The story of the witch that supposedly haunts Somerset’s Ham Hill is well known locally, but, as I have now discovered, everyone I’ve heard it from has got it completely wrong. But the real story is actually even more fascinating.
Alastair Swinnerton is the author of ‘The Multiverse of Max Tovey’, a Young Adult novel set among the myths and legends of England’s South West.
This story was originally recorded by G F Munford, the editor of the Western Gazette in the early 20th century, in his 1922 book ‘Ghosts and Legends of South Somerset’. I have yet to find it recorded anywhere else. If you know better, do please let me know! I have, however, heard many talk of the witch that once lived in a cave at Ham Hill, as it’s now known, but I suspect that may be a confusion with the legend of Nancy Camel, a witch that supposedly lived in a cave in Ham Wood, near Shepton Mallet in the early 18th century. But this story really needs retelling, not the least because it’s possible an old map may just help to back up Munford’s story.
Munford says this: “On the wildest and most exposed part of the Hill, in the winter of 1780, there stood a solitary hut, inhabited by a quaint middle-aged woman, known as Rebecca of the Hill.” Now, it just so happens that in 1776, a cartographer called William Simpson made a map of Stoke sub Hamdon, including part of Ham Hill. And there, on his map, on the most exposed part of the hill, is a building. Now I have to work out how to put images into WordPress – give me a minute…
Right, this is the 1776 map with a faded overlay from Google Maps. See the building? Yes, of course it could be coincidence that it is actually in the most exposed part of Ham Hill, where Munford says Rebecca lived, but I’m a great believer in folk memory.
Many locals believe the hill to be haunted by all manner of ghosts, from Roman soldiers onwards, and given how many thousands of people have died here over the millennia, not the least when the Romans siezed the hill fort from the Celtic British inhabitants in AD45, it’s not surprising. But the abiding myth is of the ghostly witch roaming the hills.
Munford’s book is now out of copyright, although still available on Amazon. I’m not sure who’s selling it – it says Folk Press Ltd, but I don’t think they’ve been around since before the war. Again, if anyone knows who owns these books, do please let me know. Anyway, if you’re interested in these kind of things, do download it – it’s only £1.50. It’s a collection of six stories, all equally fascinating. However, this following is the story of the Witch of Hamdon Hill. My apologies if someone still actually owns the copyright – let me know and I’ll either take this down, or insert acknowledgements. I have pasted it with its original formatting.
THE WITCH OF HAMDON HILL
A Romance of the Olden Time
George F Munford, 1922
There was a time in the history of our little island when the mists of superstition were even more impenetrable than they are now. No longer ago than the Long Parliament, four thousand people were put to torturous death for the crime of being “in league with the devil,” and, although the Act of Parliament against witchcraft has been repealed, even now the belief in the supernatural power of “wise men and women” is far from being extinct, and, however “enlightenment” endeavours to smother it, the old dread of witches will doubtless long linger among the rural population.
Were it not that the succeeding generations have rendered the story obscure and almost legendary, it would not be necessary to offer an apology for the relation of the following events enacted a century and a-half ago. It was not in the reign of the glorious Caliph Haroun Alraschid when the incidents occurred, but in the age of that illustrious monarch George II – when superstitions of all kinds were greedily devoured, and when the ravings of a Bedlamite predicting a coming scourge would shake London to its centre.
The proud old Hamdon Hill – the grandest piece of nature’s masonry [in the West of England] – has been the silent witness of many tragic events, some of which he has kept entirely to himself. Others, which form a nucleus from which can be gathered the history of the neighbourhood, he has generously revealed to us in an unmistakable manner. But no physical traces are left of what is about to be related, for the Hill played no part beyond being the haunt of one of the principal characters in my story.
