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

“In the likeness of a crab”- fairy shape shifters

paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_a_midsummer_nights_dream

Joseph Noel Paton, Puck and the fairies

Although the ability to shape-shift is often reckoned to be a standard fairy attribute, it is actually very rare amongst the fairies of Britain.  Part of the reason for its prominence in popular imaginings is that it has one very well-known practitioner.

Glamour & invisibility

We ought perhaps to start with some definition of terms.  We’re not talking here about the fairies’ power of invisibility.  This appears to be pretty much universal, for British fairies at least; they can all vanish at will.  Secondly, shape shifting should not be confused with the regular fairy use of ‘glamour’ whereby magic can conceal the real identity of supernatural beings.  A good example arises in the stories of midwives taken at night to grand mansions to attend rich ladies in their childbirth.  It’s only when the midwife accidentally touches some fairy ointment to her eye that her vision penetrates through the illusion to see that she’s really surrounded by misshapen elves in a cave.

Thirdly, by shape-shifting I’m not really concerned so much with the ability of spriggans to change their size.  An example of this comes from the Cornish story ‘Cherry of Zennor.’  Cherry is approached by a gentleman to work for him; they reach his home after a long and slightly mysterious journey, which appears to be a passage into fairyland.  All goes well until Cherry looks into a well where she sees many tiny fairies dancing- and her new master shrunk to the same size.  Fascinating as this is, in this posting I’m really only interested in a complete change of form.

Hobgoblins and sweet Puck

In 1584 in his horror novella Beware the cat, William Baldwin wrote what’s probably our first clear statement of the fairies’ shape-shifting habits:

“I have read that … the ayry spirits which wee call Demones, of which kinde are Incubus and Succubus, Robin Good Fellow the Fairy and Goblins, which the Miners call Telchines, could at their pleasure take upon them any other sortes.”

Robin Goodfellow is our particular interest here.  Also called Puck, this hobgoblin is the consummate master of transformation, as immortalised in Midsummer night’s dream, Act II, scene 1 in which Puck boasts to a fairy about his pranks:

“When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,/ Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:/ And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,/ In the very likeness of a roasted crab;/ And when she drinks, against her lips I bob/ And on her withered dewlap pour the ale./ The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,/ Sometimes for three foot stool mistaketh me;/ Then slip I from her bum, down topples she…”

All Shakespeare does here is give immortal form to the traditional character of Puck.  Other texts of about the same time give other examples of his tricks- these are The life of Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests (1628) and a poem called The pranks of Puck that has been attributed to Ben Jonson. In these works Robin is endowed with his shape-shifting power by his fairy father Oberon, who tells him:

“Thou hast the power to change thy shape/ To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape./ Transformed thus, by any meanes,/ See none thou harm’st but knaves and queanes.”

In the course of the stories Puck dispenses rough justice and has simple slapstick fun in a huge variety of forms- for example:

  • livestock such as a horse, a dog and an ox,
  • wild animals including a fox, a hare, a bear and a frog;
  • birds, including a crow, an owl and a raven;
  • various spirits including a will of the wisp and a ghost; and,
  • various people, including a cripple, a soldier, a young maid and fiddler.

Fairies as birds

There are two brief mentions of British fays who can transform to birds.  The hyter sprite, an obscure fairy of East Anglia, can also appear in the shape of a sandmartin and, from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor we learn that pixy abductee Grace Hutchens is more reconciled to her captivity by the fact that she can transform into a small bird and fly near to her former lover, Mr Noy.  It’s perhaps also worth observing that these fairies’ wings are acquired by transformation, here, as they evidently don’t normally possess them…

There’s a catch to the Cornish pixies’ ability to transform, though.  They can only change into birds and it seems each transformation shrinks the sprite so that eventually they dwindle away to virtually nothing.

meeting the kelpie by camelid

Meeting the kelpie by Camelid on DeviantArt

Kelpies

Evidently Puck can become whatever he likes.  Most other fairies are strictly limited in what they can become.  The Scottish kelpie/ each uisge may appear either in male or horse form.  In the former guise, he is a handsome young man who seeks to seduce young women and lure them to their doom; the lucky ones spot the telltale signs of his real nature- the sand or water weed caught in his hair, and make their escape.   The others are carried off into a loch or the sea and drowned.

