Farewell to Witchposts -
Hello to Priest Marks and stiepelteken
Over the years, lots of authors (including me!) and some folk lore experts have referred to or written articles about witch posts. Said to be made from rowan wood, they form part of the inglenook hearths of private houses and farms around the North York Moors. They were claimed to deter witches from harming the house, family or livestock and could be identified by a large X-mark carved on the face near the top. Examples can be viewed in Ryedale Folk Museum at Hutton-le-Hole near Kirkbymoorside, the Pannett Museum at Whitby and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. With the exception of (possibly) five such posts at Rawtensall in Lancashire, original examples were not thought to exist elsewhere.
Brought up since childhood with these well-established ideas, my research into the life of the martyr, Nicholas Postgate, has revealed that this is not the true situation. In short, I believe the posts were NOT installed to ward off witches, most certainly they are NOT made of rowan wood and they do NOT exist solely within the North York Moors and Rawtenstall. There is a considerable number in Holland, a fact that suggests there could be more elsewhere. In Holland, they are known as stiepeltekens.
Before I proceed further, I should stress that The Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle in Cornwall displays decorative imitations but no genuine posts; these are not representative of the genuine articles, being quite different in appearance.
So what is, or was, a witch post? It is a name given to a carved oak post that forms part of a 17th century inglenook fireplace. It supports a huge cross beam called a bressumer which shores up the smoke hood whilst also serving as a heck post.
In some houses, it is also known a speer post. This post, by whatever name it is called, supports a short partition that stands beside the hearth. Widely known as the heck, it forms one side of a short corridor that leads into a through-passage; the other side of that short corridor is formed by the house's outer wall. As the name suggests, the through-passage crosses the width of the house and has a door or opening at each end, leading outside. In former times, corn was threshed inside this passage with both outer doors open to create a draught that blew away the husks. For this reason it was called the threshold.
The heck partition, which can be made of stone, wood or other materials, may be on either side of the hearth. Backing onto the heck partition there is usually a small seat which forms a very cosy corner (a neuk, nook or inglenook) close to the fireside and this was regarded as a considerable luxury when these fashionable hearths first appeared around the mid-1600s. Examples remain in daily use both in private houses and inns around the North York Moors and elsewhere.
An inglenook with priest mark from Stang End Farm, Danby, North Yorkshire, now in Ryedale Folk Museum
Many oak heck posts (not rowan as some continue to believe) are unadorned whilst some bear domestic carvings such as initials, dates, signs of the Zodiac or floral designs, although some support coat hangers on nails and one has a peg upon which to hang a towel (in the Ryedale Folk Museum, see picture above). That particular peg was installed as recently as 1946. However, several heck posts have no adornments whatsoever, yet are widely known as witching posts due to their style and location, plus their association with folk lore that is patently untrue.
I am interested in posts that bear a carved saltire on the face near the top. This is the letter X, sometimes referred to as St Andrew's Cross. In many cases there are further carvings known as either scrolls or billets. These resemble horizontal ripples cut from the upright timber usually below the X-mark and vary in number. The maximum I have found is 12 (on a post in Pitt Rivers Museum), and I believe this is the only one to bear such a large number - but the post did originate in a very large rural area around Danby in Cleveland, one of many perhaps?
These posts have led to many theories, the most common being that they are a witch deterrent made from rowan wood - the mountain ash. Crucially, they are all created from oak and if their purpose had been to deter witches, they would have been located in most areas of England as well as within a wide range of houses and livestock shelters. In fact, apart from a replica post made from rowan wood at Egton, all are carved on oak and all genuine ones form part of inglenook hearths in the North York Moors and the Lancashire village of Rawtensall. I do not know of others, except for similar marks on posts in a small area of eastern Holland.
The reason folklore writers claimed they were made of rowan was because, at the height of witchcraft fears, the rowan tree, its twigs and wood, were all considered fine deterrents against witchcraft and much folklore was associated with those beliefs. I find it quite astonishing that even the Dictionary of English Folklore (OUP 2000) erroneously states that 17th century houses on the North York Moors accommodate witch posts that are made of rowan carved with an X-symbol. It is evident the writers did not examine the timberwork - but perhaps they did? Most of the posts were smothered with greyish-white lime wash which acted as both a preservative and insect repellent. That covering might have concealed the truth but in recent times, householders have cleaned their posts to reveal the oak beneath.
However, I am now going to challenge those long-held beliefs despite them being widely publicised as well as being common in the village where I grew up. We had at least four "witch posts" in our village and three remain in local farmhouses.
