The Covens

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The word coven is a derivative of 'convene', and is variously spelt coven, coeven, covine, cuwing, and even covey. The special meaning of the word among the witches is a 'band' or 'company', who were set apart for the practice of the rites of the religion and for the performance of magical ceremonies; in short, a kind of priesthood.

The Coven was composed of men and women, belonging to one district, though not necessarily all from one village, and was ruled by an officer under the command of the Grand Master. The members of the Coven were apparently bound to attend the weekly Esbat; and it was they who were instructed in and practised magical arts, and who performed all the rites and ceremonies of the cult. The rest of the villagers attended the Esbats when they could or when they felt so inclined, but did not necessarily work magic, and they attended the Sabbaths as a matter of course. This view of the organization of the religion is borne out by the common belief in modern France:

'Il est de croyance générale qu'il faut un nombre fixe de sorciers et de sorcières dans chaque canton. Le nouvel initié reprend les vieux papiers de l'ancien. Les mauvaises

gens forment une confrérie qui est dirigée par une sorcière. Celle-ci a la jarretière comme marque de sa dignité. Elles se la transmettent successivement par rang d'ancienneté. Il n'existe que cette différence de rang entre les sorciers et les sorcières. Ceux-là se recrutent aussi bien parmi les gens mariés que chez les célibataires.[1]

The 'fixed number' among the witches of Great Britain seems to have been thirteen: twelve witches and their officer. The actual numbers can be obtained, as a rule, only when the full record of the trial is available; for when several witches in one district are brought to trial at the same time they will always be found to be members of a Coven, and usually the other members of the Coven are implicated or at least mentioned.

The earliest account of a Coven is in the trial of Bessie Dunlop (1567); when Thom Reid was trying to induce her to join the society, he took her 'to the kill-end, quhair he forbaid her to speik or feir for onye thing sche hard or saw; and quhene thai had gane ane lyfle pece fordwerd, sche saw twelf persounes, aucht wemene and four men: The men wer cled in gentilmennis clething, and the wemene had all plaiddis round about thame and wer verrie semelie lyke to se; and Thom was with thame.'[2] Clearly this was a Coven with Thom as the Officer, and he had brought Bessie to see and be seen. The witches tried at St. Osyth in Essex in 1582 were thirteen in number.[3] At the meeting of the North Berwick witches (1590) to consult on the means to compass the king's death, nine witches stood 'in ane cumpany', and the rest 'to the nowmer of threttie persons in ane vthir cumpany'; in other words, there were thirty-nine persons, or three Covens, present.[4] At Aberdeen (1596-7) sixty-four names of witches occur in the trials; of these, seven were merely mentioned as being known to the accused, though not as taking part in the ceremonies, and five were acquitted; thus leaving fifty-two persons, or four Covens. Out of these fifty-two, one was

[1. Lemoine, La Tradition, 1892, vi, pp. 108, 109. The italics are in the original.

3. Witches taken at St. Oses.

condemned and executed at the assize in 1596 and twelve in 1597, making in all thirteen persons, or one Coven, who were put to death.[1] The great trial of the Lancashire witches in 1613 gives a grand total of fifty-two witches, or four Covens, whose names occur in the record. This includes the three Salmesbury witches mentioned by Grace Sowerbuts, whose evidence was discredited as being the outcome of a 'Popish plot' to destroy the three women as converts to the Reformed Church; but as the record shows that the other accused witches were tried on similar charges and condemned, it may be concluded that other causes occasioned the acquittal. Taking together, however, only those witches who are mentioned, in these trials, as having actually taken part in the ceremonies and practices of witchcraft in the neighbourhood of Pendle, it will be found that there were thirty-nine persons, or three Covens.[2] In Guernsey in 1617 Isabel Becquet confessed that

'at the Sabbath the Devil used to summon the Wizards and Witches in regular order (she remembered very well having heard him call the old woman Collette the first, in these terms: Madame the Old Woman Becquette): then the woman Fallaise; and afterwards the woman Hardie. Item, he also called Marie, wife of Massy, and daughter of the said Collette. Said that after them she herself was called by the Devil: in these terms: The Little Becquette: she also heard him call there Collas Becquet, son of the said old woman (who [Collas] held her by the hand in dancing, and some one [a woman] whom she did not know, held her by the other hand): there were about six others there she did not know.'[3]

At Queensferry in 1644 thirteen women were tried and seven executed for witchcraft.[4]

At Alloa (1658), though thirteen persons, or one Coven, were brought to trial, the word is used to indicate a smaller number: 'Margret Duchall lykewayis declared that ther was sex women mair besyd hir self that was in thair cuwing' [then follow the names of the six]. 'Jonet Blak confessed severall meetings with the abowenamed cuwing. Kathren Renny being asked quhat meetingis scho

3. Goldsmid, p. 13. Translated from the French record.

had with the diwell, and the rest of hir cuwing, scho ansuered scho had severall meitingis with all tham abowenamed.'[1] Little Jonet Howat of Forfar (1661) said, 'Ther was thair present with the divell besyd hirselfe, quhom he callit the prettie dauncer, the said Issobell Syrie, Mairie Rynd, Hellen Alexander, Issobell Dorward, and utheris whoise names shoe did not know, to the number of 13 of all.'[2] The trial of Jonet Kerr and Issobell Ramsay at Edinburgh (1661) gives the names of thirteen persons, or one Coven.[3] At Crook of Devon (1662) there 'were tried twelve women and one man, i.e. one Coven.[4] Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne (1662) gives the most detail concerning the Covens: 'Jean Mairten is Maiden of owr Coeven. Johne Younge is Officer to owr Coeven. Ther ar threttein persons in ilk Coeven.' Her evidence shows that there were several Covens in the district:, The last tyme that owr Coven met, we, and an vther Coven, wer dauncing at the Hill of Earlseat, and befor that we ves beyond the Meikle-burne; and the vther Coven being at the Downie-hillis, we went besyd them. [She and four others] with the Divell, wer onlie at the making of it [a charm], bot all the multitude of all owr Coevens got notice of it, at the next meitting . . . all my owin Coeven gott notice of it werie schortlie.' She also notes that each member of her Coven 'has an Sprit to wait wpon ws, quhan ve pleas to call wpon him'. Janet Breadheid, of the same Coven as Isobel Gowdie, gives the names of thirty-nine persons, or three Covens, who were present in the Kirk of Nairn when she was admitted into the Society.[5] In Somerset (1664) the number of accused was twenty-six persons, or two Covens.[6] At Newcastle-on-Tyne (1673) Ann Armstrong stated that at the meeting at the 'rideing house in the close on the common' she saw ten men and women whom she knew and 'thre more, whose names she knowes not'. At another meeting 'at Rideing Millne bridg-end she see the said Anne Forster, Anne Dryden, and

3. From the record of the trial in the Edinburgh Justiciary Court.

Luce Thompson, and tenne more, unknowne to her. Att the house of John Newton off the Riding, the said Lucy wished that a boyl'd capon with silver scrues might come down to her and the rest, which were five coveys consisting of thirteen person in every covey. At a large meeting at Allensford, where a great many witches were present, 'every thirteen of them had a divell with them in sundry shapes.' It is also noticeable that Ann Armstrong mentions twenty-six persons by name as having been at various meetings to her knowledge.[1] At Paisley (1692) thirteen persons of high position brought an action for libel against six others for saving that they, the thirteen, had drunk the Devil's health in the house of one of them; the libellers were punished, but the number of persons libelled suggests that the accusation' might have been true."'

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