The Real Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General

1One of my favourite British horror films is called “The Witchfinder General”. It was made in 1968 & starred Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the eponymous villain. It is a folk horror trip to a 17th century East England in the grip of civil war & hysteria. While historically inaccurate it does provide a sense of the witch craze that engulfed the eastern counties in the mid 17th century. This blog will shed a little more light on what actually happened.
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The real Matthew Hopkins was born in 1620 & died most likely on August 11th 1647 of tuberculosis aged 27. Histories which say that he was lynched or swum are likely to be more hopeful than accurate.
He proclaimed himself ‘Witchfinder General’  in a pamphlet published in May of 1647, the year of his death, titled ‘The Discovery of Witches: in answer to several queries lately delivered to Judges of Assize for the county of Norfolk”

The title ‘Witchfinder General’ was not bestowed upon him; it was self appointed.

Hopkins’ witch-finding career began in March 1644, when he was 24 years old, and lasted until his retirement & death in 1647.

Matthew Hopkins & his associate John Stearne are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women between the years 1644 and 1646.It has been estimated that all of the English witch trials between the early 15th and late 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions for witchcraft.

Therefore, presuming the number executed as a result of “investigations” by Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne is at the lower end of the various estimates, their efforts accounted for about 60 per cent of the total; in their short crusade Hopkins and Stearne sent to the gallows more people than all the other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years.

Very little is known of Matthew Hopkins before 1644, and there are no surviving contemporary documents concerning him or his family.

He was born in Great Wenham, Suffolk and was the fourth son of six children.

His father, James Hopkins, was a Puritan clergyman and vicar of St John’s of Great Wenham, in Suffolk.
In the early 1640s Hopkins moved to Manningtree, Essex, a town on the River Stour, about 10 miles (16 km) from Wenham. According to tradition Hopkins used his recently acquired inheritance of a hundred marks to establish himself as a gentleman and to buy the Thorn Inn in Mistley. From the way that he presented evidence in trials, Hopkins is commonly thought to have been trained as a lawyer, but there is scant evidence to suggest this was the case.

Following the Lancaster Witch Trial of 1634, William Harvey, physician to King Charles I of England, had been ordered to examine the four women accused, and from this there came a requirement to have material proof of being a witch.
The aim of Hopkins and John Stearne was not necessarily to prove any of the accused had committed acts of maleficium, magical acts intended to cause harm or death to persons or property, but the fact they had made a covenant with the Devil.

This is the difference between Hopkins’ approach & that of the JP who investigated the Pendle Witches in 1612. In 1612 the aim was to prove maleficium, causing harm by witchcraft. Hopkins’ aim was to prove a covenant with the Devil.

By making covenant with the Devil, witches became heretics to Christianity, which became the greatest of their crimes and sins.

Within continental and Roman Law witchcraft was crimen exceptum: a crime so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded. Because the Devil was not going to “confess”, it was necessary to gain a confession from the human involved.

Methods of investigation

Matthew Hopkins’ methods of investigating witchcraft heavily drew inspiration from the Daemonologie of King James which was directly cited in Hopkins’ pamphlet, ‘The Discovery of Witches.’

Although torture was unlawful in England, Hopkins often used techniques such as sleep deprivation to extract confessions from his victims. Often the accused would be “watched” for days on end to see if  imps or familiars would appear to come & suckle on their blood. It seems to be a common thread that when someone had been “watched” for a few days they were very much more willing to confess.

On occasion the accused would be “walked”, forcibly exercised to the point of exhaustion to encourage confession.
Another of his methods was the swimming test, based on the idea that as witches had renounced their baptism, water would reject them. Suspects were tied and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches. Those who sank & drowned were innocent.

Hopkins was warned against the use of “swimming” without receiving the victim’s permission first.

The problem with ordeal by water was that the test was regarded as a superstition: by law it was an assault to swim a witch & if he or she drowned it was murder.
However from the early 17th century to the mid 17th century the object of the witch trial changed from proving maleficium to proving a pact with the Devil & the swimming test became more widespread.

For example in the best selling legal handbook of the day, Dalton’s Counterey Justice, magistrates were advised “not alwaies to expect direct evidence (from witches), seeing all their works are the works of darknesse”
Hopkins and his assistants also looked for the Devil’s mark. This was a mark that all witches or sorcerers were supposed to possess that was said to be dead to all feeling and would not bleed – although in reality it was usually a mole, birthmark or an extra nipple or breast.

If the suspected witch had no such visible marks, invisible ones could be discovered by pricking, the witch finder therefore employed “witch prickers” to prick the accused with knives and special needles, looking for such marks, & places where the accused would feel no pain, normally after the suspect had been shaved of all body hair.
It was believed that the witch’s familiar, an animal such as a cat or dog, or mole or insect or even a child would drink the witch’s blood from a “witches teat”, as a baby drinks milk from the nipple. Local women would be employed to search the accused female witches & men would search the men.

One belief was that familiars suckled the witch to remind him or her of their fealty to the devil, a dark parallel to holy communion.

Sometimes the familiar would suckle blood & in exchange would perform acts of harm, for example killing off livestock belonging to those the witch bore a grudge to.

When you read through the reports of the watchers’ findings it was common for the “Witches teat” to be found in, on or around the private parts of the accused. For such pure souls, the Puritans seemed to be rather obsessed with private parts.

From reading the confessions of the witches it is striking how similar their confessions are. Often the ladies are seduced by the devil & repeatedly take him into their beds.

They will have ‘familiars’, spirit animals which will do their bidding which is invariably to the ill of their neighbours. The familiars will kill livestock or neighbours children or the neighbours themselves or make people ill.
Never is it recorded that the familiars better the circumstances of the witch only worsen the circumstances of his or her ‘enemies’.

The similarities between the many confessions is so great you can’t help but think that the words have been put into their mouths by the inquisitor.

The witch-fever that gripped East Anglia for around 14 months between 1645 & 1646 happened at a historic & tumultuous time in English history.

England was in the midst of a bloody civil war between the forces of King Charles I & the forces of Parliament. The country was in chaos, the normal workings of the state were not functioning. Circuit courts were not running normally & justice was being administered in a disjointed way at a local level.

Before the war had started the eastern counties were solidly Puritan, rabidly anti-Catholic & ever vigilant for heresies. As the war progressed & times grew harder fear & suspicion of neighbours mounted & scores were settled by accusations of witchcraft.

Matthew Hopkins & his associates were adept at turning local gossip & innuendo into formal accusations of witchcraft.

In the previous century Essex had seen more witchtrials than the rest of England.

The towns & villages of the Eastern Association had lost most of their able men who were off fighting in the war. The farms were not being worked, crops were rotting in the fields without sufficient folk to harvest them. The weather was unseasonably bad.

The poor were dirt poor & the folk whom they normally relied upon for charity & alms were stretched by the straightened circumstances of the war & not so able to give. Resentments grew. Many of those accused of witchcraft were from the beggar class or were old widows who took alms from the parishes but did not give alms. (The local church would collect alms money from the parishioners & dole it out to the poor.)

Add to this the widespread Calvinist belief in the elect, the idea that it is a predestined choice of God who will go to heaven & who is damned to hell. It was the idea that some folk are born to sin & some are born to be pure. Some folk are born to be heretics & some are born to be doctrinally pure. Some folk are born to be witches & some folk are born to be witch finders. It was a time of real fanaticism. Ignorance & dogmatic belief in the scripture went hand in hand with genuine belief in the supernatural.

