The Stroking Boy or Wise Child of Wysall

by Frank E Earp

One of the great fortunes of our times is to have almost instant access to a doctor and to medical care. It is difficult for us to imagine a time when this was not the case, but for passed societies in general looked to their own devices for a cure for illness and disease. At a time when illness and disease was attributed to the gods, many people would visit special places, – holy sites, – where curative powers were thought to reside. Not least of these were healing wells and springs. In every community, there was always someone with a rudimentary knowledge of medicine and those practising as a village ‘wise man’ or ‘wise woman’, where not uncommon. There were also those who claimed to have the power of healing, – faith healers.

With the advent of Christianity, the ‘new’ Christian God assumed the responsibility for coursing illness and disease. The logic therefore went, that if God was responsible for the sickness, then only He, through the auspices’ of the Church, would provide a cure. The pagan holy sites were Christianised and healing springs and wells became holy wells associated with saints. However, wise men/women and faith healers were ostracised as witches. By the 17th century, practitioners of folk medicine could find themselves ending their life at the end of a rope and those found visiting a wise man/women or healer, prosecuted by the Church courts.

An example of the popularity of the wise man/women is to be found in the ‘Presentation Bill’ -an indictment – put before the Church court at Trowell; Robert Shaw “…it is commonly reported that, having certain money stolen from him, he consulted with a wizard, wise man, or wise woman to recover it.”

In 1623 ecclesiastical records indicate that something ‘strange’ was occurring in the village of Wysall. Around Michaelmas, – 29th September, one of the cross-quarter days, – there appears the first reference to the fact that Wysall had become a place of pilgrimage for those wishing to see the ‘wise boy’ also known as the ‘stroking boy’. Given the title, -stroking boy, – it is reasonable to surmise that, here was a young man who claimed healing powers and perhaps rendered his cures by stroking the patient. Those making the pilgrimage were therefore desperate people seeking a cure for themselves or a loved one. This is borne out by a West Bridgford Presentation Bill, court: “West Bridgford of Richard Garton, husbandman, for carrying his child to Wisall to be cured by the ‘stroaking boy’.”

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The authorities were so concerned by the activities of the stroking boy, they issued an order to a number of parishes to submit; “the names of those that by report and fame went to the child at Wisall’ [Wysall], ‘but of our own knowledge we cannot say.” The records include seven parishes and a reference to a hamlet, (Bassingfield), within the text: Broughton Sulney an Ane (Broughton Solney), West Bridgford, Wollaton, Trowell, Costock, Lenton and East Leake. We do not know if this list is comprehensive or whether these are the only references to survive. It may be that only these parishes were questioned because the authority already had their suspicions. It may be noted that the question asks for the names of those visiting the stroking boy of which the authority has no knowledge, implying that it already had knowledge of others. Of the parishes questioned the returns were as follows:

Broughton Sulney an Ane; “Brett, Edward Weston and his wife, Thomas Lister with his son and Margerie Frances, and William Hemsley:  “for going to the boy at Wysall”.

West Bridgford; “Elizabeth Harding, wife of Walter Harding of Bridgford, Jone Seemons, wife of Michaell Seemons of Bassingfeild, Katherine Whitworth, wife of Reginald Whitworth of Bridgford, Anne Wright, Marie Dauson, Elizabeth Coopers and Isabell Hilton of Bridgford’: “going to and seeking unlawful means of help from the stroking boy who was at Wisall.”

Without doubt the powers of the stroking boy must have been considered remarkable and amongst the submissions we find reports from the parishes of Wollaton and Trowel, both a considerable walking distance from Wysall:

Wollaton; “Elline Bruchouse, Ellizabeth Simmones, Elline Browne, and Alles Skeleton: “for going to the wise boy.”

Trowell; “Gabriel Eaton and Nicholas Lansdale’: “for resorting to the boy at Wysall, commonly called the wise child and for being touched of the said child in hope of some miraculous healing, contrary, as they are persuaded, to God’s word and the ecclesiastical laws.”

This last entry gives a clear picture of the whole story of the stroking boy; First it gives an alternative name by which he was known, – ‘….commonly called the wise child’. Secondly it tells us why people travelled miles to consult with him,’…. in hope of some miraculous healing’. Thirdly it tells how he might have effected a cure ‘….for being touched of the said child’. Finally, it tells us the attitude of the Church, ‘…. contrary, as they are persuaded, to God’s word and the ecclesiastical laws.”

Costock; “concerning any that were supposed to go to the child at Wysall for any manner of cure, they cannot find any.”

Lenton and East Leake do not appear to have submitted a return. However, this does not mean that no-one from these parishes visited the stroking boy, only that there were no names to be submitted. Perhaps the records have been lost, or could it be that those who had visited Wysall from these parishes were already known to the authorities?

A total of 23 people from four parishes are recorded as visiting the stroking boy. Of these more than half, – 13, – are women. All of these individuals pleaded guilty of breaking Church law, however none were ever formally charged and all were subsequently dismissed. There is no evidence that the stroking boy was ever charged with any offence and no mention of him in the records of 1624 and there-after. Did he escape detection, or was the Church satisfied that he was of no threat to their authority.

When we examine the case of the stroking boy of Wysall, some remarkable facts are revealed. Wysall was and remains a small, self-contained agricultural village, some 11 miles south-west of Nottingham. Until recent times it was accessible only by minor roads. It is interesting to note that the village may once have been the site of a pagan shrine. At least one authority gives the name of the village as deriving from two Old English words meaning ‘hill of the heathen temple.’

That the fame of one of its inhabitants should have spread as far as Trowell on the opposite side of the City, at a time when few people ever ventured beyond their own parish, is in itself remarkable. The story also reflects the desperation of the individuals who travelled a considerable distance to seek his help, knowing that their actions risked prosecution by the Church. It is clear that if the activities of the stroking boy had come to the attention of the common people, then it had also reached the ear of those policing such matters for the Church authority. Their quick action in sending their request for names, probably stop the boy’s fame spreading further and Wysall becoming a place of pilgrimage for many more people.

wysall-church-1903

Wysall Church, circa 1903

My thanks go to fellow folklorist Ross Parish for drawing my attention to this story.

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About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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