Folk Magic in Essex

by Andrew Collins


Manuden Church of St Mary the Virgin showing its rounded churchyard wall and one of the village's three mark stones.


Recently, I was made aware of the discovery in the Essex village of Manuden of three charms against baleful influences - two in private houses and one of more debatable origin in the parish church. Their existence paints a fascinating picture of persisting folk magic practices in an English county notorious for its associations with witchcraft.

One house charm is a horse's skull, found in a sealed-up bread oven of a seventeenth-century building, while the other is an eighteenth-century knife retrieved from a house which dates to the fifteenth-century. In the case of the church, a carved stone head of uncertain origin was found buried in a wall above a window arch in the building's fifteenth-century north transept.

Having been alerted to the existence of the charms found in local houses, in June 2002 I travelled to Manuden, a small village set in rural Essex, close to the Hertfordshire border, and made enquiries among the local inhabitants. I was directed up the hill to a beautiful two-story building built in the fifteenth century named Hill House, hidden away behind tall hedgerow. Here, it would seem, the knife was found during the early 1980s. The current owner only purchased the building after this time, and so could only recount details of the discovery second-hand. From what she had been told, builders were renovating the main ground-floor room (used today as a lounge) when they came across the knife behind a thick layer of plaster covering the chimney breast. She recalled also that the skull of an animal was found at the same time, although this story turned out to be unconnected with Hill House. Unable to help me further, I was directed to local historian, Fiona Bengtsen, who was sure to know more about the discoveries.

The Knife

After introducing myself to Mr and Mrs Bengtsen, who were enjoying a little lazy afternoon sun in their spacious garden close to Manuden church, I was informed that the knife had been retrieved by a local builder named Frank Monk, who lived in nearby Wicken Bonhunt. It was identified as eighteenth century in origin due to its distinctive 17-cm long scimitar blade fashioned in iron. With its so-called 'pistol grip' handle in hardwood, possibly beech, it was a full 25 cms (9 ¾ inches) in length. The left side of the blade bore a small cutler's mark consisting of three components: a cross-like dagger, symbol of the London Company of Cutlers; a crown, and an equal-armed cross. Although its presence implied the knife was manufactured in London, such a conclusion is by no means certain. Cutlers in other parts of the country falsely used their London rivals' mark, since their products were considered to be inferior to those made in the capital.

The knife was found by the builders in a horizontal position, around 1.5 metres from ground level. Frank Monk retained possession of the object, which was passed on to his son John Monk. Following the death of his father around 10 years ago, John moved out of Wicken Bonhunt and no current address is known for him, making it now impossible to examine the knife. Luckily, it was shown to Bari Hooper, the warden of Wicken House residential educational centre, who was able to make a drawing of the object for an informative article he wrote on the subject for The Essex Journal.

As Bari points out, there seems little question that the iron-bladed knife was deliberately placed beneath the plasterwork 'as a house charm against the malign effects of witchcraft'. Across the British Isles items made from iron and steel, such as knives and scissors, and indeed any cutting implement, were considered effective in preventing witches entering a house in the belief that they were unable to pass over iron. The tradition probably dates back to Bronze Age times when a fear of much harder iron weapons was a very real one.

And the tradition is widespread. In Scotland, for instance, iron from knives, swords and gun barrels became an effective weapon against the powers of the fairy folk. It was recommended that knives be stuck into the doors of elfin dwellings (presumably barrows) in order to prevent its inhabitants locking you inside. More significantly, Bari Hooper tells us that in Cambridgeshire, up until the beginning of the previous century, knives were placed under door mats in order to prevent witches from crossing the threshold. If the householder neglected to do this, and one managed to enter the house, then a knife was to be placed beneath the chair on which they sat so as to render them harmless. In Suffolk, a knife that pierced the footprint of a witch was believed to be enough to stop them in their tracks until the weapon was removed.

All these folk customs make the intention of concealing the knife behind the plasterwork of a chimney flue in a house at Manuden, Essex, clear enough. Since the hearth was looked upon as the main portal into the netherworld (doors and windows being other lesser examples), and witches were considered able to fly up and down chimneys, it was necessary to protect it using charms. These were either inanimate objects, like knives, or domestic animals such as a cat or dog. Often these were buried, or concealed, plausibly whilst still alive, in order that their spirits might become guardians against perceived supernatural influences, such as witchcraft or the fairy folk.