One relevant point is that the so-called witch posts have no medieval or pagan history - they did not appear in England until the mid-17th century when inglenook hearths proved so popular and efficient. Quite literally, they arrived with those hearths, which provides some sort of time-scale; they were not recorded before the arrival of those hearths in the mid-17 century, 1630 or thereabouts.
Furthermore, the name witch post did not appear until the 19th century or even later, which suggests they were not known by that name until many years after their initial appearance. Canon J.C. Atkinson's book Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891, revised in 1908) gives space to witchcraft beliefs and old houses but does not refer to witch posts.
However, in 1893 he donated an X-marked post to Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. With a dozen scrolls, it was removed from the Old Shoemaker's Shop at Danby-in-Cleveland when he was vicar and his letter dated 5th March 1892 describes it as "the (assumed) witch post." That is probably the first published use of that name. I have seen his original letter in Pitt-Rivers Museum and it is clear he did not accept that the posts were associated with witchcraft - but he did not offer an alternative suggestion either in that letter or in his books. I suspect he had an inkling of the true reason for the X-marks posts, but did not wish to reveal it!
Joseph Ford, another local author, provides a stronger clue to their purpose. In his Some Reminiscences and Folk Lore of Danby Parish and District (1953) he tells us that "such posts came to be called witch posts" thus suggesting this was not their original name. Some writers believed the term came into use during the middle years of the 20th century, probably after World War II when life was returning to normal even if the purpose of the cross marks on the posts remained a mystery.
These factors plus my own research suggest the posts were not associated with witchcraft beliefs. What seems to have been overlooked is that when the posts were installed during construction of the hearth, they would be plain oak pillars whose function was to simply to support the heck partition and the bressumer. All these were quite normal features of such a construction. Once installed, the householders would adorn them with their own decorations - love symbols, signs of the zodiac, flowers, initials, relevant dates and even pegs from which to hang towels! For this reason, these posts were very useful things to have around the house - I've even known people keep spare cash in the cracks or hammer in nails to hang pictures.
However, when some were transformed by having an X-mark cut onto their faces, they assumed a quite different role. Joseph Ford provides an important (and perhaps the first) real clue to that purpose. Few, if any, researchers seem to have taken up his point. He writes about witch-laying ceremonies in what he describes as "our forefathers' time" and criticises the parish priest for not doing enough to eradicate superstition. He adds that people distressed by family problems would seek help from the parish priest and suggests the priest would then visit their house and "lay the witch". I stress that these events occurred long before he was born in 1870, with his parents and grandparents perhaps relying upon folk memory passed down to them from their own grand-parents or great-grand parents. I doubt if a Catholic priest would be "laying a witch" - but he might have been conducting a blessing of some kind.
However, Joseph Ford adds, "When this mysterious ceremony was over... it was the custom of the priest to cut the Roman figure X on the upright oak post..." Here we have the first known reference to the carvings being the work of a priest.
This was a local Catholic priest, Canon Atkinson specifying that "priests" were Catholics and "Church priests" were Anglican. In my opinion as a practising Catholic, it is likely that the "mysterious ceremony" was a Catholic blessing in Latin with candles and holy water, probably completely misunderstood by non-Catholic observers of that time. In a highly superstitious district (as the North York Moors then was) it would be easy to believe it was being done to deter witches and evil spirits. Prior to the X-mark being cut on the post, it is highly likely the "mysterious ceremony" was a Catholic form of blessing the household, an act that would be commemorated by the X-mark being cut by the priest. Thus it would become known as the priest mark and Ford referred to that name on p.96 of his book. That mark appeared some years after its parent post had been installed.
I think those house-blessings had another purpose - ie: a means of declaring that a particular house was suitable for Holy Mass to be celebrated in secret in the aftermath of the Reformation.
There is strong evidence to suggest that this priest mark originated as a widely known Catholic symbol during a time of persecution, and this is reinforced by the stiepeltekens of Holland. Like the English X-marks, they also appeared in the 17th century at a time of persecution of Dutch Catholics and the plundering of their churches by the Calvinists. In the English case, Catholic churches were raided by the Protestant authorities during the Edwardine Visitations (1547-1553).
To further develop the religious strand of this theory rather than relying on the superstitious strand, we know that inglenook hearths and heck posts date from the early 17th century. This was a time of massive religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Holland and England with the English state wielding the upper hand in its own country.
Laws were passed to criminalise many Catholic actions, eg failing to attend C of E church services, or being educated overseas to be trained for the priesthood. The latter was considered treason with a dreadful death penalty - it was also treason in England to deny the sovereign was head of the church.
