The deep, dark roots of Britain’s fascination with witchcraft

As the cinema queues form again for our seasonal dose of hobbits, wizards, and strangely aggressive dwarves, there seems to be a big question hanging in the air — larger even than whether the intrepid hairballs will reach the next unpronounceable town.

It is this. What does our fascination with watching them yomp to-and-fro across Middle-earth tell us about Britain’s beliefs today? More precisely, what does it reveal about our attitude to magic and the supernatural?

To put the question in context, in 1937 J R R Tolkien published his neo-medieval epic, The Hobbit or There and Back Again.

Its magic-fuelled adventure was an instant hit.

Yet in 1944, only seven years later, juries at London’s austere Old Bailey were still gamely convicting women under the ancient Witchcraft Act 1735.

Moving ahead six years, in 1950 Tolkien’s friend and fellow don C S Lewis enchanted the public with his witchy goings on in Narnia. Hot on its heels, in 1954 Tolkien unleashed the great Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was instantly acclaimed by a loyal and expectant readership.

Wartime Britons feared witchcraft but loved The Lord of the Rings

So how did the same public coo with delight at Gandalf’s nonchalant command of the magical realm, yet look on with equanimity as Helen Duncan and 72-year-old Jane Yorke were subjected to full criminal trials for talking to spirits? The same readers of Tolkien and Lewis watched as both women were convicted by jury, fined in the case of Yorke, and carted off to Holloway Prison in the case of Duncan.

Fortunately, the offence was no longer capital, and there was never any question of hanging — although it would be another 11 years before the gallows trap was finally shut in Britain. The honour of being the last witch to be burned in the British Isles went to Janet Horne in Scotland, who was sent to the stake in 1727 for riding her daughter to the Devil, where he shod her. At least, as far as the presiding sheriff was concerned, this seemed the only explanation for her unfortunate daughter’s deformed hands and feet.

So how, in Blitz-scarred London, were two women found guilty under witchcraft legislation at a time when Tolkien and Lewis were stamping out wizards and witches by the kilo?

Whoever reads the (refreshingly) short Witchcraft Act 1735 quickly finds that it is tragically misnamed. It should really be called the Abolition of the Idea of Witchcraft Act.

The previous Witchcraft Acts had been built on the unshakable certainty that witches — who wantonly consorted with foul demons and undermined upstanding members of society — needed to be put to death.

King Henry VIII (1542), Queen Elizabeth I (1562), and King James I (1604) all passed Witchcraft Acts to reinforce this view. In fact, James I was so dippy about the subject, he took up his pen in 1597 and sweated over a small treatise he called Daemonologie. It begins:

The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serue for a shew of my learning & ingine, but onely (mooued of conscience) to preasse thereby, so farre as I can, to resolue the doubting harts of many.

Not long after, of course, he commissioned the King James Bible, which remains, for many, the gold standard of Bible translation, despite its strong grounding in the politics and beliefs of the day.

But it was all to change just over a century later under the Germanic influence of King George II. His Witchcraft Act of 1735 put an end to all the previous broomstick mumbo-jumbo. It rejected completely the idea that witches existed, and instead targeted fraudulent witches.

Therefore, what Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke were actually convicted of in 1944 was fraud. The Act put it like this:

IV. … if any Person shall … pretend to exercise or use any kind of Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment, or Conjuration, or undertake to tell Fortunes, or pretend, from his or her Skill or Knowledge in any occult or crafty Science, to discover where or in what manner any Goods or Chattels, supposed to have been stolen or lost, may be found, every Person, so offending, being thereof lawfully convicted on Indictment or Information … shall, for every such Offence, suffer Imprisonment by the Space of one whole Year without Bail or Mainprize, and once in every Quarter of the said Year, in some Market Town of the proper County, upon the Market Day, there stand openly on the Pillory by the Space of One Hour.

Still, the subtle legal distinction was probably lost on the two women. In the grey newspapers of war-tired London, Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke went down in sensationalist legend as Britain’s last two witches — a notoriety that still dogs them.

Yeats belonged to the Order of the Golden Dawn (sacred writings above)

Duncan was, it was claimed, manifestly a fraud, repeatedly shown to be regurgitating cheesecloth, egg white, rubber gloves, and all manner of other fabricated ‘ectoplasm’. Yorke’s séances were less dramatic, but there was a suspicion that she, like Duncan, might be preying on the war bereaved.

In Duncan’s case, there was additionally a whiff of intrigue. She revealed in a séance that a missing sailor had gone down on HMS Barham. This caused something of a stir, as knowledge of Barham’s sinking in November 941 was tightly restricted to Whitehall and the families of the bereaved. With the D-Day Normandy landings only three months away, it has been suggested that some in government believed it was safer to confine Duncan to Holloway until after the summer offensive.

So why were the two women indicted under the Witchcraft Act? Both could as easily have been charged with deception, or offences under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 which covered fraudulent fortune telling, astrology, and spiritualism.