The Horse's Skull

Yet in our second example from Manuden, the intended guardian would seem to have been the spirit of a horse, for in the early 1980s the same building constructor, Frank Monk, was renovating an unnamed seventeenth-century cottage in the village when he came across a bread oven, sealed and plastered over in either in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. When opened, a macabre sight greeted him, for inside was a horse's skull. On being removed, it was found to be extremely brittle suggesting to historian Bari Hooper who, once again, was asked to offer an opinion regarding the discovery, that it was extremely ancient and may have spent some time in the ground before being sequestered for use as a house charm. Although the skull was placed in a box for safe keeping, Frank Monk reported that it eventually fell apart and was thrown away. Whether or not the skull really had spent time in the ground might never be determined, especially as the brittleness of the skull might simply have stemmed from it being concealed in the bread oven for so long.

As had been the case with the knife, Bari Hooper was able to draw the skull before its destruction, and subsequently wrote an article on the subject for The Essex Journal. In it he refers to another horse-skull house charm found between a chimney flue and two adjoining walls in an old cottage at Little Belhus, South Ockendon, situated on the Essex Thameside. Thus, in this instance, it was not the hearth that was being protected from baleful influences. However, the fact that the oven would have been linked to the main chimney flue demonstrates that this is simply an extension of the fear regarding the vulnerability of the fireplace to perceived supernatural influences. Manuden historian Fiona Bengtsen tells me that in another sealed bread oven opened locally various items were found, including a stocking twisted into a tight ball. This brings to mind the age-old custom of leaving an empty stocking over the hearth on Christmas Eve, a night when witches and ghosts were thought to be abroad. Thus the placing of stockings on the Christmas mantelpiece might not originally have been connected with the receiving of presents from Santa Claus.

Horses' Skulls in Antiquity

The burial of horses' skulls either to appease equestrian deities or to bring about good fortune is a very ancient one. Bari Hooper cites the discoveries of horses' skulls used as votive offerings in Romano-British wells at Chelmsford and Wickford in Essex. In the second instance three skulls were found, something which has been of particularly interest to my own research into another very ancient well locally known as the Running Well, situated in the neighbouring parish of Runwell. I believe that both sites were connected in Roman times with veneration to the Gallic goddess Epona, who was born of a mare. She was worshipped at springs and connected with both the waters of life and the fecundity of the land. A damaged statue of her riding side saddle on a horse, her most common form, was found at Colchester in Essex and is currently on display at Colchester Castle Museum.

The cult of the horse was also practised by the Germanic and Norse peoples, who are known to have slaughtered these animals and either buried the carcass whole, or concealed just the head, beneath the foundations of new buildings. Moreover, a horse's skull set up on a stake or pole and directed against the home of an enemy was thought to bring great harm to the householder. In later times, horses' skulls were often placed on display within the gables of houses, or suspended from walls or fences, as charms against witchcraft. As Bari comments in this respect:

… the power considered to be inherent within the horse's head was generally used as a protection against external evil forces, but on occasion this power could be manipulated against an individual.

With the spread of the Anglo-Saxons into the British Isles, these pagan traditions took root in this country and persisted in abstract forms through to the modern era, including the use of iron horse shoes both as lucky charms and effective weapons against witchcraft. Bari Hooper suggests that the concept of using horses' skulls as house charms perhaps came about in order to 'cause an echo', which was also considered to be lucky. This custom appears linked with the belief that if when a horse gallops over ground that sounds hollow, a horse is thought to be buried on the spot. Accordingly: 'The use of horse-skulls as acoustic devices was quite widespread in Europe, and many examples are known from Britain and Ireland'. Apparently, there are several examples whereby horses' skulls were inserted into the walls of buildings, including churches, in order to increase the building's acoustics, in the same manner that earthen jars were utilised for similar purposes. Although this use of horses' skulls might have some kind of scientific basis, their primary function was clearly to defer baleful influences from interfering with activities taking place inside the buildings in question.

In fact, the use of horses' skulls as house charms against witchcraft is found in several English counties. For instance, in neighbouring Cambridgeshire, there are several instances of horses' bones being found concealed in houses. Forty skulls alone were found to be screwed beneath the underside of a floor of the Portway public house at Staunton-on-Wye in Herefordshire, while three skulls were found in the bell turret of Ellsdon church in Northumberland. They are most commonly located inside the brick structure of chimneys, although they have also been found beneath floors or, as in the case of the knife at Manuden, within walls.

