Understanding English Witchcraft

By Isabella @TheWandCarver

Instagram:  @thewandcarver

Most people seem to be more familiar with what I call “Wicca Witchcraft” or other kinds of witchcraft than they are with traditional English witchcraft. Perhaps because more younger folk are predominately coming into the witchcraft “scene” or it could be because many of English witchcraft practises have been held close to the chests of the English witch, or cunning woman / man and not many of us are still handing down the information we’ve learned from the old ones.  That has been changing over the last several years, however.  But before we can talk about any kind of witchcraft, history will have to be called upon.  And, I’m not necessarily talking of witch hunts and trials.  Before that, even.  It’s all very complex and I don’t intend to write a book here, only a blog.  Forgive me if I leave out something that you know about which may be pertinent.  Still, we must at least go back in time to European “witchcraft” to get the ball rolling.

Many of the Celtic pagan ways were brought into England/Great Britain by way of immigrants and/or marauding folk such as the Romans or Vikings.  Not that Britain proper didn’t have ways of their own already, but the new and similar ways of others certainly added more spice to the cauldron, as it were.  There was a time when, the so-called “witch” was a healer first and foremost.  Doctors were for the rich; the country folk rarely if ever had a real doctor in attendance for any malady.  Mid-wives were the norm for any woman giving birth but even then, sometimes the mid-wife had to be a female family member who did not practise mid-wifery as a rule.  Either way, babies were born and lived, and more generations came forth.

cunning woman
Cunning woman ~ British Museum of Witchcraft

The cunning woman or man of the time knew when to plant and when to reap – all by the seasons and the planets. By the same method, they knew which herbs would relieve or cure whichever disease.  If you become serious about English witchcraft, you would do well to buy  the medieval writings by Nicolas Culpeper or Thomas Oswald Cockayne.  The herbal lore is fabulous, and each plant is said to be ruled by its particular planet because it corresponds with that part of one’s body which is ruled by that planet.  To this day, herbs are chosen as curatives in much the same fashion. But here again, the common man or woman had to be the “doctor” of the family or the entire village because most often time and money would not permit a horseback ride into the large village to find a doctor – if even it had one, as most doctors were working only for Royalty, and lords and ladies.  A person could die of a snake bite before you could jump onto the horse to search for a doctor.

Mostly, none of the knowledge was written down.  It was remembered and passed down from one generation to the next, for most English witches / cunning folk were solitary or only involved in their practise with a few family members.

Things were alright with the doings of healing and protections but when it came to death by a “per maleficium” translated as “visible effect of malicious intention”, obviously the Church would step in and many times the cunning woman or man accused would be put to death by burning.  This was long before the “Burning Times” we have known about for ages. The laws of the Visigoths [a member of the branch of the Goths who invaded the Roman Empire between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE and ruled much of Spain until overthrown by the Moors in 711], which were to some extent founded upon the Roman law, punished witches who had killed any person by their spells with death; while long-continued and obstinate witchcraft, if fully proven, was visited with such severe sentences as slavery for life.  You had to be very careful to only use your craft for good.  Still, that didn’t stop good people from being accused anyway.

So, here we are.  Things heated up and got worse for many years after.  Thankfully, that never stopped people passing down their knowledge to younger family members whom in turn, passed the knowledge down to their own descendants. I’m sure that some things got lost in translation along the way, but you dare not write the information down for fear of being found with it.  It is a good job that good people such as Culpeper were counted as men who were knowledgeable about herbs and could work within the aspect of medicinal research to catalogue and maintain records of herbs and how they helped illness. No, they did not do so in aid of witches. But it surely didn’t hurt!

London amulet-hands_2039631c
Amulets from the Lovett Collection (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

We could talk about this subject for days, but we’ll segue now from the paragraph above where I said, “for fear of being found with it”.  This was the basis for many a cunning person’s “tools” being kept simple.  For general protection, there were always charms and such… little crosses, necklaces, and other items usually hand carved or sewn. At this time, these were most likely not made to sell for extra income but simply to protect their cattle and property.  And, of course, there have always been those who would hex your cattle or property in some way because of an argument with that neighbour or something worse.   As other people took up residence in the British countryside, we learned additional ways of doing things which were added to what we already knew.  Things probably got very “witchy” then when they learned stronger and better ways to zhoosh up their spell work!

Holly Keppen
Holly keppen wand ~ photo by i.macy

First, we will speak of wands.  For the most part, not many cunning folk used wands, however, they weren’t unknown to them and a fair few did use a wand to direct energy.  Wands were an Egyptian invention but of course as the way of all magickal things, this idea, too, had made its way to the British Isles. The most important trait of the wand to the layman’s eyes was to not look like a wand.  In fact, they were normally just short, gnarled sticks.  I would imagine, if found with one in her pinny pocket and to be accused of using a wand, any cunning woman already had the idea of saying, “It’s me doggo’s stick! I tosses it and ‘e fetches it”. In Cornwall tradition, the “keppen” wand was made of local woods, mostly from Rowan.  It would only be about 5 to 7 inches long.

