AT the November meeting of Pembroke Ladies Probus, members were left spellbound by Dr Simon Hancock’s account of witchcraft in 17th century Pembrokeshire. Although the idea of witches in modern day is consigned to hallowe’en costumes and horror films, for centuries it formed a large part of life.

Simon’s talk began by taking members back to the beginnings of witchcraft which is ‘as old as humanity,’ with references in Greek mythology and the Bible.

Witchcraft accusations seemed to reflect the role of women in society and communities where male attitudes and control dominated.

Anyone, particularly women, who didn’t conform, or looked and acted differently, could well find themselves viewed as involved in witchcraft. Whereas today we know about certain ailments such as strokes and heart attacks, or have meteorological reasons for our changeable weather, without that knowledge it was easy to blame witchcraft on the misfortunes that were suffered by individuals.

With the invention of the printing press making books available, the early Tudor period saw the growth of witchcraft accusations.

Primitive 17th century woodcuts show witches on broomsticks accompanied by their ‘familiar’ normally a cat. These ‘familiars’ were supposedly the intermediaries between the witch and the devil so acquiring their magical powers.

Witchcraft reached its peak through the reign of James 1 and into the civil war.

In the latter, prosecutions were dominated by Witchfinder General Mathew Hopkins.

The earliest case recorded of witchcraft in Wales was in the early 16th century. In Pembrokeshire the earliest case dates from 1607 when Katherine Bowen was accused of bewitching some pigs at Gumfreston. Agnes Griffiths in Manordeifi seemingly destroyed all her neighbour’s cattle. The most notorious ‘witch’ in Pembrokeshire was Olivia Powell of Loveston who was accused of numerous calamities, and was known locally as Old Moll of Redberth.

The Quaker Society which attracted a lot of women because of their belief that men and women alike were all children of God, as opposed to the Puritan view where women were the ‘source of all sin’, were often accused of witchcraft.

In 1661 many were imprisoned in Haverfordwest in the Cockhouse, following accusations.

Despite in there being between 500-1,000 people executed between 1553-1660 for witchcraft, it was still difficult to get a prosecution after a warrant was issued.

Wales had only five recorded executions and none in Pembrokeshire.

The last execution for witchcraft in Britain was in Exeter 1682 but accusations continued to made long after that date. In 1717 one such case where it was claimed a ‘witch’ was seen flying on her broomstick, the claimant was dismissed by being told ‘flying is not against the laws of England’.

Simon was given a vote of thanks by Jennifer Gorman.

The next meeting is on December 18 - Christmas Fun!