Finding Black Annis

Anyone who knows me through twitter will have seen my favourite thing at the minute is Poly-Olbion project Map currently on display at the University of Exeter.

Like with any map, I did the usual thing of finding home, both physical and ‘spiritual’. I searched the upside down map of Britain (the first thing that struck me was how difficult it is to navigate around an upside world!) and came to the midlands. Nestled near to the reference to Richard III was a small warning triangle with “Black Annis” underneath.

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So, if they know nothing else, any child who has grown up in Leicester/Leicestershire will probably know 3 stories; the legend of Old John, the ghost story of Lady Jane Grey (both coincidently located at Bradgate Park), and the warnings about being eaten by Black Annis…

The Black Annis legend is thought first appeared in print in 1797 through a poem by John Heyrick, it was brought to popular consciousness again in 1874 when the Leicester Chronicle ran a piece about her:

“Little children who went to run on the Dane Hills, were assured that she lay in wait there, to snatch them away to her ‘bower’ where she scratched them to death with her claws, sucked their blood, and hung up their skins out to dry.”

Annis was supposed to haunt/hunt in the area around St. Mary de Castro Church, and have tunnels to Leicester Castle. She was still said to roam long after her cave was filled in and a housing estate was constructed just after WWI on meadows she was reported to frequent.

There are fantastic stories (which can be found in Katharine Briggs’ Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends: Narratives) of evacuees recalling the screams of Annis, and some houses putting “witch-herbs” on the frames of windows and doors to stop her long arms reaching in and stealing sleeping babies.

As a child I often wondered why this witchy creature was called Black Annis, when she was supposed to be blue with iron claws (claws that were supposed to have scratched out the cave under Danes Hill where she was supposed to dwell), and as an undergraduate I also knew of students who quickened up around the area of the church “just in case…”.

The Annis figure has turned up in comics and computer games in recent years, and has become, in this sense, a folk motif all of its own.

There are lots of books, articles, and webpages retelling the story, and looking into its origin, be it an anchoress discredited during the Reformation by protestant reformists (see Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft), to ancient ‘celtic’ goddess. I won’t repeat those here, but whatever she was or has become, her presence is well and truly confirmed.

It might be worth still walking quickly around St. Mary de Castro’s… just in case…

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