IN former times, the fear of witches and witchcraft dominated rural life in this country and it is difficult to pinpoint a particular time when it began.

Certainly, it was at its height around the 14th and 15th centuries, extending into the 19th century and later.

So serious was a belief in witches in this country that the Government enacted the Witchcraft Acts of 1542 and 1563 which made murder by witchcraft a hanging offence.

Lesser crimes involving witchcraft, such as injuries caused by witches or spells, attracted punishments such as imprisonment or being pilloried.

In 1604, James I enacted another capital offence which was “to consult, covenant with, employ, feed or reward any evil or wicked spirit” and in 1618 a handbook for judges stressed the importance of familiars that were used by witches.

These were small creatures like cats, frogs, and even insects that were thought to be evil spirits in animal form; it was believed that familiar could be controlled and used by its owner for a range of purposes involving witchcraft.

It wasn’t until 1951 that the Fraudulent Mediums Act repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1785 that dealt with fraud used in fortune telling, clairvoyance, telepathy and other powers.

Furthermore, we continue to use one of the most effective measures against witches – an iron horseshoe nailed to the door of the house or stable. Because those shoes were made of iron, and cost nothing to obtain from a blacksmith’s pile of worn-out horseshoes, they were considered the finest of all witch deterrents. And we still use them to symbolise good luck.

Other witch-deterring devices were at the entrance to houses – for example witch bottles were buried under the doorstep or even placed up the chimney in the hope of warding off witches who brought sickness and disease.

The bottle contents were quite gruesome - human urine, hair and nail clippings, iron nails or pins, pieces of thread or anything else owned by the householder.

It was believed these bottles terrified any witch that might threaten the household or its occupants, and so she would not enter to create havoc or illness.

Similar effects were thought to be produced by witch balls. These were large, colourful glass globes coated with reflective paint.

They were hung in windows where it was thought the sun’s rays glinting from the glassware would dazzle the witch and persuade her to leave before inflicting the householders with diseases or infections.

These balls are thought to have been first used circa 1690 and remained popular into the 19th century; now they are sold as antiques. And after all, many believe horseshoes bring good luck.

The people of this region continue to re-tell stories about witches although the notion of them flying about the heavens on broomsticks has lost credibility.

However, many topographical books continue to tell tales about witch hares. These stories, related over a wide area of North Yorkshire, are all basically the same. All involve old women who, it was claimed, could turn into a hares whereupon they committed damage to crops, stole milk or eggs, or undertook other mischief. The only way to kill or halt a witch hare was to shoot it with a silver bullet.

In various tales of witch hare hunts, the hares are injured in the back or legs but escaped. When hunters hurried to the witch’s home, she would be found alive with corresponding injuries. If the hare was hit in a rear leg, so the witch’s leg was injured.

Some of the named witches of the North York Moors include: Awd Kathy o’ Ruswarp, Awd Nan Scaife o’ Spaunton Moor, Awd Mother Migg o’ Cropton, Nanny Pierson o’ Goathland, Peggy Devell o’ Hutton-le-Hole and Awd Jeannie o’ Mulgrave.

There were others but not all could turn into hares although most were skilled in the black arts, fortune telling and casting spells while Sally Craggs o’ Allerston could turn into a cat.

Many moorland houses were adorned with objects both inside and out as protection against witch’s spells. They included horseshoes, horse brasses, round stones with holes in them, rowan twigs, corn dollies, witch bottles and crosses made from hazel wood.

However, some authorities also believe that oak heck posts carved with an X mark were to ward off witches; my recent research suggests this is not so. The X-marks were almost certainly cut by a Catholic priest as a sign that a house was safe when regularly used for Catholic services.

If those priest-marks, as they were known, were to ward off witches, they would have appeared all over England.

They appeared in a small area of the North York Moors, Rawtenstall in Lancashire and farmhouses near Enschede in Eastern Holland where they represent The Five Wounds of Christ.

Similar marks also appeared on altar stones and in heraldic symbols but had nothing to do with witches.