Nov. 3, 2022

The Cunning Man of Bicester

The Cunning Man of Bicester

Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in England during the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a relatively impoverished region with agricultural wages among the lowest in the country, Anglicanism was strong and chronic want persisted in the villages. We know from records that by the mid nineteenth century that thousands of labouring class people were questioned about witchcraft by inquisitive, and often socially elite, amateur folklorists. Interviewees commented that the art of black magic had died out and would lead to people like the Reverend Prior from North Oxfordshire concluding that they had missed the era of the witch in the area. He elicited tales of local witches who had died several decades ago- tales of witches from Banbury for example who had danced midnight revels in the olden times. In the 1890’s a historian from Witney was told about witches who had communed with ‘The Evil One’ and had terrorised the local community during the Napoleonic era. Even during the 1950s and 1960s members of the Oxfordshire and District Folklore Society were still uncovering stories of witches who transformed themselves into animals, used the occult to predict and cause misfortunes, and were visited by the Devil on their deathbeds. These witches of course belonged to the generation before and had long departed this world. 

Similar claims about the demise of witchcraft were far from unique. You can see it echoed in Warwickshire and elsewhere in most other regions. 

Attacks on witches across the country began to abate- this is clear from court records and archives- trickles of cases did continue however as late as the 1950s. It appears that no reported cases involving witches occurred in Oxfordshire or South Warwickshire after 1875, although at least four had taken place during the previous twelve years. Two of these attracted much interest from journalists keen to report on the sensationalist details to their avid readers. Another was considered noteworthy because the assailant was a respectable maltster- someone considered high enough within society to have disowned superstition. The final case had such tragic consequences that The Times was compelled to moralise on the deplorable mentality of the region’s rural poor after James Haywood savagely attacked an elderly neighbour, Ann Tennant, in September 1875. Ann Tennant would later die from her injuries. Haywood was unequivocal in his beliefs that his victim was the leader of a group of local witches, who used their occult powers to make him ill. It was this testimony that would save Haywood from the death penalty. 

Witchcraft belief however continued with horseshoes and other means of warding off evil being prolifically used.  Traditionally the most agonised bewitched had sought the assistance of professional occultists known as ‘cunning folk.’  Cunning folk offered a variety of services, including medical therapies, love magic and insights into the future. What distinguished them the most were the counter witchcraft services which reported to identify the responsible witch and repel her influence. 

James Jagger gained a reputation as a 'cunning man' in eighteenth-century Bicester. He specialised in finding lost items and uncovering thieves, but dark rumours also swirled that he had dealings with the devil! 

James was born illegitimately and raised by one George Gurden at the turnpike house that once stood near the junction of Priory Road and Chapel Street in Bicester.

According to the account given by Christine Bloxham in her book Folklore of Oxfordshire, his career in witchcraft began in 1793 when he attempted to summon the devil! He was only partially successful in this. The devil appeared briefly before disappearing in a sudden clap of thunder, presumably before James was able to interrogate him.

James went on to find more practical uses for his supposed magical talents. He developed a reputation for divination, and in particular helping people to find missing objects. One of his clients was the landlady of the Rose and Crown pub, Mrs. Saunders, who asked James to help her find a missing silver clasp. To do this, James first placed a basin of water in a passageway at the pub, and then locked himself in a separate room. Exactly what rites and rituals he performed while locked in the room is unknown, but presently there was a 'sloosh' from the basin of water and Mrs. Saunders was amazed to find that the lost silver clasp had landed in the basin, apparently falling out of thin air!

Unfortunately for James, his dabbling in magic did not come without consequences. On his way home from the Rose and Crown James was apparently seized by an invisible force who lifted him high into the air and off over the rooftops. James was found the next morning four miles away near Kirtlington, complaining of having been dragged through hedgerows, dunked into ponds and ditches and generally roughed up by a group of mischievous demons! James claimed these demons resembled asses with panniers on their backs. 

The abstract belief in witchcraft had clearly endured…..