Ann Jeffries and the Pobel Vean

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Ann Jeffries was the daughter of a poor labouring man, who lived in the parish of St Teath in North Cornwall, between Wadebridge and Tintagel. She was born in 1626, and is supposed to have died in 1698.  The first written references to Ann appeared in March 1647, very soon after her faery experiences in 1645, and she was still alive in 1696 when Moses Pitt wrote about her (see later).

Our main account of her life is found in Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (pages 127-9) from which the following passages are adapted.  

When she was nineteen years old, Ann, who was said to be a remarkably sharp and clever girl, went to live as a servant with the Pitt family. She was said to have been unusually bold and would do things which even boys feared to attempt. In those days everyone in Cornwall believed in fairies (the little folk or pobel vean in Cornish) and everybody feared them. They were the constant subject of gossip and rumour and this talk particularly captured Ann’s imagination and set her longing anxiously to meet with some of them. As a result, she was often out and about after sunset, turning up the fern leaves and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time this charm:

“Fairy fair and fairy bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.”

Equally, she never allowed a moonlit night to pass without going down into the nearby valley and, walking beside the stream, she would sing another charm:

“Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where’s my fairy dear?”

The fairies spent a long time testing the poor girl; for, as they told her afterwards, they heard her perfectly well and never lost sight of her; but there they would be, looking on when she was seeking them, and they would run from frond to frond of the ferns, always just ahead of her when she was turning them up its her anxious search.  [NB- ferns are closely associated with faeries and with invisibility.]

One day Ann, having finished her morning’s work, was sitting knitting in the arbour in her master’s garden, when she fancied she heard some one moving aside the branches, as though endeavouring to look in upon her; and she thought it must be her sweetheart, so she resolved to take no notice. Ann went on steadily with her work and no sound was heard but the regular clicking of her knitting-needles. Presently she heard a suppressed laugh, and then again a rustle amidst the branches. The back of the arbour was towards the lane, and to enter the garden it was necessary to walk down the lane to the gate, which was, however, not many yards off.

At last Ann began to feel vexed that the intruder did not show himself, and she said peevishly, half out loud —

“You may stay there till the kueney (or cuney: moss, or mildew) grows on the gate, ere I’ll come to ‘ee.”

There was immediately peculiarly ringing and very musical laughter. Ann knew this wasn’t her lover’s laugh, and she felt afraid. Nonetheless, it was bright day, and she assured herself that no one would do her any mischief, as she knew herself to be a general favourite in the parish. Presently Ann felt sure that she’d heard the garden gate carefully opened and closed, so she waited anxiously. In a few moments she saw, standing at the entrance to the arbour, six little men, all clothed in green. They were beautiful little figures, and had very charming faces, and such bright eyes. The grandest of these visitors, who wore a red feather in his cap, advanced in front the others, and, making a most polite bow to Ann, addressed her familiarly in the kindest words. [Needless to observe, perhaps, the red and green clothes are very typical fairy garb.]

This gentleman looked so sweetly on Ann that she was charmed beyond measure, and she put down her hand as if shake hands with him, but instead he jumped into her palm and she lifted him into her lap. He then, without any more ado, he clambered upon her bosom and neck, and began kissing her. Ann never felt so delighted in her life as while this one little gentleman was playing with her; but presently he called his companion and they all clambered up by her dress as best they could, and kissed her neck, her lips, and her eyes. One of them ran his fingers over her eyes, and she felt as if they had been pricked with a pin. Suddenly Ann became blind, and she felt herself whirled through the air at a great rate. By and by, one of her little companions said something which sounded like “Tear away,” and Ann had her sight at once restored.

Ann found that she was in one of the most beautiful places- temples and palaces of gold and silver; trees laden with fruits and flowers; lakes full of gold and silver fish and the air full of birds of the sweetest song, and the more brilliant colours. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were walking about; hundreds more were idling in the most luxurious bowers, the fragrance of the flowers oppressing them with sense of delicious repose. Hundreds were also dancing or engaged in games of various kinds. Ann was, however, surprised to find that these happy people were no longer the small people she’d previously seen. There was now no more than the difference usually seen in a crowd, between their height and her own. Ann found herself arrayed in the most highly-decorated clothes. So grand, indeed, did she appear, that she doubted her identity.

[Ann’s fairyland is very similar to several others that I have described on the blog.  The cottage and garden where Cherry of Zennor lives bears some similarities, but Ann’s palatial surroundings are much closer to some of the medieval descriptions I’ve discussed.]

Ann was constantly attended by her six friends; but the finest gentleman, who had been the first to address her, continued her as her favourite, at which the others appeared to be very jealous. Eventually Ann and her favourite contrived to separate themselves, and they retired into some most lovely gardens, where they were hidden by the luxuriance of the flowers. They passed their time lovingly, and Ann wished this could continue forever. However, just when they were happiest, there was a great noise, and the five other fairies appeared at the head of a great crowd, all in a violent rage. Her lover drew his sword to defend her, but this was soon beaten down, and he lay wounded at her feet. Then the fairy who had blinded her again placed his hands upon her eyes, and all was dark. She heard strange noises, and felt herself whirled about and about, and as if a thousand flies were buzzing around her.

At length her eyes were opened, and Ann found herself on the ground in the arbour where she had been sitting in the morning, and many anxious faces were around her, all conceiving that she was recovering from a fit.  As a result of her faery experience, Ann found that she was endowed with clairvoyance and healing powers.  The first person she cured was her mistress, but her fame soon circulated within Cornwall and beyond.  

Ann had been given ointment by the fairies to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and she was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will (perhaps the same ointment).  When she was later arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars. She denied this, saying rather that they had quoted holy scripture to her.  Ann never returned to Faery, but the Little Folk stayed near her, at least for the next few years.

