ON the 26th of February, 1580, four Berkshire women were tried at Abingdon for witchcraft. The accused were Elizabeth Stile, of Windsor, Mother Dutten, of Clewer, Mother Devell, of Windsor, and Mother Margaret, who lived at the Windsor Almshouse.
They were said to have had meetings at the rear of Master Dodge's house in The Pittes. At these meetings they were joined by two other witches - Father Rosimond, a widower from Farnham, and his daughter. The leader of the group was supposed to have been Mother Seidre, another resident of the Windsor Almshouse, but she had died some time before the trial. There is some uncertainty as to Father Rosimond's connection with the group. In Elizabeth Stile's confession he is not only named as a witch but described as being able to change his form "sometymes in the shape of an ape, and otherwhiles like an horse".
Margaret Murray, an influential writer on witchcraft considered this shape-shifting as pointing to Rosimond being the chief of the witches. If this was so, it is surprising that he was not arraigned with the others.
Also at the trial an ostler gave evidence that after a disagreement with Elizabeth Stile he had suffered aches in his limbs. He consulted a wise man who advised scratching her and drawing blood, which he did and immediately recovered. The name of this wise man was given as Father Rosimond.
According to Elizabeth Stile's confession, the withces had been responsible for the deaths of a farmer called Lanckforde, one of Lanckforde's maids, a butcher called Switcher, another butcher called Masclyn, and Richard Gallis, the Mayor of Windsor. The deaths were brought about by making images of the victims in red wax "about a span long and three or four fingers broad".
The images were then pierced with a hawthorn. The witches were also said to have caused sickness. Humfrey Hosie and his wife, Richard Milles and John Mathynglise were all reputed to have suffered from the witches' maleficia.
Each of the witches was accused of having an evil spirit of familiar - like a black cat or rat. Mother Dutten's was described as being like a toad, which she kept in a border of green herbs in her garden and fed on blood from her flank. Mother Devell's spirit appeared as a black cat called Gille, which she fed with milk mingled with her own blood. Mother Margaret fed her spirit, Ginnie, with crumbs of bread mixed with blood, while Elizabeth Stile kept a rat called Philip, described as "in very deede a wicked spirite", which she fed with blood from her right wrist. It would seem that some people were not above using the witches for their own ends. George Whittyng, a servant of Mathew Glover of Eton, was said to have asked the witches to harm a man called Foster. This they did by making an image and also by Mother Devell sending her familiar to "plague him and spare him not". Apparently Foster sickened but when he was close to death Mother Dutten restored him, although one of his cows was killed.
The accusations may sound unbelievable to us today but as was usual in those times, the women were all found guilty and executed.
There are those who practise the black arts still - sometimes with disastrous results. in the 1960s a coven met at Burnham Beeches and the Warlock decided to prove one night just how powerful his skills were. In front of the other members of the coven he drank a bottle of poison declaring it would have no effect on him. But they did not have to wait long to find the Warlock was not as powerful as he believed. Very soon he started to writhe in pain and although his friends rushed him to the nearby Canadian Red Cross Hospital at Taplow he died several hours later.
For the true story about witchraft today see www.witchvox.com or www.wicca.com