(Artistic impression of Cunning Murrell by David Hurrell, 2011)
James Murrell was one of England’s most famous “cunning men”, who during his time was widely acclaimed for his magical powers of healing, herbal remedies, divining lost objects, astrology, clairvoyance and casting and breaking spells. As with many well known cunning men and women of the past, much of what they knew, their knowledge, skills and abilities was passed down verbally through family tradition and little was recorded or written down. Over time therefore, stories about their exploits have been turned into legend making it difficult today to distinguish fact from fiction and myth.
Cunning Murrell as he was commonly known, was
born in the village of Rochford, Essex
in 1780, a county of England with a long history associated with
Witchcraft. Murrell was the Seventh
Son of a Seventh Son, which by tradition marked him for a life of magical
empowerment. Accordingly, he was
the only child in his family to be given an education.
His first employment was as a surveyor’s apprentice, before moving to London to work as a Chemist’s assistant. It was while in London he most likely received some training in Astrology and Occult high magic. We know that later he had a library containing such classical magical texts as were extent during those times, and most probably these were obtained while he was in London. Sometime around 1812, Murrell returned to Essex and settled in the village of Hadleigh. There he rented a small weatherboard cottage set in a narrow lane facing the south door of Hadleigh's St. James the Less Church, from where he started work as a cobbler making shoes. However, as his reputation as a "wise man" spread, he gave up shoemaking and set himself up as an herbalist, healer and seer, a full-time “cunning man”.
As a cunning man Murrell’s reputation was unsurpassed.
Not only locals, but also wealthy aristocrats sought him out.
His clients came from all across the country, particularly Suffolk and
Kent, and he regularly received mail from London keeping him in touch with
events in the capital. He possessed
a tremendous knowledge of herbal remedies, medicine and astrology, and owned an
extensive library of magical books and papers, as well as a collection of
working craft tools and magical objects. Although
none of these have survived, his library is said to have contained the works of Henry
Cornelius Agrippa, Nichel Nostradamus and William Lilly, as well as the
classic Grimoire “The Magus” by Francis
Barrett from which he is thought to have learned how to use Sigils,
Talismans and Amulets.
For his consulting
room, Murrell used the front room of his cottage in which could be seen bunches
of drying herbs hanging from the ceiling. In
one corner of the room was a large chest in which he stored many of his magical
textbooks and papers. In another
corner a table on which could be seen a magical knife, a human skull and various
other magical implements. Beneath
the window was his desk and writing slope, with a high back chair in which he
would sit and compile his notes and correspondences.
To one side of the fire stood a large brass telescope and on the other
side two more chairs for guests or patients.
Murrell charged fees for his services; usually a halfpenny for curing warts and other simple herbal remedies, half a crown to break the spell cast by another witch, and the same for one of his famous “Witch-bottle” spells, but if he was asked to call on the aid of “high spirits” he would charge even more. He always asked if their problem was “high” or “low”, meaning did they require magical or material help. Material help would usually be an herbal cure, but if magical help were required he would then set about raising spirits or “good angels” as he described them. These he set to task combating those responsible for the trouble.
Most cunning men
and women of the period were essentially eccentrics, and many had quite
distinctive and colourful characters, the same can be said about Murrell.
He was a small man in stature, but had an aura
of a great authority with
piercing blue eyes and a ruddy complexion.
When out and about the
village he wore a bob-tailed coat
and a fashionable hard-hat, and
always carried an umbrella. He
was often seen walking the country lanes, umbrella in one hand, the other tucked
firmly behind his back, head down as he
paced muttering loudly to himself lost in thought.
When asked to pay an away visit, he travelled only at night,
sometimes going great distances, and always with his trademark umbrella.
Some stories say he married a
local girl and sired as many as 20 children, though no records can be found to
As a seer Murrell used a magical mirror, described as being
something like a small birdcage mirror, which he used
for divination and to find lost or
stolen property. At other
times he would spread a black inky liquid on the surface of a bowl of water, in
which many of those who consulted him insisted they saw events that had happened
many miles away. As an astrologer,
his predictions were said to be uncommonly accurate, and he was able to predict
events many years into the future. One
story claims he also had a magic
telescope that allowed him to see through walls, which (if true) would have been
extremely useful should a client suspect his wife of unfaithfulness. Another magical object he is said to have had was a “talismanic
copper bracelet” worn on his wrist,
which was believed to have the power to detect dishonest men.
As a healer he was renowned for his ability to cure
animals, simply by laying on his hands. He
could also break a spell or curse inflicted by another witch, and exorcise
demons from people and places. His
principal method of breaking spells and curses was a “witch bottle”, which
he filled with specimens of blood, urine, hair and nail parings taken from the
victim to which he added numerous other items.
One story relates how a young girl “barking like a dog” after being
cursed by a gypsy women was brought to him for a cure.
Murrell diagnosed witchcraft as the cause and prepared one of his famous
bottles. This he heated on his
cottage stove at midnight, intending to send back a sense of burning to the
originator of the spell and compel her to remove it.
However the bottle exploded under the heat, and on the following day the
half burned body of a gypsy woman was found dead in a local lane.
As for the young girl, she was cured and stopped barking???
Murrell was often called the “Master of Witches” in the
belief he could force any witch to do his bidding. He was also believed to have had the ability to invoke the
powers of Angelic spirits and Elementals, and charged his clients accordingly.
However, there was always dispute in the community whether he invoked
angels or fiends from hell. One
story relates how he confronted a so-called “black witch” from Canewdon and
commanded her to die immediately, and so she did???
