Who was the witch of St Albans?

According to legend, the St Albans witch Mother Haggy crossed the River Ver in a kettledrum.

According to legend, the St Albans witch Mother Haggy crossed the River Ver in a kettledrum. - Credit: Peter Wares

The legend of the St Albans witch might have faded into obscurity in modern times, but at one time she was famous enough to be mentioned by acclaimed satirist Jonathan Swift.

She sprang to fame in a 1712 pamphlet entitled The Story of the St. Alb-ns Ghost: Or the Apparation of Mother Haggy, attributed to one William Wagstaffe

In his account, Wagstaffe claims Mother Haggy was the wife of a yeoman who lived in good repute for many years until the birth of her daughter, Haggite, and subsequent celebrations to mark the occasion.

It was said that her high-crowned hat, which had been thrown on to the bed, leapt into the air and broke into a thousand pieces, an event which raised suspicions of witchcraft.

In the years to come, Mother Haggy was said to have turned to the dark arts. She was apparently often seen flying over St Albans on her broomstick, and gained the powers to transform into any animal.

So worried were parishioners that they appealed for her to be tried as a witch, and sent an unsuccessful petition to King James I calling for her to pay for her crimes.

But Mother Haggy was a cunning woman, and gained powerful allies in the town, not least because of a salve she developed which was said to restore the hymen following sexual intercourse.

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She escaped prosecution, and died a natural death, but was said to appear as a ghost - flames springing from her nostrils and sulfurous smoke from her mouth - before her daughter Haggite in later years.

According to other sources, she was also rumoured to haunt the streets of St Albans in the guise of a cat, a hen and even a lion, and once crossed the River Ver in a kettledrum.

Whether Mother Haggy actually existed has since been called into question, with the suggestion that the pamphlet was a satirical attack on the Duchess of Marlborough, who was identified as Haggite in a separately published key.