In Chapter 5 of Welsh Gothic, Jane Aaron picks four main figures who recur throughout Welsh Gothic fiction: the Witch, the Druid, the Cŵn Annwn, and the Sin-Eater.
This post looks at the figure of the Welsh witch, an ambiguous figure, usually female in fiction but not necessarily in life, part goddess, part demon, but usually representing anarchy and the subversion of social norms.
In my novel, The Crows, one such witch is mentioned as part of the back story to a family curse – Miss Eglantine Pritchard (1901-1999), who moved to Pagham-on-Sea from Wales after the First World War to look after her convalescing brother, Sgt. William Pritchard of the Royal Welsh Regiment. Miss Pritchard lived with her ‘companion’/life partner from their girls’ school, Miss Gwendoline Mostyn-Jenkins (1900-1988), and was the only one in town strong enough and knowledgeable enough to challenge the twisted dark forces channelled by Beverley Wend and her sisters.
I want to [eventually] write some short stories set during the Second World War about Miss Pritchard’s colourful life! Currently playing with a novel idea set in 1943, working title The Wishing Well. Follow #WishingWell on Twitter for updates.
The Crows is released 4 January 2020. Read a free sample on Smashwords, and pre-order at 60% off from Smashwords, Kerri Davidson, Amazon, and all Books2Read outlets. The eBook has three (3) illustrations by artist and graphic novelist Thomas Brown: the paperback version, also released 4 January 2020, has five (5).
Witchcraft in Wales: Historical Context
For an accessible academic study of the history of witchcraft in the British Isles, see Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present, (Yale University Press, 2017). Another recent release on the subject, again in more general terms and with a narrower Modern focus, that is, from the eighteenth century to the present day, is Thomas Waters, Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times, (Yale University Press, 2019).
In Wales, the witch was an ambiguous figure. While she could be a wise woman and/or an avenger of injustice, she could also be evil, cruel, a hate-figure and a scapegoat. The National Museum of Wales has a miniature wax figure in its collections, of the type used to work death by witchcraft. Charms against witchcraft were popularly used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and (male) conjurers, or Dynion Hysbys, were used to discover the identity of a tormenting witch. The dynion hysbys could not only counter witchcraft, but could also heal, be consulted on astrology and tell fortunes, and recover lost property. While these talents might be deemed ‘witchcraft’ elsewhere, they evidently were not in Wales.
Witchcraft was outlawed by the 1563 witchcraft statute, but, despite there being no shortage of candidates for witch trials in Wales (practically every village had its village ‘witch’), in 1588 Cardiff bailiffs received a reprimand for not bringing witches before the bar. This reprimand had limited effect: from 1550-1720 only 42 people were indicted for witchcraft in Wales, and the penalty could just be a fine and a stint in prison.
This figure is a stark contrast to the death toll in England and Lowland Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when around 2,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Britain (hanged in England, burned in Lowland Scotland).
Here, Aaron’s research (2000s-10s, published in 2013) is now outdated. Aaron notes that only three ‘witches’ were killed in Wales, none in the Scottish Highlands, and only four in the whole of Ireland. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, pp. 139-40). This information is based on Eirlys Gruffydd’s 1988 study, Gwrachod Cymru Ddoe a Heddiw, (Welsh Witches Yesterday and Today/Then and Now) now out of date.
Ronald Hutton’s 2011 article on ‘Witch-hunting in Celtic Societies‘ in the journal Past & Present notes that while Highland trials were few, they did happen, an article which presumably Aaron missed while writing this chapter. Hutton also notes that Wales at this time persecuted thieves rather than witches, indicating that the communities were not harmonious and homogeneous, but that their fault-lines and fears lay elsewhere.
Richard Suggett’s book, Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from 16th and 17th Century Wales (2018), is an updated study on the 20 cases that survive in their fullest form from the Court of Great Sessions in Wales. Most were acquitted, others were imprisoned or fined, and only five were executed (death by hanging, as in England). Suggett is also the author of A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales (2005).
[N. B. As these are academic and not popular press texts, they aren’t cheap!]
Aaron argues this suggests a different attitude in the ‘Celtic’ fringe than elsewhere which cannot be simply attributed to religious difference, as Wales was staunchly Protestant while the Irish peasantry, who also didn’t accuse a large number of women as witches, were largely Roman Catholic. In Wales, this different attitude among the peasantry is also highlighted by the role the (anglicised) Welsh gentry played in the witch trials.
Here are some of their stories, in brief:
In 1594, a healer, Gwen ferch Ellis from Bettws, was persuaded by her friend, Jane Conway, to curse Jane’s sworn enemy, Sir Thomas Mostyn. Gwen was accused by the Bishop of St Asaphs, William Hughes, and following his accusation seven others came forward with other claims, including hastening the death of a sick man by witchcraft, sealing her fate. She was hanged in Denbigh that year.