Many folk genuinely believed that it was the end times: signs & portents & omens were widely reported in pamphlets.
“Have there not been strange Comets seen in the air, prodigies, sights on the seas, marvellous tempests & storms on the land? Have not nature altered her course so much that woman framed of pure flesh & blood bringeth forth ugly & deformed monsters?”

On the 21st May 1646 a meteorite fell in a cornfield in Swaffham, Cambridgeshire, setting it ablaze. Hailstones the size of pigeons eggs fell from the sky. Hysterics said it was judgement day. On the same day in Newmarket, Suffolk, a vision of three men fighting in the sky was seen suggesting war in the 3 kingdoms of England, Scotland & Ireland.

The war between the Puritan Roundheads & the Royalists (possibly in league with the Antichrist Pope) was interpreted widely as a war between Christ & the Devil. The civil war was punishment for the nation’s sins.
The witch-hunts undertaken by Hopkins & Stearne mainly took place in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and also beyond East Anglia in the counties of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. This is a large area of England. A lot of ground was covered.

At times Hopkins & Stearne worked together, at other times they worked independently.

They hunted for witches throughout the area of strongest Puritan and Parliamentarian influences which formed the powerful and influential Eastern Association from 1644 to 1647, centred on Essex.

In times of peace witch trials would take place at county assizes, the accused would be tried by juries of strangers directed by professional judges. At this time of the civil war the assize system in East Anglia collapsed. It was this judicial vacuum that Matthew Hopkins filled with a massive witch hunt.

Both Hopkins and Stearne would have required some form of letters of safe conduct to be able to travel throughout the counties.
In fact they were often invited to towns & villages in their witchhunt.

According to his book The Discovery of Witches, Hopkins began his career as a witch-finder after he overheard various women discussing their meetings with the Devil in March 1644 in Manningtree.

In fact, the first accusations were made by Stearne and Hopkins was appointed as his assistant. Twenty-three women were accused of witchcraft & tried at Chelmsford in 1645. With the English Civil War under way, this trial was conducted not by justices of assize, but by justices of the peace presided over by the Earl of Warwick.

Four died in prison and nineteen were convicted and hanged. During this period, excepting Middlesex and chartered towns, no records show any person charged of witchcraft being sentenced to death other than by the judges of the assizes.

The Chelmsford witch trial made Matthew Hopkins’ & John Stearnes’ names as witchfinders. They claimed that they had an official commission from Parliament to uncover & prosecute witches & enthusiastically travelled from town to village to execute their commission.

Hopkins and Stearne, accompanied by the women who performed the pricking, watching & searching were soon travelling over eastern England, in demand from the puritan townsfolk eager to root out evil in their midst.

Together with their female assistants, they were well paid for their work, and it is possible that money was a motivation for Hopkins.

Hopkins states in his pamphlet ‘A Discovery Of Witchcraft’ that “his fees were to maintain his company with three horses”, and that he took “twenty shillings a town”.

The records at Stowmarket show their costs to the town to have been £28 & 3pence plus his travelling expenses (the usual daily wage at the time was sixpence). He used his pretended commission from Parliament to persuade the local community to levy a special tax

In Suffolk Hopkins discovered that the church minister of Brandeston, John Lowes an old man of seventy ‘was naught but a foul witch’.  It appears that Lowes had been a quarrelsome old man and was sorely disliked by many in his parish.  At first he stoutly denied his guilt, but a confession was gained when he was subjected to Hopkins’s most approved methods by teams of his watchers who, “kept him awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath.  After a brief rest, they then ran him again.  And thus they did for several days and nights together, till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”.

It was in this state of mind that Lowes finally confessed, “he had covenanted with the devil, suckled familiars (Tom, Flo, Bess and Mary) for five years, and had bewitched cattle.  He had also caused a ship to sink off Harwich, on a calm sea, with the loss of fourteen lives”.  A later pamphlet by Stearne states that Lowes “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”.  Lowes later retracted his confession, but this didn’t save him, and since he was not allowed a clergyman to read the burial service for him, he recited it himself on his way to the scaffold at Bury St Edmunds on the 27th August 1645.

As well documented as the infamous trial at Bury St. Edmond is, it is also perhaps, the best illustration of just how the prejudice and hysteria against witches during those times, affected even the high courts and justices of the land.  No record or suggestion was ever made to check whether a ship had floundered off Harwich.

Within a space of a few months Hopkins & Stearne had 200 alleged witches in jails awaiting trial. This was a problem as civil war was ranging & Parliament wanted the jails as empty as possible.

After the Bury St. Edmond witch trials, people began to question the alleged commission from Parliament.

The Moderate Intelligencer, a parliamentary paper published during the English Civil War, in an editorial of 4–11 September 1645 expressed unease with the affairs in Bury.

A special judicial commission was formed, the “Commission of Oyer and Terminer”.  Its task was to deal specifically with the backlog of witchcraft trials in eastern England, and Hopkins was ordered to stop his Swimming activities.

Witch trials now began in earnest in and such was the state of witchcraft hysteria, in quick succession another 18 were tried and hanged in the Eastern Association.  The sessions however were quickly abandoned as the Royalist forces of the rebellion approached Bedford and Cambridge.  When eventually they started again, another fifty witches were executed.

His career as the Witch-Finder General firmly established, Hopkins together with his faithful band of assistants, traveled at break-neck speed urging on trials with fatal rapidity.  By the 26th of July 1646 he was in Norfolk were another twenty witches met their fate.

In September he was in Yarmouth by special demand of the authorities.  He was recalled there again in December, but who knows how many died.  He also visited Ipswich and shortly after Aldeburgh before moving on to Stowmarket.

Along the way he also stopped at King’s Lynn and many other small towns and villages, but wherever they went fear and apprehension followed. In some respects you could say that Matthew Hopkins was a “Fingerman” an informer paid by the authorities to commit perjury.

However time was running out for Hopkins, as he overextended himself in greed and zeal.  Toward the end of 1946, the tide began to turn against him.  At a time when most people feared him, criticism was launched against him by the courageous efforts of an old country parson, “John Gaule” the Vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire.

Hearing that Hopkins was preparing to visit his part of the country, Gaule preached openly against him from the pulpit and started collecting evidence of his excessive methods and use of torture.
Gaule published his findings and his condemnation of Hopkins in a book called “Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft” (London, 1646).  The book was well written and convincing, and public opinion was aroused against the abuses it exposed:

“Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a robber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or scolding tongue, having a rugged coat on her back, a skull cap on her head, a spindle in her hand & a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspect but pronounced for a witch”

Hopkins prudently avoided visiting Great Staughton.

By the end of 1646 as his credibility and activities petered out

It was around this time that the Assizes started to run again & this was the end for the witchfinders.

In Norfolk both Hopkins and Stearne were questioned by justices of the assizes, about the torturing and fees. Hopkins was asked if methods of investigation did not make the finders themselves witches, and if with all his knowledge did he not also have a secret, or had used “unlawful courses of torture”. It was rumoured that Matthew Hopkins had ‘The Devils Book’, a directory of all the witches in England.

In early 1647 Matthew Hopkins parted company with his faithful assistants and retired back to Manningtree where his infamous career had started. He published his book “The Discovery Of Witches” in May of that year, which was a rebuttal of the enquiries he had been subjected to in Norfolk.

It makes for interesting reading.

He died on August 11th. He wasn’t a nice man.

