Olivia (Olly) Powell

Olivia Powell lived in the village of Loveston, Pembrokeshire during the 17th century.

In 1693, a J.P. reported ‘a whole catalogue of disasters’ after Olly commented on crops and livestock in her vicinity. A parson was said to have witnessed her declaring ‘Ha! Yonder is a furze reek where there was never one before, but before tomorrow ‘twill be upside-down’ before the rick overturned. Similarly, a local man, William Nash, reported that his rented cow became ‘sickened and was found lying down strangely, head on belly’ after Olly recited ‘take a cow at a price, she will be full of lice’.*

The time and context in which Olly lived offer some insight into why she may have been labeled a ‘witch’. Firstly, as a rural community in the 17th century, Pembrokeshire depended on a plentiful harvest and the successful rearing of livestock for the survival of its people. This may, in turn, have influenced a culture of superstition surrounding the crops. Women were an easy target, as S. Lipscomb explains: ‘Women were believed to be morally and spiritually weaker than men (and so) they were thought to be particularly vulnerable to diabolical persuasion.’ With this in mind, the ‘witnesses’ cannot necessarily be considered impartial. For example, at a time of ‘religious upheaval and division’, the parson would have been only too aware of the ‘pernicious influence of magic and the devil’.

A century earlier, a preacher called Robert Holland was appointed at Haverfordwest. He is described as having ‘puritanical views’ and ‘may well have had direct knowledge of witchcraft trials in East Anglia’. He felt that communities were at risk of being ‘led into a continual trafficke with cunning folk’ (witches) and his influence may have been felt across the county.

Charlotte Hodgman writes that ‘more often than not, accusations of witchcraft resulted from neighbourly disagreements’. This may have been the case with Olly’s second accuser, William Nash. Before the negative association with ‘witch trials’, the label of ‘witch’ ‘really meant the local healer, someone who made poultices and medicines and perhaps had charms or spells for healing cattle’. (Phil Carradice). As such, when Nash’s cow (and source of milk to feed his family) ‘would neither drink nor chew the cud…(and) the flyes began to fall on the cow…in great heapes…and eventually maggots’, it is reasonable to surmise that his testimony was ‘a way of exacting revenge when the…wise woman failed to cure an ache or heal a hurt animal’.

Olly Powell’s reputation in a small village may also have led to other accusations and exaggerated ‘witness’ accounts. An unnamed woman described her passing a pond of ducks that ‘left their pond, fell on their backs and died’. This is however, unsubstantiated. Furthermore, a tale told by coal miner Henry Phelps of Olly ‘run(ning) like a hare’ at Pembrokeshire coal works, could merely be metaphor or embellished storytelling.

Whatever the truth, Olly Powell lived and faced trial in an era of superstition and inequality. Her principal prosecter, Henry Phelps, accused her of demanding ‘a measure of coal’ at Jefferston colliery. He stated that he offered a ‘sack of coal’ but she required ‘a stone of coal over measure’. Olly’s brazen and unfulfilled demands were reported to have left a curse on Phelps who was ‘taken all over his body with stitches and was unable to rest or sleep… (and) feared death’. Charlotte Hodgman’s article ‘The War on Witches’ highlights how exaggerated accusations of witchcraft were contrived to oppress women who were deemed as ‘unreasonably wanting something over and above what was appropriate’.

Roedd Olivia Powell yn byw ym mhentref Loveston, Sir Benfro yn ystod yr ail ganrif ar bymtheg. 

Yn 1693, cyfeiriodd ynad heddwch at ‘gatalog o drychinebau’ ar ôl i Olly wneud sylwadau am gnydau a da byw yn ei hardal. Dywedwyd bod offeiriad wedi ei chlywed yn datgan ‘Ha! Draw fan acw mae tas o eithin lle na fu erioed un o’r blaen, ond cyn yfory bydd y das wedi troi wyneb i waered’ cyn i’r das droi drosodd. Yn yr un modd, dywedodd dyn lleol, William Nash, bod ei fuwch oedd ar rent ganddo wedi mynd yn ‘sâl a’i bod yn gorwedd yn rhyfedd, â’i phen ar ei bol’ ar ôl i Olly ddatgan ‘mae cadw buwch am bris, llawn fydd ei bol o’r llau’.*

