The Witch of East Somerton

By JB Ladbrooke, from ‘Ladbrookes views of the churches in the county of Norfolk’ (found here)

This is a fun one. I’ve recently learned from this Atlas Obscura post about the ruined Norfolk church at East Somerton village. As local tradition goes, the tall oak tree growing in the middle of the nave sprouted magically from the wooden leg of a witch that was buried there. Yes, I know, pretty silly, but I couldn’t help look into this anyway. I was initially curious as to how old this legend really was and ended up looking at the whole thing. Other than the physical impossibility of a wooden leg becoming a tree of course; I think we can take that as read. Disclaimer; this is not intended as a dig at Atlas Obscura; I am a fan of the site and have worked with them a couple of times. They are careful to call it a ‘legend’ and also use the phrases ‘said to be’, ‘said to have’ and ‘it’s believed’. 

The first thing to cover is what this 13th-15th century building actually is. It’s described as both a church and a chapel, and several sources state that it used to be a church before becoming a chapel for the residents and workers of the nearby Burnley Hall. In fact, the Hall wasn’t even built until 1710, by which time the chapel was already derelict, and it seems that this is a misunderstanding of what a ‘chapel’ in this context actually is. East Somerton (dedicated to St Mary but not dubbed ‘St Mary’s’) was always technically a satellite church or ‘chapel of ease’, dependent upon the nearby Holy Trinity church at Winterton, which was the actual parish church from the beginning (see here and here). So, the East Somerton site is still a ‘church’ in terms of historic purpose and function, but was never actually dubbed ‘St Mary’s Church’ (‘Chapel of St. Mary’ seems to be the correct name) nor was it ever East Somerton’s parish church per se. All of this confused me during research (some sources can be read as implying both a church and a chapel in the village), so I thought I’d try to clear it up for others. 

I then looked at when the chapel was actually abandoned and when it became a ruin, in case these dates didn’t line up with the witch narrative. However, most sources (including Heritage Gateway, referencing Batcock’s ‘The Ruined and Disused Churches of Norfolk’, available here) do state that it was already in ruins by the late 17th century. There are later references to the chapel (for example these and from the 1760s), but these persist until at least as late as 1821, by which time we know for sure the chapel was ruined. These references are clearly nominal, referring to the fact that the chapel site and its former function were still in theory part of the rectory overall. So I am quite content to say that it was indeed ruined by the end of the 17th century (meaning that a tree could have started growing there). Certainly, by 1781 the building had been ‘made use of as a barn’ and had been ‘in ruins many years’ (from ‘The History of Norfolk’, p. 46). However, there is no sign of a tree in 1822 in J.B. Ladbrooke’s lithograph of the site (see above and linked here). As an aside, the place being ruined and roofless by that time is on the face of it at odds with its second life as a barn. Perhaps it fell into greater disrepair in the meantime, or perhaps the roof was partly intact. Or maybe landowner just wasn’t that fussy and used it for storage despite its ruined state. Anyway, there’s also no mention of a tree in the 1824 book ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen’; just of the undergrowth that we see in the contemporary artwork. It’s not until 1875 that we read in the ‘Post office directory of the Norfolk counties’ (p. 445) of ‘a large tree growing in the midst’ of the ruins. 

Which brings me to the tree itself. If it was ‘large’ in 1875, could it have been seeded during the witch trial era? This could make the legend an old one, perhaps even based upon some actual historical event, and of course for believers in the paranormal, it would vindicate the whole story. Well, based upon the available evidence the tree is no more than 1.5 in trunk diameter (less than that, I suspect). That would equate to a 471 cm circumference which, divided by the 1.88cm growth rate for the average oak tree, gives an approximate age of 250 years. That would place the tree as a sapling in the mid-to-late 18th century and make it too young to fit the story. Witch trials were halted by the Witchcraft Act of 1735, operated under the new Enlightenment assumption that magic wasn’t real and so anyone claiming to practice it was a fraud. The last trial in England for actual witchcraft took place in 1716, by which time belief in such things was well on the slide (hence the new law, repealing the 1604 Act under which Mary Hicks and her daughter had been prosecuted and executed). This brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with the East Somerton witch tale; no convicted witch would have been buried in consecrated ground, much less in the nave of a church!  