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The Pendle Witch Trials

This is a video for a song from the upcoming Cunning Folk album. It is called

“Lancashire, God’s Country”. It is about the Lancashire witch trials of 1612. I gave a talk about the Pendle Witches last week at the South East London Folklore Society & this is the transcript.

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Pendle Hill is in East Lancashire. It is North of Manchester, West of Blackpool & East of Leeds. It’s pretty near to Burnley. A lot of the countryside around it is referred to as Pendle Forest because in the middle ages it was a royal forest.

The name “Pendle Hill” combines the words for hill from three different languages & times. In the 13th century it was called Pennul or Penhul, apparently from the Old Celtic pen and Old English hyll, both meaning “hill”. The modern English “hill” was added later, after the original meaning of Pendle had become opaque. So you could say that Pendle Hill means “Hill, Hill, Hill”. There is a bronze age burial site at the top of it.

The surrounding area is closely associated with the Pendle Witch Trials.

The trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous witch trials in English history, & some of the best recorded of the 17th century. The twelve accused lived in the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, & were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft.

All but two were tried at Lancaster Assizes on 18–19 August 1612, along with the Samlesbury witches and others, in a series of trials that have become known as the Lancashire witch trials.

Of the other two, one  was tried at York Assizes on 27 July 1612, & another died in prison. Of the eleven who went to trial – nine women & two men – ten were found guilty & executed by hanging; one was found not guilty.

The number of witches hanged together – nine at Lancaster & one at York – make the trials unusual for England at that time.

It has been estimated that all the English witch trials between the early 15th and early 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions; this series of trials accounts for more than two per cent of that total.

Six of the Pendle witches came from one of two families, each at the time headed by a woman in her eighties: Elizabeth Southerns (also known as Demdike),
her daughter Elizabeth Device
& her grandchildren James and Alizon Device

Anne Whittle (also known as Chattox),
& her daughter Anne Redferne.

The others accused were Jane Bulcock & her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Grey, & Jennet Preston.

This outbreak of witchcraft in and around Pendle may demonstrate the extent to which people could make a living by cunning means. Many of the allegations resulted from accusations that members of the Demdike and Chattox families made against each other, perhaps because they were in competition, both trying to make a living from healing, begging, and extortion.

Here is a little bit of religious & political background information.

Lancashire at the end of the 16th century, was regarded by the authorities as a wild and lawless region: an area “fabled for its theft, violence and sexual laxity, where the church was honoured without much understanding of its doctrines by the common people”.

The nearby Cistercian abbey at Whalley had been dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537, a move strongly resisted by the locals. Despite the abbey’s closure, and the execution of its abbot, the people of Pendle remained largely faithful to their Roman Catholic beliefs and were quick to revert to Catholicism when Mary became queen in 1553.

When Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 Catholic priests once again had to go into hiding, but in remote areas such as Pendle they continued to celebrate Mass in secret.

In 1562, early in her reign, Elizabeth passed a law in the form of An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts .

This demanded the death penalty, but only where harm had been caused; lesser offences were punishable by a term of imprisonment.

The Act provided that anyone who should “use, practise, or exercise any Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm, or Sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed”, was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, and was to be put to death. This meant that even clergy (who were usually exempt from capital punishment) could be executed for the crime of witchcraft.

On Elizabeth’s death in 1603 she was succeeded by James I (of England, James VI of Scotland).

James was raised in Scotland, obviously. The Scottish Reformation was distinct from & different to the English Reformation. Scottish Presbyterianism arose from a more doctrinal place than Henry VIII’s creation of a Church of England.

James was intensely interested in Protestant theology, focusing much of his curiosity on the theology of witchcraft.

By the early 1590s he had become convinced that he was being plotted against by Scottish witches. He attended the trial in 1590 of the North Berwick witches, who were convicted of using witchcraft to send a storm against the ship that carried the newly wedded King James and Queen Anne when they were returning from their marriage in Denmark.

In 1597 he wrote a book, Daemonologie, instructing his followers that they must denounce and prosecute any supporters or practitioners of witchcraft.

One year after James acceded to the English throne, a law was enacted imposing the death penalty in cases where it was proven that harm had been caused through the use of magic, or corpses had been exhumed for magical purposes.

In the King James Bible published in 1611 it is famously written; “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”

On the 5th of November, 1605 there was an failed assassination attempt against King James by a group of provincial English Catholics. Some were from Lancashire.

In early 1612, the year of the trials, every justice of the peace in Lancashire was ordered to compile a list of  those who refused to take communion at an English Church.
Roger Nowell of Read Hall, on the edge of Pendle Forest, was the JP for Pendle. It was against this background of seeking out religious nonconformists that, in March 1612, Nowell investigated a complaint made to him by the family of John Law, a pedlar, who claimed to have been injured by witchcraft.

Many of those who subsequently became implicated as the investigation progressed did indeed consider themselves to be witches, in the sense of being village healers who practised magic, probably in return for payment, but such men and women were common in 16th-century rural England. Cunning folk were an accepted part of village life.

One of the accused, Demdike, had been regarded in the area as a witch for fifty years, and some of the deaths the witches were accused of had happened many years before Roger Nowell started to take an interest in 1612.

The name Demdike is derived from “Demon Woman” which may suggest that she was not entirely loved locally.

The event that seems to have triggered Nowell’s investigation, culminating in the Pendle witch trials, occurred on 21 March 1612.

Walking down a country track Demdike’s granddaughter, Alizon Device, encountered John Law, a pedlar from Halifax, and asked him for some pins. He refused to give her any pins.

Seventeenth-century metal pins were handmade and relatively expensive. They were also frequently needed for magical purposes, such as in healing (particularly for treating warts) for divination, & for love magic, which may have been why Alizon was so keen to get hold of them & why Law was so reluctant to let her have any.

Whether she meant to buy them, as she claimed, and Law refused to undo his pack for such a small transaction, or whether she had no money & was begging for them, as Law’s son Abraham claimed, is unclear.

A few minutes after their encounter Alizon saw Law stumble & fall. He managed to regain his feet & reach a nearby inn but he was not in a good way. He was described thus “His head is drawn away, his eyes & face deformed, his speech not well to be understood, his arms lame especially the left side”

Modern commentators have noted the similarities between the symptoms associated with a stroke (death of brain cells due to poor blood flow) & the description of the tinker’s plight.

Initially Law made no accusations against Alizon, but she appears to have been convinced of her own powers; when Abraham Law took her to visit his father a few days after the incident, she reportedly confessed that she had bewitched him & asked for his forgiveness.

Alizon Device, her mother Elizabeth, and her brother James were summoned to appear before Nowell on 30 March 1612. Alizon confessed that she had sold her soul to the Devil, and that she had told the Devil to lame John Law after he had called her a thief.

Her brother, James, stated that his sister had also confessed to bewitching a local child.

Elizabeth was more reticent, admitting only that her mother, Demdike, had a mark on her body, something that many, including Nowell, would have regarded as having been left by the Devil after he had sucked her blood.

When questioned about Anne Whittle (Chattox), the matriarch of the other family reputedly involved in witchcraft in and around Pendle, Alizon perhaps saw an opportunity to settle old scores.

There may have been bad blood between the two families, possibly dating from 1601, when a member of Chattox’s family broke into Malkin Tower, the home of the Devices, and stole goods worth about £1, equivalent to about £100 nowadays.

