The area of the Cotswold Hills has long been famous as a centre of
witchcraft lore. In modern days two events have brought this fact to
notice : the so-called ‘Witchcraft Murder’ on Meon Hill in 1 945, and
the opening of Mr. Cecil H. Williamson’s witchcraft museum at Bourton-on-the-Water at Easter 1 956, which aroused considerable controversy in the area at the time. The museum closed about ten years later,
Mr. Williamson having opened another at Boscastle in Cornwall.
During the years it remained at Bourton-on-the-Water, this witchcraft museum, arranged in a picturesque fifteenth-century Cotswold
stone house, provided a fascinating panorama of objects connected with
magic and witchcraft. When I visited it in 1 961, it contained, among
innumerable other exhibits, an indoor shrine used by a witch for
thanksgiving to the Old Gods in recognition of spells successfully
accomplished, and a life-size representation of a scene in an old-time
witch’s cottage, showing how a ‘divining familiar’ worked.
A wax figure of a witch sat before a big old-fashioned table, on which
was a skull draped with a black shawl ; also on the table were a blackhilted knife, and four candles in crude, home-made candlesticks of
bone. Specimens of different herbs were displayed before the familiar, a
small animal (a weasel, I think). It was explained that the animal
became possessed by a god or a spirit, and indicated the right herb to
use in a particular case.
This was in fact a correct representation of a ‘divining familiar’. I
have known a cat to be used in the same way, to divine by selecting
cards from an outspread pack with its paw.
The exhibit which aroused most controversy, however, was a lifesize wax figure of an almost nude witch-priestess lying upon an altar.
She was described as a priestess ofTanat, the Phoenician moon goddess,
whose worship, it was claimed, was still carried out in Cornwall and
the West of England, being celebrated by ritual bonfires on the old
pagan festival dates.
In June 1956 someone hanged a cat from a beam outside the museum.
Mr. Williamson interpreted it as a ‘death warning’, from one who
objected to the museum’s being opened.

Mr. Williamson’s museum would have been controversial anywhere.
It was doubly so in the Cotswolds, where fear of witchcraft as a sinister
influence is still lively today. The events of the Meon Hill murder have
not been forgotten ; nor how the famous anthropologist, the late Dr.
Margaret Murray, spent a week in the area of the murder, ostensibly as
an artist with a sketch-book, but actually carrying out her own investigation. Later, she stated publicly that she believed the murder victim,
an old man named Charles Walton of the village of Lower Quinton,
had been killed because of the local belief in witchcraft.
Walton was found dead under a tree on Meon Hill, on 14th February,
1 945. His body was pinned to the ground by a hayfork, and his throat
and chest had been slashed in the form of a cross. Police investigating
the murder came up against a wall of silence, and no arrest was ever
made. February 14th is Candlemas by the Old Calendar, which is
twelve days behind the present dating ; and Candlemas is one of the
Great Sabbats of the witches.
Recently another investigation into this mysterious killing has been
carried out by Donald McCormick, who published his findings in his
book Murder by Witchcraft (John Lorig, London, 1968). Mr. McCormick has uncovered new facts about the man who was killed, which
have convinced me personally that witchcraft, or rather the fear of
witchcraft, was the motive for this murder; Charles Walton was slain
because someone feared his powers as a witch.
He was slain bloodily, because to spill a witch’s blood destroyed their
influence. In 1 875 an old woman named Anne Turner had been killed
in a similar manner, in another Cotswold village, Long Compton, by a
man who believed her to be a witch. He was influenced by an old local
saying : “There are enough witches in Long Compton to draw a waggonload of hay up Long Compton Hill.”
The traditional meeting-place of the Cotswold witches is the Rollright
Stones, a prehistoric stone circle between Long Compton and Chipping
Norton. Outside the circle and across a road is a big standing stone
called the King Stone, strangely weathered by the passing centuries;
and nearby in a field is a cromlech of big stones called the Whispering
Knights.
On 1 2th May 1 949, a witches’ Sabbat was held at the Rollright
Stones which was observed by two independent witnesses, whose
stories got into the local and national press. It was the night of the full
moon, and May Eve by the Old Calendar. The latter, as stated above,
is twelve days behind the New, or Gregorian Calendar, which was
adopted in Britain in 1752 ; but traces of the old reckoning can still be
found in custom and folklore.
The man who witnessed the rites had gone there because he had heard
rumours of witch meetings there before, and curiosity attracted him.
He was unable to get very close, but he saw a number of people, both men and women, performing a ritual round the King Stone, with
chanting and dancing. The leader wore a disguise, which the observer
thought was a goat-headed mask. The other eye-witness, a woman, was
afraid to remain, and fled from the scene.
Since this time, traces of bonfires have been found at the Rollright
Stones on various occasions; but since the newspaper publicity, witches
have tended to avoid using the Stones for their meetings. However, the
magazine Life International, in its issue dated 1 8th May 1964, carried a
detailed article about witchcraft in Britain, which included photographs
of a special meeting at the Rollright Stones organised by a London
coven under the leadership of Mrs. Ray Bone, whose witch-name is
Artemis.
She invoked the Old Gods of the witches, and the coven joined hands
to dance round a bonfire lit within the circle of stones. Then the witches
jumped over the flames of the fire, which according to their ritual
symbolised the life-giving properties of the sun. The rite was held to
celebrate May Eve, the traditional beginning of summer.
A remarkable historical novel, based upon fact, and dealing with
witchcraft in the Cotswolds in the seventeenth century, is The Silver
Bowl, by Hugh Ross Williamson, first published in 1948 (Michael
Joseph, London). It deals particularly with Chipping Campden, and
the strange events known as the Campden Wonder, when three witches,
Joan Perry and her two sons, were hanged for the supposed murder of a
man who had disappeared, but who later returned alive to the village.
It mentions Seven Wells, within a circle of trees on a hill south of
Chipping Campden, as the meeting-place of the seventeenth-century
coven, and contains many unusual details about witchcraft, which it
calls “the Craft of the Wise” .
I can add to the evidence of witchcraft in the Cotswolds a story of
my own. About fifteen years ago an uncle and aunt of mine came to see
me, and talked about a motoring tour they had enjoyed. They had passed
through the Cotswolds, and been to see the Rollright Stones. They were
very conventional people, who knew nothing about witchcraft or my
interest in it.
My aunt said that they had seen a woman dancing slowly round the
King Stone ,”waving her hands in strange gestures”. Then she had knelt
down in front of the stone and seemed to be praying. My uncle had
been inclined to jeer, but my aunt had restrained him ; because, she
said, “You could see she was quite serious, and believed in what she
was doing.” They hadn’t known what to make of it ; and I didn’t tell
them.
At the old Fleece Inn at Bretforton, near Evesham, on the edge of the
Cotswolds, the custom is kept up of drawing three white circles on the
hearth, “to stop witches from coming down the chimney”. This derives
from the old idea that the influence of witchcraft could enter a house through the windows, the doors, or the chimney ; and protective amulets
were hung or placed in these locations to prevent it. The number three
has always been sacred and magical, while the circle was anciently
regarded as the symbol of perfection and eternity, and whiteness as the
colour of purity. Hence the protective magic of this traditional rite.