Boggarts and Bogeymen


Boggarts have terrified English country-folk for hundreds of years.  Particularly feared in Lancashire,  they were said to haunt the fields, woods, and marshes – sometimes stealing away naughty children.  The term Boggart derives from the Middle English bug meaning ghost, hobgoblin, or object of terror (OED).

According to those who have seen these spirits, Boggarts come in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes they appear as ugly humans, while others have described them as beast-like creatures.  Everyone, however, seems to agree that they are hairy, strong, have strange eyes, and sometimes resemble devils.

Tradition says that if a Boggart is given a name it becomes destructive and unreasonable, rather than simply mischievous.  Perhaps for this reason these sprites are often referred to generically as The Bogeyman. 

While they have sometimes been held accountable for poltergeist activity inside the home, Lancashire Boggarts prefer the outdoors – they scare people with eerie noises, overturn farm items, sour milk and ale, lame animals, and leave behind weird hoof-prints.  They also get blamed when children or travelers go missing.

So how do you ward off Boggarts and Bogeymen?

Stay away from the places they roam, especially at night.  And hang a horseshoe over the front door of the house – or leave a pile of salt outside your bedroom.

Sweet dreams!

Horseshoe The Golden Horseshoe (William Michael Harnett)


Wikipedia: “Boggarts” accessed 3/28/2015

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon,1993)

The Ancient Rushbearing Festival


Rushbearing is an old Lancashire custom from the early Middle Ages that still survives in a few rural areas today.  It began as an annual Catholic festival to rededicate the local parish church, and soon developed into a day-long village celebration.  In olden times, the floors of churches were made of packed earth.  These were covered with rushes, herbs, and grasses to provide a sweet-smelling insulation against the cold and damp – a practice that continued until flagstones were finally installed.  One day a year, at the end of summer, or on the Saint’s Day associated with a particular church, the old rushes got swept away and new ones were put in their place.

Over time, this religious ceremony developed into a community festival that contained many carnival elements.  The rushes were harvested and dried out several weeks in advance, and then fashioned into a bee-hive decoration on the official rushbearing cart – a float also adorned with garlands and flowers.  The cart was traditionally pulled by all the young bachelors of the parish, and a village maiden chosen as the Rushbearing Queen rode on top.  The procession was often accompanied by banners, Morris Men, street performers, dancers, bands, and minstrels.

The day began with a slow progress through the crowded streets.  Those towns that do not use an official cart appointed several Rush Maidens instead, who carried a white sheet containing the new rushes.  Once they arrived at the church everyone ceremoniously helped to spread out the fresh flooring.  It was originally customary to ring the church bells, and to provide wine, ale and cake for the rushbearers – but the ceremony later developed into a day-long drunken revel, which unfortunately encouraged a lot of criminal activity.

By 1579, this festival had become so bawdy that Queen Elizabeth 1st outlawed the custom, disapproving of the drinking and frolicking taking place in local churchyards.  It was reestablished by King James 1st as part of the “diverting exercises” endorsed in his Book of Sports. 

Rushbearing can be seen each August at Newchurch-in-Pendle.  Other Lancashire towns have replaced the ceremony with similar village processions such as Club Day or Carnival Day.


Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2007)

Wiki: “Rushbearing” Accessed on 4/6/2015

The “Witch” Church


Newchurch-in-Pendle is an ancient village in the North of England, close to where several of the Lancashire Witches once lived and roamed.  It has been a religious center since Druid days, with the first Christian building appearing around 1250.  In 1544, a stone chapel was dedicated by the Bishop of Chester, possibly with the original tower.  Then a gallery was added in 1915, though the current St. Mary’s Church that stands here today has been restored and renovated many times throughout the centuries.

Graveyard (2)

The most fascinating feature is the carving on the west face of the tower (under the clock face) – a large eye said to symbolize the all-seeing Eye of God.  In earlier years though, this may have been a talisman to ward off evil from the local cunning folk who were forced by law to attend services here every Sunday.  Today, St. Mary’s is also one of the few remaining churches that still celebrates the medieval Rushbearing Festival with a special service each August.