Alizon accused Chattox of making clay figures, of murdering four men by witchcraft, and of killing her father, John Device, who had died in 1601. She claimed that her father had been so frightened of Old Chattox that he had agreed to give her 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of oatmeal each year in return for her promise not to hurt his family. The meal was handed over annually until the year before John’s death; on his deathbed John claimed that his sickness had been caused by Chattox because they had not paid for protection.

On 2 April 1612, Demdike, Chattox, and Chattox’s daughter Anne Redferne, were summoned to appear before Nowell. Both Demdike and Chattox were by then blind and in their eighties, and both provided Nowell with damaging confessions.

Demdike claimed that she had given her soul to the Devil 20 years previously, and Chattox that she had given her soul to “a Thing like a Christian man”, on his promise that “she would not lack anything and would get any revenge she desired”.

Although Anne Redferne (Chattox’s daughter) made no confession, Demdike said that she had seen her making clay figures.

Margaret Crooke, another witness seen by Nowell that day, claimed that her brother had fallen sick and died after having had a disagreement with Redferne, and that he had frequently blamed her for his illness.

Based on the evidence and confessions he had obtained, Nowell committed Demdike, Chattox, Anne Redferne and Alizon Device to Lancaster Gaol, to be tried for maleficium – causing harm by witchcraft – at the next assizes.

The committal and subsequent trial of the four women might have been the end of the matter, had it not been for a meeting organised by Elizabeth Device at Malkin Tower, the home of the Demdikes, held on Good Friday 10 April 1612. To feed the party, James Device stole a neighbour’s sheep.

At the time Malkin was a dialect term for a lower class of woman, it was also a dialect term for a cat.

There would have been a mass at the English Church on Good Friday. A mass which none of those at Malkin Tower on that day would be present at.

Friends and others sympathetic to the family attended, and when word of it reached Roger Nowell, he decided to investigate. On 27 April 1612, an inquiry was held before Nowell and another magistrate to determine the purpose of the meeting at Malkin Tower, who had attended, and what had happened there.

As a result of the inquiry, eight more people were accused of witchcraft and committed for trial: Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston.

There was also the accusation levelled that there was a conspiracy to blow up Lancaster Castle & to murder the head jailer.

Preston lived across the border in Yorkshire, so she was sent for trial at York Assizes; the others were sent to Lancaster Gaol, to join the four already imprisoned there.

The Trials

The Pendle witches were tried with some other Lancashire witch cases in a kind of job lot by 2 judges, Sir James Altham & Sir Edward Bromley.

So there was also the trial of the 3 Samlesbury witches, the charges against whom included child murder and cannibalism; the Padiham witch, who was facing her third trial for witchcraft, this time for killing a horse; and the Windle witch, accused of using witchcraft to cause sickness.

Some of the accused Pendle witches, such as Alizon Device, seem to have genuinely believed in their guilt, but others protested their innocence to the end. Jennet Preston was the first to be tried, almost a month before the others.

York Assizes, 27 July 1612
Jennet Preston lived in Gisburn, which was then in Yorkshire, so she was sent to York Assizes for trial. The judges were Sir James Altham & Sir Edward Bromley: the same as for the Lancashire Assizes.

Jennet was charged with the murder by witchcraft of a local landowner, Thomas Lister of Westby Hall, to which she pleaded not guilty. Thomas Lister died 5 years before in 1607. She was also accused of planning to murder Thomas Lister’s son by witchcraft.

In 1611 she had stood trial, accused of the murder of a child by witchcraft, but had been found not guilty.

A witness told the court; “ When Master Lister lay upon his death-bedd, he cried out in great extremitie; Jennet Preston lays heavy on me; help me: & so departed, crying out against her.
Look where she is & take holde of her; for God’s sake shut the doors & take her, she cannot escape away. Look about for her & lay hold of her, for she is in the house.”

The judge instructed the jury to observe that the man on his death-bed was “railing” against the witch. In 16th &17th century witch-trials, evidence of the crying out of the victim was common.

The most damning evidence given against her was that when she had been taken to see Lister’s body, the corpse “bled fresh bloud presently, in the presence of all that were there present” after she touched it.

In King James’ book on witchcraft, Demonologie, he wrote “in a secret murther, if the deade carcase be at any time handled by the murtherer, it will gush out bloud, as if the blud wer crying to the heaven for revenge of the murtherer, God having appoynted that secret super-naturall signe, for tryall of thet secret unnatural crime.”

According to a statement made to Nowell by James Device on 27 April, Jennet had attended the Malkin Tower meeting to seek help to murder her accuser, Lister’s son. She was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging; She was executed on July 29th.

There has been speculation that Jennet Preston may have been having an affair with the man she was accused of killing by witchcraft.

Lancaster Assizes, 18–19 August 1612

All the other accused lived in Lancashire, so they were sent to Lancaster Assizes for trial, where the judges were once again Altham and Bromley. The prosecutor was local magistrate Roger Nowell, who had been responsible for collecting the various statements and confessions from the accused.

The Lancaster Assizes were held at Lancaster Castle (a working prison up to spring 2011) The 20 accused of witchcraft had been held in a cell 20ft by 12ft since their arrests in April.

Nine year old Jennet Device was not accused of witchcraft or imprisoned. In the period between April & the trial in August she may have been looked after by Roger Nowell at his home.

Nine-year-old Jennet Device was a key witness for the prosecution, something that would not have been permitted in many other 17th-century criminal trials.

However, King James had made a case for suspending the normal rules of evidence for witchcraft trials in his Daemonologie.

As well as identifying those who had attended the Malkin Tower meeting, Jennet also gave evidence against her mother, brother, and sister.

Nine of the accused – Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock – were found guilty during the two-day trial and hanged at Gallows Hill in Lancaster on 20 August 1612; Elizabeth Southerns (Demdike) died in prison while awaiting trial. Only one of the accused, Alice Grey, was found not guilty.

18 August

Anne Whittle (Chattox) was accused of the murder of one Robert Nutter 19 years previously. She pleaded not guilty, but the confession she had made to Roger Nowell was read out in court, and evidence against her was presented by James Robinson, who had lived with the Nutter family 20 years earlier. According to Robinson & surviving members of the Nutter family, Robert had believed himself to be bewitched by Chattox & had repeatedly said so before his death.

Robinson stated that Chattox & Anne Redferne “are commonly reputed & reported to be witches”. Robinson also told of how Chattox had spoiled a brew of beer in his house 6 years previously when he had employed her in his household to card wool for a few days.

Chattox had claimed to Nowell that Robert Nutter had made advances upon her daughter Anne, & when refused he said he would find a way of evicting her from the area. Chattox called her familiar, called Fancie, to her & she asked Fancie to “revenge her of the sayd Robert Nutter”

Chattox broke down and admitted her guilt, calling on God for forgiveness and the judges to be merciful to her daughter, Anne Redferne.

Elizabeth Device was charged with the murders of James Robinson, John Robinson and, together with Alice Nutter and Demdike, the murder of Henry Mitton.

Elizabeth Device vehemently maintained her innocence. Potts records that “this odious witch” suffered from a facial deformity resulting in her left eye being set lower than her right.

The main witness against Device was her own daughter, Jennet, who was, as we know, about nine years old.

When Jennet was brought into the courtroom and asked to stand up and give evidence against her mother, Elizabeth, confronted with her own child making accusations that would lead to her execution, began to curse and scream at her daughter. Her own daughter asked to have her removed from the courtroom before she would speak. It’s likely that Elizabeth more fully understood the consequences of Jennet’s testimony than Jennet did.

