Today in London’s herstory, 1685: Anne Arthur flies with the Devil over Deptford
In honour of this being our 666th post on this blog – we invoke
His Satanic Majesty…
“In Deptford, near a Place called Flaggon Row, dwells one Anne Arthur, that had a long time got her Living, by selling things about the street, who “according to her own report, had diverse Discourses with the Devil, on the Third of this Instant March 1684, who offered her Gold and Silver; telling her many strange and Wonderful things; And, in the end carried her in the Air a Quarter of a Furlong’. “She has been a notorious Liver, often given to swearing, and calling upon the Devil; breaking the Sabbath, and the like”
In 1685, one Anne Arthur lived in Deptford, earning a living as a peddlar of cheesecakes in the City of London. In March of that year, she met the Devil. (NB: 1684/5 – old Calendar style, the New Year began on March 25th, so what we would write 3 March 1685, would have been written 3 March 1684).
An anonymous contemporary account, printed as a two-page news-sheet in 1685, related more of the events of the encounter.
Being the Full, True, and Sad RELATION OF ONE Anne Arthur, WHO According to her own Report, had divers Discourses with the Devil, on the Third of this Instant March 1684/5. who offered her Gold and Silver; tel∣ling her many Strange and Wonderfull things; And, in the end, carried her in the Air a Quarter of a Furlong, &c. Together, with the Life and Conversation of the said Party; and Directions to the Place of her Abode. And a Particular Relation of the sad Distractions she fell into, upon that Occasion; And divers other Circumstances relating thereto.
CErtain it is, that the Devil who is Prince of the Air, and much conversant in the Earth, as himself testifies in the 1st. of Holy Iob ver. the 7th would wreck his Malice and Vengeance to the destruction of Mankind, did not an Almighty Power restrain and limit his fierce Wrath, yet sometimes we see he being as it were let loose for a while, attempts the bodily destruction of such, as he cannot otherways ruin; nay, and on the contrary it has been observed in divers sad Examples, that God has permitted him to execute his Indignation, on several Profligate, Wicked and vain Persons, whilst they were yet alive, thereby to terrifie and scare others, from a fatal perseverance in their evil ways, of which I might instance many, but the subject story of these pages, being fresh and memorable, I shall pass over former Relations, and proceed to what is Material.
In Deptford near a place called Flaggon-Row, dwells one Anne Arthur, that had a long time gotten her Living by selling things about the Streets; and in that Occupation appeared to her Neighbours very Industrious and Laborious; but chiefly her Trade was in those Cheese-Cakes, which are known by the Name of the Town aforesaid, the which she frequently brought to London, and disposed to divers Customers, but so it happened on the Third of March that having been in the City and Suburbs somewhat late, as she was going home, according to what her self with many asseverations, has related to divers persons of known Integrity, who came to see her in that sad and deplorable condition, where she is; that a little beyond the Half-way-House, a House so called, standing between Rederiffe and Deptford a Human Shape, in a dark Habit approached her which she saith she supposed at first to be a Man, but narrowly and with a fuller aspect by Moon-light, observing his countenance to be stern and dreadful, she began to be in much Fear and Consternation, as doubting it was the common Enemy of Mankind; who in that solitude, was roving about, &c. Whereupon she would have gone back, when immediatly so fierce a Wind did rise, that it in a manner constrained her to proceed on her way, or as she further saith, she had no Power to do otherways, being still followed by the Gloomy Apparition, she passed on till coming out of the Fields she came into the Lane or division of Grounds, that leads to Deptford, tho’ in an extreme sweat occasioned by the Fear and Amazement conceived, when being there the Form or Spectrum, as she supposed it to be, demanded whither she was going, and where she had been, who in abrupt stammerings made reply, that she had been at London selling her Ware, and her Habitation was at Deptford, and that she was a poor Woman, and obliged to undertake that Imployment for Her Maintenance; Whereupon, after some horrid Mutterings, a Hand was held forth full of Silver, but she being fearful for the Reasons aforesaid, shunned it (praying to her self that God would deliver her from the Power of all Evil Spirits, and from Temptations) which refusal much dis∣pleased her new Associate; Yet after often urging her to take it, by alledging her Poverty, and telling many things that had happened to her through Want and Penury; saying that hereby she might be enabled to Live better for the future; he drew out a handful of Gold, which seemed to her to be a vast Heap, more than any Hand could grasp; and would have had her permitted him to put it into her Basket, But she refused. Then, as she says, he told her of her Straw-Bed, and named her Utensils, which are but poor and mean, upbraiding her for refusing his Offer. Yet still, as she declares, she prayed for Deliverance; ever wishing some Man or Woman would come by; but none came. So that, in much Terror she kept her way, with trembling Joynts; till she came in sight of the Houses that stand in she Bend or Turning to the Fields, the Lights whereof a little comforted her, but ere she could reach them, whether by the Force of a Whirlwind, the Wind then blowing hard, or by him that associated with her, she directly knows not, she was taken up, together with her Basket, a considerable Heighth, and carried, pitiously crying out for Help for the space of a Quarter of a Furlong; and there; with great Violence, thrown amongst the Bushes, where her Cryes and mournful Laments reaching the ears of some People that were then abroad, they supposed it might be some Per∣son robbed, and bound; and therefore went to see. When being directed to her by the Noise she made, they conveyed her thence to a Neighbouring House, and afterwards to her own Lodgings. She at that time, through Fear and Amazement, being in a manner bereaved of her Senses; But coming, in the end, to her self, she made this strange Relation to many that came about her; continuing in much Disturbance of Mind, often starting, and appearing fearful, as if she saw some dreadful Shape before her Eyes.