Mae’r cyfnod a chyd-destun yr oes yr oedd Olly yn byw ynddi yn rhoi rhyw syniad i ni o pam y gallai fod wedi cael ei labelu yn ‘wrach’. Yn gyntaf, fel cymuned wledig yn yr ail ganrif ar bymtheg, roedd Sir Benfro yn dibynnu ar gynhaeaf toreithiog a magu da byw iach fel bywoliaeth ei phobl. Gallai hyn, yn ei dro, fod wedi dylanwadu ar ddiwylliant ofergoelus ynglŷn â’r cnydau. Roedd menywod yn darged hawdd, fel yr eglura S. Lipscomb: ‘Credwyd bod menywod yn wannach yn foesol ac yn ysbrydol na dynion ac felly credwyd eu bod yn arbennig o agored i berswâd y diafol.’ Gyda hyn mewn golwg, ni ellir ystyried bod y ‘tystion’ yn gwbl ddiduedd. Er enghraifft, ar adeg o ‘gyffro a rhaniadau crefyddol’, byddai’r offeiriad wedi bod yn ymwybodol iawn o ‘ddylanwad dinistriol hud a’r diafol’. 

Ganrif yn gynharach, cafodd pregethwr o’r enw Robert Holland ei benodi yn Hwlffordd. Disgrifir ef fel un oedd â ‘safbwyntiau piwritanaidd’ ac ‘efallai bod ganddo wybodaeth uniongyrchol am dreialon gwrachod yn East Anglia’. Barnai bod cymunedau mewn perygl o gael eu ‘hudo gan fenywod cyfrwys’ (gwrachod) ac o bosibl bod ei ddylanwad wedi treiddio drwy’r sir. 

Mae Charlotte Hodgman yn ysgrifennu ‘yn amlach na pheidio, roedd cyhuddiadau o ddewiniaeth yn deillio o anghytundebau rhwng cymdogion’. Efallai mai hyn oedd yn wir am ail gyhuddwr Olly, William Nash. Cyn y cysylltiad negyddol â ‘threialon gwrachod’, roedd label ‘gwrach’ yn golygu menyw leol oedd yn iachau, rhywun oedd yn gwneud powltis a meddyginiaethau ac oedd o bosibl yn meddu ar swyn neu swyngyfaredd i wella gwartheg’. (Phil Carradice). Ac felly, pan oedd buwch Nash (a ffynhonnell llaeth i fwydo ei deulu) yn gwrthod yfed na chnoi cil… dechreuodd y clêr ddisgyn ar y fuwch… mewn pentwr mawr… gan droi’n gynrhon, mae’n rhesymol dod i’r casgliad bod ei dystiolaeth yn ‘ffordd o ddial pan fethodd y wraig ddoeth wella dolur neu iacháu anifail oedd wedi’i anafu’. 

Gallai enw gwael Olly Powell mewn pentref bach hefyd arwain at gyhuddiadau eraill a ‘thystiolaeth’ wedi’i orliwio. Disgrifiodd menyw ddienw hi’n cerdded heibio llyn o hwyaid a ‘hedfanodd o’r llyn, cyn syrthio ar eu cefnau a marw’. Fodd bynnag, nid oes sail i’r honiad hwn. Hefyd gallai stori a adroddwyd gan y glöwr Henry Phelps am Olly ‘yn rhedeg fel ysgyfarnog’ yng ngwaith glo Sir Benfro, fod yn ddim byd mwy na ffordd o siarad neu orliwio adrodd stori. 

Beth bynnag yw’r gwirionedd, roedd Olly Powell yn byw ac yn wynebu achos llys mewn cyfnod o ofergoeliaeth a diffyg cydraddoldeb. Cyhuddodd ei phrif erlynydd, Henry Phelps, hi o fynnu cael ‘mesur o lo’ ym mhwll glo Jefferston. Dywedodd ei fod wedi cynnig ‘sach o lo’ iddi ond ei bod wedi mynnu cael ‘stôn o lo’. Dywedwyd bod gofynion digyfaddawd Olly wedi gadael melltith ar Phelps oedd wedi dioddef ‘gwayw dros ei gorff i gyd fel na allai orffwys na chysgu… a’i fod yn ofni y byddai farw’. Mae erthygl Charlotte Hodgman, ‘The War on Witches’, yn amlygu sut oedd cyhuddiadau wedi’u gorliwio o ddewiniaeth yn cael eu dyfeisio i ormesu menywod oedd yn cael eu hystyried yn ‘afresymol ddeisyfu rhywbeth uwchlaw’r hyn oedd yn briodol’. 

*Suggett, Richard.  A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales. (The History Press, 2008)

Lipscomb, Suzannah. A Brief History of Witches (BBC History Magazine)

Hodgman, Charlotte. The War on Witches (BBC History Magazine 2010)

Carradice, Phil. Welsh Witches (BBC Wales History)

Categories: Agriculture | Survivors | Uncategorized

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