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  • Fairy Witches #1: Joan Tyrry of Taunton March 15, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Who was Joan Tyrry [Terry]? Beach knows very little, too little, in fact. And everything he does know about this sixteenth-century woman comes from Keith Thomas who in the 1960s visited Wells Diocesan Records and opened the dusty old boxes with A21 and A22 where her trial is recorded. KT never gave a detailed description of what he found there but spaced through that scholars’ great Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) he includes a handful of references. From these we learn that in 1555 Joan was dragged before the Diocesan Court as a witch or cunning woman. Given the date her life was at risk: she could easily have been passed across to the state for hanging. However, Thomas tells us enough that we learn that this Joan was a rather unusual kind of witch, one of the reasons perhaps why she seems to have got off. For one she had actually turned witches in before she herself had been hauled up on charges of witchcraft. Joan claimed in the trial that ‘the fairies’ had told which of her Taunton neighbours were witches and which were not.  This is reminiscent of several Continental cases of men and women who informed on witches with supernatural help, eventually being themselves charged for the same crime: the Benandanti of Ginzburg are a very strange version of the same. Joan also claimed that  ‘her doings in healing of man and beast, by the power of God taught to her by the … fairies, be both godly and good…’ and again ‘the fairies taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’. Her healing, Thomas tells us, was based on herbs gathered to the accompaniment of five Paternosters, five Aves and a Creed. Thomas doesn’t tell us what Joan’s fate was but she probably got off. Certainly, Thomas’ final comment on Joan suggest as much. She told the court that the fairies would never return to her after confessing her dalliance with them in public: the old motif, a fairy secret told is lost? She presumably confessed this on being told that renunciation of the fairies was part of the deal for her walking away from the noose or even the faggots and green boughs. Joan is not alone, there are other British and Continental fairy witches: any other examples drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com It would be interesting to try and collect the various records and see what patterns emerge.


    23 March 2013: The Count writes in ‘Two words – Isobel Gowdie. This young lady seems, judging by the incomplete records, to have spontaneously confessed without being tortured to being a witch who, amongst other things, hung out with the queen of the fairies in her secret underground kingdom. She could also turn into a hare at will by reciting bad poetry. Her fate is unknown, but I like to think that the good burghers of 17th-century Fife caught on that she was dafter than a mahogany frying-pan and told her to go home and stop being so silly. Quite a lot of what we think witches got up to seems to have come from her extremely detailed and very imaginative confession, including the fact that a coven must have exactly 13 members. It has also been pointed out by I forget who that Isobel was “status-inconsistent” – she had defied her family and married a man of lower social class than herself. Interestingly, people in the USA whose social standing isn’t what they were brought up to expect, whether the shift is up or down, are statistically far more likely to claim that they’ve been abducted by aliens. See also Major Weir, a thoroughly unpleasant religious maniac who, a mere handful of years later and in the same geographical area, also spontaneously confessed to being a witch, though his confession was completely different and much more lurid. Independent witnesses came forward to confirm that he had been seen in public doing things that were both physically impossible and completely pointless, and he was strangled and burnt along with his sister, who agreed with everything he said but appears to have been hopelessly senile. To this day, Major Weir’s ghost supposedly cavorts with a pack of 12-foot-tall demons. However, since this is meant to take place in a part of central Edinburgh that’s busy almost 24 hours a day, I think we can safely say that it’s all a bit mythical.’ Thanks Count!!

    1 April. Sharon writes in with a couple of interesting details. First, Thomas got the wrong box number! The horror… Sharon will supply any interested party. Second, an early reference appears in  Discoveries in the Diocesan Registry, Wells, Somerset. A Paper read before the Society of Genealogists 10th March 1926 / Holworthy (R): Diocesan Registry, Wells, 1926. 8vo. Thanks Sharon!