The Fenstanton Witch

by M.R. James

The manuscript of this complete story draft is in Cambridge University Library (see "The Unfinished Ghost Stories of M.R. James"). It is easily recognisable as one of the tales referred to by M.R. James in his essay "Stories I Have Tried to Write".

When the story was first published, in Ghosts & Scholars 12 (1990), I stated that the "text... is largely taken verbatim from the draft, but with some small revisions and repunctuations throughout for ease of reading". For the version in The Fenstanton Witch and Others: M.R. James in Ghosts & Scholars (1999), reprinted in Ash-Tree Press's A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James (2001), I returned to the initial transcript made by myself and Darroll Pardoe, and explained that the revised text was "closer to the original", but still "slightly polished and [with] unreadable words worked around". We have now had another chance to examine MRJ's manuscript in detail and have discovered numerous errors and omissions in our original reading (for which I hope we can be partially excused on account of MRJ's handwriting!), and hence in both published versions. We have also managed to make out all the formerly unreadable words with a fair degree of certainty. The following therefore is a definitive text, exactly as MRJ wrote it except for some repunctuation (and his frequent use of "&" throughout is replaced by "and").

Reproduced by kind permission of N.J.R. James.

Nicholas Hardman and Stephen Ashe were two Fellows of the King's College in Cambridge: they had come like all their contemporaries from the sister College at Eton where they had spent their lives from about the age of six to that of sixteen, and at the time when we encounter them, they were both men of about thirty years old. Hardman was the son of a Lincolnshire parson, living at Thorganby-on-the-Wolds,(1) while Ashe's father was a yeoman-farmer of Ospringe in Kent.(2)

Hardman was black, dour and saturnine with a rasping voice and a strong Lincolnshire accent which cannot be reproduced here. Ashe had the sturdy and somewhat slow intelligence of his Kentish ancestors; the phrase "a good friend and a bad enemy" represents the opinion which the men of his year held of him. Both were in priests' orders, and each, we might suppose, looked forward in the fullness of time to occupying College livings, marrying and bringing up a son or two: one most likely to reproduce his father's career; another, perhaps, to go on the land and become a reputable farmer in a small way.

I say we might suppose their aspirations to have been of this nature: for such was the programme of a majority of Fellows of Colleges at that time. But there is an entry in the book called Harwood's Alumni which shows that they entertained ideas of a very different sort; and it has occurred to me that it may be worthwhile to tell the story of what they adventured and what came of it.

I have alluded more than once to "their times" but I have not yet told you when they lived. Anne was filling the throne of England, Scotland, Ireland and France, and Dr James Roderick was Provost of the College, having been elected by the Fellows in preference to Sir Isaac Newton, whom the Prince of Orange, King William the Third of blessed memory, would have intruded into that pasture. The Fellows of King's had vindicated their right of election and the Lower Master of Eton occupied the Lodge - he was known as one of the "four Smoaking Heads" - while Sir Isaac lived in the Observatory over Trinity Great Gate, and, according to popular legends, gently remonstrated with his dog Diamond, or cut holes in his door to admit his cat and kitten. The University was a happy, sleepy place in those days, one is apt to think; but after all, what with the Church in danger and the excitement of depriving Dr Richard Bentley, then Master of Trinity, of his degrees, there was probably no lack of sport to be had within the precincts. And certainly just outside them there was more than there is now. Snipe were shot on Parker's Piece, and the dreary expanse of undrained fen was the haunt of many a strange fowl, not to speak of other inhabitants of whom I may one day find an occasion to tell.(3)

But it is time to leave generalities. The two sheep to whom we must return - and I am afraid they were black ones - were very close friends; but few men in the University, or indeed in the King's College itself, could boast of more than a speaking acquaintance with either. They occupied one room in the Old School of King's, north of the Chapel, which room was always locked when they were out. And these were not days when Fellows, nor still less Scholars, were in the habit of dropping into each other's abodes to partake of casual hospitality in the way of tobacco or whiskey and water. The common life, such as it was, was confined to Chapel, Hall and the Fellows' Parlour.

All that was known of Hardman and Ashe's way of employing 'their leisure' was that they went for long walks together and smoked apparently very bad tobacco when they came back.

