Witch Charms:



Coldweather House, Little Marsden (Nelson)


DESK REPORT: Social History (Category LH-)


Coldweather House, Little Marsden: SD 868363




John A Clayton

ADLHist. (Oxford)

Member of the Institute for Field Archaeologists


All text and images © John A Clayton



Coldweather House adjoins a complex of former farm buildings at the bottom of Coldweather Avenue, off Halifax Road, Nelson, East Lancashire BB9 0ET. The property was recorded as a Grade II listed building in 1952 (Listing NGR: SD8678636290) – the following is the basis of the listing record:


· A house probably dating to the late eighteenth century. Fabric is stone with corner quoins stones. Stone slate roof. Stone coping and kneelers with gutter corbels. A two storeyed property with two bays. On the ground floor are double sash windows which are separated by stone mullions – there is an altered window to the right of the property frontage. The frontage has a plain doorway. The first floor contains two sash windows very similar in style to the ground floor with semi-circular headed landing window which extended between two floors. All windows contain glazing bars.


· The Coldweather site is situated on the crossing of two ancient trackways (now abandoned) that were still being used within the medieval period. The name of Coldweather probably stems from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) root of côl (sheltered) and wæg (path, road) providing the adverb of wege (on the way, along the road). This provides an apt description of the sheltered position of Coldweather House in Côlwege‘sheltered/hidden/enclosed place on the wayside.’ The argument for this is furthered by the fact that the root of the name of the neighbouring farmstead, Schofield, can be seen in the Old English scild meaning ‘shielded/protected’ or the Middle English sc[h]ole meaning hut – this latter indicates that there would certainly have been a dwelling of sorts on the site within the period following the Norman Conquest in 1066.


The earliest mention of Coldweather House appears to be 1246 when the tenant of approximately 20 acres there was one Adam Coldwegge. Also in that year an Alexander Coldwegge committed a felony and was outlawed, the consequences of this were that his goods, cattle etc. were sold off for the sum of 6 shillings.  


As ‘tenants at will’ (at the will of the Clitheroe overlords) the Coldwegge family could possibly have been the first people to create and expand the Coldweather farmstead by assart (improvement) of the former waste land there. Alternatively, Coldweather might have existed as part of a ‘fold’ operation where the medieval villeins and cottars of a hamlet centred around the St. Paul’s area cooperated in the operation of draught animals and equipment to work the heavy land. This raises the possibility that the Coldweather site had its origins within the early medieval period of the Anglo Saxons (locally c 690AD – 1066AD).


In 2010 Mr. J Tattersall, the occupier of Coldweather House, discovered a document while renovating the main door to the property. The paper had been placed between two panels of the main door to the property and was folded and secured by means of a red wax, unimpressed seal.




























The Coldweather House Document (© J Tattersall)



Document Properties:

Questions to be asked of this document are – at what date was it written, what was its purpose and who wrote it?

To address the first question it is necessary to identify the type of material that the document is written on. In general the writing medium within Europe to the end of the seventeenth century was vellum: this is clearly not the document material. Although paper had been available for centuries it did not become the common writing medium until the later eighteenth century.

Initially paper was made from pulped rags and available only in limited quantities but advances in technology during the period 1770 to 1844 meant that it became readily available. By the middle of the nineteenth century wood pulp was being used to create paper by mechanical means and this saw a massive increase in volume and standardised paper sizes. Wood paper, however, tended to be more acidic than rag paper and, unless it was chemically treated, deteriorated rapidly.

Where the Coldweather document has been torn by opening the wax seal the paper appears to have a rag pulp fabric overlain by a finer skin. The paper lacks the grain usually evident in wood pulp and the generally unfired and unfoxed condition of the parchment also indicates the lower acidity of rag as opposed to wood.

The black ink used in the document has faded to brown in places and this is strongly indicative of the iron gall inks which were commonly used through to the twentieth century. The materials used in the document, then, tell us only that we can expect it to date to a period anterior to the building of the property and prior to the general adoption of wood pulp paper: this provides a very rough dating of 1775 to 1844.  It is necessary, therefore, to examine the content and context of the document to further dating process – this will also address the question as to why the document was written.


