Wise Women & Cunning Men

The cunning folk in Britain were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic.  Their magic was not concerned with the mysteries of the universe but with practical purposes, what is sometimes described as ‘low magic’ – finding lost property, curing disease in humans and animals, fortune telling and love charms, as well as counter magic to repel witchcraft and curses.

In the past, when a belief in magic was commonplace, most people would have known a few charms, herb craft and practiced some divination, but the cunning folk were those who knew that bit more, a broader and deeper knowledge of such techniques and more experience in using them, and moreover, they could call on supernatural powers to aid them. 

They were working class folk, and often had day jobs while they ran their magical practices in their spare time to earn a little extra money. They generally set themselves up in the trade without any kind of training or experience. Unlike most of the people around them, they were often at least semi-literate artisans or tradesmen, which raised them above the labouring classes. They operated in towns and cities just as often as country villages and hamlets. Up until the mid-nineteenth century were probably several thousand working in England at any given time, with records showing that around two thirds were men, though the practicing cunning women were just as successful. In different parts of the country, they had different names. The term ‘cunning man’ or ‘cunning woman’ was most widely used in southern England, the Midlands, and in Wales. In other places they were called wizards, wise men or wise women, handywomen, blessers, conjurors, wild herb men, snake doctors, fairy doctors and currens. In Cornwall they were called ‘pellars’. 

They didn’t use athames and magic swords but everyday objects – keys, shears, sieves, pitchforks, brooms, divining rods, wax, bottles, paper and anything that came readily to hand from the kitchen or farm. If they could, however, they would collect magical looking objects to impress the punters, including grimoires and magical books so that they could utter impressive sounding spells. They were well aware that the more they looked and sounded the part, the more people would believe in their powers and the better their magic would work. One nineteenth-century cunning woman in Yorkshire wore a conical hat and a robe with mystical signs on it, as well as hanging herbs and papers from the ceiling of her home. It was good psychology.

Nineteenth-century folklorists often wrote of them using the term ‘white witch’ but they would not have welcomed this term or used it themselves, as the word ‘witch’ had connotations of malevolence and evil. They were nearly all professed Christians, though their use of magic sometimes led them into conflict with Church authorities who believed anyone who practiced magic was a witch in league with the devil. However, most common people firmly distinguished between the two: witches were seen as being harmful and cunning folk as useful.

How much Pagan magic and animistic belief influenced the cunning folk is a matter of debate, and it seems to be a case of you pick your historian and makes your choice. Emma Wilby, for example, in her book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, put forward the case that the belief in familiar spirits and fairies were survivals from pre-Christian animism, and that the journeys to fairyland and power obtained from fairies described in the witch trial records were a form of British shamanic experience. 

Contrary to popular opinion, it was rare for the cunning folk to be accused and put on trial as witches. In Essex for instance, where around four hundred people were put on trial for witchcraft, only four of those were identifiable as cunning folk. The views of theologians and witch hunters who claimed that cunning craft and witchcraft were the same thing were not supported by the general population. The witch-hunter John Stearne, an associate of Matthew Hopkins, remarked that whilst he and Hopkins wanted to prosecute the cunning folk, they could not because “men rather uphold them, and say, why should any man be questioned for doing good.”

The cunning folk did not follow any overarching system of magic or belief. Rather their charms and cures were based on common folk magic, and bits and pieces of any grimoires they had obtained. In a period when few people could read, this would have impressed the clients immensely, and the cunning folk would make a big show of owning such books. In some cases, they couldn’t actually read them but used them as set dressing. One popular book amongst cunning men was Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, in which he actually condemned the cunning folk as frauds, but in which he published a wide variety of talismans, charms and rituals as examples of what the cunning folk and ceremonial magicians practised, which they then read and did perform. 

People who could not afford a doctor might go to a cunning man, and the cure might consist of anything from the laying on of hands to an elaborate ritual. Some had knowledge of herbalism, while others used charms or Christian prayers, holy water and the Eucharist.  One charm reported in 1846 in The Chelmsford Chronicle for a young man whom doctors had not been able to help followed the advice of a cunning woman: “That a small nut should be cut in twain, the kernel extracted, and a live spider placed in the shell, which was to be sewn up in a bag and worn round his neck, and as the spider wasted, so would the fever leave him.”

Love spells and potions were obviously a popular service, as was divination related to matters of the heart through the use of palmistry, scrying or astrology. Peter Banks, a cunning man from Newcastle, was charged in 1673 for offering to draw up a magical contract which would bind a husband to stay faithful to his wife for a year.

The cunning folk were also called upon to locate thieves and return stolen property to its owners. In 1382 a cunning man named Robert Berewold was brought to court after accusing a woman named Johanna Wolsy of stealing a drinking bowl from a house. In the trial, it emerged that Berewold had come to his conclusion through a form of divination known as ‘turning the loaf’ where a wooden peg was stuck into the top of a loaf of bread with four knives then stuck into the sides. A list of names would then be spoken, and the loaf would supposedly turn when the name of the thief was spoken. Berewold was found guilty of making unsubstantiated and damaging claims, and punished in the pillory.

One of the most common services that the cunning folk provided was in combating the effects of malevolent witchcraft and the curses and identifying witches. In this they used a variety of methods with the best known method being the witch bottle, a ceramic bottle containing such items as urine, nails, hair and nail clippings which it was believed, when put together, would cause harm to the malevolent witch. Another commonly used method was to take the heart of an animal and to pierce it with pins in order to do harm to the witch, whilst other cunning folk preferred to make dolls of the witch out of rags and other materials and then pierce them with pins, again with the intention of inflicting physical harm on the witch, and breaking their enchantment.

The cunning folk often produced written charms for their clients for various purposes such as to protect them from witchcraft or to help procure love. These typically contained a series of words that were believed to have magical powers, and which were commonly drawn from either grimoires or from the Bible. Such charms were then sometimes sewn into a bag, or placed within a bottle, and either carried about by the client or placed somewhere in their home.

Some cunning folk were said to employ familiar spirits to aid them in their practice of magic, just as witches did.  British cunning folk and witches often described similar circumstances for how they had obtained them. The most usual claim was that the familiar had simply appeared spontaneously while they went about their everyday activities, and others claimed to have inherited their familiars from another magical practitioner. Sometimes a more powerful spirit made them a gift of a familiar. One cunning woman from Horseheath in Cambridgeshire, called  Old Mother Recap, was frequently visited by ‘a black man’ who reputedly brought her a box containing imps in the form of a toad called Red Cap, a ferret called Blue Cap and a mouse called Bonnie. She died in 1926

Old Mother Redcap was a generic title for witches in England, as well as for ale wives like the landlady Eleanour Rumminge in the 15th century. The red cap was a badge of office amongst wise women. There was often some oddity of dress among wise women and cunning men, such as odd socks or a garment worn inside out.

There are other Old Mother Recaps known in Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Essex, Lancashire and Sussex.

The line between witchcraft and cunning craft is often very blurred, though cunning folk generally worked alone and do good, while witches were said to work together in groups to do evil. However, many have claimed that cunning men and women were the antecedents of modern witchcraft. George Pickingill (1816-1909) was a well known cunning man who practiced his art in the Essex village of Canewdon. He traced his ancestry back to Julia the Witch of Brandon, who had lived in a village north of Thetford in Norfolk. He was a simple farm worker, yet the whole locality was in awe of his magical abilities. Anyone who crossed him fell ill and could only be restored to health by the touch of his blackthorn walking stick. A writer called ‘Lugh’, in a series of articles in The Cauldron, claimed that Pickingill was an hereditary witch master who established nine covens in Norfolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Sussex and Hampshire, each with a leader that had proved his or her hereditary witch lineage.  Both Crowley and Gardener are claimed to have been initiated into one or other of these covens, and to have shared together what they had garnered of the old Pickingill rituals. One of the mid twentieth century witches, Robert Cochrane, described himself under such titles as “pellar” and led a coven known as the Clan of Tubal Cain in the early 1960s, which allegedly contained elements borrowed from the cunning craft.

At the start of the nineteenth century, the popularity of cunning folk continued, and there was still a large and lucrative market for their services, for instance in 1816, there were eight different wise women working independently in Whitby.  Nonetheless, the nineteenth century also saw an increase in the numbers of those cunning folk being prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1736, possibly because “members of the social elite came to perceive that a faith in magic seemed to be as prevalent among the populace as it had been a hundred years before and wished to discourage it.  Throughout the age of Enlightenment and the Victorian Industrial Age, the practices of folk magic were condemned as superstition and the relics of Paganism. The only people interested were the folklorist who recorded such practices where they found them.

The numbers of cunning men and women seem to have dwindled after the First World War which changed the face of Britain forever, when men who had faced the horrors of the trenches were no longer impressed by the threatened evil eye of a cunning man.[i] By the 1940s they had essentially vanished from the country. The historian Owen Davies believed that the primary reason for the decline in the cunning craft was the declining belief in the existence of malevolent witchcraft in the country (something brought about by modernization and increasing education and literacy rates), and therefore the collapse of any need for the anti-witchcraft measures that the cunning folk offered as their primary service. According to Nigel Pennick, the last genuine cunning man was practicing in Cambridgeshire in the 1960s.[ii]

© Anna Franklin, 2021

Picture Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle

[i] Nigel Pennick, pers comm

[ii] Nigel Pennick pers comm


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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