Samhain – 31st October 1649
In the far Southwest, the fishing village of Port Gwyneth faces the Atlantic Ocean. A small cluster of wooden houses nestling in a sheltered cove, on the edge of the sea. Boats rock at anchor on the land side of a dilapidated jetty.
At the top the cliffs, the wind whistles through ancient lichen-covered standing stones. Why they were erected, and by whom is not known. People have short memories, and it happened a long time ago. Raised in line with the setting summer solstice sun, to worship a forgotten god? To stand sentinel over the village, protecting the inhabitants from a devil? The villagers are superstitious, suspicious, and wary of those who do not conform. Being different can bring penalties. There is an old saying in the Port Gwyneth, the nail that sticks up its head, gets hammered down.
The Squire employs people to do his hammering. A violent and contentious man, the whole village suffers for his temper. He lives high on the hill in a large stone building.
One other house is built of granite – and its owner does not sleep well.
Hepzibah Kemp dreams, once more, of the waters closing over her head. She tosses and turns, and screams as she fights for air.
Misercordia, her daughter is already up, busying herself with the morning tasks, kneeling by the open fire. She feeds it, with larger and larger sticks of wood, blowing on the embers until it glows. Mother and daughter are alike, the same red hair, green eyes, pale skin, and band of freckles across the nose.
Like many Cornish folks, their names are ancient and long-winded. To the villagers of Port Gwyneth, they are known simply as Hep and Mizzy.
While most buildings in the village are little more than huts, their home is solid and dry. Rough chunks of stone, held together by coarsely smeared mortar. A sign that Hep is a woman of means, who owns her property. Their neighbours work the land for the Squire and pay him to live in their miserable homes. The pigs, chickens, ducks she keeps feed her, and her daughter, those of the villagers are destined for the Squire’s table, in payment of rent owed.
Hep’s husband, Denzil, a fish merchant, had died in the plague of ’47. Taking a consignment of salted pilchards to St. Ives, he’d never returned. A kind man, but not the sharpest tool in the shed. More like that very blunt, tarnished hacksaw, with the broken blade, that lies rusting in a corner. His business never thrived, and most of the villagers were sure it would fail after his demise.
Hep, however, has proven to be a canny businesswoman, and, under her leadership, it has prospered. It is jealously whispered, in the taverns and inns of the harbour, that this is due to her skills at enchanting men. For, commerce is not her only interest.
This morning, as usual, Hep will sort seeds, grinds leaves, and prepares herbs for medicine. The firelight flickers over walls covered with magical designs; pentacles, spirals and strange arcane symbols. Plant cuttings hang, in bunches, from the roof beams. A healer and an herbalist, villagers, come to her for cures for their families and animals. Some have started calling her a cunning woman, a witch.
For a strong-minded woman, this is a bad time. A world turned upside down, by Civil War, and by the beheading of a King. While the war raged on, everything went out of control, and the law courts suspended. With no authority to do so, the Squire set up an unofficial court – claiming, it was better than anarchy. No one dared stop him. He used it as a means to exact revenge, on whoever stood against his wishes.
Anxious, Mizzy looks up from the hearth, ‘You were yelling, mother.’
‘I was… I had a bad dream. That is all.’ replies Hep. Mizzy stares, with fear in her eyes, at something on the floor behind her mother.
‘How mother? You are dry, yet you leave marks as if you are soaked?’
‘Tis, nothing Mizzy, just a night fever. I had the sweats, no need to worry your head.’
As she warms her hands by the fire, Hep thinks again of her dream and mutters to herself, ‘An omen – ay, an omen. Mayhap, of trouble.’
Hearing a timid knock at the door, Mizzy says, ‘They, are early this morning, mother.’
Her mother opens the door to find a queue of villagers waiting, as common, with complaints and ailments, to avail themselves of her services.
