The Tale of the Witch of Berkeley

By Rob Hardy

The time was just after the Norman Conquest and the story goes that there was a woman who lived in the town of Berkeley; a rich plump woman with many sons and daughters. She was well liked by the local in-crowd and delighted in holding feasts and revelries of great invention. She was famous for her gifts of augury; the reading of Man's fate by observing the flight and formation of birds, and also other signs or omens. She would have been called by the Romans a Soothsayer and respected, but a thousand years later she would have been called a Witch and feared. Stranger still, she had for a friend a pet Raven. You could imagine her with her medieval gown sweeping the floor and a bright-eyed Raven standing on her shoulder. What an impressive sight she must have been.

One evening as she sat at her table eating her supper the Raven spread its large wings and, leaving its tit bits, took to the air. It flew three times about the room, uttered a mournful cry and fell dead to the floor. Picking up the dead bird and holding it in her arms like a baby she sat down in her chair at the head of the table, pale and troubled, then exclaimed; "Now is my plough come to its last furrow! Now my days of rejoicing are past and my sorrows begin". She had barely finished speaking when a messenger burst through the door with the news that her eldest son and all his family were dead. Nursing her dead Raven she walked out into the night, returning later with mud on her hand. She took to her bed. Rumour had it that she buried her beloved Raven in the churchyard with her bare hands. More bad news quickly came and as a result she became ill and was told that there was little chance of recovery.

Fearing her impending death she sent for her remaining children; her youngest son who had joined a Monastery to become a Monk and her daughter who likewise had joined the church, becoming a Nun said to have been of great piety. From her deathbed she confessed to her children that her life had been a sham and all her wealth and popularity had been the result of selling her soul to the Devil. The death of the Raven had marked that the time had come for the reckoning and the Devil would come to collect her soul. The gifts that the devil bestowed upon her she tried to use for good, not wickedness, hoping to cheat the Devil and find her way to Heaven. Nevertheless she had made a study of the magic of the time so as to protect herself in death from the fiery pit. She then gave her children these strange instructions. After her death they must wrap her up in the skin of a stag and place her in a stone coffin bound by three iron chains, the last locking link to be cooled by holy water and blessed. Then the coffin was to be set upright in the centre of the church. Furthermore psalms were to be sung over her body for 40 days and 40 nights. If after three days her coffin had not been molested, she could be moved to the churchyard to be buried in the more conventional way.

After her death her orders were carried out to the letter. However things did not go as she wished. On the first night there was a fearful storm and the roof was hit by lightning, causing pieces of tiles to rain down on the people praying below, who panicked, thinking the roof might fall in, and ran out into the storm leaving the church doors open. A crowd of demons swarmed in and attacked the coffin that had been left unattended. Despite their efforts they only managed to break the first chain by daybreak. On the second night a similar thing happened. This time one of the candles set fire to some draperies causing a small fire that filled the church with thick smoke. Unable to breathe, the people left the coffin unattended and the demons reappeared and attacked the coffin with renewed vigour, resulting in the second chain being snapped. But the third and most powerful chain still held true, despite the efforts of the desperate demons (If high magic fail, iron and stone may still prevail).

On the third night the Devil, fearing he might yet be cheated of his prize, came in person, riding a black horse from which grew spikes, then riding around the church like a gale. The hoof beats shook the church to its foundations. The church doors splintered on their great hinges and the people present hid as best they could as the devil himself calmly walked into the church bringing with him the terrible fear of the dark, ready to devour their very existence. "I have come for the witch of Berkeley. Are you there my love? Follow me!" A voice answered from inside the coffin: "I cannot come my lord for I am bound". Then the Devil said "I will unbind you, to your great loss." With that, the devil tore the third chain off the coffin and with one furious kick smashed the stone coffin, then picked up the living corpse of the woman and strode out of the church stepping over the fallen doors. Dragging her to where his black horse stood waiting, The Devil sprang into the saddle throwing her across the beast's neck with such force that the spikes pierced her writhing body, then all three galloped into the night. It was said that her hideous screams and pleas for help were heard by many before they faded into silence. If you are abroad at night in Berkeley, beware of the ghostly apparition of a raven who will scream like a woman.

That is the end of the tale of the Witch of Berkeley. I hope you enjoyed it. To sum up; the story is unusual because of the use of the stag's skin, which clearly sounds to me like pagan ritual. Was she to be the quarry of the wild hunt? Was it her wish to be taken into the church or on the other hand was it the wishes of her Christian offspring? We will never know, but it's food for thought.

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