This book presents an interesting approach to the history of witchcraft in Britain. The author avoids attempting to outline the whole subject from the earliest days, which risks superficiality in a work aimed at the general public, but also resists taking a detailed look at one particular aspect of the topic, which risks losing the general reader in endless detail. Instead we have a careful selection of eleven cases, which between them show the development of personal, social and legislative attitudes to witchcraft.
The stories are bookended by two rather untypical cases, one from an era well before the main witchcraft prosecutions and one from long after. Alice Kyteler lived in fourteenth century Kilkenny, and having survived, and prospered from the wills of four husbands, she was an obvious target for claims of sorcery heresy and even murder, as well as leading a cult of devil-worshippers – an unusual claim for the times. But her story seems to have developed into a case of conflict between church and state, with a heresy-hunting bishop up against the local secular authority, the seneschal, each asserting their powers. Alice seems to have cheated the witch-hunters and her eventual fate is unknown, although, like many such figures, she features in local folklore and fiction. There are at least four novels describing her life, and the suggestion that she was the inspiration for Chaucer's Wife of Bath.
At the other historical extreme, Helen Duncan was also caught between spiritual and secular forces. Her trial, the last under the Witchcraft Act of 1736, was ostensibly for fraud, but involved claims that she was somehow foreseeing, or clairvoyantly passing on information about British casualties in World War II. Sentenced to nine months in prison, her case became a cause celebre, leading to reform of the laws relating to fraudulent mediums, and starting a long campaign to clear her name and have her conviction quashed, which is ongoing.
Between these two cases we see the growth of the idea of the witch as a disruptive element in society, bringing death and misfortune on all those who had in some way offended her (usually her). Agnes Waterhouse was charged with witchcraft in 1566, one of the first victims of the 1563 Act of Parliament legislating death as the punishment for “killing or destroying a person through witchcraft”. Denounced as a witch by fellow villagers in Essex for causing death and illness through her 'familiar', a cat, which in retrospect she might have regretting calling Satan.
Witch trials often took on the nature of feuds between local families, as in the case of the Welsh witch Gwen ferch Ellis, who got caught up in disputes between the Mostyn and Conway families. There were very few witchcraft trials in Wales, and although charged with causing death by witchcraft, there is no record of how her trial progressed, and she seems to have slipped away unrecorded.
As these cases progress, we begin to see how the official view of witchcraft changed through the seventeenth century. By the time of the trial of Jane Wenham, in Hertfordshire in 1712 the authorities were less inclined to believe the stories brought before them, and although Jane was found guilty by the magistrates in Hertford and sentenced to death, the conviction was later overturned by the Judge, who declared that it was “not against the law to fly” (one of the claims made against her), and granted a reprieve.
By the nineteenth century it is the supposed witch herself who who was able to bring a case to court. In Devon in 1852 Susannah Sellick charged her neighbour with attacking her. The neighbour, Mary Pile had claimed that Sellick had bewitched her daughter and attacked Sellick in an attempt to draw blood to counter her supposed spells. Pile thought that denouncing the 'witch' would be a defence in court to common assault, but by now the magistrates were having nothing to do with it, and convicted Pile and an associate of assault. Six years later Susannah was again forced to court after being attacked by a neighbour, and again is vindicated.
Although this case was treated by the local papers as an indication of primitive beliefs still held by the inhabitants of rural Devon, in the Victorian period witchcraft allegations were not necessarily restricted to remote country areas, as demonstrated by Peter Rogerson's discovery of witchcraft claims in very urban, industrial Warrington as late as 1876.
In presenting these accounts, Willow Winsham goes beyond just reporting the details of the claims, counter-claims and trials. She shows the protagonists as real people rather than just historical elements, looking in depth at the characters concerned, their relationships, their family backgrounds, and the society in which they lived. Although written in a very readable and entertaining style, this is a scholarly work, and the author has researched her subject widely, as the extensive collection of notes and references testifies. A fascinating insight into the deeper stories behind figures lying on the fringes of history. Highly recommended. – John Rimmer.