Anne Jefferies, sometimes given as Ann Jeffries, (December 1626 – 1698) was a healer and clairvoyant from Cornwall. She came from an impoverished family, but was taken in as a maid servant by the wealthier Pitt household of the St Teath parish in Cornwall.
When she was nineteen-years-old, the family returned home to find her having convulsions in the garden, which she subsequently attributed to a visit from a group of fairies. Once she recuperated from a lengthy illness initiated by the encounter, she was able to cure people of illness and injuries. Additionally she possessed clairvoyant powers. Although she was never formally charged, magistrates confined her in Bodmin jail, without food or water.
Her story was immortalised in a tract published in 1696 by Moses Pitt, her benefactor’s son. Pitt was around seven-years-old when the events occurred; the pamphlet records his childhood recollections as Jefferies refused to discuss any details when he sent relatives to interview her a few years before her death.
Tales of her meetings with fairies have become a part of West Country folklore. Modern-day academics characterise her story as ranking among one of the most celebrated of cases.
Anne Jefferies was born in December 1626; the daughter of an impoverished labourer from the St Teath parish in Cornwall, she was employed as a servant. It was routine in the area for wealthier residents to take in young members of poor families where, in return for food and clothing, the adolescents would perform menial tasks until they reached the age of maturity. Her benefactors were John Pitt and his wife Joan who owned a large farm in the parish. As well as domestic duties, Jefferies helped as a nanny or nurse to the couple’s two young children, Moses and Mary. When he was an adult, Moses described her as being vivacious, inquisitive and as possessing more fearlessness than a boy; she was illiterate but developed a remarkable memory, especially for scriptures.
In her twenties, she lived for a length of time with John Pitt’s widowed sister in Padstow before having a period of residing with her brother. In later life, Jefferies married William Warren; he was employed to oversee the servants and farm labourers of Richard Lower, an influential surgeon and, after the physician’s death, moved to Devon undertaking the same role for Sir Andrew Slanning. Apart from the information about her marriage, only meagre details about Jefferies’ life are available; according to a writer in Chambers Dictionary of the unexplained, she is believed to have died in about 1698.
Stories of fairies were commonplace among members of the lower social classes in Cornwall during the seventeenth century, together with a deep-seated belief in the existence of such beings. Jefferies was fascinated by the tales of fairies, attempting to seek the small creatures out at every opportunity.
One afternoon in 1645 while the Pitt family were absent, Jefferies was sitting in the garden knitting.[a] The nineteen-year-old was joined in the arbour by a group of six entities all dressed in green who, although of a diminutive build, had scaled the bushes to gain entry. The young servant became so alarmed by their presence it triggered a type of fit or seizure; she was still having spasms when the Pitts returned and discovered her in the garden. The family gently tended to her, taking her back into the house then placed her in bed to rest.
As she emerged from the series of convulsions that day, Jefferies exclaimed that the little figures had been in the room, then she asked those around her whether they had seen them leaving via the window too. The intermittent seizures continued for a long period, often induced by anxiety, with a slow debilitating recuperation. Revival from the fits commonly featured similar queries from Jefferies concerning the fairies; the family attributed it to her confused condition. By the time of the death of the Pitt children’s paternal grandmother in April 1646, Jefferies was so weak from her ongoing malaise they kept the information from her.
Four-year-old Mary Pitt also saw the fairies although no other family member did so. Mary was presented with a quart-sized silver cup by them with instructions that she should pass it to her mother. When she tried to carry out the task, her mother rejected the gift, telling her to return it to the fairies. Her brother, Moses, then around seven-years-old, witnessed Jefferies frolicking among the trees in the garden but although she informed him she was cavorting with the fairies, he did not see them. The fairies had the power to make Jefferies invisible, doing so when a neighbour was trying to find her one day when she was in her bedroom. She fasted for long periods with no visible effects to her health, claiming the fairies were providing her with sustenance. The fairies always appeared in a group of even numbers, never more than eight but never less than two.
Healer and clairvoyant
Jefferies eventually began to recover her strength; as she did so, she became very devout attending church constantly. She developed healing powers and, after she cured an injury Mrs Pitt sustained from a fall, people started to seek her out to take advantage of her skills. The ill and injured travelled large distances to consult with Jefferies; she had premonitions of who would be arriving, when they would come and what condition they wished treated. No financial transactions ever took place but Jefferies always had money available for anything she needed. Included among her other predictions was that the Stuart monarchy would be restored to the throne.
Local magistrates and ministers eventually became aware of the events and claims surrounding Jefferies. They arrived at the Pitt house to investigate then intimated to Jefferies that the fairies were evil spirits conjured up by the Devil. A few days later, the Justice of the Peace, John Tregagle, issued a warrant for Jefferies to be incarcerated in the jail at Bodmin where she was to be held without food or water. Despite being held in prison for a long period of time, she suffered no ill-effects. She was then transferred to be confined in Tregagle’s house where she was again not provided with any sustenance. Unable to dispel her claims, he ultimately had to release her although he made it conditional that she could not return to the Pitt farmhouse. She moved to Padistow and for some time continued to heal people from her base there.
In 1696, when Moses Pitt was an adult working as a bookseller and printer, he produced a pamphlet detailing his childhood recollections of the events. The tract was dedicated to the Bishop of Gloucester, Edward Fowler, who had implored Pitt to transcribe the circumstances concerning Jefferies; the Bishop had first been told of her fairy associations by Pitt around fifteen or twenty years earlier. Attempting to get confirmation together with further information, Pitt prevailed upon his nephew, a lawyer, to visit Jefferies in 1691 then, in 1693, he asked his brother-in-law to interview her to elicit her version of events. She refused to discuss anything about it on both occasions, stating she had no desire to be the subject of books or ballads circulated throughout the country.
No charges were ever brought against Jefferies; modern-day academics such as Diane Purkiss and Peter Marshall consider she was fortunate not to face allegations of witchcraft. Differences of opinion arise among scholars: Lisa McClain believes Jefferies considered that her healing capabilities came from God; Regina Buccola holds the opposite view maintaining that from the outset the nineteen-year-old declared her healing skills originated elsewhere. Disagreement also exists regarding the religious leanings of Jefferies; McClain asserts she was probably Catholic whereas Marshall refutes that claim as a misconception contending she adhered to Anglicanism.
Writing in December 2018, academic Abigail Sparkes indicates that one of the myriad reasons the case of Jefferies is significant was because it demonstrated the inconsistent perception of fairies and other spirits. Historian Ronald Hutton describes it as among “some of the most celebrated cases” ranking alongside the notorious Scottish case of Isobel GowdieIsobel Gowdie was accused of witchcraft in 1662; she was likely executed although that is uncertain. Her detailed testimony provides one of the most comprehensive insights into European witchcraft folklore at the end of the era of witch-hunts. .
Eventually the stories of Jefferies exploits with the fairies and her healing powers evolved into a widespread piece of English folklore; over the years several divergent narratives emerged that deviated from Pitt’s recollection of events. Historian A. L. Rowse attributes another Cornish folktale – that of Jan Tregagle, a mischievous weather spirit – to have a foundation in the actions taken against Jefferies by John Tregagle.[b]