Qualities of the Horse

Even though the examples found in the bell turret at Ellsdon church might initially support Bari Hooper's contention that some acoustic association is to be assumed by their presence, this seems highly unlikely indeed, especially as jars would have been far more preferable. As pointed out by historian Brian Hoggard, who has made a detailed study of rural folk magic customs in Britain, horse-skull house charms were widely used in the past:

In the early modern period horses were almost disposable for anyone with a little money and knacker's yards did a good business. It was easy to get a horse skull if you wanted one but defleshing it obviously is rather unpleasant if you choose to do it yourself! The practice of concealing horse skulls is pretty widespread and was probably far more common than we currently realise, though not as common as the practice of concealing cats. Both of these find types suffer in the archaeological record because they are usually reacted to in a very bad way and disposed of promptly! Hence the record indicates far fewer than have actually been discovered (anecdotal references in conversation with many builders supports this).

Brian is convinced that it was the 'qualities of the horse' which played a major factor in the concealment of skulls, since the animal was considered to have a beneficent relationship with humans and was acutely awareness of its environment. He suggests that perhaps it was hoped that its benevolent influence would be 'transferred to the spirit world in death and that these could be attached to the house through concealing the skull within the fabric of the building. Placing it by the hearth obviously indicates a protective role.' More significantly, he believes that the concealment of horses' skulls represents 'a survival of an earlier practice, the exact rituals and beliefs concerning which have since been forgotten.'

The Mystery of Mari Lwyd

Certainly, this seems to have been a likely explanation in the case of the horse's skull found at Manuden. Yet why use a horse's head when the carcass of a domestic animal, such as a cat or dog, or, indeed, an inanimate object, would have sufficed? The answer seems to be the persisting belief in Britain of the magical potency of the horse. For example, we have the macabre folk customs performed yearly in South Wales, particularly Glamorgan, which went under the name Mari Lwyd (sometimes 'Mary Lwyd' or 'Mari Llwyd'). This was the name given to a horse's skull bedecked with 'favours', or rosettes, of pink, blue, yellow, etc., borrowed from local girls and procured by local men and boys. The round bases of two bottles would be inserted into the sockets of the skull to form eyes, whilst makeshift ears would also be attached. Somehow the jaws were made to open and close, probably through the use of string threaded through the skull. The whole thing was then attached to a pole and 'ridden' by a bearer concealed beneath a large white cloth.

On the Twelfth Night, Old Christmas Eve, Mari Lwyd would be 'ridden' through the streets in the company of a boisterous party, generally all male. They made one hell of a racket, shouting out and singing songs, while Mari Lwyd would open and shut its jaws, doing its best to bite anyone who came into its path. On approaching the front door of a house, the horse would beg to be invited over the threshold. It was traditional for the householder to deny Mari Lwyd entry, as it attempted to persuade them otherwise with a strange dialogue song, sung by the accompanying party, which would have to be 'capped' during the chorus. Finally, entry would be granted and in they would come, headed by Mari Lwyd, which would proceed to prance about like a horse. Often, a 'groom' would be present to tend to the horse's needs.

Whilst in the house, Mari Lwyd would chase any girls present, capering and neighing as it went, and strongly suggesting some kind of fertility element to this extraordinary ritual. This horse-play would be followed by an impromptu dance, a reel, performed by three young men, flailing ribbons. Afterwards, the merry party were rewarded with cakes and ale, before moving on to the next house, pausing to sing one last song outside the door.

Oddly enough, the origins of this tradition are said to lie in the legend that Mari Lwyd was forced out of the stable in which Jesus Christ was born, and thus constantly wanders the earth looking for a place to rest. The name seems to translate as 'pale' or 'hoary' Mary, with the assumption being that it relates in some manner to the Virgin Mary, and that the custom is of papal origin. Yet it seems far more likely that the roots of Mari Lwyd are firmly pre-Christian in origin, and perhaps linked with ancient rites to Rhiannon, the Welsh equestrian goddess whose name means 'Great Queen'.

