Fewer witch trials were held in Wales than in other parts of Britain. But rough justice on the part of superstitious country folk took place well into the 19th century
By Richard Holland
In the previous article I mentioned that although Wales escaped the worst of the witch mania that infected other parts of the UK centuries ago, belief in witchcraft appears to have lingered longer there. Certainly there are reported cases of assaults made against supposed witches in Wales well into the 19th century.
One of the many annoyances witches were supposed to inflict upon their neighbours was preventing the churning of butter. Milk refusing to churn was a common frustration on farms in the past and it was as common then to blame such annoyances on witchcraft as it is for us today to blame the unreliability of our cars on ‘gremlins’. Trivial though it seems, one unfortunate woman found herself accused of being a witch, and assaulted as a result, just because a neighbour’s butter wouldn’t churn. This happened as late as 1830, at Llanfyllin, in Montgomeryshire (now Powys).
On March 25 of that year the young farmer who had bullied her was brought before the local magistrates.
His victim explained: ‘The defendant came to my house, and prevailed upon me against my will to accompany him home, and then made me kneel down before the churn and repeat these words: “The blessing of God be on the milk.” On remonstrating with him he pierced a nail through my hand until the blood flowed.’
The poor old woman showed her wounded hand to the magistrates. When asked what he thought he was about, the unrepentant farmer replied that he had often had difficulty churning butter and ‘thought it best to get the woman to bless the milk’. The magistrates were told it was ‘a common belief among the old people that to draw the blood out of a witch would prevent her witching anyone else’. The farmer was not only found guilty of assault, he was told off for believing in witchcraft in the first place.
A few years earlier, in Monmouthshire, an even more shocking assault on a presumed witch took place. A farmer, a constable and two farm servants accosted a woman in her nineties, believing her to have bewitched some cattle. First they forced her on her knees and made her repeat some prayer intended to remove a curse from the cattle. Then they, too, drew blood: ‘… the prisoners, under the stupid notion that if you draw a witch’s blood she cannot hurt you, took a bough of wild rose out of a hedge and drew this across her arm, so as to make it bleed.’
Further indignities followed. The elderly woman was stripped to the waist in front of a growing crowd of onlookers and then had her hair cut off. One of the men then suggested ducking their victim. Ducking was an old method to try a witch – the accused was thrown into a body of water and if she floated it proved she had supernatural powers. If she sank, however, she was innocent … and had probably drowned.
The old woman’s daughter’s entreaties dissuaded them from this extreme act, which was just as well, as was pointed out by the magistrates before whom these men were later brought – they may well have ended up being charged with her murder. Before sentencing, the chairman of the magistrates told the court ‘the prisoners had acted under a delusion founded on superstition … and he regretted that there was anyone in the kingdom who should have been so deploringly ignorant as to have fallen into such an error.’
[Source: Wales of the Unexpected by Richard Holland pp 110-112]
© Richard Holland 2008 / The illustration from an old chapbook shows the ducking of a witch, a ‘trial’ the old woman in Monmouth narrowly escaped.