The historical background to this story is also lacking. There’s the total lack of any evidence (online, at any rate) for any witch being tried or even suspected in this area. Most local stories about witches usually at least relate to a specific case; not so here. Then we have a lack of references even for the story itself; nothing any further back than this 1992 book. That in itself does not of course mean that the story isn’t an older oral tradition; it probably is. All we actually have is the story, which is likely a local legend that grew as the tree did, although it is unlikely to be even as old as the tree, given that the site was covered in other foliage earlier in the 19th century (and probably wasn’t noticeable until mid-century). I don’t think a tree growing inside the church is going to attract much attention as long as the place is overgrown, until such time as it becomes prominent. We know it’s at least 30 years old, and as the tree was large enough to be remarked upon in 1875, I suspect that the myth arose some time in the Victorian period (although it could of course be more recent). 

As for the ‘ghostly monks’ mentioned in the Atlas Obscura entry, I don’t know where that comes from, but I haven’t even seen that claimed anywhere else. That one debunks itself really, since East Monkton was never a priory, abbey, or monastery. 


On Silver Bullets, Werewolves, and Gévaudan

This reminds me, I must re-watch ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf’…

One of my YouTube subscriptions is Trey the Explainer, who does good stuff on history, natural history, evolution, and cryptid creatures, among other things. His latest Cryptid Profile is especially relevant to my interests, because it covers the ‘Beast of Gévaudan’, and I have by coincidence just finished helping with a forthcoming documentary about La Bête. I fully support his conclusion that this was a classic cryptid/social panic case, with anything and everything being identified/misidentified as the beast in question. It was very likely several wolves and/or wolf-dogs, possibly a hyena, possibly a lion or other escaped big cat, and possibly even all of the above. I won’t even rule out the suggestion of a human murderer or two in the mix somewhere. What it wasn’t was a single creature with a supernaturally hard or charmed hide. However, Trey gets a few facts wrong about werewolf and silver bullet mythology. Firstly, there’s no evidence that any of the creatures killed and recovered were actually dispatched with a silver bullet, and some good evidence that they weren’t (such as not being mentioned at all in period sources, notably an autopsy report). Suspected ‘Beasts’ WERE shot at with silver bullets but importantly, they apparently did not work. A Madame de Franquieres wrote to her daughter-in-law on the Beast:


‘The express sent to Aurillac relates that M. de Fontanges has had many encounters with the ferocious beast, of which you have no doubt heard, that traverses the Gevaudan. He has passed places where she often goes; he was forced to stay three days in the snow for fear of meeting her. She crosses, without wetting her feet, a river thirty-six feet wide. He claims that she can cover seven leagues in an hour. The peasants do not dare to go out into the country unless in groups of seven or eight. We can not find anyone to herd the sheep. She does not eat animals, only human flesh; men she eats the head and stomach, and women over the breasts. When she is hungry, she eats it all. We tried to shoot him with bullets of iron, lead, silver. Nothing can penetrate. We must hope that in the end we will overcome it.’

-M.”° de Franquières à M.”° de Bressac, Grenoble, 14 March 1765 – see the French original here (p.138).


This is supported by another source from 1862 (see here): that reports the use of ‘almost point blank’ folded silver coins, also to no apparent avail. Of course it’s possible that some poor wolf did slink away and die, but either wasn’t the Beast or wasn’t the only ‘Beast’ abroad at that time.

Trey is also under the impression that this incident is the source of the belief that silver bullets can kill werewolves. This is true insofar as there are no written accounts of silver bullet use against canids until Gévaudan, despite modern claims that the silver bullet aspect was only introduced in more modern times or even in fictionalised accounts. The source above proves otherwise. The story certainly helped to spread the idea and perpetuate it into the era of mass literacy and supernatural fiction. However, the idea that this is ground zero for silver bullets versus werewolves is untrue in the sense that the belief applied by no means just to werewolves, but rather to a range of supernatural or charmed targets (although as I’ve previously noted, not vampires until 1928). As such, it predates Gévaudan, meaning that there is in fact no source for the slaying of werewolves with silver bullets. For as long as silver bullets were ‘a thing’, they would have been seen as effective against werewolves or wolf-like supernatural beasts. I should note here that nowhere in the historical literature is the Beast of Gévaudan claimed to have been a loup-garou or werewolf. There are no accounts of it shifting shape, no accusations made of any people suspected to be the Beast. However, historians have noted in period reports werewolf traits such as a foul stench, unusually long claws and teeth, ‘haunting’, ‘sparkling’ or glowing eyes, and an erect posture (see Jay Smith’s ‘Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast’, p.21).

