Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Flintshire (PART ONE)
by J. Gwynn Wiliams, M.A.
Journal of the Flintshire Historical Society, 1973-1974, 26, p. 16-33
Precisely how many witches were murdered in Western Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is impossible to say, but the figure of 100,000 has been credibly reported for Germany, between 3,000 and 4,500 for Scotland and somewhat less than 1,000 for England between 1566 and 1685. In many countries (though not in England and Wales) fearful tortures were used to extract 'confessions' and Professor Trevor-Roper was right to speak of the 'witch-craze' during these two centuries.
But as Professor Smout, the Scottish historian, has observed, it was 'the murder and not the superstition that was novel'. In primitive societies there were two types of magic, white and black. Beneficent magic was believed to provide cures and blessings not otherwise procurable by religion and medicine. Richard Whyteford, the close friend of Erasmus and St. Thomas More, was considered to have been a Whitford man and may have had his Flintshire upbringing in mind when he wrote of the simple people: 'I have heard them say full often myself, "Sir, we mean well and we do believe well and we think it a good and charitable deed to heal a sick person or a sick beast".' Black magic, on the other hand, was injurious and involved the performance of a conscious evil act (maleficium), such as cursing a neighbour or harming his cow. Both kinds of magic had a long ancestry, perhaps as old as human society itself. In the late middle ages, however, a new factor emerged, developed and embellished by the ingenuity of theologians and lawyers, the concept of the demonic pact. Witches, it was argued, had acquired magical powers by direct association with the Devil and assembled in sabbats, or nightly meetings, to worship him. The theoretical distinction between white and black magic withered away and the belief that witches were organised accounts in part for the use of barbarous torture to compel one witch to incriminate another. By the end of the fifteenth century the Pope had issued a Bill against charmers and magicians and in 1486 two Dominican inquisitors asserted in a formidable volume, Malleus Maleficarum, that the Devil and his witches were conspiring on a gigantic scale to overthrow the Catholic Church. Witchcraft and heresy were linked together. Further, men of influence and prestige in society were persuaded that the witch was truly to be feared and occasional persecutions at a local level were transformed in some areas into a determined campaign to extirpate every trace of witchcraft. Not all countries were affected in the same way or at the same time. Germany and France suffered severe persecution; after 1610 there were no more burnings in Spain by the Inquisition, whilst parts of Britain were untouched by the mania.
The role of religion in relation to witchcraft has been much discussed. Divine sanction was sought in Holy Writ for the most atrocious crimes and, as usual, there were verses to hand. Perhaps the best known was the brief, unequivocal mandate in the Book of Exodus, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live', which was quoted by Protestant and Catholic. Midelfort, in his work on south-west Germany, concludes that 'theological diversity of attitude was widespread and an essential determinant of regional variations in the severity of witch hunting'. The association of witchcraft with heresy is unmistakable in parts of Europe. Thomas Stapleton, the English Roman Catholic, declared to the scholars of Louvain, 'Witchcraft grows with heresy, heresy with witchcraft'. Trevor-Roper comments that Stapleton's 'argument - his very words - were afterwards repeated, with changed doctrinal labels, by Lutheran pastors in Germany '. John Knox spoke of 'the Devil, the Mass and witches' and T. C. Smout observed that most witches' confessions in Scotland 'sounded like the hallucinations of a mind that had cracked under Calvinist bombardment'. Nevertheless, there are serious dangers in interpreting witch persecutions as heretic-hunts. The connection which Trevor-Roper discerned between the witch-trials in Essex and the strength of Catholicism and the energy of Puritan evangelists has been shown by Macfarlane to be unacceptable. Similar conclusions were reached by Gustav Henningsen after examining Danish and Spanish witch-trials, and he went on to say that 'the witch-hunting of the Western European villages throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had very little to do with religious persecution '. On the other hand, the explanation convincingly presented for Essex, that accusations occurred when the customary ethic of neighbourly provision for the poor was being undermined, cannot be applied indiscriminately to other societies. Especially perilous are arguments which relate to geographical location. An examination of superstition in the Alps and the Pyrenees has led some to associate witchcraft with mountain areas, whereas in the mainland Highlands of Scotland (with the exception of Perthshire) there were no witchcraft trials even when persecution in other parts of Scotland was at its height. Moreover, the craze erupted in the German city states and in the Netherlands near large centres of population. There are, of course, many other factors, medical and psychological, which would need to be considered wherever the necessary evidence is available.
To sum up, as with the controversy two decades and more ago concerning the rise and fall of the gentry, general theories are a stimulus to discussion but are not of universal application. Pre-industrial societies varied greatly from one area to another and each must be subjected to careful examination before it is possible to understand either the incidence or the absence of witchcraft prosecutions. The weakness of existing surveys of witchcraft is Scotland, for example, is that they are not based upon such minute analysis as Macfarlane's for Essex. It is hoped, therefore, that to examine one Welsh county as thoroughly as the sources permit for one century will be some contribution to the discussion of a vast and complex subject.
