Foxes and Witches in Kirtlington
8 March 2021 (Updated 14 February 2023)
In The Lore of the Land, Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson recount a tale related to the belief that witches could turn themselves into animals, often hares but occasionally other animals, such as this tale from Kirtlington.
In the early 20th century, local huntsmen would report seeing a very fine vixen that they would often chase but were never able to catch.
On one occasion they came close to catching the wily vixen but it unexpectedly ran into the cottage of a local woman who was known to be a witch. The men burst into the cottage but found no fox, only the woman herself sitting by her fire, but suspiciously out of breath!
Variations on this story are told throughout the country. Katherine Briggs mentions a similar story in Folklore of the Cotswolds of another Oxfordshire 'shape-shifting witch' who lived at the row of cottages known as Kingstanding, a few miles to the southeast of Ascott-under-Wychwood. The witch was known to turn into a hare, which would be seen running past her cottage shortly before the woman herself would be found inside 'panting and out of breath'.
Fans of M.R. James, the famous writer of ghost stories, may recognise this scene. It is very similar to one in James's story 'The Ash Tree' in which Sir Matthew Fell pursues a hare he believes to be the witch Mrs. Mothersole across his park by moonlight. Upon knocking on her cottage door she answers in human form, 'very cross, and apparently very sleepy, as if just out of bed'!
- 'The Lore of the Land' by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (ISBN: 0141021039)
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by Katherine Briggs (Batsford Books, 1974, ISBN: 0713428317)