So where does the silver bullet myth come from? The oldest references that I’ve found are in Scots and American poems (1801 and 1806 respectively), and relate to yet another class of supernatural being, albeit one with close ties to the werewolf; that of the witch. The very earliest is the 1801 Scots poem ‘A Hunt’ by James Thomson:


‘Quoth he, “I doubt there’s something in’t, Ye’re no’ a hare.

Then in he pat a silver crucky [sixpence],

And says, “Have at ye now, auld lucky ;

Although ye were the de’il’s ain chucky,

Or yet himsell, If it but touch of you a nucky,

It will you fell.”’


The sacred cross on the face of the penny was significant. Other accounts mention that the projectile has actively been blessed. A Swedish story from the Gösta Berlings Saga mentions bullets cast from a church bell. But the silver itself seems to have had a divine and magical significance, one that stretches back to ancient times (notably the Delphic Oracle, see this fantastic collection of references). In the German folk tale ‘The Two Brothers’ for example, the witch is shot at with three ordinary silver buttons.

My next source, ‘The Country Lovers‘ (published by Thomas Green Fessenden in 1804) comes from the United States:


‘And how a witch, in shape of owl,

Did steal her neighbour’s geese, sir,

And turkies too, and other fowl,

When people did not please her.

Yankee doodle, &c.

And how a man, one dismal night,

Shot her, with silver bullet,*

And then she flew straight out of sight,

As fast as she could pull it.

Yankee doodle, &c.

How Widow Wunks was sick next day,

The parson went to view her, And saw the very place, they say,

Where foresaid ball went through her !

Yankee doodle, Sec.

*There is a tale among the ghost-hunters, in New England, that silver bullets will be fatal to witches, when those of lead would not avail.


More Germanic folklore, recorded in 1852 (Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Folklore, Vol.III, p.27), related that a witch, if shot with silver, would receive a wound that would not heal, and would have to resume its human form. Witches were commonly thought to shapeshift into animal form, hence the overlap with the werewolf. The ‘Witch of Schleswig’ was also known as ‘The Werewolf of Husby’,

Beyond witches, silver bullets might help against other entities. One story includes a shot used against the magic itself rather than the offending creature’s body; in this case a group of fairies;


‘In a Norse tale, a man whose bride is about to be carried off by Huldre-folk, rescues her by shooting over her head a pistol loaded with a silver bullet. This has the effect of dissolving the witchery; and he is forthwith enabled to seize her and gallop off, not unpursued.’


Frank C. Brown recorded (from North Carolina) a variety of uses of silver (bullet and otherwise) against black magic of all sorts. Ghosts are also associated with silver bullets, as in Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of a Traveller’, Vol.2 (1825), which references a (fictional) pirate ghost. Collections/indices of American folklore also reference ghosts as well as witches (e.g. ‘Kentucky Superstitions’ (1920).

However, the very oldest written accounts were made in reference to ordinary human beings that have been protected (or have protected themselves) by magical charms. These were known as ‘hardmen’, and were typically powerful or noteworthy men with a literal aura about them. One such was John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, who led the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘Tales of My Landlord’ (1816, p.69):


‘Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power.’


The same went for 17th/18th century Bulgarian rebel leader ‘Delyo’, and ‘…an Austrian governor of Greifswald, on whom the Swedes had fired more than twenty balls, could only be shot by the inherited silver button that a soldier carried in his pocket’ (see here). The oldest of all pertains to an alleged 1678 attempt upon the life of English King Charles II.

My point is really that the whole silver bullet myth is misunderstood today. It’s not like the wooden stake that’s specific to vampires or, for that matter, wolfsbane for wolves, conkers for spiders (yes, that’s a genuine belief too). The silver bullet is not specific to werewolves, vampires, or any other target. It is really an apotropaic – it works against magic itself, whether negating the charm of protection around a corporeal enemy, dispelling a ghostly apparition, or breaking fairy magic to free a captive. It’s the ultimate in supernatural self-defence, but it’s only a footnote in the story of the Beast of Gévaudan. It neither originated with the Beast, nor killed it. 



‘We ride at once to rebellious Stoke, where it is my sworn intent to approach the city walls,
bare my broad buttocks, and shout, “Behold! I honor thee most highly!”’