It may be appropriate to begin with a broad survey of customs associated with the supernatural. Belief in wells, for example, had a long ancestry. In primitive times it was considered that special properties pertained to them; the Roman Catholic Church consecrated many pagan practices and long after the Reformation the healing qualities of wells continued to attract sufferers, in some cases until the present day. St. Winifred's Well, of course, occupies a premier place and will need separate treatment at a later stage. Of the fifty-one wells identified in Flintshire, twenty-seven bear the names of saints. Eight are dedicated to St. Mary and four to St. Michael. The two wells called Ffynnon Fihangel, in Bodfari and in Caerwys parishes, were said to cure sore eyes and warts, whilst victims of rheumatism and nervous disorders resorted to Ffynnon Asa in Cwm. An amalgam of the pagan and the Christian was to be observed at Ffynnon Ddier in Bodfari. Here the poorest in the parish offered chickens, a cockerel for a boy and a pullet for a girl, after proceeding around the well nine times; children were dipped in three corners of the well in order to prevent them from crying at night, and according to one source it was customary on Ascension Day for parishioners to go in procession to the well where the Litany, the Ten Commandments, an Epistle and other portions of the Gospel were read. The employment of a cock or a hen as protection against distemper was even more explicitly ritualised at Ffynnon Degla, Denbighshire, where epileptic patients came on Fridays to be cured. The association of the cock with the falling sickness has a long history and the ceremonies at Bodfari and at Llandegla were undoubtedly perpetuations of ancient pagan rites.
Some of the place-names in Flintshire are linked with the supernatural - for example, Nant y Cythraul at Flint, Ffynnon Bwbach and Rhyd y Bwbach at Cwm, Goblin's Well in Maes Garmon Field and Cae Coblyn in the township of Talardd, St. Asaph, and Bryn yr Ellyllon in Mold. 'Gwrach' meant 'hag, old woman' in the first instance, and 'witch' is probably a secondary meaning, so that one cannot with assurance say that Llety'r Wrach in Bodelwyddan is in fact The Witch's Homestead (or Lodging). Ffynnon Deg, a quarter of a mile to the north-east of Caerwys, Canon Ellis Davies tells us, was also called Ffynnon Sarah after a witch who lived on the outskirts of Caerwys 'long ago' and who apparently claimed that the well would be efficacious only through her intercession.
The heavens have always been a source of wonder and of awe. To the Psalmist they had declared the glory of God and the firmament his Handiwork; the Magi, according to the Scripture, had seen the star in the East and had come to worship the Infant Christ. Man appeared a puny, transitory figure whose destiny was controlled by the heavens, and despite the erosion of the Ptolemaic conception of the universe many men, high and low, continued in varying degrees to accept the traditional views of astrology inherited from the Ancient World. They found it difficult to conceive of the immensity of the heavens, the vast multiplicity of stars and the distance which divided them. They had one stellar system and the seven planets, or heavenly bodies - Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn - moved ceaselessly in relation to each other and to the earth against a stationary background of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Physical change was determined by the fluctuating amounts of heat and cold, moisture and dryness transmitted by the planets at any given time and the astrologer drew up a map of the heavens in order to assess and to predict the fortunes of man. Days were measured by the rising and the setting of the sun, which directly and manifestly affected human beings, the animal kingdom and vegetation. The moon influenced man and beast in somewhat subtler ways. The sublunary world was strange and mysterious, as the words 'lunatic' and 'lloerig' (derived respectively from the Latin and Welsh words for moon) serve to remind us. Once, when a horse was sold in Denbighshire in Charles II's reign, it was described as 'moone blinde and sometimes at the change and full of the moone [it] could not see att all.
Comets and blazing stars attracted much attention as portents of great events and their appearances were carefully noted by letter writers, diarists and compilers of common-place books. Thus, Peter Roberts, proctor of the Consistory Court of St. Asaph, noted in his Cwtta Cyfarwydd:
- Md' that in the moneth of November 1618 a strange blazing starre appeared and was seene in the east about vi of the clock in the morning with a long taile upwards towards the weast.
The same comet had intrigued James I and after consulting mathematicians from Cambridge he prophesied the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War and the collapse of the Stuart dynasty.
The parson of Cerrigydrudion was sufficiently impressed by the comet of December 1652 to include the following observation in his parish register:
- Stella Candata. A comet appeared the 7 of December and continued every night to be seen till about the last of the same month being retrograd in the first part of Gemini and last of taurus . . . moving from south to north with a very quick motion presaging great calamities to Husbandmen detriment of cattell putrifaction of corn . . . variety of laws . . . death of great commanders, etc./ul>
On 24 December 1680 Sir Roger Mostyn, imprisoned by gout, wrote to his son, Thomas, that 'The Star (which is a very small one), and its great blaze has apeared here to the south west any time this fortnight. God in his goodnes preserve us, for I find we are in a sad condition'.
