“Crwydro y byddo am oesoedd lawer” – Them Welsh Witches!

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 like Phil Carradice believe 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.

Did Beliefs in Witches Really Decline in the Eighteenth Century?

Witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have become rather famous: they have become a part of popular culture and have been researched with interest due to, what some historians label, the  ‘witch craze’ that occurred during these particular centuries. Why was a belief in witchcraft and magic so strong? Why did so many people suspect and accuse others of witchcraft? Why did it last so long? Why did people admit to being witches? And, why, did this mass ‘witch craze’ end? All these questions have been studied and discussed in-depth and with major contention, but it is the last question I wish to focus on. With the dawn of the eighteenth century, there was a growth in the ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘Enlightenment’, culminating in the Act of 1736, which criminalised the accusation of witchcraft. It is often assumed and rarely discussed until recently that people across Europe merely stopped believing in witches, which seems unlikely considering the scale on which it had once been so strongly believed. Beliefs in witchcraft and folk magic did not disappear after the Act of 1736. Before it was in place, witchcraft was deemed a statutory offence, and afterwards was no longer a criminal act but ‘an offense against the country’s newly enlightened state’. This moved the fight away from evils of witchcraft to the evils of ignorance and superstition, and their influence on the uneducated masses. Although many of the educated elites no longer believed witches existed in their time, there were still lasting beliefs amongst the labouring classes, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that magic was still prevalent. In this blog post, I will be looking at how these beliefs continued in eighteenth-century England and why there wasn’t such a strong decline in witchcraft during this time as has previously been assumed.

Beliefs in the Eighteenth Century

Up until the late twentieth century, it was generally agreed amongst historians that the Act of 1736 caused a decline in witch- and magic-beliefs, due to an increase in rational thought and enlightenment. It was generally accepted that after the witch-craze of the previous two centuries, the eighteenth century saw a major decline in these beliefs until they became only a memory. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic was heralded as an innovative outlook into witchcraft through his uses of sociology and anthropology. He recognises the continuing beliefs in rural society after 1736, but otherwise largely ignored the period afterward, citing the decline of magic as a result of rational thought and enlightenment. However, his use of sociology and anthropology have provided new analyses into the study of popular beliefs and culture became a part of the historical study of magic, especially concerning viewing society from a bottom-up approach that discussed the labouring classes’ beliefs and role in the witch-craze. After all, most of our sources on beliefs and witches come from the literate and educated classes, which vastly ignores a large proportion of labouring and rural classes in the eighteenth century.

One of the leading historians at observing beliefs after 1736 has been Owen Davies, whose work on witchcraft, cunning-folk and magic has even spanned into twentieth-century beliefs. Arguing against earlier historians, Davies claims that for many, witches were a reality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, just as in the early modern period. Davies gave a very different sense of the late period, with the development of the theory that beliefs in magic did not just survive after 1736, but evolved with society as well. This is demonstrated through explanations for beliefs in rural society and continuing discussion amongst elites. David Vincent agrees with this summation of evolving beliefs, referring to the early modern belief of a witch as old and poor, which remained a stereotype of those who were blamed for misfortunes into the late nineteenth century. This traditional view, therefore, that old, poor women were witches transcended into the enlightened and modern eras of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century society. Enlightenment did not eliminate beliefs of witchcraft in elite society, but the beliefs developed alongside the changes in society and due to pressures from the educated masses. Jonathan Barry has also researched the area of witchcraft beliefs post-1736, and he emphasises the importance to distinguish between ‘public’ and ‘private’ belief. His claim is that there must have been internalised struggles amongst the elite concerning new, enlightened ideas about magic, and personal beliefs would therefore have not been suitable for sharing in public. Davies agrees, claiming that the idea of rationalism and enlightenment misleadingly generalised the elite’s belief in witchcraft, explaining it was more of a subtle than suggested change. In fact, it is now argued that educated elites believed that magic and witches were prevalent in the past, but by the end of the seventeenth century no longer existed. This is demonstrated by increasing claims that the elite still discussed the existence of witchcraft in private, although it was publicly seen as superstitious. For example, in 1762, a contributor to the Gentlemen’s Magazine discussed a recent visit to a tavern, where there were ‘many gentlemen discoursing about several matters… disputing about the existence and nature of conjuring and witchcraft, which some affirmed and some denied’. It is from looking at sources such as these, after the Act of 1736, and at elite and lower society, that historians like Davies and Barry have been able to analyse and draw new conclusions and insights into what is known about popular magic beliefs in the long eighteenth century. This has been able to demonstrate their claim the history of witchcraft is not just about the past, but observing how the past is constantly being reinterpreted.