On the wildest and most exposed part of the Hill, in the winter of 1780, there stood a solitary hut, inhabited by a quaint middle-aged woman, known as Rebecca of the Hill. As a rule, she was fond of retirement, and in her manners and dress was very eccentric. It was said that she had often been seen to run along the summit of the Hill making wild gestures with out-stretched hands, and, at the same time, muttering incantations totally unintelligible to those who happened to hear them. She always wore a long dark cloak over her shoulders – would never permit her head to wear a covering of any sort – and allowed her long raven-black hair to hang loosely around her neck. This mysterious conduct, and nobody knowing whence she came, was conclusive evidence of her supernatural powers. She was not regarded as a common enchantress. There was something so superior in her bearing, her language was so free from coarseness, her voice was so rich and musical, that she was stamped as one of no mean birth, and the mystery of her origin thereby was deepened.
In one of the oldest of the farmhouses on the Chiselborough side of the Hill lived Farmer Greenwood, a native of the neighbourhood. He was a good-natured, hospitable man, and was generally beloved for his acts of kindness. He had no children of his own, but he and his wife prided themselves in a boy whom they had adopted in infancy. It occurred thus. One afternoon, as Mr. Greenwood was going through his farm, he found, underneath a hedge, an infant, apparently not more than a month or five weeks old. It was wrapped in swaddling, and was crying with cold and want as if its little heart would break. Sympathy induced the farmer to take the child home to his wife, who found around its neck a piece of paper, upon which was written, in a girl’s handwriting: “Call him Maurice, for its unhappy mother’s sake.” As the boy grew older the kind-hearted farmer and his wife became so fond of him that they regarded him as their own, and had him christened “Maurice Greenwood.” He grew to a fine stalwart young man, but so anxious were his benefactors to conceal from him his early history that he was twenty-two years old before he became aware that Mr. and Mrs. Greenwood were not his real father and mother. It is here necessary to introduce some more characters who are to take part in this little history. It is not at all strange that at the age of twenty-three Maurice should have fallen in love, especially not strange to those who knew Fanny, the cheerful, comely daughter of Thomas Selwin, a farmer at Hinton St. George, about three miles from Greenwood’s house. Somehow or other old Selwin was so much prejudiced against Maurice that he did all he could to stifle the mutual feeling which had sprung up between them. But Fanny heeded not her father’s prejudices, and enjoyed many stolen interviews with her lover.
Hinton Park, with its gigantic trees and springy, mossy turf, was generally chosen as the place of meeting, and it was at one of these interviews that Maurice first became aware that his origin was a mystery to others as well as to himself. There -was a coolness in Fanny’s greeting which he had never noticed before, and, thinking that something was wrong, he asked her the cause.
The reply was in a severe tone – so strange in Fanny’s voice – “I thought you would wonder what ails me. But I have been told something since you last saw me which has made me sad. You might have told me that your name was not Maurice Greenwood. Until today I did not think that your nature was capable of deceit.” Tears of grief filled her eyes, for, whatever his name, she loved him with all her heart.
Instead of pleading guilty to the charge, as she fully expected, he laughed aloud and treated it as a jest. “You are speaking strangely! My name not Maurice Greenwood! What on earth can it be? The name of my father and mother is Greenwood, and I was christened Maurice. What nonsense has your father been telling you now, Fanny?”
“You have guessed right. It was my father who told me,” she earnestly replied. “But, under whatever circumstances you were born, I should have been blind to them did not you still endeavour to deceive me. The name of your parents is not Greenwood, and that you know full well. And I hope you will never–”
The sudden outburst of angry grief to which she was giving vent was checked by the appearance of Rebecca of the Hill, who glided from behind one of the gigantic oaks and advanced rapidly towards them. She was clad in her usual attire, but the intrusion was so unexpected, and her face wore such a wild expression, that Maurice was about to raise his stick as if to offer violence.
Rebecca, who seemed to know his thoughts, exclaimed, in a forbidding tone: “Think not of striking me, young man! You would have the power wrested from you if you tried. Know you not that I am Rebecca of the Hill? And that my voice will make the wild hawk pause on his wing? Now that the damsel is fled, I have a word to speak concerning you.”
Maurice, who was becoming frightened with the manner and gesture of the intruder, would fain have fled too, but was rooted to the spot by the spell of Rebecca’s influence.
