A Tale of Two Witches: The Legend of Lady Sybil and Mother Helston

The Long and the Short of It

There’s a legend set near Todmorden, on the border of England’s Lancashire and Yorkshire counties, that’s unique in that it pits — not the usual solitary witch against an entire community — but two witches against each other. In addition, the witchcraft that incites the story’s conflict does no one harm — it simply allows a woman to experience contentment and freedom. Despite these distinctive characteristics, the legend of Lady Sybil and Mother Helston mirrors similar folktales in that the ultimate goal driving the narrative is to halt a witch’s behavior in one way or another.

The oldest written record of this legend I’ve found is in John Roby’s 1829 Traditions of Lancashire, which he introduces as a collection of “interesting legends, anecdotes, and scraps of family history . . . hitherto preserved chiefly in the shape of oral tradition.” Roby explains he was transcribing the folktales he had heard growing up, yet he must have recognized that doing so in 1829 England might raise an elitist eyebrow. Tales told by the common folk? — Heaven forfend! He clarifies that he’s presenting these popular stories “in a form that may be generally acceptable, divested of the dust and dross in which the originals are but too often disfigured, so as to appear worthless and uninviting.” In other words, he was tailoring his material to a readership expecting a good deal of erudition along with any entertainment. He did so by adding the kind of details, dialogue, and digressions one finds in novels and histories, not in the oral narrations he had heard in his youth.

As a result, Roby’s rendition of the legend takes up 26 pages while John Harland, in 1873; T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, in 1895; and Joshua Holden, in 1912, each managed to tell the same tale in under three pages. By the second half of the 1800s, you see, folktales preserved as folktales had become a more welcome kind of reading.

Lady Sybil’s Story Shared Succinctly

Here’s Holden’s version, the shortest of the four:

Long ago a beautiful heiress, called Lady Sybil, lived at Bernshaw Tower. She was exceedingly gifted and took a keen delight in the beauty of Nature. One of her favourite walks was to Eagle Crag, where she would often stand and gaze into the wooded chasm beneath. It was then that Lady Sybil longed for the supernatural power of a witch. At last, unable to resist the temptation of the devil, she bartered her soul in return for this magical gift. With the aid of magic she could change her shape, and it was her delight to roam over her native hills in the form of a beautiful white doe. 
George Pickering’s depiction of Eagle’s Crag, taken from John Roby’s Traditions of Lancashire (1829) and colorized at Palette
One of Lady Sybil's admirers was Lord William of Hapton Tower, a younger member of the Towneley family. She rejected his suit, and in his despair, he sought the help of Mother Helston, a famous witch. She told him to go hunting in the gorge of Cliviger. He did so and there caught sight of a milk-white doe. After a long pursuit he captured it near Eagle Crag, with the help of Mother Helston who joined the hunt disguised as a hound. Lord William fastened an enchanted silken leash round the doe's neck and led her in triumph to Hapton Tower. 

In the morning it was Lady Sybil who graced Hapton Tower with her presence. Soon afterwards, when she had renounced witchcraft, she was married to Lord William. But the old longing for magical experiences returned, and again she wandered, as of old, in some secret disguise. Once, when she was frolicking in Cliviger Mill as a beautiful white cat, the miller's man cut off one of her paws. Pale and wounded, for she had lost one of her hands, Lady Sybil returned home. She had to face the anger of Lord William, to whom the missing hand with its costly signet ring had been brought from Cliviger. Magic skill restored the hand, and Lady Sybil was reconciled to her husband. Her strength, however, was gone, and when her soul had been rescued from the powers of darkness, she died in peace. Bernshaw Tower was left tenantless, but for many years on All Hallow's Eve a spectre huntsman with a hound and milk-white doe flitted past Eagle Crag. 

Shapeshifting and Halloween

Many of the basic narrative elements in all the four versions mentioned above are consistent. Lady Sybil is always described as exceptional, be she very beautiful, very smart, and/or very gifted. Mentioned in each is her beloved Eagle’s Crag, one of the various landmarks that roots the fantasy in reality. (Eagle’s Crag even has the honor of having a real brewery named for it.) Being rejected by Lady Sybil drives Lord William to consult with Mother Helston, apparently a local freelance witch. With a weirdly swift hound’s help, Lord William then manages to put a leash on Lady Sybil — literally and figuratively. In a nutshell, the legend is very much about a man without (magical) power needing help from a woman with (magical) power to forcibly take a wife with (magical) power. Gender is often a glaring part of this kind of narrative, but is this one a reflection of male anxiety about powerlessness or even womb envy? Lord William’s desire for dominance is hardly subtle here.

