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Why so few witches were executed in Wales in the middle ages

12 Apr 2024 6 minute read
Alleged witches being accused in the Salem witch trials. Image marked Public Domain

Mari Ellis Dunning, PhD Candidate, Welsh History, Aberystwyth University

The fear of witchcraft led to centuries of persecution and executions across Europe. While there were an estimated 500 executions in England, and between 3,000 and 4,000 killings in Scotland, only five people were hanged for witchcraft in Wales.

Early modern Wales was unique in its outlook on witchcraft. Distinct elements of Welsh culture, including superstition and religion, halted the witch trials seen across the rest of Britain and Europe.

In fact, the witch is steeped in Welsh culture. There is speculation among some researchers that the traditional tall, black hat of the Welsh woman served as inspiration for the wide-brimmed hat of the fairy tale witch. Yet Wales saw no witch hunt. So, what are the reasons behind the lack of prosecutions in Wales?

Name-calling

It’s not that Welsh people had no fear of witchcraft or of supernatural harm – they did. But this fear usually played out in arguments among neighbours and family members, amounting to little more than name-calling.

There were other factors, such as the preference for unreformed religion. And the people’s reliance on wise women and soothsayers who could cure sickness and find missing items, and the ever-present influence of old beggar women, meant witchcraft was less poised to be brought to the attention of the courts. When it did very occasionally come to trial, it was usually dismissed.

Accusations of witchcraft

Welsh court records dating from the 16th century onward are held at the National Library of Wales. We know from those trial records that suspicions and verbal accusations of witchcraft like those seen across the rest of Britain and Europe were common in Wales. They also happened under similar circumstances where accusations often followed an argument, or a request for charity which was denied.

In the records, there are bitter arguments between neighbours and family members. Horses are killed, cattle are bewitched, pigs perish, men and women are injured, there are miscarriages and even murders. Most of the time, when someone was accused of being a witch, they were accused by other people in the community. Their accusers were neighbours, relatives and in many cases, people with financial and personal reasons to make accusations.

For a long time, Wales has been seen by outsiders as a land of magic, superstition and the supernatural. English men and women sometimes travelled into Wales looking for consultations with enchanters and soothsayers.

Women in Wales even looked like witches. They tended to dress in long, heavy woollen skirts, aprons, blouses and large woollen shawls. Most peasant women would have brewed mead and ale. They would have let their community know that there was ale for sale by placing some form of signage outside their cottages. The most popular and well-remembered of these signs was a broomstick.

The famous Salem painting by Sydney Curnow Vosper, including the devil in the shawl.

There are similarities between average Welsh women and the witches written about in early modern literature such as the Malleus Maleficarum, written by a German Catholic clergyman in 1486. These similarities, such as appearance, unreformed religion and tendency to rely on charms and herbs, painted a picture of Wales as a magical land rife with witchcraft. This left juries in early modern Wales in serious doubt about how sensible witch accusations were.

Religion

The people of Wales were not without religion, but they preferred prayer to doctrine. This was perhaps as a result of language barriers. Generally, Welsh people could not read or understand the Bible, which was not fully translated into Welsh until the late 1500s.

Rather than conforming to the Protestant worship indicated by the reformed church, Welsh tradition preferred to worship within the household in ways that mimicked Catholic practices. There is evidence that many people continued to seek the aid of charmers instead of the church. And so Elizabethan and Stuart politicians frequently spoke about the religious “ignorance” in Wales.

Image Ethan Doyle White is marked , CC BY-SA 4.0

The church in Wales also took part in practices some would describe as witchcraft. There was even a strong medieval tradition of cursing by clerics. This sort of formal cursing was often phrased as a petitionary prayer to God, emphasising the overlap between witchcraft and religion in Wales. Parsons were also responsible for writing protective prayers.

It was perhaps for this reason that religious radicals in the south of England saw Wales, as well as Cornwall and the north of England, as “dark corners of the land”. Religious ignorance, superstition and residual Catholicism all contributed to a view of Wales as rife with magic and mystery.

Both charms and curses across Wales contained Christian references and quotations taken from the Bible, showing the overlap between different belief systems. In many Welsh charms and curses, small crosses are written in the margins, indicating the need to perform the symbol of the cross. A charm shared by Gwen ferch Ellis, the first woman to be hanged for witchcraft in Wales, included the words “Enw’r Tad, y Mab, a’r Ysbryd Duw glân a’r tair Mair” (translated as “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit of God, and the three Marys”). Her execution was probably a result of having crossed the wrong people, who had enough influence to sway the assize judges.

Ultimately, there is no one reason that Wales never saw a witch hunt. Wise women, cunning folk and soothsayers were highly regarded in Wales, using “magic” to perform important services for the community. Even clerics were part of this ritual of charming and cursing.

Whether they were brewing, cursing, charming or soothsaying, in Wales, the people accused were rarely doing anything out of the ordinary. While fear of the supernatural was rife among common people, it seems Welsh juries tended to be more concerned with prosecuting theft than witchcraft.

This article was first published on The Conversation
The Conversation


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

That was good, all the best with the PhD…

PS great interview with Linda Thompson over on the Guardian…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

As kids years ago we used to camp above Llandecwyn and I remember the top lake had a story of it being haunted by drowned witches!

If you have been startled by horned devils* coming out of the mist, it’s easily believed…

*wild goats…

Another Richard
Another Richard
1 month ago

The title is misleading as the article is not about the middle ages, when there were relatively few executions for witchcraft anywhere in western Europe. It would be interesting to know more about the five unfortunates who were executed for witchcraft in Wales, and also (though this is outside Nation.Cymru’s remit) why the persecutions in Scotland were bloodier than anywhere else in Europe.

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