‘An ydolatrous nation, and worshipers of Divels.’ *
David Wilson, ‘The Parliamentary Diary of Robert Bowyer 1606-1607’
On the evening of 11th February 1655, a mariner by the name of William Griffith stumbled into the alehouse of one Thomas Rogers of Picton in the parish of Llanasa, ‘being affrighted and looking something wild’. Staggering into a darkened room, William fell into a ‘swound’ at the sight of the innkeeper’s wife, Margaret Bellis, following him into the chamber with a candle in order to light his way. The extraordinary tale he told between fits of fainting led to the spinster, Dorothy Griffith having to defend herself against accusations of witchcraft in a court of law, facing the very real danger of being executed by hanging.
The tale as told to Ralph Hughes, Justice of the Peace of Llewerllyd, was quite extraordinary and, to our modern sensibilities, complete twaddle. But there, of course, is the rub of things, since in the 17th century witchcraft, and the presence of witches, conjurors, warlocks, cunning men and wise women learned in the craft of white magic within the closed knit communities of insular parishes such as Llanasa, were taken as fact.
William’s statement to Ralph Hughes went something like this. On the evening of 11th February 1655, William claimed that he was making his way to his ship at anchor at the Point of Ayr, when in the twilight he saw, ‘divers lanterns and lights therein and between him and the lights a woman called Dorothy Griffith’. William further claims that Dorothy said nothing, but, ‘went betweene him and sayd lights for a short space about half a quarter of an houre and afterwards vanished’.
The lanterns and the lights remained however, and though he had no idea as to how, they moved, floating in the air, leading him to the alehouse of Thomas Rogers. At his turn before the JP, Rogers expands on William’s tale, explaining that while bedridden in the darkened room, William had claimed that the lights had seemed to surround Dorothy Griffith, but that he had remained unafraid until, on looking towards the marsh between him and the coast, he had witnessed the ground, ‘soe covered with fire and light that one might have gathered needles, at which sight hee was very much affrighted’.
In fact, Rogers claims that William was so afraid to leave the alehouse for fear that he would never be seen again, and thus stayed at the tavern until the morning when Dorothy Griffith was sent for. Quite what Dorothy must have been thinking as she came to the alehouse, is unknown, but one can suppose that her certain suspicions were deepened when William insisted she take a drink before him, in order, it is assumed, to prove her substance, given his suggestion the previous evening that she had vanished into thin air. Having taken a drink, without incident it seems, Rogers informs us that Dorothy, ‘uttered good words tending to prayer...and protesting that she had done him no harme’, and that after a short time, William felt well enough to throw off his bed clothes and go home with his father.
Where do we start? If one is to believe that William Griffith was of sound mind, and none of the sources seem to question this, we are left with the conclusion that he either made up this spectacular tale or that he actually believed he saw something on the marshes on the night of the 11th February.
What William seems to be describing here is a phenomenon called, ‘Corpse Candles’, which most of those listening to his story, both at the alehouse and afterwards in interview would have known something of, since North East Wales can claim its fair share of sightings, including at Melin y wig and Bettws Gwerfil Goch in Denbighshire. In fact, as supernatural phenomenon go, corpse candles were seen as rather ubiquitous and well documented, including by the ‘Old Prophet’ himself, Edmund Jones, writing in the popular, ‘Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales’. While Jones’ work was largely focused on the Monmouthshire area, he tells of how while staying in Wrexham, he witnessed a corpse candle seemingly foretelling the death of a boy. And, that was the truth of corpse candles, since in essence, they were lights that appeared close to the soon to be deceased. Perhaps William’s reaction was understandable. However, what William Griffith seemed to be suggesting was that the corpse candles that he saw had somehow been summoned by Dorothy Griffith. And that would have been unusual, and one assumes the people at the alehouse and elsewhere would have known this.
It was not long before William Griffith had decided to make a complaint to the authorities, since just ten days after the events of the evening of the 11th, witnesses were giving statements to Ralph Hughes, bail was being set and each side was clearly positioning its pieces. It may seem incredible to us today to accept that Dorothy Griffith was subjected to this ordeal based, essentially, on an unverified story of corpse candles. And yet, while there is evidence that the British Isles was not subject to the extremes of witchcraft paranoia that were rife on the European continent, such accusations were made throughout these Isles, and were resulting in executions, based on little less than hearsay. Indeed, the two judges who were to hear her case in court, Thomas Fell and John Bradshaw had convicted three Cheshire women of Witchcraft and had had them executed at Boughton in Chester in the October of the previous year. Dorothy Griffith had every reason to be concerned, and probably knew this as she walked to the alehouse in which William Griffith languished on the morning of the 12th February.
Perhaps you will not be surprised to find that there was another side to this story. William’s brother, Edward also gave evidence to Ralph Hughes. His tale adds some depth to his brother’s story, information which gives us cause to consider William’s motives. Edward claims that previous to his brother’s alleged meeting of Dorothy Griffith on the marshes between the Point of Ayr and Llanasa, the two had met and, ‘called for a pottle of ale in an alehouse neere the sea side’. Instantly, the tale takes on a different perspective, perhaps unfairly, since alcohol becomes involved. But Edward continued, his statement adding much to William’s statement, which appears increasingly anaemic on actual facts. From his brother’s evidence, it would seem that there was a history between William and Dorothy, or more accurately, between their families, which it is worth repeating were unrelated, despite their surname. At the alehouse, by the Point of Ayr, Dorothy Griffith arrived. Curiously, William entered into a conversation with Dorothy and asked her, ‘whether he had ever offended her father or any of his children and wished her to speake unto them for to lett him alone and hee would bee noe way offensive unto them’. Suddenly, this incident becomes very much more sinister. For it would seem that there was an animosity between the two Griffith families, one in which Dorothy seems to have been a peripheral participant. Dorothy replied that she would indeed speak with her family on her return home and left. It is not clear why she went to the alehouse in the first place, since there is no evidence in the statements that she met with anyone else, or indeed had a drink. Did she enter because she saw William and Edward? The mystery thickens as densely as marsh fog.