The farmers, come because it is known she can cure a sick cow, or pig, from whatever ails it. The fishermen, come for her knowledge of the weather. Able to predict storms, none will leave harbour without her blessing. She knows all the curing herbs in the fields, ditches, and woods and on the shore of Port Gwyneth. They overflow with plants that can make and mend, and only she can find them. Knapweed for bruises or wounds, Feverfew for aches of the head.
From miles around people come to her for help, and when they are too ill, she goes to them. Always, whether they can pay her or not. Most of her patients are poor, and she accepts small gifts so that they don’t feel indebted to her. For they are proud, reluctant to accept charity.
This morning Mistress Dray is waiting in line, holding her arm. She will claim, again, to have fallen. It is well known, however, that her husband, the blacksmith, needs little reason to raise his fist. Something his wife has or has not done. Has or has not said.
Tom Geach, the baker, pushes his way to the front. The pasties he bakes are said to be the best in the whole county. Sadness comes into his eyes with everyone he sells, being one less that he can consume himself.
‘I have the stomach ache, Hep, you must help me. It is some poison I have eaten, again. Give me more of thy cure!’
Looking, sceptically, at his corpulent figure, Hep says, ‘I fear that it is not what you have eaten, but how much you have eaten that ails you, old Tom. Begone, you have no need of the yarrow. Keep guzzling the potions, and you will make yourself sicker. Take it in moderation, and stop feasting whenever you see an opportunity!’
‘Please, Hep!’ Tom cries, clutching his belly ‘One more cure?’
‘Very well,’ says Hep, passing him a vial of brown liquid, ‘You must sip it! Do not guzzle it they way you do your ale!’
The needs of the local folk vary – this morning, most require simple healing cures. Always, a few have more mystic desires, demanding charms, the lifting of curses or the exorcising of spirits. For them she turns the pages of a huge book, searching for anything she thinks might help, her Grimoire, a collection of magical lore. Full of spells for all situations: to heal the body and mind, to make things grow or not grow. Some of these incantations are so secret, even Hep is unsure of their purpose. All written in an ancient scrawling hand, interspersed with odd geometric designs, and margins filled with little drawings. Birds, insects, flowers, herbs, fish, and all manner of strange creatures.
Other villagers, have more earthly desires, wanting a spell to make a person fall in or out of love, or to find hidden gold.
The most important part of Hep’s work is what she calls the ‘Talking Cure.’
Mizzy is learning her mother’s ways, and it has been explained to her. ‘They, need someone to tell their troubles to,’ Hep had said, ‘someone who won’t judge them.’
Once the person has poured out their woes, Hep talks to them. Suggesting practical solutions to whatever concerns them. Then, nodding approvingly over a page in the book, she reads out an incantation she feels fits the problem.
‘Does it work, Mother?’ Mizzy asked.
‘Mayhap, mayhap not, but hopefully the advice I give does.’ Hep, had replied.
This morning Hep has found her patients surly and ill-mannered.
‘Them that came today only wanted to stand around, to have a good gossip. With their petty jealousies and disputes – they can be a spiteful lot. The danger is that they will go to the Squire and try using his favour to advance their grievances.’
‘Aye, mother, the power he has in these times,’ says Mizzy ‘Tis not good he has taken against you.’
Denzil’s death provided, for the Squire, what he saw as a business opportunity. Wanting the fish merchant’s trade for himself, making an offer he felt sure Hep couldn’t refuse.
‘My dear, you don’t want to be worrying your pretty little head with men’s work, do you?’ he’d declared to her, condescendingly, ‘I’ll give you a sum to buy into your business. But, you’ll be a silent partner, you understand? But, be assured, I will always look after you.’ The lascivious manner in which he’d eyed her suggested to Hep that it was not only her business assets that interested him.
Refusing, bluntly, she told him, ‘ I be quite capable of looking after my own affairs, thank you, Sir, I need no meddlesome man.’
Furious at rejection, Hep had made herself an enemy of the man. Not a wise thing to have done, considering the influence he weld in the village.
