Anne Jefferies and the Fairies

Clock Tower, St. Teath, CornwallBut Anne’s strange abilities soon came to the attention of Justice of the Peace in Cornwall, John Tregeagle. In 1646 he accused her of communing with evil spirits and according to popular sources had her imprisoned in Bodmin jail with very little food or drink. However, as Bodmin Jail was not built until 1779, this seems a little unlikely. Anyway, Anne was apparently kept as a prisoner at the house of the Mayor of Bodmin, again with little food. Amazingly Anne continued to enjoy good health, being fed, as she claimed, by her fairy friends.

In the end, perhaps due to the public furor aroused by the case, Anne was allowed to go free and found employment with a widowed aunt of Moses Pitt, near Padstow in Cornwall. She continued to work her cures and subsequently married a man named William Warren. She was still alive in 1693, living in Devon with her husband, but refused to speak about her experiences, probably fearing further punishment. She told the brother-in-law of Moses Pitt, Mr. Humphrey Martyn, that she did not want her life made into ‘Books or Ballads’ and that she would not discuss the matter ‘even for five hundred pounds’. Incidentally Humphrey Martyn was married to Moses Pitt’s sister, who as a 4 year old child had also seen Anne’s fairies and had apparently been given a silver cup by them.

Folktales and Alien Abductions

Possible explanations for the story of Anne Jeffries vary. One of the most extreme is that Anne’s experience is in some way related to modern day alien abduction scenarios, which also feature strange sounds, miniature people and the sensation of flight. However, the ‘incident’ in the arbour which seems to have started the whole series of events could just as easily be attributed to epilepsy (Anne was prone to fits) combined with daydreaming and wish-fulfillment, especially considering the girl’s attested devotion to fairies and fairy lore. Alternatively, and this seems just as likely, there was a real incident where the girl was perhaps attacked or even raped by an intruder (perhaps it was someone she knew). She may have been  in such a state of shock that her mind, refusing to accept the horrible facts of what really happened, concocted the whole fairy abduction story as a defence mechanism.

The subsequent stories of Anne’s clairvoyance, her alleged power to cure, and how she was able to live on minimal amounts of food are curious, though they may be just that, stories. Nevertheless, Moses Pitt and his family appear to have believed Anne to have some kind of special gift, and it was said she became well known throughout England for her cures and her clairvoyance. It is clear that something happened in the arbour that triggered the onset of her strange condition, but looking at the case more than 350 years after the events occurred it is unlikely that we will ever know what this was.

Fairy Traditions

Writing of the Anne Jefferies tale in her Dictionary of Fairies, eminent folklorist Katherine Briggs remarks on the similarities between Anne’s diminutive fairies and the fairies of late 16th / 17th century literature, including Shakespeare (especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and poets Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton. She makes the point that the shared characteristics of Anne’s fairies and those of the above mentioned writers show that real country traditions and beliefs lay behind these fictional creations.

Modern ‘ghost hunters’ often visit Bodmin Jail hoping for a glimpse of Anne’s poor spectre. In fact Bodmin Jail has its own series of ‘Paranormal Ghost Walk Nights’ and the site has been visited by ITVs ‘Most Haunted’ team. But for me it is a sad reflection that on Bodmin Jail’s website the page for these Ghost Walks is twice as long as the single paragraph describing its own history.

Further Reading

Briggs, K. A Dictionary of Fairies. Penguin. 1977.

Hunt, R. (ed). Popular Romances of the West of England. Chatto and Windus. 1903.

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