Tag Archives: England
King Arthur is probably the best known of all British mythological figures. He is a character from deep time celebrated across the world in literature, art and film as a doomed hero, energetically fighting the forces of evil. Most historians believe that the prototype for Arthur was a warlord living in the ruins of post-Roman Britain, but few can today agree on precisely who that was.
Over the centuries, the legend of King Arthur has been endlessly rewritten and reshaped. New layers have been added to the tale. The story repeated in modern times includes courtly love, chivalry and religion – and characters such as Lancelot and Guinevere, whose relationship was famously immortalised in Thomas Malory’s 1485 book Le Morte D’Arthur. The 2017 cinematic outing, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is only the most recent reimagining.
But before the addition of the Holy Grail, Camelot and the Round Table, the first full account of Arthur the man appeared in the Historia Regum Brianniae (the History of the Kings of Britain) a book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1136.
We know next to nothing about Geoffrey, but he claimed to have begun writing the Historia at the request of Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, who persuaded him to translate an ancient book “written in the British tongue”. Many have concluded, as Geoffrey failed to name his primary source and it has never been firmly identified, that he simply made it all up in a fit of patriotism.
Whatever the origin of the Historia, however, it was a roaring success, providing the British with an heroic mythology – a national epic to rival anything written by the English or Normans.
As a piece of literature, Geoffrey’s book is arguably the most important work in the European tradition. It lays the ground for not just for the whole Arthurian Cycle, but also for the tales surrounding legendary sites such as Stonehenge and Tintagel and characters such as the various kings: Cole, Lear and Cymbeline (the latter two immortalised by Shakespeare).
As a piece of history, however, it is universally derided, containing much that is clearly fictitious, such as wizards, magic and dragons.
If we want to gain a better understanding of who King Arthur was, however, we cannot afford to be so picky. It is Geoffrey of Monmouth who first supplies the life-story of the great king, from conception to mortal wounding on the battlefield, so we cannot dismiss him entirely out of hand.
A full and forensic examination of the Historia Regum Britanniae, has demonstrated that Geoffrey’s account was no simple work of make-believe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence now exists to suggest that his text was, in fact, compiled from a variety of early British sources, including oral folklore, king-lists, dynastic tables and bardic praise poems, some of which date back to the first century BC.
In creating a single, unified account, Geoffrey exercised a significant degree of editorial control over this material, massaging data and smoothing out chronological inconsistencies.
Once you accept that Geoffrey’s book is not a single narrative, but a mass of unrelated stories threaded together, individual elements can successfully be identified and reinstated to their correct time and place. This has significant repercussions for Arthur. In this revised context, it is clear that he simply cannot have existed.
Arthur, in the Historia, is the ultimate composite figure. There is nothing in his story that is truly original. In fact, there are five discrete characters discernible within the great Arthurian mix. Once you detach their stories from the narrative, there is simply nothing left for Arthur.
Cast of characters
The chronological hook, upon which Geoffrey hung 16% of his story of Arthur, belongs to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a late 5th-century warlord from whom the youthful coronation, the capture of York (from the Saxons) and the battle of Badon Hill is taken wholesale.
Next comes Arvirargus, who represents 24% of Arthur’s plagiarised life, a British king from the early 1st century AD. In the Historia, Arthur’s subjugation of the Orkneys, his return home and marriage to Ganhumara (Queen Guinevere in later adaptions) parallels that of the earlier king, who married Genvissa on his return south.
Constantine the Great, who in AD 306 was proclaimed Roman emperor in York, forms 8% of Arthur’s story, whilst Magnus Maximus, a usurper from AD 383, completes a further 39%. Both men took troops from Britain to fight against the armies of Rome, Constantine defeating the emperor Maxentius; Maximus killing the emperor Gratian, before advancing to Italy. Both sequences are later duplicated in Arthur’s story.
The final 12% of King Arthur’s life, as recounted by Geoffrey, repeat those of Cassivellaunus, a monarch from the 1st century BC, who, in Geoffrey’s version of events, was betrayed by his treacherous nephew Mandubracius, the prototype for Modred.
