Anne Bodenham (1583 – 1653) – The Wiltshire Witch

Anne Bodenham (1573 – 1653) – The Wiltshire Witch from Fisherton Anger adjacent to the City of new Sarum in the County of Wiltshire.

Anne Bodenham of Fisherton Anger in Wiltshire, known as Mistress Anne, was the wife of a clothier who had lived “in good fashion” and in her old age she taught children to read, she was also a “cunning women”. Cunning folk were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic.

In an earlier life she had been an apt pupil of Dr Lambe (c. 1545 – 13 June 1628) and had learned magic lore from him. Lamb who served George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham who was a favourite of King Charles I, during the early 17th century. Over time, many Londoners came forward with their own unusual anecdotes attesting to Lambe’s “demonic” or “devilish” nature. Some claimed that he had struck political foes with impotence, and others blamed him for a 1626 whirlwind along the Thames which allegedly unearthed corpses in a churchyard. One of the strangest accounts is recorded in Richard Baxter’s 1691 Certainty of the World of Spirits. According to this story, Lambe once invited an audience into an inner room of his house, where he demonstrated his powers by conjuring a miniature tree and three miniature woodsmen, who chopped it down. One man allegedly gathered wood chips from the tree as evidence, but the pieces attracted violent storms to his house, and he soon disposed of them. Skeptics continued to scoff at such accounts, dismissing Lambe as “a notable mountebank and impostor”, but many others were firmly convinced that Lambe was a dangerous magician.

Frightened Londoners made several attempts to punish Lambe for black magic, but due to the influence of Charles and Villiers, their campaigns were mostly ineffective. In 1627, however, Lambe was accused of raping an eleven-year-old girl named Joan Seager, and he promptly received the death penalty. With the help of his political connections, he was able to postpone the execution for several months. Eventually, though, angry and fearful Londoners became tired of Lambe’s special treatment, and on 13 June 1628, an unruly mob stoned him to death as he exited a theatre. No one was punished for the murder, and less than two months later, Villiers was killed as well.

Mistress Anne drew magic circles, saw visions of people in glass, possessed charms and incantations, and above all kept a wonderful magic book. For her paying clients, she attempted to find lost money, to tell the future and to cure disease and provided occult performances. She roused little antagonism in her community until she crossed paths with a maid servant of a Wiltshire family. The family had become involved in a quarrel amongst themselves. It was suggested by neighbours that some of the family had conspired to poison the mother in law. The maid was held culpable and was imprisoned for her part in the plot. The maid in order to detract from her own acts made a confession that she had been directed by Anne Bodenham to sign a book of the Devil’s with her own blood. Ann had also offered to send her to London in two hours, a journey that would normally take a few days. When the local Justice of the Peace heard this, he arrested her.

Following her arrest initially on poisoning charges, accompanied by shrieks and chain rattling, she asked a witness to accompany her to a private room, called loudly (and in vain) for a glass of beer, and proceeded to tell her own story, She had once been employed as a servant to a client of a popular and notorious astrologer, Dr Lamb of London. Entertained by his predictions and curious about his magical techniques, she asked him to employ her as his servant and to teach her his trade. For some years afterwards, she applied his methods in her own practice, making predictions of lucky and unlucky days, finding lost objects, advising her aristocratic clientele on lawsuits and romantic liaisons and dispensing medicines. “She could cure such diseases as the best doctors could not do so. She could discover stolen goods, show anyone the thief that had them in a glass, and … she could raise spirits by reading in her books.” She apparently viewed herself as a kind of Faust figure, describing the technique of raising spirits; “If those that desire to it, do read in books, and when they come to read further then they can understand, then the devil will appear to them, sow them what they would know; and they doing what he would have them, they may learn to do what they desire to do, and he would teach them.”

It was said at the time, that she would convey either man or woman forty miles per hour into the air announced one contemporary pamphlet and she could transform herself into any shape whatsoever viz A mastiff dog, a black lion, a white bear, a wolf, a monkey, a horse, a bull and a calf.

The maid then began to pretend to have fits and put the blame for them again on Anne. When quizzed about her condition she reported “Oh very damnable, very wretched” She claimed she could see the devil looking at her from the top of a house. These allegations were treated as facts and Mistress Bodenham was put to the usual humiliations of a suspected witch. She was searched, examined and urged to confess. Although her interrogator made every effort to get Anne to confess her guilt, she was very wily. Against the maid who accused her, she protested that “ She hath undone me… that I am an honest woman, ;twill break my husband’s heart, he grieves to see me in irons. I did once live in good fashion.”

The case was referred up to the assizes for trial at Salisbury. Chief Baron John Wylde of the exchequer presided. The testimony of the maid was brought in as well as the other proofs. She was found guilty and condemned to death. Judge Wylde was so well satisfied with his work that he urged Edmund Bower who had begun an account of the case, but hesitated to expose himself to “this Censorious Age” to go on with his booklet. That detestable individual had followed the case closely. After the condemnation he worked hard to make Anne Bodenham confess. But Anne would not acknowledge any guilt even when he offered her false hope of mercy.

In John Aubrey’s book ; My Own Life he states “My friend Anthony Ettrick of Middle Temple, a very judicious gentleman, has been observing the witch trial of Anne Bodenham at Salisbury, and is not satisfied. He tells me the crowd of spectators make such a noise that the judge, Chief Baron Wild, could not here the prisoner, nor the prisoner the judge. Words were handed from one to another by Mr Chandler, and sometimes not truly reported.”

The narrator of another book closes the account with some moral reflections. We may close with the observation that there is no finer instance of womanly courage in the annals of witchcraft than that of Anne Bodenham. Doubtless she had used charms, and experimented with glasses; it had been done by those of higher rank than she.

To the end she remained stalwart. When the officer told Anne that she must go with him to the place of execution, she relied “Be ye ready, I am ready.”

The cleric who recorded her trial noted that: “Arrived at the place of execution, she attempted to go at once up the ladder, but was estrained. Mr. Bower pressing her to confess, she steadfastly refused, and cursed those who detained her.”

When executed on the 19th March 1653 at Fisherton Anger, she was said to be aged 80.

She made a will, giving gifts to thirty people declaring that she had been robbed by her maids in prison, lamenting over her husband’s sorrow, and requested that she be buried under the gallows.

As for the maid, she had got herself out of trouble. Once Anne Bodenham had been hanged, the maid’s fits ceased, and she professed great thankfulness to God and a desire to serve him.

A History of Witchcraft in England 1558 – 1718 by Wallace Notestein

Visionary Women Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth Century England by Phyllis Mack

Wiltshire Tales of Mystery & Murder, by Roger Evans

The Tryal, Examination and Confession of mistris Bodenham, before the Lord chief Baron Wild, & the Sentence of Death pronounc’d against her, etc. (London: printed for G. Horton, 1653) by James Bower.

Doctor Lamb revived, or, Witchcraft condemn ‘d in Anne Bodenham a Servant of his, who was Arraigned and Executed the Lent Assizes last at Salisbury by Edmond Bower