Despite these strictures (along with many more) a busy Catholic priest was operating in secret on the North York Moors, then known as Blackamoor. He travelled on foot disguised as a gardener, always aware that his priesthood meant he was liable to fiendish execution as a traitor if he was caught practising his faith. His name was Father Nicholas Postgate, whose family home was a smallholding at Kirkdale Banks near the River Esk at Egton, a few miles up-river from Egton Bridge. As a complete side issue during this research, I discovered I was born some 400 yards from that location, something I had never previously realised.
After training in the Spanish Netherlands at Douai University (now in northern France), Father Postgate worked in the West and East Ridings of Yorkshire before returning to his native North York Moors around 1662. There is no space here to outline all his activities but it is known he had great devotion to the imagery of The Five Wounds of Christ. That had long been used as the symbol of Christian resistance to tyranny, both in England and overseas (including Holland). The Five Wounds, abbreviated into the form of an X, represented the crucified Christ being spread-eagled on the cross with wounds to his hands and feet plus another in his side from a soldier's spear. The symbol had been displayed on banners during the Crusades, the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Rising of the North. Even as a child, Nicholas Postgate had witnessed the potency of that image.
During his moorland mission when aged over 60, he served the North York Moors between 1662 and 1679, (the date of his execution at York's infamous Knavesmire), to carry out his work, Father Postgate needed safe houses in which to celebrate Mass, baptise and confirm children and conduct weddings. When the use of a suitable house was offered as a substitute and secret church, he would surely bless it (the mysterious ceremony!) and then carve the symbol of The Five Wounds of Christ on a suitable base - the X on the oak post at the hearth. In that way, a house was identified as safe, but how did the faithful know which house out of many would be used for the next Mass? To maintain the utmost secrecy, regular changes of venue were necessary if raids and arrests by the authorities were to be avoided.
Local Catholics were familiar with such houses and understood the code of the wooden scrolls on individual heck posts. To inform the faithful of the house that had been secretly selected, white sheets were hung on hedges or spread across the heather as if to dry. They were visible from long distances in those hilly moorlands. In his pamphlet Ven. Nicholas Postgate (1928), Father William Storey wrote "More quickly and more surely than any other messenger, the sheets signalled where Mass was to be said. Spread out as if to air on the hedges by the cottage, their number indicated the spot in the neighbourhood that had been selected." Drying washing in this way this was normal but as a means of passing secret messages, it would easily fool Government agents. Two sheets indicated the house with two scrolls beneath the X on its heck post; four sheets were displayed for the house with four such scrolls and so forth. There must have been a lot of white washing for the post previously mentioned - the one with 12 scrolls! It was a secret unspoken system that would be successful today.
To my knowledge, almost twenty original priest-marked posts exist within the North York Moors. Some survive in private houses but all were, or still are, in the area once known as Blackamoor, the scene of Father Postgate's moorland mission. Born within those same moors, he returned in 1662 as a priest when the new inglenook hearths were being constructed during the Great Re-Building as it was known and the widespread location of those marked posts provides an indication of the breadth of his "parish". All the Yorkshire posts were within his massive "parish" but it is possible he divided it into smaller units, probably attended by one or more of his assistants. In that way, one post in a small area might bear the same number of scrolls as another some distance away, even as far as 25 miles. The local people would be aware of any such boundaries but no post bore the same number of scrolls as another nearby. Or so we believe - there are no records!
So what about the posts in Lancashire? One of Father Postgate's assistants was Father John Marsh, a Lancastrian who travelled home from time to time. My original thought was that he was responsible for emulating Nicholas Postgate by cutting the X-marks on posts in Rawtensall but since becoming aware of the Dutch priest marks, I think there may be an alternative explanation.
See note below for more about these two stiepeltekens.
Thanks to a book published in Holland Gevel- en stiepeltekens in Oost-Nederland by Jan and Everhard Jans (1974), a different scenario has arisen. A number of X-marked posts have appeared around the town of Enschede in East Holland near the German border. They are similar in appearance, age and purpose as those in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and the X is carved on an oak pillar which is an oak door post which opens into the threshold of a farmhouse. The post - known as a stiepel - forms a pillar between two doors, and is removable to facilitate the entry of vehicles. The book contains information and illustrations of Dutch oak posts carved with X marks that resemble our so-called witch posts and some have other personal designs on them just like ours. They are located in farms and rural houses and the carved or decorated posts are known as stiepeltekens, some dating to around 1600. The word teken signifies a token or symbol and two surviving posts bear the dates 1637 and 1660 which correspond to the appearance of those around the North York Moors (see right).