The History of the Labouring Classes

However, it could be claimed that the belief in magic did not necessarily reflect in belief in witches in society. Their counterparts, or those seen as the ‘white witches’ opposed to the maleficent ‘black witches’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were arguably incredibly common in England, especially in rural society. Elites also began to see white witches as an object of amusement in the eighteenth century. Men and women known as cunning-folk, Davies argues, were individuals in society that stood out for possessing more knowledge than the people around them, often assumed to be acquired from a supernatural source. Historical studies on magic have previously ignored the existence and role of cunning-folk to a large extent, due to a preference over the study of witch-trials and of ‘high magic’ such as magicians and early science. Davies claims the study of cunning-folk owes a lot to the work of Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, citing Thomas as the first historian to recognise fully the importance and significance of cunning-folk in early modern society. Davies claims there is an importance in the study of cunning-folk as it can aid learning about what is known concerning culture and society, which Vincent agrees with stating that whereas witchcraft could only survive in isolated neighbourhoods, cunning-folk flourished in large constituencies and were not only restricted to rural society.

Previous historians’ work on witchcraft before the 1970s, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, had focused on the role authority had on the belief in magic. However, looking at witchcraft and magic from a bottom-up approach has allowed for research amongst members of society that were previously ignored. For instance, Davies comments on how the study of cunning-folk is assisted by looking at labouring classes in society, due to the fact that the opinions of elites did not necessarily reflect contemporary popular beliefs. He claims that it must be taken into account how those who viewed cunning-folk positively were usually those who were their satisfied customers, who were usually illiterate or, if educated, did not want to be seen as associated with cunning-folk. By only looking at the accounts and opinions of elites, who saw cunning-folk as negatively or wrote them off as merely feeding off superstition, the picture of popular beliefs is only a partial one, only focusing on one part of society. Therefore, what is known about cunning-folk is based mainly on this bottom-up approach. Although there is less source material available, Davies’s work has found that clients of cunning-folk differentiated them from witches and maleficent magic, but still viewed them with reservations as there was still a major belief that magic could be used for bad as well as good.

It is highly probable therefore that beliefs in witches still existed in England beyond the Act of 1736 as ideas of enlightenment and progress so prevalent in the elite and educated classes did not make its way down through to the labouring classes or the uneducated. As these beliefs were prevalent over such a long time and in the mainstream it would have been impossible for all beliefs to merely stop, even in elite society. Superstitions continued but were not believed in public amongst the elite and those same superstitions remained in rural, more isolated areas. Its popularity and the belief in magic is also reflected in the sales of almanacs used for fortune-telling, and chapbooks which told stories of famous (real or fictional) witches. The idea of magic and witches continued well into the nineteenth and even twentieth and twentieth centuries. Superstitions themselves have also evolved with the times, and beliefs in ghosts, the supernatural and paranormal and aliens are hugely prevalent in society even today. It is therefore important to remember that the way society’s view the world cannot be entirely controlled by laws and such ideas of progress and enlightened education.

Further Reading

Jonathan Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789 (Basingstoke, 2012).

Owen Davies, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London, 2003).

Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951 (New York, 1999).

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1971).

David Vincent, Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750-1914 (Cambridge, 1989).