Circles as per Wicca were not cast normally for spell work, but in Wales, a technique certainly used was to draw an invisible circle around yourself with your right index finger by extending your arm towards the ground and turning clockwise with the Sun was – and still is – called a “caim”. In other words, it was a reminder that wherever we walk, God is with us, a reminder of God’s presence and protection, a symbol of the encircling love of God.  There were “circling prayers” for this as well.  I imagine you may be wondering why the Christian God is being referenced. Well, not all cunning folk were still Pagan – at least not the hell-bent for leather Viking kind of Pagans.  Many went to church, believed in the monotheistic God, and prayed over the herbs they gathered for spell work and healing. If you can buy a copy of The Old English Herbals by Eleanour Rohde Sinclair, you will see what I mean. This is not at all unusual in old Britain.

london witchbottle greenwich
X-ray of a Bellarmine jug witch bottle ~ British Archaeology

Witch bottles.  Some of the earliest witch bottles were the old Bellarmine jugs [named after a particularly fearsome Catholic Inquisitor, Robert Bellarmine, who persecuted Protestants and was instrumental in the burning of Giordano Bruno].  This form of “bottled spell” dates back hundreds of years and were prevalent in Elizabethan England – especially East Anglia, where superstitions and belief in witches were strong. The bottles were most often found buried under the fireplace, under the floor, and plastered inside walls.  One was found under a hearth in England, dug out, x-rayed, then replaced.  It did confirm pretty much what archaeologists had thought for years that the bottles were full of fingernail clippings, rusty nails, hair, glass, and urine.  Well, there was liquid still in the bottle, and the consensus was that urine was a staple of the witch bottle.  The idea was that all the bits and bobs inside the bottle were meant to trap the evil into the bottle where it would meet with sharp objects and be wounded then drown in the fluid.

London childs anti bronchitis necklace
Child’s necklace – University of Oxford Museum

Charms, crosses, talismans.  Every region of Britain had their own favoured charms, amulets, talismans, and such.  In Victorian London, children were made to wear little necklaces of blue and yellow beads to ward off bronchitis and whooping cough, which was very deadly for children in those times.  To protect the dreamer from nightmares, the cunning housewife would cover an old horseshoe with fabric and hang above the bed. Also, in London, hands made of silver, tin and lead were meant to ward off the evil eye; funnily enough, this kind of charm was used by the Egyptians, c.1500 CE. And here is one I really am not fond of – a dead mole wrapped in floral fabric was believed to offer protection from danger! I don’t think I would care to tote around a dead mole wrapped in cloth… but I imagine it would work by scaring most people away!

London mole in cloth
Protection amulet – Mole in floral fabric.  ~  Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

We have done some fairly foolish things in England, for a fact.  And some very good things.  But this one takes the biscuit when it comes to protections and one I protest vehemently:  Many years ago, whilst building a new home in Britain, people would have a dead cat placed under the house, in a wall, or fireplace to protect their home from evil and vermin.  If I’m not mistaken, the cat had to be “dried”.  I’m very happy this has not carried on today – to my knowledge.  You can rest assured I will never tell a customer to put a dried cat in their wall!

Rowan Cross
Rowan protection cross ~ photo by i.macy

In other regions, Rowan crosses bound with red thread were said to “keep the witches all in dread” [clearly a charm for ridding yourself of witches, not for witches to use!], but these days it is for protection against evil.  Amulets are for protection. The word “amulet” comes from the Latin word amulētum. The earliest extant use of that term is in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History in which it means “an object that protects a person from trouble”.  Talismans are generally for exact focus of intent, such as to draw wealth to a person or love or courage, or some other need.

In Dartmoor, if ever you happen to be around any old Dartmoor farm buildings you may possibly notice a small holed stone or pebble sat on a window ledge. Occasionally if the building has a lock with a key still in it there may well be a similar looking holed stone tied to the end of it. These are known as Hex, or more commonly elsewhere, as Hag Stones and their tradition dates to the time when witches rode along the hedgerows at night, intending to steal one’s cattle and horses.

The Witch’s Familiar ~ Google Images

The Familiar.  Everyone thinks a black cat is a witch’s familiar. The poor, much maligned black moggy is only popular these days because of the silly notion of Halloween – oh you know, the commercialised ridiculousness.  Like any other holiday, commercialism takes the fun out of it.  Anyway, no… every witch does not have a black cat for a familiar. Some do, I do not, nor have I ever.  The witch’s familiar can literally be anything.  It does not need to be an animal.  You can conjure up your own familiar in a jar if you like.  Just like in MacBeth:

“Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble”

~ Macbeth 4.1

Dogs and cats were the most common familiars, but mice, stoats, toads and many other small animals could take the part. Toads were useful for supplying venom, and vermin and in general were associated with dirt, disease and evil.  And do note, the Familiar was not a pet.  You would not put the Familiar’s work load on a beloved pet.  So, if you have a pet you are calling your Familiar, please don’t.  The things a Familiar were sent to do in aid of the witch were not fit for a pet to do.

book of english witchcraft
Book of English Magic 

Just having realised I am beginning to write a book, not a blog here!  I think I shall leave you with this overview of English Witchcraft, even if it is not complete by a mile… but that is what books are for and I do recommend The Book of English Magic if you would like to learn more about the Craft.  Although, I do hope I have gotten my original point across concerning English Witchcraft and its merits.  It would seem many witches today love the “bright, shiny, pretty things” associated with Wicca Witchcraft… I see so many wands, oils, “spell kits”, and other paraphernalia which looks more at home on a small girl’s play room floor than on a real working altar.  But that is because I came from a rustic, cunning woman’s descendance.  I see things as she and other ancestors saw them – a bit rough around the edges perhaps but able to do the job. Still, it is up to the individual witch to decide what works best for her.  And if Plasticine and  baked clay with lots of glitter work best for her or him then who am I to judge?

Many thanks for reading today and I hope you found something useful in my blog.  Warmest blessings to all whom this way wander x


The British Museum of Witchcraft


London’s Lost Amulets and Forgotten Folklore