The full account of the Somerset Witches can be read in our most recent publication Concerning Witches and Apparitions by Joseph Glanvill, available here.
On the 24th of November 2022 in Larne, Co. Antrim, there was a meeting of the local council. One of the items discussed was a memorial plaque to be erected at nearby Islandmagee Visitor’s Centre to commemmorate eight local women who had been tried and found guilty of witchcraft in 1711. Councillor Jack McKee objected to the plaque and said he “could not tell whether or not the women had been rightly or wrongly convicted as he didn’t have the facts and was not going to support devil worship” His other objection was that the plaque would potentially become “a shrine to paganism”. At his insistence the phrase “Today the community recognises your innocence” was dropped from the wording of the plaque.
The plaque was unveiled with no reference made to the innocence of the accused.
While this kind of thinking is probably now unique to extreme Protestant sects it got me thinking about what it must have been like over 300 years ago, when Councillor McKee’s views were the absolute mainstream and no other possible narrative could be entered into regarding witchcraft and unnatural events at trials, or in public, with a few exceptions.
But even that is only part of the story - Saducismus Triumphatus by Joseph Glanvill was first published in 1681 and many of the phenomena described within date from the 1660’s onwards. While belief in witchcraft was almost universal, there had been a few sceptical voices raised among the intelligentsia, even to the extent of publishing books voicing doubts and objections to the persecution and prosecution of witches.
This (rather long) blog post will focus on a particular group of accused women from Somerset, and the man who presided over many of their trials. I also will be looking at the landscape of Somerset witchcraft. This is a subject which I feel very near to – I lived in Glastonbury for over eight years, and some of the places mentioned in the accounts are familiar to me. Others were names on a map – places so small that they could be driven through in about 20 seconds, some only findable on a high magnificiation map. We undertook several journeys to the sites mentioned, walked the land, visited churches, fields, places mentioned by the accused. We were looking mainly for the meeting places of the witches – their accounts mention quite specific locations and pieces of land with names like “Hussey’s Knap”, “Trister Gate” “Lye Common” – none findable on a modern map.
What was going on in rural Somerest in the 1660s? It’s tempting to think of tiny little villages where nothing much of anything happened, poor folk just getting on with their lives etc. Nothing could be further from the reality. Somerset was seething with unrest all through that period. The English Civil War had turned the world upside down. The killing of a king, God’s Anointed, was almost unprecedented in British history. Then the 12 years of the Protectorate and Commonwealth under the Puritans and Cromwell turned people against each other in political and religious strife and Somerset was no exception. The return of the king was another huge upheaval, not least because this part of Somerset tended strongly towards puritanism. Another cause of dissent was the de-forestation of areas of what had been regarded as common land, leading to riots and civil unrest. East Somerset in the 1660s was not a sleepy provincial backwater by any means.
The short version of how the witchcraft trials began was that in 1658 an accusation was made against Jane Brooks or Brooke of Shepton Mallet. The accusation was that she had, by witchcraft, caused the death of a Richard Jones, aged 12. She came to the door of his family home and having asked for a bit of bread, gave him an apple in return and “stroked him down on the right side, shook him by the hand and bade him good night”. Three days later he roasted the apple, ate it, and became extremely ill. The boy then told his father and others about Jane Brooks, saying that she appeared to him. On once occasion he asked his cousin to drive a dagger into the bedroom wall to wound Brooks who had manifested there. Shortly afterwards a constable visited Brooks who was hiding an injured hand. The boy also had fits where he had unnatural strength. On another occasion he was observed outside floating in the air for a distance of thirty yards.