To make matters worse, Hep felt unable to refuse when the Squire’s wife begged Hep to attend the birth of her child. After all, was it not her duty to aid all the women of the Parish in childbirth?
Being mean and tight-fisted, The Squire never paid the amount owed to Hep for the birthing. Blaming her for the fact that the child was a weak and sickly girl, rather than the strapping baby boy he’d hoped for. Reminding him of the debt the next time he rode through the village, she’d been scorned. Belittling her skills, he’d thrown her a penny, saying ‘That’s all you be worth hag!’
That spring, he, and the church Minister had raised the tithes. A compulsory tax, everyone suspected, going straight into their own pockets.
Hep, tried to persuade the villagers to petition Parliament, to consider the economic burden that falls unequally on the poor. Infuriated, the Squire accused her of being a troublemaker, intent on raising a mob against him.
While they work, shredding and steeping the plants and roots, Hep tries to change the subject, away from the wrath of the Squire, ‘Coltsfoot, good for coughs and colds,’ remarks ‘picked at dusk, the proper time to gather, and prepared quickly, before it loses its efficacy. Remember that, child.’
‘I am afeared mother,’ sighs Mizzy, ‘you shouldn’t have involved yourself in the Squire’s affairs.’
‘How could I refuse his wife? The magic arts, be all about the life essences – so who better than I to bring new life into the world?’ replies Hep.
‘Mother, you went against the Squire. Are you in danger?’
Hep sighs, ‘The thing about our kind is that it don’t matter how much we try to help folks. They always turn on us, sooner or later. If that happens, you must carry on our work – but in secret, mind. You must deny me if necessary. You must say that all I have done is foolish and wrong. Above all, you must hide the Grimoire, so it can’t use it in evidence. Place it under the stairs in the hiding place.’
They come for Hep the next morning. A raggle-taggle crowd, stand outside, as the door flies open. From their silence, Hep senses the danger. That they are here to take her. She tries to shut the door, but someone puts a boot against it. They are soon inside the cottage.
‘What do you want with me?’ She yells.
John Killick, the Squire’s bailiff, binds her hands and declares ‘Hepzibah Kemp, you’ve to come with us to the Manor. I have a warrant for your arrest, on charges of Witchcraft, issued by the Squire.’
In fear, Mizzy looks at Hep who, locking eyes with her, glances aside to the Grimoire on the table. Her message is clear.
By force, they take her outside and drag her down the track, through the village, to the Manor.
In the Great Hall, chairs have been laid out, and the dining table pushed back to represent a Courthouse. Behind it sits the Squire, the Minister, and the Squire’s secretary – writing carefully and slowly with a quill. Excited by the privilege of being invited into the Squire’s house, the room is packed with villagers, looking forward to the spectacle about to take place.
Staring at Hep with contempt, the Squire commands, ‘Begin the proceedings Minister Cotton.’
‘This land is full of witches,’ declares the Minister, angrily, ‘you see here before you a cunning woman. One who practices the darkest arts, in league with the devil himself!’
‘I have the skill, of herbs and potions, in my hands,’ retorts Hep ‘but the power comes from me – not from the devil. These people trusted me, or did, until now. They wanted my presence. Birth or death, they asked me there to assist in the passage from one world to the next.’
‘You incriminate yourself by your own words!’ screams the Minister. ‘You sought to usurp the role of an ordained man. Is it not my function, in the eyes of God, to lead the folk of this Parish between worlds? You, a mere woman, could only have the arrogance to do so – if Satan is your master!’
‘The idea that women, such as I, worship the devil is put about by you men of the cloth, by your church. Trying to turn people against the old pagan religions.’
‘Silence! You, practice evil crafts! We shall call forth witnesses to prove it! Come forward Tom Geach, and speak.’
Doing as he is told, Tom looks at Hep, with feigned terror, stumbling up to give his testimony.
