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Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath by David Teniers the Younger

5 wicked shapeshifting witches from British history

Image: Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath by David Teniers the Younger | Public Domain

All over the world, different cultures have had centuries-old myths and legends about witches who can shapeshift into animals. From Louhi, the shapeshifting witch of Finnish mythology, to the legend of the skinwalkers, the evil witches of the Native American Navajo culture who are said to be able to change into, or possess, any animal.

A similar belief was found in the British Isles. For centuries, many people in Britain believed that witches could change into animals such as hares, ravens, cats, bears, or toads, and back again.

It was also held to be true that witches, if injured when in their animal form, would display this injury when they changed back into their human selves. This folk belief endured in rural parts of Britain until well into the 19th century.

Here we look at five cases of British witches that were said to be able to shapeshift.

1. Anne Bodenham

In 1653, an 80-year-old woman called Anne Bodenham was publicly hanged in Salisbury for the crime of witchcraft. She had once worked as an assistant to the controversial magician John Lambe, who was lynched in London in 1628.

One Anne Styles, on trial for murder, had pointed the finger at Bodenham, accusing her of being a witch and trying to get her to make a pact with the Devil, probably in an attempt to avert blame away from herself. When Bodenham was convicted and sentenced to death, however, Styles broke down in court and begged that Bodenham be reprieved. This was ignored, and Bodenham was duly executed.

As Bodenham was arrested, interrogated, and brought to trial, one of the allegations that came out was that she could shapeshift at will into a variety of animals, namely a mastiff dog, a black lion, a white bear, a wolf, a monkey, a horse, a bull, a calf and a black cat.

2. Isobel Gowdie

Among ‘simple folk’, hares have long been associated with malice and misfortune. A hare crossing your path was said to be a bad omen. It is no surprise then that hares have also been associated with shapeshifting witches and are one of the animals that crop up the most in these stories.

The famous Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn in the Highlands, was likely burnt alive at the stake in 1662. She included in her detailed statements to the authorities a magic spell for shapeshifting.

To change into a hare, Isobel said she would repeat these words:

I sall go intill a hare,

With sorrow, sigh, and meikle care;

And I sall go in the devil’s name,

Ay while I come hame again.

Isobel also recounted in her confessions an incident in which she was chased by hounds while out and about as a hare. She ran for some distance with the hounds hot on her tail and, while still a hare, she was eventually able to hide in a house. The hounds found her and she had to run again to another house, where, having a brief moment before they cornered her, she recited the spell that changed her back into a human:

Hare, hare, God send thee care!

I am in a hare’s likeness now,

But I sall be a woman e’en now;

Hare, hare, God send thee care!

Isobel also described in her confessions how she and other members of her coven would sometimes change into cats or crows.

3. Dorothy Stranger

In Newcastle in November 1663, a woman named Jane Milburne testified against a neighbour of hers, Dorothy Stranger. According to Jane’s account, the two had fallen out, and Dorothy had promised to get her own back.

One night, Jane recalled, she was sitting at home alone when suddenly a mysterious cat appeared from nowhere. It approached and spoke to her, threatening that it had already taken one life from that house and soon it would claim another. Jane told the creepy creature to go away, and it promptly vanished. Shortly after, the ferocious feline visited Jane again, attacking her by savagely biting her on the arm. The next time, the cat was so strong that it managed to pull Jane to the ground and pin her there for 15 minutes. During the cat’s final vicious visit, it tried to pull Jane out of bed, brutally biting and scratching her arms and legs bloody.

Jane told the authorities that she was certain that this cat was Dorothy, being a witch that could shapeshift.

4. Anne Baites

Shapeshifting British witches were usually said to change into either hares or cats and less commonly into other creatures such as mice and crows. A curious account of 1673, however, describes multi-talented shapeshifters.

Towards the end of that year, a young maidservant named Anne Armstrong regaled a Northumberland court with her eyewitness account of being forced to attend sabbats at Riding Mill Bridge, near Newcastle.

Armstrong claimed that at these sabbats she had seen 13 witches, including one Anne Baites, dancing with the Devil. She said that Baites and the other witches changed successively into all manner of animals, including a greyhound, a mouse, and a bee, as well as the usual cat and hare.

Curiously, Armstrong herself claimed that she was changed into a horse against her will to carry some of the witches to the sabbat, before being turned back into her human form upon arrival.

5. Jane Wenham

The last person to be executed for witchcraft in England was Alice Molland in 1685 (some sources say 1684). The last person condemned to death for witchcraft, but who was not executed, was Jane Wenham in 1712.

Jane had long been shunned by her local community in Walkern, Hertfordshire, and eventually, she was accused of being a witch and brought to trial.

The litany of allegations made against Jane is mysterious and includes Anne Thorne, a servant girl who was temporarily unable to walk as she’d dislocated her knee. Anne was seen by witnessed to glide against her will along the ground at the speed of a greyhound, apparently heading for Cromer and into the sea. It was claimed that Jane had bewitched Anne.

At her trial, 16 witnesses testified that Jane had used her witchcraft against them in all manner of ways, from cursing cattle to committing murder. The trial even heard how Jane had been seen multiple times in the form of a cat. Anne Thorne declared that she’d been tormented by the witch as a cat – not just one cat, but she claimed the witch harassed her in the guise of multiple felines at once, and that all the cats had Jane’s face.

In the end, the jury found Jane guilty, and she was bound for the hangman’s rope. However, the judge, sympathetic to Jane, managed to get her a reprieve.