Have you ever heard of a Cunning Man or Cunning Woman. Frequently of good education, cunning men (or woman) were thought to practise a form of high magic and ritual largely unknown amongst their more lowly peers. Their knowledge of traditional herbal-based medicine was generally extensive and in some cases ran parallel to orthodox medicine.If you think witch doctors lived only in remote regions of darkest African, then you obviously haven’t visited the county of Essex and heard the tales of well know Cunning Man called “Cunning Murrell.”

Daubed the last witch doctor in England, James Murrell was born in 1812 in the village of Hadleigh, just inland from the coastal town of Southend-on-Sea. He was the seventh son of a seventh son, which is said to confer the gift of second sight. A secretive man who travelled only by night, he was a skilled astrologer and herbalist and was often seen collecting plants by the light of the moon and suspending them from the rim of his umbrella.

It was his astrological knowledge that elevated Murrell to the status of a true “cunning man”, rather than the more usual hedge witch, wizard or conjuror. Whether James Murrell had any formal medical training is unknown, but his skill as a herbalist was legendary.

Like most of his kind, his skills were not confined to humans, but were also dispensed to the animal kingdom. In fact, most cunning men were called upon to treat sick animals as often as their human counter parts. After all, in an age where the death of a pig could spell starvation or at the least a very lean winter, the life of a one child too many often carried less weight than that of the family’s main food supply.

Murrell’s talents, however, extended far beyond those of simple herbal cures. He had a mirror that had the useful attribute of being able to locate lost or stolen property, while his magic telescope allowed him to see through walls — which came in very useful should an enquirer suspect his wife of unfaithfulness. The copper bracelet he wore on his wrist had perhaps the most useful function of all: the power to detect dishonest men. No doubt it contributed much to Cunning Murrell’s material success.

These were by no means the extent of James Murrell’s talents. He often referred to himself as the Devil’s Master and claimed to be an adept at exorcising spirits, lifting curses and chastising witches. His witch bottles were well known and were used in conjunction with nail parings, blood, urine and hair. His success at dealing with witches who worked on the dark side was legendary.

One case involved a young girl who barked like a dog and was said to be cursed by a gypsy woman. Murrell made up a witch bottle, which was heated at midnight until it exploded. The next morning, it is claimed, the girl was cured and the charred body of the gypsy was found face down in her campfire.

True to form, James Murrell foretold his death to the day, dying on the 15th of December, 1860. His grave lies unmarked in Hadleigh churchyard.

Another famous Essex cunning man, George Pickingill or Pickingale, was a contemporary of James Murrell. Unlike Murrell, he managed to hold fast to this mortal coil for a considerably longer period. Born in 1816, he was 93 when he died in 1909. The tales that surround him are many and various, and like most of those attached to the cunning folk, few can really be substantiated.

One that crops up in various forms is that Pickingill was the last Master of Witches. His elevated status as a cunning man gave him power over lesser beings. Pickingill himself was said to be both a white and black magician and was viewed with fear and awe by the common folk who, with good reason, trod warily in fear of reprisals should they upset him. He supposedly had a wooden whistle with which he could summon the local witches to do his bidding, and his bewitching skills could put a hex upon farm machinery — which he would happily lift for the price of a pint! In a more amicable mood, he was said to be a good wart charmer and would act as a negotiator in village disputes.

Tradition states that in the village of Canewdon, where he was born and spent most of his life, there were always six witches, three in silk and three in cotton — and would be so long as the 75-foot tower of the church of St. Nicholas stands. The dress code suggests that three of the town’s witches were of the higher classes, and it was said that at one time, one was the wife of the local clergyman. Other tales say that should a stone fall from this tower, one of the witches will die. It is also said that if you run three times counter-clockwise round the church you will go back in time. When Halloween comes around, the police are often called in to protect the church from enthusiastic time travellers and ghost hunters.

Time has moved on since the days of the cunning folk. Modern medicine has replaced mystical herbal cures and simple folk remedies, and the skills and knowledge of the old country folk are known only to a few or lost forever. Or are they?