I really like the ‘Horrible Histories’ TV series. I wasn’t quite sold on the books – too many one-liners – nor Terry Deary’s apparent disdain for actual historians. But the TV version is much funnier and, like the books, no doubt helps get youngsters into history. It does drop the ball sometimes, notably for me the repetition of the Charles I Tower of London ravens myth (I must cover that one soon). I don’t see why with a bit more effort, you couldn’t run the exact same sketches, but instead of the little pop-up flag saying ‘TRUE!’ and ‘THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED!’ you couldn’t have one that said ‘MYTH!’ or ‘UNCONFIRMED!’ or something. The stories are still part of history, but that way you could introduce some critical thinking for children.

Anyway, I was particularly interested in their version of ‘the Witch of Brandon’ story, featured in a repeated episode I saw recently. Here’s a version from the BBC’s Emma Borley in 2004;

‘William knew that he had to act against this band of fen-men. He ordered many attacks on the Isle of Ely, with little success (even going so far as to employ a witch, who bared her bottom at William’s foe in an act of repulsion!).’

I had to check that out, because I wanted it to be true, but it did sound like a garbling of some pretty early medieval history. So a win-win for me really. Guess what? It’s a real piece of history;

‘The twelfth-century Gesta Herewardi, a legend of the historical Hereward the Wake, tells of a witch of the Fens who offended her pursuers by muttering incantations while baring her backside at them (ch. xxv).’

That’s from Cambridge University’s Press’s ‘A Social History of England, 900–1200’ (p.407). I should point out the word ‘legend’ in that source, and qualify my phrase ‘real piece of history’. I’m afraid that even here there’s an historian to throw a spanner in the works. Anthony Davies, who also references the incident, suspects that it was made up to make William look bad for employing witchcraft against pious Christians.

Still, it’s still genuine medieval history with a traceable primary source being conveyed here, even if the incident itself may not have happened quite as painted. Well done ‘Horrible Histories’; just keep an eye on the ball and maybe take a leaf out of QI’s book.

“I don’t hold with this new fangled doctoring. Any problems, I go to the Wise Woman.”

(Title quote courtesy of S. Baldrick, c1590AD)

NB – see my earlier post about Helen Duncan here for the full background to this review of a recent UK TV programme.

See also Jon Donnis’ takedown of some of the rubbish “mediumship” on display in this programme, on the Bad Psychics website.

It’s always warmingly nostalgic to see Tony Robinson reprising his Baldrick role. But I wish he’d stop doing it in supposedly “factual” television programmes. This time it’s a new 3-part series called “Unexplained”, with feisty science journo Becky McCall cast in the “closed-minded” sceptical redhead role, and Robinson all the while “wanting to believe” as the Mulder of the piece.

It’s a frustrating set-up, because there’s some good sceptical content in this first episode, which deals with fraudulent wartime medium Helen Duncan. Professor Chris French ably demonstrates the Barnum effect with a Derren Brown-esque identical horoscope trick, and Dr Richard Wiseman does a (too brief and limited) bit of physical mediumship. McCall is instantly convinced (despite a lack of reproduciton of Duncan’s methods), and Robinson too is swayed. The pattern continues, with  McCall steadfastly poo-poohing and Robinson by turns sceptical and credulous. I can’t actually be too hard on him here (or the daft laddie character he’s possibly playing here, a la early Time Team), because if his experience of filming is anything like the finished product, I can understand his mixed feelings. The scepticism here feels badly aimed, and I think goes off half-cocked.

The result is a programme that simply confirms one’s prior feelings, whatever they might be. Equal weight is given to anecdotal evidence and appeal to emotion as it is to debunking and critical thought. The sceptical demonstrations either do not directly address the claims being made, or they go only so far, leaving easily answerable questions unanswered (e.g. despite two images of WW2 seamen being shown with the correct “HMS” on their tally bands – no ship name) – the claim that “Syd” the dead sailor was identified by the “HMS Barham” on his cap went unchallenged. Cold reading wasn’t really adequately explained (not French’s fault – I think this can only be done quickly and effectively by demonstration), though it was at least offered as a sound explanation for the “clairvoyance” of the Barham sinking. Yet towards the end of the programme, the earlier seance is mentioned in which Duncan is supposed to have divined the sinking of HMS Hood – and our Tony doesn’t see any way but via the spirit realm that this could have been achieved. Why on earth doesn’t the same possibility apply? That Brigadier R.C. Firebrace (a spiritualist and astrologer himself – not mentioned in the programme), present at the seance, might have been cold-read himself? It would go something like this – Duncan throws out (or has a “spirit” report that) “A ship has gone down…a big warship”. Firebrace says something like “good god, not the Hood!?”, and Duncan (perhaps deciding he knows something she doesn’t) decides to go with a “yes”. Now, this was a famous ship even then. But as ever in mediumship/cold reading, had she been wrong, she could have modified her question/statement, or just relied on the limitless good will of  her sitters to let the miss drop. In that case Firebrace would have been astounded to hear from the Admiralty that the Hood had indeed been sunk. By readily ignoring the method used, the level of information volunteered by the sitters, and probably even misremembering Duncan’s exact words, an amazing anecdote is created. Yet whenever  a recording or transcript is obtained, or blinded testing attempted, no psychic can ever show results better than chance. How many “misses” did Duncan register?

