‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair; Hover through the fog and filthy air.’

People tend to bring up five points about witchcraft when they find out what my PhD is about:

  • Witches were mostly women (true)
  • Witches were part of a pagan cult (untrue)
  • Witches have evil talking cats (Somewhat true, more so in England, and not only cats)
  • Witches were burned alive (Not usually in England, but generally true)
  • And Witches could Fly, right?…

The last is somewhat like witches being burned alive, not usually true in England, but there were exceptions, like Mary Lakeland who was burned not for witchcraft, but because her target had supposedly been her husband. As Malcolm Gaskill puts it ‘the law against treason did prescribe burning for a woman who murdered her husband – for in so doing she was held to have risen up treasonably against her natural lord and master.’[I]

Similarly flying witches turn up occasionally, but they are far from mainstream. The idea that witches could fly was certainly present in English plays and publications. In Macbeth (c1606), for example, there are both metaphorical references to flight in the text and the witches actually fly, though Shokhan Rasool Ahmed argues that their physical flight was a later addition, not an original part of the plays directions.[ii]

The_three_witches_hover_over_Macbeth_and_Banquo;_scene_from_Wellcome_V0025895

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During the Second Battle at Newbury, in October 1644, 40 years after Macbeth, it was reported that the Catholics of the King’s army had many witches amongst them, whom ‘Cromwell’s soldiers did plainly perceive to fly swiftly from one side of the [K]ing’s army to another’.[iii]  But the accusation is rare indeed in actual witch trials.

In Lancashire in 1612 there is one such incident, when a little girl called Grace Sowerbutts claimed she and three other women (who were the accused witches, and Grace their accuser) had travelled across a river with the aide of ‘foure blacke things’.[iv]

In her detailed confession she described how:

‘the three women, by her before named, were carried backe againe ouer Ribble, by the same blacke things that carried them thither; and saith that at their said meeting in the Red-bancke, there did come also diuers other women, and did meete them there, some old, some young, which this Examinate thinketh did dwell vpon the North-side of Ribble, because she saw them not come ouer the Water[.]’[v]

This isn’t flight in the sense of hopping on a broomstick, but the women were carried by the ‘blacke’ creatures from one side of the river to the other.

This case was later dismissed, with the blame laid at the feet of a Jesuit Priest who was accused of coaching young Grace to make the accusations she had, which included blood sucking, infanticide, sex with devils, and flying ith the aide of ‘blacke things’.

In 1663, Julian Cox (a woman) was accused of flying in a case that was discussed in both Joseph Glanville’s Saducismus triumphatus (1681 edition used here), and George Sinclair’s Satan’s invisible world discovered (1685).  Both of these were based, as Jonathan Barry’s Witchcraft and Demonolgy in South-West England has discussed, on the work of one Robert Hunt ‘the Somerset magistrate to whom Glanvill addressed his first publication on the subject and whose ‘book of examinations’ formed the basis of a substantial part of Glanvill’s evidence for the contemporary activity of witches.’[vi] Glanvill gives details in his publication of five charges made against her as a witch in general, and the fourth of these witnesses declared that “she had seen Julian Cox fly into her own Chamber Window in her full proportion, and that she very well knew her, and was sure it was she.’[vii]

In 1712 another witch, Jane Wenham of Walkern (http://www.walkernhistorysociety.co.uk/index.php/historical-highlights/jane-wenham/) was accused in court of having flown. James Sharpe relates how the judge in the case, Sir John Powell attacked witnesses on the stand, caustically questioned them, and finally ‘according to tradition’ when ‘confronted by claims that the witch was accustomed to fly, retorted that that there was no law against flying.’[viii]

Though the jury in that case found Jane Wenham guilty, she was eventually pardoned by Queen Anne. The case became famous enough that it has been called the last witch trial in England, through that is not true, cases continued to be brought in the eighteenth century, and some accused witches were even hung after 1712.

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But what does this scattering of mentions flight tell us? Well, first I should note that it is far from complete. Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (1616) featured flying witches, and Reginald Sct had published continental accounts of witches flying as early as 1581. Yet it remains well outside the mainstream of English witch trials. This is a little bit of a puzzle, and far too complicated to explain in detail here. Nevertheless let me suggest that flying was not alone. Sabbats and sex with the devil were likewise intermittent pats of witchcraft tracts, plays, and trials in early modern England, but far more common in other European jurisdictions.

There is little compelling argument as to why this was so outside of some ephemeral conception of underlying cultural differences between England and continental Europe. But I have yet to see anyone elucidate the exact nature of those cultural differences. England also experienced waves of migration and occupation that may have effected the ideas found in popular witch beliefs. The short answer is, we just don’t know.

J.R.R. Tolkien famously decried England’s lack of a founding mythology of its own, that is in part because Britain has always been a melting pint of cultures and ideas. Perhaps witches who flew just didn’t make it across the channel, and therefore never truly took their place in early modern English ideas about witches who lived next door, or down the road.

[i] Gaskill, Malcolm, Witchfinders, (2005), p.174.

[ii] Rasool Ahmed Shokhan, The Visual Spectacle of Witchcraft in Jacobean Plays, (2014).

[iii]The original pamphlet, which apparently made this claim, has not been found but it was quoted in the Royalist newsbook Mercvrivs Avlicvs. See [Anon], Mercvrivs Avlicvs, (27 October to 2 November, 1644). The Mercvrivs Avlicvs later mocked the witch-hunt in England, claiming that ‘we have also multitudes of witches among us … More, I may well say, than ever this Island bred since the Creation. I speak it with horror. God guard us from the Devil, for I think he was never so busy upon any part of the Earth that was enlightened by the beams of Christianity; nor do I wonder at it, for there’s never a Cross left to fright him away.’ See [Anon], Mercvrivs Avlicvs (July 13 to July 20 1645).

[iv]Potts, Thomas, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, (1613).

[v] Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster.

[vi] Barry, Jonathan. Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789. (2012): p. 14.

[vii] Glanville, Joseph. Saducismus triumphatus. (1681).

[viii] Sharpe, James. Instruments of Darkness, (1996): p. 230.

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