Document Content and Purpose:

Fortunately, through precedent, ascertaining the purpose of the document is a relatively straightforward task. The image below shows a document found at Daubers Farm in Foulridge (at what date this occurred is uncertain) and it can be seen that the content shows very similar properties to the Coldweather document. These documents are in fact rare surviving examples of local ‘witch charms.’



























The Daubers Charm



The Daubers charm is one of three almost identical examples found in local farms and houses: the other two were found at Healey (Rossendale) and West Bradford (Clitheroe). These charms were written by the same hand within the constraints of a clearly defined formula.


The use of witch charms dates back to Pagan times at the very least. The deposition of valuables at certain revered places is well documented within our prehistory and the Romans even had an industry in the writing of spells, prayers and charms on lead tablets for which a patron paid good money. These were then deposited in sanctified places such as wells and river crossings as offerings to the Gods in exchange for protection against some perceived problem or other.

The fear of witches and evil spirits ran high within the rural districts of England during the post medieval period and the Pendle district of East Lancashire carried these strong superstitions for longer than most. In the eighteenth century the earlier Acts against witchcraft were eradicated from the statute books but this enlightened attitude reflected mainly the opinions of the city, even in the earlier part of the twentieth century there were people within isolated districts who firmly believed in the power of witches and the mischievous traits of natural spirits.


The modern charm bracelet is a throwback to earlier times when amulets and charms were worn about the person to ensure good luck and protection against perceived but unknown outside forces. The practice of ‘donkey-stoning’ the front doorstep of cottages persisted in Pendle well into the 1960s and this also is a memory of our recent past where lines and patterns were drawn on the doorstep in order to trip witches and prevent them from crossing the threshold of the house.   



The ordinary people – the farmers, labourers, housewives, blacksmiths and butchers – relied on the services of the local ‘cunning folk’ to offer protection and this was usually supplied in a form of charm. This could take the shape of a written charm (or exorcism) or some object such as a bottle filled with various (usually obnoxious) material. Each district had their cunning person, wise person, blesser, healer, charmer or wizard and these people were more than willing to supply whatever service the populace might require. During the sixteenth century it became common for travelling practitioners to tour the villages and farms with the offer of their quack medicines and formulaic charms in exchange for money or food. These travellers would set up stall at markets and fairs and were the forerunners of the gypsy fortune tellers who would offer their own lucky charms in the form of heather and model Cornish pixies.  



In 1680 John Brinley wrote that ‘Ignorant and Narrow-sould’ people regularly consulted cunning people and witches and that ‘these sort of abused people have as many followers as the greatest Divines.’ Brinley went on to state that the cunning folk ‘do evil that good may come of it, that is use Charms, Spells and Incantations (all of which are no force without the Cooperation of the Devil) to remove Distempers, and do certain Feats in some measure useful to mankind yet of pernicious consequence to themselves.’ The author here was expressing the strongly held official view that any form of magic, white or otherwise, could only be carried out by the aid of the Devil and the practice of providing (or using) charms in any form was an act against God.       


However, the prosecution of cunning folk was rare: they provided a service and they were popular. Further, those found to be employing their services were seldom punished other than by the church where they were usually required to perform some minor penance – there was little, then, to dissuade the populace from practising their beliefs. The use of charms was far more prevalent than the small number of extant examples might suggest. The common occurrence of livestock disease, human disease and ailments and the vagaries of the weather in a strictly agrarian community meant that every single person was affected in some form or another and it is little wonder that some of them had recourse to the only protection they knew of – magic. Thus we see that, dependent upon their particular purpose, holed witch stones, horse shoes, human shoes, witch bottles and written charms were placed in the fabric of barns and cottages or hidden in fireplaces and fields.   




