Graveyard (1)

The graveyard contains the headstones of many old families.  The Nutter plot (dated 1694) likely contains the  descendants of Alice Nutter, one of the witches executed in 1612.  From this consecrated soil, another witch – Old Chattox – supposedly stole twelve teeth that she later traded with her rival, Old Demdike.

In later times the village funeral processions were led by two black horses, and when these were spotted coming over Nanny Maud Hill the church bells began tolling The Passing Bell.

The Bone Room opens onto the graveyard, and for many years served as the Charnel House – a place where human remains were stored.  These were skeleton parts that had either been dug up by accident, or intentionally removed to make room in a plot for fresh bodies.

St. Mary’s Church is one of two major landmarks to have outlived the old belief in magic.  The other – providing its majestic backdrop – is the famous Pendle Hill.



Clayton, John A.  A History of Pendle Forest and the Pendle Witch Trials (Lancashire: Barrowford Press, 2007)

Stansfield, Andy. The Forest of Bowland & Pendle Hill (Devon: Halsgrove House, 2006)

“St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch in Pendle.”  Wikipedia, accessed 3/23/2015

Magic Or Medicine?

Magic Or Medicine?

Doctors / Physicians

Doctor   Hans Brock der Altere (c. 1584)

Throughout history, people have consulted doctors to diagnose and treat their ailments, but educated physicians were rare, expensive, and often dangerous. There was no understanding of how germs spread disease.  Indeed, well into the seventeenth century practitioners still followed Galen’s Greek notion that the body was made up of four humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – and when one of these fluids got out of balance the body fell sick.  Leeches and blood-letting were common practices because fevers were thought to originate from having too much blood in the body.


Quack  Franz Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1785)

The first barber-surgeons were monks who aided parishioners in their monasteries.  They often advocated a heavy dose of fasting and prayer to accompany their herbal remedies.

Later on, barber-surgeons  were found on battlefields tending the wounded.  In the age before anesthetics, surgery was considered a lowly occupation and these quacks performed many of the procedures that physicians refused to do, including barbaric amputations, teeth-pulling, enemas, and blood-letting for those who could not afford a physician.



If a person knew what was wrong and merely required a cure, they could visit the apothecary.  These were early pharmacists who made medicines, salves, and potions, and also gave out advice on surgery and midwifery.  Their tonics consisted of herbs, minerals, animal parts, urine, honey, and a variety of fats.

Cunning Men and Wise Women

Cunning Folk

If you could not afford any of the above, a cure might be found with a folk-healer.  Cunning men and wise women used magic, prayer, herbal lore, and family experience to tackle the everyday ailments of the townsfolk, villagers, farmers, and their livestock.  They were cheaper than apothecaries and could be paid by trading goods instead of money.  The cunning folk also provided an array of services for specific problems that could be dealt with very discretely – contraceptive powders, abortion, love potions, impotence cures, and poisons.

Some of the more unfortunate – or unpopular – cunning folk got caught up in the witch hunts that swept across Europe throughout that period.  But when people began realizing these healers were not only useful, but necessary, new regulations appeared that differentiated between good magic and bad.  Lighter sentences were handed out – time spent in the pillory or jail – and capital punishment was only awarded to witches – those in league with demons, who conjured up devils or committed murder.

By the end of the Seventeenth Century extensive advancements had been made.  William Harvey discovered how the heart controls blood circulation in the body; Ambroise Pare made important breakthroughs for treating war wounds; Marcello Malpighi invented the microscope; and the first blood transfusions were carried out by the Royal Society in London.  But it took a great many years for these advancements to permeate throughout England.  In the meantime, the common people continued to pray and turn to the wise women for help!


