Welsh witches

"The term witch has meant many things to many people over the years," says Dr Kathleen Olsen of the University of Wales, Bangor. "But for most of the Middle Ages the word really meant the local healer, someone who made poultices and medicines and perhaps had charms or spells for healing cattle and other farm animals."

Be that as it may, the powers of darkness certainly had an appeal to some people. When, in the early years of the sixteenth century, Tangwlyst ferch Glyn was accused by the Bishop of St David's of living in sin, she fashioned a figure of the Bishop and called down a curse upon him. The Bishop fell ill but the affair fizzled out - the only known instance of a poppet doll being made and used in Wales.

Tangwlyst was lucky, a few years later witchcraft was a matter for the State. A statute in 1563 made witchcraft a capital offence and from that point on more and more people were called out as witches. Often this was little more than a handy way of labelling some unfortunate woman who was different from everybody else - or, sometimes, as a way of exacting revenge when the wise man or wise woman failed to cure an ache or heal a hurt animal.

"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. The National History Museum at St Fagans has a fascinating collection of witch related artefacts - including a bottle that is filled with pins.

"It would have contained urine," says Lisa Tallis of the museum, "urine from the victim. The idea of the pins was to cause the witch, who had put on the curse, to suffer excruciating pain and thereby break the spell." The laws against witches were repealed in 1736 but the very name witch still has the power to cause a shiver of apprehension and fear in many people - particularly on dark winter nights when the powers of darkness might just be wandering abroad!

Learn more about Welsh witches on Past Master, Sunday 28 March, 2pm, BBC Radio Wales

Do you have any local tales of witches? We'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.

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