Jennet was placed on a table and denounced her mother as a witch. She stated that she believed her mother had been a witch for three or four years. She also said her mother had a familiar called Ball, who appeared in the shape of a brown dog.

Jennet claimed to have witnessed conversations between Ball and her mother, in which Ball had been asked to help with various murders.

“My mother is a witch & I that know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog called Ball. The dog would ask her what she would do & she answered that she would have him help her to kill John Robinson of Farley, James Robinson, Henry Mitten.”

She described the meeting at Malkin Tower on Good Friday thus; “at 12 noon about 20 people came to our house. My Mother told me they were all witches.”

James Device also gave evidence against his mother, saying he had seen her making a clay figure of one of her victims, John Robinson.

James also said that 3 skulls had been robbed from graves at the new church in Pendle & 4 of the teeth were kept at Malkin Tower.

4 teeth were presented in court which had been found in Malkin Tower by the constable alongside a clay figure buried in the ground.

Elizabeth Device was found guilty.

James Device pleaded not guilty to the murders by witchcraft of Anne Townley and John Duckworth.

However he, like Chattox, had earlier made a confession to Nowell, which was read out in court.

He was also denounced by his sister Jennet who recited a charm she had heard her brother use. Jennet said that James had been a witch for 3 or 4 years & that she had seen him asking a black dog he had conjured up to help him kill Anne Townley.

This evidence was sufficient to persuade the jury to find him guilty.

The trials of the three Salmesbury witches were heard before Anne Redferne’s first appearance in court, late in the afternoon, charged with the murder of Robert Nutter. The evidence against her was considered unsatisfactory, and she was acquitted.

19 August

Anne Redferne was not so fortunate the following day, when she faced her second trial, for the murder of Robert Nutter’s father, Christopher, to which she pleaded not guilty.

Demdike’s statement to Nowell, which accused Anne of having made clay figures of the Nutter family, was read out in court. Witnesses were called to testify that Anne was a witch “more dangerous than her Mother”. But she refused to admit her guilt to the end, and had given no evidence against any others of the accused. Anne Redferne was found guilty.

Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, both from Newchurch in Pendle, were accused and found guilty of the murder by witchcraft of Jennet Deane. Both denied that they had attended the meeting at Malkin Tower, but Jennet Device identified Jane as having been one of those present, and John as having turned the spit to roast the stolen sheep, the centrepiece of the Good Friday meeting at the Demdike’s home.

Alice Nutter was unusual among the accused in being comparatively wealthy, the widow of a farmer. She made no statement either before or during her trial, except to enter her plea of not guilty to the charge of murdering Henry Mitton by witchcraft.

The prosecution alleged that she, together with Demdike and Elizabeth Device, had caused Mitton’s death after he had refused to give Demdike a penny she had begged from him.

The only evidence against Alice seems to have been that James Device claimed Demdike had told him of the murder, and Jennet Device in her statement said that Alice had been present at the Malkin Tower meeting.

Alice may have called in on the meeting at Malkin Tower on her way to a secret (and illegal) Good Friday Catholic service, and refused to speak for fear of incriminating her fellow Catholics.

Many of the Nutter family were Catholics, and two had been executed as Jesuit priests.

Alice Nutter was found guilty.

Katherine Hewitt (also known as Mould-Heeles) was charged and found guilty of the murder of Anne Foulds. She was the wife of a clothier from Colne, and had attended the meeting at Malkin Tower with Alice Grey.

According to the evidence given by James Device, both Hewitt and Grey told the others at that meeting that they had killed a child from Colne, Anne Foulds. Jennet Device also picked Katherine out of a line-up, and confirmed her attendance at the Malkin Tower meeting.

Alice Grey was accused with Katherine Hewitt of the murder of Anne Foulds. Potts does not provide an account of Alice Grey’s trial, simply recording her as one of the Samlesbury witches – which she was not, as she was one of those identified as having been at the Malkin Tower meeting – and naming her in the list of those found not guilty.

Alizon Device, whose encounter with John Law had triggered the events leading up to the trials, was charged with causing harm by witchcraft. Uniquely among the accused, Alizon was confronted in court by her alleged victim, John Law. She seems to have genuinely believed in her own guilt; when Law was brought into court Alizon fell to her knees in tears and confessed. She was found guilty.

All those found guilty were hanged the following day, August 20th. Hanging would have been a death by strangulation not by snapped neck. Before being executed the condemned were given a chance to confess to save their souls. Elizabeth Device & Alice
Nutter never confessed. Jennet Device may have witnessed the execution of her mother & brother.

Thomas Potts

A lot more is known about the Lancashire Witch Trials than many others because of one Thomas Potts.
Potts was a Clerk to the Justices of Assize on the Northern Circuit & was clerk to the trials of the Pendle Witches at both Lancaster & York Assizes

At the end of 1612 Thomas Potts lodged in Chancery Lane in London.

He first produced a pamphlet on the trial of Jennet Preston in York from the court depositions & from the interrogation accounts of the 4 witnesses made by Roger Nowell the Lancashire JP.

Potts was instructed to write an account of the Lancaster Witch Trials by the trial judges, and had completed the work by 16 November 1612, when he submitted it for review. Bromley, one of the judges, revised and corrected the manuscript before its publication in 1613, declaring it to be “truly reported” and “fit and worthie to be published”.

It has been suggested that the trial judges worked closely with Potts in the writing of The Wonderfull Discoverie “to manipulate the extraordinary records into an account that would protect and advance their careers”. Potts’ book has been called the “clearest example of an account [of a witch trial] obviously published to display the shining efficiency and justice of the legal system”. Although written as an apparently verbatim account, Potts was not reporting what had actually been said during the trials; he was reflecting what had happened.

This “Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches In The Countie Of Lancaster” was 10 times as long as the pamphlet about Jennet Preston’s trial.

It may be significant that Potts dedicated The Wonderfull Discoverie to Thomas Knyvet and his wife Elizabeth; Knyvet was the man credited with apprehending Guy Fawkes & helping to foil the Gunpowder Plot.


In the course of the trial 3 charms were quoted by the prosecutor, Roger Nowell.

The first was a charm claimed by Chattox to remove a curse from a brew of beer which had been ‘forespoken or bewitched’. The charm strongly resembles charms used to lift curses on people.

A Charme

Three biters hast thou bitten,
Ill Harte, ill Eye, ill Tonge;
Three better shall be thy Boote,
Father, Sonne & Holy Ghost.
a Gods name.
Five Pater-nosters, five Avies & a Creed,
In worship of five wound of our Lord

The bewitched person or object is addressed as if it had been bitten by 3 snakes.

‘Boote’ means help
‘a God’s name’ means the action is being done in God’s name
the Paternosters, Ave Marias & Creed would all be intoned

In worship of 5 wounds of our Lord expresses late medieval piety. Devotion to the 5 wounds of Christ was a popular cult in England until the Reformation.

Prayers of the Church served as spells.

The second was a charm claimed by young Jennet Device to be used by her mother, Elizabeth Device, ‘to get drinke’. Jennet had said that her brother James ‘hath confessed to her that he by this power hath gotten drinke: and that within an hour after the saying the said Prayer, drinke hath come into the house after a very strange manner.’

The charm is this:
Cruxifixus hoc signum vitum Eturnum. Amen
Christ crucified. In this sign is eternal life.

It is a common pre-Reformation liturgical formula used in public worship. It would be said while making the sign of the cross.


