Witchcraft and magic were not unusual in Wales during the early modern period (1500-1800 AD). Like much of Europe, cunning folk – common people who could provide healing and assistance – were commonplace in its rural communities. However, Wales remained largely undisturbed by the witch-hunts of its neighbouring countries. Although this can be largely explained by its small population, historians argue it was also due to the cost of witch trials (Williams 1975), strong community bonds (Suggett 2008) and the perseverance of Hywel Dda, a set of ancient cultural codes, which advocated for reconciliation over punishment (Parkin 2006). In fact, only five women were executed for the crime of committing Witchcraft – and the first, in 1594, was named Gwen ferch Ellis.
Situated in the North East of Wales, Llandyrnog is a small village with roots dating back to the 13th century at the latest. It was here, in the late 16th century, that Gwen ferch Ellis was accused of Witchcraft. Gwen wove linen for a living and was also known for her ability to help ‘diseased children and beastes by charming, al also by salves, drinckes and plasters’, which she shared in exchange for goods or food (Suggett 2018).
However, she slowly became known for doing ‘harme to men, women and beastes’ – in 1589 Lewis John, who had previously assaulted Gwen, died after a short and ‘franticke’ illness (Suggett 2018). In 1591 a group of men, led a bailiff named William Griffith, came to her home demanding ale. Gwen refused and one of the men, Robert Evans, pushed her in retaliation (Winsham 2016). Realising she was outnumbered (and probably quite scared, considering a group of men were in her home demanding alcohol) Gwen swore revenge before bringing them a jug full of ale… with a fly floating in it. No matter how hard they tried the men could not remove the fly and decided it must be her familiar. Within the fortnight Robert Evans mysteriously broke his arm and William Griffith’s wife became ill, losing the use of both her arms and legs. It was widely believed this was a result of Gwen’s revenge (Suggett 2018).
A few years later in 1595, a written charm was found inside Glodaith, the house of a local landowner named Thomas Mostyn. It was suspected that Jane Conway, who had previous disagreements with the landowner, had bought the charm from Gwen before placing it in his home. Although charms, written for healing, were commonplace at the time this charm was written backwards and therefore believed to bear intent to harm (Leach 2019). Gwen was accused of using a poppet and casting destructive magic and was therefore arrested. She was interrogated at Flint Castle and, sources from the time claim, she admitted to crafting charms – but not the charm found in Glodaith (Winsham 2016).
Gwen was put on trial in July and faced testimonies from several witnesses, including Robert Evans and the mother of Lewis John. She would continue to protest her innocence until, in October 1595, she was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
This case stands out against other British witch trials. Although British witch trials predominately focused on witchcraft or sorcery of any kind being evil or malicious, Gwen’s focused on the type of witchcraft she performed rather than her performing charms in general (Leach 2019). She was found guilty of using witchcraft in a malicious way, rather than for using magic of any sort.
This case also shows how the accepted magic of the cunning folk could easily be relabelled as witchcraft when there was a breach of hierarchical norms of traditional neighbourly behaviour – by using magic in a malicious, negative way Jane Conway, and by extension Gwen, had violated the unity of the village.
Leach, K. (2019) ‘Narrative Charms in Late Medieval and Early Modern Wales’ in Akadémiai Kiadó, vol 64. pp 335 – 352.
Parkin, S. (2006) ‘Witchcraft, women’s honour and customary law in early modern Wales’, in Social History, vol 31. pp. 295-318.
Williams, J. G (1975) ‘Witchcraft in seventeenth-century Flintshire: Part 2’, in Flintshire Historical Society, vol 27. pp. 5-35.
Suggett, R. (2008), A History of Magic & Witchcraft in Wales. Stroud: Tempus.
Suggett, R. (2018) Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Wales. Atramentous Press: Cardiff.
Winsham, W. (2016) Accused: British Witches throughout History. Pen and Sword: Barnsley.
Suggett, R. (2000) ‘Witchcraft Dynamics in Early Modern Wales’ in Women and Gender in Early Modern Wales (Michael Roberts and Simone Clarke eds.) Wales. pp. 75-104.