Long Compton's bewitched past, Warwickshire Life

PUBLISHED: 23:41 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:23 20 February 2013

The Red Inn at Long Compton

The Red Inn at Long Compton

The village of Long Compton was once home to numerous witches, one of whom met a terrible end ... Chris Mowbray reports

The village of Long Compton was once home to numerous witches, one of whom met a terrible end ... Chris Mowbray reports

On 15 September, 1875, the normally tranquil Warwickshire village of Long Compton was the scene of a bloody and bizarre street murder which sent shock waves through Victorian Britain.

The victim was 79-year-old Anne Tennant, the wife of an agricultural labourer, and her killing could hardly have been more public or more brazen. As she went to the local baker's shop to buy a loaf of bread for her husband's tea, a man stepped forward, thrust his pitchfork through her throat pinning her to the ground and then carved bloody crucifixes on her face and chest with a bill hook. Horrifying as the murder was, there was something especially terrifying about it for the local country people who understood the ancient superstitions which had gripped this isolated rural spot for more than 4,000 years.

They knew that this was the classic method of executing a witch.

The perpetrator was arrested only a short time after the alarm was raised and immediately admitted what he had done. In fact, he even claimed that his actions were to protect the community and that there were 16 other witches in the parish whom he would also like to kill. It comes as perhaps something of a shock to discover that several of his neighbours agreed with him. There was clearly a deep social schism at the time running through the community and fed by years of fear and suspicion.

The killer was James Hayward, a young man of weak intellect who had lived in the same street as the Tennants and their seven children for nearly 30 years. They both lived in the southern part of Long Compton which to this very day is known as the 'Witch End' of the village because of the number of witches who lived there. When an inquest was held in the Red Lion two days after the incident, the jury returned a verdict of 'wilful murder' and he was committed for trial at Warwick Assizes.

The case was heard the following December when, as part of his defence, Hayward asked the judge to weigh the dead woman's body against the church Bible, a traditional way of determining the existence of a witch. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, was detained at Warwick Gaol at Her Majesty's pleasure and starved himself to death a few months later.

The tragedy was one of the more extreme incidents involving witchcraft which occurred in Long Compton over a period of several hundred years and which continued well into the 20th century. The tradition stemmed from superstitions surrounding the Rollright Stones, an ancient stone circle situated a mile away just over the border in Oxfordshire. Tradition had it that the 32 metre circle and the single King Stone standing a short distance away just in Warwickshire, were a Viking king and his army who were turned to stone by an angry witch while they were trying to conquer the whole of England. The stones became the centre of occult worship and young woman used to press their naked breasts against them in the belief that this would make them fertile.

However, carbon dating has shown that the circle is far older than even the Vikings. The circle is Bronze Age dating from about 1,800 BC and the King Stone is even older and comes from the Neolithic Age. They have suffered sporadic attacks by vandals in recent years and are now cared for by a charitable trust which charges visitors a small fee to pay for their upkeep and protection.

The Romans settled here and it is thought that Christianity may have reached the village as early as the 5th century when the first church was built. Legend says that St Augustine came to Long Compton in the late 6th century when he preached in the church and raised a man from the dead.

The name Compton comes from the Old English Cumbtun meaning 'farmstead or village in the valley', but is recorded in the Domesday Book as Cuntone. It acquired its current spelling in 1299 when there seems to have a general modernising of place names throughout the English shires. The Long refers to the length of the village which is strung out along the main road between Stratford-upon-Avon and Chipping Norton.

The village, which is built mainly of local stone, is among the most beautiful in the Cotswolds and at its centre is the current church of St Peter and St Paul which dates mainly from the 13th century. Attached to the south side of the chancel is a small 15th century chantry chapel and the nave roof is supported by corbel heads carved in a variety of fascinating shapes. The most unusual is a woman wearing a full horned head-dress.

Another fascinating feature of the church is the Lychgate which was built at the entrance to the churchyard so that funeral corteges could shelter from bad weather. It consists of a 17th century half-timbered brick and thatched cottage which was originally the end of a complete row. The other cottages were destroyed by fire and only this one survived. It was once a shop and later a private residence, but was given to the church in 1964.

The upper room is now used by the Compton District History Society as a museum and archive of documents, photographs and maps as well as for historic objects which have been excavated in the surrounding countryside. The Lychgate and museum are open to visitors on an occasional basis or by special arrangement and the Society meets in the village hall on the second Wednesday of each month except for December, January, July and August.

The Society also has an Archaeology Group which is aiming to map out local land usage and settlement from prehistoric times to the present day.The research includes field walking to recover flint and pottery as well as using metal detectors to find buckles, buttons and coins. All historic finds are cleaned and recorded and are then either preserved by members of the Society or placed in the village museum in accordance with the landowner's wishes. One the latest projects involves the double excavation of a Roman Villa and Medieval site.

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