Not surprisingly, there are some fairly minor differences, too. For example, Thiselton-Dyer reduces the episode of Lady Sybil’s relapse — the stuff about her losing her cat paw/human hand — to this: “But within a year [of being lassoed by/married to Lord William] she had renewed her diabolical practices, causing a serious breach between her husband and herself. Happily a reconciliation was eventually effected….” Another alteration appears when Holden suggests Helston shapeshifted into the hound that assists Lord William. Harland and Thiselton-Dyer identify the spooky pooch as Helston’s familiar instead of Helston herself. Roby implies a mysterious link between the hound and Helston while avoiding specifics. The point is the same: it takes a witch to catch a witch.

Halloween plays an interesting — and only slightly inconsistent — role in these variations of the legend. Roby puts the hunt on “All-Hallow’s day,” but earlier the Devil tells Lady Sybil that this is “when the witches meet to renew their vows.” Harland and Thiselton-Dyer say it’s on “All-Hallow’s eve,” meaning Halloween. Holden remains silent. All say that Lady Sybil’s paw/hand was cut off a year after her capture/marriage, so maybe Halloween had something to do with her being lured back to shapeshifting. Interestingly, all four transcriptions end by saying that, every Halloween since Lady’s Sybil’s death, the ghostly scene of a doe chased by a hunter and a hound is reenacted in the vicinity of Eagle’s Crag.

“Lady Sybil at Eagle’s Crag,” taken from T.F. Thiselton-Dyer’s Strange Pages from Family Papers (1895) and colorized at Palette

The Tragedy of a Woman Bound

Some folktales elicit sympathy for a witch character. A good example of this is the Peg Wesson legend. This one follows that pattern, too, presenting Lady Sybil as victimized by the other three characters. As noted above, her witchcraft does no harm: she merely communes with nature by assuming a form no more ferocious than a weredeer (should that be “weredoe”?) and a werecat. Yes, her making a pact with the Devil is a problematic part of this, but it’s still pretty easy to feel for her, given that her wish to roam incognito is thwarted by a man who binds her with what our storytellers call either a “noose” or a “leash.”

In contrast, Mother Helton sells out her supernatural sister. This backstabbing witch disappears by the end of the shorter versions, but Roby mentions that, when Helton died, she “was denied the rites of Christian burial.” She’s presented as a far less sympathetic witch.

Presumably, some audience members might identify with the two male characters. But would anyone sympathize with them? The men act primarily to deny Lady Sybil her freedom. To accomplish this, Lord William turns to witchcraft — the very thing he later forbids his wife to practice — so what starts with frustration quickly escalates into hypocrisy with scoop of obsession on the side. Hardly admirable. Why did the miller’s assistant cut off the cat’s paw? Only in Roby’s detailed narrative do we find a motive: he was protecting the mill from the “hell-cats,” the preferred form assumed by witches and warlocks. Upon being attacked by “a prodigious company of cats, bats, and all manner of hideous things,” the assistant fought back with a knife, too overwrought to do more than cut off one cat’s paw. Inadvertently, he exposes the shapeshifter’s identity. More than doing the kindly or heroic thing in regard to Lady Sybil, these male characters just react strongly to being spurned by her or to clashing with her creepy-critter squad.

Even after death, Lady Sybil — or, at least, her spirit — remains bound. Earthbound. Roby says that, on her deathbed, the repentant woman “looked up to the Mercy she invoked, and was forgiven.” Both Harland and Thiselton-Dyer explain: “the devil’s bond was cancelled.” Holden says she was “rescued from the powers of darkness.” Despite all this forgiveness, cancellation, and rescue, she’s not allowed to enter Heaven. Well, at least, some part of her is obligated to return annually to perform what might be called a tableau mort for those brave enough to wander by Eagle’s Crag on Halloween.

There is no triumph here. Only tragedy.


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