When you think of a witch, what comes to mind? Green skin? Pointy Hat? Broomstick? Black cat?
These are all iconic characteristics of ‘witches’ as we have come to know them in twenty-first-century popular culture, but in the Early Modern period the word ‘witch’ meant something else.
The existence of witches was feared throughout the world and the ‘witch hunt’ cost the lives of over 40,000 people in Western Europe alone. With Halloween approaching, I thought this would be a good time to reflect on the history of the witch panic in Wales, and especially the life of the first Welsh witch: Gwen ferch Ellis.
It was during the Early Modern period that there was an increasing fear of ‘witches’ living in society. At the time, witches were viewed as the ‘enemies within’ as they posed a threat to society due to their association with the Devil.
In England and Wales, witchcraft became a criminal offence punishable by death in Britain in 1542. This piece of legislation had deadly consequences, as it gave the fear of witchcraft a legal standing and enabled the conviction and execution of ‘witches’ to take place. The following years saw the ‘Great Witch Panic’ in Europe, which occurred between 1560 and 1630, when 60% of all European witchcraft convictions took place.
Compared to other regions in Europe, the ‘witch panic’ in Wales was significantly smaller than those seen in other countries, but the fear of witches still existed in the region. In total, 14 people were tried on the charge of using acts of witchcraft for harm in Wales, and only 5 were executed. It was in 1594 that the country saw it’s first trial and execution for witchcraft – the trial of a woman named Gwen ferch Ellis.
The first Welsh witch, Gwen ferch Ellis was born in 1542 in Llandyrnog, a village situated in North-East Wales. After being widowed twice, Gwen came to live in Betws yn Rhos where she worked as a skilled weaver and was known for her talent in healing through the use of herbs. This was not uncommon for the time as many villages would have had a local woman who specialised in using herbal treatments or charms, which would have been used by local people in times of illness. In return for her healing practices, Gwen was often paid with food and wool as opposed to money.
However, life for Gwen ferch Ellis took a fatal turn in 1594 when a man named Thomas Mostyn claimed that she had placed a charm on his house. Gwen had come to know Thomas Mostyn through her friend Jane Conwy. Whilst we don’t know for sure what happened, it appears that Jane had a disagreement with Mostyn, who came to be angry towards her and Gwen, with some historians suggesting that Gwen knew of an affair between the two.
The Mostyns were an upper-class family who held significant power in this period due to their land ownership across North Wales. This meant that Thomas’ claims were taken incredibly seriously, due to his reputation. He claimed that Gwen had stayed at his house and placed the charm whilst he was away.
Charms were spells which were often used for healing and protection purposes; however, Thomas Mostyn claimed that the charm Gwen had placed on his house was written backwards, evidence that it was intended to harm. To contemporaries, this would have been a clear example of maleficium, the act of using the supernatural to cause harm.
Gwen was subsequently arrested and taken for questioning at Flint Castle by the Bishop of St Asaph, where she admitted to using charms but only to help others. The trial of Gwen ferch Ellis began in October 1594, and many witnesses came forward to accuse Gwen of using witchcraft to harm them and their families. One woman even claimed that Gwen had made her son turn mad which had ultimately resulted in his death. In total, seven people came forward and testified against Gwen. She was found guilty and sentenced to death.
In Denbigh town square, Gwen was executed by hanging, and became the first woman to be executed on the charge of witchcraft in Wales.
Unfortunately, Gwen’s experience as a woman in sixteenth-century Europe is not completely uncommon for the period. In the century following Gwen’s death, the witch panic would reach its peak with witch trials taking place across Europe and in the American colonies, with around 100,000 trials taking place in Europe alone.
The ‘witch panic’ highlights the fear of the unknown in an age of new discoveries and gives us a glimpse into the beliefs, anxieties and the treatment of women in Early Modern society. As historian Frances Timbers notes in her book, A History of Magic and Witchcraft, ‘witchcraft is a metaphor for oppression in an age in which persecution is an everyday occurrence somewhere in the world’.
Zoe is a History student from South Wales. She is passionate about the heritage sector and History. Through her blog – called That HerStorian – she hopes to discuss how we, and society, remember our past and heritage by looking at books, TV shows, museums and more!