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Speculation that The Windsor Witches Raised Energy (Part 2)

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: September 28th. 2008
Times Viewed: 3,593

Four women of Windsor, England (then as now a famous royal residence) , were killed (probably by hanging) on February 26, 1579: Mother Dutton, Mother Devell, Mother Margaret, and Elizabeth Stile, alias Mother Rockingham. Implicated with them, but not charged, were a wise-man or cunning-man called Father Rosimond and Rosimond’s daughter. (Mother Dutton seems to have been a wise-woman, as people apparently sought her counsel with some frequency and she was said to be able to know their inquiry as soon as she saw them approach.) Mother Audrey and Mother Nelson were two women considered to have been partners in this company who predeceased the events of the Windsor Witch case; Mother Audrey appears to have been universally considered the “Mistress” (what we would call the High Priestess) of what was called a confederation or an association of witches.

It should be noted that, while the pun of a witch named Mother “Devell” (or “Devil, ” as one of the chroniclers of the case writes it) would surely have been obvious to them, at no point are the witches accused of actual devil-worship nor do they mention devil-worship at all. Beyond a generalized, free-floating association of witches with the Devil common to the latter sixteenth century and apparent in the remarks of the writers of the case, there is no mention of demonism in the tale of the Witches of Windsor. Rather the Witches appear to have been an instance of Folk Magic-Workers Gone Bad; to judge from their apparent confessions, they sought to inflict harm and suffering on those who displeased them and counted themselves as successful numerous times.

The Windsor Witches appear to have been a deliberatively different sort than the kind that the period recognized as a “Blessing Witch”- even the Puritan preacher Perkins conceded the presence of “Blessing Witches” amongst communities, who did nothing but good and who were held in high esteem. Had the Windsor Witches been gentler in their applications of “ye craft, ” perhaps their neighbors would not have wished to kill them. Think of the Windsor Witches as a mini-Witch Mafia and you get the idea.

The Windsor community shared the understanding that the Windsor Witch confederation (we would call them a coven without question, although they do not use that word) sometimes met around eleven o’clock in the night at a nearby pond. More frequently, however, they seemed to make “their assembly in the pits in Maister Dodges backside”- that is, they met together at the saw-pits (where you chopped up felled trees) in the removed portion of Mr. Dodge’s property. Here they used to “doo and exercise ye craft.”

This is the question- what is it that the Windsor Witches “do and exercise” as “ye craft” in their assembly at the saw-pits of Dodge’s land?

Accounts of the Windsor case are typical in that they seldom trouble themselves with details of what exactly it is that witches do as witchcraft. The crimes that are supposedly done through witchcraft are made clear; the techniques by which these magical processes are wrought tend to be little enumerated. Other than some detailed descriptions of how various wax images were tortured into destruction (thereby killing various fellow towns-people) , the Windsor records are mum on what it may have been that constituted “ye craft” to the Windsor Witches.

Since it stands to reason that a group of people who make a purposeful journey to a specific spot, timed to a specific period, will likely do something once they are there, I offer the following speculations as to- what did the Witches of Windsor do as witchcraft?

If they imitate the example of their folklore, they likely as not dance in a circle. European folklorists from Grimm to Briggs have unearthed so much evidence of witches dancing in circles as to leave no doubt that the “antic round” (as Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth ) was well ingrained in their collective consciousness. The folk tradition of the witches’ circle-dance made its way into a number of the Witch Plays of the Elizabethan stage- Macbeth, The Witch, and The Masque of Queens all feature witches dancing in a circle.

Margaret Murray was the first to notice that witches and faeries are essentially alike in European folklore in that both traditionally dance in rings; perhaps like Titania with her faerey-court in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (II.i.86) , the Mistress-Witch Mother Audrey used to lead the Windsor confederation in dancing “ringlets to the whistling wind” on exciting moonlit nights.

The Windsor Witches are further interesting in their association with the area of Windsor, which is not only the site of a significant English witch-trial, but is the locale of Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Merry Wives is unique in the canon for a variety of reasons. It is the one play that Shakespeare set in his contemporary England and it is strongly identified with Queen Elizabeth.

There is a charming tradition that a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company (George Carey, the second Lord Hunsdon) commissioned Merry Wives as a thank-you to her majesty for his installation into the Knights-Elect of the Order of the Garter in May 1597- which august event took place at Windsor. There many dropped hints and references that imply that the play’s actions are meant to be thought of as taking place at the same time as the gathering of nobles for the great ceremonies of the installation. As the comedy was certainly performed before Elizabeth, every detail must be assumed to have passed the highest muster- even the kind of apparent pagan ritual that closes the play.

I find Merry Wives remarkable in that it is one of the Elizabethan plays that suddenly goes so pagan as to take one’s breath for a minute. The end of the play revolves around the legend of Herne the Hunter-, which we are meant to understand as a local piece of Windsor folklore. Herne is an obvious variant on the Celtic Horned God known as Cernunnos (“Herne” derives from the same root as “Cernunn”) .