The position of the planets in relation to the sign of the zodiac was carefully noted by Peter Roberts at critical moments in his life, though the precise significance is not indicated. When his brother-in-law died on 27 November 1623, he noted in parenthesis that it was 'then in the full of the moone and the signe being then also in Gemini'. His daughter aged nearly twelve was buried on Low Sunday, 23 April 1620, but he does not turn to Holy Writ for solace upon that more than dismal day. All he has to say is that the sign was then in Taurus 'the moone being chaunged upon Saturday before'.Philip Henry, the notable Presbyterian from Maelor Saesneg, on the other hand, was sceptical. In his diary on 1 February 1683 he wrote that although there was at that time a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Cancer, which, according to astrologers, had happened before the death of Christ, 'I doe not much heed such th[ings]'.
But many men did turn to astrology, to the occult, to witchcraft and to all forms of magic in order to attempt to understand the vicissitudes of life which often appeared capricious and cruel. The victims of remorseless, impersonal forces which brought sickness and death to men and animals sought in magic an explanation of their misfortunes. If, indeed, it were possible to personify the cause, the remedy might also be at hand. Thus, the village witch, who, it was suspected, had cursed a cow, could perhaps be made to remove the curse. The tenant farmers of south-east Wales in the early nineteenth century saw in the toll gate a readily identifiable symbol of their discontents, which had deep underlying social and economic causes, and it is significant that in south-west Germany during the Thirty Years' War the common soldier replaced the witch as an object of hatred. Again, if man could do little to control his environment, the doctors of the day could do little to preserve his health. Medicine was in its infancy and a phrase frequently employed in the petitions of the period was that the petitioner was 'languishing at chirurgery'. Witchcraft was often blamed for complaints at once explicable to modern medicine and if Martin Luther did throw an inkhorn at the Devil in his study we are not surprised that lesser mortals were the victims of hallucinatory experiences. Robert Parry's account of the strange apparitions seen by several persons is worth noting:
- About this tyme [Sept. 1602] was seene about Nant y ffrith between Treythyn and Wrexham in the edge of the eveninge to the nomber of 2 or 3 thousande armed men a hors backe with banners displayed marchinge in warlike maner wheare as indeed there was no such thinge but some apparition or forewarninge of liklyhoode. And yet that was verefyed by 8 or ixen persons some of them of credyte that all ioyntly sawe the same. Nantglyn MS. 1, f. 28. For a good transcription, see Arch. Camb. 1915, p. 126."
Lest we be overwhelmed by feelings of superiority, it is fitting to remind ourselves that in September 1914 almost every person knew someone who had seen mythical Russian soldiers, 'little short of a million', said a Times reporter, marching through England to the western front.
Whether Elizabeth Acton, of 'Orton Madock' in Maelor Saesneg, was, as is conceivable, a possessed adolescent, it is not possible to establish. This girl of thirteen or fourteen, we are told, had 'counterfeited Trances; in which she pretended that she saw our Blessed Saviour and the Virgin Mary, and suffered the Pains of Purgatory, and seemed to the By-standers to be in mighty Agonies'. Although some Roman Catholics apparently printed an account of her visions, attested to by twelve witnesses, the girl publicly confessed in Chester Cathedral on 4 March 1582 that she had in fact counterfeited the trances.
That there was a widespread belief in witchcraft in seventeenth-century Wales cannot be doubted. John Penry in 1587 had spoken of 'our swarmes of southsaiers, and enchanters, such as will not stick openly, to professe that they walke, on Tuesdaies. and Thursdaies at nights, with the fairies, of whom they brag themselves to have their knowlege'. Half a century later, a Caernarvonshire man claimed to have had conference twice weekly with the fairies on exactly the same nights. Vicar Prichard chided his countrymen because they ran to the magician and charmer like bees to a vinetree. An English member of Parliament in James I's reign declared that Wales was 'an ydolatrous nation, and worshipers of Divels'. In a pamphlet dealing with Lancashire witches, many of whom suffered capital punishment in 1612, it does indeed seem, as K. M. Briggs suggested, that the 'missionary impulse' came from Wales. When questioned, one of the witches, Mother Crady, said that 'she was a witch of Penmure [Penmaenmawr], a great mountain in Wales, and the rest were her countrywomen of the same faculty'.