At Aberconwy in North Wales a folk custom known as Penglog, taken from the Welsh for 'head' or 'skull', involved similar practices to that of Mari Lwyd. Once again, a horse's skull was the centre focus, although in this case there is:

… a tradition which links the custom with enchantment, in connection with a warlike princess, reputed to have flourished in Gwent and Morganwg in the early ages, and who is to be seen to this day, mounted on her steed, on a rock in Rhymney Dingle.

Once again, a connection with Rhiannon - portrayed in the Welsh Mabinogion as an otherworldly queen riding a great white horse - seems apparent when attempting to pin down the origins of these curious folk ceremonies. Yet it might be argued that their survival in areas of Britain outside of Anglo-Saxon influence argues against them having any connection with folk magic involving the horse in England. However, very similar folk ceremonies did once exist on this side of the border, and not only are these likely to have Norse or Germanic origins, but at least one of them took place in a county neighbouring Essex.

Old Hob

In past ages it was the custom in Cheshire on All Souls' Day, November 2nd, for a construction known as 'Old Hob' to be carried about the streets. It consisted of a 'horse's head', plausibly a skull, over which was draped a sheet which enveloped its bearer. Old Hob and his helpers would go from house to house to the accompaniment of song and merriment, something that would continue right through until Christmas. The term Old Hob derives from the Middle English hob, meaning a 'goblin', or infernal spirit, a familiar name for the devil, linked with the notion that he was also 'Old Nick', a shadow form of St Nicholas. In Europe, on his feast date of December 6th the saint was said to appear to children in the company a hideous creature with horns and shaggy coat called the Klaubauf (aka. Krampus, Grampus or Bartel). For those who had been good that year, presents were in store, but for those who had been naughty the Klaubauf would carry a rod with which they could expect to be beaten.

It is from this dark, sinister form of St Nicholas that his demonic association of Old Nick derives. Old Hob is thus a dark form of some equestrian deity, whose origins have been lost in the mists of time. Certainly, he seems connected with the Germanic tradition of the Schimmel (white horse), which in rural folk ceremonies was represented by a 'horse's head', again probably a skull, on the end of a pole carried by a bearer on all fours, under the cover of a white cloth. Sometimes as many as three or four individuals bore the enormous Schimmel around, with a veiled rider astride the construction, leading some commentators to compare it with the great charger on which the god Woden (Norse Odin) was said to have ridden. It is said that the schimmel-reiter was often accompanied by a youth adorned in straw, who would take the part of a bear tied to a pole.

Returning back to Britain, we find other examples of so-called 'hobby horse' ceremonies which might well link with archaic folk-customs such as Mari Lwyd, Old Hob, the Penglog and Schimmel. For instance, the famous horn dance which takes place annually at Abbot's Bromley in Staffordshire, today in September, but formerly at Christmas, has long included a hobby horse. Plot in his Natural History of Staffordshire of 1686 speaks of the ceremony as the 'Hobby-horse dance from a person who carried the image of a horse between his legs, made of thin boards.'

The Hobby Horse Tradition

Hobby Horses ('hobby', perhaps, like Old Hob, comes from the Middle English hob, 'goblin' or 'devil') that feature in rural folk ceremonies, Morris dancing, pantomimes and mummer's plays are recorded in the annals of English history since the fifteenth century at least. However, only in a few specific cases is there clear evidence that the hobby horse derives from folk traditions exclusively linked to the horse. Two surviving examples are those that feature in Mayday fairs held annually at Padstow in Cornwall and Minehead in Somerset (a hobby horse used until around a century or so ago in the Salisbury Mayday fair is now housed in a local museum).

In Padstow's case, the 'obby oss' as it is known in this instance, takes the form of a large black disc with a hole in the centre, around the rim of which is attached a floor-length skirt, also in black. At one end is a feather 'tail', and at the other are hand-held wooden 'jaws', or 'snappers', comparable with the horse's skull with movable jaws used in the Mari Lwyd ceremony. The disc is worn around the shoulders of its bearer, who sports a pointed hat and head-mask with red and white designs. On the morning of 1st May the 'oss' proceeds through the streets for a whole day, accompanied by song and merriment. So-called 'teasers' will dance alongside the 'oss', which will respond like a taunted animal to their sometimes ritualistic movements. Often the 'oss' catches girls under its skirt, who are rubbed with soot in order to bestow luck and fertility. At the end of the ceremony the horse is ritually killed only to be revived again the next year. A second, more modern, 'oss', with blue and white designs on its face mask instead of red and white ones, also makes the rounds, and this has been known since the end of World War I as the 'peace oss'.