‘She did poison me with some Witch’s brew. My, bowels wouldn’t stop their evacuations!’ he declares.
‘Nonsense, your pains are caused by overindulgence,’ Hep argues, ‘I warned you if you took too much of the cure, it would make you worse.’
Limping up to the table, William Lever claims Hep has stuck pins in the leg of a doll made in his likeness.
‘T’wenrnt me that did for your leg!’ Hep shouts ‘You did for yourself when you fell dead drunk in’t ditch last Michaelmas!’
As the whole Courthouse erupts into laughter, the Squire fixes them with a dark stare. Knowing exactly how they’ll suffer by not taking proceedings as seriously as he wishes, the villagers fall silent.
Villager, after villager, comes to the witness stand, making claims of, supposed, evil deeds, performed by Hep. None can look her in the eye. In desperation, Hep turns to the room, ‘Y’all came for help, and I helped you! You who accuse me have all pled with me before now. For aid with beasts and children, sick or injured, or wife nearing her time. Tell him the truth!’
But, none speak in her defence, not one of them.
‘Silence!’ demands the Minister ‘I have evidence against you too. You, have bewitched me, with your brazen ways, into having carnal thoughts.’
‘Aye, I seen you starin’ at my bosom,’ Hep retorts ‘that be because you is a dirty-minded lecher. Just ‘cause I ain’t afraid to slap you down when you stick y’hand on my arse. You, want rid of me!’
‘Be quiet, woman,’ the Squire shouts, ‘how dare you make accusations against good men, whom God has declared that you should serve. You, have the slippery tongue, and are full of words: and therefore must be guilty of many wicked practices.’
Hep stares around the court at the faces of the villagers. ‘He, has you in his pocket, does he not?’ Her, eyes settle on the witnesses who defamed her, ‘I, bet you all have a silver coin from our Lord and Master?’ Tacitly acknowledging the truth of her words, they have the decency to lower their eyes to the floor.
Turning to the Squire, she cries ‘You ‘ave already decided I be guilty.’
‘See, she can read minds! By the power of Satan!’ declares the Squire, in triumph.
‘If I truly had such powers would I not undo the ties that bind me?’ cries Hep ‘and fly through the air to safety? Would I not call up my Master, Satan, to blast and shrivel you to dust?’
‘You, seek to threaten us, Witch! You foul creature!’ shouts the Minister, thumping the table again, and again.
Next, they bring John Killick forward to bear witness.
‘You, have searched the Kemp cottage?’ asks the Minister.
‘Yes, Sir, and found all sorts in that place. Herbs, and plants and potions and strange markings on the wall!’
‘And books, no doubt, books of magic? Books with evil in them?’
Hep looks across the courtroom to her daughter, questioningly. Mizzy gently nods in answer.
‘No, Sir, no books found. We turned the place over, but there were none there.’ This answer, clearly perturbs the Minister, ‘Are you sure? No writings of any kind?’
John Killick, with a flourish, produces a sheaf of old parchments, covered with Hep’s spidery jottings, ‘Yes, sir, we found these – curses, incantations, and spells!’
‘If, you would be so good,’ asks the Minister, ‘read them out to the court, so we might hear her harmful intent!’
‘Should I sir? Could not reading them aloud be an invitation to the devil?’
‘Fear not!’ replies the Minister, holding his crucifix aloft, ‘I am a man of God and shall protect us all!’
Killick nods and proceeds to read in a sing-song voice, ‘Put a pint of good Milk to boil. As soon as it doth so, take it from the fire, to let the great heat of it cool a little. For doing so, the curd will be the tenderer and of more uniform consistency. When it is prettily cooled, pour it into your pot, wherein is about two spoonful of Sack, with Purslane and St. John’s Wort.’
Looking up in triumph, Killick is pleased with his find, but the whole court bursts out laughing, again.
‘Hah!’ laughs Hep, ‘as everyone here, but you Sir, knows, ‘tis just a recipe for Posset!’