With one arm concealed beneath the capacious folds of her cloak, and with the other extended towards the sky, she continued, in a calmer and tremulous voice –
“Think you that I have no object in coming hither from the solitude of my hut? Does a lion leave its lair unless in search of prey?” Maurice, who knew the eccentricity of his companion, and who had always regarded her with pity, told her that she looked wild and excited, and that she had better go to rest.”
“Rest!” she replied, “I know not what it means, any more than the waves of the sea or the wind which whispers among the trees!
Nor have I known for many years. But I am getting weary of life, and shall soon take a rest never to be broken more.” During the delivery of the last two sentences her voice assumed a tone of deep and powerful pathos, as if her mind struggled with painful emotions which she dared not reveal. For a moment she hesitated, and then continued –
“The damsel spoke truthfully when she said that the Greenwoods are not your parents. I will tell you now that the origin of your birth is known only to me. But as your youthful mind is bent only upon this maiden, I will not reveal to you what must for a time be hidden. Remember that but for my assistance you will have some difficulty in making her your wife, for Prejudice is a giant which defies a stronger will than yours. Know this – that I have an interest in you, and will not fail to use my arts to gain for you your object.”
The young man was about to speak, but was prevented by a stern mandate to “Listen and obey – that is your only duty now! My words to night shall be few. But remember that your fate is in my hands.”
She then informed him that on the night .of Christmas Eve, then so rapidly approaching, the house of Selwin would be a scene of mirth, and instructed him to go to the house disguised in the company of the village “waits,” and continued: “Be as one of them. Act your part, and leave the rest to me. Till then, farewell.”
With her arm still extended in the air, she glided away as suddenly as she had come, leaving Maurice perplexed and bewildered with the strange proceedings. For the first time in his life he began to feel himself enveloped in mystery. What could that strange eccentric woman mean? Why did she take such interest in him? How could she know that he was merely an adopted child – a secret which he thought was revealed only to his kind benefactors and himself! But pshaw! – she was an impostor!
Yet she could not be that, for she always spoke kindly to him, although he could not tell why.
Besides – and he could not account for this – such strange feelings came over him that he had great difficulty in keeping himself from falling upon her neck and kissing her! What could it all mean? Somehow, try how he would, he could not think evil of her. With his mind thus betossed he pursued his homeward journey, determined to say nothing at present to his benefactors about what had occurred, and to act strictly up to the injunctions which he had received.
“Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roared with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note and strong.”
– Sir Walter Scott
Old Selwin was a good hospitable housekeeper, and for many years had made it a custom to invite his friends and neighbours to join in the Christmas festivities, at that time entered into with hearty gusto. The party was in the height of enjoyment, and the ashen faggot was crackling upon the hearth when the attention of the party was attracted by the sound of minstrelsy wafted across the Park. The cry was raised of “The waits are coming!” and, ere preparations could be made for their reception, they had arrived at the threshold and were chanting carols. A band of masked “mummers ” accompanied the minstrels, and both singers and actors were invited into the house.
The carollers sang that quaint old ditty beginning “Joseph was an old man, an old man was he, And he married Mary, Queen of Galilee.”
As soon as that was at an end, and the cup had been liberally handed round, old Selwin, who was always proud of his daughter’s voice, called upon her to sing. Fanny was ignorant of the presence of her lover, and, although all around her were full of mirth, her heart beat heavily, and she had great difficulty in assuming an air of gaiety. She hesitated a long time, but at Iast, in a tremulous voice, began a song, the refrain of which was: —
“Sooner than I’ll my love forego And lose the one I prize. I’ll bravely combat every foe, Or fall a sacrifice.”
When the song was finished, all were lavish with-their praises, and toasted her with bumpers again and again.
All this time poor Maurice was behind his mask yearning for the time when he could reveal himself, and wondering in what way the mysterious woman could aid him, and whether she intended to make her appearance. In the midst of his anxieties the “play” commenced.
“Old Father Christmas,” “the Turkish Knight,” and all the rest of the heroes went through their part without a hitch. But when it came to the “Spanish Knight,” whom Maurice represented, his voice faltered upon seeing the effect it produced upon Fanny, by whom, of course, it was at once recognised.
