From the legend of King Arthur to Harry Potter, Britain has long been associated with magic and sorcery – and considering medieval England was rife with medicinal concoctions and ‘enchanted’ amulets, it’s not hard to see why.
Stories of sorcery and alchemy have thrilled us for generations, and deep down most of us would like to believe that magic exists. But could the magic of the Dark Ages and beyond be considered ‘real’ magic?
The Anglo-Saxons were split between Paganism and Christianity, and were influenced by magic no matter which path they followed. Archaeological and written evidence suggests that it was mainly practised by the medics – but it wasn’t just the healers who had a little sorcery about them.
Back then it was widely accepted that witches lived among the people. Though practitioners of white magic were celebrated and given the title ‘village elder’, any sign of black magic was a cause for panic. It was believed that witches who performed this malevolent type of magic were responsible for death, disease, pain, miscarriage and many other tragedies.
Consequently this branch of magic was illegal, and as such was punishable by banishment or self-mortification – not death. However, the punishment was promoted to death years later, when in the 16th century James VI – subsequently James I of England – took the Scottish throne and his fear of the supernatural sent witch trials through the roof.
This fear of the unexplained was incredibly common back then. Certain phenomena which had no rational explanation at the time, such as diseases and natural disasters, were often blamed on witchcraft – and once the death penalty came about, witch sightings were seemingly everywhere.
80 per cent of the witches sentenced in England were women, and if you lived alone or had a cat, that made you even more susceptible to suspicion. Witches, after all, always had ‘familiars’ – animal-shaped spirits or minor demons that were thought to serve witches and magicians as domestic servants, spies and companions.
There were, however, sorcerers who escaped trials and have existed for centuries. The cunning folk, as they were known, were the ones you went to for ‘love magic’. They provided counter-curses to evil spells, predicted the future, charmed objects for luck and protection, and practised astrology.
You can still find people of their description today, although these days they might go by Mr Madiba and post business cards offering their services in ‘love voodoo’ and ‘court cases’ through your letterbox.
The cunning folk were sometimes referred to as alchemists. Initial records of them began in the 13th century and there are theories that they wrote the first books on medicine.
And what about Merlin, arguably the most famous wizard in the world (sorry Harry). In most versions of the legend, Merlin is King Arthur’s right-hand man, a sorcerer whose magic helps Arthur achieve greatness.
Although there are differing beliefs about who King Arthur was – if he even existed at all – they all state that Merlin helped and prepared Arthur to become an incredible ruler, possibly around the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD.
His whereabouts are, again, vague. There are versions of the legend set in southern Scotland, some in Wales and many set in England – famed Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson set the tales of Arthur and Merlin in Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, for example.
Though there is limited evidence to indicate what really happened during Arthurian times, historians have many theories. It is widely believed that Arthur was indeed a great leader but that Merlin was no more than his trusted adviser, and was most likely a 6th century druid.
But despite this, many people are still adamant that he could wield magic, and 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth even claimed that Merlin created Stonehenge.
While Stonehenge definitely feels magical, did Merlin use his powers to transport and levitate the stones? Well, you’d have to finish off that time machine to find out – there’s no direct evidence to show how it was constructed, but there are many theories.
One, less magical theory is that a track of some kind was used to transport the stones, either using logs or a makeshift sleigh that slid along animal fat.
But what was it used for? Well, one theory suggests that it was the place where astronomy took place. This is based on the fact that nearly all of the stones at Stonehenge are at points that exactly reflect events of planetary movements.
And then, of course, there’s the ley line theory.
Sites such as Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids are linked by ley lines – known back in the day as fairy paths – and if you mark Stonehenge and other special landmarks on a map, most of them can be connected by a straight line.
Many writers have completed works on the phenomenon, including Alfred Watkins, who coined the term ley line, and John Michell, who claimed they are ancient spiritual trackways created in prehistory to guide extraterrestrial spacecraft. As such, many believe that the ancient people chose specific locations for these sites due to long lost knowledge of the earth’s energies.
So did magic exist or not? Civilisations throughout English history certainly believed it did, and their potions and poultices were, in their eyes, magic. If magic ever really existed in England then we would assume it has been long forgotten. But has it?
On the 14th of February 1945, Charles Walton was found dead in Warwickshire. The 74 year-old farm labourer’s throat was slit and the body had been run through with a pitchfork. He was rumoured to be a witch – it was claimed that birds would flock to him to eat from the palms of his hands, and that he could tame wild dogs.
His body was found on the eve of Valentine’s Day, pinned to the floor by the pitchfork and a large cross was carved into his chest. This led to suspicions that witchcraft was involved, because in previously documented cases in which people had murdered those they thought had put them under a spell, the murder victim was often given the sign of the cross.
Although the murder was never solved, it seems magic – or at least the fear of it – didn’t die out way back when.
Theses days, the majority of us are fascinated by magic and revel in the idea of it. Horoscopes are read with eagerness, people dabble in tarot cards and fortune-telling.
Whether it ever really existed or not, it doesn’t look like people are going to stop believing any time soon.