Belief in the supernatural persisted into the succeeding century and well beyond. Readers of Pennant will recall his remarks concerning the massive Fairy Oak which grew in the grounds of Downing, near the house. The child of a poor cottager who lived nearby had grown 'uncommonly peevish' and its parents, believing that it was a changeling, 'put it in a cradle, and left it all night beneath the tree, in hopes that the tylwydd [sic] teg, or fairy family, or the fairy folk, would restore their own before morning. When morning came they found the child perfectly quiet, so went away with it, quite confirmed in their belief'. Again, Edward Williams, D.D., who was born at Glanclwyd in 1750 and who became a well-known divine, recalled that when he was seven, he and other children on a fine summer's day saw seven or eight dwarf-like couples at a distance of less than a hundred yards away 'all clothed in red . . . their heads tied with handkerchiefs of a reddish colour, sprigged or spotted with yellow . . . all tied behind with the corners hanging down their backs. and white handkerchiefs in their hands, held loose by the corners'. Edward Williams was chased by one of them to a stile and he well remembered 'his ancient, swarthy, grim complexion'.
Ffynnon Elian in Denbighshire, which was a healing well at the end of the seventeenth century, became a cursing well sometime after 1723. Pennant wrote in 1796 that the farmers near Mostyn were clearly in fear of being cursed at St. Elian's Well, which had evidently acquired such maleficent properties at a time when Methodism was spreading through many parts of Wales. Indeed, the Methodists themselves were not unaware that their adherents might be seduced for in their Rules of Discipline, first drawn up in 1801 and many times reprinted, members were instructed not to seek out magicians and prophets or to make offerings at wells.
But to return to the seventeenth century. Witchcraft prosecutions in England and Wales were governed by the statute of 1604. Neither of its predecessors, of 1542 and 1563, which had been repealed, had expressed the rigour of continental teaching, but the Act of 1604, entitled 'An Act against conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked spirits', showed the influence of the doctrine of compact with the Devil, for it now became a felony to 'excercise any invocation, or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose'. Even so, it did distinguish between various types of offence, only murder and bodily injury being punishable by death in the first instance, and by speaking of 'evil' spirits it allowed the possibility of claiming that 'good' spirits were responsible for some acts. To the most committed witch-hunters such implied distinction was unacceptable: to them all acts of magic should be punishable by death.
We are now confronted with the problems of definition, which are considerable. Hitherto we have discussed magic and the supernatural in general terms. The Roman Catholic Church believed in the possibility of supernatural actions provided they had been authorised by the Church: those actions not derived from God originated with the Devil and were to be condemned. The more stringent Protestants disallowed the possibility of any ecclesiastical magic and were hostile to all forms of folk magic. The terms 'witchcraft', 'sorcery' and 'magic' are notoriously difficult to define, as Dr. Macfarlane has observed, and there is much to be said for following his guide-lines in this complex area. 'Witchcraft' is often employed in a wide sense to cover all offences punishable under the Witchcraft Statutes, 'witch craft, conjuring, soothsaying, charmes', but closer definition presents many difficulties. Social anthropologists have sought to differentiate between witchcraft and sorcery. Thus, Evans-Pritchard, in his study of the Azande tribe in Africa, showed that witches injure others because of a physical peculiarity which would be revealed by a postmortem examination. 'An act of witchcraft is a psychic act.' The sorcerer, on the other hand, employs physical objects, such as images and pins, and acts in a particular way. Such distinctions did not prove satisfactory in relation to other African tribes and Keith Thomas considers thatthe attempt to distinguish witchcraft and sorcery is of restricted value when applied to England, his main field of study.
That ordinary people differentiated between good and bad witches cannot be doubted, a view reflected in part, and by implication, as we have seen, in the witchcraft statutes and also in the writings of such men as Reginald Scot and Richard Whyteford. Dr. Macfarlane's approach is especially useful here. Whereas he uses the word `witchcraft' at times in a general sense, as in the Witchcraft Statutes, he is also able to be more specific, according to context. The power of the black witch, he says, was believed to be derived from some external force; it was fundamentally an inner power directed to harm a person or object and external methods were not necessarily employed. The good witch was concerned with good rather than evil results and used visible, tangible agencies, such as an amulet or potion. The sorcerer used outward means - for instance, sticking pins in a waxen image, in order to achieve evil ends by injuring or killing his victim.
There is one further distinction which must be made, between the general belief in witchcraft, on the one hand, and accusations of witchcraft, on the other. In order to determine whether we can draw reasonably reliable conclusions concerning the number of prosecutions, it is necessary to consider the available sources of evidence.
