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Let’s talk about Hex

With Halloween only a couple of days away, I thought I’d try to come up with a relevant post.

Do you recall the 2008 EU Consumer Protection Regulations? No me neither but I expect that it’s a real page turner. The reason I bring it up is because it incorporated the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, perhaps that’s not one in your memory bank either. The predecessor of the 1951 act lasted for four hundred and ten years, give or take a few amendments when Henry VIII passed the Witchcraft Act of 1541 catchily titled The act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments.

The act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments.

The act deemed illegal any magical practices which were disruptive to, or caused harm to the realm or the Kings subjects which were “demyde accepted and adjuged Felonye“, which was a crime punishable by death and the forfeit of the accused goods and chattels.

London’s history with witchcraft long preceded the enshrining of the act. In the 10th Century a wave of witch hunts and trials ensued after a woman, and her son were accused of trying to harm a man by driving stakes into an image of him. The woman was tried and executed by drowning in the Thames, her son escaping capture.

In 1371, a Southwark man was arrested for being in possession of a skull and parts of a corpse, but was later tried for practicing spells. Following the trial he was released on the promise that he wouldn’t perform magic again. A few years later John Berking was arrested for predicting the future. He was sentenced to two weeks in prison, then made to stand for an hour in the pillory, and then banished from London forever. 

Margery Jourdemayne was arrested in 1441 for using spells to try and bring about the death of King Henry VI, perhaps they were slow burners as Henry lived until 1471. Margery however was burnt at the stake at Smithfield, which earned her a role in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 2 written in 1591. Interestingly, a study made of trials conducted prior to the 1441 act shows women tended to be found guilty disproportionally to men, and usually, the victims were poor and old.

Sir Edmund Anderson.

Following Henry passing the act the first notable trial was of Ann Kirk who lived in a dwelling in Castle Hill by the Thames. Ann, a poor widow fell out with a neighbour and made threats against her and her family. Later, the trial heard the neighbour was sitting by the fire with her child when the infant shrieked, pined away and died. The following day another of the neighbours children passed Ann Kirk in the alleyway and collapsed foaming at the mouth. The girl was carried home where she suffered further from contortions and seizures. The local “Cunning Woman”, Mother Gillam was called for and diagnosed witchcraft. The cure for the afflicted family was to surreptitiously cut off a piece of Ann Kirk’s coat which was burned with the child’s underwear. Apparently the child later recovered. Others came forward at the trial claiming to have been bewitched, including the wife of a local innkeeper who had suddenly died, and three children who lived in nearby Thames Street: George, Anne, and Joan Nayler. Joan fell into trance during which according to a contemporary account, “her mouth was turned to one side, her joints so shrunk up that her feet did beat together, her shoulder blades did strike one against another, so that they were heard to rattle“. She tried to scratch the witch’s face to break her power which was an old superstition, but she was unable to do so as her hands were clenched shut. Kirk stood trial before Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas, Sir Edmund Anderson, who finding the testament of the witnesses less than credible used a couple of tried and tested methods to establish her guilt. As everyone knows it is not possible to cut a witches hair. The Sergeant at Arms was called and producing a pair of scissors attempted to cut Kirks hair, which failed to succumb to the shears blunting them in the process. If more proof was needed Kirk had some of her hair pulled from her scalp and an attempt was made to set it alight. At every attempt the flames leapt away from the hair and Kirks guilt and fate were set. She was hung at Tyburn on the 4th December 1599.

Nicholas Culpepper

Highlighted area of Culpeper’s surgery

Probably the most celebrated of London’s witch trials was that of Nicholas Culpepper in 1643. Culpepper was a notable Herbalist of the time who was tried for witchcraft and indicted of bewitching a widow named Sarah Lynge who had been one of his patients. Apparently Lynge made quite a credible witness and it has been speculated that either she had been less than happy with Culpepper’s treatments, or perhaps that he had not responded kindly to her amorous advances. However there is a very large pointer as to the motivation for the trial as the initial claim of witchcraft had been brought before the court by none other than the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. Culpepper was something of a local hero to the under classes of Spitalfields, as in a lot of cases he treated he asked for no fee and stated quite openly, “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician“. He seems to have riled the medical fraternity at every opportunity and caused outrage by his willingness to examine patients in person rather than simply examining their urine (in his view, “as much piss as the Thames might hold did not help in diagnosis“). So as you can imagine the medical men of the time were probably looking for a way to rid themselves of this thorn in their side.

The site of Culpeper’s surgery

His anti establishment views in all probability saved him from being found guilty. The trial took place in the early stages of the English Civil War and Culpeper had already committed himself to the Parliamentarian cause. The City of London was on the whole anti Royalist and it could have been that Culpepper was tried by a likeminded judge. The site of Culpeper’s surgery now sits under the hairdressers Toni & Guy.

World’s End Public House

The fervour for hunting down and executing witches died down as the 17th century came to a close, one of the last rumored witches was believed to have lived in Camden in 1676. The World’s End pub in Camden is reputed to have been built over the rural cottage of “The Witch Queen of Kentish Town”. Jenny Bingham, also known as “Mother Damnable” and “Old Mother Redcap”, was believed to have practiced the black arts.

Her antecedence didn’t bode well as it was rumoured that her parents had both been hanged as witches after being found culpable of child murder. Despite her reputation she was sought out by those wanting to know their futures and made a good living telling their fortunes. Like many supposed witches she also served the local community’s medical needs as a wise woman, which perhaps in those times was better than going to a supposedly enlightened doctor. She did nothing to dispel the rumours that she was a witch, and bolstered this by keeping the obligatory black cat. Apparently she was no oil painting and her horrible looks helped the story’s credence. In spite of reputation and looks she seems to have attracted lovers and the story goes that she did away with at least one of them (another story tells that she went through three husbands, who all mysteriously died) by administering poisons, which she is said to have been an expert at concocting. Bingham was never actually brought to trial, possibly because the locals relied on her herbal remedies and so would not speak out against her. When she met her own end, ironically by poisoning, legend has it the devil himself was seen coming to collect her soul.

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