google.com, pub-6045402682023866, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0
top of page

Unveiling the Veil: A Look at Witches and Witchcraft in North Wales

Updated: 5 days ago


Between the years of 1484 and 1750, Western Europe would bear witness to a staggering toll: over 200,000 women faced torture, burning, or hanging following accusations of witchcraft. This period was marked by a fervent pursuit of alleged witches, driven by religious zeal, societal anxieties, and political instability.


In a single year, between 1645 and 1646, the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, orchestrated a campaign of terror in England's East Anglia, resulting in the arrest and execution of approximately 300 individuals accused of witchcraft. However, over the border in Wales it was a different story...


Origins of Witchcraft in North Wales:

In the context of North Wales, where ancient Celtic traditions intersect with medieval superstitions, the exploration of witchcraft takes on a nuanced complexity. The origins of our local witchcraft can be traced back to the aforementioned ancient Celtic tribes who inhabited the region. These early inhabitants, deeply attuned to the rhythms of nature, revered the land and its mystical forces. Among them were the druids, the revered priestly caste who served as intermediaries between the mortal realm and the divine. Anglesey, with its dense forests and sacred groves, was believed to be a bastion of druidic activity.



The Influence of Druidism:

The earliest mention of Druids comes during the 1st century BC, referring to druidae in Gaul (France) and Britain, who were wise men, observers of natural phenomena and moral philosophers. Similar to the druids were the bards (bardoi) - singers and poets, and diviners (vates), who interpreted sacrifices in order to foretell the future.

Druids and bards were common in medieval Welsh and Irish texts, probably giving account of much earlier oral tradition, passed on by word of mouth.


The alleged Druidical Temple of Tre'r Dryw (Anglesey) - prepared by the Revd Henry Rowlands (1723)

In Wales, the roles and privileges of bards related to laws set down by Hywel Dda in the 10th century AD. During the 18th century, druids came to be seen as the ancestors of the bards, the praise poets, musicians and genealogists, who flourished in Welsh medieval society.


The Roman historian Tacitus, in his work "Agricola," attests to the significance of Anglesey in druidic tradition. He recounts how the Roman general Agricola launched a military campaign to suppress the druids and their influence on the island in 60 CE, underscoring the island's reputation as a stronghold of ancient wisdom. Tacitus goes on to vividly recounts the crushing of a druidic stronghold on Anglesey by the Roman army, leading some to infer that Llyn Cerrig Bach was a druidic site.

"On the beach stood the adverse array [of Britons], a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with disheveled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. The next step was to install a garrison among the conquered population, and to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults; for they considered it a pious duty to slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails." - Tacitus
Roman soldiers killing Anglesey Druids, as described by Tacitus.

The Law and Witchcraft

During the period encompassing the Acts of Union from 1536 to 1543, Wales found itself brought under the dominion of English rule. However, a striking departure from the punitive measures and executions prevalent in English witchcraft trials emerged within the Welsh legal landscape. Instead of deference to ecclesiastical courts as seen in England, Wales leaned heavily on its pre-existing legal framework, rooted in the ancient customs of Welsh law.



This adherence to traditional Welsh law, known as Cyfraith Hywel, manifested in a markedly different approach to witchcraft cases. Unlike the harsh punitive measures employed in English courts, which often resulted in executions and severe penalties, Welsh legal tradition prioritised reconciliation and harmony within the community. Central to this ethos was the emphasis on compensating the victim rather than exacting punitive punishment upon the accused.


Trials and Accusations

During the tumultuous 16th and 17th centuries, a mere 37 witchcraft prosecutions unfolded in the confines of Wales. This figure, minuscule when juxtaposed against the harrowing tally of 200,000 executions that plagued Western Europe during the same epoch, underscores Wales' distinct approach to the witchcraft phenomenon. Out of these 37 suspects, a mere 8 were found guilty, with a 5 receiving the ultimate punishment of death, while the remainder likely faced acquittal. Notably, all recorded cases, as elucidated by Welsh Historian Kelsea Rees of Liverpool Hope University, were confined to the northern reaches of Wales, particularly in close proximity to the Anglo-Welsh border.