It was a fine afternoon in October when these events began, or to speak more truly, came to a head, which served to show what manner of men were Nicholas Hardman and Stephen Ashe. Chapel service, we may be sure, was at three, and both of our friends were there, staring at each other from opposite stalls. The reedy and pedalless organ helped the rather infirm and jaded choir through a new verse anthem by Dr Blow during which the snoring of Provost Roderick was not doubtfully heard. At near four, Dr Tudway, the organist, played out the scant congregation with a march of his own composition. The choirmen hurried off to go through a similar performance at Trinity. The boys rushed off to whatever haunts in the town they had emerged from. The Provost strolled to his Lodge, then at the eastern end of the Chapel, and the Fellows and Scholars made their way across the strip of ground on the north side, holding on their caps - for a strong west wind was blowing the yellow leaves about - and so into the Old Court, and to dine in Hall. A coarse meal, I expect it was, and a silent one. The Vice Provost and three or four Seniors occupied one table on the dais; the Masters of Arts - among whom were Hardman and Ashe - filled a second along with the Fellow-Commoners; and the Bachelors and Undergraduate Fellows and Scholars, two more. There may have been fifty people in the room. Not much passed at dinner, which lasted about forty minutes; but afterwards the Fellows returned to the parlour and the Scholars to their rooms. With these last we are not concerned, but we may as well follow the Seniors. They are sitting at a large table, cloth-less, with some decanters of wine (I don't know whether port or claret: much depends upon the date of Lord Methuen's treaty with Portugal), and something like conversation has broken out.

"Where did ye ride today, Mr Bates?" said Mr Glynne.

"Only so far as Fenstanton."

"Fenstanton. Ah - is that where the witch was ducked last week? Lord Blandford was riding by at the time" (this was the Duke of Marlboro's son and heir who died shortly afterwards and was now a Fellow-Commoner), "and his Lordship made some hot-headed show at rescuing the old creature. Has there been any stir made? Dodgson of Magdalene has this living, but I doubt, if he hath not moved, no one will. 'Tis a lost place, Fenstanton, for all it be on the Huntingdon road." Thus far Mr Glynne, who had rather a knack of monopolising conversation.

"Well, to tell truth," says Bates, "I had not heard of the matter, but the bell was tolling for a burying as I rode through, and I happened to meet Dodgson coming from his beer and pipe, as I judge, to the churchyard. He did let fall something which could fit with what you say. Pray, did you hear the name, Glynne, Galpin or Gibson; some word with a 'G' in it?"(4)

"Gibson! Mother Gibson! That was the name for a guinea! So that ducking has finished the poor creature," said good-natured Glynne. "These fen-rustics are little but brutes. I vow the coroner should have sat, and there should have been a dozen strung up at the Assizes, and in any but Dodgson's parish there would have been. But Lord! the man thinks of nothing but his tithes and his beer."

"Matthews had the parsonage before Dodgson," said Bates, "and in his time there were four attempts at swimming that old woman. Not a boy nor man in the parish, he told me, but was ready to swear she had signed herself away. But Matthews threatened to call in the sheriff, and he would have done it too, so they kept mum in his time."

"For all that," said Glynne, "I remember his saying in this parlour that when he looked at her he was half in a mind to believe the tale. He pointed her out to me one day, and it is sure that she might have sat for a portrait of the Enemy as far as her eyes were concerned: they were as red as blood and the pupils like a goat's." With which Mr Glynne was silent and shuddered slightly.

"Did they bury her in the churchyard, Bates?" said Dr Morell, the Vice Provost.(5)

"Yes, Mr Vice Provost. I noticed a grave dug on the north side, which I take it was for her."

"All this talk about burying witches puts me in mind of William of Malmesbury's tale, that Dr Gale printed not so long back." This was from a new contributor to the conversation, Mr Newborough, afterwards Head Master of Eton, who was more bookishly inclined than many of his compeers. "Do you know it, Mr Glynne? You should look at Malmesbury": and he proceeded to tell the story which Southey has put into rhyme under the name of the "Old Woman of Berkeley". After that came a short discussion of the Witch of Endor; then the conversation drifted to Dr Hody's book on the Versions of the Bible, then by a not uncommon fate to Dr Bentley's last enormities, and thence back to the familiar question of College livings and probable vacancies.

