Something wicked this way comes
PUBLISHED: 13:02 12 October 2020 | UPDATED: 13:03 12 October 2020
The tales of Berkshire’s most notorious witches
As the nights grow colder and darker, our thoughts may turn to ghosts and devils, witches, wizards and, of course, Halloween. In earlier centuries though, it wasn’t just this time of the year that witches were about, they occupied a persistent, albeit a curious place, within rural communities. They were blamed for bad luck, illness or death, but at the same time they were respected for their ability to heal, find stolen goods and tell the future. They were also believed to be able to shapeshift and to use animal familiars to do their bidding.
Elizabeth Stile of Windsor is one of Berkshire’s most infamous witches. At the time of her trial in 1579 she was 65 years old and, as was common in those days, once questioned, she named others in her confession. Details of her acts of witchcraft are described in a pamphlet held by the British Library, which was based on Elizabeth’s confessions in prison: “A rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, fower notorious witches, apprehended at Winsore in the Countie of Barks, and at Abbington arraigned, condemned, and executed, on the 26 daye of Februarie laste, Anno. 1579.”
The crimes of which they were accused were that they performed “heinous and vilanous practices”, including keeping spirits or fiends in the likenesses of animals, which were fed on the witches’ own blood and were used to commit murder and other evil acts. The pamphlet also claims that, “one father Rosimonde, dwelling in Farneham Parishe, being a widower, and also a daughter of his, are both Witches and Inchanters” and that he can transform himself “into the shape and likenesse of any beaste whatsoever he will”.
Image magic is mentioned in several of the charges, as well as claiming that Elizabeth killed a man by clapping him on the shoulder after he refused to part with an old cloak that he had promised to give her. The accusations against the women and Father Rosimonde were considered sufficiently proven that they were found guilty and executed.
The Civil War (1642-1651) was a time of great uncertainty and upheaval in England, which provided fertile ground for fear of witchcraft. The tragic affair of the Witch of Newbury is a reminder of this dark time, recorded in a pamphlet published in 1643 entitled: “A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery of a Witch: Being taken by some of the Parliament forces, as she was standing on a small planck-board and sayling on it over the river of Newbury: together with the strange and true manner of her death, with the propheticall words and speeches she used at the same time.”
The soldiers who observed her paddling along the river believed this to be a sign of witchcraft and arrested her as soon as she put to shore. During her interrogation she responded to their threats to shoot her “with a deriding and loud laughter at them, she caught the bullets in her hands and chew’d them, which was a stronger testimony then [sic] the water, that she was the same that their imagination thought her so to be.”
Unfortunately for the poor Witch of Newbury, one of the soldiers remembered the old tradition that to break a witch’s power you need only to scratch her and draw her blood. After she was scratched the soldiers shot her again and this time she fell to the ground, dead. Her only crime seems to have been the skill to use a plank of wood to sail on the river, but “her legacy of a detested carcase to the wormes, her soul were ought not to judge of, though the evils of her wicked life and death can scape no censure”.
Even as late as the 18th century, belief in witchcraft was a regular part of community life, not just at Halloween. The classic witch’s power to shapeshift into an animal was still common, such as the tale of the Witch of Farley Hill, who lived in a cottage near Reading Road. The story goes that she was going about her business one day in her shifted form as a hare, when a group of children threw stones at her, injuring her leg. They chased the hare into the cottage, where the children discovered the witch tending to her injured leg. Perhaps she was able to turn the tables and give them a fright!
Belief in witchcraft declined in the 19th century, but in an unexpected twist, newspapers and magazines played an important role in keeping stories about witches alive. Between 1850 and 1854 alone more than 400 items featuring witches appeared in the regional press, keeping witchcraft firmly in the public mind.
Typically, these were reports of cases brought before the petty sessions, such as this one that took place at Newbury Petty Sessions in February 1868. Isaac Rivers, described as “a respectable countryman” living in the village of Hampstead Norreys, lost his watch and consulted Maria Giles, a local witch or cunning woman, for assistance in locating it. Over a period of weeks, she obtained two pounds, six shillings and sixpence from him, promising that she would get the watch back for him. Unfortunately for Mr Rivers, his watch remained lost, as did the money he paid to Maria Giles, and the whole matter ended up in court.
The Petty Sessions may have replaced weighing people against the Bible to determine their guilt or innocence, but witchcraft has never really died out. Belief in the supernatural lingers and is it really just superstition to avoid harming a hare or an owl, in case it’s really a witch? Or is it some instinctive appreciation that the world in which we live is just a little bit more mysterious than it appears? Either way, best take care if you encounter any wildlife in Berkshire this Halloween; you never know, it might be a witch in disguise.
British Library Newspaper Archive and printed collections;
A Rehearsal Both Strange and True (1579);
“A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery of a Witch” (1643)