Feature Image:
Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London (1835), by Édouard Cibot
Bridgeman Images

When I was in high school, I had pointy features and big teeth and black vintage clothes. I read research books for fun, and some of them were about witchcraft.

I was not popular. My classmates hummed the theme music for the Wicked Witch of the West as I walked past. They mumbled nasty words in the halls. And one day when I was riding my bike through a new neighborhood, somebody sent a small blond-haired boy out to the front yard to yell “Witch! Witch!” so loudly that his little feet levitated off the porch slab.

I was startled—and proud. Somehow, in that moment, I knew I would survive the teen years.

Call a woman a witch these days and you’re giving her a compliment. A witch is in touch with something that defies categories; she sees possibilities that others do not. She has powers. She’s rarely malevolent—in fact, she may be a perfectly nice person. She may be you.

We need witches. From time to time they have been banished, but history still seeks them out. The Biblical king Saul, for example, once found himself in a pickle, needing his God’s advice about fighting the Philistines. In desperation, he sought out the elusive Witch of Endor—who was worried about using her powers after Saul himself had outlawed all witchcraft. But with his special permission, she raised the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, who gave Saul some good news (he would trounce the Philistines) and bad (Saul had offended God by getting help from a witch, and now he was doomed). A classic double bind: Saul won the battle but died the next day.

People have always gone to witches when they needed help, condemned witches when things didn’t go their way. In the Middle Ages, the same woman who delivered your child without pain or gave you a love charm could be the one you blamed for blight among your cows the next month, with unhappy results for the witch. Anyone considered especially ugly or beautiful or smart or good with herbs or just unusual was at risk.

The accusation that stuck was usually that the witch used her supernatural powers to hurt other people. The real problem was usually uneasiness over the fact that this “different” person was actually managing to survive, possibly even thrive. “Well,” I imagine the zealots huffing, “if she doesn’t need us, we’ll prove we don’t need her.” And poof! She was a witch.

There is power in endurance. Accused witches linger around us in history books and folklore that preserves their legends. They are our teachers—and our cautionary tales.

If I am a witch (I admit nothing yet), I am in mostly good company. Some of history’s accused—and occasionally convicted—witches are my heroines. They were creative, resourceful, independent, and even kind in times when those qualities were not greatly encouraged.

Enchantresses, I’m looking at you. Let’s invite a few of the accused to meet us at the corner of Tudor and Tennessee and reveal the powers that brought them both high and low. We might even start something … Let’s call it, for now, a club.

Anne Boleyn

The Tudors continued the medieval tradition of fingering inconvenient women as witches. And nobody found ladies more inconvenient (after having first of all found them alluring) than Henry VIII.

We know that Anne was a temptress, using the king’s lust to win favor and power for herself and her ambitious family. Was that so wrong? When he spotted the twenty-five-year-old beauty among his first wife’s ladies in 1526, Henry was twenty years older than she was, and he was famous for using and discarding women. He’d done it with her older sister, so he must have thought this would be another wham-bam-thank-you-with-
a-castle situation. But Anne was ambitious too. She wanted
a crown just as much as her family wanted it for her. Why shouldn’t she set herself a challenge?

There was nothing Anne could not make into an asset. Some accounts say she had an extra pinky finger on one hand or the other, plus a large mole on her neck, which is why she made the wearing of very long sleeves and neck ruffs fashionable. Because extra fingers and large moles could be signs of—you got it, witchcraft. Strategically, Anne flirted—but she made Henry wait. In fact, she drove him so mad with longing that in order to win her, he divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and founded a new religion with himself at its head. The Church of England disbanded England’s abbeys and took the wealth to itself and its king; now fabulously rich, Henry officially married Anne in January 1533 and went on his way rejoicing.

For a few months, anyway. In September, Anne gave birth to their daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry was not amused. Seven years into the relationship, a big part of Anne’s charm had been the promise of a son … Well, he could still hope.

Three miscarriages later, though, Henry was tired of waiting and tired of Anne; he was ready to elevate his new lady love, Jane Seymour. But he could not start a new religion every time he wanted to be rid of a wife, and even under the C of E, he had to give a good reason.

When Henry divorced Catherine, he’d said that the marriage displeased God because she’d been married to his brother before him. With Anne, he varied the theme and claimed that she’d lain with her own brother and other men, which meant that she’d committed treason by cheating on the king. For good measure, he also fell back on an old strategy: That’s right, call the woman a witch. She must have been one to enchant him so deeply—it was sortilege, or spell casting, that had done him in. Plus which, the brother. Now, that was nasty.