The third charm was recited to the court by the 9 year old Jennet Device & attributed to her brother James. It is a ‘prayer that would cure one bewitched’

Upon Good-Friday I will fast while I may
Until I hear them knell our Lords owne Bell,
Lord in his messe with his twelve Apostles good, (messe: mass)
What hath he in his hand
Ligh in leath wand: (Anglo-Saxon; Lith-won: not a lot)
What hath he in his other hand?
Heavens doore key,
Open, open Heaven doore keyes.
Steck, steck Hell doore. (Middle-Eng. Steken: Fasten)
Let Crizum child goe to it Mother mild
What is yonder that casts a light so farrandly,(dialect: pleasantly)
Mine own deare Sonne that’s nailed to the Tree
He is naild sore by the heart and hand,
And holy barne Panne, (barne: bairn or child. Panne: Head)
Well is that man
That Friday spell can his Childe to learne;
A Crosse of Blew and another of Red,
As good Lord was to the Roode.
Gabriel laid him down to sleepe
Upon the ground of holy weepe
Good Lord came walking by,
Sleep’st thou, wak’st thou Gabriel,
No Lord I am sted with sticke and stake, (sted: beset with)
That I can neither sleep nor wake;
Rise up Gabriel and goe with me,
The stick nor the stake shall never deere thee. (deere: harm)
Sweet Jesus our Lord, Amen
The charm appears to have the form of a religious drama with fragments referring to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, The Last Supper, The Garden of Gethsemane & the Crucifixion & the Last Judgement though not in that order.

It’s interesting that all 3 charms appear to be derived from Catholic orthodoxy.

Pictures Of Clay

The most common method of laying on a curse is by effigy or “poppet”, which is an image or representation of the victim or the person who is to be harmed (sometimes known as “image magic”). In the Pendle Witch trials the effigies were made of clay. The theory behind the use of effigies is that of “sympathetic magic”: as the effigy is harmed, so the victim is harmed; when the effigy is destroyed, so the victim dies.

Jennet Device

Jennet’s story is not quite done. 20 years after her devastating testimony at the Pendle Witch Trials it is possible that she herself was accused of witchcraft.

A woman with that name was listed in a group of 20 tried at Lancaster Assizes on 24 March 1634, although it cannot be certain that it was the same Jennet Device. The charge against her was the murder of one Isabel Nutter. In that series of trials the chief prosecution witness was a ten-year-old boy from Pendle, Edmund Robinson.

In 1633 he claimed that he had been bewitched while he was out picking berries. His father took him from village to village and got him to point out witches. Jennet Device was pointed out & imprisoned at Lancaster Castle

At the trial all but one of the accused were found guilty by the jury, but the judges were unhappy with the verdict & refused to pass death sentences, deciding instead to refer the case to the king, Charles I.

Under cross-examination in London, Robinson admitted that he had fabricated his evidence using stories of the Pendle Witch Trials as basis for his lies.

Even though four of the accused were eventually pardoned, they all remained incarcerated in Lancaster Gaol, where it is likely that they died. An official record dated 22 August 1636 lists Jennet Device as one of those still held in the prison.

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A History Of Agriculture & Mining

The 7th track on the Cunning Folk Album, Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground, has the snappy title, A History Of Agriculture & Mining. Here is what inspired me to write it.

We walk an ancient ritual landscape & it is also a landscape of old & new industry. The story of the farms & mines of Britain goes way back.
When Stone Age hunters first walked across Doggerland from the continent around 300,000 BC the land was a treeless Ice Age plain. The ice retreated around 10,000 BC & by about 5000 BC Britain was covered by a thick layer of deciduous forest.

Stone Age people made little impact on the land until the first farmers arrived by sea from Belgium & France around 3500 BC bringing wheat & barley & probably cattle. Forest was felled with stone axe & fields were ploughed with forked branches. By 3000 BC parts of chalk down lands of the South were permanently deforested. Flint was mined & carried along trackways to communities hundreds of miles away. The Wessex Ridgeway & the Icknield Way are such paths we still can walk.
Round 2000 BC the Beaker People with their ceramics arrived from the Netherlands & Rhineland heralding the end of the Stone Age with their use of copper for tools & weapons. At the time the climate was warm & dry & hilly uplands were farmed. Moors like Dartmoor & Bodmin were cleared of forests & parcelled up into fields with long stone reaves. Stones were cleared & dumped in heaps or cairns which can still be seen today.
The clearing & grazing of the uplands exposed them to erosion & when the climate became wetter & cooler around 1200 BC, moss blanketed the poor soil & the farming communities abandoned what was now moor.
Round 100 BC Belgic Celtic tribes came to the South East of England & built Britain’s first towns. Inside their massive earth banks & ditches there would be space for fields, craft centres, & timber houses for hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.
Temporarily used for contact details: The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email:, Website:
When the Romans invaded around 43 AD they built roads. 6,000 miles in 400 years. Long straight lines which are echoed in our modern road network. Watling Street from Dover to London is the A2, & on to Birmingham as the A5.
Craftsfolk were concentrated in towns supplied by farming estates of up to 1,000 acres organised from central villas. The Romans drained the fenlands making lowlands suitable for farming.
Roman troops left in 407 AD to defend Rome itself from barbarian hordes. For the first time in 400 years Britain south of the Tyne had to run itself. The “Dark Ages” had rival factions fighting for power while Scots from Ireland, Picts from Scotland & Anglo-Saxons from North West coastal Europe were coming into the mix.
By 600 AD the Anglo-Saxons had settled much of England save the far West. Anglo-Saxon life was village life. Street villages were a string of houses on either side of a road with a church at one end. Green villages were built around a green usually containing the church or well. The structure of the Green village may have been defensive.
Saxon villages were surrounded by 2 or 3 “open fields” each covering thousands of acres. The fields were divided into blocks, or furlongs, each containing dozens of narrow strips. Each strip was an acre: how much a man could plough in a day. Each farmer farmed about 30 strips scattered through the fields ensuring a fair distribution of good & poor land.
The ridge & furrow strips can still be seen under the grass in many parts.

When William The Conqueror invaded in 1066 he set about making his new kingdom into his private hunting ground. The forests became Royal game preserves protected by repressive Forest laws. Under William’s reign poachers were blinded, successive rulers had poachers executed.

The New Forest & Cranborne Chase were cleansed of many villages as The King’s Preserve as was the whole of Essex & large amounts of the Midlands.

The New Forest is the unhappy hunting ground where William Rufus was felled by an arrow to the heart. The son of William The Conqueror slain, his body bled out all the way to Winchester. Divine victim called upon to give his life & blood to rejuvenate the land on the day after harvest festival. A royal sacrifice to the old gods from a time when kings were almost gods themselves.

In the 12th & 13th century new boroughs were created by royal charter, a form of property speculation whereby landowners created towns on the land they owned. Towns like Ludlow, Stratford on Avon & Salisbury were some of the first planned settlements since Roman times.

In the 13th century drainage of arable land in Kent, Somerset & Lincolnshire continued the work of the Romans. The farmers in Norfolk built 6 foot high flood defences on which roads now run. Sheep were sent out into the reclaimed land & the wool industry of Norfolk & Suffolk is reflected in disproportionately large churches in small villages.
The Black Death in the mid 14th century killed between a third & a half of all British residents. Over 1800 villages were deserted as farmers moved to vacant land in better areas.

In the 18th century there was a farming revolution which altered the face of the land. Up to then millions of acres of land were farmed in great open fields that had stood unchanged for millennia.

