Witchcraft and Witch Trials in Wales

Exiles in TimeA discovery in Tuscany might indicate an incident where a witch was killed in Tuscany:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2041671/800-year-old-remains-witch-discovered-graveyard-Tuscany-Italy.html#ixzz1Z6Q83H34

They found “the 800 year old remains of what archaeologists believe was a witch from the Middle Ages after seven nails were found driven through her jaw bone . . . ”  The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it is surely suggestive.

I have ancestors who were both accused witches, and the accuser of witches in the Salem trials 350 years ago in the late 1600s.  That fear of witchcraft seems to have been widespread during that era. What’s interesting is that it was far more widespread then than in the Middle Ages. In fact, nobody was accused of witchcraft in Wales in the 13th century, and there is essentially no mention of it in the historical record. 

“The development of witch trials and the witch craze is seen has developed slowly  throughout Christianity’s domination of Europe. These range from Augustine of  Hippo’s belief that witches were impossible to Thomas Aquinas’ belief that  demons attempt to corrupt humans. Common historical theory has it that a witch  craze exploded in the 15th century and spread like wildfire across the  continent.

All witch trials and witch hunts were contained by English common law. A  witch was first defined in 1542. There were accusations prior to this date, but  such accusations were not recognised legally. This was then revoked in 1547 and  then re-instated in a new guise in 1563. The English crime of witchcraft was not  demonological (an alliance between man and the devil) but maleficious (of having  mysterious powers).

It is clear that as these trials, even those of Matthew Hopkins, were bound  by English law. This meant that torture could not be used as an interrogation  method. Furthermore, the prosecutor in the trial had to provide material  evidence to prove their case. In addition, the accused would be allowed to  provide eight “compurgators” who would testify as to the accused good  character.”
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A new book states, however, that because of the tradition of druidry in Wales, “it was a relative haven for paranormal practices, sparing the pointy-hatted pagans from hanging, drowning and other unhappy endings. In “Pembrokeshire Witches and Wizards,” author Brian John claims the Welsh druidic tradition lent a tolerance to the cause of witchcraft which still persists.  ‘Only three witches in Wales went to trial, in 1656,’ says John. ‘And that was at an English court in Chester.'”  http://www.celticattic.com/contact_us/the_celts/celtic_nations/wales/legends_of_long_ago.htm

An article from the BBC supports this position:  “Stories about witches are found all over the world – during the 16th and 17th centuries a “witch craze” in Europe saw over 100,000 people, mainly women, accused of witchcraft and executed by secular government and the church.  Yet there were relatively few witch trials in Wales, with only five Welsh witches being executed for their supposed crimes. With great reliance placed on the power of the wise man or the wise woman, witchcraft in Wales had long been connected to healing . . .

“Witchcraft comes into the historical record in 1594,” comments historian Richard Suggett, “when Gwen ferch Ellis from Bettws is indicted and subsequently executed for witchcraft. It’s the first recorded instance of what, I suppose, you can call black witchcraft. She was a healer but for some reason she was persuaded by another woman, called Jane Conway, to leave a charm at Gloddaeth, the home of Sir Thomas Mostyn, a sworn enemy of Jane Conway.” Gwen was convicted of murder by witchcraft and duly hung. There were many other accusations of witchcraft – but proving them was another matter. Most of the women spent brief periods in prison before being released when the case against them collapsed.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/waleshistory/2010/03/welsh_witches.html

“There are historical records for 228 executions for witchcraft between 1000 and 1684 in England.  This is approximately one guilty verdict every three years. Witch trials peaked  in the country between 1550 and 1650; with most occurring during the English  Civil War. This means whole decades went by without witch trials in the  Kingdom.  Marc Carlson has brought together incomplete records of trials in England.  The Home Circuit saw 456 trials, Essex saw 290, York 117, Norfolk 15 and the  Western Circuit 52. We know that only 23.9 percent of trials in the home circuit  ended in conviction. 23 out of 267 trials in Essex ended with guilty verdicts  while Norfolk saw no successful convictions. Meanwhile, in the West Country  there were 7 convictions, with one overturned on appeal. There are no statistics  for York.”  http://www.suite101.com/content/most-english-witch-hunts-failed-a359588

This site goes even further and state that “not a single witch lost their life in Wales.”

More resources:

Carlson, Marc, 2004, Witches and Witchtrials in England, the Channel  Islands, Ireland and Scotland, Tulsa University(link)

Burr, George L, ed, 1898-1912, The Witch Persecution at Wurzburg, Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania (link)

Garland, Anna, 2003, The Great Witch Hunt: The Persecution of Witches in  England, 1550-1660, Auckland University Law Review (link)

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Writing Historical Fantasy: A Magical Balance

Today, Anna Elliott, the author of the wonderful Twilight of Avalon (Touchstone:  May 2009) is here to talk about blending history and fantasy when writing historical fiction.  Welcome, Anna!


