What are Witches?
Witches also known as "Cunning Folk" were essentially people who practised magic professionally and generally according to their own rules. They offered a wide range of magical, psychic and practical services to their local community but unlike the local priest or vicar they did not necessarily involve religion or one specific religion in their practice, they simply did what works. Services of the witch included counteracting spells, finding stolen or lost property, exorcising ghosts and evil spirits, even treating the medical conditions of both people and live stock.
Although witches and cunning folk still exist today they were a necessity of life in the past and society as a hole tended to regard them with both fear and awe. "Witchcraft was a path of the lone practitioner, seeking wisdom in hidden places" and could prove to be a profitable profession, although not without it's dangers, in fact ironically even though witches were known to deal with maleficent spirits the more dangerous part of the path was the politics of magic and the persecution of magical practitioners by the so called elite such as witch hunts during the thirteenth through to seventeenth centuries by the Church (Christianity).
I should note that the word "Witch" was not really used by Western Magickal Practitioners in years gone by as a positive, therefore a Cunning Man or Wise Woman would probably not describe themselves as "Witches" instead opting for terms such as "Pellar".
The Word Witch was more frequently used as an accusation or as an insult, in other words to describe a bad or evil magick user. It is only in modern times that many magickal practitioners both Male and Female choose to embrace the word and actively market themselves as "Witches".
And now, without further ado here is my list of Famous Witches & Cunning Folk of Old:
Old Mother Shipton
Ursula Southeil known by most as "Mother Shipton" was a great English prophetess, Clairvoyant, Witch and Cunning Woman of the 16th Century. Born in 1488, her mother Agatha Southiel (also allegedly a Witch) was said to have given birth to her in a cave by the River Nidd in Knaresborough, Yorkshire (now known as "Mother Shipton's Cave"). There were rumoured to have been several omens and signs during her birth such as, Ravens croaking and thunderstorms which stopped at the exact moment of her birth, it was believed these suggested Ursula would grow up to be a "special person".
Unfortunately for Ursula she was born deformed and many locals would refer to her as "Hagface", "Long face" and "the devils child". She was even rumoured to have been fathered by the Devil himself. Locals however never said these things to her face as they were far to afraid.
She was known to have a short temper and the village people would say she would "send goblins to attack people who annoyed her". Legend has it she put a curse on the village of Silverton when it's inhabitants upset her. She prophesied that nobody would ever prosper who lived there.
Despite her reputation she did eventually marry a carpenter, by the name of Tony Shipton in 1512 and many were shocked by this so believed she had slipped him a love potion. After marriage she adopted her husbands surname "Shipton" which of course soon became part of her legacy.
Old Mother Shipton was most famous for her prophecies which she gave in the form of poems which are considered to be very accurate and has led to her being as highly regarded as Nostradamus. She was said to have foretold the invention of iron ships, motor transport, submarines, the radio, and even possibly the internet. She also predicted the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and also anticipating the fates of several significant rulers, both in her lifetime and beyond her death.
One of Mother Shipton’s most renowned prophecies was detailed in the earliest surviving record of her life, a pamphlet from 1641. This prediction concerned one of Henry VIII’s bishops, cardinal Thomas Wolsey, with Shipton stating that ‘Cardinall Wolsey should never come to Yorke with the King’, despite being appointed as the city’s Archbishop.
Mother Shipton eventually died in 1561 at the age of 76 and is believed to be buried in unconsecrated ground somewhere outside York, with the words "Here lies a woman who never lied" inscribed on her headstone.
Married to a Clothier, she earned a living teaching children to read and write but claimed to have been trained in the magical arts by famous London Wizard Dr Lambe, who was said to have given her "a little book of charms".
In her eighties she moved to Salisbury (Wiltshire) and gained a reputation as a cunning woman and freely told people that she had the power to cure illnesses, find lost and stolen property and see the person responsible in her "crystal".
A woman "Anne Styles" once reported seeing Anne Bodenham "draw a circle on the ground and use a cauldron to invoke various demons called Beelzebub, Tormenter, Satan, and Lucifer."
She was arrested and eventually sentenced to death in 1653. It was noted she cursed her jailers not for executing her but for refusing her request for Beer so as she could be drunk at the execution.
Born in 1700 and often remembered for being one of the last speakers of the old Cornish language was a healer and fortune-teller and lived way into her nineties.
Dolly was a fish-seller but had knowledge of Astrology and knew planetary hours to "heal and curse". she was reputed to have been a "Grey Witch" and would "blast and ban" people is they offended her.
