British Witchcraft

Two witches, flying on a broomstick and a stick

What springs to mind when you hear the word ‘witchcraft’?

Do you think of one of the famous trials, such as Salem or Pendle? Perhaps you picture King James interrogating the North Berwick witches who attacked his ships with their magic. You may know a magical practitioner, or have heard a rock song which pays homage to the Great Beast Aleister Crowley.

You may not have thought immediately of the Victorian era.

Victorian Era Witchcraft

Recently, I’ve been undertaking research for a new book, and have spent a considerable time looking through old newspaper records from the late 1800s to see whether witchcraft ever featured and, if so, how frequently. In one publication alone, there are reports of dozens of court cases in which there is mention of witchcraft. Usually, these are either assault or fraud, although some are murder cases.

Fraud cases usually feature people who parted with money or goods after being told they had been bewitched. Sometimes, quite significant amounts are involved. Two women, for example, paid around £35 (over £2000 today) to a woman who claimed she could tell their futures and secure them a husband and a good work placement, and that they had both been bewitched, which she could also reverse with some counter-magic. To indicate just how much this sum was worth in 1860, the currency calculator on The National Archives’s website states that £35 would have bought you a couple of horses, or six cows, or paid a skilled tradesman’s wages for 175 days.

In this particular case, the magistrates appear to have been extremely scathing towards the two victims. The news report suggests that they referred to them as “the simpletons” and “simple-minded women”, a viewpoint which I have seen echoed in countless news reports of this kind. Similarly, a few years later, an alleged sorcerer was murdered by several women who believed he had bewitched them. During the trial, the reporter recorded the judge’s derision towards those with superstitious beliefs, which was in much the same vein as in the fraud case – there is always surprise that, in such enlightened times, people still clung to their ridiculous superstitions. Such cases are truly fascinating for the glimpses they provide into the temperature of society at the time, and this one spotlights the view that anyone claiming to practice “magic” was clearly a con artist, and while they were definitely evil for preying on the gullible, the evil came from within, not from “the devil”. Time and again, the news reports mention the magistrates’ incredulity that people still believe in witches and other forms of what is frequently referred to as “gross superstition”, but which remains, no matter how you regard it, a blatant form of victim-shaming.

As well as providing a window into the past, all these cases, with few, if any exceptions, could easily have come from a different century. Remove any mention of money, and our 1860 fraud case would be indistinguishable from one which took place in 1560 or 1660. The motives in these more recent cases, too, are still the same as they were in previous centuries, particularly assaults where the attacker wants to draw the victim’s blood in order to dispel the curse they believe the victim has laid on them. Despite these cases being heard during a period of enlightenment and learning, it is clear that belief in witches was far from being in decline.

– Tracey Norman

If you want to find out more take a look at Tracey’s course “Introduction to British Witchcraft” which includes the following:

  • What is a witch?
  • Witchcraft and the law
  • The reformation and its consequences
  • Healers and cunning people
  • Witchcraft and royalty
  • Folk medicine
  • Cursing
  • Protective magic
  • Famous British witches
  • Witchcraft trials
  • Witches on your doorstep
  • Witches in the media
  • Modern witchcraft

Musings on History – Henry VII

King Henry VII – The Winter King

(by Lynne Thompson on 21st January 2022)

Pembrokeshire Castle

Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry VII
[ JKMMX ] [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

The Winter King

Since we are in the middle of winter, I’ve been thinking of a volume on my shelves on Henry VII, who could be called the Winter King. Indeed he was born in winter, on January 28th 1457, in Pembroke Castle, in Wales and that is one of the reasons why the Welsh dragon always formed part of his insignia.

Henry VII

The Winter King is also the title of a book by Thomas Penn, and a useful read. Henry VII was the founder of the Tudor dynasty and father of Henry VIII and I’ve been doing a bit of digging on this lesser known Tudor. One interesting thing about him is his early youth and the fourteen years he spent in exile in France – Brittany to be precise – and those, I believe, made him the man he was eventually to become.  That is, suspicious, insecure and crafty but also determined, patient and fiercely proud of his Lancastrian ancestry.

His host was Francis, the Duke of Brittany, who saw Henry Tudor as a pawn in the game between Edward VI and the King of France. Edward would have liked to rid himself of Henry, a rival to his throne, but Francis kept Henry safe.  That was to prevent the King of France capturing him and letting him loose on the English as a rival. Possession of something the French King wanted also made the Duke of Brittany safer in his own duchy. So Henry was a valuable bargaining tool, whose fate always depended on what relations were between England and France, always tainted by the recent Hundred Years War, and how Brittany sought to ward off threats to its own independence.