The Jans' book and the religious history of Holland show that events in Enschede, when Catholics had their churches stripped of crucifixes and other adornments by the Calvinists from 1566 onwards (known as beeldenstorm), replicate similar occurrences in England when the Edwardine Visitations of the 16th century stripped Catholic churches of their ornamentations, altars and so forth, with walls being whitewashed to conceal biblical paintings. If the people in England did not attend a Church of England service on Sundays, they were fined and if they did not or could not pay the fine, their property was confiscated by the State or they were imprisoned. Bearing in mind that the saltire has long been regarded as the symbol of resistance by the Catholic Church, it does seem there are links between the stiepeltekens of Enschede and the priest marks of the North York Moors.
I wonder if that link was Douai University? Philip II of Spain and successive Spanish kings were Catholics and well-known for their repression of dissenters. Philip II sought to secure and maintain the Catholic faith despite opposition both in Spain and overseas. Spain owned a large part of the Netherlands and one of Philip's actions was to found Douai University in 1562, now in northern France but at that time part of the Spanish Netherlands. Both the Vatican and King Philip provided financial support to Douai University, and it was at Douai that Nicholas Postgate, the Martyr of the Moors, received his training as a Catholic priest (1621-30). I believe that when he returned to the moors, he introduced the X-marks as a potent symbol with which he was familiar.
King Philip II was born on May 21, 1527, and was King of Spain from 1556 and also King of Portugal from 1581; he died in 1598 but his son Philip III (1578-1621) carried on his work which in turn was followed by his grandson, King Philip IV (1605-1665). Nicholas Postgate attended Douai University in the English College from July 1621 until June 1630 when the university was still being financially supported by the King of Spain and the Vatican. The similarities in appearance and purpose by the Dutch stiepeltekens and the English priest marks suggest both may have links with Douai. This must raise the question of whether the X-marks were inspired by a tutor or other priest at that university. Quite strangely, when I went to view the priest mark at Silpho in the North York Moors in February 2008 (this priest mark had been apparently chiselled off its post by the early Methodists who thought it was a pagan symbol) the householders showed me a Spanish coin they had found in their garden. There were no other coins nearby so it was not part of a secret cache, and speculation arose that it may have been dropped by a priest making his way from Douai to the North York Moors and staying awhile at a safe-house - ie one containing a priest mark. The coin was a piece-of-eight dated 1676 during the reign of King Charles II of Spain; he was the son of Philip IV.
It seems more than mere coincidence that three fairly small localities in two nations should simultaneously select the same symbol of Catholic disobedience. It is not impossible that Douai University in the Spanish Netherlands was the source. The stiepeltekens were located in the Catholic part of Holland whilst the religion was under attack at the same that the near-identical priest marks of the North York Moors were all within the area of operations of Father Nicholas Postgate, a devout Catholic priest who was also working against tyrannical oppression. It is significant that all appeared around the same time - the middle of the 17th century and in support of this, one in the Moors bears the date 1664. One in Rawtenstall bears a later date, 1695 and the initials IA. which probably refer to a local farmer, Joe Ashworth, the I and J being interchangeable at that time. So did another Douai-educated priest inspire the priest marks in Rawtenstall?
The pretence that these ceremonies and carvings on the posts were devised to dispel witches in England, created a wonderful method of concealing Father Postgate's true and secret mission. It provided a wonderful cover story that has survived for more than three and a half centuries and has apparently led to the creation of the myth of the witch posts. I believe the fact that these objects in England are known as witch posts is very misleading. "Witch post" implies they were built into the hearths as many people have come to believe but was not so. Blank posts formed part of those new inglenook hearths, and the priest marks along with other adornment were added later. I believe they would be better understood if they were called "Priest Marks".
So could this be "Farewell" to Witch Posts and "Hello"to Priest Marks and stiepeltekens?
NOTE: The stiepelteken dated 1660 shows what is described as the Hourglass Motif on the inheritance Stiepel Olde Geerts Brecklenkamp (Avg. Denekamp). Unpainted oak. Sketched in 1958. Whereabouts currently unknown.
Stiepelteken from 1637, preserved as building fragment in the gallery of the courtyard of the Rijksmuseum Twente Enschede. Empire East Twente copy, once carved cross. Guts Tick decoration. Oldest dated stiepelteken in Twente. Sketched in 1957.
These translations are not too clear but the images, including a further ten, are very clear. Catholics may interpret the hourglass image as a chalice.
Further details can be obtained from this website. However, this will produce the Dutch language; the Google translation may be helpful.
The credit for this information goes to my son Andrew who has assiduously searched the internet to acquire this information. As a Buddhist monk with an English degree in Theology, he has shown a great interest in anything connected to our English priest marks.
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