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Welsh witches

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:31 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Stories about witches are found all over the world - during the 16th and 17th centuries a "witch craze" in Europe saw over 100,000 people, mainly women, accused of witchcraft and executed by secular government and the church.

Yet there were relatively few witch trials in Wales, with only five Welsh witches being executed for their supposed crimes. With great reliance placed on the power of the wise man or the wise woman, witchcraft in Wales had long been connected to healing.

"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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  • Comment number 1.

    I enjoyed the blog on Welsh witches. I didn't know the connections to the "wise men" or "wise women" of Welsh folklore. After reading the blog I listened to the Past Master programme. It was really informative. But when I looked in the Radio Times I saw that the programme is not on this Sunday. Does that mean the series has ended? And if so, when is it coming back?

  • Comment number 2.

    I listened to the end of this programme while driving back to mid Wales. I found it interesting in that I had just over heard a conversation as I was getting out of my car at Craig y Rhacca near Machen. A woman was talking to my brother and said that she had to visit my neice because her brother in law had been cursed by a gypsy and she wanted my neice to take the curse away. So spells and curses are still very much a part of South Waloan life.
    In Rhydri in the 1850's a witch called Diana Fawr lived. She "disappeared" and her house burned down. My grandmother was told by her mother that she remembered going downstairs at the Maenllwyd (where she lived) and found the bar empty. When she asked where all the men were she was told to be quiet and to go to bed. That night the witch's house was set on fire and she wa never seen again.


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