In the midst of this, Hardman and Ashe made their bow to the Vice Provost and went out. They had neither of them made any remark since dinner but Dr Morell, an observant man, noticed that they had taken a very considerable interest in the early part of the conversation.

"Two dull dogs gone," said Dr Glynne, when the door closed behind them: "I pity their wives if ever they marry and their parishes if ever they take 'em."

"Quiet enough if they are dull," said Newborough.

"I don't know that, Newborough," said Morell. "The man that has chambers under theirs doesn't always sleep best. What can keep those two men treading about the whole night, as I am told they do, and what have they on their minds that makes them sigh and moan like two sick owls, as Burton says? You know everyone in College, Glynne; tell us, pray, were you ever in Hardman's and Ashe's chambers?"

"Not I," said Glynne. "I knocked at their door one day, I recollect, last year. Such a clatter as they made before they opened it, I vow I never heard, but all I can tell of the matter is that Hardman was as pale as a ghost when he opened to me, and that the place smelt as sweet as a bonfire of old rags and bones. Hardman made shift to ask my business, and then shut the door in my face!"

"Well," said the Vice Provost, "he might have spared himself the question, Glynne. I never knew you have any business in this life yet. Never matter! 'Tis time to turn unto the coffeehouse, Gentlemen. I have told Dr Cotes we should be there before eight, and the clocks are going the quarter now."

The company adjourned therefore to a coffeehouse on the Market Place, and smoked clay pipes till ten with Dr Roger Cotes and some other gentlemen from Trinity, Queens' and Bene't Colleges.


The curfew bell was ringing and it was a fine night when Hardman and Ashe, each with a packet and a stick, emerged from the gates of King's College and told the porter - a fuddling old ruffian, as were most College servants of that day - that they were not like to be returning that night. Neither said any word until they were clear of the town and on the Huntingdon road. Then said Nicholas Hardman, "If all goes as it should tonight, Ashe, we shall know a matter worth knowing."

"Yes, Nick, and there will be a matter worth having in one of these bundles," said Ashe: "I dare swear though that there will be some disappointment. Newborough's tale of the old witch set me a-thinking. You have the book upon you, Nick?"

"Book, what book? Dr Gales' print of Malmesbury, I suppose? A fat folio of a stone weight. It is likely?"

"No, not Malmesbury. Our book, the book, I mean."

"Call me fool if you like, Stephen, but don't ask such another question: have I come forth without my head? That is as likely as it would be for me to leave the book in my chambers. But why, pray, does that ass Newborough's old story set you thinking?"

"Why, only, that if the same gentry that came for their friend in that story were thinking of waiting upon our friend at Fenstanton tonight, it is like we may see trouble."

Hardman gave a snort. "And if they did, do you think a circle is broken so easily? Have I nothing here that avails to make them give back? Still, you are right in a way, Stephen, as you have been before. If we are later in the field than they, there may be trouble, even danger. But what we would have is not what they want. If we get the three locks of hair and the winding sheet, we are masters of the Elementals. The others want the soul."

It was a thought that seemed to dash both of them for a moment, and they were silent. So the clouds flew across the moon, and the wind blew over the bare fields, and the bells of Cambridge came more faintly to the ear, as they walked quietly on towards the sleeping village of Fenstanton.


Those who remember the road between Cambridge and Fenstanton will bear me out when I say that it is eleven miles long, and presents few features of interest. There is an occasional wayside inn, a few farms lie a little off the road, and on a clear day we may see the lantern and western tower of Ely, and a good many nearer church towers. The church that lies nearest to the road is that of Lolworth, on the left hand, some five or six miles out. There was something doing at Lolworth when Hardman and Ashe passed it. The bell was going, and the windows lighted. Nocturnal funerals were almost the rule in Queen Anne's time for any one who claimed to be a magnate, so that it did not surprise the lookers-on when they saw two lines of torches working their way slowly through the trees near the church, and when they saw a figure in white flit out of the south porch to meet the cortège, they knew that it must be the parson. Yet a few moments, and the procession was in the church: then they walked on again, for they had paused a moment.