Minehead's 'sailor's horse', as it is known, has the appearance of an upturned rowing boat with a large hump behind the head. It is nine feet long, and covered in painted canvas and ribbons. This too is mounted on the shoulders of its bearer, who wears a horse's mask and a tall hat with ribbons. And like the Padstow ceremony, there was originally more than one horse. For three days from May-eve onwards it goes around the town accompanied by the sound of drums and accordions. In the past attendants called 'Gullivers' would demand small sums of money from those the horse encountered. If this was not paid, or a person attempted to thwart the activities of the horse, they were set upon with a boot and lightly beaten 10 times. Although this tradition continues to this day, the horse will generally only butt bystanders it captures with its prow; the ritual beatings are left to a special ceremony on the final day. For girls and women, the horse will simply dip its head or tap them with its feather tail. At one time a May king and queen were chosen to accompany the celebrations, and the queen would then 'ride' upon the hobby horse.

Although the records for the Padstow and Minehead ceremonies only go back some 150 years, early accounts insist on the antiquity of the festivals, which are likely to be remnants of spring fertility rituals. Although there is no evidence that either festival ever involved genuine horses' skulls, what remains today seems to be simply an abstract form of folk ceremonies, such as the more primal Mari Lwyd tradition which occurred on the other side of Bristol Channel. I was intrigued to find that according to the inhabitants of Minehead its 'sailing horse' was invented originally to scare off Viking invaders who mistook it for a water-horse, i.e. a dragon. Ever since then this great achievement by the towns' people has been celebrated with a Mayday fair. Although such an explanation for the Minehead ceremony seems highly unlikely, it does express its supposed antiquity and also brings to mind the horse's apparent power to ward off evil.

The Hodening

Most important of all the hobby horse-like ceremonies which are known to have taken place in Britain at one time or another is the so-called 'Hodening', which was held at Christmas time in Ramsgate, in the county of Kent in south-east England. According to one preserved account of this event:

A party of young people procure the head of a dead horse, which is affixed to a pole about four feet in length, a string is tied to the lower jaw, a horse-cloth is then attached to the whole, under which one of the party gets, and by frequently pulling the string keeps up a loud snapping noise and is accompanied by the rest of the party grotesquely habited and ringing hand-bells. They thus proceed from house to house, sounding their bells and singing carols and songs'.

That this ceremony took place annually in Ramsgate, which would become a major sea-side resort for Londoners during Victorian times, and not in some remote part of Britain which managed to cling on to its ancient British heritage, is remarkable in itself. Kent, divided from Essex by the River Thames, was strongly Saxon in influence, being settled as early as the fifth century by Germanic-speaking peoples. Even if the Hodening ritual was pre-Saxon, i.e. Romano-British, it would certainly have been embraced readily by the invading Germans who, as we have seen, venerated the magical potency of the horse. Indeed, the legendary Saxon leaders who landed in Kent, Hengest and Horsa, bear names which denote equestrian origins. 'Hengst' is interpreted as meaning 'horse', while 'horsa' is taken to mean mare. In addition to this, we find that the county emblem of Kent is Invicta, a rearing white horse of uncertain origin. The Hodening thus must be associated in some strange way with Kent's overwhelming equestrian connections, which were certainly encouraged by the incoming Saxon settlers. If this is so, the use of horse-skull house charms cannot have been unconnected with the greater significance of horses' skulls in archaic folk ceremonies of the type described above. They existed, most probably, all over Britain and confirmed the magical qualities thought to have been inherent within the horse's skull, probably in the form of a protective spirit seen as the night-mare, or white horse.

The Cunning Craft

Even though no records exist of hobby horse ceremonies involving horses' skulls in Essex, it does seem that as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries its inhabitants believed that the spirit of the horse was able to protect households against baleful supernatural influences. Yet was this tradition simply some kind of collective way of thinking among the inhabitants of rural Essex villages, such as Manuden and North Ockendon, or was it the knowledge of a select few who would prescribe the use of house charms based on their own interests in colloquial folk magic? We speak here of course of cunning men, individuals found in many villages of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose purpose was to prescribe remedies against the dealings of malign influences, most principally the actions of witches.

