The Witchfinder and his weird wooden box – A Kentish tale of the 1600’s.

10 March 2017 | Haunted items, Your True Encounters

The sheer horror of this Kentish story forbids me to actually name the quiet village where the following took place, in around about the year 1620.
However, If I was to treat this as a solveable clue for the curious, and intellectual researcher into the paranormal, I would describe the village as having a  traditional English woman’s name followed by her boiled loin of pork. That is the only clue, a map may suffice to locate the actual place, which itself is close to a prominent castle.
About the late 1500’s and into the 1620’s a zealot lived in this small community. His wanton need for control of the people of the village led him to declare himself the official witchfinder for the local area, and like all bullies both before and since, he ruthlessly exploited the people’s fears of the unknown and evil, and of him. The local folk bought his favour with gifts of produce and money and he grew rich from his way of working one family against another in order to increase his wealth. As with the pious in general, his ideas and belief were considered by him to be fact, and anything or anyone who questioned them was said to be working against him, and therefore they were a devils disciple.
As he grew rich and more powerful, the people of the village became poor and submerged by his presence and will. If one did not agree, or could not give payment, those persons would find troubles piled upon them, the worst of which was a charge of witchcraft and all this implied.
The witchfinder would always find the ‘proof’ of witchcraft, maybe a cat had followed the person, or a frog had been found crucified with twigs, a baby cried in a strange language or a single beam of sunlight had lit up his victims house, while others were in the shade.
As there was no argument allowed, the self appointed witchfinder always had his way, and the people of the village and the other hamlets around always did his will.
A young woman moved into another village about ten miles away, she was poor as her husband had died, leaving her with two small children. She was  told to prepare gifts for the zealot when he visited to collect his tythe, but having very little to feed herself and her children, she refused to comply, staying away in her small hovel home close to the river at Chilham, where she kept a goat for milk. She had the unfortunate condition of having a large black mole that had grown on her forehead since childhood. It was high between her eyes and gave her the appearance of being tri-optic, like having a third eye just visible under her fringe of hair.
The witchfinder, on hearing that the girl would not provide the gift he required, asked more about her and was told of her strange appearance. Of course! A witch, he decided, and took it upon himself to rid the village of her, to make an example to the others in the village and round about. Her refusal to give some tythes to him sealed her fate.
He devised a plan, as being a bully, he did not want to have personal involvement in the crime he was to commit against the strong willed and quite innocent young woman. If no human hand was involved in her actual chastisement, he decided, then nobody could be accused of doing her harm. With the help of the village coffin maker and also a local blacksmith, he devised a strange and weird box which he proclaimed would be controlled by a higher judge.
The box was sturdily constructed from holy alderwood by the coffin maker, and the blacksmith contributed some curious iron work controlled by powerful springs.  The poor young woman was called to trial by the witchfinder, and so was instantly found guilty. However, to prove her final guilt or innocence to the folk of Chilham, a practical trial was arranged.
The trial concerned the evil box.
Drilled into the face of the box were two tiny holes, spaced for human eyes to focus through. The trial was simple, the box would be placed upon the woman’s head, and looking through the tiny holes she would be asked to identify a noted chapter of the best known book in the village. The village people only had one book, as the villagers were generally illiterate workers, only the educated could read and write, the book was kept in the castle chapel.
If she could identify the text, the accused would be dismissed as innocent. Otherwise, she would be cast out of the villages around and left to forage in the forests for food, the witchfinder told the people. Asked to take the test to prove her innocence, the woman agreed. She had been taught by nuns and knew how to read, not only in English but in Latin too, she would pass the test.
To keep her still while the box was fitted, her hands were tied to a rowan tree, which grew near the village square, I am told that the tree is still there, but I have never seen it myself although others claim that they have.
The box was carefully hung in front of her face, and the great book was placed upon an eagle lectern, borrowed from the castle chapel. She was asked to enter the box and identify the text at her will, and so, giving a sigh and looking with a smile at her two young children, she stooped and pushed her head upwards into the wooden box to gain her freedom.
A terribly loud click was heard by all, followed by muffled but piercing screams as fresh blood started to trickle out of the box, running down and soaking into the neck of the woman’s shift. Her body shook so violently that leaves dropped from the tree that she was tied to, and birds flew squawking away in all directions.
‘The will is done, the witch will see no more into the hearts of men’ intoned the zealous witchfinder, ‘she will be led by the nose to her place of death, let this be a warning to all’.
A tall man is reported to have been standing at the back of the crowd as the test was made. A stranger to the village, he turned and left on foot, as the box was lifted from the head of the screaming victim, her eyes now struck out and bleeding profusely as she collapsed in pain. Records state that “a clype of iron was then mayed fasted to her nose”, and when she recovered from her faint she was led away to the castle dungeon by a rope tied to the clip, as one would lead an ox, she was never seen alive again.
Within a month the witchfinder himself was dead, his head crushed by a large and ancient stone of great weight. How this happened is not known, but the stone can still be seen to this day in his home village. It would likely need five or ten strong men to lift it!
About this time too, the tall stranger returned and took the two young children under his care, he became rich working as a draper in Canterbury, and employed many folk from the village of Chilham during the winter months, dyeing and cutting cloth for his shop close to the Cathedral. The children too grew up to be worthy citizens of the town, the boy first as a young clerk and later an important lawyer, the girl as a teacher of girls at the school, and later as a trainer of wet nurses and midwifes for the town.
The box itself was retained at the castle for many years as a strange curiosity. Inside and unseen was a mechanism which worked much like a mouse trap, releasing instantly as the head was fully inserted to look out of the holes, driving a sprung iron plate which shot two heavy bodkins into the eyes of the victim.
A victim who thought that she would be freed on reading the chosen text.
It is believed that the box was purchased at a village auction in the nineteenth century and transferred to a private museum in Kent, where it was displayed along with an eclectic variety of strange objects from around the world. It is not known if it still exists, although I am told that the museum still does, within the confines of a private estate.
Chilham is to this day a tiny but beautiful village, built around a market square with the castle on one side and the church on the other. Tourists abound, enjoying tea and cakes, within a few yards of where the terrible torture took place. The hill from the square drops down to the meadow where once a hovel gave shelter to a woman and her children, by the slow meandering river. A woman with an unfortunate mole, that sealed her fate and took her life.
The witchfinder’s own village never prospered, it remained a tiny hamlet on the way to London, close to the pilgrims way. Today it is being quickly engulfed by hundreds of new houses, the village failing more now, as a major road bypasses it. Few travelers stop, there is little of interest there. Within a few years it will become like the many forgotten villages of London, just an area name on a map crammed with streets, its heart pulled out and its ancient memories faded by the passing of time and demise of those who could remember the old stories.
However, it will remain haunted.
Haunted by the well known spectre of a woman, stumbling blindly as she feels her way along the walls of the old village houses in the pitch of night, searching to find the witchfinder and shrieking for mercy for her children, as her sightless eye sockets, still running with blood, stare at anyone unfortunate enough to meet her, on their own journey home to the pleasant warmth of family life.
Copyright – Ken DaSilva-Hill  2017
All intellectual rights retained
Reproduction only with specific permission.

© 2024, G. Michael Vasey & My Haunted Life (Unless indicated otherwise by author’s own copyright above). All rights reserved.

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