There is little to be said in relation to 'literary' evidence, by which is meant the public and private writings of contemporaries. No pamphlet material has come to light and the three surviving references spring from Maelor Saesneg, though no significance whatsoever is to be attributed to this geographical location. In his diary, on 9 December 1663, Philip Henry wrote that Mary Powel was 'thought by some to be bewitch't, her dame (cal'd Katharin of ye Pinfold) is said to have kneel'd down & curst her; it scemes shee told some storyes of her about stealing - whether true or false doth not yet appear'. But he does not enlighten us further. On 4 March 1667, Philip Henry noted the case of a woman 'of a prophane life' from Hope parish, the sister of a John Griffith of Hawarden. Hearing at Sacrament the stern injunction to scandalous livers not to come to the Holy Table, she was terrified and the vicar, Henry Jones, who had been restored to his living after ejection under the Act for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, was summoned. He declared that he did not have her in mind and gave her an amulet with verses from St. John's Gospel written on a paper to hang around her neck. The device of hanging holy writing, especially St. John's Gospel, is known to have been generally popular. The vicar also gave her herbs to drive out the Devil, again a method commonly resorted to, but all in vain. Her brothers, John Griffith and William Lack, the latter 'a star amongst Christians of ye first Magnitude', counselled her and prayed with her until she was much improved. Indeed, her husband was sure that she was a better wife than she had ever been. The vicar, it appears, became very angry, though precisely for what reason we do not know. The failure of his nostrums and the direct, but evidently successful, approach to the Almighty by laymen, one of whom, William Lach, was almost certainly a nonconformist, may have incensed him. At all events he threatened to indict Griffith and Lach 'at the great Assize for Seducers'. There is no sign that he ever carried out his threat or that the woman from Hope lapsed again into profanity.
Richard Steele, deprived of his living at Hanmer for nonconformity, proceeded to London in 1667 and in the following year published a volume of sermons delivered to a country congregation, doubtless his flock at Hanmer. In the course of one of them, he had this to say:
- You have heard of that religious Gentleman, concerning whom the Witch his neighbour mad this confession at her death, that she had waited seven whole years to do him a mischief, but his constant Prayers had still disappoynted her; until one Morning, that hast of business had carryed him from home without Prayer in his Family; and before his return she had bewitched four or five of his children.
The records of the various courts of law must next be considered. The archives of the ecclesiastical courts have not proved fruitful. All the Act Books of the Consistory Court for the Diocese of St. Asaph are not extant. Those which have survived are seldom sufficiently detailed for our purpose and many of the supporting papers are missing. Further, it is impossible to decide what may be subsumed within the general charge of 'defamation' where no specific information is given. Moreover, after the passing of the 1604 Statute it had become increasingly recognised that witchcraft should be tried in the secular, not the ecclesiastical courts. The few available stray papers of the Peculiar of Hawarden, which had its own Consistory Court, contain two references to witchcraft. The first is nothing more than Catherine Weigh's complaint that Anne Millington had called her 'an old hairy witch and said that shee should not bewitch her the said Anne Millington'. Other pleasantries included charges that Catherine was William Fox's whore, that she was 'an old recettinge queane' and that her husband was 'a false theefe'. No special significance attaches to abusive language of this kind. The second instance concerns Elizabeth Wainewright of Hawarden, widow, and Richard Fazakarley, of Broadlane. Both were accused, probably in 1617, of going to charmers to be blessed, apparently at Chester. There is no additional information. Although no formal records of the Court of Arches before 1660 have come down to us, nevertheless, papers relating to a case in 1638 are to be found in the Kinmel Collection at the Library of the University College of North Wales and in the Plymouth Collection at the National Library of Wales. This case will be considered at length in a succeeding paper.
As to the main secular, central courts, it is unlikely that much evidence concerning witchcraft in Wales will be unearthed even when comprehensive indexes become available. The Catalogue of Star Chamber Proceedings relating to Wales is not as detailed as one would wish and there are no references to witchcraft in Flintshire during James I's reign (or in Elizabeth's for that matter). The Register of the Court of the Council in the Marches of Wales, 1617-37, has only one relevant case, dated 8 November 1623, but this does in fact involve two Flintshire men:
- Flint John ap Robert of Rhylyfnwyd at the suite of Bennett ap Ieuan plt by combination and practize to charge the plaintiff with felony by thadvise of a wisard. £5
Kenricke ap Robert of the same, for the like. £5
As to the principal secular courts held within the borders of Flintshire, it is naturally disappointing on several counts that the records of the Quarter Sessions for the seventeenth century have wholly disappeared. But perhaps for the present purpose one should not be unduly dismayed. Justices of the Peace were certainly empowered to examine felons, but they were not to try them. Moreover, evidence concerning witchcraft in the Caernarvonshire and Denbighshire Quarter Sessions records is exceedingly scanty. In the Essex Quarter Sessions records there are several accusations, but, even so, we may be reassured by Dr. Macfarlane's conclusion that 'Quarter Sessions documents cannot, by themselves, be taken as an accurate index of the amount of witchcraft prosecution in a county'.
