Shropshire Women, Witches, And Myths – Writing Poems For Stone Tongued

When I started writing my second collection, I thought I was writing a pamphlet of poems about Shropshire folklore, and the way that water weaves through so much of it. That assumption made sense at the time, as the idea stemmed from my poem ‘Trickle Down’, but as I kept writing, different pieces of history and myth started to work their way into the manuscript. I realised I was working on something bigger than a pamphlet, and Shropshire was only part of the puzzle. The pamphlet that I’d been calling ‘Water, Witches, and Women’ started to become ‘Stone Tongued’.

The collection isn’t finished, but since it’s International Women’s History Month, I wanted to to talk about some of the Shropshire women (and women linked with Shropshire) that have inspired poems. The collection pulls from history and myth, so in places the line between those two gets a little blurred. There are stories I couldn’t have included if I was writing a traditional history, because I cannot reference the source material. Writing poems about these poem allows me to focus on finding their voices, rather than double checking my footnotes.

In this post I’m going to be going voice to five women (ten if you count carefully). Kathryn Garner who was tried for witchcraft, Placida who was a Roman woman living in Britain, Mary Jones who was a resident in the Oswestry House of Industry, Hafren an ancient British princess, and Ginny Greenteeth the water hag. I will hand you over to them:

“Garner, Kathryn’ Welshwoman, Found Innocent of Witch Craft in Trial by Water. 2 Pounds For Burial In Christian Ground 1636”

I stumbled across Kathryn Garner while searching for court documents of witch trials in Shropshire. According to Jean Hughes “Witchcraft was practised in Shropshire extensively in the past” [Hughes, Jean, Shropshire Folklore Ghosts And Witchcraft, Westmid Supplies 1979] but the evidence she provide doesn’t go beyond naming local witches who read more like herbalists, or eccentric spinsters. Hughes’ witches, are the local odd-balls, rather than individuals accused of witchcraft by the authorities.

Kathryn Garner seemed like she might be a real example of a woman accused of witchcraft who was killed by the methods used to ‘test’ her. Now trial by water is different from ducking. Shrewsbury in Shropshire certainly had a ducking stool, but it was used for debtors and scolds (a person who nags or grumbles constantly (typically used for a woman)), rather than witches. In a trial by water, the accused was bound and weighed with stone, then tossed into a body of water to see if they would float. If they floated, it was assumed that the devil had stepped in to save one of his own, and the witch would be put to death. In England this usually mean hanging. If the accused sank, then they were declared innocent and pulled ashore. The intention was that they’d be pulled ashore before drowning, but this was not always the case.

I searched for Kathryn Garners’ story in the Shropshire Archives, but I couldn’t find the source text for the quote about her trial and demise. Significant amounts of court documentation have been lost over the years, so there’s a chance that the original court records for the Garner trials did exist, but were destroyed. Google searches have led me round and round in circles, with the majority of the information about her coming from descendants who have posted the story online. While the poet in me would love to believe every word, the historian in me itches at the fact I can’t verify the source material for myself. This was why I did not include Kathryn in my post about Shropshire Witches – Witchcraft In The Early Modern Era, but I did included a poem about her in Stone Tongued.

According to her descendants, both Kathryn Garner (d. 1636) and her sister-in-law Mary Lacye Garner (d. 1635) were accused of witchcraft, tried by water, and drowned bearing witness to their innocence in Shrewsbury. Their husbands both emigrated to Virginia in America and handed their shares of the Lion Inn in Shrewsbury over to the third brother John.

Their stories begin and end with a single line. Even if their story cannot be validated, I feel they deserve more than that.

Placida – A Roman Woman

The Shrewsbury Museum is a fantastic place to go wandering, with a brilliant Roman exhibition on the ground floor that is free to enter. Last year I was pootling around with my daughter in her pram and came across a gravestone of a Roman woman called Placida.

In Roman folklore, gravestones served a purpose beyond marking the gravesite. There was a belief, that if you read the deceased’s name aloud from the stone, you granted that person’s soul a little more immortality in the afterlife. Placida’s gravestone is split into three parts and was found in Wroxeter in 1752. Her husband commissioned the stone, and we know from the inscription that they were married for 30 years, and the inclusion of “Deccus, aged 15; (set up) under the charge of his brother” perhaps suggests that they had children.

Placida’s husband’s name is not mentioned on the stone. However, her name has survived simply because it was inscribed on this stone which reflects beautifully the idea of gravestones holding a sense of immortality. One of the other items that the Shrewsbury Museum holds in this particular gallery, is a Roman mirror.

I’ve looked at this mirror multiple times over the years and always thought about who might have used it. Now when I think about it, I don’t think about a nameless Roman woman on the edge of the empire, I think about Placida. I don’t know what she would have looked like. The Ivory Bangle Lady in York shows us that we can’t make any assumption regarding race when it comes to Romans in Britain, but I think a name makes a person more real to us. The Placida in my head might not be the one who existed, but she might well be an element of her, and that is the element I used when writing her poem for Stone Tongued.

Poetry can show you the truth, without necessarily sticking to the facts. In this case, I had nothing to go on besides a name on a grave, and a piece of folklore I’d picked up from a podcast. From that, I tried to give Placida shape, and breath.