All this leaves just 1% of Geoffrey’s story of Arthur unaccounted for: the invasion of Iceland and Norway. This may, in fact, be no more than simple wish-fulfilment, the ancient Britons being accorded the full and total subjugation of what was later to become the homeland of the Vikings.
Arthur, as he first appears, in the book that launched his international career, is no more than an amalgam. He is a Celtic superhero created from the deeds of others. His literary and artistic success ultimately lies in the way that various generations have reshaped the basic story to suit themselves – making Arthur a hero to rich and poor, elite and revolutionary alike. As an individual, it is now clear that he never existed, but it is unlikely that his popularity will ever diminish.
With its round amphitheatre, The Globe is the most famous playhouse associated with Shakespeare – indeed, a working, pop up replica of it is currently in Melbourne. But long before Shakespeare or his plays appeared at the Globe, another forgotten stage was the Bard’s temporary home.
It is even possible that the first purpose-built stage to house Shakespeare was at a playhouse that stood a mile south of the London Thames at the Newington Butts juncture. Rather than round, the playhouse would have been relatively small and rectangular – a conversion of an existing commercial building.
It was here, in June 1594, that theatre entrepreneur Philip Henslowe recorded the first known performances of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theatre troupe of which Shakespeare was a founding member, playwright and actor. The company performed versions of Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, and Titus Andronicus over 11 days.
The evidence also suggests that the actor Richard Burbage wouldn’t have been at the Newington Butts playhouse. Yet most have assumed Hamlet was a play Shakespeare wrote for Burbage.
While Shakespeare’s plays were performed at smaller venues such as inns and courtyards (possibly as early as 1589), the Newington Butts’ shows were very likely to have been the first on a major Elizabethan stage constructed specifically for the kind of theatre for which he was about to become famous. It soon vanished from history, and was largely forgotten by Shakespeare scholars.
But using 18th-century maps, I’ve been able to figure out where it likely once stood. This historically significant site is likely now under a shopping centre south of the Thames.
The Newington Butts playhouse was built in 1575 and continued operating until 1594. The playhouse would have had at least two tiers of seating around the perimeter to be financially viable, seating about 700 to 800 patrons. It was closed down when the new leaseholder Paul Buck agreed to convert it to some other purpose – it is likely he converted the building to tenement housing.
One of the reasons the playhouse has been easy to forget, and difficult to locate, is that there are no maps from the period that show the junction there. From the perspective of the Elizabethan mapmaker, there was not much to see south of the Thames – London was located on the north side of the river, and the road to the south quickly ran into fields only pockmarked by the occasional dwelling place or church.
While early modern maps and panoramas have been very helpful in locating the more famous playhouses like the Globe on London’s Bankside, they provide no help in searching for the playhouse at Newington Butts.
Some maps of the roads survive from at least 1681. In 1955, surveyor Ida Darlington pointed out that a property to the east of the juncture on this map was the same as that on which the playhouse stood. However, the map is of too poor quality to find a precise location.
I used another map from 1746 drawn up by surveyor John Rocque to pinpoint the playhouse. The building north of the junction has remained in the same place for several hundred years. It began as stables, later becoming the Elephant and Castle Inn. Knowing this, and using early leases that record the site of the playhouse, I could figure out that the playhouse stood southeast of the inn.
In 1960, the Newington Butts junction was replaced by the Elephant and Castle roundabout. The site of the playhouse now likely lies under the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, named after the inn that stood there until 1960. Any archaeological remains, if they survived the redevelopment, would thus be under where the market stalls are situated. Unfortunately, this would seem unlikely, as the shopping centre’s foundations were very deep.
So where did Shakespeare’s troupe go after Newington Butts? Their next known stopping point was in Marlborough. By the end of 1594, they ended up performing at the Theatre in Shoreditch, the first of the famed round theatres. In 1598, the Theatre was closed down and the more famous Globe was built in 1599.