“What’s the matter, girl?” asked the father, observing the sudden flush upon the cheeks of his daughter, “You seem to be frightened.”
She replied that she was not frightened, and evasively attributed her blushing to the excitement of the evening.
Before the confusion had left her, the latch of the door was noiselessly raised, and there glided into the room, as stealthily as if she had come through the keyhole, the mysterious owner of the dark robe. As usual, her head was uncovered, and her long black hair hung loosely over her shoulders. She stepped into the middle of the room, and almost before the company had become aware of her presence, exclaimed, in a forbidding tone, as if one of the actors in the “play” which she interrupted: –
“Here come I. Let none oppose my will,
The proud Rebecca of the Hamdon Hill,
To cause a blessing or to wreak a curse,
To bring a wedding or a funeral hearse—
What shall my mission be? ”
The company was struck with surprise, but so much was the Witch dreaded that not one of them uttered a word against the intrusion, but all were held in silent and respectful awe.
For a moment, or two after the Witch had spoken, she paused for an answer, and held up her hands as if invoking supernatural aid. Maurice remained mute, and, while he looked upon the wild features of that extraordinary being, he felt the same unaccountable feeling of attachment for her, and shuddered with anxiety for the issue of her interference. Farmer Selwin was the first tobreak silence, treating the Witch with that cringing courtesy which Fear alone can create: –
“Well then, good Rebecca, since you give us our choice, I am sure we would rather have your blessing than your curse, and if a wedding among the young folks be brought about, I cannot imagine a better place to strike the bargain than around this hearth, where you can be a witness.”
“Then peace and happiness shall reign in this house,” she replied, “and the croaking of the raven shall not be heard to-night. Now shall the clouds unveil the moon, and the winds cease their murmurings until I bid the tempest rise!”
She ran to the window, looked up at the sky as if to see that her mandate was obeyed, and again glided into the centre of the room.
“The cause of my visit,” she continued, “You will perhaps be unable to divine. But know you that I am entrusted with a mission which none but I can perform? There is a maiden there,” pointing at the trembling daughter of the farmer, “whose cheeks will be robbed of their native beauty unless the cankering disease be destroyed. Her forlorn looks betray the truth- She has met with opposition in her choice, but from this hour I will cause a withering blight to fall upon the man, woman, or child who dares to interfere between the damsel and her lover!
She stamped her foot and walked frantically about the room, as if in a storm of passion. Everyone was speechless during the short pause which followed, and the Witch again broke the silence: –
“Is not Love the most sacred of human emotions – the source of all the happiness in this world? The girl, then, shall not be thwarted, for he whom she has chosen is not the son of a peasant, but a youth of noble descent, in whose veins flows the proudest of Norman blood!”
Old Selwin winced under the fiery glance and determined manner of the excited woman, and was afraid to utter a word to one so much dreaded. In a commanding voice she then exclaimed “Maurice Greenwood fling off that mask, and join hands with her you love!”
The young man had up to that time been a silent witness of the extraordinary proceedings. But, obedient to the bidding, he went to the side of the girl and caught her hands.
The effect was magical. Selwin had not the slightest suspicion that Maurice was in the room. But Fanny, although frightened at the manner of the Witch, felt happy and safe by the side of him of whose protection she was sure.
Then there was a kind of theatrical tableau, in which old Selwin, dreading the Witch’s power if he refused, gave his consent to the betrothal.
Again extending her hand, the Witch said: –
“The Spirit of Evil bade me work mischief against this house tonight. But I will withhold. Two hearts have been made happy, and my power shall now be used against him who attempts to sever those who are united by a vow as sacred and indissoluble as that made at the altar. My mission to-night is performed, and this house is blessed. Farewell!”
Without further ceremony, she lifted the latch and went out, leaving the other actors in the scene awe-stricken. But Fanny and Maurice were happy, and old Selwin was only too glad to make friends with the young man in order to avoid the consequences of the Witch’s displeasure.
Before the story concludes there is a mystery to be unravelled and a tragedy to be related. It was in the summer following that memorable Christmas Eve, and Maurice and Fanny were the occupiers of the farm so many years held by the young man’s foster parents.
