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Witchsmeller Pursuivant

"Witchsmeller Pursuivant" is the fifth episode of the first season of the BBC One sitcom Blackadder (The Black Adder).

Plot

Black plague

Nothing is known about the activities of Edmund in the past three years. However this period of presumably peaceful existence would soon come to an end. According to the narration "By the autumn of the Year of Our Lord 1495, the Black Plague once again howled westwards across Europe from the Indies, carried by seamen and entering England by the South West Passage. Each day, thousands died. Village after village disappeared in its evil wake and not even the best and noblest escaped its horror."

Prince Harry soon informed Edmund that their father was "feeling a bit under the weather". Edmund was somewhat excited, since the death of Richard IV would make Harry King and Edmund himself heir presumptive to the throne. Enquiring on what was the disease, Edmund was informed that it remained uncertain. Harry himself thought it was the Black Plague. Harry also suggested that the King would appreciate "a little visit" from Edmund. However, the currently deranged Richard had taken to welcoming any visitor with a drawn sword, and the visiting Edmund had to flee before being stabbed to death by his own father.

Prince Harry soon summoned the Privy Council to discuss the matters at hand. Both Edmund and Lord Percy were apparently among the "Lords of the Council". Baldrick silently attended at the side of his Prince. Harry began his speech by announcing they jointly faced "the gravest crisis this country has known since the Roman invasion," a statement met with the apparent approval of the council. However, at this point, King Richard called for Harry. The Prince of Wales was suddenly nervous but agreed to meet his father--though only after donning a helmet and drawing his own sword.

Harry left Edmund in charge of the council. Edmund begun reading from Harry's notes. However, in his case, the phrase "the gravest crisis this country has known since the Roman invasion" only managed to produce wide protest from his audience, who reminded him of the invasions of the Vikings, the Normans and the Swiss. Edmund conceded that their current situation was only "the greatest crisis for some time".

One of the Lords shouted that they all knew why, reporting rumours that the King was under spiritual possession. The surprised Edmund was unable to continue his speech. The Lords reported that "The land is full of omens of bewitchment".

These reported strange omens included:

  • A tale that during the previous week in Cornwall, a man with four heads had been seen taking tea on the beach. (Historically Europeans would not encounter tea until a 1560 visit of Japan by Portuguese sailors. The custom of drinking tea was only introduced to England by Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II.)
  • The claim of two women in Windsor of having been raped by a fish.
  • A tale of raining phlegm in Harrogate.
  • The report of the graves in Edinburgh having opened. The ghosts of their ancestors were reported to have risen up and competed in athletic sports.
  • Lord Percy reporting that a friend of his had an awful pimple on the inside of his nose.
  • The tale of a farmer in Rye having heard a cow reciting Geoffrey Chaucer.
  • The tale of young woman in Shropshire having seen Geoffrey Chaucer in a field, mooing and suckling a young heifer. (Historically Chaucer had died in 1400.)

The Lords saw these as conclusive evidence of witchcraft. Edmund protested that surely they weren't the sort of people to believe in this sort of thing, "I mean, Next you will be telling me is that washing your hair in bat's droppings stops you going bald," only for a Lord to claim this was true, stating that his inability to find enough bats resulted in his own baldness. The Lords proceeded in deciding that the way to remove this curse from the kingdom was to send for the Witchsmeller Pursuivant. The protestations of Edmund failed to have an effect. The Lords left the council room to inform Prince Harry.

A witch-hunt begins

An angry Edmund confronted Lord Percy over this decision. Remarking that "Honestly, Percy, I bet you are just the sort of person who thinks that sticking your finger up a sheep's bottom on Good Friday will make you fertile!" Baldrick commented that this was only true for Easter Monday. A disgusted Prince requested to be reminded not to shake hands with Baldrick during religious festivals.

Perhaps more to the point, Edmund wanted to know who the Witchsmeller Pursuivant was. Baldrick did not know, but suggested the Mistress Scott. Edmund remembered her as an old crone with a cat, living in a nearby village. Visiting the village incognito however, the Prince and his two companions only came across the charred remains of Mistress Scott and her cat. Edmund was shocked to learn the villagers had burned the old woman as a witch, under the instructions of the Witchsmeller. Meanwhile a similarly shocked Percy was collecting cat bones. The villagers also informed Edmund that the Witchsmeller was a master of disguise who mostly appeared only at night. Angry but also certain that the Witchsmeller was not actually there, Edmund advised the villagers to kick the big-nosed bully straight out of town and back to the madhouse he came from. Edmund left with no other comment. But his remarks had been enough to gain the attention of "a dark hooded figure with glowing red eyes," the Witchsmeller himself (played by Frank Finlay).

Introduction to the Witchsmeller

The Witchsmeller apparently arrived at court before Prince Edmund did. The Pursuivant attempted to explain his role to Prince Harry. He had the word Good written on one of his hands and the word evil on the other hand. He then claimed to have two functions. First to protect the good. At this point the "good" hand opened to reveal a white egg. His second stated function was to crush the evil. He opened the "evil" hand to reveal a brown egg. Asking Harry to watch, the Pursuivant then crushed both eggs. Harry claimed to have found the demonstration fascinating but pointed that both eggs had been crushed. The Pursuivant explained that "Some that seem good sometimes proveth to be evil," lifting the crushed white egg up to Harry's nose to demonstrate that the egg was rotten.