The link below is to an article reporting on ruins found near Hadrian’s Wall.
The UK now has a female prime minister and Elizabeth II has been queen for more than six decades, but few would associate Anglo-Saxon England with powerful women. Nearly 1,100 years ago, however, Æthelflæd, “Lady of the Mercians”, died in Tamworth – as one of the most powerful political figures in tenth-century Britain.
Although she has faded from English history, and is often seen as a bit-part player in the story of the making of England, Æthelflæd was in fact a hugely important figure before her death in 918, aged around 50. Indeed, the uncontested succession of her daughter, Ælfwynn, as Mercia’s leader was a move of successful female powerplay not matched until the coronation of Elizabeth I after the death of her half-sister Mary in 1558. So, while Bernard Cornwell’s novels and the BBC series The Last Kingdom are cavalier with the historical facts, perhaps they are right to give Æthelflæd a major role.
Æthelflæd was born in the early 870s. Her father, Alfred “the Great” had become King of the West Saxons in 871, while her mother, Eahlswith, may have been from Mercian royal kindred. At the time, Anglo-Saxon “England” was made up of a series of smaller kingdoms, including Wessex in the south, Mercia in the Midlands and Northumbria in the far north. All faced encroachment by Viking forces that were growing in strength and ambition, as outlined in Charles Insley’s article The Strange End of the Mercian Kingdom and Mercia and the Making of England by Ian Walker.
Æthelflæd spent most of her life in the Kingdom of Mercia married to its de facto ruler, Æthelred. Mercia had seen some dark days by the time of her marriage. In the eighth and early ninth centuries, the Mercian kings had had good cause to consider themselves the most powerful rulers in southern Britain. But by the 870s, the kingdom had suffered dramatically from the Viking assaults which had swept across England.
One king, Burgred, had fled to Rome, and his successor, Ceolwulf II, was seen as a mere puppet by the West-Saxon compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and disappeared between 878 and 883. Soon, the East Midlands were ruled by Scandinavians – what became known as the “Danelaw” – and so the kingdom ruled by Æthelflæd and Æthelred was by then just the western rump of the old Mercia.
Nevertheless, Æthelflæd and Æthelred together engaged in massive rebuilding projects at Gloucester, Worcester, Stafford and Chester, overseeing the refounding of churches, new relic collections and saints’ cults. Famously, in 909, the relics of the seventh-century saint, Oswald were moved from Bardney, deep in Scandinavian-controlled Lincolnshire, to a new church at Gloucester. Perhaps appropriately, for a couple facing the Vikings, Æthelflæd and her husband had a great attachment to the saint, a warrior king and Christian martyr. Æthelred was buried alongside Oswald in 911, and Æthelflæd joined him seven years later.
Powerplay and politics
At the time, Athelred and Æthelflæd did not call themselves king or queen, nor do the official documents or coins refer to them as such. Instead, they used the title “Lord/Lady of the Mercians”, because Alfred had extended his authority over Mercia and styled himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons”.
But they acted like rulers. Æthelflæd, with her husband and her brother Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons, launched a series of military campaigns in the early tenth century. These brought all of England south of the Humber and Mersey river under Anglo-Saxon control and rolled up the Scandinavian lordships which had been established in the East Midlands and East Anglia.
These advances were backed up by an energetic programme of fortification, with burhs (fortified towns) built in places such as Bridgnorth, Runcorn, Chester and Manchester.
But while she called herself a “lady”, outsiders, especially the Welsh and Irish, saw Æthelflæd as a “queen” and she surely wasn’t just her husband’s subservient wife. As Alfred the Great’s daughter, the role Mercia and the Mercians would play in the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was at stake.
A potent widow
But Æthelflæd really came into her own following her husband’s death in 911, although it seems that he had been in poor health for the best part of the previous decade. The Mercian Register in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, certainly celebrates her deeds from 910 onwards.