Essex has provided the modern pagan community with the most famous of all cunning men in James 'Cunning' Murrell (1780-1860), an eccentric part-time chemist and shoemaker who lived in Hadleigh, a small town in south-east Essex. He sought to break witch's curses through the use of iron bottles filled with the urine, nail clippings and hair of alleged victims. Murrell, who described himself as 'The Devil's Master', went on to influence the foundations of modern pagan witchcraft through his association with the seven witches of Canewdon, whom he was able to call up simply by whistling. Unfortunately, his deeds in this respect were later accredited to one George Pickingill, an eccentric from Canewdon, robbing Murrell of his epitaph as the perceived founder of modern pagan witchcraft.

To Become a Toadman

Over the centuries there must have been countless cunning men in Essex and neighbouring Hertfordshire, and at least some of them might have practised forms of folk magic associated with the horse. For instance, the cunning craft has been linked with the art of horse-whispering, which is steeped in magical lore. Folklore asserts that to achieve power over a horse it was necessary for the practitioner to first obtain a bone from a toad in a certain fashion. The animal was to be hung upon an ant-hill until all the flesh had been eaten away. The skeleton was then to be placed in a fast-flowing stream and watched until one of the bones broke free and floated upstream, 'screaming as it went'. This was then to be retrieved and kept carefully, and in order for the person to become a true toadman he would be required to enter a graveyard or stable and hold on to the bone for three nights. On the third and final night the devil would attempt to steal away the bone, but if this failed then the practitioner would thereafter have mastery over horses.

That some toadmen were also cunning men is beyond question, especially as horse shoes were used to deflect malign influences, and even to expose witches, while horse brasses were thought to be able to protect horses from the evil eye.

The fear that horses might themselves become bewitched was a very real one, and on occasions this resulted in guardian spirits being set up to protect them. For example, in 1984 during the conversion of stables into small shopping units behind The Carlton public house in my home town of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, the well-preserved body of a whippet was found beneath the floorboards in front of the hearth in the tack-room. Since the building was erected as late as 1898, it implies that the belief in guardian animals prevailed in Leigh through to the end of the nineteenth century. Yet the clear purpose of the act was unquestionably to protect the animals in the stables.

It could well be that the horse's skull found inside a bread oven at Manuden was chosen as a house charm simply because it was fortuitously found in the ground beforehand, or perhaps because the inhabitants owned a stable. Yet the fact that another horse-skull house charm has turned up in Essex implies that it was chosen with more specific reasons in mind; reasons which might well have been connected with the art of the cunning man.

Enquiries among local historians such as Fiona Bengtsen and Bari Hooper have failed to reveal a tradition of witchcraft locally, or the presence in the area during the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries of a practising cunning man. Yet we know of the existence of a seventeenth-century cunning man from Barkinstead, Hertfordhsire, named Dr Woodhouse, who attended a woman said to have been alternately barking and mewing, as if possessed by devils. On being exorcised the voices of demons could be heard, which claimed: 'We are only two little imps. Sometimes we are in the shape of serpents and flies and sometimes of rats and mice.' It was determined that the poor woman should be cured by inhaling 'stinking fumigation'.

Then there is the testimony of seventeenth-century 'witch-finder' John Davenport, a contemporary of Matthew Hopkins and the author in 1645 of a tract entitled The Witches of Huntingdon, their Examinations and Confessions, exactly taken by his Majesties Justices of the Peace for that County. Despite its title, it is possible that, similar to Reginald Scot's The Discoveries of Witchcraft (1584), the work could to be used to combat the demonic forces with which the witches of Huntingdon are thought to have trafficked. Indeed, there is some case to suggest that Davenport was rather more a cunning man than a witch-finder. The southern border of the now defunct county of Huntingdon is just 32 kilometres (20 miles) from Manuden.

The Stone Head

The last possible charm associated with the village of Manuden is to be found in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. According to local historian H.L. Verry in his Manuden (Essex) Annals of the Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin since AD 1143, an ancient stone head was found 'buried in the walling' above the arch of the west window of the north transept, built c. 1400, and known today as the Battles Chapel. The discovery was most likely made when the window was being dismantled in order that an exit doorway could be inserted into the wall around 150 years ago. Afterwards, it was placed in the left-hand jamb of the transept's north window, where it can be seen today. The origin of the head is unclear, although Fiona Bengtsen feels that it might originally have been a grotesque that featured in a pre-1400 window frame, which was then used as infill above the aforementioned window. However, its apparent concealment might imply a more specific function, perhaps as a charm against baleful influences; the north being the direction of the devil.

