On the heels of Halloween/Nos Calan Gaeaf, thoughts will turn, perhaps a little apprehensively, to witches, ghosts and other beings. In Wales, perhaps more so than in other parts of the British Isles, the landscape is full of reminders of the spirit world: many places are associated with witches (gwrach), sprites (bwbach), ghosts (yspryd) and other ghastly beings. To explore place-names associated with the supernatural, simply type in gwrach (or another word) into the Royal Commission’s Historic Place-names in Wales website and view the results.
Witchcraft in Wales
What is the historical background to these place-names? A new book by Richard Suggett, RCAHMW’s Senior Architectural Investigator, explores the documentary evidence relating to witchcraft in Wales.* For the first time, the documentary evidence relating to Welsh witchcraft is published in full. The written evidence surviving from some twenty cases has been fully transcribed in this new book. These texts reveal some remarkable events and personalities that have remained hidden for three hundred years. In these cases we encounter suspected witches, cursers and healers, users of love magic and charms, believers in fairies, and several confidence tricksters who offered wealth and cures through supernatural means.
There were some forty prosecutions for witchcraft in Wales and five suspects were tragically hanged for witchcraft. Places and buildings associated with these trials can still be visited. The remarkable Court-house (NPRN 23134) at Beaumaris, where Margaret ferch Richard was convicted of witchcraft in 1655 and afterwards executed, uniquely preserves its instructive and atmospheric interior. The beautiful west window and sixteenth-century roof at Dyserth Church (NPRN 300471), Flintshire, would have been familiar to the witnesses who gave evidence against Gwen ferch Elis, convicted and hanged for witchcraft in 1584. Ffynnon Elian (NPRN 32271), a ‘holy’ well near Abergele, that developed a grim reputation as a cursing well, remains a feature of the historic landscape.
Richard Suggett is a historian, currently senior investigator at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and Honorary Fellow of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies.