgraded (King James spoke against child witnesses in 1613). The 1632 Pendle Witch Trial resulted not in a rash of witch executions, but an examination by doctors and the boy-witness admitting fraud.

The events of the English Civil War – the lurid providentialist propaganda of the presses, the temporary breakdown of the Assize system of trials, the rise of the various Witchcraft-believing Protestant sects – not to mention the fearful populace and uncertainty of war – led to a resurgence of witch trials.

Still, as the Enlightenment rolled on, trials once more declined.

While Professor Owen Davies’ research shows grass roots witchcraft belief into the 19th century, official endorsement weakened, and would be finally ended by the 1735 Act: repealing the Act of 1604, and making it clear that in the eyes of the court, witchcraft was a matter of fraud, not Satanic magic.

Alternate Manuscript of the Rye Trial

This is BL Harleian MSS 358/188. According to the superb Annabel Gregory (whose book Rye Spirits is a superb resource on the Rye trials) this is a contrasting version of Susanna Swapper’s testimony for the Rye case, with very little mention of Anna Taylor. According to Gregory, if it ever was an official legal document, then all official headers have been amputated.

I haven’t yet looked at it myself, but I do plan to.

Scottish Women and the Fairies

This is probably best summed up by King James’ writing about witches and the Fairies in his book, Daemonologie:

“But how can it be then, that sundrie Witches haue gone to death with that confession, that they haue ben transported with the Phairie to such a hill, which opening, they went in, and there saw a faire Queene, who being now lighter, gaue them a stone that had sundrie vertues, which at sundrie times hath bene produced in judgement?”

Agnes Sampson’s Christian Witchcraft

Agnes Sampson was a (probably) elderly Cunning Woman arrested at Haddington Kirk, and caught up in the Scottish North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590-91. She seems to have been a fairly standard local wise woman: she describes healing (and possibly sending her family to heal) with folk remedies of herbs and vinegar.

However, during her interrogation she admits to knowing a magical prayer taught to her by her father. While it’s important to always be on guard for the fabrications of interrogators in any witch trials, this prayer does not fit with the narrative of the Satanic witch, and therefore might be genuine.

Her first interrogation has Agnes admit that while treating Lady Kilbaberton she used a prayer overnight. If the prayer is not a fabrication of her examiners, then it is certainly used in a theurgic way: she recites it to heal (as she did with Laird Parkie’s daughter), to aid natural ingredients, or to divine whether a patient will either improve or decline.

Sadly, the exact content of the prayer is not recorded in her trial documents.

Katherine Briggs Article

The Katherine Briggs article on Fairy Magic in the Grimoires is a great resource for understanding the way that magical manuscripts used Fairies. It can be found in Folklore No. 64 (1953), pp. 445-62.

Katherine Fordyce, Andro Mann and Elsbeth Reoch

Katherine Fordyce is an interesting case: not directly charged with witchcraft, she appears in the dream of another, warning her that she has been “Trowbound”, or kidnapped by the fairies after her death. She begs and bargains with the dreamer for various boons that will allow her to escape: to call God’s name when they seen her; to name a child after her, thereby gaining fortune until the girl marries and relinquishes her name… Unfortunately, the fairies seem wise to her scheme, and in the final dream they trap her in a stone chair with an iron bar across it.

Elsbeth Reoch was tried in the Manorial Court of the Orkneys by Robert Coltart. She confesses meeting two fairy men (one in green, the other in black – a colour palette that would appear in Fairy and Demon sightings again), one of whom told her she was beautiful, and offered her the chance to ‘learn to ken’ – to become a medium.

Interestingly, the fairy man also makes it clear that he was once a living human. He was her kinsman John Stewart, servant of MacKay, and the two have a very strange incestuous sexual relationship, with Elsbeth losing the power of speech afterwards, with her power of second sight becoming far more powerful.

Like Agnes Sampson, Elsbeth’s magic is fundamentally Christian: she takes a knee and recites the prayer, “In nomine patris, fillis et spiritus sanctus” in order to perform divinations and gain magical boons (including the conception of a baby) for her patients.

Andro Mann is the only male of the three. His deposition describes a fairy woman coming to his mothers house and introducing herself as the ‘Quene of Elphen’, who goes on to teach him how to cure almost all diseases, including epilepsy, using a mixture of Christian prayer and magical herbal baths.