The Healey Charm



While pulling demolishing an old barn at Healey in 1876 workmen discovered a small wooden box beneath one of the roof timbers. The box was found to contain a charm written in cipher and was almost identical to that found at Daubers. Deciphering of this document was reasonably easy due to the fact that an earlier example, which made a total of three identical documents, had been found (again in a barn roof) at West Bradford near Clitheroe. This particular charm had been sent to the British Museum in 1825 for inspection by their expert in script, Richard Garnett, who gave his opinion on the contents.  


The table in the top corner is a magic square dedicated to the sun, this being a common feature of this type of charm. Within the square are various numbers expressed by letters formed from the Greek alphabet; any six sums in this square taken in a straight line make the number III, and together these make up a total of 666, this being the number of ‘The Beast’ (Rev. xiii. I8). In a line with this square are the symbols of the sun and moon and under them the word ‘Machen’ meaning ‘strife or contention.’ Below this is a symbol consisting of a Jerusalem cross and the sign of Jupiter under which is the word ‘Michael.’ In the centre is a symbol to which no meaning can be attached and above it is the word ‘Intelligence.’ The other figure, on which is ‘sigil,’ is the seal of the sun.


The text in the charm begins with two lines of gibberish in Greek characters and end with the word ‘tetragrammaton’ and following this we find Latin script roughly translating as:


‘I love God, the Lord God, the Hour, Christ, let it be done, let it be done ; let it be done as it is said in the xvii. Chapter of St.Matthew and at the twentieth verse. By faith ye may remove mountains. Let it be according to your faith. If there is or shall be however a bewitcher or a demon dwelling in, or in the habit of disturbing, this person, this place, or this thing, I exorcise it to depart without any disturbance, trouble or the least tumult, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ The Lord's Prayer follows.



Written on the reverse of the charm are the words; ‘Agla en Tetragrammaton.’ The four letters in the ‘Agla’ form the initial letters of a cabalistic word meaning; ‘Thou 0 Lord, art mighty forever.' Tetragrammaton means ‘four letters’ and represents the Hebrew word for Jehovah. Another almost identical charm was reputedly found around 1900 under a brass plate on a tombstone in a Lancashire churchyard.













Returning to charm found at Coldweather House we see that the types of diagram employed by the writer differ from those of the other three known local charms. However, the same basic design principal still applies in that we see a magic square in the upper-left corner which is dedicated to the sun and containing numbers represented by Greek letters. In the centre is placed a six-pointed figure carrying a crucifix at each station. Again, this is a common figure and appears in published accounts of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. The same wording appears here as in the Healey, Daubers and West Bradford examples while to the right there is a circular jumble which appear to be letters representing numbers arranged in threes and these possibly add up to the sum of 666. The body text also appears to be identical to the daubers charm, the number of lines differs but there are an equal number of character sets. This, then, is a standard charm against witchcraft written to a well known local formula – it is, however, by a different hand to the other extant charms from the district.




























The ‘Pendle’ Charm


The charm pictured above was supposedly found in a cottage at Sabden Fold and was published in a booklet in the middle of the twentieth century: - it appears to have little provenance. It was described as a ‘Pendle Charm’ without details of context. This does not conform to the formulaic examples described above and appears to be earlier in date. Fortunately research located an obscure reference to a Pendle charm which appears to be the same one pictured above. Here T. M. Weeks F.S.A, of Westland in Clitheroe, wrote of his dealings with the people of Pendle Forest:


The charm No, 11, from the Common-place Book of William Sykes of Marsden, occurs in A Groatsworth of Wit for a Penny, or the Interpretation of Dreams (see Notices of Fugitive Tracts and Chap-books by J. O. Halliwell – Percy Society, 1849). It is there given as follows :- A Night Spell to Catch Thieves: The following will drive away any evil spirit that haunts houses or other places; and having it about you, no thief can harm you, but if he comes to rob a garden, orchard, or a house, or other places; and having it about you, no thief can harm you, but if he comes to rob a garden, orchard, or a house, he cannot go till the sun riseth: having in every four corners of the house this sentence written upon fine, true virgin parchment: ‘Omnes Spiritus laudes Dominus Mosem habe. Prophetus Exerget Dreus, dissipari inter inimicos.’ But if for a garden, or orchard, it must be placed at the four corners thereof; and if to keep one from being robbed on the road, to have it always about him, and fear God.