Ever since I wrote Twilight of Avalon, based on the Trystan and Isolde legend in the larger cycle of Arthurian tales, I’ve often been asked for thoughts on the enduring appeal of the King Arthur story. Why should that legend, perhaps more than any other in Western culture, have captured our imaginations for more than a millennium, have engendered countless retellings and reworkings of the old tale?

The answers are legion, of course. But for me, the unique enchantment of the Arthurian legends lies in their blend of fantasy and history. The world of the legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past. Many scholars have explored the possibility of a real, historic Arthur–who, if he existed, was most likely a Celtic warlord of the mid fifth century, a warrior who led a triumphant stand against the incursions of Saxons onto British shores. Trystan, whose existence as a real historic figure is suggested by a memorial stone in Cornwall, was likely a roughly contemporary warrior, possibly the son of a Cornish petty king, whose cycle of tales were eventually absorbed into the legends growing up around Arthur and his war band.

And yet the world of the Arthur tales is one steeped in magic, as well. It’s a world filled with the voices of prophecy, with enchanted swords and Otherworldly maidens and the magical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur lies in eternal sleep, healing of his wounds, waiting to ride once more in Britain’s greatest hour of need.

That combination of historical truth with the wonderful potential for magic was what most of all drew me to the Arthur stories when I first studied them in college.  And it was what delighted me about living in my own version of the Arthurian world while writing Twilight of Avalon and the next two books in the trilogy.

The fifth century, when scholars agree a historic Arthur might have lived, was a brutal, chaotic time in Britain. Roman Britain had crumbled; Rome’s legions had been withdrawn from this far-flung outpost of the empire, leaving the country prey to invading Pictish and Irish tribes from the west and north and to Saxon invasions from the east. It was in many ways also a crucible in which the British identity and sense of place was forged. And it is against this backdrop that Arthur appears, a war hero who led–or at least may have led–a victorious campaign against the invaders, driving them back for perhaps the space of a man’s lifetime and so inspiring the roots of a legend that still captures our imaginations today.

I was fascinated by this possibility of a real King Arthur, and fascinated by the world in which he might have lived. So I decided to set my story there, to make my particular Arthurian world grounded in what scraps of historical fact we know of Dark Age Britain. And yet I wanted, too, to honor the original stories and their magical, legendary world–a world that after centuries of telling and re-telling, is as real in its own way as historical fact.

It was a bit of a balancing act, I discovered.

My Isolde is the granddaughter of Morgan (sometimes known as Morgan le Fey in the original Arthur stories; a healer and enchantress of great renown). Isolde is gifted through Morgan with both the knowledge of a healer and with the Sight, which enables her to receive visions and hear voices from the Otherworld. All of which fitted in with what I’d read of both the legends and historical accounts of Celtic spirituality, pre-Christian Celtic belief, with its emphasis on the powers of herbs, on trances and dreams that transcend physical boundaries and touch an Otherworld that is separated from our own by only the thinnest of veils.

And yet, too, there were those elements of the original Trystan and Isolde tale that were harder to fit in with any degree of historical verisimilitude. There were those cases where I could take a more symbolic approach to the legends—as with the famous love potion, which in the original legend causes Trystan and Isolde to fall helplessly in love.

I decided that a love potion like the one Trystan and Isolde accidentally imbibe can be viewed as a metaphor for the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of passionate romantic love. So in the second book of the trilogy, Dark Moon of Avalon, Trystan and Isolde do journey together by boat, as in the original tale, and it is over the course of the journey that they deepen and develop their relationship, which again is true to the original legend. But the purpose of their journey is based on what scraps of historical fact we can gather about the shaky political situation of sixth-century Britain. And they don’t need a literal draft of a magical potion to fall in love–only the magic of their own powerful emotional bond.

But then there were other cases when honoring the legends seemed to me to demand a factor that simply did not exist in 6th century Britain. For example, the fortress at Tintagel, where Twilight of Avalon is largely set. The Tintagel of my novel is pretty much purely anachronistic. Recent archaeology suggests that there was some sort of important fortification there during the 5th century–one belonging to a powerful Dark Age chieftan, to judge from the remnants of expensive imported wine jugs that have been found. But that the site ever had the remotest connection to Arthur is unlikely in the extreme. And certainly that Dark Age chieftan’s fortress would not have resembled anything in the nature a castle as we think of such places today.  But one of the elements of the Arthurian stories I found I simply couldn’t do without was a brooding, majestic castle perched on the crumbling edge of Cornwall where the land meets the sea–and where Arthur, son of Uther the Pendragon, was conceived and born. An authentic Dark Age wattle and daub and thatch dwelling just didn’t feel the same to me, and so I allowed the anachronism to creep in.

Again, it’s a balance. I try to be honest about the historical liberties I take in my author’s notes at the backs of the books and on the FAQ’s on my webpage. And I try to do my utmost to limit those historical liberties to cases like the above when it’s a matter of being true to the legendary basis of my story. I hope it’s a blend that works, one that echoes, a bit, the mixture of history and fantasy that first made me fall in love with the legends and the Arthurian world.