His depsosition also describes a spirit called ‘Christonday’, who Mann insists is either a fairy or an angel (or both), but his interrogators insist is the Devil. He teaches more Chirsto-Magical techniques to Mann, using the word ‘Benedicte’, and takes him to a drinking hall where once more, Fairies interact with the dead: the deposition states that Mann “…kennis sindrie died men in their companie, and that the kyng that deit in Flowdown and Thomas Rhymour are there.”

The Shoemaker on the Bridge

This is from the diary of Abraham de la Pryme. Here, writing in 1699, de la Pryme writes of a pedlar from Swaffam who meets ‘a worldly London shopkeeper’ on London Bridge, who tells the pedlar about a hoard of buried treasure under an orchard back in Swaffam, but says that he doesn’t intend to go back and dig.

In de la Pryme’s telling, the pedlar does go back and finds the spot in an orchard, under a huge oak. When he digs, he finds enough treasure to build Swaffam’s parish church.

Visions and Fever in the Northern Tradition

I must admit, I was wrong in thinking it was the northern traditions: the actual stories I was thinking of come first from Gregory of Tours, and secondly from The Visio Godeschalci, from Holstein.

In the first, Bishop Salvi of Albi takes sick with a fever and is mistaken for being dead. After lying in state all night, and watchers realising that he was alive, he slowly recovered, eventually telling his carers of a vision he had while delirious.

In the vision of Godeschalc, the visionary fell into a coma after becoming progressively more sick, and is seen by his carers as having left his body in spirit form. When he returns he tells friends of a trip through a rough wilderness after death, bearing the marks on his feet of walking through thorns and briars barefoot.

William Stapleton and William Walwyn

I’ve already written about these chaps in my blog post on Tudor ritual magicians.

John West and His Wife

The contemporary source that I used for this was the 1613 pamphlet, The Seuerall Notorious and Levvd cousnages of Iohn VVest and Alice VVest, falsely called the King and Queen of Fayries, which I accessed via EEBO.

If you don’t have access to EEBO, or don’t want to have to read the 17th century pamphlet, there’s a very readable account in Alec Ryrie’s book, mentioned in my recommended reading for the podcast.

Women with the Dead as Fairy Spirit Guides

In addition to the cases I mentioned earlier, we see this in the deposition of Bessie Dunlop, whose spirit guide Thom Reid is sent by ‘the Quene of Elfhame’, but identifies himself as the dead Laird of Auchlinky in Perthshire who died at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh.

Likewise, in 1588, Alesoun Peirsoun revealed that her spirit guide is her uncle, Mr. William Sympsoun, a doctor who helped her as a child when she was paralysed and became a fairy after death.

Book on the Islandmagee Witches

This is about Ireland’s only mass witchcraft trial, taking place a little after the English trials were dying out out (in 1711).

The book is called Possessed by the Devil: The Real History of the Islandmagee Witches and Ireland’s Only Mass Witchcraft Trial by Andrew Sneddon.

At the time of writing this blog (15th of January 2017) the Kindle Edition was available for only £3.79!

The Extended Tea Metaphor

Yes, I like tea. In my opinion the best tea in the world is available from The Delaunay Counter in Aldwych, London. It’s a secret blend created by the Waldorf Hotel’s master blender, and it’s genuinely closely guarded secret.

When I last visited they didn’t sell it to take away, but if you can’t get there, I recommend the British High Street brand Typhoo, which I favour over any amount of rubbish ‘designer’ teas for everyday drinking.

Sainsbury’s Red Label Tea Bags are pretty good, too.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the podcast!


Donations Keep This Blog Running

The contents of this blog are entirely free and always will be. I have a couple of books out, but the vast majority of the work I do, especially my historical work, is a labour of love. With that said, creating this content costs me money: I pay for access to academic journals, to a professional quality research library, for trips to specialised collections and archives, and for courses in Latin, Archive Skills and Paleography.

If you’ve read this material and found it useful, please consider donating a small amount of money towards my work. If one in a hundred of the people who see my blog this week bought me a coffee via Ko-fi, it would make a huge difference to my ability to deliver. If one in fifty did, I’d be able to significantly increase my output.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

3 thoughts on “I’m talking about Fairies and the Witch Trials on the Folklore Podcast!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *