The cunning folk in Britain were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic in Britain. 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 and indeed this was one of the few means by which ordinary women could achieve a respected and independent position in British society of the time.
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. Even if they gave people and animals effective herbs, they would always stress that a magical incantation should be used too, without which the cure would not work.
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.
We tend to forget that right up until the end of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of the population believed in the power of magic. For as long as humans have lived on this land, magic has been part of their lives.
In England, various forms of folk magic could be found amongst the Anglo-Saxons, who referred to such practitioners as wicca (male) or wicce (female). Some of the spells and charms that had been used continued to be used following Christianization. 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 picks 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.
In the 1600s, for example, in the North of England, a man was taken into court on charges of witchcraft. He claimed to use a powder to heal sicknesses and offered to lead the gentlemen of the court to the fairy hill where he obtained the medicine. He had discovered the hill when he was destitute and agonising about how to feed his wife and children. A lovely woman had appeared to him and advised him that if he followed her counsel, he would get a good living from it. She led him to a little hill and knocked on it three times. The hill opened and they went in, coming to a fair hall, where a fairy queen sat in great state, with many people about her. She gave him a box full of white powder and taught him how to use it by giving two or three grains to any who were sick, which would heal them. The outraged judge said that if he were judged guilty, he would have him whipped all the way to the fairy hall, but the jury, since he had cured many with his white powder, acquitted him.
Before the sixteenth century, there had been no attempt to make cunning craft illegal, although some people brought private lawsuits against practitioners, they thought had cheated them. This changed with the Witchcraft Act of 1542, which prescribed the death penalty for such things as using invocations and conjurations to locate treasure or to cast a love spell. This was repealed a few short years later in 1547, but in 1563, under Elizabeth I, another bill was aimed at both witches and cunning folk, making it illegal to perform “conjurations, enchantments and witchcrafts”, but this time the death penalty was reserved for those who were believed to have murdered someone through magical means.
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.”
With the Age of Enlightenment, a new Witchcraft Act was introduced in 1736. Unlike earlier laws, this did not accept the existence of magic; rather it was designed to prosecute those who claimed to have magical powers as frauds. While this could have damaged the cunning folk business, there were very few prosecutions, and the law was largely ignored. Wise women and cunning men became comedy figures in the literature of the period, such as the 1638 play by Thomas Heywood, The Wise Woman of Hogsdon:
“Let me see how many trades have I to live by: First, I am a wise-woman, and a fortune-teller, and under that I deal in physicke and fore-speaking, in palmistry, and recovering of things lost. Next, I undertake to cure madd folkes; then I keepe gentlewomen lodgers, to furnish such chambers as I let out by the night: Then I am provided for bringing young wenches to bed; and, for a need, you see I can play the match-maker.”
BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
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.”
In 1604, the Northumberland cunning women Katherine Thompson and Anne Nevelson were convicted for placing a duck’s beak to a woman’s mouth whilst reciting charms as a form of healing.
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.
One cunning man, Old Winter of Ipswich, had hypnotic abilities. He once caught a thief stealing firewood and made him walk round in circles for hours, carrying the heavy firewood. Another time he caught a thief in a garden and made him sit immobile all night in the cabbage patch.
One common service of the cunning folk was in locating thieves and returning 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.
Some cunning folk claimed to have the ability to locate treasure, and at times were employed by people in this capacity. In some of these cases it was believed that a supernatural entity, such as a demon, spirit or fairy was guarding the hidden treasure, and that a cunning practitioner was needed to overcome them using magical means.
James Murrell, called Cunning Murrell, was the seventh son of a seventh son. He lived in Hadleigh in Essex from 1812 to 1860. His badge of office was basket of herbs gathered by moonlight, and a rolled up umbrella which he carried rain or shine. This was a common badge of office among cunning men, and ‘the brolly man’ appears with some molly dance companies. He had a magic mirror for locating lost property, a telescope for looking through walls and a copper talisman which could differentiate between honest and dishonest clients. He was especially good at counter magic, at removing spells set by other witches and cunning men. He used a cast iron witch bottle to accomplish this. On December 15 1860, Murrell predicted that he would die the next day, and the time of his death to the minute. True to his prediction, he died and is buried in an unmarked grave in Hadleigh churchyard.
There were also claims that certain cunning folk were known to occasionally perform bewitching or cursing for a fee. In nineteenth-century Norwich, a wise woman who went by the pseudonym of “Virtue” used to demand gifts from her neighbours, threatening them with cursing if they refused.
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, including tackling the witch physically or through the law courts, breaking the spell over the individual by magical means, and by using charms and potions to remove the witchcraft from the afflicted person’s body. One of the best known methods was the witch bottle, ceramic bottles 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.