And thus she continues to persevere in the Relation before-mentioned, though in a distracted and disorderly manner. She confesses further, She has been a notorious Li∣ver, often given to Swearing, and calling upon the Devil; breaking the Sabbath, and the like. Insomuch, that she being often Reproved, instead of Relentment, proved Incorrigible; saying, to those that gave her sacred admonitions, That she knew the worst on’t; and could but go to the Civil Old Gentleman in the Black at last. So vain and ridiculous were her Expressions; though it plainly appears, that when he drew near, if her own Asseverations may be credited, she was no ways desirous of his Company. But not to ridicule on this solemn and tremendious Occasion, I shall Conclude with a hearty desire, that all People would have such Regard to their Wayes, that the Tempter may have no advantage over them; but that by resisting him, they may put him to Flight, and become Victorious, fighting under the Banner of the Lord IESUS.
London, Printed for DW, 1685
Flaggon Row, where Anne lived, lay where part of Macmillan Street now runs in Deptford
But it sounds like the meeting with Satan looks to have taken place in the fields then lying between Rotherhithe (then often called Rederiffe or Redriffe) and Deptford.
The Halfway House mentioned was an eating-house halfway between London Bridge and Deptford, possibly on ‘Deptford Lower Road’, now Lower Road near modern Surrey Quays.
Although Anne Arthur made no claim to be a witch, the ability of witches to fly had been a central element of the idea of witchcraft for centuries; in pictorial form the witch is commonly depicted in flight: “The skies in European witch paintings and woodcuts were crowded with witches astride flying goats, pitchforks, cowlstaffs and besoms: witchcraft was projected as a very aerial phenomenon. Paintings by David Teniers (the younger) recurrently depict the witch in preparation for flight, being anointed with the flying ointment, and about to be pushed off up the chimney, naked. Hans Baldung Grien’s engravings have naked witches born aloft on goats among billows of thick vapour, ‘hovering through the fog and filthy air’. Squadrons of witches and aerial devils fly into Jacob van Oostsanen’s ‘Saul and the Witch of Endor’ (1526); the motif appears irregularly in the engravings of Jacques Van Gheyn II.”
(Witchcraft, flight and the early modern English stage, Roy Booth)
Witches often flew in company of the devil or other demons. In written accounts, and in confessions, tales of flying, often to sabbat, are common. Witches were also shown and described in a state of terror, as the devil finally bears her off to hell.
