Shouldn’t All Witch Legends Be Told in Rhyme?
Here, if the uncouth song of former days, Soil not the page with Falsehood's artful lays, Black Annis held her solitary reign, The dread and wonder of the neighb'ring plain.
— John Heyrick, 1797
Once upon a time, the Dane Hills rose to the west of Leicester, England. The area has long since been developed into suburban houses, yards, and streets. It used to be covered with wilderness, though, and within those ancient woods sat a cave. According to legend, a terrible fiend known as Black Annis lurked within this cave, emerging to feast on the local livestock — and on the local children.
My usual work of dusting off old records of witch legends has largely been done for me in the case of Black Annis. A small compilation of excerpts from histories and newspaper articles was offered by Charles James Billson in 1895 (under the heading “Caves”), and there are more mentioned in a 2006 article by Bob Trubshaw. The primary sources referenced by Billson and Trubshaw give good evidence that a cave actually had existed. To be sure, records of it — albeit associated with the names Black Agnes and Black Anny — predate 1797. But that’s the year when John Heyrick’s transcription of the Black Annis legend, told with iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, was published with the title “On a Cave Called Black Annis’ Bower.” That’s the year the oral folktale was preserved on paper.
The speaker in Heyrick’s poem describes the cave as a place avoided and detested. Shepherds steer clear because, in the past, they’ve tracked their missing animals to the spot. Children and mothers share this fear, since “infant blood oft stain’d the gory den.” Meanwhile, men in general have not “dar’d to meet the Monster of the Green.” Despite this keeping a safe distance, the speaker is able to provide a portrait of Black Annis. Her eyes are “fierce and wild,” and instead of hands, she has talons that are “foul with human flesh.” Her face is “livid blue.” Around her waist, she wears “[w]arm skins of human victims.”
Heyrick ends the poem with the monster vanquished. We read: “But Time, than Man more certain, tho’ more slow / At length ‘gainst Annis drew his sable bow.” I take this to mean that age, not a brave Leicesterian, killed the fiend, that sable bow being a symbol of unavoidable death rather than an actual weapon. The speaker next explains that Black Annis’s corpse was tossed into her own cave, where her “monstrous tropheys” were found in rooms scratched out by her talons. The cave entrance was left open to inspire future generations to retell the legend attached to the place. Heyrick does exactly that, and echoing the “uncouth song of former days” mentioned in the beginning, he ends by implying his own “rough, unpolished song” is a product of fanciful poetry, not of factual history.
Black Annis is not a typical witch, too, if she’s a witch at all. Heyrick makes no mention of spells or curses, of consorting with the Devil, of flying on a broom, or of having a feline or other type of familiar. Instead, Black Annis comes closer to being an especially bloodthirsty spin on the wild man of the wood (a.k.a. “woodwose”) figure, a human or humanoid who exhibits feral behavior and even more body hair than Brett Goldstein. Heyrick suggests this when he describes Black Annis as a “gaunt Maid . . . Whom Britain’s wolf with savage nipple nurs’d.” This is the image of Black Annis that followed for decades.
What the Leicester Chronicle Chronicled
The depiction resurfaced in 1846, when John Dudley’s Naology was published. There, the legendary resident of Black Annis’s Bower is said to be “a savage woman with great teeth, and long nails” who “devoured human victims.” In 1874, it was reiterated in an exchange printed in multiple issues of The Leicester Chronicle. Every Saturday, this newspaper offered space for readers to ask questions that might be answered by other readers in future issues. On September 5, someone using the name “Amica” asked what anyone knew about “Black Anna,” clearly referring to the same legend.
About a month later, a reply came from someone signed as “F.R.H.S.” The acronym probably stands for Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and Billson identifies the writer as William Kelly.
This writer goes on to discuss the cave itself and various theories about the person for whom it’s named. He notes that such conjectures disagree on a specific name — Black Agnes? Black Anna? Black Annis? — contending that the latter surname is “still found amongst us” and likely belongs to the property owner. However, in the November 7, 1874, issue, John Mellor joined the Chronicle conversation to say he had located land deeds from 1764 that name the spot as “Black Anny’s Bower Close.” Of course, these are attempts to pin down a historical person, not a legendary one. Given Heyrick’s use of “Annis,” I think we’re safe going with that name when describing the folkloric figure.
Is the Legend About a Witch or Something Else?
Conspicuously absent from all the descriptions of Black Annis above is the word “witch.” Instead, we see terms such as “monster,” “savage woman,” and even “ominous personage.” When did Black Annis become referred to specifically as a witch? The best I can say is: the late 1800s. Billson’s 1895 piece includes a passage attributed to Henrietta Ellis, though it isn’t noted what kind of source it is — a letter maybe? Here, the Dane Hills and, by association, the cave there are linked to Cat Anna, “a witch who lived in the cellars under the castle.” Billson then adds a footnote, explaining that an 1837 play titled Black Anna’s Bower; Or, The Maniac of the Dane Hills portrays the character in the title as similar to Shakespeare’s Three Witches in Macbeth. Unfortunately, copies of the playscript are very rare. WorldCat lists only two: one at the University of Leicester, as might be expected, and the other at Indiana University, which I did not expect. Maybe one day I’ll journey to either of those libraries and see if the play really does have its Black Anna do the witchy things Shakespeare’s famous trio does. For instance, a bit of conjuring at a bubbling cauldron would be nice.
Ever since the 1900s arrived, Black Annis seems to have been routinely dubbed a witch. For instance, a headline from a 1931 issue of the Leicester Evening Mail shouts:
The article recounts the long-lost ritual and lore surrounding “Black Anna, the witch.” Indeed, Waddington says, “Leicester has forgotten all its old tales of the witch, but she was a very real figure to the children of a hundred years ago.” However, if she truly had been forgotten, she would not remain so.
The old legend has found a new voice in websites that continue to refer to Black Annis as a witch. There’s this one, this one, and this one. Odd though it might seem, there’s a hotel in far-flung Victor, Colorado that offers a Black Annis Room, wherein visitors can enjoy some “big witchy vibes.” Pretty impressive for a folktale character from central England much better known for being a cave-dwelling introvert than for being able to fly!
In the minds of many, then, Black Annis has been remembered as being a witch for over a century.