The White Doe

Shape shifting is a familiar theme in Witch legends. One of the oldest English tales with this motif concerns Lady Sybil of Bemshaw Tower in Lancashire. She was beautiful, wealthy, “intellectual beyond most of her sex,” and irresistibly drawn to the practice of Witchcraft for which she showed remarkable talent. Lady Sybil loved wild nature with all of her heart and enjoyed nothing so much as to ramble through the deep ravines of Cliviger Gorge in the form of a milk- white doe. One May Eve while in this guise, she was captured by Lord William of Towneley Castle with the magical help of another Lancashire witch, the famous Mother Helston.

It all began in early spring a long, long time ago. Lord William had nearly despaired of ever winning the lovely heiress of Bernshaw Tower as his bride. She was indifferent to his courting and repeatedly spurned his advances. But Mother Helston prepared a powerful spell woven into a long silken cord and loaned Lord William her own familiar, a fierce black hound. With these the nobleman won his heart’s desire for at cock’s crow the captive doe became Lady Sybil now docile and subject to his will. But Lord William made a fatal mistake when he offended Mother Helston by failing to thank her for her efforts on his behalf.

Within one passage of the moon the spell was lifted and Lady Sybil sought her freedom. Lord William was forced to hold her prisoner under the constant guard of his manservant Robin. One night while Robin dozed a splendid white cat tried to slip by him. Robin woke with a roar and with his dagger, struck off the cat’s paw. When he stooped to pick it up, there instead was the severed hand of Lady Sybil, easily identified by an· elaborate diamond ring she wore on her forefinger. The hand was returned to its owner and magically restored to Lady Sybil’s arm although a faint red line remained. Lord William tried his best to make amends, but it was too late. The lady’s health declined after this episode and she soon died.

According to her wishes, Lady Sybil was buried in Cliviger Gorge close by Eagle Crag where as the white doe she had been run to ground by Mother Helston’s hound. And when darkness falls on May Eve, so the legend tells, doe and hound and ardent hunter return to haunt the night.

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