Remnants of witchcraft found in old cottages

GLASTONBURY, England – Renovating old buildings is fraught with hazards and, interestingly, finding items pertaining to witchcraft. A surprising number of old cottages across the U.K. have items with magical significance walled up in their original structures.

Witch bottle found in the walls of a house in Lincolnshire village of Navenby in 2004 – Image credit: Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England – Number 31: Witch-bottle, CC BY 2.0

A 16th-century cottage in North Wales was the latest, in 2020, to give up some of its secrets. Council worker Bleddyn and his partner Kerrie Jackson discovered a mysterious bundle containing a half-eaten hat, animal skulls, rusty gun barrels, and old shoes. Plas Uchaf has been in Bleddyn’s family for generations and is a Grade II listed property.

Jackson reported that “The staircase had been built across a sealed up medieval doorway that once connected different parts of the house, and the void underneath it had become exposed by the repairs being carried on the old timber frame.”

She continued, “It was very eerie to peer into the darkness and make out all the objects inside, and, initially, we could only see a couple of shoes through the rubble. But, as we kept pulling them out, more and more were found, until, eventually, we’d lined up eight odd shoes – all for the left foot and ranging from heavy men’s work boots to toddler shoes – along with the remnants of a horse’s skull, a wool hat and parts of a gun barrel. The shoes were in a remarkably good state – you could even still make out the imprint of their owners’ feet.”

Witch bottles – Image credit: Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pinkpasty) – CC BY-SA 3.0 

Jackson and Bleddyn undertook some research and believe that the bundle might be related to beliefs around witchcraft.

“There’s an old superstition that says witches would enter homes ‘between’ places such as staircases, or at twilight or the chiming of midnight. People believed that by leaving out items, such as shoes, witches or demons would be attracted to the scent left by the wearer and, once they entered the shoe or boot, they were unable to reverse back out and were therefore trapped. Other theories suggest that perhaps they would become so distracted by the novelty of the find that they would leave the family alone,” they explained.

“There are also lots of notions about why anyone would conceal horse skulls in houses, and we wondered if there was perhaps a connection to the Mari Lwyd  – the ancient Welsh New Year’s tradition of wearing a white sheet crowned with a horse’s skull and travelling from house to house singing or reciting poetry. We also found a smaller skull, but we’re not sure what animal it belonged to.”

The couple also added that “We’re not worried about them being there and we’re not spooked by it at all. We quite often come across quirky things around this old house that really connect us to the past – we believe it’s important to record what we find and then return them for future generations to discover. Although, it does make us wonder what future inhabitants of this place will make of the things we’ll end up leaving behind.”

We asked other British Pagans and those with an interest in the history of witchcraft if they had encountered similar items in residences.

Chloe Summerville, who runs the Magpie’s Nest in Glastonbury, reported that she and her partner had found items in their old cottage when they undertook renovations.

Collection of Concealed Shoes – St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, St Edmundsbury Borough Council – Image credit: Edmund Patrick – CC BY-SA 3.0

Summerville told TWH, “We found in our blocked up inglenook fireplace, a pair of old leather boots and a large waxed glass jar with some sort of dirty looking liquid inside. On closer inspection through the glass we could make out horseshoe nails and what looked like fish skin or something with scales. I never did open it, I thought the liquid might have been piss! I put it in the shed and over the years it just kinda vanished. I never knew where it went. Also, lots of knotted string hung on nails behind the main wooden beam, which I left there, they are still there now and someone has carved 1782 in the wood.”

Summerville went on to say, “Our house is sometimes a little creepy, we often have running around upstairs on the landing only to go up expecting the kids to be out of bed, but they never are.”

The Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle has many such items, located in old buildings across the U.K. over the year, and they are found in other museums, too.

Ellen Leslie, a buildings historian who has lectured at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture, says that these finds are by no means uncommon. They include items such as mummified cats and children’s shoes, which are more common (fortunately) than the cats.

As with the comments from Kerrie Jackson above, Leslie suggests that shoes may have been regarded as a ‘spirit trap’ – perhaps dating from a 14th-century episode in which John Schorn, the Rector of North Marston in Buckinghamshire, was said to have trapped the Devil in a boot.

Shoes are so commonly found walled up in old buildings that the Museum at Northampton has an Index of Concealed Shoes. The item found by Summerville is probably a form of witch bottle, which also acted as a trap for negative influences, and which traditionally contained pins, urine, rusty nails, and unknown substances. It is possible the boots that she found are also a spirit trap.

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