Those who for some reason enjoy reading Elizabethan writing- particularly Elizabethan writing concerning Witchcraft – will very much appreciate Marion Gibson’s Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing (Routledge, 2000). A collection of fifteen original Elizabethan pamphlet-accounts of period Witch-Cases, aided immeasurably by Ms. Gibson’s invaluable notes, this book reproduces the source-materials for virtually every significant instance of English Witchcraft from the mid-1500s to the early 1600s. It is therefore an invaluable insight into Elizabethan and Jacobean Witchcraft, as well as a wonderful demonstration of Elizabethan speech and writing styles.
The second pamphlet presented records the unique church-examination of, as Ms. Gibson notes, the one “Male Witch” of the period to have the account of his examination published, in a single surviving copy held by the British Library: “The Examination of John Walsh” (1566). (The manuscript-original is preserved as an ecclesiastic record in the Record Office of Devon, the location of the involved.) In her introduction to the case, Gibson considers that the reason for the printing of Walsh’s interrogation (resulting in the pamphlet) was the fortuitous opportunity to disseminate a very anti-Catholic message. (Walsh said that he learned his sorceries from his “Master,” or the man for whom he worked, a Catholic priest named Sir Robert Drayton. While Catholics are allowed to remain Catholic under Elizabeth’s Protestant reign, they are the subject of official disdain, accused basically of Devil-Worshipping Ritual Magicke- as are the Protestants, by the Catholics. Publication of this record, as Gibson indicates, offered a chance to show Catholics as those prone to lead good, pure Protestant English simple folk astray, into Sorcery and Witchcraft.) Walsh’s examination demonstrates a number of things about the Elizabethan period, such as: the intense religiousness of Christian Protestant thought; and the distinct anti-Catholic feeling of sixteenth century England (the pamphlet begins with several paragraphs reviewing various Popes alleged to have had congress with “wicked Spirites and Divels [Devils],” whilst thereby “exercising sorcerye and Witchcraft,” namely Pope Alexander VI, Pope Gregory VII, and Pope Paul III). As well, the case of John Walsh shows the Cunning-Folk tradition; Elizabethan belief in the Faerie Folk; and the sharing of information regarding Ceremonial Magicke.
John Walsh of “Dorsetshere [Dorsetshire, or Dorset],” in the village of Drayton, was examined on the 20th (“xx. daye”) of August 1566, by a representative (the “Commissary”) of the Bishop of “Excester” [Exeter], in the house of the local Sheriff, and in the presence of various other gentlemen of the neighborhood, “touching Witchcraft and Sorcerie.”
Walsh apparently practices rural folk-healing, part of the Cunning-Folk tradition seen in other Witch-Cases as well as in period drama; these European Healers’ Traditions will be transported to America, into Appalachia by Celtic settlers, and into Pennsylvania by Germanic ones: in his Third statement, Walsh, “being demaunded [demanded] whether he did practise any Phisicke or Surgery: he sayde that he doth practise both, for the Tisicke and the Agues, and that he hath practised thys [this] Phisicke by the space of these v. yeares,” since the death of his Master, Sir Robert. (p. 28) In other words, he confesses and agrees that, following the demise of his employer, he has practiced (for five years) “Phisicke or Surgery” [healing], for various period illnesses such as “Tisicke and the Agues” ["Agues" might be understood as chills and fever]. Being further “demanded of whom he learned his Phisicke and Surgery:” Walsh explained that he “learned it of [from]” his master, Sir Robert of Dreiton [Drayton]: the Catholic priest for whom he worked. Questioned further, Walsh elaborated in his Fifth reply, in answer to the question, whether he used healing “by Arte naturally, or els by anye other secrete or privy meanes,” that he “used his Phisicke or Surgery by Arte, naturally practised by him, as he sayth, & not by anye other yll [ill] or secrete meanes.” He did not know the “natural operation of ye herbs, as whether they wer hot or cold and in what degre [degree] they wer hot or cold.” (p. 29)
One can see Walsh hedging his replies a bit to his interrogators: by asking him if he practices healing “by Arte naturally, or [else]” by secret, ill, or “privy” means, his examiners want to understand whether he is a naturally gifted healer, practicing under his own intuition- or has he studied the Occult Sciences in order to obtain skill in healing? Walsh insists that his healing practice is innate to him, not learned or studied; as affirmation, he backs off on knowing too much about “official” Elizabethan healing involving herbs, which may to varying degrees, be thought of as “hot” or “cold.”