In 915, she successfully campaigned against the Welsh and the major Welsh kings, and in England she began further to expand her kingdom. In 917-8, her army took control of Viking-occupied Derby and Leicester, and just before her death, the “people of York” – that is, the Scandinavian lords of southern Northumbria – also agreed to submit to her.
For a brief moment, she had authority not just over her own territory in Mercia, but over the Welsh, the Scandinavian East Midlands and possibly part of Northumbria, making her perhaps one of the three most important rulers in mainland Britain – the others being her brother Edward king of the Anglo-Saxons and Constantin II macAeda, King of the Scots.
This made her a major political actor in her own right, but also a respected and feared figure. Even more remarkably, she passed her authority on to her daughter, Ælfwynn, who was around 30 when her mother died. The rule of Ælfwynn in Mercia, which attracts virtually no comment at all from historians, lasted about six months before her uncle Edward launched a coup d’état, deprived her of all authority and took her into Wessex.
Æthelflæd’s legacy is enigmatic, wrapped up in the “making of England”. But she was a ruler of consequence in an era defined by male authority. Indeed, her project to rebuild the kingdom of Mercia and the Mercians might have placed midland England at the heart of later history.
Philip Morgan, Senior Lecturer, Keele University; Andrew Sargent, Lecturer in Medieval History, Keele University; Charles Insley, Senior lecturer, University of Manchester, and Morn Capper, Lecturer in Archaeological Heritage, University of Chester
The Last Kingdom – BBC’s historical drama set in the time of Alfred the Great’s war with the Vikings – has returned to our screens for a second series. While most attention will continue to focus on the fictional hero Uhtred, his story is played out against a political background where the main protagonist is the brooding and bookish mastermind Alfred the Great, vividly portrayed in the series by David Dawson.
But was Alfred the Great really that great? If we judge him on the basis of new findings in landscape archaeology that are radically changing our understanding of warfare in the Viking Age, it would seem not. It looks like Alfred was a good propagandist rather than a visionary military leader.
The broad outline of King Alfred’s wars with the Vikings is well known. Oft defeated by the great army of the Vikings, he took refuge in a remote part of Somerset before rallying the English army in 878 and defeating the Vikings at Edington. It was not this one victory that made Alfred great, according to his biographer Asser, but the military reforms Alfred implemented after Edington. In creating a system of strongholds, a longer-serving army and new naval forces, Asser argues that Alfred put in place systems which meant that the Vikings would never win again. In doing so, he secured his legacy.
It is a well-known story, but how accurate is it? Research by a team at UCL and another at the University of Nottingham into the archaeology and place-name evidence for late Anglo-Saxon civil defence presents a slightly different picture.
Many towns claim to have been founded by Alfred as part of his plan for defending England. This idea rests largely on a text known as the Burghal Hidage, which
which lists the names of 33 strongholds (in Old English burhs) across southern England and the taxes assigned to their garrisons, recorded as numbers of hides (a unit of land). According to the list, under Alfred a military machine was created whereby no fewer than 27,000 men, some 6% of the total population, were assigned to the defence and maintenance of what has been described as “fortress Wessex”.
Over the past 40 years, much archaeological evidence has been gathered about the Burghal Hidage strongholds, many of which were former Roman towns or Iron Age hill forts that were reused or refurbished as Anglo-Saxon military sites. Others were new burhs raised with an innovative design that imitated the regular Roman plan.
It has been argued that the latter represent an “Alfredian” vision of urban planning. But the evidence doesn’t entirely bear this out. For example, in Winchester radiocarbon and archaeomagnetic dating suggests the new urban plan was probably built around 840–80, almost certainly, therefore, before Alfred’s victory of 878 and probably before he even became king. Excavations in Worcester, by contrast, show that the distinctive “Alfredian” street plan there only came into use in the late tenth or early 11th century, around 100 years after Alfred’s death.
