In 19th-century Wales, when medical cures were hit-or-miss, people were just as likely to go to one of the cunning folk as to a qualified doctor. Alis Hawkins, whose new book, Not One Of Us, features one such astrologer and healer, writes about the real wizards of west Wales.
One of the reasons I love setting my fiction in mid-19th century west Wales is the gear-crunch of cultures that was taking place at the time. To the Cardiganshire person in the street of the 1850s, change seemed to be accelerating at an alarming rate everywhere he looked. Railways were offering mass public transport in a way inconceivable even twenty years before. Steam powered machines were radically changing the world of work. New printing techniques and telegraphy were revoluntionising the spread of information. And, almost a decade before Darwin wrote On The Origin of Species, science was already beginning to encroach on territory previously dominated by religion.
Even people’s concept of time was being challenged. Because GMT had yet to be adopted, in December 1851, an article in the Welshman remarked that “the electric telegraph is now able to outstrip the swift-footed Chronos in running westward – a message sent from London at noon will be in Exeter 14 minutes before noon…”
Medicine was no exception to this mid-century ferment . Throughout the 19th century, medical practice was still a pretty hit-and-miss affair: there were few drugs that were truly effective, diganostic tests were non-existent, and surgery was still a last resort. (By the 1850s anaesthesia was beginning to make inroads to obstetrics but, without antibiotics and a thorough understanding of sterile technique, surgery still often proved fatal due to post-operative infection.)
And those were not the only differences from our contemporary world. In the 1850s, not all those who presumed to use the title ‘doctor’ were medically qualified. As late as 1856, of the 10,220 men listed in the Medical Directory, fewer than five per cent had a medical degree; some of those registered will, undoubtedly, have been what were referred to contemporaneously as ‘cunning folk’. Or, in the west Wales of my Teifi Valley Coroner novels, dynion hysbys.
Cunning folk combined the roles of herbalist, healer, protector against the curses and maledictions of witches, astrologer and purveyor of charms. People were as likely to consult cunning folk as to when – and sometimes who – they should marry as they were to come looking for a cure for some physical ailment or disturbance of the mind.
The most famous dynion hysbys in west Wales during the period in which my novels are set, were Carmarthenshire father and son John Harries (1785–1839) and Henry Harries (1821–1849), known as the Wizards of Cwrt y Cadno.
Before readers of Historia run away with the idea that dynion hysbys were unschooled hedge-witches who read omens but not books, I should point out that both John and Henry Harries were well-to-do, educated men. Both had been educated at grammar school before moving to London to be trained in surgery. Prior to returing home to practice as a dyn hysbys in his native Carmarthenshire, John reputedly had a practice in Harley Street with his friend, Robert Cross Smith (alias ‘Raphael’) a renowned astrologer and author, and later lectured in Edinburgh as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Similarly, his son, Henry, took a medical degree at University College, London, in addition to training as a surgeon. Illiterate mutterers of spells they were not.
And while it’s undeniable that father and son practiced magic, astrology and what seems to have been a form of hypnotism, they were also both clearly well versed in psychology. One of the Harries’ biographers tells the story of a man who came to Cwrt y Cadno convinced he was bewitched:
“Various doctors had prescribed drugs with little effect, and a cure was provided only when Dr. Harries had chastised the patient’s family for going to ‘quacks’. He informed the man that he had swallowed an evil spirit – a tadpole which had grown into a frog. After consulting his texts and calling on the spirits, Harries made the patient vomit. Unsurprisingly, in the vomit was the frog, and the man was cured.”
Spirit conjuring or psychology – who knows? Either way, the man went away cured. But the Harries didn’t only cure people’s ills, they were also famed for locating valuable items that had been mislaid; and, sometimes the seeker got more than they bargained for.
One woman, having searched fruitlessly for her wedding ring for days, made her way to Cwrt y Cadno to see Dr Harries. Upon being greeted by the man himself, she was very surprised when he told her exactly why she had come to consult him, but her surprise turned to delight when he said that she would receive her ring from the hand of a relative in the next few days. The ring was duly returned to her by her son who expressed sorrow for having stolen it as well as relief that he could now die in peace. Tragically he died two days later.
John Harries was also able to locate people, which occasionally landed him into trouble. Having been consulted by the relatives of a missing girl, he determined that she had been murdered by her sweetheart and buried under a tree in a certain spot. The body was sought and found exactly as he had predicted and Dr Harries found himself being arrested as an accessory to murder. How else, the police argued, could he know all the details?
The magistrates also had little truck with second sight and were minded to commit Harries to the assizes for trial. However, speaking in his own defence, he offered to demonstrate his powers. When he asked them to tell him “the hour they came into the world” so that he could tell them “the hour in which they would depart it” they declined and, apparently having changed their minds about the wizard’s capabilities, released him!
Though father and son plied their particular combination of medicine and magic in a remote corner of Wales, their help was sought by people from all over the country, and the wizards did not rely entirely on word of mouth to bring them custom. Henry, for instance, issued an advertisement stating that he and his father could determine:
Temper, disposition, fortunate or unfortunate in their general pursuits,
honour, riches, journeys and voyages (success therein, and what places best
to travel in or reside in), friends and enemies, trade or profession best to
follow, and whether fortunate in speculation, viz: lottery, dealing in foreign markets, etc.
Of marriage, if to marry. The description, temper, disposition of the person,
rich or poor, happy or unhappy in marriage, etc.
Of children, whether fortunate or not, etc., deduced from the influence of
the sun and moon, with the planetary orbs at the time of birth.
And, despite the resemblance of this self-aggrandisement to contemporary adverts for ‘pills for all ills’, Henry’s claims weren’t necessarily those of a charlatan. It seems that both he and John were genuinely convinced of the power of the stars and planets to foretell the future. When Henry contracted what his family considered to be a wildly mismatched marriage, he waved away their concerns, saying “I cannot help it. I must marry her. I dare not cross my planet.”
His father’s faith in astrology was demonstrated in an even more dramatic fashion. Having learned, by occult means, that he would die in an accident on 11 May, 1839, John Harries took to his bed on that day in order to attempt to avoid all possible mishaps. During the night, however, he was awoken by cries that his house was on fire, and he died after a fall from a ladder while trying to douse the flames.
That’s the sort of death you’d never get away with making up as a novelist…
In the latest in my Teifi Valley Coroner series, Not One Of Us, I have introduced Dr Cadwgan Gwynne, a character inspired by the Wizards of Cwrt y Cadno. Like them, he is an astrologer and healer but, I must admit, I’ve made him less sensational than the Wizards of Cwrt y Cadno. Gwynne doesn’t claim to be able to make men who have wronged him grow horns from their heads nor does he otherwise ‘mark’ those guilty of crimes against his customers. There’s only just so much disbelief that readers are prepared to suspend, I find!
Find out more about this book.
Read Historia’s interview with Alis, in which she talks about writing fiction based in two centuries and two places: England in the 14th century and West Wales in the 19th. What draws her to such contrasting settings?
- Detail of Henry Harries’s transcription of Theurgia-Goetia from John Harries’ Book of Incantations: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales
- Medical record from John Harries’ Book of Incantations: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales
- Photo labelled Dr John Harries, most likely his son Henry: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales
- Astrological calculation from John Harries’ Book of Incantations: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales
- Road entering Cwrt-y-Cadno © Philip Halling: Geograph CC-by-SA/2.0