In English folklore, the Berkeley Witch was a wealthy woman who lived during the time of the Norman Conquest in the town of Berkeley in England's heartland. She was wealthy and well liked, and lived luxuriously. Her secret, kept until she was close to death, was that her wealth was given her by the Devil, in a pact for her soul (see Devil's pact). Apparently, she earned the name witch because she sold her soul to the Devil, which reflects the once-common belief that all witches made diabolic pacts.
According to lore, one evening as the Berkeley Witch ate at her dining table, her pet raven gave a single, harsh note and dropped dead. The woman recognized this as a sign that her end was near and that she would have to live up to her end of the bargain with the Devil. The beginning of the end was an onslaught of bad news, the first being the death of her oldest son and his entire family. She was so overwhelmed that she took to bed and grew weaker by the day. She confessed her pact to her two other children, who were a monk and a nun. It was determined that the only way to keep her out of the Devil's clutches was to wrap her body in a stag's skin, place it in a stone coffin bound with three magic IRON chains — for iron drives away the Devil and his hordes — and place the coffin upright in church. Psalms and masses were to be sung and said over the coffin for 40 days and 40 nights. Meanwhile, if the coffin were not violated by the Devil by the third day, her body could be buried in the church's graveyard.
On the first night after her death, a horde of Demons appeared and broke one iron chain. They reappeared on the second night and broke a second chain. But the third chain remained impervious to the Demons' efforts, despite the fact that the very church shook on its foundation, and doors splintered on their hinges.
Then a hideous figure appeared — the Devil himself — and bade the Berkeley Witch follow him. From inside the coffin she replied she could not, for she was bound. “I will unbind you, to your great loss,” the Devil answered. He tore away the chain, smashed the coffin and seized the living corpse of the witch. He strode outside, where there waited a huge, Demonic black horse covered with spikes. He threw the witch on the horse, and her corpse was pierced through with spikes. Her screams reportedly could be heard for miles, but for naught: the Devil leaped up on the horse and rode away into the night.
- Briggs, Katharine. British Folktales. New York: Dorset Press, 1977.
- Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1972.
The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.