The most promising source of evidence is the Court of Great Sessions, the counterpart in Wales of the Assize Court, where the majority of English witchcraft indictments are to be found. The gaol files are much more informative than the plea rolls, which contain few criminal records. The four Welsh circuits, like English circuits, vary greatly in the quality and extent of their records. There are no gaol files for the north-west circuit, those for the south-east are disappointing, those for the south-west are decidedly better, whilst those for the north-east circuit, which embraced Flintshire, Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire, are the most satisfactory of all. The Court of Great Sessions met twice a year in each shire and out of a possible maximum of 200 rolls for Flintshire for the whole of the seventeenth century, 186 are extant and have been examined. It seems probable that the records of the great majority of cases heard by judges in Great Sessions have survived. The residuary uncertainty concerns the list of indictments normally at the end of each gaol file. The preponderating number are perfectly legible, but some are not in good condition. Others do not always specify the indictment and the accused is summoned 'to answer to such charges as shall be objected against him'. An unresolved problem is the unqualified use of the word 'felony', which may be compared with the unqualified use of 'defamation' in the ecclesiastical courts. The same difficulty applies to the Palatinate of Lancaster, where, we are informed by Ewen, 'In the gaol calendars the nature of a felony is not specified, consequently charges of witchcraft escape the searcher '. In the Flintshire gaol files only two fully-documented cases have been discovered; and only one case and one petition in which there are references to witchcraft. Therefore, despite appreciable gaps in the sources, we may reasonably conclude that there was nothing approaching a witch-hunt in seventeenth-century Flintshire and that only rarely were prosecutions brought to the Court of Great Sessions. Why this was so will be considered at a later stage.
The petition of John ap Harry need not long detain us. He claimed in 1620 that he had lived peaceably with his neighbour Robert ap John ap Richard and his son Thomas ap Richard at Hendregaerwys but that they bore him causeless malice and provoked and reviled him. At the door of Caerwys parish church, where Robert ap John and the petitioner commonly resorted, the former had, in the presence of the parishioners, declared the petitioner to be bewitched. The petition is in an imperfect state, but it is clear that John ap Harry was not accused of being a witch. The underlying reason for the breach in relations is obscure, but it may have had its roots in a legal dispute in the Court of the Council of the Marches of Wales.
The first major case concerns Dorothy Griffith of Llanasa. According to a pretty reliable return made by the vicar of the parish in 1681 to Bishop William Lloyd, the population consisted of 231 households, in which lived 1,004 souls. That is was a highly self-contained unit may be gathered from that the fact of the 238 people married in the parish church during the quarter century, 1672-1697, for which we have sound information, no more than 25 came from outside the parish. Only 4 were from Welsh parishes outside the county (Llysfaen 1, Llandrillo 1, Henllan 2), 6 were from other Flintshire parishes (Cwm 1, Rhuddlan 3, Holywell 1, Bodfari 1) and 2 from England (Wirral 1, Bebington 1). Yet the world outside was not entirely alien. Only marginal significance should be attached to the several briefs collected in the parish for Protestant sufferers in England and Wales, Ireland and Lithuania , but it appears that an appreciable proportion of the inhabitants were seafarers. A stranger standing near Llanasa church would not at first suppose that he was in a parish bordering upon the sea, but once he had inspected some of the stones in the churchyard or crossed the brow of the hill he would be in no doubt. The parish register was rather better kept by William Smith, the incumbent during the interregnum, than Archdeacon Thomas suggests, for he recorded the occupations of the inhabitants during the period 1656-1661: of the 83 callings noted, 24 were seamen, 17 labourers and 13 colliers. From scattered references we gather that seamen were active in the coal trade and an undated seventeenthcentury source indicates that of the 54 seamen at home and abroad from the various townships in the vicinity, nearly a third came from Picton. One mariner from Picton, of whom we have some knowledge, was William Griffith and his experiences on 11 February 1655 prompted him to levy a charge of witchcraft against Dorothy Griffith.
The testimonies given upon oath before Ralph Hughes, esq., J.P., of Llewerllyd, may be summarised as follows. The first person to be examined was Thomas Rogers, of Picton, carpenter, who kept an alehouse near the seaside, into which came William Griffith, looking wild and 'affrighted'. After proceeding into a dark room, Griffith saw Rogers's wife carrying a candle, whereupon he swooned and was placed upon a bed. Between bouts of fainting, he said that Dorothy Griffith had come towards him 'with many lanterns lighted about her' and had led him to Rogers's house and that he had not been afraid until he looked towards the marsh which, he conceived, 'was soe covered with fire and light that one might have gathered needles'. He then became exceedingly frightened, saying to the company in the alehouse that if he were allowed to go out no one would see him again. Dorothy Griffith was sent for and William requested that she should drink before entering the room, presumably in order to demonstrate that she was truly corporeal. Dorothy 'uttered good words tending to prayer . . . ', protesting that she had not harmed him. Whereupon, William recovered and went home with his father. Much of this evidence was confirmed by Thomas Rogers's wife.