We also have a first-hand account of some aspects of Ann’s story recounted by the son of the family for whom she worked as servant.  This was published in the form of a letter from Moses Pitt to the Right Reverend Father in God, Dr. Edward Fowler, Lord Bishop of Gloucester:

MOSES PITT’S LETTER RESPECTING ANNE JEFFERIES.

“An account of Anne Jefferies, now living in the county of Cornwall, who was fed for six months by a small sort of airy people, called fairies; and of the strange and wonderful cures she performed with salves and medicines she received from them, for which she never took one penny of her patients.”

Anne Jefferies, who was afterwards married to a farm labourer William Warren, was born in the parish of St Teath in December 1626, “and she is still living, 1696, being now in the 70th year of her age.” From the published narrative, we learn that Mr Humphrey Martin was asked by Moses Pitt to visit and examine Anne in 1693. Mr Martin writes, “As for Anne Jefferies, I have been with her the greater part of one day, and did read to her all that you wrote to me; but she would not own anything of it, as concerning the fairies, neither of any of the cures that she did. She answered, that if her own father were now alive, she would not discover to him those things which did happen then to her. I asked her the reason why she would not do it; she replied, that if she should discover it to you, that you would make books or ballads of it; and she said, that she would not have her name spread about the country in books or ballads of such things, if she might have five hundred pounds for it.” [As well as fear for her own reputation, you wonder if there was some fear of disclosing faery secrets as well.]

Mr Pitt’s correspondent went on to say that Anne was so frightened by the visitors she had in the arbour “that she fell into a kind of convulsion fit. But when they found her in this condition they took her into the house and put her to bed, and took great care of her. As soon as she recovered out of her fit, she cried out, ‘They are just gone out of the window- they are just gone out of the window. Do you not see them?'” Anne recovered, and “as soon as she recovered a little strength, she constantly went to church…  She took mighty delight in devotion, and in hearing the Word of God read and preached, although she herself could not read.”

Ann eventually told some portions of her story and cured numerous diseases amongst the people, by means of the powers she had derived from the fairy world. “People of all distempers, sicknesses, sores, and ages, came not only so far off as the Land’s End, but also from London, and were cured by her. She took no moneys of them, nor any reward that ever I knew or heard of, yet had she moneys at all times sufficient to supply her wants [This implies that she is receiving gifts of coins from the faeries].  She neither made nor bought any medicines or salves that ever I saw or heard of, yet wanted them not as she had occasion. She forsook eating our victuals, and was fed by these fairies from that harvest time to the next Christmas day; upon which day she came to our table and said, because it was that day, she would eat some roast beef with us, the which she did- I myself being then at the table.”

The fairies constantly attended upon Ann and they appear to have vied with each other to win her favour. They fed her, as we have been already told and the writer says that on one occasion site she “gave me a piece of her bread, which I did eat, and I think it was the most delicious bread that ever I did eat, either before or since.” Ann could render herself invisible, apparently at will. The fairies would come and dance with her in the orchard. She had a silver cup, given to her by the fairies, which she in turn gave to a local girl called Mary Martyn when she was about four years of age.

At last, “one John Tregeagle, Esq., who was steward to John Earl of Radnor, being a justice of peace in Cornwall, sent his warrant for Anne, and sent her to Bodmin jail, and there kept her a long time.”  Her offence was, apparently, not so much her claims of faery acquaintance (although that was certainly enough to get you into trouble in those days- and, in Scotland, to get you burnt at the stake).  More of a problem for Ann, however, was the fact that she was a staunch Church of England Royalist during the Civil War.  As we have seen, she was very devout, but she insisted on High Church services, which didn’t go down well with the increasingly powerful Puritans.  Possibly even worse than that was the fact that her prophecies for the future all foretold the victory of the King and the triumph of the bishops.  

The fairies had previously given Ann a warning that she would be apprehended.  When they did this, “she asked them if she should hide herself. They answered no; she should fear nothing, but go with the constable. So she went with the constable to the justice, and he sent her to Bodmin jail, and ordered the prison keeper that she should be kept without victuals, and she was so kept, and yet she lived, and that without complaining. But poor Ann lay in jail for a considerable time after; and also Justice Tregeagle, who was her great prosecutor, kept her in his house some time as a prisoner, and that without victuals.”  Apparently, after a year or so in Bodmin’s jail, she was released to a sort of house arrest in the home of the Mayor of Bodmin.  She held out, though, and eventually had to be released without charge, after which she took up a position with Moses Pitt’s widowed aunt in Padstow.

In the course of this account, we have a curious example of the fairies quoting Scripture; I’m not aware of another instance of this. On one occasion Ann, when seated with the family, was called three times. “Of all these three calls of the fairies, none heard them but Ann. After she had been in her chamber some time, she came to us again, with a Bible in her hand, and told us that when she came to the fairies, they said to her, ‘What ! has there been some magistrates and ministers with you, and dissuaded you from coming anymore to us, saying, we are evil spirits, and that it was all a delusion of the devil? Pray, desire them to read that place of Scripture, in the First Epistle of St. John, chap. iv. ver. I, ‘Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God;’ and this place of Scripture was turned down so in the said Bible. I told your lordship before, Anne could not read.”

Finally:

“And now, my lord, if your lordship expects that I should give you an account when, and upon what occasion, these fairies forsook our Anne, I must tell your lordship I am ignorant of that. She herself can best tell, if she would be prevailed upon to do so; and the history of it, and the rest of the passages of her life, would be very acceptable and useful to the most curious and inquisitive part of mankind.” (from An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall, C. S. Gilbert 1817).

Cornwall's Bodmin Jail plans £12.5m Dark Walk attraction
The entrance to Bodmin jail

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