Another time he was found floating against a large roof-beam, he said Jane Brooks had carried him there. Richard Jones died in February 1659 and the following month Jane Brooks was hanged at Chard assizes. In 1665 an accusation of witchcraft was made against a widow, Elizabeth Style, of Stoke Trister. Again, the victim was young, a thirteen year old girl called Elizabeth Hill. She, like Richard Jones had fits. And in her case, holes appeared on various parts of her body which the witnesses thought were caused by thorns, since they “saw thorns in her flesh, somed of which they hooked out”. When her fits had passed, she said that “Widow Style had pricked her in those places”. And like Richard Jones, she also displayed unnatural strength during her fits and rose up in the air.
Richard Vining of Stoke Trister said that his wife Agnes Vining became ill after falling out with Elizabeth Style, who some while later came to his house and gave his wife two apples. She ate them and a few hours later became even worse than before. She died shortly afterwards and accused Style before she died.
Elizabeth Style was examined by a group of women, who said that they had found a witches mark on her. This was a mark on her scalp which was impervious to pain. Just to be sure, the constable tested her by saying that he would prick the spot as well, but despite her crying out, he had not touched her. She was also “watched” by a group of people, which sounds innocuous but the practice involved keeping the accused awake sitting on a stool in some uncomfortable position until her familiar appeared. The watchers are warned to be vigilant in case the spirit takes the shape of something very small such as an insect or a spider and that if they cannot kill such a creature, that is the familiar. Presumably this can go on for days, amounting to a kind of torture through sleep deprivation and rendering a person suggestible and more likely to confess.
So it was with Elizabeth Style whose familiar was seen to be a large fly or butterfly which sucked blood from the spot on her scalp and which, when it did appear, could not be killed by the watchers though they tried to catch it and failed.
Elizabeth Style confessed to being a witch, rather dramatically, in court and said that the Devil had tempted her. She was sent to the home of a constable, and the following day the magistrate Robert Hunt went to the house accompanied by two “highly regarded gentlemen” where she told the full story.
Style confessed in full and in her own words said that:
“That the Devil about ten years since appeared to her in the shape of a handsome man, and after of a black dog. That he promised her money, and that she should live gallantly, and have the pleasure of the world for twelve years, if she would with her blood sign his paper, which was to give her soul to him and observe his laws, and that he might suck her blood. This after four sollicitations the examinant promised to do; upon which, he pricked the fourth finger of her right hand, between the middle and upper joint (where the sign at the examination remained), and with a drop or two of her blood she signed the paper with an ‘O’. Upon this, the Devil gave her sixpence, and vanished with the paper.
That when she hath a desire to do harm, she calls the spirit by the name of Robin, to whom when he appeareth she useth these words, O Satan, give me my purpose! She then tells him what she would have done. And that he should so appear to her was part of her contract with him.
That about a month ago, he appearing, she desired him to torment one Elizabeth Hill, and to thrust thorns into her flesh, which he promised to do; and the next time he appeared, he told her he had done it.
That a little above a month since, this examinant, Alice Duke, Ann Bishop and Mary Penny met about nine of the clock in the night on the common near Trister Gate, where they met a man in black clothes with a little band, to whom they did courtesy and due observance; and the examinant verily believes that this was the Devil. At that time, Alice Duke brought a picture in wax, which was for Elizabeth Hill; the man in black took it in his arms, anointed its forehead, and said, I baptize thee with this oil, and used some other words. He was godfather, and the examinant and Ann Bishop godmothers; they called it Elizabeth or Bess. Then, the man in black, this examinant, Ann Bishop and Alice Duke stuck thorns into several places of the neck, hand-wrists, fingers, and other parts of the said picture; after which, they had wine, cakes and roast meat (all brought by the man in black), which they did eat and drink. They danced and were merry, were bodily there and in their clothes.
That she, with Ann Bishop and Alice Duke, met at another time in the night, on ground near Marnhull, where also met several other persons. The Devil then, also there in the former shape, baptized a picture by the name of Ann or Rachel Hatcher; the picture one Dunford’s wife brought, and stuck thorns in it. Then they also made merry with wine and cakes, and so departed.