William Griffith himself declared that being a mariner he was going towards the ship in which he served, then lying at the Point of Ayr, when, in the twilight Dorothy Griffith appeared between him and several lanterns and lights. After a few minutes Dorothy vanished but the lights led him to Thomas Rogers's alehouse, where he fell into a trance. In the morning he asked that Dorothy should be sent for and after she had prayed for him he recovered.
Edward Griffith's testimony was more informative. Having met his brother, William, who was on his way to his ship, both had gone to an alehouse near the sea and called for a 'pottle of ale'. Dorothy entered and was asked by William whether he (William) had ever offended her father and his children and whether she would ask them to leave him alone, he, in turn, promising not to offend them. Dorothy agreed to convey the message. Edward and William left separately and near Thomas Rogers's alehouse Edward met another brother 'newly come from the sea', and both entered. Later William arrived and having gone into a dark room fainted at the sight of a candle lit by the alehouse-keeper's wife and later declared that Dorothy, with many lights about her, had conducted him to an alehouse. When the father arrived next morning to take him home, William would not move until Dorothy was sent for. She took drink, as requested, and denied that she had led him to the house and that she had been surrounded by lights. After Dorothy had asked God to bless him, William cast off his bedclothes and went home with his father 'in a good temper'.
The good temper did not last long. William evidently brought an accusation against Dorothy with some speed because on 21 February Ralph Hughes was examining witnesses in the case. Two days later, on 23 February, William Griffith, was bound in the sum of £40 to appear personally for the county of Flint to prosecute Dorothy, 'late' of Picton and now in gaol, for suspicion of felony. John Lewis, gentleman, also of Picton, became bound for William in the like sum. Seven weeks after imprisonment in the common gaol of the county, Dorothy petitioned John Bradshaw, Lord Chief Justice of Flint, to draw his attention to the great malice which William Griffith bore her and her family in bringing a false accusation against her. Attached to the petition was a certificate signed by thirty-one of her neighbours stating that there were no grounds for supposing that either Dorothy or her kindred had ever been attainted with any suspicion of witchcraft. On 7 April 1656, amongst the prisoners brought to the bar of the Court of Great Sessions by the sheriff, Thomas Dymock, esq., was Dorothy Griffith of Llanasa, spinster, to be prosecuted by William Griffith. She was allowed to bail herself in the sum of £40 to appear at the next sessions and in the meantime to be of good behaviour.On 13 October it was reported that she had made default and a scire facias was issued, returnable at the next assizes. No other information is available and we have no reason to suppose that any further action was taken. The accused may have been the Dorothy Griffith of Gronant who was buried on 24 August 1674 in the parish of Llanasa, but we do not know.
The precise reason why Dorothy was accused of witchcraft cannot now be discovered. Although it has not been possible to detect a family relationship in the Llanasa parish register, it is apparent that there had been a long history of ill feeling between William Griffith and Dorothy's family, but the 'diverse accions, querrells and affrayes', to which Dorothy refers in her petition, have not come to light. In the course of his testimony, Edward, the brother of William, seems to indicate that William had spoken in a conciliatory spirit in the alehouse by the sea, whereas Dorothy's version in the petition was utterly different. The accusation, we may suppose, sprang from a serious breach in personal relationship further widened by the events of 11 February. If Dorothy's version is correct, then William's guilty conscience may have caused him to attribute his alarming experiences to Dorothy's exercise of supernatural powers, perhaps confirmed in his mind by his speedy recovery after Dorothy had uttered comfortable words to him on the following morning.
William Griffith's repeated assertions that he had seen lights and candles would not have occasioned much surprise in seventeenth-century Wales. In the same year that Dorothy was suspected of witchcraft John Lewis of Glasgrug, Cardiganshire, was writing to Richard Baxter, the Presbyterian divine, that '. . . the strange and usual appearance of lights (called in Welch, dead men's candles) before mortality, this is ordinary in most of our counties, that I never scarce heard of any sort, young or old, but this is seen before death and often observed to part from the very bodies of the persons, all along the way to the place of burial, and infallibly death will ensue'. In a further letter he said that 'I scarce know any Gentleman or Minister of standing, but hath seen them.' In the next century Edmund Jones, 'the old Prophet', of Pontypool, gave numerous examples of such appearances, of which one must suffice:
- These Corpse-Candles are sometimes seen elsewhere, for I myself saw one in the Town of Wrexham in Denbighshire before the death of a lad in the adjoining house where I lodged.