Killick turns puce with embarrassment. The Minister, furious, shouts over the noise, ‘We do not need Written proof. Clearly, she has her practices committed to memory. We have sufficient evidence of her capabilities.’
Briefly conferring with the Squire, The Minister turns to Hep, ‘Hepzibah Kemp, you have been brought before this court and found guilty of treason against your betters. Of the use of malevolent magic, and using the glamour to entrance righteous and holy men. You not only do these things by your witchcraft and devilry but made it public that you had the skill to do so. These facts, rank Witch, you cannot deny. You shall be taken from here and burned at the stake, in the hope that the fires may purify your soul.’
The Squire’s cronies grab Hep, intending to drag her away. Suddenly, three men burst through the Courthouse doors. One is tall and slim, and another short and round. So different in looks, they appear harmless, even comic. The look on their faces, however, as they gaze around the courtroom with contempt, is of pure malice.
The two are led by another tall man, dressed all in black, with a sharp pale face, a long nose, and a thin, small mouth. His most startling feature, his eyes. Piercing, in a way that makes you feel sure he can see deep into your soul.
‘I am The Witchfinder General,’ he says with quiet menace, ‘these, gentlemen are my associates, Mr. Wick, and Mr. Poppet. I am officially commissioned by Parliament, to root out and prosecute all those that make covenant with the devil.’
‘Aye, good sir, that may be the case,’ answers the Squire, ‘but, I am in charge here, and thy work is already done. We have the Witch, and she is to burn. Your, assistance is not needed.’
‘Silence!’ shouts the fat man, scowling at the Squire. The Witchfinder throws a piece of paper down on the desk, ‘Here are my credentials, the seal of Parliament itself. I could have anyone who stands in my way shot. Luckily, for you, I’ve an abhorrence of filling in the forms required – should such an event occur.’
Turning to Hep, he asks, ‘You. Which year were you born in?’
Confused, she replies, ‘In the year 1618. Although I do not see how that is relevant to the accusations made against me?’
Smiling malevolently, The Witchfinder, says, ‘I decide what is relevant. 1618 is very relevant to me. The year of the Angry Star.’
Grinning mischievously, the Squire retorts, ‘Further proof if any were needed that this woman is a Witch. Did not King James write of this event? Ye men of Britain wherefore gaze yee so, upon an Angry Star? When as yee know The Sun must turn to dark, the Moon to blood, And then t’will be too late to turn to good.’
‘You dare to quote the words of a King?’ asks the Witchfinder, ‘are you a secret Royalist!’
Fearfully, the Squire replies, ‘Oh no, Sir, never! None cheered louder when Charlie lost his head. But the old King, hateful despot that he was, knew a thing or two about Witches, did he not? I am only saying, he came to believe it was Satan’s star. Does not the fact she was born that year prove beyond doubt that she must be the spawn of the devil?’
‘Yes, indeed it does,’ laughs The Witchfinder, ‘and therefore, places her under my jurisdiction.’
He, barks orders to his two servants, ‘Mr. Wick, Mr. Poppet, take the Witch and lock her up in the Inn,’ before turning to address the courtroom, ‘I do not care what minor matters have afflicted your insignificant community. I am empowered with a much more important agenda. We must bring the Witch before the Office of Resurrection in London, for a proper interrogation and for all facts to be considered.’
‘The Office of Resurrection?’ questions the Minister.
‘You will not have heard of it,’ replies the Witchfinder, ‘it is a secret government department.’
‘That’s not right,’ argues the Squire, ‘she’s our Witch. We want to burn her!’
His assistants raise their guns, and the Witchfinder sighs, ‘Be quiet, Sir. Or you shall be brought before the Office too. And answer for your discourtesy!’
Unsure of whether to risk going against the power of Parliament, the Squire decides to hold his tongue, But, he is not happy with his authority being challenged. Wick and Poppet drag Hep away and lock her in the Inn’s cellar.