Following up on this line of questioning, the officials examining Walsh bring up a familiar argument during the period: if individuals can heal- can they not also hurt? Meaning, can not one who can charm healing, not also charm sickness and death? Walsh’s answer reflects the standard “Good Witch” response of the period to this question:
Eleventh, Walsh was asked “whether they yt [that] do good to such as ar bewitched, cannot also do hurt if they list.” “Whereto he answered, he that doth hurt, can never heale againe any man, nor can at any time do good. Howbeit he saith that he whych [which] hath but the gift of healing, may do hurt if he list, but his gift of healing can never returne agayne to anye other persons use.” (p. 30) In other words: sure, an individual gifted in healing might also curse illness, if they so chose- but their talents at healing would vanish forever.
Walsh’s interrogators next touch upon a subject considered essential to English Witchcraft: a Familiar, or supernatural Spirit manifesting as an animal, through which the Witch or Warlock directed their Magicke. We sense a certain confusion in Walsh here, as he initially, in his Sixth statement, “denied utterlye that he had none about hym, neyther in anye other place of this worlde, eyther above the ground, or under the ground, either in any place secrete or open.” (p. 29) Walsh at first rather utterly denies possessing, or having access to, a Familiar; later, however, as part of his Eighth statement, he allows that he indeed had such a Spirit, claiming that he “had one of his sayde mayster,” or that he had received it from his employer, Sir Robert. Walsh will later state that his Familiar vanished from him, when his Ritual-Book was taken. Notably, he claims that his Familiar comes to him sometimes like a “gray blackish Culver [pigeon], and sometime lyke a brended [brindled] Dog, and sometimes lyke a man in all proportions, saving that he had cloven feete.” (p. 30) In other words: according to John Walsh, examined by a church-official, the local sheriff, and a delegation of local gentlemen- his Familiar (given to him by his Catholic Master) presented itself sometimes like a pigeon, sometimes like a dog, and sometimes in the stereotypical likeness of the Devil. (Now, why the Devil should manifest with “cloven feet,” a thing described of Celtic Forest-Divinities, is another matter.)
Walsh further elaborates, that he possessed this Familiar for four years, giving the creature as a sacrifice such living things as chickens, cats, or dogs whenever he wished to “use” the Familiar; the first time that he met the Familiar, he gave the Spirit a drop of his own blood. However- and here we may imagine hedging on Walsh’s part- since his Ritual Book (given him by his Catholic employer) was removed by the constable: his Familiar has no longer appeared to him. This is as complete an admission/ denial, throwing responsibility back upon the Catholic “Master,” as might be possible under the circumstances.
In addition to being a Catholic in Protestant England, Walsh’s employer, Sir Robert Drayton of Drayton, Dorset, was apparently also a bit of an amateur Ritual Magician- not at all unusual for the Elizabethan Age, which will become after all, the Age of Faust, Prospero, and John Dee. As his Seventh statement, Walsh says that he had “a booke of hys said maister [master], which had great circles in it, wherein he would set two waxe candels acrosse of virgin waxe, to raise the Familiar spirite.” (p. 29) He would then ask the Familiar for information regarding things stolen (such as who had stolen them, and where they might be found), or who might be bewitched (apparently “the Feries” communicate this information to him).
Walsh’s Master, in other words, also his instructor in Ritual Magicke, gave the country-fellow a book of “great circles” (Walsh is presumably illiterate; therefore the thing that will impress him are the illustrations of Magicke Circles; Sir Robert must have interpreted the grimoire for John Walsh). The Cunning-Man goes on to describe his experiments in Ceremonial Magicke- as his Tenth statement, Walsh “sayth” that in order for the Familiar to do as Walsh required, it was first necessary that “two wax candels of Virgin waxe shoulde first have been layd acrosse upon the Circle, wyth a little Frankensence and saynt Johns woorte, and once lighted, and so put out agayne.” (p. 30) To repeat: Walsh had been instructed by his Catholic employer, whenever he wished to make use of (“use”) his Familiar-Spirit, to perform the Ritual Magicke Tradition of setting two hallowed candles across his Magickal Circle, then burning incense of frankincense and St. John’s Wort; this required his Familiar to come to him. However, and in total violation of our sense of civil liberties- the local constable, Robert Baber of Crokehorne, decided that Walsh’s Ritual Book was too dangerous for him to possess, and so took away Walsh’s “booke of Circles”; after this, according to Walsh (who may again have been tailoring his testimony for the greatest advantage), his Familiar never came to him again.