In order to make sure that we understand the connection, Mistress Page delivers a speech explaining the legend in “There is an old tale goes.” (IV.iv.26-36) The ending of the speech is notable: “you have heard of such a spirit; and well you know the superstitious idle-headed eld received, and did deliver to our age, this tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.” Note the process whereby, according to Mistress Page, these old myths survived the years- “the superstitious idle-headed eld” (“eld” meaning both “elders” and people of an older time) “did deliver to our age” these tales “for a truth.”

“Marry, this is our device, that Falstaff at that oak shall meet with us, disguis’d like Herne, with huge horns on his head.”

For the play’s ultimate comic set-up, the eponymous merry wives convince Falstaff to meet them at night near the famous Oak of Herne. He thinks he is arranging a romantic assignation and shows up wearing a pair of deer-horns (symbolic of beast-like pagan virility) in anticipation of the impassioned encounter that he thinks will ensue. Essentially Falstaff costumes himself as Herne; he means to say, “I am the Horned One.”

Little does he know that everyone else is dressing up like faeries and hobgoblins, to surprise Falstaff by making him think that the Faerey Ride is breaking out upon him; this will freak him out and humiliate him, which will be really funny, because Falstaff is such a lying con-man.

“Nan Page, my daughter, and my little son, and three or four more of their growth, we’ll dress like urchins, ouphs, and fayries, green and white, with rounds of waxen tapers on their heads and rattles in their hands…then let them all encircle him about, and fayrie-like to pinch the unclean knight; and ask him why that hour of fayrie-revel, in their so sacred paths, he dares to tread in shape profane.” (IV.iv) Essentially Falstaff is getting punked at the end of Merry Wives. After everyone has had their fun laughing at Falstaff’s fear and embarrassment, they are going to dance a customary round at Herne’s oak, between midnight and one. “Away; disperse: but till ‘tis one o’clock, our dance of custom round about the oak of Herne the Hunter, let us not forget.” (V.v.80)

The fascinating thing is the suggestion that Windsor village-folk may have maintained customs of sojourning into the forests of Windsor to dance about Herne’s Oak at the witching hour of midnight. Scholars agree that it is possible that some kind of Mummer’s Play enacting some sort of ritual concerning Herne (a pagan Passion Play or something) might have been preserved at Windsor during the time of Shakespeare, inspiring the ending to Merry Wives.

Jeffrey Burton Russell (in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, p. 300, n.4) reminds that varieties of Morris Dance were continued in isolated villages even until the twentieth century, demonstrating survivals of folk-custom similar to those seemingly alluded to in Merry Wives. At any rate- the identification of a group of Elizabethans faring into the woods at night, dressed up as spirits of the otherworld, to dance around a haunted oak tree at midnight- in the company and in the honor of a pagan horned deity- is a very pagan circumstance for the late sixteenth century. It also smacks more than a little of a witches’ Sabbat- at the time of Merry Wives (late 1590s) , people are getting set on fire on the Continent over allegations not dramatically dissimilar to these.

If we assume that Windsor villagers may have continued festive customs centered around the old Horned Forest God Herne in the late 1590s- is it out of the question that the Witches of Windsor might have done likewise roughly twenty years earlier? Is it not even possible that Father Rosimond, the cunning-man of the group, might have outfitted himself with a pair of buck’s horns, in order to impersonate Herne the Horned Hunter as Falstaff does?

The ironic things is- if the Windsor Witches stole into the Windsor woods to dance in circles around sacred trees, with Rosimond standing in for the Horned Forest Lord- this is a circumstance very near to what Margaret Murray postulated in her books. (For more on the Horned One, please check out The Horned God of Wytches.)

The Witch Plays present witches dancing in a circle. Furthermore, they display witches dancing with a focused attention or concentrating upon a communal intent- in order to “power up” their magic. The Witches of The Witch dance in a circle about their “vessel” (their cauldron) singing their witch-song, as do the Witches in the Cauldron Scene of Macbeth. Similarly, the Witches initiate their first encounter with Macbeth (I.iii) by dancing a round whilst chanting the “Wyrrd Sisters Charm” (“The Wyrrd Sisters, hand in hand, posters of the sea and land”) . The spell is complete when they judge the Charm to be “wound up.”

The Witches of The Masque of Queens conceptualize their magic as producing a blue drake (a fiery elemental) in their Fourth Charm: “And when thou dost wake, Dame Earth shall quake, and the houses shake, and her belly shall ache, as her back were brake, such a birth to make as is the blue drake whose form thou shalt take.”

In all of these instances, it is relatively easy to imagine witches of the late sixteenth century “raising energy” in their repetitive circular dancing and focus upon intention. This would imply such techniques were widely known and associated with witchcraft. (For more, please investigate A Briefe Historie of Wytches, Chapter III. ) Another ironic thing would be- if the Windsor Witches did indeed “raise energy” in the form of “winding up their charm” or birthing a blue drake- this would be a circumstance very similar to that described by Gardner in Witchcraft Today.


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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