Brighid: Goddess and Saint

The Wise Women of Britain had their own special patron – the goddess Brighid – who later became known as Saint Brigit.  She was a Celtic pagan deity, the equivalent of Roman Minerva and Greek Athene, whose name meant exalted one.  In Irish mythology, Brighid was the daughter of Dagda, wife of Bres, and the mother of Ruadan – the son she invented keening for when he died in battle.


Brighid was one of three sisters (all named Brighid) who jointly made up the Triple Deity – maiden, mother, crone.  For many years she was closely associated with Wise Women and became the goddess of healers and magicians.  Called on for assistance with prophecy and divination, Brighid represented wisdom, intelligence, excellence, perfection, craftsmanship, artistry, healing, and druidic knowledge.  Because she protected pregnant women and aided in childbirth, she was also connected with the hearth and home.

At some point in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church syncretized Brighid into the Christian St. Brigit of Kildare, making her the keeper of the eternal flame (from her former role of protecting Druid priestesses) and tender of holy healing wells (as she was already widely associated with medicine).  Her festival day at the start of February marks the arrival of spring, but instead of being called Imbolc it then became known as St. Brigit’s Day instead.

Brighid is the patron saint of poetry, blacksmithing, arts and crafts, cattle, and serpents.  She is credited with inventing the whistle.  Her symbols include the hearth, cauldron, forge, and bridal bed.  Corn dolls, crosses, and knots have been named after her, and she is connected with cats, foxes, cows, bees, and wrens.

Corn Doll

The last time I visited St. Mary’s Church at Newchurch-in-Pendle I was delighted by the collection of rush decorations nailed along the walls, carefully fashioned into crosses, knots, and dollies.

The old traditions die hard!


Lockhart, Elaine. “Brighid: A Personal Relationship” in Modern Witch,  First Issue, Imbolc, 2012 (p8-9)

About Religion. “Brighid: Hearth Goddess of Ireland.” Available at (2/25/2015)

Wikipedia:  “Brigid”

The Last Wolf In England


. . . now witchcraft celebrates

Pale Hecate’s offerings; and wither’d murder,

Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,

Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,

With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design

Moves like a ghost.

Macbeth Act 2 Scene 1



According to Roman and Saxon chronicles, the British Isles were once overrun with wolves.  But a combination of deforestation and hunting virtually exterminated all traces of the Eurasian grey canis lupus by the end of the medieval period.  At a time when wool production was the major industry, anything that threatened sheep farming was a serious public threat.  So between 1066 and 1154, Norman rulers awarded land to official wolf-hunters, on the condition that they controlled the predators in their area.  And as part of a plea-bargain to avoid execution, certain criminals had to provide an annual number of wolf tongues to escape the gallows.

By Henry Vi’s reign, wolves were found only in Scotland, Wales, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Lancashire.  But they lived on in the public imagination, and were often one of the familiars associated with witchcraft.

Eurasian wolf

Legend claims that the last English wolf was killed at Humphrey Head, north of Morcambe Bay, at a place that used to be called Lancashire Over Sands.  At some time during the Fourteenth Century a royal bounty was offered for each wolf pelt captured, and during one of the local hunts Sir Edgar Harrington became separated from his companions and rode for the top of Humphrey Head to look for them.  On his way through the forest he heard the terrified shrieks of a young girl cowering behind a rock, hiding from an enormous growling wolf.  Taking his spear Harrington battled the wolf, rescued the maiden, and took her back to safety.  Apparently, when her gratitude turned into love, the couple were married and they lived happily thereafter with a healthy batch of children.  They put an image of a wolf’s head on their family crest and today lie buried together in Cartmel Priory, with a stone wolf carved at their feet.

How refreshing to have a romantic tale about wolves at a time when they were generally associated with witchcraft and evil!


Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside, 2007)

Wikipedia: “Wolves in Great Britain” available (2/24/2015)

Three Real Shakespearian Witches

When someone mentions Shakespeare’s witches we naturally assume they are referring to the three weird sisters from Macbeth.  Yet around the same time as the Lancashire Witch Trials were taking place in Northern England, another sinister plot was unraveling closer to King James’ court.  Ironically, it involved a nefarious character who moved in the shadows of Shakespeare’s own circle – a cunning man by the name of Simon Forman (1552-1611). Two years after his death, Forman was implicated in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury through his relationship with two former female patrons, Countess Frances Howard Carr (1590-1632) and Mistress Anne Turner (1576-1615).