Archaeological evidence shows that many Bughal Hidage strongholds started as defensive sites which only later developed into towns. Sometimes this occurred at the same location, but in the case of strongholds at Iron Age hill forts, such as Burpham (Sussex), Chisbury (Wiltshire), and Pilton (Devon), more suitable locations for defended towns were sought nearby. While the general development of early emergency measures – where defence policy was determined by inaccessibility and expediency – are testimony to Alfred’s civil defence strategy, the more long-term development of purpose-built towns, around which England’s economy and administration became organised, only took place during the reigns of Alfred’s successors.
Landscapes of defence
The major strongholds listed in the Burghal Hidage have received much attention, but landscape research is also now helping to provide a fuller picture, allowing us to identify important early route-ways and river crossing-points.
Place-names containing such compounds as Old English here-pæð or fyrd-weg, both meaning “army road”, are especially important. But place-names also suggest the existence of elaborate systems of beacons and lookouts, often spaced at regular intervals, visible to each other and to known strongholds, and providing control over important route-ways. Written sources and archaeological excavation confirm that beacons were in use in the early 11th century. Landscape analysis is also helping to identify the important mustering sites, crucial to mobilisation, without which the military system would not have worked.
Putting all this evidence together makes it likely that Alfred the Great’s military innovations were part of a continuing development, that started in the eight century in Mercia and continued long after his death. Alfred built on existing structures, at first using what was already in place, such as hilltop defences and mustering sites of the eighth and early ninth centuries, but many of the most innovative developments in defensive organisation clearly occurred in the reign of his son, Edward the Elder (899–924). Indeed, the little closely datable evidence that can be gleaned from the major burhs, all points to a long chronology of stronghold construction.
Alfred’s defensive genius lay not in the creation of burhs, then, but in the way he adapted earlier strategies to suit the drastically altered military demands of the Viking age. His first steps towards a reliable and more constant system of military service ensured the continuous availability of troops. But the glories afforded him in popular imagination as the architect of “fortress Wessex” no longer, it seems, stand.
As 2016 begins, the recent public interest in hunting for royal burials shows no sign of abating. Hardly has the dust begun to settle on Richard III’s expensive new tomb in Leicester than work is starting on locating the resting place of another medieval monarch, Henry I (d. 1135), in Reading (like Richard III, Henry is also thought to be under a car park).
Meanwhile, the Church of England is stoutly refusing to allow DNA tests to be carried out on bones thought to be those of the “princes in the Tower” who disappeared in 1483, and who may be buried in Westminster Abbey.
With the honourable exception of Alfred the Great (d. 899), whose bones were – disappointingly for some – probably not found in recent Winchester excavations, this interest has tended to concentrate on the kings of England after 1066 at the expense of earlier kings, kings of British kingdoms other than England and queens. That is probably typical of the wider public consciousness of – and interest in – the Middle Ages, but it’s not exactly representative of the period. So here are five remarkable royal burials that present puzzles worthy of attention – and that might help add just a little bit of diversity, too.
1. Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642)
Oswald was a warlike leader of the northern kingdom of Northumbria, but adopted Christianity with all the zeal of the convert that he was. He so impressed the Irish missionary Aidan by his acts of charity that the latter seized his arm and exclaimed: “May this hand never perish!” Sure enough, it didn’t, remaining uncorrupted after Oswald’s death (or so the story goes).
But it wasn’t just Oswald’s hand that had a remarkable fate. Oswald was killed on the battlefield by pagan Mercians and the Welsh, and his head and limbs put on stakes. Some of these remains were later taken to the monastery of Bardney in Lincolnshire. When this fell under Viking rule in the tenth century, the West Saxon royal family mounted a raid to steal the royal remains and bring them back to English-controlled land. What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but for the modern bone hunter the problem isn’t a lack of evidence – it’s too much of it. In the Middle Ages, five different establishments claimed to own Oswald’s head, from Durham in England through to Hildesheim in Germany, whose magnificent head reliquary survives to this day.