Especially interesting is John Aubrey's remark that 'When any Christian is drowned in the River Dee, there will appear over the Water where the Corps is, a Light, by which means they do find the Body: and it is therefore called the Holy Dee'. Many educated, serious men believed in the authenticity of such visions, which a later age would describe as hallucinations. If William Griffith was convinced that he had seen a cannwyll corff or corpse candle it was not surprising that he was petrified. One cannot, of course, rule out the possibility that he did in truth see lights and allowing for the fact that sailors ashore who have visited alehouses are not the most reliable of witnesses, it is not wholly inconceivable that methane or marsh gas, especially in association with the coal seams of the vicinity, had become ignited and set dry vegetation ablaze. According to his own description, he looked back towards the marsh, which was 'soe covered with fire and light that one might have gathered needles'. He seems certainly to have been a sick man, for apart from his several fainting fits that night, his brother Edward described his eyes as 'seeming to bee like a flame of fire'. Perhaps what he had seen, magnified and intensified by his fevered state, was that phosphorescent light which hovers or flits over marshy ground, popularly known as Will o' the wisp or Jack-o-lantern. But these are mere speculations, perhaps not the proper province of the historian, and the sober fact is that no one else claimed to have seen lights of any kind, bright or wispy, upon the marsh near the Point of Ayr on the night of 11 February 1656.
A striking feature of the case is the number of parishioners, thirty-one in all, who sprang to the support of Dorothy by testifying on her behalf. All had signed their names and were clearly the most prominent members of the locality. Several of them may be identified in the Hearth Tax Returns of 1664 and 1671, but here we need draw attention to only a few. Edward Mostyn of Talacre, who was created a baronet in 1670, belonged to a branch of the Mostyn family which long remained true to the Old Faith. His son Pyers was listed by the Vicar of Llanasa in 1681 as a Catholic, and a direct descendant of the family was the first Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, who died in 1938. Sir Edward Mostyn, as he then was, sought special permission to leave the country during the feverish period of the Popish Plot. According to one source, his estate was valued at £1,500 per annum and he was described by Richard Mostyn as 'a Learned man and great Collector but his books and papaers were pillagd this last civil warr to ye great losse of ye publick made away'. Edward Morgan of Golden Grove, who also came from a Catholic family, was a royalist captain in the Civil War. He did not have long to live because he was killed during Booth's Rebellion at Winnington Bridge, Northwich, in 1659. According to the vicar's return for Llanasa in 1681, Robert Rignald's wife was listed as a Roman Catholic. So also was Thomas Browne, who, in a dispute between the Bishop of St. Asaph and Edward Mostyn esq. concerning the tithes of Llanasa in 1665, was described as an agent of Mostyn's. William Smith, the puritan vicar, had been instituted at Llanasa in 1647. Archdeacon Thomas was right to chastise him for not keeping the parish register as fully as he should have done. There are some disconcerting gaps, but from 1656 to 1661, as we have seen, there was a distinct improvement and the entries, which include occupations, appear to be full and complete. The vicarage was worth £80 or £100 per annum and he was accused in 1661 of not having given a fifth part, as he was by law required, to his dispossessed predecessor. By 1662, he was Vicar of Wrexham and twenty years later he was described by Bishop William Lloyd as 'a Presbyterian in the late times and still halts on that foot'.
Thus it was that the principal inhabitants of Llanasa, including the puritan incumbent and a sprinkling of Roman Catholics, joined together to certify that whereas Dorothy Griffith was in prison upon suspicion of witchcraft, they 'had never heard or knew any such malignitie in her', nor in any of her kindred. They did not, of course, deny the existence of witches and it would have been surprising had they done so at a time when one of the greatest lawyers of the age, Sir Matthew Hale, later Lord Chief Justice of England, was prepared to accept hearsay evidence several years old and the unsupported evidence of children to secure the conviction of witches. But it is a remarkable testimony to the sense of fairness of the chief parishioners of Llanasa that they unequivocally came to the aid of a defenceless spinster, so often the victim of persecution in less favoured communities.
Dorothy Griffith appeared at the Assizes at Flint before two judges. One was Thomas Fell, of Swarthmore Hall, Ulverston, Lancashire, considered to be 'a good lawyer and a good man', whose widow Margaret was to marry George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. The senior judge was John Bradshaw, appointed Chief Justice of Chester in 1649 in part recognition of his services as Lord President of the High Court which had tried and sentenced Charles I to death. By 1656 he had fallen foul of Cromwell, who attempted unsuccessfully to remove him from the office of Chief Justice in August. To appear before a judge who had not flinched from sentencing the Royal Martyr was in itself sufficiently alarming to Dorothy Griffith, but, in addition, there was the knowledge, doubtless widespread in Flintshire, that Bradshaw and Fell had condemned to death three Cheshire women for entertaining evil spirits and bewitching Elizabeth Furnivall, who had languished and died. They had been hanged at Boughton about 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 17 October 1654. William Griffith's accusations of witchcraft against Dorothy had placed her in grievous danger and it is doubtless for this reason that the most influential men of Llanasa interceded on her behalf. A further three women were sentenced to death by the same judges at Chester in 1656 and were hanged at Boughton on 15 October. But, to the best of our knowledge, Dorothy Griffith survived.