2 Norfolk Farmers, Viscount “Turnip” Townsend & Thomas Coke came up with a 4 year crop rotation system which increased yields & reduced pests & disease but which needed enclosure of land into smaller fields to keep livestock away from crops. This agricultural revolution swept through the land with 10 acre fields enclosed by 5 or so million miles of hawthorn hedge.
As the 18th century transited into the 19th an industrial revolution created new landscapes in the island, from white Cornish moonscapes to black mountains in Wales & the North of England. Slate mining created cathedral like caverns.
I was walking with my friend Will & his family on the Roseland coast of Cornwall a few years back & he told me about the tin miners who tunnelled far out underneath the sea. Tin had been mined in Cornwall since prehistoric times & in the 19th century they were very adventurous running for miles & miles. When the tin miners accidentally breached the sea floor the tunnels would fill with the brine & the miners would drown. A ship would sail out to the point where the hole had been made with a vast metal plug & bung the hole, water would be pumped out & the mining would recommence. Great risk & great reward. All gone now.

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Chalk Horses

The chalk hills of old England have had figures cut into them for millennia. Some of these have faded back into the hills others have been recut regularly in order to preserve them.

The Cerne Abbas Giant is carved into the green turf of a steep hill near the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset. He stands proud at 55m tall holding a club in his right hand. His left hand may also have held a cloak or a dismembered head at some point.

Local legend is that he was a real giant who caused havoc in the area smashing up houses & eating sheep. One day he lay down on the hill to digest his meal & the locals set on him & killed him in his sleep. They then carved out his outline in chalk. This folktale makes no mention of the giant erect penis.

In 1774 in the History of Dorset by John Hutchins this is said of the giant, “I have heard from the steward of the manor that it is a modern thing cut out in Lord Hollis’ time” This dates to between 1641 & 1666. However Lord Hollis may have only recut the figure. In the Churchwardens’ accounts from St Mary’s Church in Cerne Abbas there is an entry for 1694; “for repairing ye giant, 3 shillings”
The earliest known drawing of the Giant appears in the August 1764 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine. By the Victorian period (after 1837) the penis was removed from academic and tourist depictions.

There are several ideas concerning the age of the Giant, and whom he might represent:

One theory is that because there is no medieval documentary evidence, then the Giant was created in the 17th century, perhaps by Lord Holles, who resided in Cerne Abbas, and perhaps as a parody of Oliver Cromwell.

Another is that the Giant dates to the time of the Romans in Britain (i.e. Romano-British), because the Giant resembles the Roman god Hercules, who was based on the Greek god Heracles.

Yet another is that the Giant is of Pagan Celtic origin, because it is stylistically similar to a Celtic god on a skillet handle found at Hod Hill, Dorset, and dated to around AD 10 to AD 51 & of Northern European depictions of gods of the time.

Since Victorian times there has been documented folklore about fertility rituals associated with the giant.

There is a small iron age earthwork on top of Trendle Hill & locals would erect a maypole in the earthwork around which childless couples would dance on May Day in order to promote fertility. The May Pole is a phallic symbol.

Barren women would sit on the giant in the hope of becoming pregnant. The folklore I heard when growing up in Dorset was that if you had intercourse within the penis outline a pregnancy would occur.

In 1921 Walter Long of Gillingham, Dorset objected to the giant’s nudity and conducted a campaign to either convert it to a simple nude, or to cover its supposed obscenity with a leaf. Long’s protest gained some support, including that of two bishops, and eventually reached the Home Office. The Home Office considered the protest to be in humour, though the chief constable responded to say the office could not act against a protected scheduled monument.
Cut into the northern slope of Windover Hill, at the eastern end of the South Downs near Wilmington in Sussex is a giant carrying a long staff in either hand. He is 70m tall. Close to the Long Man are a collection of burial mounds including a long barrow.

He has been variously identified as a local giant, St Paul, a Roman soldier, a Saxon haymaker or as a prehistoric surveyor, or dodman, who used his two staffs as sighting poles. Alfred Watkins came up with the dodman theory. During neolithic times the figure may have been aligned to mark the movement of the constellation Orion over the hill behind it. So he may have been a manifestation of Neolithic astral religion.

The origin is unclear. Up until recently he was thought to have been a neolithic creation as part of the ritual landscape of burial mounds.
More recent surveys have dated the figure to the 16th or 17th century possibly after there was a period of geological instability on the hill.

This is speculation on my part, but I am of the opinion that both the Cerne Abbas & Wilmington Giants are likely to have been older then early modern period based on the style of the figures.

The huge stylised drawing of the White Horse near Uffington in Oxfordshire is dated to between 1740 & 210 BC. It is 110 metres from head to tail & was probably carved by Iron Age Celts. There is an Iron Age hill fort on top of the hill.
The steep sided dry valley below the horse is known as the Manger and legend says that the horse grazes there at night.

Other prominent prehistoric sites are located nearby, notably Wayland’s Smithy, a long barrow less than a mile to the west.

Does this constitute a ritual landscape?

The horse was venerated in Celtic times & may have represented the horse goddess Epona. It may have been a tribal territory marker; the Vale of the White Horse falls at a point where three Celtic tribal zones met.

According to local tradition the horse may actually be a dragon. Close to the horse is Dragon Hill where St George is said to have killed the dragon. No grass grows on the top of the hill where the fabled beast bled out.

Chalk horses & figures stride across the landscape of England & Scotland & we can see them from far away. Some are lost to the hills & forgotten but maybe a sense memory in Plymouth or Gag Magog leaves a faint imprint.

The 5th song on the upcoming Cunning Folk Album is called Chalk Horses…

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What Has Been & Gone Before

The 4th song on the upcoming Cunning Folk album; Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground is titled What Has Been & Gone Before, & this is what inspired it.


On the 17th June 601AD Pope Gregory gave a letter to Abbot Mellitus, who was departing for England:
“When (by God’s help) you come to our most reverend brother, Bishop Augustine (in Kent), I want you to tell him how earnestly I have been pondering the affairs of the English: I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water & alters set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take advantage of well-built temples by purifying them from devil worship & dedicating them to the service of the true God. In this way, I hope the people (seeing their temples are not destroyed) will leave the idolatry & yet continue to frequent the places as formerly, so coming to know & revere the true God. & since the sacrifice of many oxen to devils is their custom, some other rite ought to be solemnized in it’s place such as a Day of Dedication or Festivals for the holy martyrs whose relics are there enshrined. On such high days the people might well build themselves shelters of boughs round about the churches that were once temples & celebrate the occasion with pious feasting. They must no longer sacrifice animals to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the glory of God while giving thanks for his bounty as the provider of all gifts.”
In this letter were the blueprints for the erasure of old ways.
I grew up near Knowlton Church, a ruined church built inside a Neolithic henge monument on Cranborne Chase. The ruin is evidence of the village of Knowlton which was wiped out by the Black Death in medieval times.
As children we would run around the ramparts & hide in the small Yew grove & climb on the ruin. It was rumoured that witches would meet there on dark nights. That would have been a fascinating example of continuity of purpose echoing past beliefs.

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The Modern Antiquarian



My experience of ritual landscapes of Britain is pedestrian. It is on foot. Maybe these landscapes were meant to be taken in on foot.

I have lost count of the times I have visited & walked the Avebury complex in Wiltshire. You can easily in the space of a day walk down from the Wessex ridgeway into the village & the stone circle, along the avenue of stones,to the Sanctuary, then past Silbury Hill & on to West Kennet Long Barrow.