2. Eadgyth (d. 946)
Until Oswald’s bones are located, the oldest identified remains of any English – or British – royalty are those of a woman, Eadgyth, daughter of King Edward the Elder. And they’re not even in England. Eadgyth’s brother King Aethelstan sent her and her sister Eadgifu to Germany to allow Duke Otto of Saxony to take his pick of the two for marriage. Otto chose Eadgyth, and when he became emperor, she was anointed as his queen. She remained in Germany until her death in 946.
In 2008 her tomb in Magdeburg in Germany was opened and, although carbon dating failed, isotopic tests confirmed that the remains were indeed Eadgyth’s. But what’s puzzling is that not all of Eadgyth was actually in the lead casket: her hands and feet were nowhere to be found and most of the skull was missing. What happened to these? Experts at the time of the exhumation suggested that thieves had struck in search of holy relics – but Eadgyth wasn’t generally considered a saint, so the mystery remains.
3. Harold II (d. 1066)
Everybody knows what happened to King Harold on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066 – but what happened afterwards? Confusion set in early. A contemporary text, The Song of the Battle of Hastings, says that he was buried on a cliff top; a later source claims he survived the battle and lived for many years as a hermit; but other texts – and most historians – suggest he was buried in Waltham Abbey, which he had endowed.
Predictably, there is now much talk of finding his tomb. But even if the tomb could be found, could we be sure that it was really Harold inside it? According to the 12th-century Waltham chronicle, Harold’s face was injured beyond recognition by battlefield wounds – and the fallen king was identified for burial only by mysterious “secret marks” on his body known to his concubine, Edith Swanneck. Can we be quite sure that Edith could not have been mistaken?
4. Margaret (d.1093)
Margaret was another victim of the Norman conquest, but one whose life took a happier turn than Harold’s. Descended from King Alfred the Great, she was brought up in exile in Hungary before marrying the Scottish king Malcom III. She was treated as a saint soon after her death and her chapel can still be seen in Edinburgh castle. A gospel book she owned also survives in London.
But what remains of Margaret herself is elsewhere. She was buried in Dunfermline Abbey on her death, but later her head was removed and taken to Edinburgh as a relic and in the confusion of the Reformation it ended up in France, where it was lost in the revolution. Other parts of Margaret’s body were transferred to Spain by Philip II. When Queen Victoria paid for the restoration of Margaret’s tomb in Dumferline, it was probably therefore the restoration of a cenotaph.
However, in 1862, a Scottish Catholic bishop travelled to Spain to ask for the return of some of Margaret’s remains. He duly secured a relic, which he brought with him back to Edinburgh where it stayed for a century. In 2008, this relic – apparently part of Margaret’s shoulder – was ceremonially handed back to St Margaret’s church in Dunfermline.
5. Llwelyn ap Gruffydd (d.1282)
Llwelyn was the last leader of an independent Wales and met his fate resisting English imperialism in the shape of Edward I. Hardly had he been killed than his head was cut off and sent to London (though this was less grisly than the treatment meted out to Llwelyn’s former ally, the rebel baron Simon de Montfort, whose testicles were draped over his decapitated head). Llwelyn’s head was stuck on a pike at the Tower of London, where it remained for more than a decade to impress onlookers.
What happened to the rest of Llwelyn isn’t certain. He was probably buried at Cwmhir Abbey in central Wales. But the archbishop of Canterbury at the time wasn’t entirely sure of this – and even wrote a letter to seek confirmation. The abbey is now in ruins, but no archaeological excavations have taken place to certify the last resting place of (most of) the last independent Welsh ruler.
Witches have long been an international obsession. From King James I’s book Demonologie (1597) and the famous Pendle witch trials in Lancaster (1612), to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (first performed 1611) and Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches (1647), there are countless factual and fictional tales of witchcraft. The recent release of the film, The Last Witch Hunter, is yet another example of this cultural fascination.
But the colourful, fictional yarns often are far removed from the reality of witchfinders and the trials that the accused – mostly women – faced. And, in some cases, are much more a reflection of contemporary anxieties.
