Philippa Gregory: Why witchcraft has fiction fans under its spell

Author Philippa Gregory

Author Philippa Gregory (Image: NC)

And it may be more than coincidence, says the award-winning author of The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen. According to Gregory, our fascination with all things witchy peaks during periods of extreme national strife. Tidelands is set during the English Civil War, a time of deep ideological division, with warring leaders and a parliament in crisis. So perhaps it’s little wonder witchcraft is firmly back on the agenda in the age of Brexit. 

“I’ve been two years writing this, and the political situation during that time seems to have got dramatically more difficult,” she says. 

Other recent witchy titles include the best-selling Circe by Madeline Miller, about the titular Greek 
goddess, and The Familiars by Stacey Halls, inspired by the real-life Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire in 1612. 

But for the acclaimed British author Gregory, 65, Tidelands is something of a departure. She is more accustomed to stirring up intrigue about historical figures in the Tudor court, but this time her heroine is the fictional Alinor, a lowly midwife scratching out a meagre living on the misty marshlands of the south-east coast. 

During the Civil War, while King Charles I is under house arrest awaiting execution, and religious and political paranoia sweeps through the country, Alinor’s gift of second sight and her rebellious streak lead to accusations of witchcraft. 

“She’s a herbalist and a midwife, so she’s a prime suspect,” says Gregory. “Claims of witchcraft were directed against women who didn’t fit into society, who were radical or just downright argumentative.” 

The author has made the secret history of women sidelined by posterity something of a specialty. For her, witches are a feminist issue. 

“This is a topic of enormous importance in women’s history, because by the 17th century witchcraft is a woman’s crime, whereas before that it was predominantly male.” 

Cover of the book

Tidelands (Simon & Schuster, £20) (Image: NC)

Public records point to a spike in witch trials during the Civil War, encouraged by the Malleus Male-ficarum, a handy How To Catch A Witch manual for the Middle Ages. 

Money was in short supply, and witch hunting could be lucrative. Cash bounties were paid to informers and prosecutors, the most infamous self-appointed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, personally responsible for the execution of more than 300 women in East Anglia alone in the period in which Tidelands is set. 

“The persecution of women generally around the country increases because of the disrupting effect of the war,” says Gregory. 

“The King was explicitly known as the father of the nation and killing him overthrew all natural authority. What was going to take its place? People feared an uprising of the common people, and women in particular. 

“You had a lot of women’s petitions to Parliament, and many elite women were running the houses and estates because their husbands were either in prison, dead or at war. 

“As always in wartime, women are stepping up into male jobs, and that was very, very frightening for men. It still is!” 

At a time when women who were merely deemed “disorderly” could be subjected to barbaric punishments, such as the ducking stool and scold’s bridle, an iron muzzle used to punish a nagging woman, the penalties for those convicted of witchcraft were brutal. 

Burning at the stake, drowning and beheading were common, alongside torture, flogging and imprisonment. Between the mid-1500s and mid-1600s, an estimated 60,000 women across Europe were executed. 

“It’s important that we don’t romanticise that aspect of the period,” says Gregory. “Witchcraft trials were not uncovering real witches, they were persecuting and torturing women until they confessed to something they had never done.” 

She points out the compelling stereotypes which dominate the subject – naked communion in the trees, devil worship, broomsticks, black cats and cauldrons – are “an absolute male fantasy of what women’s sexuality would be if they weren’t controlled. It’s both a misogynistic terror and attraction. 

“We imagine them dancing about in woods and flying through the air on broomsticks, but no witch ever confessed to these things without prompting. It simply didn’t happen. But because it’s such a strong fantasy, we still imagine it today.” 

In Britain, the high tide of “witch hysteria” had largely subsided by the time the more liberal Witchcraft Act of 1735 was introduced, yet the fascination remains. Wicca, a modern form of Pagan Witchcraft, is a recognised religion, with about 800,000 practitioners around the world. More troublingly, each year police deal with a handful of criminal cases where children are beaten, traumatically “exorcised” and sometimes killed by those harbouring superstitious beliefs in witchcraft. 

17th century image of a ‘witch’ burning

17th century image of a ‘witch’ burning (Image: Kean Collection/Getty Images)

In the age of #MeToo, gender pay gaps and social media witch hunts, Gregory – who has a daughter, Victoria, in her 30s – recognises other modern-day parallels. 

“When you see women who have the courage to speak up today, and the persecution they suffer just for expressing an opinion, not enough has changed,” she says. 

“When are people going to accept that a woman has a right to speak her mind? My heroine works on the farm and is paid two-thirds of the male wage. Three hundred years on, that’s still what most women take home. Although we’ve made fantastic progress in terms of freeing women, there’s a long way to go.” 

Tidelands is the first instalment of an epic series, partly inspired by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, which will follow Alinor’s family from the 1640s through to the financial crash of the 1920s. 

While writing the series, Gregory will continue to devote as much time as possible to her charity, Gardens For The Gambia. 

She first visited the West African country in the 1990s with her family while research-ing her novel about slavery, A Respectable Trade. She was invited to a village school, where the headmaster told her of his dream to develop the school playground. 

“His plan was to put in a well for reliable water so they could plant a garden with vegetables, and the children could learn sustainable agriculture,” recalls the writer, who was born in Kenya. 

“If they were successful, they would plant a cash crop around it of walnut and citrus trees. The money from that would pay for stationary, which the school had no budget for. 

“I asked him how much it would cost, and he said, £400. So I gave him the money. Later, he faxed to let me know that they had dug the well and planted the vegetables, and that the children would soon be eating them. Before that, they just had rice. I thought, this is the best £400 I’ve spent! At the end [of the fax] there was a postscript. ‘The school next door has seen our well and wondered if you’d like to give them one?’ I thought, ‘Yes, I really would’.” 

From these humble beginnings, Gardens For The Gambia has since installed almost 200 wells. 

Never mind the dark arts. It transpires there’s still room for a pinch of good magic, too. 

Tidelands (Simon & Schuster, £20). Call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/PO payable to Express Bookshop to: Tidelands Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or visit UK delivery free.