Satan was called ‘prince of the air’; flying witches were not only entering his domain, but giving themselves over to his sexually:
“Ideas about witches’ flight to the Sabbath also had several sexual connotations. This is seen in the overwhelmingly popular belief that witches flew to the Sabbath on broomsticks. Levack argues that “the broom is primarily a symbol of the female sex,” was “often used in fertility rites, thus suggesting associations with ancient pagan goddesses,” and “served as a phallic symbol and therefore was appropriate in a scene that was stuffed with sexuality.” Roper remarks how “often, the sensation of flying is described in terms of riding,” and that “riding naturally had a sexual dimension.” She also notes that Most witches described how their diabolic lover accompanied them on the flight. Some gripped the mane of the goat to keep from falling off, or they held fast to their diabolic lover, sometimes riding in front of him, sometimes behind. Riding bareback with a lover on the most sexual of animals, the goat, or on a phallic rod, stick or fork, was a fantasy of sexual abandon. In images of the witches’ flight, women are shown with their hair streaming out behind them, a sexual symbol which underlines the orgasmic nature of the ride.The implied sexual nature of the witches’ flight was part of a larger sexual dynamic at work in diabolism. Descriptions of the flight often said that witches flew to the Sabbath with their lovers, who were the Devil or some other demons. Demonologists noted how, in many confessions about the Sabbath and diabolism in general, the sexual relationship the witch had with the Devil played an important role. Therefore, the sexual undertones of descriptions of the flight are not surprising and are, in fact, a characteristic of the perceived sexual nature of witchcraft.” (Making a Witch: The Triumph of Demonology Over Popular Magic Beliefs in Early Modern Europe, Rachel Pacini)
No brooms were involved in Anne’s flight, but flight by its nature was thus something of a sexual act.
It’s worth noting that beliefs about witches flying were widely interpreted, and ranged between acceptance of actual physical movement through the air, through hallucination and being deluded, onto more metaphysical theories: that (with the Devil’s help) they actually did fly (note that the writer above at no point suggests Anne’s account is not in fact true); that the experience of flying was the result of narcotic stimulation; that their flying was pure imagination—or that they flew by means of the soul, or some sort of astral projection.
The latter idea, although strongly rejected by the Church, was in fact a popular opinion… eg the Sicilian donni di fori [“women from outside”] of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, cunning women who served as mediators between the local community and the fairy world, who on nightly excursions “in spirit” would enter the houses with the fairies, who bestowed their blessing on the homes; or the Fruilian benandanti, peasants who believed they fought the malandanti in nocturnal aerial battles that ensured the fertility of the crops.
The controversy over witch flight raged in the late 16th century. A leading text was Lambert Daneaus’s A Dialogue of Witches (an English translation was published in 1575), which took the form of a dialogue about whether they actually flew, or were merely deluded by the devil into thinking that they did. Daneaus’s text, between a younger man, whose impulses are sceptical, and a wiser believer in demonic-inspired levitation.
King James VI/I, obsessed by witches, borrowed from Danaeus heavily in his Daemonologie (1597). On the other hand, Reginald Scot, in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), sarkily dismisses wiches flight as delusion on their part and weighs heavily into the witchfinders and theologians who believe in it.
In Anne Arthur’s time, many would still have believed fervently that women could fly with the Devil; the rate of British witch trials had just recently reached its all time peak in the mid-17th century, although scepticism was beginning to creep in.
Involuntary flight, as in Anne’s alleged case, involved by a witch (or the devil) on others was also not uncommon. (In fact, in contrast to continental Europe, there are less tales of airborne witches and more tales of unhappy victims of enforced flight in England and Scotland). For instance, Richard Burt’s sudden flight induced by the ‘witch’ Mother Atkins in Pinner in 1592, or the events recounted in Terrible and wonderful news from Scotland (1674), where a usurer from John O’Groats is swept into the air for telling his money on the Sabbath, ‘and the Devil appeared visible a vast Height in the Air, in several monstrous shapes one after another’. The devil and his victim tour the region, dropping money bags on the homes of those who had suffered from the usurer’s extortion, before the devil tears him up and scatters pieces of the body
In another account, a Scottish witch, Helen Elliot had to be carried to the place of execution with broken legs: the Devil had flown her out of captivity in the ‘Steeple of Culros’, but in her terror, she had exclaimed ‘O GOD wither are you taking me!’ At this untimely mention of God, the devil had dropped her, at a distance from the steeple which confirmed that their flight had started (and was not just a suicidal leap): ‘I saw the impression and dimple of her heels, as many thousands did, which continued for six or seven years upon which place no Grass would ever grow’.
So much detail is missing from the brief accounts of Anne’s experiences. Given that she could face serious punishment for being identified as a witch, she risked a lot by confessing even this encounter, especially if she was already notorious for name checking the Devil. Unless she was getting a defence in before being accused…?
Maybe some more mundane event had taken place and she was covering up for someone, or covering her own tracks in murky dealings.
