In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII denounced witchcraft and made all acts of witchcraft heresy. For the next three hundred years, more than 200,000 women and men were tortured, hanged, or burnt alive across Western Europe. One place that has been known for its long association with witches and witchcraft for centuries is England.
From the first Witchcraft Act in England in 1542 to the popularity of Margaret Murray’s 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe to Gerald Gardner’s New Forest Coven and the practice of Wicca, there is a deep history of witches in England. But one of the most infamous was The Wookey Hole Witch, who stalked the shadows of the Wookey Hole Caves close to Somerset, England.
In fact, some believe that she never left. Does the Wookey Hole Witch guard the caves to this day?
The Wookey Hole Witch
There are several versions of the legend of the Wookey Hole Witch, but the core details are always the same. Long ago, a witch moved into Wookey Hole Caves near Somerset after having her heart broken by a lover. In her anger and sorrow, she put a curse on the nearby village of Wookey and the surrounding area to make any romance someone had doomed to fail.
One day a young man from the nearby Glastonbury became engaged to a girl from Wookey. Due to the Wookey Hole Witch’s curse, their relationship fell apart, leaving him devastated. He is so heartbroken that, in order never to feel the pain of failed love, he chose to become a monk.
After years of living under the curse of the Wookey Hole Witch, the people of Wookey had enough. The people of Wookey visited the Abbot of Glastonbury to ask for help. The Abbot assigned a monk (sometimes named Father Bernard) to resolve the situation.
According to the legend, that monk was the same young man whose love was destroyed by the Wookey Hole Witch years before. Committed to his cause and keen for payback, the monk entered Wookey Hole Caves, but could not see the witch in the shadows of the dark cave.
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Suddenly, the Wookey Hole Witch leapt out of her hiding spot and bombarded the monk with spells and curses. But they had no effect: every spell and curse the Wookey Hole Witch sent was blocked by the monk’s “air of goodness.”
It is said that the monk blessed the waters of the River Axe or that he had brought his own Holy Water with which he splashed the witch. When the Holy Water touched her skin, she was instantly petrified, shriveling up and dying as she was turned to stone. And the legend says that her petrified body still remains inside the first chamber of the Wookey Hole Caves.
Wookey Hole Caves Today
The Wookey Hole Caves themselves are a series of limestone caverns and a “show cave” (where tourists can visit and take tours) and are the prime attraction of the village of Wookey Hole. The River Axe runs through the caves, which have been declared a “Site of Special Scientific Interest,” otherwise known as an SSSI.
An SSSI is an area of land the government mandates in the United Kingdom for conservation purposes. To be an SSSI, a site must have biological, geological, or both reasons for being protected. This certainly applies to the extensive cave system here.
Aside from the natural features, there has been proof that humans have used or lived in the Wookey Hole Caves for over 45,000 years. Tools from the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Iron Ages, as well as fossilized remains of animals, have been found in the caves.
Some of the fossils found in the caves include European badgers, the extinct Pleistocene lion (Eurasian Cave lion or Ice Age lion), and the remains of the Pleistocene cave hyena (Ice Age spotted hyena).
The water from the River Axe has been used in the process of making paper at the oldest paper mill in the country. Various cheeses, including cheddar, gruyere, and parmesan, are aged in the caves. This is because caves are at a steady temperature of 52℉ (11 ℃) and have high levels of moisture. The Ford Farms from Dorset use the cave and its aptly named “Cheese Tunnel” to age their delicious cheddar cheese.
The Wookey Hole Caves were also the location of the first cave dives in Britain made by divers Graham Balcombe and Jack Sheppard. Since the two men first explored the caves in 1930, we have learned much about the caves. To this date, 25 chambers in the Wookey Hole Caves have been explored, extending around 14,400 ft (4,400 m) underground, at a depth of 300ft (90m).
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Linguists and historians have studied the origin of the name “Wookey Hole”. There are several different theories about how the caves got their names. One theory is that the name comes from the Welsh word for cave: “ogo” and that this may have been pronounced “Ochie”.
There is also a special tie between the caves and Alfred the Great, famous warrior king of the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon word for cave is, somewhat unsurprisingly, “hole”. With the combination of the Welsh word and the Anglo-Saxon word for cave, the name Wookey Hole Caves literally means “Cave, Cave, Caves.”
The “Real” Wookey Hole Witch
But what of the witch? Well, as it happens there is some physical evidence to support the legend. In 1912, Herbert E. Balch, the English archeologist, caver, and geologist, discovered the remains of a skeleton within the cave system.
Scientists analyzed the bones and concluded that the remains had lain in the Wookey Hole Caves for over 1,000 years. Along with the bones of the Wookey Hole Witch were discovered the bones of a goat, a dagger, and was has been referred to as a “polished stone ball”.
The skeleton and the other items found with her lead many to believe the Wookie Hole Witch was real. The bones of the Wookey Hole Witch can be seen on display today at the Wells & Mendip Museum in Wells, Somerset.
The skeleton remains found at Wookey Hole Caves are interesting, but ultimately cast doubt on the legend of the Wookey Hole Witch. Scientists have analyzed the bones found in 1912, and the majority of the bones were from a man between the ages of 25 and 35.
One part of the legend that was forgotten when the bones were found was how the monk (Father Bernard) turned the Wookey Hole Witch into stone. If the legend of the Wookey Hole Witch is true, the bones are not hers.
And, in fact, the Wookey Hole Witch can be found today when visiting the Wookey Hole Caves. She appears in the form of a stalagmite that is described as human-like, with the silhouette of a witch.
Does the Wookey Hole Witch haunt the Wookey Hole Caves? No, but there was an audition for someone to dress up and play the role of the Wookey Hole Witch in 2013. Thousands of “witches” came to the caves to take part in the Hex Games audition. The acting role of the Wookey Hole Witch is part of the tourist attraction in the “show cave” when children are out on school holidays.
Top Image: Does the Wookey Hole Witch haunt the caves she was killed in to this day? Source: Wirestock Creators / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon
Balch, H and Troup, R, 2011. A Late-Celtic and Romano-British Cave-dwelling at Wookey-Hole, near Wells, Somerset. Cambridge University Press. The Antiquaries Journal 62, 2. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/archaeologia/article/abs/xxvia-lateceltic-and-romanobritish-cavedwelling-at-wookeyhole-near-wells-somerset/1B19FBC1B899A585D4CEAA23B80742E7
Hutton, R. 2011. Romano-Bristish Reuse of Prehistoric Ritual Sites. Cambridge University Press. Britannia, 42. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/britannia/article/abs/romanobritish-reuse-of-prehistoric-ritual-sites/CBC0F5448C987F0AC80310FAABC04302
Binding, c. and Wilson, L. 2010. Ritual Protection Marks in Wookey Hole and Long Hole, Somerset. University of Bristol Spelaeological Society. Available at: http://www.ubss.org.uk/resources/proceedings/vol25/UBSS_Proc_25_1_47-73.pdf