What is known, is that he left a number of hand written manuals of conjurations and geomancy in his effects. These were found after his death, among which was a volume containing the names of his spiritual mentors given as: Adonay, Elohim, Raphael and Tetra the strong and powerful. In spite of his knowledge of the occult and his use of magic, Murrell was in fact an extremely religious man, and could recite the bible backwards. He had many arguments with his local vicar, to whom he had but a cordial relationship. Like many witches of old, he regarded clergymen and doctors as trespassers on his own territory.
In December of 1860, Murrell became ill and foresaw his own
death. He called for pen and paper
and calculated the day of his own passing, he was right, and died on the 16th
of December 1860. In his final
hours, the village vicar tried to minister the last rights to him, but when Murrell
could stand it no longer he fixed his piercing eyes on him and roared:
“I am the Devil’s master”, at which this the vicar ran from the
room in fear. Despite this
Murrell was given a proper burial in the Hadleigh churchyard.
death the landlord of his cottage buried his chest of magical books and other
objects in the garden, but these were later dug up by one of his surviving sons,
Buck Murrell. The contents of the
chest are believed to have survived until 1956, when most of the books and
papers were destroyed, thought to be of no further use.
However, before being destroyed the novelist Arthur Morrison was able
check the chest and record a description of its contents.
There were books on astronomy and astrology, old medical books, and books
dealing with conjuration and geomancy, plus original copies of Nicholas
Culpeper’s books: The English Physician (1652) and The Complete Herbal (1653), both annotated
with comments in Murrell’s own hand.
Since his death stories about Murrell have proliferated,
and over the years turned into legend. One
of his most enduring prophecies concerns the survival of witchcraft in Essex:
“There will witches in Leigh for a hundred years, and three in
Hadleigh, and nine in Canewdon for ever”.
A contemporary of Murrell is George
Pickingill of Canewdon, another cunning man believed to be the last of the
“Masters of Witches”???
Man, Myth & Magic
- Ed Richard Cavendish.
The Triumph of the Moon - by Ronald Hutton
The Encyclopedia of Witches &Witchcraft - by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.
The Dark World of Witches - by Eric Maple.
First published on the 03 May 2007, 14:04:27 © George Knowles
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Remembered at Samhain
Abramelin the Mage / Agrippa / Aidan A. Kelly / Albertus Magnus “Albert the Great” / Aleister Crowley “The Great Beast” / Alex Sanders "the King of the Witches” / Alison Harlow / Amber K / Anna Franklin / Anodea Judith / Anton Szandor LaVey / Arnold Crowther / Arthur Edward Waite / Austin Osman Spare / Biddy Early / Bridget Cleary / Carl Llewellyn Weschcke / Cecil Hugh Williamson / Charles Godfrey Leland / Charles Walton / Christina Oakley Harrington / Damh the Bard (Dave Smith) / Dion Fortune / Dolores Aschroft-Nowicki / Dorothy Morrison / Doreen Valiente / Edward Fitch / Eleanor Ray Bone “Matriarch of British Witchcraft” / Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly / Dr. Leo Louis Martello / Eliphas Levi / Ernest Thompson Seton / Ernest Westlake and the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry / Fiona Horne / Friedrich von Spee / Francis Barrett / Gerald B. Gardner / Gavin and Yvonne Frost and the School and Church of Wicca / Gwydion Pendderwen / Hans Holzer / Helen Duncan / Herman Slater "Horrible Herman" / Israel Regardie / James "Cunning" Murrell / Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone / Jessie Wicker Bell “Lady Sheba” / John Belham-Payne / John George Hohman / John Gerard / John Gordon Hargrave (the White Fox) / John Michael Greer / John Score / Johannes Junius the Burgomaster of Bamberg / Joseph John Campbell / Karl von Eckartshausen / Laurie Cabot "the Official Witch of Salem" / Lewis Spence / Margaret Alice Murray / Margot Adler / Marie Laveau the " Voodoo Queen of New Orleans" / Marion Weinstein / Matthew Hopkins “The Witch-Finder General” / Max Ehrmann and the Desiderata / Monique Wilson the “Queen of the Witches” / Montague Summers / Nicholas Culpeper / Nicholas Remy / M. R. Sellers / Mrs. Grieve "A Modern Herbal" / Oberon and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart / Old Dorothy Clutterbuck / Old George Pickingill / Paddy Slade / Pamela Colman-Smith / Paracelsus / Patricia Crowther / Patricia Monaghan / Patricia “Trish” Telesco / Philip Emmons Isaac Bonewits / Philip Heselton / Raymond Buckland / Reginald Scot / Robert Cochrane / Robert ‘von Ranke’ Graves and "The White Goddess" /Rudolf Steiner / Rosaleen Norton “The Witch of Kings Cross” / Ross Nichols and The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids / Sabrina - The Ink Witch / Scott Cunningham / Selena Fox / Silver Ravenwolf / Sir Francis Dashwood / Sir James George Frazer / S.L. MacGregor Mathers and the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” / Starhawk / Stewart Farrar / Sybil Leek / Ted Andrews / The Mather Family - includes: Richard Mather, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather / Thomas Ady / Vera Chapman / Victor Henry Anderson / Vivianne Crowley / Walter Brown Gibson / William Butler Yeats / Zsuzsanna Budapest
Many of the above biographies are brief and far from complete. If you know about any of these individuals and can help with aditional information, please cantact me privately at my email address below. Many thanks for reading :-)
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