The possibility of mental illness, or persecution complex, shouldn’t be discounted. Bad things happening in your life, feelings of powerlessness and oppression, can turn you to thinking that forces outside of yourself are targeting you, beyond the usual and normal crap social relations of the myriad class, sex, race and other networks of hierarchy. For a woman of Anne’s era, strange and inexplicable events would necessarily have been put down to the devil’s work. If in 1685 the assumption would have been supernatural or demonic forces, there’s not so much difference in the more modern paranoias about implanted 5G surveillance devices or magnetising covid vaccines. If anything it’s harder these days to split actual oppression from your delusions (never forgetting the legal and medical systems really do have a history or defining your very real oppression as your own madness, or using women, or Black, Jewish or other minority peoples for horrific medical experiments).
Or some kind of hallucination? Drink, drugs or other substance? Remembering that ‘ergotism’ – poisoning due to eating/drinking products of grain affected by a particular fungus – is thought to have been the source of many of the ‘visions’ experienced by women charged with being witches… Anne’s tale fits into a sub-genre: the various tales of “Spirit-powered aerial transport of working persons carrying food”; like Richard Burt, mentioned above, transported while eating his apple pie…
Also interesting is the ointment that witches were said to smear on broom handle and other wood to make it fly: a mixture of bat’s blood, Sium (skirret, hemlock water parsnip or jellico) acarum vulgare (sweet flag) pentaphyllon (cinquefoil), solanum somniferum (deadly nightshade), & oil – this mix contains indisputable plant-derived hallucinogens. The fat used to transfuse the drugs into the body through the skin is, the rendered body fat of a murdered young child, the pores of the skin were to be opened by vigorous rubbing before the ointment was applied.
(Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft, Book 10, Chapter 8)
If women did run a cream anything like this on skin then some heavy trips were likely to follow…
Alternatively, given the paralysing poverty and undoubted hardship of Anne’s life, being a poor woman in a rough neighbourhood, probably ill-treated by men and feeling somewhere very near the bottom of the heap, socially, perhaps she reached out for a connection with something seemingly more powerful than the society around her, or tried to make herself noticed, listened to , taken account of, if only for a while. Used to calling on Satan in drink, she might have seized on an opportunity to take the piss out of those who found her among the bushes, or seek a little kind attention as a victim of devilry.
This is all speculation, and as there is little more in the records, it’s not known what happened next. The moralising commentator doesn’t make it clear whether her encounter with the Devil led her to change her ‘notorious living’, though that I suppose is meant to be implied that her previous boasting that she would “go to the Civil Old Gentleman in the Black at last” was tempered by actually meeting him, and her him that she told his majesty that God would deliver her from the Power of all Evil Spirits.
The tone of the contemporary account above cannot be relied on, however, as religious prudes often concluded such stories with repentance, whether or not the actual subject of the story had really done so (as with many execution ballads and broadsheets, where the hanged get pigeonholed into the repentant and the defiant rogue). It’s clear that for the writer, Anne’s previous dissolute living makes the story of the encounter spicier, and the moral lesson more relevant; if she had been a puritan bourgeois the tone might have been different. We should also take it all with a pinch of salt, in that male writers at this time were well-used to ascribing only passive roles to women in all activities, and while according to him, Anne’s part in her flight was passive, her own words may have put a different slant on things.
Postscript 1: Cheesecakes
Apparently Deptford then was famous for the making of cheesecakes, many of which were taken to the nearby city to sell. Here’s a post which recounts Anne’s story mingled with some good cheesecakes recipes!
Postscript 2: Deptford’s disorderly women
Anne’s supposed accounts of her dissolute life was far from unusual, and the moralising tone of the anonymous newssheet author far from the last sermonising scribe to lecture Deptford women about their lifestyles…
Deptford’s Convoys Wharf stands on the site of the old Royal Dockyard, and from 1879 to 1913 was the Corporation of London’s Foreign Cattle Market for the import and slaughter of animals.
Many of the workers were young women known as Gut Girls, whose job it was to clean out the innards of the slaughtered animals.
Their financial independence, behaviour and taste in clothes were a source of moral panic for the respectable. There were complaints that they spent their wages on outlandish hats instead of underwear!
A Deptford Fund Committee was set up to train 13‑16 year old girls in the essential arts of cookery, laundry, needlework, dressmaking and simple matters of hygiene. The intention of all this instruction was to prepare the girls for more suitable and ladylike employment than gutting animals, and perhaps even for marriage. The Albany Institute, which opened in 1899, grew out of this work; Deptford’s modern Albany Centre evolved from this organisation.
Thanks to Neil from Transpontine for first introducing me to Anne Arthur’s flight, and the other fascinating history of Deptford and New Cross. His excellent ‘Deptford Fun City’ is out of print, but here’s a radical history walk around the area from 2001 that it was based on:.