What’s in a name, after all? Today’s chiropractors, acupuncturists, herbalists and faith healers may not wander the countryside brandishing umbrellas festooned with herbs, but like the cunning men before them, they have an instinctive understanding of human nature and the skills to manipulate faith and fear — for good or ill.
From http://www.timetravel-britain.com/05/fall/cunning.shtml

Usual Services offered by Cunning Folk

Protection against witchcraft:

One of their most important and profitable roles. Cunning folk claimed to be able to detect evil witchcraft and counter it using their own spells. Often they also claimed to be able to discover who was the witch who had cursed the victim. After the execution of witches in England ceased from 1684 cunning folk provided the mains means of neutralising witchcraft for those who thought themselves afflicted by it.


Using a combination of herbalism and by spells they tried to help both people and animals. Some cunning folk had a very good knowledge of herbs and folk remedies.

Property Loss:

Whether things were lost by theft or by accident cunning folk could supposedly find lost items or even identify criminals using magic.

Treasure Hunting:

Cunning folk were reputed to be able to find treasure by various spells. As a teenager Joseph Smith, Jr was believed or rumored to have the ability to find buried treasure and – by his mother’s account and his own – reluctantly accepted employment to do so in his family’s poverty.

Fortune telling:

Simple prediction of the future using a variety of possible methods ranging from astrology to crystal gazing.

Love Magic:

Often fortune telling played a part in this. They also offered love spells and potions.

Cunning folk often specialised, and offered variations on these standard services. The varieties of spells they used are similar to the Pow-Wow magic used by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The Legal Position of Cunning Folk

The spells and magic services offered by cunning folk were strictly speaking against the doctrines of the Catholic Church. According to cannon law such spell casting should be punished. However, most cunning folk were not charged, indeed in the medieval period the village priest might be the one carrying out folk magic. It might be thought that in the period of the witch hunt from the Tudor period onwards cunning folk as magic users would be likely to be accused of witchcraft. In fact although cunning folk were probably more likely to be charged than other people in English witchtrials they were still only a very small percentage of total number of people charged. Owen Davies study suggests this is because cunning folk firstly most ordinary people drew a distinction between helpful magic and malicious witchcraft. In England the common law meant that it was the ordinary people who were responsible for bringing charges against witches and they were not interested in accusing cunning folk. Especially as they formed the first line of defence against witchcraft, and indeed they often accused witches, so accusing them made little sense.

When Cunning folk do appeal in trial reports though it is because of unhappy customers. When their magic failed to heal someone or it seemed there was some kind of trickery involved they went the courts, which indeed was often the case. Even after the death penalty for witchcraft was lifted it was still illegal to claim magical powers, especially if you made money out of it, so prosecution was an occupational hazard.

Cunning Folk and Religion

Modern Neopaganism might see the activities of Cunning folk as proof of pagan survivals. However all recorded Cunning Folk were Christian to one degree or another. Some cunning folk were priests, others were committed and regular church goers, others seldom went to church at all, but this does not mean they were pagans as see it on modern terms. Of course some of the practises and spell craft used by the cunning folk may indeed have ancient roots, but they were done without calling on ancient goddesses or by going into a shamanic trance during treatment. In fact the spells they used were frequently medieval Christian folk magic which called on the name of God, Jesus, Mary and the saints. After the Reformation this meant Cunning folk were often accused of being Roman Catholics, with good reason and this is the only persecuted old religion they called on. Up to the Stuart period some did claim to have learned their powers from the fairies, but this concept died out later. Cunning folks were as busy as ever by the mid eighteenth century when religious tolerance in Britain ensured that professed atheists as well as Roman Catholics could openly admit their beliefs without danger, there was little reason to hide pagan beliefs any more which seems to indicate they did not have any. Thus it seems that the minority of modern Christian Witches involved in The Craft may have the most valid claim to having a longstanding traditional heritage.
(From Wikipedia )
Read more information at Cunning Folk – Home page of Owen Davies, an authority on Cunning Folk.

More Information:

Wizards or Charlatans – Doctors or Herbalists?
An Appraisal of the “Cunning Men” of Cwrt Y Cadno, Camarthenshire
PDF file: http://spruce.flint.umich.edu/~ellisjs/Allen.PDF
Use this link to open as an HTML file: http://tinyurl.com/7kaps

Witch Doctor – James Murrell

Old Mother Red Cap and the Cunners of Old

Cunning Murrell

Tales of Old Essex

The Pickingill Papers

The Devil in Manuden: Folk Magic in Essex