Conclusion and further reading

To finish, we can see how rare the power to change form is.  In England it’s really just limited to Puck, although we have to note the interesting fact that a couple of the South Western fairies do have some special powers.

Elsewhere I’ve posted about fairies’ physical forms and the solidity and reality of fays.  I discuss fairy magic generally in chapter 10 of my British fairies, 2017.

Fern seed and invisibility

faerie spell Alan Lee

‘Faerie spell’, by Alan Lee

“We have the receipt of fern seed: we walk invisible”

(Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 2, scene 1)

It is widely believed that the seed of ferns has magical powers.  On the continent it is used to disclose treasure; in Britain it brings love or conjures invisibility, as indicated by the line from Henry IV above.

Magical properties

Samuel Bamford, witness of the Peterloo massacre, records a Lancashire tradition that the fern seed was used to obtain the heart of a loved one and he tells the tale of an attempt to gather some in a highly melodramatic manner (Passages in the life of a radical, cc.20-22- see below).  In Michael Drayton’s epic poem Nimphidia we find the fays, like mortals, using fern seed to win a loved one’s affections.  We have discussed fairy glamour in previous posts, so it is of great interest that fern seed is also said to confer invisibility upon the possessor and was used for this property by both the fairies and by mortals; like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson referred to this usage in his play The New Inn- “I had/ No medicine to go invisible/ No fern seed in my pocket.” (New Inn, Act 1, scene 6).  Both playwrights were confident that their audiences would understand the reference.

Supernatural use of ferns is found from time to time in fairy literature.  In one version of the Cornish story of Cherry of Zennor, the young heroine is depicted pausing at a cross roads, uncertain which way to head.  She idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which is to conjure up a fairy gentlemen who becomes her employer and her suitor (see Frances Olcott, The book of elves and fairies, 1918, c.VIII). The same book includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt.  The girl is sent on an errand to her grandmother’s, but is warned that it is Midsummer Day “when all the fairy people/ From elf-land come away.”  It’s a dangerous time of year, then, and she must take care not to offend the fairies, for example she should not “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.”

Collection ritual

To add to the mystery of the process, the seed could only be seen and gathered on Midsummer’s Eve when it was shed from the plants’ fronds.  William Browne in Britannia’s pastorals refered to the “wondrous one-night seeding ferne.”  This night is also the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist, and it was said that the fern seed fell at the precise moment of his birth.

The process of collection and the fairy link are described more fully by Thomas Jackson in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, pp.178-9:

“It was my happe since I undertook the Ministrie to question an ignorant soule… what he saw or heard when he watch’t the falling of the Ferne-seed at an unseasonable and suspitious houre.  Why (quoth he) … doe you think that the devil hath ought to do with that good seed? No: it is in the keeping of the King of Fayries and he, I know, will do me no harm: yet he had utterly forgotten this King’s name until I remembered it unto him out of my reading of Huon of Bordeaux.” (i.e. Oberon)

The perils of collecting

Given the strong supernatural associations, it is not surprising that collecting the fees was accompanied by some measure of risk, as told by Richard Bovet in Pandaemonium, p.217:

“Much discourse about the gathering of Fern-seed (which is looked upon as a Magical herb) on the night of Midsummer’s Eve, and I remember I was told of one that went to gather it, and the Spirits whistlit by his ears like bullets and sometimes struck his Hat or other parts of his Body. In fine: though that he had gotten a quantity of it, and secured it in papers and a Box besides, when he came home he found it all empty.  But probably this appointing of times and hours is the Devil’s institution.”

Great precautions were taken to protect the collector with charms and spells (see Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Borders, II p.27).  Samuel Bamford’s account describes the kind of ritual and incantations that had to accompany the attempt to gather the seed and the ghastly retribution that might befall the seeker who erred in their supplications or who was deemed unsuitable by the spirits.  The fern was to be found in Boggart, or Fairy, Clough (gorge) and the collectors went there bearing items including an earthen ware dish, a pewter platter and a skull lined with moss and clay and with a tress of the hair of the loved one attached.  Various forms of words were recited whilst the seed was shaken onto the plates with a hazel rod.