She saith before they are carried to their meetings, they anoint their foreheads and hand-wrists with an oil the spirit brings them, which smells raw; and then they are carried in a very short time, using these words as they pass, Thout, tout, a tout, tout, throughout and about; and when they go off from their meetings, they say Rentum Tormentum.
That at their first meeting, the man in black bids them welcome, and they all make low obedience to him; and he delivers some wax candles like little torches, which they give back again at parting. When they anoint themselves, they use a long form of words, and when they stick in thorns into the picture of any they would torment, they say A pox on thee, I’ll spite thee.
That they are carried sometimes in their bodies and their clothes, sometimes without, and as the examinant thinks their bodies are sometimes left behind. When only their spirits are present, yet they know one another. That the reason why she caused Elizabeth Hill to be the more tormented was because her father had said she was a witch. That she has seen Alice Duke’s familiar suck her in the shape of a cat, and Ann Bishop’s suck her in the shape of a rat.
She said that the man in black was the devil and that at this and other gatherings he provided good wine and ale and meat. There was feasting and dancing, the devil played the cittern and sometimes the pipe. They met in different places, Stoke Trister, Leigh Common, High Common near Motcombe, and at Hussey’s Knapp. “
Style also named a number of other people and one of them Alice Duke was taken and questioned. Alice Duke echoed Elizabeth Style’s accounts of the meetings, corroborating details such as being carried to the meeting by means of an oil.
Alice Duke also confirmed the names of those attending, which is the same as the list given by Elizabeth Style.
She also describes the gathering
“The Man in Black sometimes plays on a pipe or cittern, and the company dance. At last, the Devil vanisheth, and all are carried to their several homes in a short space. At their parting, they say A Hoy! Merry meet, merry part.”
This is, as far as I can ascertain, the first report of the phrase which has now become entrenched in neo-paganism. In the first and subsequent editions, the phrase was given as “A boy” which is clearly a printers error. "Ahoy" was a common greeting cry in the 16th and 17th centuries in England.
Both Elizabeth Style and Alice Duke mention that Ann Bishop was the favourite of the man in black, and always sat next to him at the meeting. Duke says that about 12 years previously, she lived with Ann Bishop who took her one day to the churchyard at Wincanton and persuaded her to go backwards around the church three times, which she did. On the first round, a man in black appeared and accompanied them, on the second a giant toad appeared which jumped up on her apron, the third time they met something in the shape of a rat.
A few days after, Ann Bishop speaking about their going round the church told the Alice Duke that “now she might have her desire, and what she would wish for; and shortly after, the Devil appeared to her in the shape of a man, promising that she should want nothing, and that if she cursed anything with A pox take it, she should have her purpose, if she would give her soul to him, suffer him to suck her blood, keep his secrets, and be his instrument to do such mischief as he would set her about. All which upon his second appearing to her, she yielded to; and the Devil, having pricked the fourth finger of her right hand, between the middle and upper joint (where the mark is yet to be seen), gave her a pen with which she made a cross or mark with her blood on paper or parchment that the Devil offered her for the confirmation of the agreement, which was done in the presence of Ann Bishop. And as soon as the examinant had signed it, the Devil gave her sixpence, and went away with the paper or parchment.” All of the testimonies recorded above were taken and recorded by local magistrate Robert Hunt.
Who was this seemingly enthusiastic witchfinder?
Hunt (centre) was a Member of Parliament, High Sheriff of Somerset, a barrister and a judge - a role which also involved evidence-gathering and prosecution. Hunt kept the documentation from the investigations and the trials which he then passed on to Glanvill. He was a country gentleman, owner of the Manor at Compton Pauncefoot with estates at Speckington near Ilchester. His lands were seized at one point when he was accused of attending the King’s Parliament during the English Civil War, but this was an error, Hunt was a thorough Parliamentarian and a supporter of Cromwell. He was well-regarded in his legal career as being honest and careful. In the case of the Somerset witches it is clear he regards himself as pursuing cases which his superiors would rather he left alone. According to Glanvill, Hunt’s discovery of witches met with “great opposition and discouragements from some then in authority”. This, presumably, a reference to the discouragement of witch trials in the later period of the interregnum and (surprisingly) the many pardons granted.