The old hill was basking in the evening twilight of a sultry summer day, and the haymakers had ceased their labours and returned to their homes. Clouds were piled heavily in the horizon, and lightning quivered forth and gave warning of an approaching storm. Maurice Greenwood was hastening home from his harvest field on the side of the Hill, when his path was suddenly crossed by the mysterious woman who had played so important a part in the last chapter. Often had he wondered about the mystery which she had to reveal to him, and he ardently longed to be once more brought into contact with her. The time had now arrived.
The lowering clouds made darkness come on very rapidly, and the young man could see by the brilliant flashes of lightning which followed each other in rapid succession that the features of his companion bore the old wild and excited look. And as the flowing hair hung loosely over her shoulders her piercing eyes seemed to follow every flash as if she were directing its course.
In a commanding tone she desired Maurice to halt, and then, in a stern voice, exclaimed “Who dares disobey the command of one who can ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm? Can I not lash into madness the roaring winds and boiling water, and make all the elements as cruel and merciless!”
Suddenly she broke off from that wild strain, and, in a sweet soothing voice, not unmoved with emotion, said “But I am forgetting, Maurice. I have no revengeful deeds for yon. I have only lived to avenge those who have wronged both you and me! Oh! I could tell you a long history, but it would be too sad for human ears to listen to! What have I not endured – what deed could I not be guilty of, if it would be to your advantage?”
Maurice would fain have spoken, but he knew not what to say, for a suspicion so powerful in its operation began to dawn upon his mind that he was as motionless as a statue.
The witch continued, the almost continuous sheets of lightning sending a weird-like glare over her wild and mysterious features: “What is a more powerful bond than a mother’s love? Even the foul raven and the greedy cormorant will not forsake their young. Then why should I leave the world until I have performed my mission?”
Poor Maurice! The thunder was creating an almost deafening clamour, and vivid flashes of light-ning were dashing incessantly before his eyes. But they were scarcely noticed by him, so heavily burdened was his mind. Oh! How vain was his endeavour to hide his emotions! And the witch perceived it.
“I see,” she continued. “You suspect the truth, and the secret I will no longer hold. I am your wretched mother, whose path through the world was marked by the cruel finger of destiny. Born of a noble house, and deceived in my girlhood by a high-born youth whose ancestors have been blessed with Royal favours, I fled from my home. Rather would I have died than allow the proud Norman blood of my family to be disgraced! But I will relate no more to you, for it is not fit to be received into your youthful ears. The fiery ordeal I had to undergo before I could command the enchantments now in my power no human tongue can tell! You shall flourish, but that house shall fall before many generations pass away!”
The last sentence she repeated several times, walking frantically to and fro and shaking her extended arm defiantly.
Then she approached the young man, who was now trembling with fear and emotion, and, clasping him around the neck, kissed him fervently upon the cheek, and, in a voice trembling with pathos, said “For the first time for many years my eyes are now damped with tears, and I begin to feel..But, hark! Oh! that terrific crash summons me away! Keep this in remembrance of me! Farewell, farewell for ever!”
She placed in the young man’s hand a massive gold ring, bearing an inscription and crest of the family to which she belonged, and rapidly glided away.
Maurice watched her as she ascended the Hill, and every flash of lightning flung away the darkness and revealed her running along its summit. But, that was the last view he ever had of that extraordinary being. He went home bewildered with the exciting events of the evening, but it was some time before he told what has just been related.
Next morning Rebecca was found a mangled corpse in the bottom of one of the deepest stone quarries on the Hill, and it was generally supposed that she had fallen there accidentally.
Whether she suffered from hallucination of the mind, or whether she really possessed the powers she claimed, it was certain that she made but few enemies, although so much dreaded in the neighbourhood, and that Maurice Greenwood, whose happiness and success in life were so powerfully aided by her influence, felt her tragic death most painfully.
But with one of the most devoted of wives, and with success attending everything he undertook, the painful part of his history was soon forgotten, although he never ceased to be grateful to the Witch of Hamdon Hill.