Another example of the disjointed feel to the programme is the brief investigation into the dead sailor said to have appeared to Duncan at a seance and announced the sinking of HMS Barham ahead of time. This is perfectly valid as an exercise, but feels out of place at the start of the programme, bearing in mind that much of the remainder is devoted to ostentibly proving or debunking mediumship itself. Cart, horse, anyone? It doesn’t even further the investigation, in either direction. They come up with three possibilities, narrowing it to just one – an Acting Stoker called Sydney A. Fryer. The problem is that this is done on the basis of evidence from an MI5 agent present, who reported that the name “Syd” and the rank of Petty Officer had been mentioned. Here’s an exercise for you – choose a nickname popular in the 1940s, let’s say “Alf”. Then choose a common naval rank or position (there were many at petty officer level) – let’s be charitable and not for just “rating” – how about  “Able Seaman”? See if you got a hit like I did (in fact, I got two). Note that the nickname can be applied to first or other forename, and need not even relate to the man’s actual name (typical in the military). Note that he may never have been known by that nickname (was Sydney known as “Syd”, for example? Or was his loved one simply assuming?). Also bear in mind that as a medium you’d be able to tell the approximate social status of the client in the audience, and therefore have an informed guess at the right rank (seaman, NCO, or officer). And if you extend my guess at Jack to mean “John” (the former being a nickname of the latter), well, you have many more chances of a hit. What I’m saying here is that the exercise only helps progress things if there is NO possible Petty Officer “Syd”. The fact that there is at least one means next to nothing. It gets worse. Five minutes on the same site as the programme’s researchers used, and I get not one, but FOUR possibles (here, here, here and here). If I’ve missed something here, by all means point it out. But this seems to be another exercise in highlighting the possible whilst ignoring the probable – to dishonestly keep the spiritualist hypothesis in the race.

The pseudo-sceptical approach used does nobody any favours. McCall comes across as closed to new evidence – even smug and mean-spirited. The scientists and psychologists appear unable to explain the more extraordinary “feats” performed by Duncan – to the extent of performing their own tricks as distraction. Whilst Tony Robinson throughout cheerfully eschews alternate explanations in favour of emotional eyewitness accounts. He finishes the programme ostensibly still a fence-sitter – sure that Duncan did commit fraud (the photos of her cheesecloth spirits could hardly do otherwise) but still desperately clinging to the sincere testimony of the nice people he has spoken to – that maybe there is something in it all. His last sentence says it all – he wishes he could have attended a Duncan seance himself, as then he could have known for sure either way. And that is the failure here – to even suggest to the viewer that we might ALL be fallible, gullible, easily fooled in the right circumstances. That seeing is NOT always believing, or at least, it shouldn’t be if one is seeking the truth of the matter.

I suspect deliberate sabotage. I suspect that the programme makers, to (possibly!) quote PT Barnum, want to “have something for everybody”. They need an element of doubt so that Robinson can muse on the possibility that Duncan was both a fraud AND a genuine medium – to both provide a false sense of wonder and to make Duncan’s conviction seem all the more unfair. This is a real shame, as with a little more testicular fortitude on the part of the programme makers, those with the truly closed minds would still have come away unaffected, but those really on the fence would have had all the information to REALLY make up their minds. As it is we got a disjointed, pub-level natter about mediumship and spiritualism in general, with maybe half the programme devoted to the Duncan case itself.

I’ll end by pointing out yet again that  Duncan was convicted NOT of witchraft, but of pretending to conjur spirits. Though one contributor did say this, the whole programme and its marketing campaign focussed on the old chestnut that Duncan was Britain’s last convicted witch. And the same man went on to support Tony Robinson’s push for uncritical acceptance of fallible witness testimony by dismissing the juror’s decision in the Duncan case as “prejudice”.

Now Tony, I know you can do critical thinking properly, so repeat after me – if I have two anecdotes, and I add two more anecdotes, what does that make? (Hint – it’s not “evidence“.)