In 1622, Sir John Bodfael wrote to his father-in-law, Sir John Wynn of Gwydir, complaining that his tenants were plagued by witchcraft. It was as a result of this complaint that three siblings, a brother and two sisters, were arrested and found guilty. They were also hanged.
The pattern in Wales seems to be that the (anglicised) gentry were responsible for these executions, while, unless pressed by their social superiors, the peasantry themselves did not generally accuse people of witchcraft or testify against those indicted. It was social transgression that could get you killed – crossing class boundaries and getting mixed up with the local gentry. These themes pervade Welsh Gothic with or without the figure of the Witch, who retained the Medieval definition of ‘healer’ here, albeit one who could also do harm as well as good.
The Welsh Witch in Fiction
Aaron discusses primordial mother goddess concepts and critiques Robert Graves’ theories in The White Goddess (1948), pointing out their influence on fiction and ideas of the witch. She also points out the word ‘gwiddon‘, translated as ‘witch’, comes from the same root as ‘gwydd-‘, as in gwyddoniaeth, meaning ‘science’. This word contains the concept of knowing, and in Welsh Gothic, the witch is usually a figure who knows many things, and imparts this knowledge.
The Witcheries of Craig Isaf (1805), by William Frederick Williams is a Gothic history set in the Welsh Marches during the reign of William Rufus. The novel divides twin sisters by aligning the oldest with their strict, hierarchy-obsessed aunt, and the youngest, the dispossessed Alice, with an anarchic sorceress of Craig Isaf. Alice ‘summons’ through witchcraft, and then is revealed to be, her own knight in shining armour, in her vow to avenge herself against her father. Her ultimate defeat and suicide gives victory (inevitably) to the Normans, although the narrator’s sympathies lie with this rebellious twin.
‘The Youth of Edward Ellis’, in Tales of Welsh Society and Scenery (1827), by Thomas Richards of Dolgellau but published anonymously, features the witch of Cae Coryn and her dealings with those who come and visit her for blessings and curses. Edward Ellis stays in her hovel and witnesses people coming to her for these things, and while the villagers publicly denounce her as ‘Beelzebub’s imp’, in private they treat her like a goddess, bringing her gifts and respecting her advice.
Gwen Tomos (1894) by Daniel Owen (1836-95) has an avenger witch of the gwiddon type, a knowledgeable woman called Nansi’r Nant, as much an avenger in the matriarchal/anti-patriarchal tradition as she is a skilled herbalist and wise woman. She is an ambiguous and anarchic figure, much like the sorceress in The Witcheries of Craig Isaf.
Garthowen (1900) by Allen Raine is another example of a teacher-witch. Her character, Sarah Spiridion, is well thought of even by the local Nonconformist minister, to whom she expounds and explains things he struggles with, grasping at their meaning immediately with ‘wonderful spiritual insights’.
Father/daughter struggles, like those in The Witcheries of Craig Isaf, also appear in Dylan Thomas’s short story, ‘The school for witches‘, first published in 1936. This story has social transgression as a key theme, with the doctor’s daughter seducing a travelling tinker and drawing him into a wild dance of life that revitilises the decaying community ravaged by disease. The doctor eventually finds life within the dance too, despite his initial resistance to his daughter’s choices and her coven.
Y Wisg Sadan (The Silk Dress, 1939), by Elena Puw Morgan is a historical fiction novel set in the 19thC about a woman, Sara, who returns from London to her village and is immediately suspected of having sold her soul to the Devil while she was in that city. Her sewing is highly respected, and the villagers want to believe her herbal brews are also magical in nature due to her unholy alliance. In fact, she is just skilled and knowledgeable, a gwiddon,and this is her real talent.
Y Dylluan Wen (The White Owl, 1995) by Angharad Jones, is a contemporary novel with Gothic overtones featuring an avenger-witch and lots of PVC. It references the tale of Blodeuwedd, the fourth branch of the Mabinogi and features Eirlys Hughes, who returns to her natal village to exact revenge upon her sadistic school teacher. It was adapted into a Welsh-language film, Tylluan Wen, (White Owl) in 1997.
Gwrach y Gwyllt (Witch of the Wild, 2003), by Bethan Gwanas, is another story with an avenging witch, and features a reincarnated 17thC witch who returns to wreak havoc upon the descendants of those who persecuted her and her sisters.
This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the novels that Jane Aaron picks to illustrate how construction of the Witch can vary across time and within the genre.
Next time: Welsh Gothic Tropes III: The Druid
A look at the Druid in Welsh Gothic fiction! Again, some historical context on the Druid, some books to read if interested, and a discussion of the Druid as he appears in Welsh Gothic fiction from 1780s to 1997!
Advance CW// for some of the texts, in particular Dylan Thomas’s short story The Burning Baby, which features disturbing [incest/infant death] content.