That evening, Mizzy comes to the Inn to persuade the two gentlemen to let her see her mother.
‘What do you want?’ says Poppet.
‘I have nobody, nobody, but my mother,’ she says tearfully. ‘If you take her away, I’ll be all alone, without ever having had the chance to say goodbye. You would not want that on your conscience, surely?’
‘Do we have a conscience, Mr. Poppet?’ asks Wick.
‘Indubitably not!’ replies Poppet.
‘Then be away, girl!’ declares Wick ‘and stop blubbing!’
‘I have brought wine and fine foods,’ pleads Mizzy, ‘for I am sure you are in need of refreshment, having been guarding, vigilantly, all day?’
‘Comestibles, you say?’ the rotund Wick replies, as he looks hungrily at the basket, the girl dangles before him.
‘That, puts a different perspective on the matter, eh Mr. Poppet?’
‘Unquestionably,’ replies the thin man, eyeing the flagon of wine. ‘I think we find our hearts softened in favour of the girl’s simple desire to bring her mother comfort.’
Grabbing the basket and flagon, they unlock the door to the cellar.
‘Mother, how have things come to this?’ says Mizzy, at the sight of Hep, chained to the wall.
‘It takes little these days, my dear. There are witch-hunts throughout the land. It only needs an accusation, from a spiteful neighbour, to be arrested. Knowing how to treat a cold can be enough. But this be the Squire’s doing. Revenge ‘cause I spoke against him. Whatever happens to me, you must continue my work, for you have the same desire to discover, to uncover things covered, to explain the mysterious.’
Before she can say more, loud snoring from outside the door interrupts the peace and quiet of her dungeon.
Smiling conspiratorially, Mizzy says, ‘I have drugged them mother, we can escape!’
Hep nods approvingly, ‘Clever girl! But ‘tis a shame in some ways, for, I have never been to our great capital city. I feel sure proper judges would see the charges against me amount to naught.’
‘Mayhap, mother, but be grateful not to have to take the risk. Let us away!’
Before they can make their escape, the door flies open. The Squire, unprepared to lose face to a bigwig from the city and seeing the guards disabled, has seized his chance.
Leading a crowd of feverish men he marches into the cellar, shouting defiantly, ‘Nobody, tells us what to do with our Witch!’
‘Aye, no time for a-burnin,’ we should float her!’ shouts John Killick.
‘The water will give its answer, that will be the proof of whether or not she be a Witch!’ adds Dray, the blacksmith.
‘It, is the Lord’s way,’ intones Minister Cotton, ‘if she floats it’s a sure sign of guilt.’
With much pushing and jostling, they drag Hep down to the quay. The Squire whipping the crowd, the whole time, into a fervour. Soon, they shout with one voice, like some monstrous howling beast. A few looked abashed, they know what is about to happen is not right.
Looking on in horror, Mizzy sees hands grab her mother’s ankles and wrists, lift her into the air, and begin to swing her backwards and forwards.
Suddenly, the crowd parts as The Witchfinder General rides through them on a white stallion, the poor animal ridden so hard it is in a sweat. Panting, so heavily, its breath looks like smoke as it hits the cold air.
‘Release her at once, she is the property of Parliament!’ he shouts furiously.
But it is too late – Hep wails as they let her fly.
Striking the cold water, the shock takes her breath away. The woollen dress she wears sucks in the sea and is soon waterlogged. She fights to stay afloat but soon disappearing beneath the waves.
Staring up at the shimmering world above, she sees her daughter crying. Strong arms grip her, to stop her from jumping in to rescue her mother.
A look of horror passes across The Witchfinder’s face, and he lets out a peculiar cry, in Latin, “Vivat, ut ossa sua in tempore!”
The sky fills with discharges of electricity, the water becomes effervescent, and strange lights glimmer around Hep.
It is the last that she remembers. As a final bubble of air escapes from her mouth and salt water rushes in to replace it, she dies.