The turning out of the main road towards Lolworth church lay some little distance ahead, and down the lane were coming a group of figures at a great pace. They reached the road and turned down it towards the travellers: who were a little daunted thereby, because they did not wish to be recognised as Cambridge parsons at that hour of the night. There appeared to be seven people clustering round one in the midst, and their action and gait was like that of watchmen who had taken a prisoner. The party came on, and it seemed as if this conjecture might fit the situation, for the person in the midst was plainly reluctant, and as plainly was being hurried on by the rest. Hardman and Ashe drew toward the hedge to let these men pass, and their eyes were riveted upon the face of the captured man. It was not lightly to be forgotten, for it is not often that any one beholds the face of a man who has lost all hope, and yet has room in his brain for an unspeakable fear. This is the sight which those two ill-starred priests were now looking upon: and they saw moreover that, in spite of his terror and desperation, the captive could look nowhere save straight in front of him, for anything seemed tolerable rather than to see the faces of the seven who were about him. When they pictured the scene to themselves thereafter, they realised that his was the only face of which they had caught sight at all; nay, it even seemed to them that there was no other face for their eyes to catch.

The thing was passed; it passed quite silently, and for many moments these two men stayed breathless to within an ace of sudden flight or swooning. They knew that they had seen that which no mourner at that funeral had seen, and it was in their minds that it is not always well for those whose eyes are opened. It may happen to some to see the mountains full of bones and chariots of fire, but to others are shown very different sights from that. Yet the natures of both were so obstinate and dogged that neither would broach to the other the thought of returning, and giving up the dismal project they had in their minds. They went on.

Soon they sighted Fenstanton spire, and half a mile further they left the road and made their way across the fields to the side where the churchyard was accessible away from the street. It was not a difficult wall to climb, yet they were unnerved and took several minutes to get over it. Then they proceeded to go through the sinister rites and ceremonies which were to safeguard them against those powers with whom they supposed themselves to be leagued, for they are treacherous allies, as those tell us who claim to know the heart of the matter. On the north side of the dark church, even in its shadow, and not more than ten yards from a new-made grave - the only one on that side of the building - they picked out a space where the grass was shortest, and drew two large circles, one within the other. And in the space between the circles they marked out with some pains the symbols of the planets and a few Hebrew letters which were meant to indicate names of angels and of the Great Power, whose aid, by one of the strange contradictions of art magic, they promised themselves they would gain for the work they were at. When their defence was completed they stopped, and Ashe looked at his time-piece. The hour was something short of a quarter to twelve, so they must wait till the middle of night was reached.

And now - what was it that these two educated clergymen proposed to themselves? And how came it that they were on an enterprise which one associates, not always correctly, with the darkest mediaevalism and the most defective civilisation?

You have guessed that they were earnest and credulous students of art magic: how came such men to be in Cambridge in the reign of Queen Anne? I can only answer that in that day there were many such men in Germany, and that the instinct which prompts men to seek intercourse with the unseen peoples of the air is one that may come to the surface in any civilisation and in any century. Many have a sneaking idea that the intercourse has been sometimes gained, but that is little to the point.

That which Hardman and Ashe were determined upon was the obtaining of an ingredient for future spells, which should end in making them able to command the forces of nature to a degree which they believed many to have attained before them. They meant on this night - and they were confident of accomplishing it - to go through certain forms of words which would have power to make the corpse of the old woman buried that day to arise out of the grave and come to them, and give them - it is horrid to think of - the portion of the grave-clothes and the locks of hair of which Hardman spoke when they were on the road. Then should the body return to the earth as it was, and the soil be replaced above it. They were to go back to their College the next day; and in seven days' time, who so rich and powerful as Nicholas Hardman and Stephen Ashe, Esquires?

