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01/20/2006 Archived Entry: "Witch Posts"
One of the more curious features of the central North York Moors of England was the use of so-called witch posts in cottages. Witch post is the fairly modern name for a tall piece of oak wood which, in the seventeenth century, supported the smoke-hood of the inglenook fireplace. It stood on the floor and was incorporated within the structure, being distinguished by carvings on the face near the top. The carvings varied but most included a cross which was shaped like an X. Sometimes there were scroll-like effects beneath the X; on occasions hearts and other designs were incorporated, perhaps with a date.
With only one exception, these posts were located in cottages in and around the North York Moors. The exception is one discovered in a house at Rawtenstall in Lancashire. In all cases, the posts were made of oak wood, they all formed part of the structure of the building and the carving was of the style popular in the seventeenth century. Indeed one post in a Glaisdale house bears the date 1664. It is not certain how widespread was the carving of these posts, but surviving examples have been found at Glaisdale, Danby, Rosedale, Gillamoor, Farndale, Egton, Goathland, Lealholm and Silpho near Scarborough, a rather compact, if somewhat wild area of the moors. Some have been removed while others remain in situ.
Examples can be found in the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford and the Ryedale Folk Museum at Hutton-le-Hole. There is no record to suggest how many posts were destroyed or removed during modernisation of the cottages and it is interesting to note that past authorities such as Canon Atkinson and Richard Blakeborough, in their comprehensive books about the moors, make no reference to them.
Close interest in these posts stems from the last seventy years or so and in the absence of any known explanation for their presence, it was assumed (without any real evidence) that, when carved, they were a form of protection against witches.
In medieval times and more recently, country people believed witches cast evil spells upon them, their homes and their cattle and so made use of various charms to keep them away, including witch bottles under the threshold. Other deterrents included horseshoes, the wood of the rowan tree and a bewildering host of very local charms.
But were these posts really a form of protection against witchcraft, or did they serve another purpose? Although our superstitious forebears used a wide range of charms against witches, the X-shaped cross does not seem to feature among them. Apart from being the cross of St Andrew, this is also the Greek symbol for Christ and so we might ask - who carved those oak posts? And why? Clearly, it was someone skilled with wood carving tools and it would take some considerable time to complete each one. If the purpose was to deter witches, why not simply nail a horseshoe to a post or make use of some other simple charm? Why use oak, not rowan wood? And why place it inside the house instead of outside where witches would see it? And was the carving done upon a post already in position, or was it specially created?
The fact that these so-called witch posts have been credited with being a deterrent has been disputed by folk lore experts, but it may be significant that before they were given that name, they were known as priest marks or priest posts. The theory was that a priest would visit the house to "lay the witch" and then secure the premises against further trouble by marking it with a cross.
If this was the case, why did the priest not make use of the better-known cross of Christ's crucifixion? One persistent theory is that the posts were the work of a travelling priest, hence the Lancashire example, and bearing in mind the date of 1664, a famous priest was working in the moors at that time. Because he was a Catholic, however, he had to work in secret and his "parish" included the villages I've named.
He was Nicholas Postgate, a native of Egton Bridge who studied at Douai in France before returning, in secret, to the English Mission.
At first, he worked around Tadcaster and other places in the East and West Ridings, but early in 1660, he returned to the North York Moors, living at Ugthorpe and going about his mission disguised as either a gardener or a pedlar. His life was always at risk from pursuivants as he celebrated Mass in cottages, cattle sheds and other secure places.
He travelled those moors from 1660 until 1679 when he was executed on York's Knavesmire for baptising a child. In 1664, therefore, (the date on the witch post to which I referred earlier) he would be walking those moors and visiting houses. In some cases, houses were marked to indicate their occupants' willingness, in spite of the risks, to accommodate a travelling priest. The sign was five vertical lines etched in stone above the doorway, said to represent the five wounds of Christ.
The 1664 witch post was, coincidentally, installed at Postgate Farm, Glaisdale and it bears the initials EPIB which may be the first letters of the opening line of a Latin prayer. I have a Catholic missal dated 1688 but can't trace in it any specific prayers for laying witches, although it does contain prayers for King James, Queen Mary and the Dowager Queen Katherine.
So if these posts indicate the visit of a priest travelling in secret, might they signify a room where Mass could be safely celebrated? Or were they merely confirming the house had been blessed? And if the priest did not carve the crosses on the posts, who did? And why? I don't know the answers although I doubt if Postgate Farm is named after the martyr. The place-name Postgate dates from the thirteenth century, long before his time, and it means a road marked by posts. Whatever the purpose of these curious posts, some of which may have been installed after the death of Nicholas Postgate, it is interesting to speculate that the Martyr of the Moors may be associated with some of them.