The Witch of Wookey; Or, The Merciless Monk

Wells Needs Husbands!

Oft have I heard the Fearful tale,
From Sue or Roger of the Vale,
Told out in Winter Night.

— Henry Harrington

In a 1755 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine, an untitled, anonymous poem explains why, in western England’s Wookey Hole Caves, there’s a stalagmite shaped something like a witch. It had been a witch, you see, one who was turned to stone. The poem seems to be based on a local folktale, but instead of penning a trustworthy transcription of the legend, the poet might’ve been adapting it to encourage men to relocate to the nearby town of Wells. After all, the bard claims that the women there were hankering for husbands. At the same time — and perhaps entirely inadvertently — the poem portrays an ecclesiastic witch hunter as acting obliviously and mercilessly, thereby stirring sympathy not just for husbandless women, but also for women who have been zealously condemned as witches.

This photograph is from Ernest A. Baker and Herbert E. Blach’s The Netherworld of Mendip: Explorations in the Great Caverns of Somerset, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and Elsewhere. The cave formation is said to resemble a witch. For best results, squint — and squint hard!

The poem was reprinted in a pamphlet the following year with the curious title “Slander; or, the Witch of Wokey,” and that might be easier to read. In the earlier magazine publication, though, it was introduced this way:

The following stanzas were sent me from Wells in Somersetshire, and assign the reason why ladies of that city are destitute of gentlemen. 

Those stanzas describe a woman who, while “in her prime,” never had someone to love her: “No gaudy youth gallant and young, / E’er blest her longing arms.” Loneliness made her embittered, which made her into an evil witch. Along with becoming physically hideous (if she hadn’t been all along), she vented her pain on her neighbors, blighting the area’s land and livestock: “She blasted ev’ry plant around, / and blister’d o’er the flocks.” To be sure, she became a general nuisance and “marr’d all goodlie cheer.”

The problem was fixed when a cleric came up from Glastonbury and turned the witch to stone. And that, you see, explains the stalagmite. But as often happens in folktales about someone executed for witchcraft, be it justly or not, there are lingering consequences.

She left this curse behinde,
'My sex shall be forsaken quite,
Tho' sense and beauty both unite,
Nor find a man that's kind.'

The lack of marriable men suggested in the introduction, it appears, stems from the curse of a love-starved witch. There’s a lot of blaming the victims in these folktales, and that’s certainly seen in this narrative.

From the fourth volume of a 1923 series called Legend Land. These nifty booklets promoted railway travel in western Britain.

Or Should We Blame the Witch Hunter?

Another interpretation of this poem, however, emerges if we shift the focus from witch to witch hunter. There’s not much we know about the poem’s “learned wight” who arrives “[f]ull bent” to end the witch’s spree. We learn he’s an ecclesiastic of some kind when told he first recited from a “goodlie book,” presumably the Bible since he next “blest the brook” and then splashed some of the now-holy water on the “ghastly hag.” “When, lo!” continues the speaker, “where stood the hag before, / Now stood a ghastly stone.” So he’s got some powerful magic of his own, but his springs from God.

Later versions of the legend specify the witch hunter’s identity as “a monk from Glastonbury Abbey,” an apt detail given the importance of that monastery in the region’s (and England’s) history. Nonetheless, he’s still said to handle the situation without a moment’s pause, without any investigation of or interest in his suspect’s past. He acts with neither compassion nor mercy. Rather than offer an opportunity for redemption, as one might expect from a Christian cleric, he strides in, flicks some water, and goes Medusa on the witch.

It’s easy for readers to question the ecclesiastic’s prompt “stoning” of his quarry, given the fact that the poet has rooted the witch’s evil in heartache, not in succumbing to Satanic temptation. In other words, at its base, this isn’t a Christianity versus the Devil story. No, it’s one about a representative of Christ versus a woman gone terribly astray. In fact, in the end, the speaker compares the witch to those Wells women cursed to remain unwed: “Shall such fair nymphs thus daily moan! / They might I trow [think], as well be stone, / As thus forsaken dwell….” The poet prompts readers to sympathize with women without men to marry (and I’ll let others delve into the complexities of that). The punished witch is among those women or, at least, once was. Is the zealous witch hunter and man of God, then, accidentally — or perhaps even subversively — cast as the narrative’s heartless villain?

A Very Different Explanation for the Calcified Figure

The poem went on to be included in a number of anthologies, such as this 1765 one, this 1770 one, and this 1801 one. By 1817, it was confirmed to have been written by Henry Harrington, a physician from Bath. But his take on the “witch” of Wookey Hole Caves is not the only one. There’s a very different folktale recorded in an 1804 issue of Sporting Magazine, and it’s presented as a transcription of the story told by a young woman who gave tours of the caves. Instead of having ever been love-starved — instead of being turned into stone by a Glastonbury monk — the witch was simply an evil sorceress who lived before Christ was born. Powerful and omniscient, she “could turn all she did touch into stone.” Here, the witch is rumored to have been attended by the Devil, “but in this they are not clearly sure.” Perhaps thanks to her omniscience, the witch heard that Christ had been born, and knowing that He would have plans to “put away all witchcraft, she grew very sorrowful, and determined to destroy herself.” First, though, she turned other things into stone, from her dinner to a servile lion! Presumably, her last act was to turn herself into stone.

As I say, very different from Harrington’s poem. Unlike Harrington, who wants to stir sympathy for the women of Wells, the Sporting Magazine author has no clear agenda other than to share a fun story told by a tour guide. Does this make it truer to the folktale that was actually shared aloud at Somerset firesides and spinning wheels?

Well, in A Walk Through Some of the Western Counties of England (1800), Richard Wagner summarizes a version of the folktale told to him by another tour guide. In general outline and time frame, it comes closer to Harrington’s than to the one in Sporting Magazine. Here, the witch

had been turned, years ago, into a stone, by a parson, as she was cooking a child in her kitchen, which she had stolen from the village; but [the guide] had heard his grandmother say, her father remembered the wicked old woman, as well as the tricks she played....

Indeed, Wagner himself claims that Harrington had “drawn out the oral tale into vision, and secured it to posterity by an elegant versification” with limited poetic license. He then reprints the poem.

So two tour guides are reported to have told two very different versions of how the witch-shaped stalagmite came to be. Both strike me as equally reliable in terms of capturing something of how the story was transmitted orally during the mid-1700s to the early 1800s. Quite possibly, more than one version circulated then. Long afterward, others exploring the Witch of Wookey legend also comment on there being different versions. Though the “stone-suicide” version seems to have vanished over time, others — including one in which the Glastonbury monk is a vengeful victim of the witch — are discussed on this website and this one.


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