In addition to this being Hallowe’en week, I was further inspired to write this piece on seeing the Scold’s (or witch’s) Bridle being displayed in the foyer, as part of the ‘Wicked Wessex display (Fig 1). A bridle was placed over a suspected witch’s head so they were unable to speak, especially so they were unable to place a curse on anyone. The accompanying information says that Salisbury has two reported witch hangings, that of Anne Bodenham – ‘the Wiltshire witch’ – in 1653 and widow ‘Goody’ Orchard in 1658.
Fig. 1. Scold’s or Witch’s Bridle
This reminded me of the legend of the Handsel sisters, three Danish girls who arrived in Wilton in 1737, their arrival coinciding, unfortunately, with an outbreak of smallpox which killed 132 people in the town. The sisters were branded as witches, bludgeoned to death and buried in separate graves. Nowadays one can see three distinctive beech trees, which were either planted, or mysteriously appeared, over their graves on Broad Drive in Grovely Wood, the far-end one being on Grims Ditch, an Iron-Age boundary. Figure 2 shows one of these trees, festooned with clouties1.
Fig.2 One of the ‘witch trees’ in Grovely Wood
Also of interest to me, in the current ‘Hoards’ exhibition, is a hollow flint stone containing gold coins (staters), part of the Westerham Hoard from Kent (Fig 3).
Fig. 3. Hollow flint nodule containing gold staters (Iron Age)
This reminded me of an artefact known as a geode or aetite.
Colleagues will be aware that I have been researching the ‘alchemist’ of St Thomas’ Church, Salisbury2, and believe that there’s a sporting chance that, if he’s not apocryphal (as has been suggested to me by a respected academic historian) that this could have been the astrological physician, Simon Forman, who was born in Quidhampton in 1552. Forman left Salisbury in 1589 in order to practice medicine in London but little is known of his life in Salisbury beyond what he himself has written in his ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Diary’ (1564-1602). From these we know that he attended schools in Salisbury and Wilton and for several years was apprenticed to one Matthew Commins, a general dealer from whom Forman learned what J.K. Rowling described in the Harry Potter books as ‘herbology’. Among his other wares, Commins sold drugs and ingredients for compounding medicines.
Forman attended Oxford University as a ‘poor scholar’ and, on his return, worked as a school master in several schools. He lived in several places in Salisbury including a house in St Thomas’ churchyard, but it was while living in the parsonage of Fisherton Anger that he claimed to have discovered his ‘miraculous powers’ of being able to call up spirits, and thus acquired a reputation as a necromancer. He also began practicing medicine, physic and surgery and, in his Diary for 1581, wrote that he “cured the fellowe of Quidhampton of the king’s evill”3,
In his Diary Forman writes for 1583, “The 17th of December I had my ring mad with the egles stone.”.
An Italian scholar, priest, astrologer, Marsilo Ficino (1433-1499) wrote that the Eagle’s Stone is used to ease the pain of childbirth, and ascribes this ability to the astrological influence of the planet Venus and the Moon. Furthermore, Occult Physick, (1660) notes of eagle stones, “It is good to be worn for the Stone… Feavers and Plague. It doth also dissolve the knobs of the Kings Evil (i.e. scrofula), being bound to the place grieved”.
Encyclopaedias inform us that eagle stones were nodules of iron oxide, called aetites, which rattled when shaken.
I contacted the Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle to enquire whether they had an example of an Eagle Stone, especially one set in a ring as described by Simon Forman. They replied that they don’t but “we do have an object which we believe is an eagle stone as it rattles when moved and is a large seed or nut” (Fig 4.).
Fig. 4. Eagle Stone (Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle)
The Museum of Witchcraft informed me of what one Cecil Williamson had to say about eagle stones:
“EAGLE STONES. Tradition has it that Eagles placed one or more of these stones (they are in fact a nut having an exceedingly tough outer skin protecting the inner fruit). When shaken the inner fruit can be heard to rattle against the hard outer shell in their nests. It was believed that the reason for the Eagles action lay in the fact, that without the Eagle Stone the eggs would not hatch. To obtain an Eagle Stone was no light undertaking consequently they were held in high esteem. In many places it was believed that if an expectant mother were to strap an Eagle Stone to her thigh, that it would help to give an easy delivery for her child.”
This is pertinent as there was a predominance of women among the patients who consulted Simon Forman in his London practice, and about 12 percent of those in the appropriate age group consulted him over issues related to childbirth or to their reproductive systems,
During his time in Salisbury, Simon Forman was frequently in trouble with the law, his main bête noir being the JP, Giles Estcourt. On one occasion, in 1579, Forman was sent to gaol for 60 weeks, apparently on the grounds of practising magic or for some involvement with the occult. On another occasion the judges at the Lent Assizes bound him over to abstain from his quackery.
Certainly many of Forman’s activities and interests of the time would quite possibly come under the umbrella of ‘witchcraft’. Following the Terry Pratchett: HisWorld’ exhibition in this Museum last year, we are familiar with the teenage trainee witch, Tiffany Aching (Fig 5), being involved with issues such as childbirth and end-of-life care. For example, in Pratchett’s book, ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’ Tiffany is called upon to assist when a pregnant thirteen-year old miscarries after being assaulted by her violent, alcoholic father, Tiffany uses ‘hedge-magic’ to relieve the girl’s pain before burying the foetus.
Fig. 5. Tiffany Aching (Book cover of ‘The Shepherd’s Crown’, Paul Kidby)
It is of interest to me, considering Forman’s interests and activities around the occult, that his punishments were not more serious than imprisonment. For example, contemporary with Simon Forman’s time in Salisbury, a canon, Leonard Bilson, was living in a house in The Close, now replaced by Arundell’s. In 1562 he was pilloried on charges of magic and sorcery is said to have been still in prison in 15714.
Notes and References
- Cloutie, A Prayer tie, Traditionally they were small pieces of cloth, tied around the affected area that were infused with the energy of something malign, such as a skin blemish (e.g. a wart), pain, or even an unwanted lover.
- I wrote more extensively about ‘The Alchemist of St. Thomas’ Church in a blog dated 29th August, 2017.
- King’s Evil. Scrofula or a tuburculous swelling of the glands of the neck. Traditionally, since the time of Edward the Confessor (11th Century), it was thought to be curable by the ‘Royal touch’.
- Arundell’s. Salisbury Cathedral Close Preservation Society website. accessed 30/10/2018.