Aside from the infamous Pendle Witches who were put on trial in 1612 and 1634, there were other unfortunate victims maligned and persecuted throughout Lancashire. Many of their names were never recorded. Some were accused and later released – some went to court and were found Not Guilty – and some were undoubtedly dealt with by the locals in their own ways.
In these unenlightened times it was common for women denounced as witches, shrews, and gossips to be locked inside a scold’s bridle – a metal brank that caged the head and prevented eating or speech.
Public floggings and placement in the stocks were also regular market-day events. And tales of dunking suspected witches in near-by ponds and rivers to see if they were guilty (and floated) or innocent (and drowned) are part of local folklore. So it is quite surprising that one other name still fills the local schoolchildren with terror – Meg Shelton, The Fylde Hag.
Born Margery Hilton, Meg (or Mag) Shelton is said to have lived at various times in Cuckoo Hall near Wesham, Singleton, Catforth, and Woodplumpton. She was a poor beggar woman who survived mainly on a haggis made from boiled grouts and herbs. Meg is infamous for her shape-shifting skills, and apparently could turn into a variety of animals and all sorts of inanimate objects at will. One tale records her creeping into a barnyard at night to steal corn. When the farmer ran out after her there was no one in sight, though he did notice an extra sack of corn. So taking his pitchfork he prodded each bag, finally uncovering Meg’s disguise when she squealed and reappeared nursing a bleeding arm! Another of her injuries was explained by an accident trying to outrun a black dog when she was disguised as a hare. The dog nipped the hare’s hind leg – and Meg was said to walk with a limp thereafter. Meg was often seen riding her broomstick at night. She could turn milk sour, lame cattle, and curse hogs.
But the reason folk remember the Fylde Hag today is because of the strange events surrounding her death. She was killed in 1705, crushed between a barrel and the wall of her cottage. She was buried on May 2nd, at night, by torchlight, in the grounds of St. Anne’s Church in Woodplumpton. The following morning her hand had clawed its way to the surface and had to be reburied. The same thing happened again and everyone was naturally terrified. A priest came and performed an exorcism. Then someone suggested they rebury her upside down so she would dig her way to Hell, instead of to the surface. So they planted her head-first in a narrow trough, and then put a huge granite boulder on top to keep her in place.
In hindsight it seems odd that a known witch would be put to rest on consecrated ground. Usually they were buried at a crossroad with no signposts so they could not find their way home. Or their bodies were burned. And it is entirely possible that the granite stone in St. Anne’s graveyard is a harmless relic carried down by the ice age. But superstition is often stronger than common sense – and we all like to believe in a little magic.
Over the centuries, the legend of Meg Shelton has survived and flourished. I grew up being told that if you walked three times round her grave chanting, I don’t believe in witches, then that hand would rise up from the grave and grab your ankle. But I cannot say if that actually happens or not as I never dared try!
Meg Shelton’s Grave: Photo by Brian Young
Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside,2007)