One story of Dolly Pentreath's reputation for cursing was the time a local man named Price was riding his horse down a road and met Dolly carrying a basket of fresh fish. He asked her to move in order to pas her by, but she refused. When he attempted to go around her he accidentally caught her basket and spilt the contents all over the road. Price heard Dolly mumble something and knowing she was a witch, feared she was cursing him. He demanded to know what she had said but she merely laughed and told him she had called him "an ugly black toad". Insulted Price then threatened he would horsewhip her but Dolly just told him he could try but that she would cast a spell that would make his arm rot and drop off. Price was so terrified at this, he galloped away as quick as he could before she carried out her threat.
Tamsin Blight - "The White Witch of Helston"
Born in Redruth in 1793 Tamsin Blight "The White Witch of Helston" was one of England's most famous cunning woman, in fact hundreds of people came to her over her lifetime for cures, charms, or to have curses lifted and their fortunes told (although it is unknown when she originally started working as a cunning woman).
Tamsin married her first husband, a stone mason called Richard Blight in 1825. They had three children although two dies in 1827 within a month of each other but the third born in 1832 survived. Richard died in 1832 from Typhus and Tamsin later remarried a widower named James Thomas, Jemmy for short, in 1835.
Thomas also claimed to have witch powers and the pair went into business together as cunning folk. They eventually moved to Heston in the 1840s where they continued to do very well for themselves and always had a constant stream of visitors seeking their help.
This partnership was not to last however as Thomas was a perverted bisexual predator and frequently took advantage of gullible young male and female clients. He would tell them they were require to sleep with him in order to break curses they thought had been placed on them. Scandal eventually did break when a woman from St Ives complained about Thomas' behaviour and a warrant was issued for his arrest forcing him to flee.
Tamsin tried to distance herself from the fallout by calling him a "drunken, disgraceful beastly fellow" and recommended he be sentenced to the treadmill which basically was a treadmill with exterior steps set into two cast iron wheels. These drove a shaft that could be used to mill corn, pump water or connect to a large fan for resistance. They were used in prisons as a method of exerting hard labour, a form of punishment prescribed in prisoner's sentences.
Despite being bedridden Tamsin continued to see clients almost up until her death and eventually died in October 1856. She was buried in the graveyard at Helston parish church and on the day of her funeral "the worst storm for generations" hit West Cornwall causing floods and turning day into night. Superstitious folk said the devil himself had come to claim his own.
Thomas eventually died in 1874 and the local newspapers seemingly forgot about his sexual assaults and instead praised him as a charmer, healer and horse whisperer.
John Read lived in the 17th Century and was a self educated farmer who had a great interest in the occult. He was said to have collected many books on the subject including Agrippa's famous tomb which he would hide "over the ditch" near Milborne in Dorset where he grazed his flock.
Not much was known about him or his practices although he was said to have demonstrated his knowledge of the magical arts to a friend John Cannon, who said Read drew a circle on the ground with a pick and inscribed some unknown characters. He then began to recite strange words in a foreign language. Cannon said "the air became sudden changed and grew darkish and became like a mist with a jostling wind even thunder and lightening in the distance." John Cannon was so unsettled by the experience he recommended in his memoirs that all such occult books should be burnt.
Old James Baker
James Baker was a famous cunning man from Dorset who also acted as a witch finder. He was said to have a magic silver spoon which was "charmed" and used to aid him in his spell casting.
He was called upon by a local farmer to find who had bewitched one of the pigs. He singled out the farmers neighbour, a lady who had just turned up at the door. Luckily for the lady her employer later found out about this and had Baker arrested for making false accusations about her. It is unclear if the lady ever did steal the pig or if Baker simply pointed her out because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Billy Bremner - "The Wizard of the West"
Born in 1818 near Taunton (Somerset) Billy Bremner known locally as both "Billy the Piper" and "The Wizard of the West" originally made his living selling clay pipes (where he earned the name Billy the Piper) but later opened a grocery shop in Taunton which he used as a cover for his cunning man business.
Billy was an unusual man often spotted wearing in a cloak, sombrero hat and badly fitted wig. He never married or showed any interest in the opposite sex instead preferring the company of his many cats.
He earned the reputation for charging reasonable rates but would insist on visiting his clients and staying with them for free sometimes for days or weeks at a time while he dealt with their problems. People were glad to have him though as many cunning folk would charge large amounts of money for their services.
