Browsing the BBC Radio 4 schedules today I noticed that the station had recently broadcast a play entitled Ursula and the Boy based on the historical episode of Ursula Kemp who was accused of witchcraft in 1582 and against whom one of the witnesses was her own 8 year old son.
I’ve not yet listened to the play but will try to make time to do so over this weekend.
I’m reminded of an earlier BBC radio play with an historical witchcraft theme – Colin Haydn Evans’s Gaveston which was broadcast originally on 7th June 1993 and then, if memory serves me correctly, on the actual summer solstice in 1994. I was fortunate on the second occasion to record the broadcast for my own personal archive.
Gaveston was based, as one might expect, on Margaret Murray‘s books (I’m very tempted to say novels), The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The Divine King in England. Her thesis was that there was an organised cult of witchcraft in mediaeval and early modern Europe, and that from time to time kings or their appointed substitutes were sacrificed to ensure the health of the realm. She particularly singled out William II, “Rufus”, who died in the New Forest under still unexplained circumstances in 1100, and Piers Gaveston, the youthful favourite of Edward II, as her purported sacrifices.
Now as a piece of drama Gaveston was a jolly decent play – thrilling and atmospheric; but as history, which Murray purported it to be (even if Evans didn’t), it was frankly crap. Even at the time that she published Witch Cult, Murray’s interpretation of history was scorned and ridiculed by academic historians working in the mediaeval and early modern fields, but it did inspire the imagination of Gerald Brosseau Gardner and become the basis of his creation of wicca. When Murray was invited to write the entry on witchcraft for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, her version of history quickly reached the general public and was accordingly accepted by hoi polloi as the last word on the subject. And so it remained until the early 1970s when academic historians began to publish new studies of witchcraft and magic. The first that came to general attention was Keith Thomas‘s Religion and the Decline of Magic in 1973. Through the 1970s and 1980s these new studies appeared, so that by around 1993, when Gaveston was first broadcast, only pagans and the general public still set any store by Murray’s work as history.
What turned the tide for most pagans was the publication during the 1990s of a series of works by Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, culminating in The Triumph of the Moon in 1999. There are, undoubtedly, the pagan equivalent of Flat Earthers who cling to Murray’s work, but they become fewer, and ever more desperate, as the years pass. They may eventually die out of their own accord, but it may yet take a comet to finish them off.
So if you ever get a chance to hear Gaveston, do so. It’s a jolly gripping yarn. But, for gods’ sake, don’t believe a word of it. It’s complete cobblers.