fairies, fairy tale

Strange Powers
Anne Jefferies and the Fairies - A Real Fairy Tale?

Fairies - Princess Tuvstarr by John BauerA well documented and peculiar folktale involving a human's alleged dealings with fairies, which was also widely publicised at the time, is that of Anne Jefferies of St Teath, Cornwall, England. The sources for the events are a March 1647 letter in the Clarendon Manuscripts (documents dealing chiefly with English history from 1608 to 1689) and a printed letter from publisher Moses Pitt to the Bishop of Gloucester, written in 1696. Pitt was writing from experience as he was born in St. Teath and was the son of Anne Jefferies' former master and mistress.

Anne Jefferies was born in St. Teath in December 1626, the daughter of a poor labourer. She was, by all accounts, a bright and curious girl though, in common with the majority of the population at this time, she never learned to read. West Country tales of fairies and pixies held a strong fascination for the girl and she often ventured out after dusk searching the valleys for the Good People and singing:

                                                                        'Fairy fair and fairy bright;  
                                                                        Come and be my chosen sprite.'

Taken by the Fairies

When she was nineteen Anne went into service at the home of the wealthy Pitt family. One afternoon the girl was knitting in an arbour outside the garden gate when something so alarming happened to her that she fell to the ground in a convulsive fit.  Anne was found by members of the family and taken up to her bedroom where she remained ill for some time. When she finally regained consciousness the girl related an incredible story. She said that she had been in the arbour knitting when she heard a noise in the bushes, then six tiny men appeared, all dressed completely in green, with unusually bright eyes. The leader of the fairy group, who had a red feather in his cap, spoke to her lovingly and then jumped onto her palm which she lifted up onto her lap. The little man then climbed up her body and began kissing her neck, which she apparently enjoyed. He then called his five companions who swarmed all over her body kissing her until one of them put his hands over her eyes and she felt a sharp pricking sensation, and everything went dark.

Anne was then lifted up into the air and carried off. When she was set down again she heard someone say 'Tear! tear!' and her eyes were opened. The girl found herself in a paradisiacal land of temples, palaces, gardens, lakes and brightly-coloured singing birds. The richly adorned people  who lived in this magical land were human-sized and spent their time dancing and playing, and Anne herself was treated like royalty. She again met her fairy friend with the red feather in his cap, but whilst they were alone together his five companions arrived accompanied by an angry mob. In the ensuing struggle her fairy lover was wounded trying to protect her and the same individual who had blinded her before did so again. Anne was once more taken up into the air, this time with a great humming noise, and finally found herself back on the ground in the arbour.

Clairvoyant Abilities

There seem to have been various side-effects of Anne's apparent visit to fairyland. According to Moses Pitt, after the incident she ate no food at their house as she claimed to be nourished by the Good People themselves. Anne also began to exhibit powers of clairvoyance and healing, on one occasion she was able to heal her mistress's injured leg by the placing on of her hands, and before long hordes of people from all over the country were visiting her for her cures. Anne would also foretell the identities of the people who would visit her, where they came from and what time they would arrive. 

But 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 had her imprisoned in Bodmin jail without food or drink. She was subsequently kept as a prisoner at the house of the Mayor of Bodmin, again without food. Amazingly Anne continued to enjoy good health, being fed, as she claimed, by her fairy friends. 

In the end, perhaps because of 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 been given a silver cup by them. 

An Alien Abduction?

The case of Anne Jefferies is certainly an incredible, some might say unbelievable one. Possible explanations vary, though perhaps one of the most interesting 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 daydreaming and wish-fulfillment, especially considering the girl's attested devotion to fairies and fairy lore. Alternatively, perhaps there was a real incident, maybe the girl was attacked or even raped by an intruder, and she was 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. 

But this would not explain Anne's subsequent clairvoyance, her power to cure, or how she was able to live without eating any food, especially in the austere surroundings of Bodmin Jail and under the watchful eye of the Mayor as a prisoner in his house. Moses Pitt and his family appear to have believed Anne to have some kind of special gift, and 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 abilities, 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. 

Sources & Further Reading

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

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

Copyright 2006 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.


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