When Richard III became King, Henry’s strategy, planned by Margaret Beaufort, the mother whom he had not seen for years, was to declare in public, in Brittany’s Rennes Cathedral, that he would marry Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth, then in sanctuary with her mother, and thus bury the enmity between Lancaster and York by making her his queen.  Present were exiles from Richard’s court, friends of Edward IVth’s queen, but King Richard was able to bribe the ageing Duke of Brittany to relinquish Henry in return for funds to fight an increasingly hostile French king, whereupon Henry Tudor flew to the French court for sanctuary. There he found more English fugitives, willing to invade England in support of Henry, and bearing news that Richard III had serious plans to marry the princess Elizabeth himself. Thus, Henry Tudor had no choice but to gather together an army including mercenary soldiers as well as his own supporters, and he landed in Wales in August, 1485. The rest, as we say, is history;  Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth and Henry Tudor had arrived out of nowhere and avenged the death of the little princes in the tower, although there is some debate as to who was actually responsible for their murder. At any rate, the Wars of the Roses had ended with a victory by which the winner took all, and regardless of his somewhat dubious Plantagenet ancestry.

As we know, Henry VII was true to his word, married Elizabeth and they founded the Tudor dynasty between them. If he trusted anyone, it would be his queen and why not, since both had so much in common – both being  familiar with being in sanctuary, and pawns in the game of power? Both were survivors and as united in death as in life, as their tomb in Westminster Abbey illustrates.

You can find out more on the conflicts between England and France, the Wars of the Roses and also the Tudors in our history courses.

History courses taught by Lynne Thompson:

The Winter Queen

Next month find out more on someone known as The Winter Queen!

Dickens – not just for Christmas!

Chales Dickens with a star and fairy light background

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story for Christmas, more commonly known just as A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens was first published in 1843 and is one of his most well known and loved works. At under 2900 words it is classed as a novella, that is, a work that is longer than a short story, but not long enough to be classed as a novel. As a novella it is in good company with others famous novellas such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stephenson (1886), Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (1899) (on which the film Apocalypse Now is based), The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka (1915), I Am Legend – Richard Matheson (1954) (made into a film three times, with three different titles, The Last Man on Earth in 1964, The Omega Man in 1971, and I Am Legend in 2007), and Animal Farm – George Orwell (1945).


A Christmas Carol is an annual favourite around Christmas time and is available in various formats. There are print editions, ebooks, audio books and plays, theatre plays, and a selection of film adaptations. The film adaptations range from A Christmas Carol (1951, starring Alastair Sim), through A Christmas Carol (1971, animation, Scrooge voiced by Alastair Sim), Christmas Carol (1991, starring John Stewart) to The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) , and everyone has their own favourite. Which one is yours? Its impact on our speech remains; it popularised the phrase “Merry Christmas” and the term Scrooge is still applied to someone who is miserly.

However, Dickens’ other Christmas works are less well known, including The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). Of particular note in relation to A Christmas Carol is The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton. A sexton is typically an employee of the church with various duties, which may include grave digging. This was a story within The Pickwick Papers (1837). No plot spoilers here, but it is often though of as a precursor to A Christmas Carol, and so is well worth reading on that basis alone.

Social Justice

The majority of Dickens’ work however was not focussed around Christmas. In total he wrote fifteen novels, including the aptly named The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was fated to forever to remain a mystery as Dickens died before it was completed. Most people will be familiar with some of these works, from the books themselves, audio books, or film adaptations.

So why should we still read, watch, and listen to Dickens? A key element of Dickens’ work, both fictional and journalistic, was that of social justice. His novels presented a social commentary on Victorian society and challenged the middle-class assumptions about things such as criminality. They laid bare the grim realities of the poverty that working class people endured and the class inequalities that were endemic in society, and so ensured that these issued were brought into the light of the Victorian day. Such was his impact that Karl Marx said of the “splendid brotherhood of fiction writers in England”, in which he included Thackeray, Brontë and Gaskell as well as Dickens, that their “graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together”, and in turn George Bernard Shaw said of Little Dorrit that it was “A more seditious book than Das Kapital”. Social justice is still something that is an issue, and reading Dickens gives us the lens to view it through from a Victorian perspective, and so can see what things have changed for the better, and what things sadly still need to be addressed.


Here at Learn for Pleasure we like TED talks, and Iseult Gillespie gives and interesting talk on “Why should you read Charles Dickens”:


Project Gutenberg provides free public domain ebooks that can be read online or downloaded in various ereader formats for free – view the ebooks of Dickens’ works  from Project Gutenberg.

LibriVox provides free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers – view the audiobooks of Dickens’ works at LibriVox.

Bird life can change over time on your own patch

Bird Life and Behaviour

(by John Merefield on 30th September 2021)

Eurasian blue tit

Eurasian Blue Tit
Fancis Franklin CC BY-SA 3.0 

Back in the early 1970s in Southampton I did the usual thing of hanging up peanuts in the established back garden of my flat to encourage the resident blue tits to visit. I have to report though as it turned out, they proved to be the first in the country to discover that pecking the silver tops of the milk bottles of my doorstep deliveries proved a more rewarding feed.

Male European GreenfinchMale European Greenfinch
Andreas Trepte CC BY-SA 2.5 

So then, when I moved into our new-build home in Devon in the late 1970s I expected similar behaviour.  But the challenge here was different in every way. As each house had white-rendered walls and bare gardens initially, few birds could be enticed to the feeders at all. They felt exposed I guess. The first to arrive were greenfinches in pretty good numbers, but over the years, sadly they fell away due no doubt to the disease that ravaged their community. Trichomonosis caused by a parasite, first appeared in the UK in 2005.