Having examined the stone head at close quarters, I can say that it bears no obvious resemblance to medieval grotesques, being a long distorted face with no specific identify. Aside from the north transept, the choir screen and the nave roof, which are of fifteenth century origin, the rest of the church is of nineteenth-century design, making it difficult to ascertain any further clues as to the presence of the curious stone head. However, another example of a stone head found among the infill of a seventeenth-century cottage at Straits, Easton, in Dorset has been cited by leading folklore expert Jeremy Harte as an example of a house charm.

The effigy was uncovered by Mr. R.A. Healey, of British Damp Proofing, Beaminster, who claimed that they were 'a common addition to buildings for centuries and were meant to ward off evil spirits.' The head, 'an ugly fellow with empty eye sockets, a squat nose and a little round hole of a mouth', was found embedded in the wall of the original scullery. The workman, amused at the discovery, stuck a cigarette in its mouth to 'lighten his gruesome appearance'. The head is now to remain 'exposed to become part of the décor of the room.' In my opinion, there is good reason to suggest that the Manuden example likewise served a similar function, one of the reasons why it was later inserted in the jamb of the transept's north window, perhaps to symbolise a protective spirit able to ward off evil.

Why Manuden?

What is the reason behind the various charms against supernatural influences found in the Essex village of Manuden (which also includes shoes found in the rafters of local cottages ). It might simply be that local historians are more astute than those in other parts of rural Essex and Hertfordshire. On the other hand it could signal the persistence in the village of a lingering belief in folk magic and the potential threat of baleful influences. More than this, it might additionally suggest the presence locally of canny cunning men who were always on hand to prescribe remedies against witchcraft. Only the discovery of further house charms in the area might help throw further light on the subject.

All we can say for certain is that Manuden continues to fascinate those with a deep interest in archaic folk magic. Just outside the oval-shaped churchyard, often an indication that the church was built on a prehistoric mound, are two mark-stones, one a pudding-stone. Moreover, it is claimed that the building lies on a six-point alignment of sites, or 'ley', which extends south-eastwards to the church at Fyfield, where another mark-stone is to be found in the churchyard. These facts alone ensure that Manuden is well worth the visit to those who wish to perpetuate their knowledge of Britain's forgotten past.


I would like to thank local historians Fiona Bengtsen and Bari Hooper, for providing me with information on Manuden's house charms, also to Brian Hoggard for his thoughts on the use of house charms.


Collins, Andrew, 'The Guardian Dog of Leigh', Earthquest News 1:13 (1985), pp. 9-18.

Harte, Jeremy, 'Folk Magic in Dorset: An Inventory of Concealed Finds from the County,' on the site Folk Magic in Britain 1200-2002: archaeology and history at


Hoggard, Brian, 'Horse Skulls', on the site Folk Magic in Britain 1200-2002: archaeology and history, at

Hooper, Bari, 'A Horse-skull House-charm from Manuden', The Essex Journal 24:2 (Summer 1989), pp. 45-6.

Hooper, Bari, 'A shoe for the devil', Essex Countryside 37:395 (December 1989), pp. 22-23.

Hooper, Bari, 'Ritual and Magic in Manuden', The Essex Journal 23:1 (Spring 1988), pp. 3-4.

Maple, Eric, The Dark World of Witches, 1962, Pan Books, London, 1971.

Miles, Clement A., Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher & Unwin, London, 1912. Reader's Digest, Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain,

Reader's Digest Association, London, 1973.

Sikes, Wirt, British Goblins: Welsh folk-lore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions., 1880, EP Publishing Limited, London, 1973.

Verry, H. L., Manuden (Essex) Annals of the Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin since AD 1143, privately published, Manuden, Essex, 1978.

Williams, Russell, Hobby Horses and Associated Rites, to be found at

For further information on all aspects of folk magic and house charms visit Brian Hoggard's Folk Magic in Britain 1200-2002: archaeology and history, at

Please Note: If anyone knows of any similar charms being discovered in any of Manuden's more ancient houses, or, indeed, if you are aware of any being discovered in other parts of Essex, or in any neighbouring county, then I would be happy to hear from them.