Edward claims in his statement, that William left as well to go about his business, which we can assume meant to check in with his ship at anchor off the Point of Ayr. Edward returned to Llanasa, to the alehouse of Thomas Rogers where he met another brother, ‘newly come from the sea, and both of them went into the sayd Rogers house being an alehousekeeper that they might drink togeather having not seene one another since his sayd brother’s retorne’.
At about eight in the evening, William arrived at the alehouse, and the two brother’s stories merge seamlessly from there.
Clearly, Edward’s statement puts a very different perspective on events, since it is clear that William had held back this initial meeting, and that there was friction between the two families. It would seem in fact, that Dorothy’s family were of the opinion that William had been speaking ill of them, and indeed felt threatened by the response, whatever that had been. Dorothy seemed to be involved, only as a member of the family with whom William was at odds.
The more one looks at the statements of those that were at Rogers’ alehouse of that evening, the more suspicious they seem. If we are to believe, as I think is reasonable, that William was inventing the whole business, then it becomes increasingly likely that Rogers, his wife Margaret Belis and Edward Griffith were active participants in this tale of corpse candles and witchcraft. A close look at their statements show remarkable similarities. In particular, their descriptions of William literally throwing off his bed clothes after being visited by Dorothy, would suggest they were trying to promote a ‘miracle cure’, a removal of a witchery curse, since it was common knowledge that if bewitched by a witch then a witch it must be that removes the bewitchment. Further, it would seem that Dorothy felt certain that this indeed was their intention, since her protestations of innocence would seem pointless otherwise.
And it would seem that the Griffith brothers had picked the wrong person to accuse. Perhaps William was desperate, perhaps simply malicious, perhaps he was scared even - we know little of Dorothy’s family and their role in this business, after all. But, whatever William’s motive for accusing Dorothy of witchcraft, it seemed ill placed. In all the stories and legends of witches and warlocks found in myth, at least those of an evil intent, all seem to fit a certain profile - that of being a loner, an outsider, odd and different, beyond the accepted circle of community activity. They are described as wandering through woods looking for herbs and roots, shunning contact and threatening ill intent. Well, Dorothy was none of those things, although she is consistently referred to as a, ‘spinster’, as if it were something slightly odd.
In fact, Dorothy was well liked it seems. One of the most impressive, and reassuring aspects of this story is the way in which Dorothy’s community rallied around her. Dorothy found herself in a court of law based on one man’s tale of witchcraft, and the statements of three other people who saw nothing more than a man stagger into a darkened room and swoon at the sight of a candle. Today, such allegations would be worth less than the air it took to breath them, outside of some failed state of course. But, this was the 17th century, and even in the British Isles, witchcraft was thought to be very real, indeed. Women had lost their lives after allegations of witchcraft based on little more than the word of children. It was only forty years earlier that the Pendle Witch trials in Lancashire had caused a sensation, and in which one of the witches, Mother Crady had declared that she had been a witch, ‘of Penmure (Penmaenmawr), a great mountain in Wales, and the rest were her countrywomen of the same faculty’. Forty years later came the famous Salem Witch Trials in North America. As stated earlier, the two judges at the Assizes at Flint had presided over executions for witchcraft, and would do so again. Dorothy had reason to be worried.
It is probably due to this highly febrile environment that motivated a considerable number of the great and the good of Llanasa Parish to come to Dorothy’s aid. What is remarkable is that the 31 neighbours that signed a statement declaring that they, ‘had never heard or knew any such malignitie in her’, represented a cross section of her community that transcended wealth and, more impressively, religion. They included extremely influential men, Puritan ministers, Royalist captains in the Civil War and Catholic nobility, including the Talacre Mostyn’s, Henry and Sir Edward. All seemed intent on saving Dorothy from execution in the face of the allegations made against her by William Griffith. In her petition to the judge, John Bradshaw, which included the 31 signatories, Dorothy asks him,
‘to seriously consider the great malice of one William Griffith, binge the cheefe enemy of your peticioner, who said the night before your petcioner was accused by him as hee went out of an alehouse confirrming with an oath that he would doe harem unto Griffith the Dedwydd or some of his children (meaning the father of your petitioner) and accordingly brought a false accusation against her’.
This statement, along with the representations of her Parish and no doubt the Puritan disdain at the realisation that William Griffith was wont to spend much time in alehouses, was likely enough to save Dorothy from the noose. The fact that she was required to live under this accusation until late into the autumn of 1655, based on the word of William Griffith is quite incredible.
Disconcertingly, we do not have definitive proof that Dorothy was found innocent, but we can be reassured to some large extent by the fact that had she been executed for witchcraft, we would certainly of seen evidence of that in the same records that marked the deaths of witches in the years to follow. It is entirely possible that Dorothy Griffith of Llanasa was the same Dorothy Griffith of nearby Gronant that was buried in August 1674, some twenty years after the events at Thomas Rogers’ alehouse. One can take some comfort in that. What became of William Griffith is not known.
*Robert Bowyer was describing Wales.