I have a charm containing a similar formula which I obtained about twenty or thirty years ago (1880-1890) from an old farmer in Pendle Forest. This district obtained considerable notoriety in the seventeenth century in connection with the trial of Mistress Alice Nutter and others for Witchcraft, and belief in witchcraft still lingers there, or did till quite recently, among older inhabitants.


The old farmer, to whom I have referred, was a firm believer in witches, and averred that he had seen some, and that they could make themselves larger or smaller at will. He had about twenty charms of various kinds written on pieces of paper, by which he set very great store. I managed to get two of them, and the one to which I wish to refer is written on a very small piece of paper in an illiterate hand. It is endorsed; ‘For the house’ and was intended to be placed over the door to protect the house and its inmates. On the front is written; ‘Omnes spiritu laudet domnum mason habent dusot propheates exurgrat disipentur inimicus.’ The last three words seem intended for the opening words of Psalm ixviii; ‘Exurgat Deus, et dissipentur inimici ejus.’


Amongst the other charms which this old farmer had was one labelled ‘For the field.’ It was similar to the last one described, but had these words added; ‘Let all the cattle in this field prosper’ and there was the following direction for its use appended; ‘Put in a gap.’


These charms were not regarded in Pendle Forest as mere curiosities. The old farmer, a short time before my interview with him, was consulted by a neighbour with reference to a cow that was seriously ill. The good man, instead of consulting a book on veterinary science, had recourse to his collection of charms. Selecting the one labelled ‘For the house’ he proceeded to the shippen where the cow was, and placed the potent paper over the door. This was believed to have produced the desired effect as the animal speedily recovered.  


The ‘Pendle Charm’ pictured above, then, could well be the one referred to in the above tract. If not it is certainly very similar and was designed to protect property, land, livestock or people.




John Robertshaw:


The Coldweather House charm carries the signature, or at least the name, of one John Robertshaw. It can reasonably be taken that this person either purchased the charm, and placed it in the door at Coldweather House, or wrote it as a commission for the occupier of the property. If this is indeed the case then we could very well have a clue as to the date of the charm.


Research of the Robertshaw name shows that a John Robertshaw did indeed live at Coldweather House. John was born at Yeomans Farm in Briercliffe in 1732 to a family who had occupied the property at least from the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1752 an Ambrose Robertshaw (possibly John’s father) purchased the neighbouring Burwains Farm from Robert Briercliffe for the sum of £852 and the family lands eventually extended over the farms of Burwains, Stephen Hey, Broadbank, Battyhole and Yeomans in the Briercliffe district – in total these added up to a landholding of some 93 acres.


The Robertshaw family were well connected in the wider district: Ambrose was a churchwarden and acted as overseer for the poor in Briercliffe and, into the nineteenth century, the extended family owned Coldweather House and Claverhole, both in Little Marsden. Other family members included a clergyman who was closely involved in Burnley Grammar School, another member founded a firm of solicitors in Colne, another Ambrose became a surgeon in Ripponden, Yorkshire and another John married into the Hartley family of Pendle Forest and owned Fence Gate. The family continued their landholding interests in the Briercliffe farms well into the twentieth century.


By the early 1760s John Robertshaw had left Burwains and set up home at Old House (Coldweather) with his wife Jennet. Here they had a number of children: Ambrose born 1763, Susan born 1765, John born 1768, Robert born 1772 and possibly others. On 27th June 1776 John purchased the neighbouring property of Coldweather Farm House from Joshua Smith for the sum of £875 and in the following May he paid a further £20 ‘in part for the land.’


When John died on 11th January 1803 he was described as being from Coldweather House as was his wife, Jennet, who died on 6th June 1810 at the age of 71: they were both buried at Colne parish church. This raises the probability that John had moved his family from the Old House to the higher status property of Coldweather Farm at some time between his purchase of the property in 1776 and his death in 1803. The likelihood being that he would have moved soon after the purchase.


