We have covered bits of the history of witchcraft here in W.U Hstry, but there is always more stuff to dig up, obviously. So it happens I’ve recently come across something written by Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire) regarding witch trials in Wales. I was incredibly surprise to find out that there have only been reported a total of 34 cases regarding witchcraft in Wales, which is a ridiculously low amount in comparison just with England, but in general with Europe and the world as a whole. Were the Welsh less prone to heresy? Were witches perceived in a different way than elsewhere? I am still uncertain, and I cannot quite make sense of the figures myself. Yet the fact is nonetheless curious.
Doind some further research, I find out that the first ever execution for withcraft in Wales did not take place until the year 1594 – massive time lapse again. In any case, the unfortunate perpetrator of this presumed faul crime was a woman by the name of Gwen ferch Ellis. She was then in her early forties born c.1542 (Llandyrnog),Vale of Clwyd. She was known in the community for making a living as a kind of medicine woman, providing ailments for sick animals, selling herbs, and distributing Christian charms for those in need of them. Technically this could have been an ordinary woman, going through life doing perfectly normal things that did not get others killed, but! Of course, there had to be something right? Well, Ms Ellis was accused of bewitching a Welsh magistrate going by the name of Thomas Mostyn of Gloddaeth. How or why you’d think? Seemingly they found a charm written backwards at the mans parlour in his house in Caernarvonshire…Thus, Gwen Ellis suddenly was performing witchcraft instead of being a nice, helpful herb lady. Just like that. And the thing is, a lot of accusations regarding witchcraft took place rather randomly like this one. It was convenient to use it as a wild card to get rid off any woman (or man!) who may fit in the general descriptions of a witch (the many, varied, abudant definitions of a witch…) just to destroy their career, or most likely end their existences. And such was Ellis’ fate.
The trial transformed this woman into a monster. She was accused by presumed witnesses of having a bad temper and a sharp tongue – clear sign of evil! – as well as being accompanied by a familiar. But the fact that really condemned Gwen to death was the charge of murder. It was said that she had killed a man called Lewis ap John using her evil incantations. She was kept in the gaol for 4 months awaiting for her sentence until she was eventually found guilty and executed, (hanged), both for the murder as a back up for the previous accusations of witchcraft in Denbigh Town Square…What I forgot to tell you, of course, was that Gwen Ellis had not long before her tragic end, become acquianted with a Jane Conwy of Marl Hall, and found out that this Jane was having an affair with the above named Thomas Mostyn…So, perhaps not much of a coincidence at all, right? Just the perfect escape goat one would think.
Well seeing how seemingly different the history of witchcraft was in Wales, I kept on looking at their mythology: being this part of the famously known “Celtic Fringe”, I couldn’t help but think that there may have been something in their folk tales that would have either legitimised or reinforced the believe in witches in this area. And perhaps not so surprising, of course there are tales of witches in this part of the UK. However, the story that caught my attention seems to somehow correlate with this time period: the tale of the Llanddona Witches. There is a lot of controversy regarding the origin of this story in terms of timeframe. It is generally believe that this tale comes about in the 18th century, which corresponds with the 1736 repeal of the Witchcraft Act. This essentially changed the laws against witchcraft, most notably by taking prosecution in different ways other than execution: instead the law favoured imprisonment and fines for those accused of performing the mystic arts. Therefore, people likebelieve that perhaps this moved the populace to take justice in their hands, which arguably had always been the case, particularly considering Wales counts with a highly rural population and law enforcement has not always been easy.
But, in any case, what are these witches from Llanddona about? Well, here comes my rendition of the tale. Llanddona is a small fishing community in Wales. Suddenly one day, a boat is seeing soaring the waters, sinking and with no oars and the people in it pretty much dead. The origin of these people and why and how they end here is varied depending on the version of the story. But in general the idea is that a boat full of people (sometimes men and women sometimes all female…sometimes Irish/Scandinavian/Welsh! A Spanish circus troupe?!) arrived to the coast of Anglesey. News were heard in Llanddona and the community, not trusting the strangers and state of the boat (who knew what the condition of the travelers was!) decided this was bad news and tried to keep them at the water. Eventually, the boat lands and the desperate people in it reach out to the bare sand, where suddenly a spring of clean water springs, freaking out the locals who of course decide these people are witches. At awe/fear of their powers they let them stay there but separate from the community, building their reputation as outsiders, thieves (best smugglers in Northern Wales supposedly), witches and the rest. In some versions of the tale the stigma sticks just to the women of the family and the trade of witchcraft survives in them, using the fear and gullibility of these people to “curse” them. Two prominent names of the witches of this family are Bella Fawr and Siani Bwt – the latter known for having missing toes and being barely 4 foot tall and all of these folklore, traditional witch qualities.
The Irish accents of the tale are supposed to resonate religious tension during the English Civil War, as the Welsh and some of the English people of the west feared a Catholic Irish invasion. There could also be the possibility that one of the “local” ways of dealing with people accused of witchcraft was to cast them adrift at sea hoping they’d perish that way.
So, I guess perhaps the problem with Wales and their witches is like with Galicia (north western Spain) and the meigas; their version of witches. The saying – in Spanish – goes as “haberlas, haylas”. This essentially comes to say “witches, there are…”. But without any more to add to the subject, almost as an obvious passing comment I guess (but that’s a very Galician thing to do, which I’ll talk about another day).
Until then, I say “so long” and beware of them witches knocking on your door.