Country & Coast: Countryside was once rife with witchery accusations

The ruins of Wycoller Hall in the village of Wycoller, Lancashire, is said to be the setting of Ferndean Manor in Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre.   Picture: John Heald.
The ruins of Wycoller Hall in the village of Wycoller, Lancashire, is said to be the setting of Ferndean Manor in Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre. Picture: John Heald.
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To my knowledge there is no evidence the Brontë sisters were witches, yet it is to Haworth that many people go at Halloween to celebrate - if that’s the right word - ghosts, ghouls and all things evil.

For sure, there are references to witches in Wuthering Heights, and at one point Mr Rochester muses on how Jane Eyre exerts “witchery” over him, but the reason Haworth claims to be the centre of Yorkshire’s Halloween season is simply one of geography.

On the other side of the so-called Brontë Moors stands the ruin of Wycoller Hall, said to have been the inspiration of Rochester’s Ferndean Manor, and it is in the area known as Pendle Witch Country, where in the early 17th century 12 people were found guilty of witchcraft after Britain’s most famous witch trial. To this day, every Halloween they manage to spread their black magic - in the form of astute marketing - to the Haworth side of the Pennines.

Witchcraft seems to have been widespread in the medieval countryside, and anyone who showed the slightest tendency towards mysticism risked investigation. Some have attempted to pin the label of witch on Ursula Southeil, Knaresborough’s legendary soothsayer Mother Shipton, but it is an allegation that most Yorkshire folk refuse to touch with a broomstick.

Anyway, there are plenty of Yorkshire stories relating to what old records referred to as “wychecrafte”, 18 cases from the 17th century alone. Some of the most infamous were in the town of Pocklington, and as visitors to the York Dungeon may recall this was home to probably Yorkshire’s best-known witch, Isabella Billington. According to the records of York Castle, she “…was sentenced to death for crucifying her mother on the 5th January, 1649, and offering a calf and a cock as a burn sacrifice.”

Twenty years earlier another Pocklington woman, known as Old Wife Green, was dragged out of her house and taken to the town’s market square, where she became the last witch in England to be burned at the stake.

A few years earlier, Mary Panel from the village of Ledston, on the south-east side of Leeds, was either burned or hanged - there is conflicting evidence - after being found guilty at York Assizes of causing the death by witchcraft of the squire of Ledston Hall, William Withal.

The Isabella Billington case seems to have made people see witchcraft in everything, for the following year Ann Hudson at Skipsea in East Yorkshire was accused of being a witch on the somewhat tenuous evidence that a sick woman was cured after scratching Hudson and drawing blood.

Some witchcraft superstitions survived into the 20th century. One in South Yorkshire was that if a witch cursed a farmer he wouldn’t be able to churn butter. So, in order to keep witches away farmers planted rowans which became known as “witch-wiggin’ trees”.

Charms to protect against witches’ evil spells were common. On the Yorkshire coast, if you wore “charm stones” collected from the beach then you were considered safe.