Anne was arrested, and so were a slew of men who confessed (with or without torture) to having been her lovers and having conspired to kill Henry, and her fate was sealed. When told she was condemned to die, she reportedly encircled her neck with her hands and declared, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.” She then laughed, causing her jailor to write, “She has much joy in death.”

Maybe, maybe not. One thing about Anne—while she was alive, she lived.

As to witchcraft, let’s say for a moment that Anne did
snare Henry with sortilege. If so, her powers were limited to seduction, for she could not get herself out of the Tower or her condemnation. But as long as we’re tossing accusations around, what about that thing with Henry’s left leg—the varicose ulcer that burst during a joust at Greenwich in January 1536, just as the marriage was on its last legs as well? The ulcer had formed from a wound sustained in a joust nine years earlier (really, fellows, enough with the jousting!), and it reopened when Henry fell off his horse. He also lost consciousness with a concussion, and Anne was in such a panic that the stress may well have brought on the miscarriage that ended their union.

Anne may have been fairly easy to get rid of, but that ulcer wasn’t. It never healed again, and a matching infection formed on Henry’s right leg. His jousting days were over, and as he spent his time eating and drinking to excess, so were his good looks. So … coincidence? Or divine justice? Part of me—a vindictive, morally dubious part—would like to believe it was Anne’s doing. Even if she was powerless to free herself from the machinery of Tudor law, she might have had just enough sortilege left to make sure that even though Henry might find women to occupy his bed, he must have known he had lost his mojo.

And one other thing: If witches are bad and church is good, who is the sinner here? The woman who insisted on a church wedding, or the man who outlawed his people’s faith to get what he wanted?

Anne, you are perfect in my eyes. May you find joy in the company you keep now.

La Voisin

Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin (or Montvoisin) may actually have been as wicked as people said she was, but she probably didn’t start out all bad. Naturally, sources disagree about what she did or did not do, but it seems she had a relatively quiet start in life with a husband who was a jeweler, and she gave birth to at least one daughter. When her husband’s business failed, she began supporting the family as a midwife and fortune teller, reading palms and faces and drinking a bit more than was good for her. By the 1670s, now a widow and a single mother, she had established herself as the French court’s premier fortune teller, love witch, and, um, poisoner.

Maybe some of her intentions were good. Making your way through the court of the Sun King was a dicey proposition, and she helped out some unhappy ladies. If you needed a spell to inspire or keep a man’s love, or an elixir to free yourself of an unexpected pregnancy, you turned to Catherine, now known honorifically as La Voisin. She counted at least one mistress of Louis XIV among her clients, providing the notorious Madame de Montespan with aphrodisiacs and the hookup to a priest who celebrated a dark mass in love’s honor.

La Voisin is most famous for her fatal “inheritance powders,” or poisons. With a breathtaking talent for micromanagement, she organized an international ring of alchemists and traders—many of whom were also female fortune tellers—stretching to Italy and Spain. Her specialty was getting rid of husbands who cheated or had made themselves otherwise undesirable. (Tiens, she might have said; it is not necessary to explain why the heart wants what it wants.) When Madame de Montespan became Louis’s former mistress, she is said to have used one of La Voisin’s brews in an attempt against the king and his current lover.

Let me be clear: I’m not holding Catherine up as a model of feminist behavior. But if you squint a certain way into the scry-stone of time, what she accomplished is fairly impressive. She rose from the middle class to become a fixture in the Sun King’s court, and she was an international businesswoman at a time when a woman was hard-pressed to own so much as a house or a small bakery. This was not easy to do.

La Voisin’s reign ended in 1679, when the police arrested her as she left church. It turned out that some of her clients had confessed to their priests about those murderous potions, and a years-long investigation had led to Catherine. During a year of imprisonment, interrogation, and alcohol withdrawal, she admitted to a fraction of her crimes, albeit not to any that would carry the death penalty. Still, the evidence was damning enough, especially when her daughter bore witness against her, and La Voisin was burned at the stake in 1680.

Catherine, I deplore your dark heart, but I admire your business sense and your ability to keep your mouth shut under pressure. Never apologize, never explain.

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Susann Cokal is the author of four novels, including the award-winning Kingdom of Little Wounds and her latest, Mermaid Moon, in which a mermaid goes ashore to find her mother, only to fall into the clutches of a witch who wants to harvest her magic. Cokal also writes short fiction and essays about oddities, and she lives in a haunted farmhouse with cats, peacocks, spouse, and unseen beings who bump in the night. “I’ve always suspected there was more to mermaids than the shipwrecks and love stories that lead them to land,” she says. “I’m glad I had the chance to figure them out in these changing times—both in the novel and here among the creatures of Enchanted Living.”