Mary Jones, Oswestry House of Industry

Sticking with the Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery for a little longer, the next individual I want to talk about is Mary Jones. Earlier in this post, I mentioned scolds and the ducking pond in Shrewsbury. Ducking stools were not the only form of punishment used on women who were considered to be scolds. They could also be subjected to a scold’s bridle, a metal contraption fitted around the victim’s head, with a protruding metal ‘bit’ to hold the victim’s tongue down.

The Shrewsbury Corporation’s bridle was donated to Shrewsbury Museum in 1885, and one of the last recorded victims was Mary Jones, from the Oswestry House of Industry. The Oswestry House of Industry was a workhouse, where talking was not permitted during meal times. When Mary broke this rule, the headmaster informed her that she was to be punished with the bridle, and in response, she threw her broth at him.

I feel this was a reasonable response.

What happened to Mary afterwards is unclear. There is a record of a Mary Jones who died in Oswestry House in Industry in her thirties, but with such a common name I can’t say for certain that this was the same individual. When the Shrewsbury Museum posted a video about the scold’s bridle, and Mary’s story for International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it received only 434 views.

Mary is what I want Stone Tongued to be about. I want to write a collection of poems that give voice to women who have been forgotten or forced into silence. Mary Jones was quite literally forced into silence, and the poem I wrote for her ‘Such Dangerous Creatures These Noisy Women’ is one of my favourite poems I’ve written. It will be published this month by Strix, alongside another poem I wrote for Stone Tongued, ‘Witch Bottle’. It’s a poems where I found the story, and knew that I wanted to write about it, but couldn’t find the words. The old drafts of ‘Such Dangerous Creatures These Noisy Women’ never read quite right, and one day when I sat down to edit the poem, I ended up rewriting it entirely. At the end of the rewrite, I felt that I’d finally done Mary justice. She stood up for herself, and I wanted a poem that revelled in that. A poem that celebrated her anger, and resistance, rather than simply pointing out the barbaric nature of the scold’s bridle.

I wanted to let Mary Jones rage. It was the least she deserved in my opinion.

Hafren & Ginny Greenteeth – Shropshire Folklore

Butting up against the Welsh border, there is often overlap when it comes to Shropshire and Welsh folklore. The River Severn which flows through Shrewsbury and Ironbridge begins in the Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales. Like many waterways, it’s had more than one name.

According to the Historia Regum Britanniae ( c. 1136) written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Hafren was a princess, who was drowned in the river by her stepmother. Afterwards, her stepmother (Gwendolen), declared that the river would be renamed Hafren so that everyone would understand exactly what would happen to those who crossed her. As with a lot of folklore, Hafren plays something of a secondary character in her own story. She and her mother are tied up, tossed into the river, and the world moves on. She is the perfect, innocent victim while Gwendolen slots nicely into the archetype of an evil stepmother, perhaps a little unfairly?

Hafren’s father Locrin divorced Gwendolen after having an affair with Hafren’s mother, and Hafren was named his heir. Gwendolen, who had been given to Locrin in an arrangement between him and Gwendolen’s father (King Corineus of Cornwall) stood to lose everything.

Even Hafren’s mother’s story is uncomfortable, with her name up for debate, and her arrival in Britain due to her being kidnapped and discovered on a ship by Locrin. I would not say this myth is one of love or jealousy, but rather one of female survival. While Locrin is alive, both women are subject to his whims and desires. After his death, Gwendolen takes steps to ensure her children inherit but also makes a statement to protect herself from those who might see a woman as weak. Hafren and her mother are a threat to Gwendolen’s survival, but they are only a threat because of the situation Locrin created.

Teaming well with this watery, folklore theme, Ginny Greenteeth is another character from myth that I included in my poetry. She appears in Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, and Shropshire folklore under various versions of her name, each time lurking in ponds, waiting to pull children under the water to drown them. Her name is also used to describe pondweed.

At the start of this post, I explained how the collection merged history and myth. Myths can tell us how women were perceived or expected to behave in a way that doesn’t exist in historical documents because it wasn’t necessarily recorded. I’m not saying that it tells us how women actually ‘were’, but it gives us a reflection of beliefs held about women. I included this bit of folklore, because I didn’t feel it would be fair to only talk about women in a way that put them on a pedestal.

If I’m going to write poems about women, I need to write about the darkness as well. This is why I have a poem about Kent woman Johanna Ferrour who beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury (also Lord Chancellor) during the peasants’ revolt. Her rebellion was large and loud, but somehow mostly lost to history. Mary Jones’ rebellion was small and much quieter, but in my books, just as important. Both women were seeking to have themselves heard as they protested against unfair treatment.

Ginny Greenteeth is a childless spinster, a water hag, hiding in the village pond. She is the image of what men feared women would become without a husband to control them.

I’m going to end this post by echoing Janina Ramirez in her conclusion to her brilliant book ‘Femina – A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It’. Find the women who’ve been forgotten. “Go into your local library, visit village museums, read gravestones, walk into churches, explore outlines in fields, search the internet for records, share your findings with others’ (Ramirez, Janina ‘Femina’ WH, Allen 2022 pg.333). You can do this by writing poems, blog posts, books, or articles, or talking the ear off a stranger at a bus stop. The point is to rediscover these women, hear their stories, and learn their voices. Every woman deserves to be heard.

This isn’t rewriting history, it’s simply filling in the gaps.

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