For the past year research masters student at Liverpool Hope University has been delving into the maleficent history of Welsh witchcraft to uncover the gruesome stories behind those put to death for seemingly meddling with the dark arts.
Between 1484 and 1750, more than 200,000 women were tortured, burned or hanged in western Europe after being accused of witchcraft. And just in one year – between 1645 and 1646 – the so-called Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins rounded-up and executed some 300 ‘witches’ in England’s East Anglia alone.
But across the border in Wales, the picture was very different. There are just 42 cases of witchcraft trials on record in total across the whole country – and only five alleged witches were ever executed. According to Welsh historian Kelsea Rees, all of these took place in North Wales.
She revealed: “I was really surprised at the lack of witch persecution in Wales. Only eight witches were found guilty, and there were only ever five executions.“
That figure could quite easily be the result of just one trial in England. There’s a couple of reasons for this – chiefly, the courts were overwhelmed with thieves. Between 1550 to 1600 there were 60,000 thieves brought to court, and 4,000 were executed. It was a thief hunt, not a witch hunt. The other reason is that 95% of Welsh communities spoke only Welsh and were Catholic. That made a huge difference compared with Protestant communities in England. The Catholic Welsh had nothing to fear from witchcraft. They embraced the magical side of religion.
The word ‘witch’ had never really existed in Wales either, so no-one really understood what one was. All of the witch executions in Wales took place in the north of the country. And the bleak judgements were delivered by separate ‘Circuits’ – or court jurisdictions. The ‘Chester’ circuit looked after Flint, Denbigh and Montgomery while the ‘North Wales’ circuit looked after Anglesey, Caernarvon, and Merioneth. Those two circuits alone were responsible for all of those executions.
Kelsea, who consulted translated court records, has detailed those five executions in all their nightmarish detail:
The first ever witch executed in Wales: Gwen ferch Ellis, hanged in Denbigh town square in 1594
Gwen might have been a linen-maker by profession, but she also had a long-standing reputation for being a ‘charmer’, or folk healer, apparently using her powers to treat animals and help heal sick children. Kelsea said: “Gwen made creams and sold herbs to try and help and protect people. But Gwen ultimately found herself accused of having caused death by witchcraft. And she also made the terrible error of crossing someone from the landed gentry.”
Gwen, thought to be in her early 40s when she died, was first accused of bewitching and killing a man named Lewis John. Kelsea explained: “Lewis had been sick for some time, and the family invited Gwen over to bless him. She turned up and told the family he didn’t have long to live, predicting when he might pass. And when Lewis did die at this time, the family assumed it was a product of Gwen’s witchcraft and that she’d bewitched him to die. The other thing Gwen did was to leave a charm – a written note – at the house of Sir Thomas Mostyn, a local gentleman.” This charm was written to help a lady who’d been secretly dating Sir Thomas – and was a magical bid to make him fall back in love with her. But this charm was written backwards – and at the time people thought that a charm written backwards was created to do harm, not good. Gwen was hanged in Denbigh town square.
Kelsea says Gwen was first interviewed about the witchcraft accusations by a local magistrate, the Bishop of St Asaph. She added: “In some ways, Gwen perhaps used her reputation as a charmer to her benefit. She also appeared to have a knack for being able to help people – in return for gifts of money or food. She might also have been really adept at creating folk remedies that actually worked. And almost every village in Wales would have had one soothsayer, charmer or ‘white witch’. These magical practices were prevalent across the whole country. But the main reason for her execution was the charm found in a house of the gentry. She’d crossed a social boundary. This is what made people think, ‘Actually, she’s dangerous’. If Gwen had kept her dealings to the lower social orders, I feel she’d have been alright.”
The trouble mounted for Gwen. A bailiff who came to her house cruelly barged up against her – only to later suffer terrible pains to his arm, something he assumed was Gwen’s witchcraft at play. She was executed in Denbigh town square by hanging. A charm like the one Gwen ferch Ellis was said to have left in the home of Thomas Mostyn.
The Last Witch in Wales: Margaret ferch Richard of Beaumaris, hanged in Beaumaris, in 1655
Poor Margaret was found to have ‘consulted with evil spirits’ – a crime that warranted execution under the King James’ witchcraft act of 1604. She protested her innocence to the end. But Margaret was in her mid to late 40s when she was put to death by hanging outside Beaumaris courthouse, Anglesey. As in the case of Wales’ first witch Gwen Ellis, Margaret was again found to have instigated a bewitching that caused death – this time the demise of the wife of Owen Meredith. Kelsea said: “Margaret was a local charmer, but also a widow – one of the apparent ‘common traits’ of a witch. There’s only a small amount of information about the supposed bewitching because the court records only provide a basic description. All we know is that a ‘Gwen’, wife of Owen Meredith, fell ill and died – and the finger was pointed squarely at Margaret.”
“Because these trials were so rare, a lot of judges at the time didn’t really know what to do with them. Another judge might have acquitted Margaret, but in this case she was found guilty and executed.”
The Caernarfon witch trial of 1622
In 1622, three witches were found guilty and executed following a trial in Caernarfon – one of the witches being male and the other two female, and all from the same family. They were Rhydderch ap Evan, a yeoman in his 30s from Llanor, his sisters Lowri ferch Evan and Agnes ferch Evan.
Here the main issue was the death of the wife, Margaret Hughes, of one of the local gentry, as well as the bewitchment of the man’s daughter, Mary. Kelsea said: “Margaret had become sick in June 1621, eventually dying in January 1622. Meanwhile, much earlier, the daughter Mary had also suffered a prolonged period of sickness. Mary is said to have become lame in her left arm, lost the use of her tongue and voice, and her feet had also become lame, too. You can look at the daughter’s symptoms now, with the benefit of modern medicine, and say they’re quite characteristic of a stroke. But at this point in time the two incidents were ascribed to witchcraft. Again, the magistrates were really unsure as to the correct path of action. A letter reveals how they said ‘we do not know how to meddle in this business’. It also shows that the gentry were really quite worried about magic, and how they could be the victims of it. A depiction of the Salem witch trials, in colonial Massachusetts in the 17th century.“
Witchcraft slander in Wales
Cases of witchcraft defamation – where someone is accused of being a witch and then seeks to clear their name – are actually much more common than accusations of actual witchcraft itself. Kelsea added: “In total, there were 41 people who brought cases to court to say they’d been defamed, and a lot of them were community disputes between women. One might accuse another of being a ‘whore and a witch’. You can imagine what it would have been like had Facebook existed back then! And every case was women making slanderous remarks about other women.An etching of a witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts. It fell to the person who’d been accused to bring the case to court to clear their name and to save their reputation. And it appears many cases were sorted out by the local justice of the peace before they ever reached court.
“They can use that reputation to their advantage in these small communities – particularly when they knew that courts were overrun with thieves.”
Kelsea credits: Richard Suggett’s Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from 16th and 17th century Wales in providing the court documents she consulted for her thesis.
Original Liverpool University Post: Masters Students Discuss ‘Witchcraft’ Research
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