The Witch, The Bucket And The Very Naughty Boy
“I’m sorry I’m late mummy but I found two greyhounds in the woods and when they didn’t chase a hare I tied them to a bush and I beat them and then they turned into a woman and a boy and the woman put a bridle in the boy’s mouth and then he turned into a horse and they made me go to the forest and watch witches dancing and then they ate my homework.”
In 1634 no one had actually caught onto ye olde shaggy-dog-tale wheeze from small boys trying to get out of chores. When young Edmund Robinson came up with this howler for bringing the cows in late, it seemed perfectly reasonable. It was far more likely that sixty Lancastrian women had made pacts with the Devil than a small boy would ever tell a porky pie to cover up a simple mistake.
When witches were uncovered in the 17th Century, they seldom fell alone. In a matter of weeks it was the talk of the entire nation. Sir William Pelham wrote to his pal Viscount Conway:
“The greatest news from the country is of a huge pack of witches which are lately discovered in Lancashire whereof nineteen are condemned and that there are at least sixty already discovered and yet daily there are more revealed.”
Once rumour got a hold, it went berserk. “It is suspected,” he continued, “that they had a hand in raising the great storm wherein His Majesty was in such danger in Scotland. “
It didn’t help that at least one of the women was quite happy to admit she was a witch – and rather proud of the fact. Margaret Johnson had been given a hard time by her neighbours and when she men a man in black on the highway, offering to swap her soul for her heart’s desire, it seemed like a good trade.
According to my old mate the Reverend L’Strange, the stranger “called himself Mamilion and generally ‘took liberties’ with her.” After a while, he took to appearing in the form of common domestic animals and sucked her blood. She was adamant she’d never hurt anyone.
Everyone else denied the charges. The finger-pointers clutched at straws – one guy accused poor Mary Spenser of having a bucket as a familiar, which would run after her.
I can just hear the frustration in her voice as she patiently explained that sometimes when going for water, she’d amuse herself by rolling the pail down the hill and running beside it.
But it was no good. Once the rumours took hold, no one was safe.
So what has this all got to do with Greenwich?
We tend to forget that in Charles I’s time, the town was still an important administrative centre. The ‘witches,’ who had by this time dwindled to four (presumably not even Seventeenth Century country bigots bought the bucket-story…) were brought to London for trial, and put up in the Ship Hotel by the river.
There have been several Ship Hotels in Greenwich, mainly famous for serving Whitebait to Tories (or maybe Whigs, I can never remember which way round it was…) The last one was bombed to buggery in WWII. I’ll get onto the Ship and its various guises some other day.
After staying at the tavern, the ‘witches’ were thoroughly examined by seven surgeons and ten certificated midwives, under the supervision of William Harvey (yeah, the same guy who discovered the blood-circulation thing…)
This Seventeenth Century medical and scientific elite was unimpressed with the yokels who’d sent these poor women all the way to London and, between them found nothing unnatural at all about them.
To Margaret Johnson’s presumed annoyance, the best evidence of the Devil they found on her was a couple of ‘teat-like marks’ – which they dismissed as being pretty normal, really.
At which point young Edmund Robinson was dragged forward by the ear, and, kicking his heels, he admitted he’d made the whole thing up. History doesn’t tell us what happened to the little tyke (or, indeed, the innocent women) but I’m guessing the Naughty Step was occupied for some time…