The 17th century witch trials staged in Newcastle upon Tyne, for example, offer a stark glimpse of the reality, complicating our received understanding of history as represented in film and fiction. The simple paradigm of the self-interested mercenary (witchfinder) in pursuit of the disenfranchised victim (witch) is rendered more complex by the social, political, gender, and economic contexts of the age.
In 1650, towards the end of the English Civil War and within memory of a 1636 outbreak of plague, Newcastle upon Tyne’s Puritan magistrates invited in an unnamed Scottish witchfinder. Known as the “bell-man”, he asked “all people that would bring in any complaint against any woman for a witch, they should be sent for and tried by the person appointed”.
There was also an implicit financial motive in his endeavours – for each successful prosecution, the Scottish witchfinder would receive 30 shillings, about ten times the average daily wage.
A bloody affair
In 1655, Ralph Gardiner’s England’s grievance discovered, in relation to the coal-trade recorded an account of the Newcastle witch trials that followed. He noted that 30 women were brought to the town hall, stripped, and “pricked” by a bodkin or pin, the evidence gleaned resulting in the public execution of 16 people (including one man). One woman, Margaret Brown, implored God to give some sign of her innocence – and, at her execution, Gardiner recorded, “as soon as ever she was turned off the ladder her blood gushed out upon the people to the admiration of the beholders”.
While many of the accused in such cases were old, economically disadvantaged and female, this was not always the case. Gardiner also demonstrates this in his account, offering a somewhat romantic challenge to the stereotype of the old crone.
The Scottish witchfinder, for example, claimed that he could identify one witch by her appearance. In response, Lieutenant Colonel Hobson (who served in the parliamentarian New Model Army and was deputy governor of Newcastle) protested that by this logic, such a young and attractive woman could not be a witch. Her public trial, in a pseudo-sexual gesture, involved the exposure of her body up to her waist, after which she was eventually cleared of being “a child of the devil”.
Various other accounts of witchcraft in north-east England identify occurrences such as visions of headless bears, and one woman being ridden like a horse to a Witches’ Sabbat.
Given such stories, it is no surprise that witches and their craft have pervaded contemporary culture. Famous literary examples include Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), and Jeanette Winterson’s more recent novel, The Daylight Gate (2012). Then we have American Horror Story: Coven (2013), a TV show addressing the legacy of the Salem witches (1692).
Film representations also offer us some problematic insights into recuperating the idea of the “witch-hunt”. The Witchfinder General, directed by Michael Reeves (1968), for example, says much more about the time in which it was filmed than the historical truth.
In the film, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his sidekick John Stearne (Robert Russell) seem to have sole responsibility for condemning witches. Historically, however, this was a joint effort between the witch hunters, local people and town councils – witchfinders often worked with the support of the local authorities.
Instead, The Witchfinder General articulates American anxieties regarding traditional authority around the time of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The film’s portrayal of corruption, and the implied lack of confidence in the political administration are suggestive of that contemporary moment. There was also revulsion at the time to the strong sexual and violent imagery in the film. The playwright Alan Bennett said it was: “The most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen.”
The recent release of The Last Witch Hunter also reflects contemporary concerns. Vin Diesel’s character, Kaulder, asks at one point if we are to judge a witch “without interrogation”. In this scene, the witch is brought to trial with a hood over his head, recalling the alleged abuses at Guantanamo Bay.
Rose Leslie’s character in the film, a goth woman named Chloe, also challenges some of our more stereotypical views of witches, as did the attractive teenage witches in 1996 film The Craft. She asks: “What do people know about witches anyway? That we’ve green skin and pointy hats and we’re mean?”
Despite this corrective, she also circulates some common mistakes, referring to the witches who were “burnt at the stake in Salem”. Of course, history tells us that the Salem witches were put to death by hanging.
So how can we understand the pervasive image of the witch? The problem with presenting witch-hunts for modern-day audiences is that it presupposes one coherent set of historical beliefs and procedures. In fact, the real witch trials were far more complex than some popular cultural material might suggest.