Female European GreenfinchFemale European Greenfinch
Andreas Trepte CC BY-SA 2.5 

So even today when they do arrive, it’ll be just in ones and twos. But, back to the 1970s/1980s period and eventually, as more food was put out more suited to their likes (mainly expensive sunflower seed), most garden species started to take advantage of the feeding stations. The anticipated blue, great, coal, and long-tail tits soon arrived and have maintained a strong presence since, but thankfully leaving the pints of milk alone!

Nearby is a valley nature park where in the autumn a rarity would be to see a charm (8 in number) of goldfinches. However, as the years have rolled on, they too would visit the garden feeders and so much so that they have become the most dominant of the birds on my patch.  But this year has been particularly special as redpolls appeared for the first time in winter when the normally mild south west weather deteriorated. To add to that, bull finches (male and female) have become comfortable on the feeders in the spring. I guess too that the most exciting of all was to see the bullfinch young appearing after fledging, once their parents had told them where to come, i.e. ‘This is where we get our food. Enjoy!’

Redpoll on a twig

Common Redpoll
Cephas CC BY-SA 3.0 

As those of you have run your own bird feeding stations will know however, all this activity doesn’t go unnoticed by the predators. And by that I don’t just mean the next-door neighbour’s cats. An occasional explosive exodus of feeding birds can often herald the arrival of a sparrow hawk. Pleasingly, it might also linger for a while so that its majestic colouration can be observed before it goes off to hunt once more elsewhere. In a little while though, the bravest birds will regain their courage and come back to refuel and tranquillity resumes.


Male Eurasian Bullfinch
Fancis Franklin CC BY-SA 3.0 

So, there you go. Bird Life on your own patch will vary with time and partly this will be due to your own actions. Birds like to feel safe and have somewhere to bolt to should danger arise. They also have their own preferences as regards diet. And, as with all wildlife observation, events will often prove unpredictable. But one thing is certain, changing bird life on your own patch will never be boring!

John Merefield teaches our Bird Life course.


Celtic treasures, unearthed as a “lost ancient capital city” is discovered in France

Celtic treasure, including jewellery, weapons and priceless artefacts unearthed as a “lost ancient capital city” is discovered near Gannat, in central France

Hundreds of ancient objects have been found by archaeologists from the University of Toulouse – Jean Jaures, in a dig site near Gannat in central France. Farming tools, swords, extravagant jewellery and chariot pieces were all part of the discovery.

The archaeologists who discovered this Bronze Age hillfort think that, due to the abundance of treasure and sheer size of the site, it may represent a lost Celtic capital city and that the items were buried as part of a ritualistic offering.

Excavations revealed a large, 30 hectares in total, fortified settlement, which experts believe would have sported stone walls up to 20-feet-high. The recovery of such a find was not only very exciting, but also timely, as one of the deposits had already been partially looted.

The archaeological site has yielded hundreds of different items, thought to have been buried in around 800 BC. This type of a find is rare from French hillforts. It actually represents one of the richest metal deposit sites from the Bronze Age ever discovered in Europe, experts have said.

During the time of the Gannat Hill Fort, the Allier region had significant economic value due to the navigable Sioule river and local tin deposits for making bronze. The treasure found at the Gannat site was spread across five different deposits, with one of these already being a target of scavengers, as explained team leader and archaeologist Pierre-Yves Milcent of the University of Toulouse–Jean Jaurès.

“We intervened on this site because there was looting by people equipped with metal detectors who then resell their loot on the internet, where there is a whole parallel market, “he explained.

“The excavations are not complete, but we already have around 800 objects, the majority intact.”

“This is also the first time that we have found four intact hoards that we can excavate in the laboratory under the best conditions.”

The archaeologists believe that the deposit, of which three were arranged in vases, may have been buried to form a divine offering. Bringing to light the suspicion that this may have been a religious ritual site.

“The decorations and symbols of the bronze objects refer to a cult of the sun, which was a very important deity at the time, as in Egypt,” said Dr Milcent.

Based on their dimensions, the researchers believe that the jewellery items, which also included anklets, were most likely worn by women and children. A unique element to the deposits, came in the form of river pebbles, which appear to have been added due to their colour, white in one hoard, while red in another.

What also makes this find significant is the fact that the artefacts are helping the researchers to paint a picture of what life might have been like in this Celtic society, some 2,800 years ago.

Among the objects unearthed are items linked to farming, tools for manufacturing textiles and ceramics, and equipment for wood and metalworking. There are signs of wealth also, including parts from chariots, harnesses that would have been worn by horses, and extravagant jewellery.

The Celts were a distinct group of Indo-European people who gave rise to the Britons, Gaels and Gauls among others. They migrated to what is modern-day France from Central Europe. Today, France’s northwesternmost region, Brittany, remains one of the six officially recognised Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man.

Interested in learning more about Archaeology? Here at Learn for Pleasure, we have a number of archaeological courses:

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