Sunday, 8 February 2015


When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (Shakespeare's Macbeth)
Often when you visit a place for one reason, you stumble on something far more interesting. Recently I decided to visit Widecombe-in-the-Moor, in Devon, because like most people I’d grown up with the famous ghost song about Widecombe fair. You know the one -
Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
Widecombe Church being hit by a lightning ball
But on entering the beautiful St Pancras Church in the village, I became intrigued by the old wooden boards on
the wall telling of freak accident which happened there in the 17th century. The church is a large one for such a small and remote village and this is because the parish covered a huge area, with people having to travel many miles across the moors from isolated farms to attend services. So, services were often held in the afternoon and one afternoon in 1638, without warning, lightning struck the church, damaging the tower and a lightning ball sped through the congregation killing four people and injuring around 52 others.

The boards in the church tell a terrifying story. One man was hurled against a pillar so violently, his head was smashed and his whole brain fell out into the pew behind him. Coins were welded together in one person’s pocket from the heat, but their owner was left unharmed, while other people received horrific burns. It must have seemed like the Day of Judgement or, as many claimed, the work of the devil. The villagers were left in a panic – should they stay in the church or flee outside into the storm where worse might be waiting? Little wonder that those who wrote the account took the opportunity to remind parishioners that you never knew when death might strike.

According to legend, supernatural thunderbolts were not unknown in those parts. Villagers from outlying homes had to carry the dead many miles over the coffin-roads for burial at Widecombe. On the way they were in the habit of resting the coffins on broad flat rocks known as coffin stones. On one occasion a funeral party, on its way to Widecombe, rested the coffin on one such stone on Dartmeet Hill, but the deceased had apparently been so wicked in life a thunderbolt struck the coffin splitting the stone beneath in two and the broken stone can still be seen today.

An early account of the disaster at
 Bongay showing black dog or shuck
Probably because they were the tallest structures, churches seemed to particularly prone to these lightning balls. At Bongay, Suffolk parishioners were in church one morning in 1577, when a lightning ball ran the length of the church passing between people and killing some instantly. One man who survived was hit in the neck and was described afterwards as being ‘all drawn up together and shrunk up like a piece of old leather scorched in a fire.’ Some in Bongay said the fireball took the form of a demonic black dog or black shuck, an occurrence which was ascribed to the devil.

St John the Baptist Church at Danbury Hill, Essex, was badly damaged by lightening in 1402, when the devil entered in the church in the form a grey friar who apparently terrified the parishioners by lewdly exposing himself to them. While in 1613, the lightning ball which tore through the church in Great Chart, Kent was said to be like great fiery bull. It killed a miller and burst out through a wall. Again this was said to be the devil’s work.

Although in many religions and cultures, storms and lightening were seen as the retribution of the gods, strangely the British more frequently ascribed them to the Devil or his servants – the witches. Perhaps this is because either the horned image of the devil was a demonised form of the pre-Christian gods or because churches were so frequently the target of the strikes.

1555 a church being struck by lightning
In 1489, Molitor wrote – ‘tempests, hails and poisoned air are not the work of some malicious women, but purely the movements of nature or the toleration of divine will that allows the Devil to afflict us.’ But by the sixteenth and seventh centuries, when the witch hunts were in full spate, any destructive storm was blamed on Satan or more frequently on witches.

These unfortunate women, and occasional man such as the 70 year old Reverend John Lowes tortured by the witchfinder,Matthew Hopkins, were frequently charged with raising storms in order to destroy ships at sea by shaking out their hair or loosening knots they had tied in string. The witches of North Berwick were accused of christening a cat with devilish rites and flinging it into the sea bound to parts of a dead man, with the intention of raising a storm in order to sink the ship on which James VI was returning from Denmark. The small fact that there was no storm, only an annoying ‘contrary wind’ did not stop them being charged.

1555 A witch raising a storm to sink a boat
But kings themselves were not above making use of these powers. In 1563, Eric XIV, King of Sweden is said to have employed four witches in the army he raised against the Danes. He recruited them because they claimed to be able to raise a storm by beating water in a pond with an iron rod until it rose into a rain cloud, which could then be controlled to produce lightning, rain, or hail as desired.

But there is also an ancient belief in the ‘royal storm’, a sudden and violent storm that occurs at the death of a great king or leader, when the heavens themselves grieve his passing. Ironically there was such a ‘royal storm’ when Oliver Cromwell died, but royalists claimed that was caused by the devil triumphantly claiming his own.

Painted 1470. House protected by
an oversized houseleek
Incidentally, should you wish to protect your house from a lightning strike, you might want to follow medieval advice and grow a houseleek on the roof.


Sue Bursztynski said...

So, did the king's witches manage to sink the enemy ships? :-)

Nice post!

Joan Lennon said...

The colours in that 1470 picture are still so vivid! Interesting stuff!

Karen Owen said...

Fascinating. A house leek?!

Susan Price said...

House Leeks - often known as 'Welcome-Home-Husband-Though-Never-So-Drunk.' Or 'Hen and Chicks' or 'LiveForever.' They're succulents that grow on stone walls, or one roofs. Nor related to leeks at all.