Almost exactly a year after John’s demise his son, Ambrose, died at the age of 41. If we take it that John Robertshaw was the person who commissioned the Coldweather charm then the question arises as to whether the deaths of father and son within a year of each other might have a bearing on the matter.


Were both John and Ambrose suffering from some ongoing affliction that the doctors of the time could not cure? If so it is not difficult to imagine that John would have resorted to any possible means of protection from whatever he considered might have been the cause of his family’s ailments – in other words the charm could be seen as a type of insurance policy.


Certainly John would have been steeped within the local folklore of witchcraft, magic, charms, spells and suspicion. He was born into an isolated world in 1732 and his father would have been born only a generation or so following the execution of the Pendle Witches in 1612. Even as the twentieth century bore down on its predecessor there were recorded incidents of farmers in Briercliffe who maintained a strong belief in witchcraft and this was almost two hundred years after John Robertshaw had been born.






Richard Garnett, of the British Museum, was of the opinion that the West Bradford charm dated to ‘No earlier than 1785’ and that there were then (1825) ‘A number of country wisemen still manufacturing such articles within twenty miles of Blackburn.’ Here then we might have the nub of the matter. For some reason John Robertshaw had placed a charm, or exorcism, within his front door to expunge any malevolent spirits that might be present in the house or to ward off the attention of any such force that might take a fancy to entering the property. The date of the paper that the charm is written on can be placed broadly between 1750 and 1850 and the excellent preservation of the document suggests a later, rather than earlier, date. Expert analysis of a similar example by Richard Garnett states that it is likely to be of a later date than 1785. The charm carries the name of John Robertshaw who was the erstwhile occupier the property in which it was found.


An apparent health crisis hit the Coldweather household in the period 1803 to 1804 when both father and son died. At this stage it is not known whether John Robertshaw perceived a specific threat from some disgruntled business acquaintance, farm tenant or indeed a neighbour with whom he had some disagreement but if this was the case then he would have had reason for placing the charm at the entrance to his property.


One conclusion, therefore, is that the ‘witch charm’ recently discovered at Coldweather House generally dates to the period between 1750, when paper became more widely available, and 1803, which is the latest date at which John Robertshaw could have placed the charm. A health crisis within the Robertshaw household very possibly allows for a narrowing of the period anterior to John’s death and this suggests that the charm can be dated 1800 to 1803.


However, there is a problem with this in that it appears that at the time of his death John had not lived at the property in which the charm was found for a number of years. This raises the strong possibility that the charm was placed while John and his family still occupied Old House and we have to consider, therefore, that this would predate 1776. Research has not uncovered marriage details for John and Jennet but their (probable) youngest child, Ambrose, was born in 1763. We can, therefore, postulate that the marriage took place within a year or so of this event. If we take it that John and Jennet would move into their new marital home of Old House at the time of their marriage then a date of 1761-62 does not seem unreasonable for this event. We have, therefore, a window of fifteen years between 1761 and 1776 within which John Robertshaw could have placed the charm.


We will never know the exact reason why John thought that he needed the charm or exorcism. The document might have been an impulse purchase from a door-to-door traveller as a good-luck token for his new house or, as discussed earlier, his actions could have been a consequence of some perceived threat. Whatever the case may be it is certain that the Coldweather House document is a rare example of contemporary evidence for a belief system that seems alien to the modern mind. Although the charm/exorcism conforms to a formulaic design it is, nevertheless, a unique example of its type and as such it is of importance both to the history of the local area and within the national picture.



John A Clayton is the author of The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy – A History of Pendle Forest and the Pendle Witch Trials     Published by Barrowford Press in   2007    ISBN 978-0-9553821-2-3


Witch Charms in the Pendle Forest are explored in detail in:


John Clayton,  The Pendle Witch Fourth Centenary Handbook - Archaeology and History

 Barrowford Press  2012    ISBN 9780955382192



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