Witchcraft in Pembrokeshire

By Simon Hancock Image

Simon Hancock is a local historian with a passion for tales of Pembrokeshire. Here he tells of Witchcraft tales and legends from the county, exclusively for our Bluestone Blog.

Today when we think of witchcraft we might think of paganism or any of the other spiritual movements which makes modern society so rich and diverse. Everybody is free to believe or disbelieve what they want but it was not always so. Witchcraft has a fascinating history which tells us a lot about the role of women in society, male attitudes (although perhaps ten percent of those accused were men) and how problems and tensions were resolved in often isolated villages and towns in centuries gone by.

When we think of witches and witchcraft there is picture of an isolated, warty old woman, invariably accompanied by a pet cat. The suspect would usually be either single or a widow and be regarded warily by her neighbours. This stereotype is culled from popular literature, folk and fairy tales. Centuries ago it was taken for granted how a malicious person could harm someone else or their property by the use of magic and sorcery or by merely issuing a curse. This was especially dangerous if the alleged witch had made a compact with the Devil or some other evil spirits.

Witches 

Caption: Our image of witches with their cats and other familiars as seen in a sixteenth-century woodcut.

Before our modern age the actions of witchcraft helped to explain the problems and misfortunes which people suffered. There was no knowledge of heart attacks, strokes or arthritis and so whatever ill befell someone the reference to witchcraft was useful to explain all, including crops being ruined by unusual weather or ships being lost in sudden storms.

The Government took witchcraft very seriously and laws against witchcraft and sorcery were passed in 1542, 1563 and especially 1604, the latter proscribed the death penalty for the first offence. There was a peak of accusations during the period 1563-1660 and especially during the English Civil War when rogues like Matthew Hopkins, the notorious and self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ was at large in East Anglia. It was lawful to use torture to extract confessions and they were paid by communities who thought they were doing them a service.

Across England and Wales between 500 and 1,000 people were executed for witchcraft. The great majority of them were women, although in Wales prosecutions were rare. Most accusations, when they were made, were thrown out. There were five executions for witchcraft in Wales, the last being at Anglesey in 1655. There were no executions in Pembrokeshire but around half a dozen cases are mentioned in court papers, perhaps the most interesting appear during the final flourish of witchcraft accusations which occurred in the 1690s. Our knowledge of witchcraft in Pembrokeshire is only as good as the records which have survived. These are sure to be the tip of the iceberg with many people suspected of being witches and things they were alleged to have done not being recorded or if they were the records have been lost.

The earliest known case dates from 1607 when Katherine Lewis, the wife of Thomas Bowen of Tenby, labourer, was suspected of bewitching some pigs at Gumfreston. After she had been to the farmer’s wife for flour, milk and other gifts, two sows ran about ‘in most straundge manner’ and lost their litters. The pigs, which were very valuable to farmers, languished and died which was a very considerable financial loss. Witchcraft was part of the world view which saw the supernatural, cursing, charms, cunning folk and belief in diabolical forces as part of everyday life. In 1618 a woman named Agnes Griffiths of Manordeifi was accused of using sorcery to destroy the cattle and horses of Henry James. She was seen at night stabbing a model image with a pin in her hand.
One man was among the accused. In 1612 one Ieuan John ap Howell said how a man with ‘two great hornes on his head’ persuaded him to steal a fat cow and to save him from hanging. This was an empty promise. He was probably hanged at Narberth Castle a few miles from Bluestone National Park Resort although his offence was stealing rather than witchcraft.

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Caption: Extract from a witness statement against Katherine Lewis in 1607 stating how the two sows languished and died after she visited a farm at Gumfreston near Tenby.

Perhaps the most interesting local case of witchcraft accusation in Pembrokeshire occurs in that of a widow, Olly (Olivia Powell) of Loveston in 1693. A whole list of calamities supposedly followed in her wake including the destruction of a rick of hay, sows sickening and poultry suddenly expiring as she walked around her parish pointing and cursing at things. Even a duck and ducklings were found floating lifeless when she pointed and mumbled to them. When one man refused to give her ‘coals’ (an interesting reference to local mining) he soon developed unexplainable pain in his legs. One witness claimed to see Olly standing at the foot of his bed despite the windows and door of his house being locked. People asked her to bless their sick children since she was supposed to have healing powers. On one occasion her hand was grabbed and an iron pin put in her thumb since it was told that it was not possible to draw blood from a witch.

The last indictment for witchcraft in Wales occurred at Haverfordwest in 1699. Dorcas Heddin, a native of Cambridgeshire was accused of bewitching sailors on a ship which was bound for Virginia. The Devil appeared to her in the image of a black man and demanded three drops of her blood. He offered to destroy the vessel but Dorcas only wanted the two men who had short rationed her to be struck down with sickness. The examination of Dorcas and Olly Powell were heard at Haverfordwest Castle so the medieval structure was still being used officially on the eve of the eighteenth century. None of the suspects went to trial and no one suffered punishment other than the bad opinion and suspicions of their neighbours.

The last execution for witchcraft in England occurred in 1684 and during the following decades, with the spread of Enlightenment thinking, there was increasing scepticism over such accusations. The very last witchcraft trial took place at Leicester in 1717 and the woman escaped punishment. During one trial a judge wryly remarked how flying was not against the law. The offence of witchcraft was repealed in 1736, although in rural communities belief in folk religion and people with powerful supernatural skills persisted for many decades later. There is a record of belief in Pembrokeshire communities as late as 1861 and in one case there was a suspected witch at work at St. Ishmaels in 1864. Witchcraft belief and accusations tell us a lot about how society worked in the past. With more research there is sure to be a great deal more knowledge and understanding to come.

Categories:Autumn, Blog, History, Pembrokeshire

Tags:Wales

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