The act of walking between these places feels significant as it is what the people who created these earthworks & stone avenues & chamber tombs would have done. Avebury is a complex of sites close to each other perhaps with interlocking significances.


West Kennet Long Barrow was built around 3650 BC & used for around 1000 years until it was sealed up, filled to the roof  by the Beaker People with earth & stones. It is a chamber tomb about 25 metres long which you can walk in. Whenever I go I offer a libation before entering the chamber. I pour out the contents of a fine bottle of beer to show my respect to the older ones.
Silbury Hill is the largest man made mound in Europe. It is about the size of a pyramid & was completed around 2500 BC. There is no evidence of human burial associated with the hill.
Built around 3000 BC, the Sanctuary was originally a complex circular arrangement of timber posts, which were later replaced by stones. These components are presently indicated with concrete slabs. Huge numbers of human bones have been excavated from here accompanied by food, suggesting elaborate death rites & ceremonies.
The stones & henges of Avebury were not all constructed at the same time. 3000BC for the central cove, 2900 for the inner stone circle, 2600 for the outer circle & henge & 2400BC for the avenue. This is the late Neolithic period.

The henge, a large circular bank with an internal ditch is over 1000 metres in circumference. Within the henge is the outer stone circle, Britains largest, with a diameter of 300 metres or so. Within the outer stone circle is the inner circle.

The avenue of paired stones leading from the south-eastern entrance to the henge is a designed passage through the landscape leading us from the Avebury stone circle towards Silbury & West Kennet.

There is no written record of what the function of the Avebury complex is. Maybe the stone circles were a representation of the world of the Neolithic peoples. Some historians have speculated that between 5000 to 10000 people would gather regularly at the site to demonstrate tribal loyalty or for religious observance.
Pagan rites seem to have been practiced at the circle as late as the 14th century, for at this time the local Christians considered it their religious duty to fell the stones. One of the Christians was crushed to death by the stone as it fell & his skeleton was discovered in the 1930s pinned to the side of a burial hole. The contents of his purse identified him as a barber surgeon & the stone is now known as the Barber Stone.

With the advent of the modern religions of Druidry & Wicca, Avebury has regained ritual significance & at equinoxes & solstices neopagan ceremonies are performed at the site which is considered to be a living temple.
On a visit in the year 2000 I picked up a book from the village shop in Avebury called “The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey Through Megalithic Britain”. It is a poetical gazetteer of scores of barrows, standing stones, megalithic monuments scattered across the British Isles. Written in 1998 by Julian Cope, it is one of my treasured books. It has accompanied me on drives across Scotland to see chambered cairns & carved stones, on hikes across Bodmin Moor & Dartmoor to interlocking stone circles & Arthur’s Hall, & on & on.
It seems fitting that I found it in a bookshop in a village encircled by a living temple.

I take it with me on most journeys. It is a fine sleeved hardcover which is starting to fray & dog. I like the erosion from pristine to decrepit that loved objects undergo. Eventually the spine will crack & the sleeve will split & I am not sure whether I will repair it or let it fall apart. Maybe I should take pages from it & place them on the monuments they have led me to. The stones will be here long after the book has gone & it’s where the book takes you which is important. The pilgrimage to these sites is a ritual in itself, an observance that these places have importance.

The third song on my upcoming album; Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground (released March 24th) is titled The Modern Antiquarian.

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The Old Straight Track

The second song from the upcoming Cunning Folk album: Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground is called The Old Straight Track. Here is a blog about what inspired it.

I grew up in East Dorset close to Cranborne Chase, a large area of countryside the Norman kings kept clear of habitation to make room for hunting ground. There is plenty of evidence of our ancestors left in the local landscape. 9

There is Badbury Rings, an iron age hill fort reputed in local legend to be the final resting place of King Arthur.

10Knowlton Church, a Norman ruin within a henge complex.
There is Bokerley Dyke, a Saxon defensive ditch running for miles through the countryside & there are countless round barrow tumuli in the corn & barley fields. You can literally see where our ancestors made their mark. I grew up trying to see if there are connections between places, significances.13

A Herefordshire man by the name of Alfred Watkins was a pioneer of trying to make connections between old places on the landscape. He thought the locations of ancient monuments & settlements were very significant. He thought that they were aligned.

15He wrote a book in 1925 called “The Old Straight Track” on the subject. He called these alignments, “Ley Lines”.

Alfred Watkins’ ideas are controversial & influential. They are not taken seriously by orthodox archaeologists but have inspired ley hunters & artists.

17The writer Alan Garner in his book  “The Moon Of Gomrath” portrays the Old Straight Track appearing at moonrise near Alderley Edge.

IMG_1901.JPGI am fascinated by the concept of the ley line; the connection between old places over distance & time. The idea of old, wild magic transmitted through the land between standing stones & hills, along ancient tracks from forgotten settlements to barrows & cursi. Maybe we cross these lines every day.

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This Is How It Starts

Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground; the Cunning Folk album will be released on March 24 2017. The album is my journey through some of the ritual landscapes of Britain. In the run up to the album release I will be writing a blog about each song & will put out snippets of each song for your listening pleasure.

The first song is called “This Is How It Starts”

We live in a world of rituals.
A ritual is a ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. It may have a religious significance.
If you have been to a wedding or a funeral you have taken part in a ritual.

A ritual can also be an action arising from the habits of an individual or group at work or at home.

For example I have a morning coffee ritual which I start my day with.
I put water in the espresso maker & switch on the machine, spoon espresso coffee into the dripper & get a small cup to place under the dripper. While waiting for the water to heat up I switch on the radio. Naturally I am a Radio 4 listener. The dripper is switched on & I fill my cup & listen to the Today show for a while.

On one occasion, while listening to the radio, I heard a gentleman called Robert Macfarlane reading excerpts of his book, “Landmarks”. Landmarks is a series of essays about folk who have interacted with British landscapes through art, walking, swimming & ornithology. It also has extensive glossaries of language specific to particular geographies.

I found the book relevant because over the past few years I have been troubled by the rise of nationalist identity politics & these essays & discussions felt like a way of finding an identity defined by landscape & our relationship with it. Identity not confined by borders on maps but by shared heritages refined by our environments & how we relate to them.

Those of you who have heard my songs may know that they are often site specific. The first location is my kitchen chair next to the radio at the moment when I decide to make a journey.

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Ritual Land Uncommon Ground. Album preview at South East London Folklore Society on December 8


For the December South East London Folklore Society meeting, Cunning Folk will be performing songs from the upcoming album, Ritual Land Uncommon Ground, & talking about themes which inspired the piece.

Britain has been settled for millenia. From time to time we leave evidence of our part in this island story. This presentation will  address our relationship with the land, how our identity is shaped by geography & the magic which springs up in forgotten corners as a result

Thursday, December 8 at 8 pm at The Old King’s Head, King’s Head Yard, 45-49 Borough High Street SE1 1NA
Entrance is £3/1.50 concs

you can stroll up on the night or email to guarantee a place


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I am currently collaborating with film-maker Richard Mansfield to make a soundtrack for his upcoming folk horror film entitled “Scare Bear”

img_1199Acoustic guitar, electric bass, synthesizers & voice combine into a folk synthesis of strangeness. I look forward to the premiere screening early next year…20160719-1The new Cunning Folk album, “Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground”, will also be released in 2017, with a preview performance in early December…

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