The magical powers of fern seen were recalled even into the modern era, as witnessed by the poem The spell by Madison Julius Cawein, in which the fairy connection and the power to win a loved one are both invoked:

“St John hath told me what to do

To search and find the ferns that grow

The fern seed that the faeries know;

Then sprinkle fern seed in my shoe,

And haunt the steps of you, my dear,

And haunt the steps of you.”

In conclusion, herbal means to acquire fairy powers are commonly found and usually employ ingredients from plants commonly available.  The only practical issue seems to be that collecting sufficient to produce a usable amount is likely to be extremely time consuming and may demand a very large amount of luck.  In other words, the offer of fairy glamour is held out to us but, rather like a mirage, it is forever retreating before us.

Further reading

Lots of other postings on this blog examine spells and other rituals to see and conjure fairies, to attract fairies and to repel them.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

“And now the charm’s wound up…”: some spells for elvish enchantment

magic book

This posting offers a small selection of practical fae-related magic for readers.  I have discussed before fairy magic and the composition of the ointment applied to fairy babes.  The major drawback to the recipe I suggested was that it is composed of four leaf clover; finding enough of these to produce a quantity sufficient to anoint even an infant is likely to be difficult. Here are some other, perhaps more practical, spells and potions.

Elias Ashmole’s manuscript (MS1406) which is dated around 1600 has a recipe for an unguent for eyes for use when you wish to summon fairies or when your vision of them is not perfect.

“Take one pint of salad oil and put it into a glass vial, but first wash [mix?] it with rose water and marigold water (the flowers to be gathered towards the east).  Wash it till the oil comes white, then put it into the glass vial and then put into it the buds of hollyhock and young hazel, the flowers of marigold and the tops or flowers of wild thyme.  The thyme must be gathered near the side of a hill which fairies frequent. Add, too, some grass picked from a fairy throne found there.  All these put into the oil in the glass and set it to dissolve three days in the sun, and then keep it to thy use.” (Halliwell-Phillips Fairy mythology p.62.)

Most of these ingredients are readily and cheaply available, but there are two catches:

  • You need to be sure that the knoll where you pick your thyme is a favourite haunt of the fairy folk. Sites that are traditionally such spots are a safe bet, naturally, otherwise your own experience and investigation may be required.
  • I confess that I don’t know what a fairy throne is (yet). I assume it is a place on the hill which appears to be a seat where the fairy queen may sit during revels.  Poetry describes such occasions- for example William Browne in Britannia’s pastorals Book I song 2 mentions “A hillock rise, where oft the fairy queen/ At twilight sat, and did command her elves…”  If your confirmed fairy knoll has such a feature too, you’re definitely in business.

Halliwell-Phillips in Fairy mythology of a Midsummer night’s dream also gives a selection of spells from a manuscript in his possession (p.63).  Here is a charm for invisibility which appears very simple:

“Take water and power it on an anthill and immediately look after it and you shall find a stone of divers colours sent from the fairy.  This bear in your right hand and you shall go invisible.”

Another charm is to a summon a fairy, a Latin and English invocation much like that for Oberon described below.  There is a similar spell for expelling fairies from a place where buried treasure is found.  These depend upon magical words combined, most likely with the proper personal preparations (bodily and spiritual purification) and the creation of a chalk circle.  Ashmole’s manuscript has similar very lengthy summoning charms (see Halliwell-Phillips p.62-3).

Faustus-gerahmt

A ‘magical miscellany’ contained manuscript in the Bodleian library in Oxford dated to the early seventeenth century [Bod.MS e Mus 173 f.72 V-R] has a similar spell to conjure Oberon into a crystal seeing stone, using Catholic prayers in Latin.  It also has a spell to conjure other fairies employing the ‘rime’ found on a bowl of water which has been left out overnight for the fairies to bathe in (once a common practice, especially in Wales).  I have not provided this, in part because I have not seen the manuscript myself and because it presupposes a key ingredient which- rather like four leaf clover- is in the first place very hard to acquire.  First get your fairies to come and bathe themselves and their children; then hope that it’s a frosty night and the bowl freezes over.

sigillum-dei-ameth

Further reading

There are other posts examining spell books and other charms such as their magic hand gestures that might be employed with our Good Neighbours.  Sometimes, though, nothing more is needed than to be in contact with a fairy.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.