But Simon Forman was neither the fool nor evil magician that Stuart history suggests.  Much more likely he was a self-trained quack whose chief sins concerned the numerous illicit sexual conquests he recorded in his diaries.  Forman was a charismatic, intelligent seducer who dabbled in apothecary, astrology, and the occult arts.  His clients included Emilia Lanier (possibly Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady) and Mrs. Mountjoy, the bard’s landlady.  Interestingly, Macbeth is one of the plays Forman mentions seeing at the Globe Theatre (April 20, 1610).  Yet as Barbara Howard Traister’s biography comments, Forman appeared much more interested in the note-taking doctor than in the supernatural characters, which is intriguing for a man who had already been imprisoned on charges of witchcraft.


Although Forman died in 1611, his reputation and influence lived on.  He was accused of having supplied the poison that killed Overbury in a diabolical plot hatched by the two femme-fatales – Carr and Turner – and of providing the countess with the magical means to be rid her former husband (Robert Devereux) in order to win over the king’s favorite courtier, Robert Carr.


At the center of the controversy stood Countess Frances, a virgin child-bride wedded to the Earl of Essex who had since fallen in love with the dashing Earl of Somerset.  Frances wanted her political marriage annulled so she could marry her beloved, but Carr’s mentor – Sir Thomas Overbury – disapproved of this match and stood in their way.  A plot was hatched to discredit Overbury, and he suddenly found himself confined to the Tower of London on trumped-up charges.

Some years earlier the countess had apparently contacted Simon Forman for a love potion.  It was stated at her trial that the cunning man also supplied her with a range of poisons, that were later mixed with tarts and jellies before being fed to the imprisoned Overbury by his jailor.  He died in September, 1613.  A few weeks later the Devereux marriage was officially annulled leaving Frances free to wed Carr.  But over the following months rumors of the murder plot began circulating at court, finally forcing the king to pay notice and address them.  Under the weight of the overwhelming evidence presented the countess confessed to poisoning her enemy, was found guilty at trial, but eventually received a pardon.  She was released from the Tower in 1622, having served due sentence for her crime.  Her accomplice, however, was not so fortunate.


 Anne Turner was rumored by some to be the illegitimate child of the conjurer, Simon Forman.  She was widowed from Dr. George Turner in 1610 and then became the mistress of Sir Arthur Mainwaring.  Somehow or other she befriended the countess, perhaps in her capacity as a sought-after dressmaker.  Anne held the patent for the saffron starch that dyed fashionable ruffs and cuffs yellow, a more flattering color for many complexions than the usual ivory white lawn.  She was also an independent business woman who ran houses of ill-repute in Hammersmith and Paternoster Row.  But because she was not of noble birth, the accomplice became the scapegoat for Overbury’s death.  Anne Turner, convicted of being a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon, and a murderer, was hanged at Tyburn in 1615.  She was sent to execution in her own fashionable yellow ruff, by a man wearing the same saffron ruff and cuffs – denouncing the color of her dye and putting an end to that particular fashion.

Of course these were not the three evil ones Shakespeare envisaged when writing Macbeth.  Yet he does add a final statement to the scandal in later versions of All’s Well That Ends Well by having  Parolles mocked for wearing a big ruff starched with “villainous saffron.”

Jacobean witches came in many shapes and guises!



The Casebook Project: “Sinon Forman (1552-1611)” (Cambridge: U of Cambridge, 2013)

Downing, Sarah Jane. Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare (Oxford: Shire, 2014)

Traister, Barbara Howard. The Notorious Astrological Physician of London (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001)

Wikipedia: “Simon Forman,” “Anne Turner(Murderer)” and “Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset.”