Witchcraft in the UK: history and locations

As 'All Hallows Eve' draws closer, learn more about some of Britains most famous witches and wise men in our historical guide.

Published: September 23rd, 2010 at 11:48 am

Wise men and women have been around for centuries, usually doing good for the people in their communities. It wasn’t until the reign of Elizabeth I that they were seen as a threat. The first person known to be hung for witchcraft in modern times was Agnes Waterhouse at Chelmsford in 1566. The last was Alice Molland at Exeter in 1684.


The Pendle Witches of Lancashire

One of the most famous witch trials in Britain was that of the Pendle Witches of Lancashire in 1612, which concluded with the execution of 10 women and men from two families; the Demdike’s and the Chattox’s. Many of the allegations resulted from accusations that members of the families made against each other, perhaps because they were in competition.

James ‘Cunning’ Murrell of Essex

Perhaps the most famous wise man was James ‘Cunning’ Murrell, who died in 1860. He worked out of his cottage in Hadleigh, Essex, treating warts, tracking down lost and stolen goods and removing witches’ spells. He was said to have kept detailed documents about local inhabitants, which he no doubt used to the benefit of his clients.

Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester

Immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Henry VI, Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester was accused of trying to assassinate the King using witchcraft; a crime for which she received life imprisonment and perhaps left a ghostly legacy. She wanted her husband, Duke Humphrey Plantagenet, to be on the throne.

Molly Leigh of Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent

Molly Leigh, a local woman accused of being a witch but died in 1746 or 1748, before she made it to trial. Her body is the only one positioned North to South, putting it at a right angle to every other grave in the cemetery. The story of Molly Leigh is a mixture of fact and folklore that has grown over the years.

Mother Shipton of Knaresborough, Yorkshire

Ursula Southeil, or Mother Shipton is remembered still in Knaresborough. Although called a witch, she is more famous for her predictions about the future. She apparently foresaw cars, trains, planes and telegraphy. Her cave and the Dripping Well, where objects hung under the dripping water become like stone, are a popular site to visit today in Knaresborough.

Witches of the West, Cornwall

The famous early 19th-century witches of Cornwall included Granny Boswell and Thomasine Blight, or ‘Tammy Blee’. Like many cunning folk, they treated sick farm animals as well as humans. The Cornish witches’ ability to help young women find a suitor was also legendary.

John and Henry Harries of Cwrt y Cadno, Carmarthenshire

Father and son, John and Henry Harries were hugely influential dyn hysbys (wise men) from the hamlet Cwrt y Cadno in Carmarthenshire. John was said to have predicted his own death on 11 May 1839. Henry died of consumption in 1849 aged just 28.

Bessie Dunlop, The Witch of Dalry, North Ayrshire

Bessie Dunlop, known as the witch of Dalry, was burned at the stake in 1576, although she was seen as a white witch or a wise woman. Her confession was probably extracted through torture and it contains none of the usual Devil and evil spirit references or familiars.

Isabel Gowdie of Auldearn, Nairnshire

Isabel Gowdie was a young housewife from Auldearn who is remembered not just for being tried as a witch in 1662, but for her detailed confession, supposedly taken without the use of torture. She claimed to have been in league with the Devil for fifteen years and also to know Elphame, Queen of the Faeries.

Meg Shelton of Fylde, Lancashire

The Fylde Witch died in 1705 and is buried beneath a large boulder in the grounds of St Anne's Church, Woodplumpton. She was buried in a vertical position, head first to prevent her from digging herself out of the grave, which apparently she had done twice previously. She was said to wreak havoc on the local community.

Mary Butters of Carnmoney, County Antrim

Mary Butters was known as the Carmoney Witch and narrowly escaped trial for the killing of a cow and three people. She claimed at her inquest she saw a black man who killed the three people and that she was knocked unconsciou. The incident was made into a humorous ballad.

Joan Wytte of Bodmin, Cornwall

Joan Wytte also known by the name of the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin. She was said to be clairvoyant and that people would seek her services as a seer, diviner and healer. She was known to visit a holy well where she tied charms on the branches of trees in order to heal the sick.

Sybil Leek of Normacot, Staffordshire

Sybil Leek was a witch, astrologer, psychic and occult author, coming from a long line of witches and wise men. Dubbed "Britain’s most famous witch" by the BBC, she was a colourful character; her trademarks were a cape, a pet jackdaw named Mr. Hotfoot Jackson, and a crystal necklace that had been passed down to her from her psychic grandmother.


Gerald Gardner of Liverpool

Gardner was instrumental in founding Wicca and Neopaganism, publishing some of its most definitive texts, and is perhaps the best known and most talked about figures in modern witchcraft. It was through theatre that Gardner claimed to meet the members of his coven. Under the pen name ‘Scire’, he published two works of fiction about worship and the witchcraft tradition.


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