THIS week, Simon Hancock, social historian and curator of Haverfordwest Town Museum, shares his fascinating research in to witchcraft in seventeenth century Pembrokeshire.

When we think of witches and witchcraft there is an almost instinctive mind picture of an isolated, warty old woman, invariably accompanied by a pet cat. This stereotype is culled from popular literature, folk and fairy tales. Our knowledge of witchcraft prosecutions is dominated by the person of Matthew Hopkins, ‘Witchfinder General’ in East Anglia during the English Civil Wars and even more so by the Salem witch trials at Salem in Massachusetts in 1692. Yet far more than this, witchcraft is a fascinating historical phenomenon which varied hugely from country to country and speaks volumes about early modern societies. Witchcraft accusations tell us a lot about the role of women in society, male attitudes and forms of control, relationships within communities and how local conflicts were resolved. In England and Wales the most active period of witchcraft indictments and trials was from the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I to that of James II. Witchcraft was a felony and specific acts of parliament were introduced from the reign of Henry VIII. However it was during the reigns of King James I from 1604, Charles I and the Commonwealth that they reached a peak.

I find witchcraft a fascinating subject, and I have been researching for Pembrokeshire cases. My interest was really awakened by reading Richard Suggett’s excellent book A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales, published in 2008, in which he mentions a number of local cases. This prompted me to consult the actual court papers of the Great Sessions which heard such cases.

Across England and Wales between 300 to 1,000 people were executed for witchcraft, the great majority of whom were women, although in Wales prosecutions were rare. Most accusations, when they were made, were thrown out by grand juries. There were five executions for witchcraft in Wales, the last being at Anglesey in 1655. There were no executions in Pembrokeshire but around half a dozen cases are mentioned. Perhaps the most interesting appear during the final flourish of witchcraft accusations in the 1690s.

The earliest known case dates from 1607 when Katherine Lewis, the wife of Thomas Bowen of Tenby, labourer, was suspected of bewitching some pigs at Gumfreston. Two sows ran about ‘in most straundge manner’ and lost their litters. Witchcraft was part of the mental furniture and world view which viewed the supernatural, cursing, charms, cunning folk and belief in diabolical forces as part of everyday life. Belief in witchcraft can be seen amidst the backdrop of the reformation and later sweeping religious changes. Quakers were initially suspected of associations with witchcraft. In 1668 at Haverfordwest, Hugh Lloyd had become ‘distracted’, saying the Quakers had enchanted him and that Quaker women were ‘inchanted Devills’.

Perhaps the most interesting local case of witchcraft accusation occurs in that of Olly (Olivia Powell) of Loveston in 1693. A whole list of calamities supposedly followed in her wake, including the destruction of a rick of hay, sows sickening and poultry suddenly expiring. When one man refused to give her ‘coals’ (an interesting reference to local mining) he soon developed unexplainable pain in his legs. Other Pembrokeshire cases include a cattle thief who met a man with horns who induced him to steal at Narberth fair in 1612, and a cunning man or conjurer at Llanychaer in 1693.

The last indictment for witchcraft in Wales occurred at Haverfordwest in 1699. Dorcas Heddin, a native of Cambridgeshire, was accused of bewitching sailors on a ship which was bound for Virginia. The Devil appeared to her in the image of a black man and demanded three drops of her blood. He offered to founder the vessel but Dorcas only wanted the two men who had short rationed her to be struck down with sickness. The examinations of Dorcas and Olly Powell were heard at Haverfordwest Castle, so the medieval structure was still being used officially on the cusp of the eighteenth century.

The last execution for witchcraft in England occurred in 1684 and during the following decades, with the spread of Enlightenment thinking, there was increasing scepticism over such accusations. During one trial, a judge wryly remarked how ‘flying was not against the law’. The offence of witchcraft was repealed in 1736, although in rural communities belief in folk religion, and people with powerful supernatural skills, persisted. I have found references to such beliefs in Pembrokeshire during the 1860s.

I hope to give an important lecture on this fascinating topic later in the year, under the auspices of the Haverfordwest Town Museum. It is a strangely overlooked part of our past, and the cases have so much to tell us about the lives, beliefs and prejudices of our ancestors.