1594 bears witness to the first recorded execution of a purported witch. In Llandyrnog, Gwen ferch Ellis, aged 42, met her demise at the hands of justice. Renowned for her healing prowess, Gwen's descent into accusation stemmed from an alleged malevolent turn. Central to her trial was the discovery of a charm inscribed in reverse, a damning testament to the supposed practice of bewitching. Gwen's fate was sealed with a sentence of death, marking a somber milestone in Welsh legal history.


In 1622, the township of Caernarfon bore witness to the tragic demise of three siblings, all accused of witchcraft and condemned to death. Lowri ferch Evan, Agnes ferch Evan, and Rhydderch ap Evan, hailing from a single family, faced accusations surrounding the demise of Margaret Hughes, the wife of a local gentleman, and the alleged bewitchment of their daughter, Mary. Despite medical conjecture suggesting Mary's afflictions may have been symptomatic of a stroke, due to the lameness of her left arm, feet, and the complete loss of her voice due to loss of function in her tongue) the trio's fate was sealed with a guilty verdict.


In 1655, Beaumaris became the backdrop for yet another grim chapter in Welsh witchcraft history. Margaret ferch Richard, a widow in her mid-to-late 40s, found herself ensnared in accusations of witchcraft. Accused of orchestrating the demise of Gwen Meredith, another woman, Margaret faced the full force of the 1604 Witchcraft Act. Her conviction culminated in the ultimate penalty: death by hanging.

The courthouse at Beaumaris

In the year 1655, the village of Llanasa, Flintshire, played host to a trial shrouded in ambiguity. Dorothy Griffith stood accused of bewitching a traveling seaman, William Griffith, whose testimony painted a vivid picture of supernatural encounters and bewitching lights. However, amidst the fervour of accusation, Dorothy's innocence shone through, as corroborating testimonies from locals attested to her character and dispelled notions of malevolent intent. Despite the tense relations between the families and William's illness, Dorothy emerged unscathed from the trial, her name cleared and her freedom preserved.



Dorothy Griffith's case stands as a poignant exemplar among 32 others, where accusations dissolved in the face of community solidarity and adherence to Welsh legal traditions. In these tales of acquittal, we glimpse the resilience of justice and the enduring spirit of communal support that defied the spectre of witchcraft hysteria in Wales.

A charm like the one Gwen ferch Ellis was said to have left in the home of Thomas Mostyn

Early - Modern Beliefs

Blessings were the act of protecting oneself or others from anything evil; they were considered part of everyday life during the early modern period. It was believed that good or evil could come to a person based on whether or not they had received a blessing. If someone did something that was considered to be unacceptable by the society in which they lived, it was important to seek a blessing in order to avoid some form of punishment.

A curse, however, would often be done in order to inflict misfortune on someone's family or property. Formal cursing was the practice of involving God and hexing the wrongdoer, often on the knees with arms stretched toward Heaven. When someone had been cursed, it was common to have the curse removed by the person who had originally inflicted the curse. It was not unusual for people who resorted to cursing others to be thought of as using witchcraft.


The history of witches and witchcraft in North Wales, with a particular focus on Anglesey's connection to paganism and the druids, offers a fascinating glimpse into the intersection of ancient beliefs, medieval superstitions, and modern interpretations. Through meticulous scholarship and a discerning eye, we can begin to unravel the complexities of this enigmatic aspect of Welsh heritage.


References:

  1. Tacitus. "Agricola." Penguin Classics, 2009.

  2. Ellis, Peter Berresford. "The Druids." Constable, 1994.

  3. Davies, Owen. "Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951." Manchester University Press, 1999.

  4. Roberts, Gareth. "Witchcraft and Witch Trials in Wales." University of Wales Press, 2010.

  5. Roberts, Dewi. "Folklore of Wales." National Museum Wales, 2002.

 


1 Comment


icubud
Mar 24

Thanks for sharing this. Quite interesting.

Like
bottom of page