Having covered Witches’ Familiars, Folk-Healing, and Ritual Circle-Magicke: Walsh’s interrogators address a significant Elizabethan subject: Faeries. As his Seventh statement, Walsh explains how he knows whether any man is bewitched; he “knew it partlye by the Feries, and saith that ther be iii. kindes of Feries, white, greene, & black. Which when he is disposed to use, hee speaketh with them upon hyls [hills], where as there is great heapes of earth, as namely in Dorsetshiere.” Gibson cites Rosen’s speculation that “great heaps of earth” refers to prehistoric funeral barrows, which are heavily associated with the Folk in folklore (and apparently plentiful in Dorsetshire). “And betwene the houres of xii. and one at noone, or at midnight he useth them. Whereof (he sayth) the blacke Feries be the woorst.” (p. 29)
This statement addresses the hard-core Elizabethan Faerie-Belief, discussed in any volume presenting say, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which “Faerey Faith” Evans-Wentz claimed persisted in the Celtic Countries until the early 1900s. In this instance, we may see Celtic “Faerie Faith” imagined in much the same light as that reported by Sir Walter Scott in the early 1800s- as a native spiritual Tradition, involving the Fee Folk almost as Spirit-Guides. Whenever Walsh desires supernatural information, he makes a point to go to a spot where Feeryies might be located (such as prehistoric burial mounds, associated heavily with the Fees in folklore); here the Fee Folk provide him (Spirit-Counsel-wise) such info as he needs to know.
This not only demonstrates the close connection between Witchcraft and Celtic Faerey-Tradition, it alludes to a continuing belief in Celtic Faereys as Spirit-Guides to committed Seekers.
Walsh’s testimony ends with more elaboration upon established Elizabethan Witch and Faerey Traditions: in his Twelfth statement, in to response to questions put him regarding whether, “when any of the three kindes of Feiries did hurt,” did they do so out of “malignity,” or due to the provocation of “wicked men?” Walsh explained that the “Feiries” inflict harm upon mortals due to their own spite, and can not be commanded by “wicked men”; moreover, only such individuals as “want faith” are in danger of harmful Fays.
Walsh responded to questions regarding Witches’ Image-Magick (Magicke involving images made from clay), and how it might be used to torment folks so targeted; how Familiars in the shapes of toads (called by names such as “great Browning,” or “little Browning,” or “Bonne,” “great Tom Twite,” or “little Tom Twite”) may assist in these baleful operations; and whether “those which doo heale men or women, being hurted by Witches,” can find buried Images underground (Walsh affirmed that they could). He insisted, “by the othe [oath] which he had taken,” that he had never possessed such a Toad, nor made Images to hurt “man, woman, or childe” (p. 31) As his last statement, he swore “by the othe that he hath taken, that he never did any such hurt either in body or goodes.” (p. 32)
What happened to Walsh after his interrogation is not recorded: but was probably not severe (I doubt very much that he was put to death, as he has confessed to nothing so illegal as to warrant the death-penalty). As it was in the interest of all involved to place as much blame as possible upon the Catholic “Master,” Sir Robert of Drayton, who was himself deceased by the time of Walsh’s examination, Walsh was probably let go, or at least let off with minor punishment; presumably, whatever Magickal healing he continued to perform, he did especially under wraps.
We may infer many things about rural Elizabethan Magick-Use here: an individual apparently gifted in supernatural exploits, able to communicate with Faeries at sites and times long associated with their appearance, also skilled in “natural” healing. These gifts and proclivities come to the attention of his employer, Robert Drayton, who encourages them, presenting the man with a book on Ritual Magicke, and probably instructing the man on how to perform such. Through such exercises, Walsh acquires a Familiar, which Spirit he begins to work with- until such a time as his book is taken from him, and his Familiar departs from him forever.
Further still, the man comes to the attention of local ecclesiastical authorities, who question him, recording and publishing his replies, presumably as a warning to others who may be similarly misled by untrustworthy Papists.
All in all, an account of native English folk-healing; Ferie-experience; and ongoing fascination with Magickal Ceremony.