Over his career as a cunning man he had numerous brushes with the law but seems to have escaped prison on several occasions.
An Astrologer in Taunton (Somerset) around the 1820s. He eventually moved to Exeter and adopted the business name "Raphael" a name t appears he stole from another more famous London Astrologer - Robert Cross Smith who authored many Astrological Guides and Almanacs.
Webber offered his clients birth charts, amulets, talismans decorated with planetary and astrological symbols but eventually ended up in court like many other cunning folk when one of his clients claimed he defrauded her.
George Beacham - "The Black Witch"
George Beacham lived during the 18th Century in Winscombe (Somerset) and was known as a "Black Witch". It is unsure how he earned this reputation or what kind of magickal services he offered if any at all but was said to have owned a magickal staff and an occult book.
His wife said he didn't want to be buried in a church yard and instead wished to be interred at the cross road so he could "keep an eye on everyone".
Hannah Henley lived in a hut full of cats in the woodlands near Membury (Somerset) sometime around the 1840s. She often wore short petticoats and a large white apron with black satin bonnet. Although she dressed quite well she was in fact a beggar and would visit local farms asking for bread, milk and small amounts of money. The farmers and locals all new she was a witch and would not refuse her until one day she knock on the door of one of the locals and his brother answered. When she asked him for some alms he refused threatening to set the dogs on her. Hannah angrily responded by saying "you'll not live longer enough to use it yourself". It is said within three weeks the man was dead.
Other local farmers also attested to being cursed by Hannah after they too refused to give her any alms. In fact when she demanded a sack of barley from one farmer and he refused several of his horses fell sick and died.
In desperation one of her victims, a farmer, consulted a "White Witch" from Chard in an attempt to bring an end to Hannah's reign of magickal terror. The cunning man ordered six bullock hearts to be procured and hung on a beam over the kitchen hearth. Two stuck with pins and the others with four nails, one in each. He told the family that as they melted in the heat of the fire, so would Hannah's heart melt until she would eventually die. Later that day Hannah arrived at the house several times begging for wine and spirits saying she was dying but the farmer and his wife turner her away. The following morning being Good Friday the cunning man decided to take things a stage further and went to Hannah's hut in the woods to confront her but found her body lodged in the branches of a tree wrapped in a white sheet and with a kettle by her side. Old Hannah was eventually buried in unconsecrated ground at the crossroads near Axminster. From that day on passing horses have been said to rear up and neigh near the site of her burial.
It was rumoured the white witch was paid one hundred pounds for ridding the district of old Hannah but claimed he had earned it as she was the strongest black witch he had ever fought.
Maria Giles was a healer in the 1868 and would charge £3.16s for her services, although she was known to charge more if she could not treat her clients and would state they were "double witched".
It's not clear how successful she was as a healer and some speculate she was in fact a fraud trying to con poor sick people of out if money.
A Romany doorstep saleswoman who lived in the early 1800s somewhere in the Wiltshire area. She was rumoured to be friends with and help local poachers and there is an old story where she is said to have transformed herself into a hare in order to tease a certain farmer. Unfortunately for Lyddie the farmer consulted a local priest who advised him to shoot the witch with a silver bullet. The farmer took the priests advice and shortly afterwards the witch was found dead and a silver bullet made of a rendered down sixpenny piece was found embedded in her chest.
William Salter - "The White Witch of Bideford"
William Salter the infamous "White Witch of Bideford" lived in Devon in the 19th Century. He was well known as a witch and so could have easily found himself on the wrong side of the law, which in fact he did, just not for anything relating to witchcraft because as well as a having a reputation for being both a healer and witch he also had a reputation for being a bit of a drinker and was arrested in 1846 after he was found singing and dancing in the street with several "ladies of ill-repute". In court appearances his profession was listed as "herbal doctor" on one occasion and "white witch" on another.
An infamous witch of the early 20th Century, Granny Boswell was of Romany lineage and born in Ireland however after marrying Ephraim Boswell, known as the 'King of the Gypsies' around the 1860s she moved to Helston, Cornwall, where she was regarded as a nuisance by the local authorities and feared by many people in Helston as an ill-wisher.
One of the more famous stories of Granny Boswell was when she cursed a local doctor called Taylor who was working for the Conservative Party during the 1906 General Election. This was not a politically motivated curse, instead unfortunately for Dr Taylor, Old Granny Boswell took a disliking to him after he was rude to her and she took a disliking to him.