Churchill, prime minister at the time, was troubled by the use of the witchcraft charges, which he called “obsolete tomfoolery” in a letter he fired off to the Home Secretary immediately after Duncan’s conviction.

But the fact the trial was specifically sensationalised by the government’s law officers through linking it to the ancient witchcraft laws hints at something much deeper in the British psyche.

The answer lies, at least in part, in the same fascination that keeps us returning for our annual silver-screen wizard fixes.

We are, as a nation, fascinated by the magical.

Of course, ever since George II’s Witchcraft Act of 1735, we do not believe in magic any more. We tone it down wherever possible. Even the institution at the historical heart of our cities and villages that was built on a belief in magic is a bit shuffly on the subject. Their special word for magic, “miracles” — which exists only to distinguish Christian magic from other less classy sorts — is pretty far down the agenda these days.

But still the British take to their sleeping bags to lie outside barricaded bookshops until opening time to get the latest book redolent of wise ones in pointy hats.

The fact is that our fascination seems to be longstanding. Although we can rightly celebrate the British learning behind the World Wide Web, the Higgs Boson, and a host of other national achievements, our scientific prowess seems unable to shake our collective fascination with the manifestly irrational and supernatural — the idea there is a little magic somewhere, if we only know where to look for it.

And we do not just indulge this fetish on the screen.

On the 31st of October each year, the nation gets routinely pagan.

Regardless of the modern commercialisation of Halloween, the country is carrying on the rites of the pre-Christian people of these Islands — tipping fancy dress moon-studded hats to the age-old winter festivals of the living and the dead.

And only five days later, on the 5th of November, we gaze deeply into the wintry fires of our forebears, in a rite that has everything to do with Celtic and Anglo-Saxon traditions and not a lot — let’s be honest — with the baffling gunpowder politics of Stuart England.

Yet it’s not just in winter that we acknowledge our magical past.

Local Mayday traditions abound, as spring returns and nature reawakens. Take Maypole dancing. Despite centuries of stern disapproval — starting with the Commonwealth of the mid-1600s, which castigated the revelry as idolatrous — it remains firmly anchored in many villages, towns, and cities. Every spring, poles are still strung with ribbons, and the zesty dance around them in honour of long-forgotten seasonal rites.

Once you start thinking of Britain as steeped in millennia of the magical and supernatural, you start to see it everywhere.

For example, there are the legions of bizarre Green Men festooning our medieval churches and cathedrals, emerging from, spewing out, or interbred with billowing foliage. Their magical oneness with nature has no basis in Christianity, but would have fitted into Tolkien’s imaginary world without a ripple.

If that all sounds too genteel and you like your magic to have more teeth, then consider Britain’s place as the home of modern magical practices. And I do not mean Paul Daniels or Derren Brown. According to the world expert Professor Ronald Hutton, modern pagan witchcraft (or Wicca) is the only world religion made in England.

It is worth realizing that Wicca (from the Anglo-Saxon wicca, witch) was only taken public by the former civil servant Gerald Gardner once the coast was well and truly clear following the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951.

Yeats belonged to the Order of the Golden Dawn (sacred writings above)

In fact, there is a vast amount in this area that is uniquely British. Modern druidry, the Golden Dawn (above), and even Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, are all successful British magical exports. They may sound fringe now, but in their heyday they attracted adherents like the Nobel Prize winning poet W B Yeats and Constance, Oscar Wilde’s wife, who all dressed up and performed high society ancient magical rituals.

Among other notable Victorian supernatural organizations, the most famous is perhaps The Ghost Club, founded by fellows from Cambridge University to investigate the paranormal. Over the years, its elite membership has included Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a keen spiritualist), and Siegfried Sassoon.

So. Back to Bilbo, Harry, Dumbledore, Aslan, Hagrid, Gandalf, Hermione, Galadriel, and the great roll call of the rest, who have now been assimilated into British winter as readily as Stollen and Christmas markets.

Even though the 2011 census shows a drop in organized religion and a rise in more flexible alternatives, it seems we are far from embracing a systematic secularism. Instead, we are, in our droves, transfixed by mythical figures who straddle the large space in our minds for wonder and the irrational.

The final question is: why Britain? What makes Britain so rich in writers and audiences who flock to these themes?

This time, the answer is as clear as looking out of the window at the British landscape, while remembering that the word ‘pagan’ comes from pagani, meaning people from the countryside.

The inescapable reality is that these islands battle with elemental weather, giving us a visceral awareness of the drama of the changing seasons. Coupled with the long dark nights of winter and the euphoria of summer light, the British have always had an innate awareness of the proximity of the natural world, and its power to make or break us in any year.

The result is an understandable fascination with the behaviour of nature. It is therefore no wonder that we have always been transfixed by figures who command the forces that the rest of us can only watch.

And there is nothing new in that. Canute the Great — all powerful king of England and much of Scandinavia — can have been thinking of little else when he pitched his chair on the shore to show his toady courtiers that even he, for all his magnificence, could not command the tide.

At least his fun was not spoiled by any Witchcraft Acts.

(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 31 December 2013)