Hunt had another role which bears a little examinaton. He was also a Commissioner for the intriguingly titled Committee for Plundered Ministers. This was a commission set up by the Long Parliament in 1643, in the first place to support those puritan clergy who lost their jobs because of their support for the Parliamentarians. As they grew more powerful the focus changed to finding and replacing clergymen who were regarded as being loyal to the Crown and/or high Anglicans whose doctrines and practices were regarded with suspicion by the puritans. It became known as the Committee for Scandalous Minsters and Robert Hunt was its Somerset representative. Accusations could be brought against any minister by parishioners who considered that their priest was not of sound puritan doctrine. And if proved, he lost his position and his property was sequestered. It could only be recovered by purchasing it back from the state. Accusations could be brought by anyone and were used to settle scores, or simply get rid of an unpopular minister. Quite a few clergy in Somerset were replaced in this way. And it is very interesting to note that one of the clergymen who profited by the removal of his predecessor by the Commission, was Joseph Glanvill, Rector of Frome and author of Saducismus Triumphatus.
There are a number of possible interpretation that one might offer regarding the testimonies of the Somerset witches. I think the one advanced by Margaret Murray is easily dispensed with, there is nothing in the evidence proferred which points to a survival of any kind of fertility cult. Quite the opposite, the only activities undertaken by these women was revenge against their enemies accompanied by a slap-up meal and some dancing, which in puritan England, even without the cursing, would have been regarded as highly suspect, and at times illegal.
The testimonies are so strange, and what is more, the number of witnesses in each case is high. A group of people saw a young lad float in the air, and hover for over 15 minutes, a teenage girl who couldn’t be held down by several men, thorns appearing in her flesh as they watched, which were pulled out by witnesses.
And the accused women – they also saw the impossible and performed impossible deeds – they went to meetings of their group by painting an oil on their foreheads, they caused sickness and death to people who wronged them. They saw giant toads and rats, one of the accused women Christian Green said that she suckled a hedgehog who was her familiar. Elizabeth Style saw Alice Duke’s familiar suck her in the shape of a cat, and Ann Bishop’s suck her in the shape of a rat.
What does begin to emerge from reading through the accusations and the confessions is this: if there was witchcraft and witches in Somerset in the 1660s, the people being prosecuted for it were not the main instigators. And if there is a witch amongst all of these people, it must be Ann Bishop. She is person who sat at the right had side of the man in black and who spoke to her alone. She was the person who introduced others into the group.
Alice Duke said that she lived with Ann Bishop who “persuaded her to go with her into the churchyard in the nighttime; and being come thither, to go backward round the church, which they did three times.” This was fully twelve years before Elizabeth Style and Alice Duke were arrested. Ann Bishop was at each meeting, and acted as a kind of godmother when the wax effigies were being baptised. It was Ann Bishop who, when the devil had put the first thorn into the crown of the wax figures followed on with placing thorns in the body.
What happened to the Somerset witches?
For most of them – it seems, nothing. Margaret Agar was arrested, but appears to have been released without any trial or penalty. Mary Warberton was certainly alive until about 1674. As mentioned before, Jane Brooks was actually tried and hanged. Elizabeth Style was found guilty and sentenced to hang – but died in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Of the others, there is no record of execution, nor of a prison sentence, nor of any trial. What is particularly strange is that it appears that the main character Ann Bishop was not even questioned by the magistrate. It does seem extraordinary that a meticulous prosecutor and evidence gatherer like Robert Hunt would simply let a large number of people simply get away with practicing witchcraft, particularly as they had been named by two of their fellow convenanters.