The story goes that Dr Taylor who owned one of the first commercially available motor cars was reversing outside of his house, when a somewhat tipsy Granny Boswell, who had been drinking at a local public house stepped out in front of it. The doctor in a rush to collect more potential Conservative voters shouted at the witch to get out if the way but she just stood transfixed at the strange device. Dr Taylor started hooting his horn which then enraged Granny Boswell who started screaming insults in Cornish at the doctor. Before striding away she cursed the car and said it would not reach the end of the street. Dr Taylor then drove off but before he reached the end of his street there was a loud bang and the car came grinding to a halt. It later had to be towed away by a horse.
She would provide charms to both the Cunning and Romany folk, notably a small curative bag of black spiders and was consulted by girls and young women on matters of love. She was also known to be skilled in the curing of cattle.
Granny Boswell eventually died in Helston work house at the age of 96 on the 16th April 1909. Her coffin was taken in a horse-drawn hearse to the gypsy enclosure at Newmill, outside Penzance, where her body remained in a tent until the day of her funeral. Romanies from near and far came to pay their respects and camped on the roadside. She is buried in the small churchyard at Tregerest.
Vixana - "The Witch of Vixen Tor"
The evil witch Vixana said to live deep within a Tor on Dartmoor, know named Vixen Tor after the legend of the famous witch. She was said to trick passing wayfarers by magically creating a mist so they would become lost and end up in the nearby bog as sacrifices to Vixana's dark master. Legend has it he tried this on a local moorman who was in fact a skilled magical practitioner. The cunning man turned himself invisible using a magic ring and crept up behind her pushing her over the edge of the Tor to her death.
Vixen Tor still has a reputation for witchcraft to this day and visitors to the area report hearing weird chanting coming from it's direction.
The Witch of Zennor
Known by locals and her clients as "Aunt Margret" or "Maggey" The Witch of Zennor was rumoured to have descended from an old aristocratic family who had fallen on hard times. She wore fine clothes on special occasions such as a blue silk dress and quilted petticoat of expensive antique race and necklace of amber beads, diamond ring, silver brooches; and lived in a tumbledown cottage furnished with high oak chairs, shelves lined with rare fine china and a spinning wheel.
She mainly made her living from knitting, weaving, spinning but also sold herbal cordials and honey from her beehives. She wad also rumoured to be friends with local smugglers and let them hide contraband in her cottage from tax collectors who were to scared to search it.
She was well known as a healer who could lift curses and made wax images of ill-wishers to punish them but one day Maggie faced the wrath of some locals who had been stirred up by a local farmer who was accusing her of ill-wishing his ducks. Luckily for Maggie her trusty wooden rack above her hearth warned her of this (although it's not clear how). Armed with her trusty ivory-headed conjuring stick and two loaded horse-pistols she waited for the crowd. Two young men and a young girl later knocked at her door and accused Maggey of being a black witch and of giving the girl fits. In reply she pointed the pistols at them and threatened to shoot if they did not go away. The men of course quickly left.
Old Mother Hearne
Old Mother Hearne was a small woman often described as being shabby or dirty. She lived in a small thatched cottage on Deadman's hill near Cheriton in Dorset but never paid rent as her landlord was too scared to ask for it.
She would tell your fortune but only if you crossed her palms with silver. It is said after she died and people came to pay their respects that her corpse sat bolt upright in the coffin and uttered prophetic words.
Snow - "The Wise Man"
Snow the Wise Man and White Witch used to travel the road from Exeter to Okehampton every week to meet his clients in Okehampton market. He sold a wide range of charms and herbal remedies and many people from Okehampton also travelled to Exeter for a one-to-one session.
He was described by a client as a "wise and good man" and what he told his clients was always for their good.
The Witch of Wookey Hole
The Witch of Wookey Hole is probably more of a legend than a real life documented person however I include her in this list as she is a local legend around the West Country although during excavation of the cave in 1912 a one thousand year old skeleton of a female was discovered along with two goats, a dagger, milking pot, iron pod, and key.
The Legend goes that a man from Glastonbury was engaged to a girl from Wookey. A witch living in Wookey Hole Caves curses the romance so that it fails. The man, now a monk, seeks revenge on this witch who—having been jilted herself—frequently spoils budding relationships. The monk stalks the witch into the cave and she hides in a dark corner near one of the underground rivers. The monk blesses the water and splashes some of it at the dark parts of the cave where the witch was hiding. The blessed water immediately petrifies the witch, and she remains in the cave to this day.