Most written charms, though, contained a strong religious content invoking the various names of God or his angels in order to help the particular charm to be effective, as in this conjuration found in the papers of Joseph Railey in 1857:
“I do conjure, constrain, adjure, and command you spirits. Analaya, Analla, Anacar, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, by the general resurrection, and by Him who shall come to judge the quick and the dead, and the world by fire, and, by the general resurrection at the last day, and by that name that is called Tetragrammaton, that you cause the person who stole the goods in question to bring back the same.”
Some cunning folk were only nominally Christian, while others were devout, just like the rest of the population. In the nineteenth century, in Lincolnshire, there were three cunning men who all professed to being Christian, but one, Fiddler Fynes, regularly attended church services, the second, John Worsdale, rejected the need for a professional clergy and the third, Stainton of Louth, believed in the Christian god but saw little point in worshipping him as he thought that in working with magic, the Devil had hold of him.
One wise woman from Horseheath, though, refused to let her husband be buried in the Christian churchyard when the authorities insisted, but when the bearers tried to carry the body from the house, they found it was too heavy. When they opened it, it contained only stones. It’s nice to thank that she had laid her husband to rest elsewhere in a more fitting Pagan manner!
Another wise woman of Horseheath in Cambridgeshire who died in 1860 was called Daddy Witch. Daddy is a word for the male principle in English magic, which is interesting to speculate on. She had a secret magic book called The Devil’s Plantation. She was reputed to attend the revels held by the witches and wizards of the neighbourhood which were overseen by the magister of the district. When she died she was not buried in the churchyard, but buried in the middle of a road facing her house. The grave was always dry when the rest of the road was wet.
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.
An Essex Old Mother Recap lived in the 1920s in a house called Duvals’s House or Devil’s House. After her death the place was haunted by a familiar spirit that urged people to suicide. It was a place of power that could only be lived in by a wise woman or cunning man.
TOADMEN AND TOAD-WITCHES
There were also toad men and toad witches. Originally based upon an ancient magical practice documented by the Roman historian Pliny, and reported in the works of Cornelius Agrippa and Reginald Scot which were read by several literate cunning folk, this involved a ritual involving a toad to obtain magical powers.
A specially prepared bone from a toad would give power over horses and pigs, as well as the opposite sex.
A toad was taken and pinned over an ant hill until all the flesh had been stripped away. The bones were then thrown into a running stream and watched until one bone detached itself and ran upstream, screaming. The bone was then retrieved and the owner became a Toadman or Toadwitch. A variation on this was the bone had to be taken three nights in succession to a graveyard. On the third night the devil would appear and try to gain possession of it.
One well known toad witch was Tilley Baldrey of Huntingcroft. When her husband ran away with another woman she used her magic to bring him back. Four people watched the summoning and witnessed her husband arriving at her door, torn and bedraggled after walking the sixteen miles from his mistress’s house without stopping. She used a lock of the mistress’s hair and burned it to curse her. When the mistress learned she was cursed, she went to consult a cunning man who told her she had to recover the ashes of the hair. She failed to do this and died. As she was being buried Tilley arrived and threw the ashes of the hair into her grave. The cunning man also died, and such is the power of a toad witch!
THE PRINCE OF WALES AND THE WISE WOMAN
When the then Prince of Wales bought Sandringham in 1863, a wise woman, only remembered now as the Wise Woman of Flitcham, was permitted to remain in her cottage, though all of her neighbours were evicted, since the prince wanted to demolish the cottages. Her powers were reputed to be so great that no one dare disturb her. She was known to be a marvellous herbalist. When the prince was taken ill in 1880, and conventional doctors proved ineffective, he resorted to the wise woman of Flitcham who prepared a draught of mandrake tea, which cured him.
THE ROOTS OF MODERN WITCHCRAFT?
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.
THE DEMISE OF CUNNING MEN
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 old seasonal tides and fairs were fast disappearing. Some were actively suppressed by council and church, like the Kitty Witches and Yarmouth women who dressed in men’s clothing and smeared their faces with blood to demand money, and the Tander mummers of Peterborough who dressed in women’s clothing and drank elder wine.
In 1824, a new law commonly referred to as the Vagrancy Act 1824 was introduced, which outlawed “persons pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means and device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose.” A news report from 1870 detailed a number of cases brought before authorities in the nineteenth century where claims of powers were made, but it ridiculed the belief, and closed with an example where ‘the charge was settled down to the more definite one of obtaining a shilling under false pretences’.
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, 2023
[i] Nigel Pennick, pers comm
[ii] Nigel Pennick pers comm