Having become intrigued by the story of the Somerset witches, and knowing some of the places they came from and frequented we set out to find places where they met as few of the place names survived. We went to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, Wincanton where Alice Duke was persuaded by Ann Bishop to go round the church three times backwards. The church and its surrounding have quite a melancholy and, at least to me, unappealling atmosphere.
We wanted to travel along some of the roads which are the successors of the old cart tracks which the women would have taken to travel to their meetings: in particular the route from Stoke Trister to Wincanton. This road now runs parallel to the new A road, and is clearly little used, we saw no other cars along the several miles we travelled. We did however find this car
parked up and left at the side of the road. This was our first inkling that the day was going to be a bit strange. As our trip took place during a lull in the Covid lockdowns, it’s impossible not to think of another plague time which has resonances in our witch stories. In 1665 when Jane Brooks was arrested and tried, the Black Plague returned to England. London was the worst affected - some 15% of its inhabitants died within a year. Somerset was not spared, with a large number of deaths in Bridgewater, and in Frome an entire family were shut up in their house and left to die. This is our weird plague sermon warning us that the new world order is being planned and we will own nothing.
One of the most intriguing places named in the testimonies is Hussey’s Knap, where several meetings had taken place. There is no such place marked on any map from the period or after. This is Blaeu’s map of Somerset from around 1654.
You can see how heavily wooded the area is – this is the remains of a vast forest which covered most of eastern Somerset from the end of the Ice Age, but by this time had been much reduced. Most of the places mentioned in the witches testimonies were in woods, and within a few hours walking distance of the main protagonists. Trister Gate, for example is actually a gateway into the forest at Penselwood, part of the remnants of the great forest called variously Brewham Forest and Selwood.
Another place name where the witches met was Mr. Hussey’s Ground which I believe is identical with Hussey’s Copse outside Marnhull as mentioned in the testimonies. The Husseys were a wealthy family who bought large parcels of land in the area around Brewham, and this place name survives even to the present day. Hussey’s Knap however proved quite a bit more difficult to find. A knap is a crest or summit of a hill, and as the area around Wincanton is generally flat, we started looking for hills or outcroppings which might fit. A short distance from Stoke Trister and Wincanton is a hill which rises quite steeply and leads into a large forested area which is now part of the estate at Stourhead. Looking at the area on an old map we saw something quite intriguing – Jack’s Castle and on the other side of the road Alfred’s Tower, a great place for a gothic photo shoot or moody video, but alas too modern to have anything to do with the witches. Jack’s Castle was much more promising – it’s a kind of earthwork, known as a “bell barrow”. It was excavated in the 18th century by Richard Colt Hoare, who owned the nearby Stourhead Estate, famous for its exquisite gardens and classical temples.
What is interesting is that the barrow is on the crest of a steep hill – a knap in other words, and we do know that the Hussey’s bought land in this area in the early 17th century. We went there after finding the weird car to walk the land and see if there might be any further clues to identify it as Hussey’s Knap. The land is heavily wooded now as then, the ancient forest replaced with recent plantations of spruce and beech. But the outer path of the barrow has secondary growth of fairly dense holly bushes. We started to walk the perimeter to get the feel of the site when we came across this object.
It’s clearly been there for some time, as it’s covered in moss and quite embedded in the ground. Looking closer, it’s made of cut stone and has eight sides. It’s pretty obviously a baptismal font which has been broken into three pieces. There is no church nearby, nor has there even been as far as we can tell.
The first associateion that came to mind was the baptism of the wax figures by the man in black and the witches, which took place at their meetings. I can’t say that they ever used a font, indeed, it’s most unlikely that they did, but the juxtaposition of such an object in this place – an ancient barrow which was a candidate for the witches meeting site known as Hussey’s Knap got me thinking again. Like with the car and its apocalyptic warning about the plague, the presence of the font does seem to be an sign of the resonances between our time and theirs, echoing through time and the land.