Pestering Society: The Black Death and the Changes in Late Medieval Culture

Today’s post is partly inspired by the 2010 movie starring Sean Bean called Black Death, where Bean plays the part of a medieval crusader in his quest of purging this damned community whose members do not seem to have been contaminated by the plague. I re-watch the film the other day and I remembered this kind of obsession I used to have some years ago- before I started my undergraduate degree and during my first year- about this gruesome topic. Truth is I found the Black Death fascinating. All the changes that Europe and possibly the rest of the world underwent due to the epidemic, how life style and mentalities turned around…The cultural and psychological impact is really what attracted me to the subject, and not the obscenity. So this is what I am going to briefly cover in the next lines (…should be glad I have a word limit, I could go on about this forever…).

Continue reading “Pestering Society: The Black Death and the Changes in Late Medieval Culture”

The Lollards, A Lost Cause?!

In his book from 1838, George Stokes claims;
that the ideas of John Wycliffe and the Lollards were “the rising sun of the
reformation,” he argues this based on the relation between Wycliffe’s ideas and
those of Jan Hus and other reformers in the Late medieval period. In this
article I will try to assess the lost cause of the Lollards, and at the same
time see who and what they were, and why their cause fall under the category of
Lost cause.

The movement of the Lollards, or Lollardy, was
an early English reformation movement which to a great extent was based on the Oxford trained scholar, philosopher and preacher John Wycliffe (c. 1328-1384), who together with many of his contemporaries believed that the Church had to great a power, and was too interested in worldly matters and wealth, while neglecting their obligations towards the believers. Unlike the papal church Wycliffe meant that one either was predestined to be saved or to be condemned,
in other words he believed in the church of the saved. The Lollards believed
that the power of the church and their authority came not from Rome, but
from the Holy Scripture, and that anyone who believed and lived in grace could
perform the sacraments, which technically meant that there was no need for
religious specialists after this. Unlike the Catholic Church, did the Lollards
believe that the basis of their faith came from the scripture, and started to
translate the Bible into English so that those literate in English would be
able to read and understand its words. This idea in itself was not a new idea;
after all, King Alfred had already in the ninth century translated parts of the
Psalms into English. The Lollardian effort to translate had a far greater
impact on Europe than in the early medieval effort. For this idea was adopted
by other reformers, such as Luther and Jan Hus, and formed the basis for
developing the reformed churches in Europe.  Other central ideas among the Lollards was the believe that during the Eucharist the bread and the wine did not turn into the blood and body of Christ, but it was rather a consubstantiation, which means it’s a symbolic act, they were also pro iconoclasm, which means they were against religious images and art for it could lead to idolatry instead of worshiping of God. The Lollards also believed that a priest did not have the power to forgive sins, and that the priesthood did not have a special position in the society, and therefore should not live in celibacy, not was the performance of the mass important to the Lollards, but rather the message of the text, which is why translated the Bible so that it could be accessible to a greater audience.

The Lollardian ideas spread from the circle of Wycliffe into the nobility and the lower classes, especially during the peasant’s revolt of 1381, a revolt that Wycliffe and his closest allies opposed, while the Lollards priest John Ball (c. 1338-1381) preached the Lollards ideas to the lower orders in England, this lead to the first serious persecutions against the Lollards, and many nobles and royals is said to see the movement as a radical and working against the English social order…

The prosecution of the Lollards continued until the English reformation when their movement and ideas were incorporated into the English Protestantism, although in the 15th and years leading up to the reformation the prosecution became severe, after the rebellion of Sir John Oldcastle against Henry V and the
church the Lollards risked being burned to the stake for their beliefs, the
last burning happened in 1532, in Chesham when Thomas Harding was burned for being a Lollards.

The incorporation and adaptation of lollardy into other reform movements in Europe and in England, as well as the prosecution against its members lead to an end of the “pure” Lollard movement, their idea of a pure church, as well as the meddling with the peasant’s revolt and the revolt of Oldcastle, as well as their status of heretics led to their fall and enrolment in our list of “Lost causes” which after all is the theme of this month.



Imsen, Steinar, Europa 1300-1550, (Oslo, 2nd Ed. 2000)

Stokes, George., The Lollards,(London, 1838)