It was with a strange kind of exaltation that, as midnight came near, Hardman drew from his bosom a paper book, about a hundred years old, ill-written and full of diagrams like that which had just been drawn upon the ground, and within whose compass both of them were standing. He began to read, or intone, a Latin form of conjuration, a sinister kind of Church service, in which the most sacred of names were freely employed; and to this Ashe made the set appointed refrains. The night had been disturbed throughout and windy, but no rain had fallen and the thin clouds kept covering the moon, which was by this time low and near the horizon. The wind rattled in the louvres of the tower, and every now and then swung the tongue of a bell so that it sounded in a dim and far off fashion. Nicholas Hardman read on, and read faster and louder, and Ashe responded at short intervals. They had now entered upon the 91st Psalm: "Qui Habitat", "Whoso dwelleth", and they were just promising themselves deliverance from the terror that walks in darkness when a blacker cloud than usual left the moon's face and Stephen Ashe fell like an ox at the feet of Hardman. For it seems that it had been determined that these fools should be answered according to their folly.

I have said that the miserable and criminous old woman whom the fen-men had killed was buried a bare ten yards away from the two conjurors: and their eyes were often fixed upon her grave as upon the point to which their spells were directed. Looking over at the grave, Hardman beheld crouched upon it a shape which there was small likelihood of his ever forgetting. It was the figure, one would say, at first sight, of an enormous bat, with folded wings and hints of head approaching the human form. In a short moment, Hardman caught sight of the folds of wrinkled skin or hide that hung down from the cheeks, of the wide ears which shone transparent in the moonlight, and of the two lines of dusky red fire which marked the almost closed eyes. And further, he declared afterwards, he saw the earth heap upon which this being was crouched stir and wave beneath it. Not long was he allowed to remain a spectator, for this terrific appearance rose to its height and for a minute seemed to look about as if for a victim whom it knew to be near. Hardman, almost at the pitch of despair, yet trusted dimly in his charmed circle. But the creature on a sudden turned full in his direction and stepped swift and straight towards him, not flinching for an instant at angelic names or planetary symbols. In another moment, its talons were raised toward his face, and he knew no more.

It was Ashe who helped him back to Cambridge in the morning of the next day: and it was Ashe also who, for the twenty years that he survived, sheltered him in the parsonage of Willoughton and ministered to him, himself a stricken man. But Hardman never saw light again.

The College at large never learned the rights of the story. Two days after the catastrophe, Mr Glynne says to Mr Morell, being Vice Provost, "What did you do at the Seniors' Meeting this morning, Mr Vice-?"

"Sealed the presentation to Weedon Lois, and received a declaration, Glynne."

"A royal declaration, or what?"

"No, Glynne; Mr Provost will tell you about it, maybe, if you ask him."

So off goes Mr Glynne to the Lodge. But Provost Roderick is pale, which is not natural to him, and not smoking, which is decidedly unnatural, and disturbed and uncommunicative. And Mr Glynne can only learn that it is a matter which the Seniors have decided to keep private. During the next week, a barrowload of matters from one set of chambers in the King's College is wheeled off in the direction of Barton and does not come back: and most of the Seniors are very regular in their attendance in the Chapel for some months.

I cannot help connecting these events I have set down with that entry in the Protocollum book, which states that two gentlemen, being Fellows of the College, were permitted to register a solemn abjuration of all unlawful acts in the practicing of which they had grievously transgressed: and that it was agreed that the Provost and Seniors shall exercise their utmost discretion to the end that this matter be kept strictly private to the Seniority.

Copyright (c) 1990 N.J.R. James
Transcription and notes (c) 2003 Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe


(1) MRJ crossed through "on", and wrote "put under" above, although the real name of the village is Thorganby-on-the-Wolds.

(2) At this point in the manuscript there are four lines crossed out (squared brackets are MRJ's): "In each [Both were just such men as would in earlier times have taken priests' orders in the Roman ("in the Roman" crossed out twice) under the old religion &, I doubt not, they would have had a sharp use for a heretic]".

(3) The sentence "Snipe were shot... an occasion to tell" is added on the back of the sheet, with a mark indicating where it should be inserted.

(4) After "'Glynne'", MRJ originally wrote "'Dempsey or Dobbin'", before crossing it out and continuing with "'Galpin or Gibson'".

(5) The section from "'Did they bury her...'" to " long back. This was from an" is added on the back of the sheet, with a line leading to the insertion point.

Click here for "The Fenstanton Witch" story notes, which were published in issue two of the Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter.

"The Fenstanton Witch" illustration below is by Paul Lowe, from the cover of Ghosts & Scholars 30. Copyright (c) 2000 Paul Lowe.

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