Baldrick chose this moment to enter the room to announce the arrival of his Lord. After Harry says the Pursuivant is there, Edmund comes in saying "Old Bignose is back is he?". Upon seeing The Pursuivant however Edmund expresses great fear and says he's "one of your greatest admirers", and notes that "Bignose is a great admirer as well" (suggesting he was referring to a different person when he said "Bignose is back"). Edmund and the Pursuivant evidently recognised each other as a result of their brief meeting at the village, but did not comment on it. Edmund did, however, comment on his new acquaintance's recent work at Taunton. "Imagine that! Every single person in the village having an affair with the same duck." The Pursuivant just observed that "The Duck of Taunton" was a tragic circumstance.

Edmund asked The Pursuivant if he had yet to find the head witch. The Witchsmeller claimed to feel very close. Edmund reacted with his usual sarcasm. Harry, however, also had a question for the Pursuivant: If he did happen to come across someone "a bit witchy", how would he prove him guilty. Pursuivant answered that guilt would be proven "by trial or by ordeal". Edmund thought the Pursuivant meant the ordeal of water, but he actually meant an ordeal by axe. He further explained the procedure. "The suspected witch has his head placed upon a block and an axe aimed at his neck. If the man is guilty, the axe will bounce off his neck, so we burn him. If he is not guilty, the axe will simply slice his head off," attracting another sarcastic comment from Edmund: "What a very fair test that is".

Accused of being a witch

At this point the Pursuivant suggested a less violent test: "I place before the suspect a dagger and crucifix. The suspect is blindfolded, and if he picks up the dagger from the table, he is Satan's bedfellow." Finding the described test interesting, Harry advised his younger brother to go through with it in order to take himself out of the running. Edmund was still hesitant, but finally agreed, having noted the locations of both artifacts on the table. The Pursuivant, however, provided a distraction for the other persons witnessing and then switched the positions of the artifacts. Edmund picked up the dagger and was instantly declared a witch and a brother of Lucifer, the Pursuivant shouting for the burning of the discovered witch.

Harry only answered "If that is what you recommend." Edmund protested: "But, Henry, you can not let him do this!" Edmund's protests went unheard. Harry only allowed his brother to have a full trial during the following day.

Beginning of a witch trial

The trial began as planned. The audience was already obviously biased against the accused Prince, but Edmund was allowed to have a defence. Lord Percy had volunteered to present a defence for him, but was obviously intimidated by the calling for the defence: "Who will defend the accused and thus condemn himself to certain burning at the stake as a partner in Satan if the accused is found guilty?" Baldrick informed the court that Lord Percy would defend the Prince before Percy could back down.

The designated prosecutor, the Witchsmeller Pursuivant, then entered and immediately declared Percy to be a suspected witch, thus turning the audience against Percy. Harry stated that this concluded the case for the defence.

Then started the questioning of the accused. Edmund was asked whether he was a Christian. Understandably, at this point he declared himself to be one. Asked whether he could say the Lord's Prayer, Edmund overeagerly answered that he could say it backwards, which was a statement declared a confession by the Pursuivant.

Edmund was then asked to admit possessing a pussycat titled Bubbles. Pursuivant then declared that the Title was short for Beelzebubbles. Pursuivant then accused Edmund of having been seen speaking to his cat on the Feast of Saint Jacob the Turgid. Edmund denied ever doing so. However, the Pursuivant revealed that Mary the chambermaid had heard him saying, "Hello, little Bubbles, would you like some milk?" Edmund admitted he might have said that. The Pursuivant pressed him on the meaning of "milk" in the phrase; Edmund, annoyed, answered that he meant "milk. Bloody milk". Pursuivant interpreted this to mean a mixture of milk and blood. Edmund protested that it was only milk. Pursuivant interpreted that blood would come later. Edmund then stated that there wasn't any blood, only for Pursuivant to declare this to be Edmund's reason for using milk instead of blood to feed his cat.

The Pursuivant next questioned Edmund on the subject of his horse, Black Satin. Edmund had been quoted to have said to it: "Satin, would you like some carrots?" Edmund admitted that he might have said that, since Satin liked carrots. Pursuivant then claimed that carrots were the Devil's favourite food. Percy questioned this statement: "If the Devil likes carrots, why isn't it mentioned in the Bible, then? Why doesn't it say, 'And He took the Lord up to the top of an high mountain and offered Him a carrot'?" Edmund also questioned the statement "Why isn't 'Thou shalt not eat carrots' in the Ten Commandments?" Opening his own Bible however, the Pursuivant countered that in fact it was--in the Ten Commandments of Jerimoth, in the Appendix to the Apocrypha, the Tenth Commandment was extended: "And the Lord said unto the children of Bedinibott: 'Neither shalt thou eat the fruit of the tree that is known as the Carrot Tree'."Baldrick countered that carrots did not grow on trees. The Pursuivant then questioned his source of knowledge on carrots and declared Baldrick a witch, to the laughter of the audience.

The Pursuivant then called the first witness for the prosecution, Black Satin. Pursuivant questioned the horse on having indulged in frenzied, naked and obscene Satanic orgies with his master, supposedly known to it as the Great Grumbledook. The horse's refusal to answer led to the assumption that the horse had something to hide. Edmund suggested instead that his horse was not able to speak. But Pursuivant stated this was only a likely story. He questioned the horse of his identity as Black Satin the Loquacious, known in the Hierarchy of Evil as a servant of Satan. Black Satin reacted with a neigh, interpreted by Pursuivant to be a denial of the accusation (a "nay"). But Pursuivant added that this denial was not to be believed. He then called for a recess.

Incarceration

Edmund shared a cell with fellow accused witches Percy and Baldrick for the rest of that day. At some point they were visited by the Queen consort, who supposed this was what came of being a witch. Edmund complained and claimed to have never been one, but his mother countered that he was always a bit of a fibber. Edmund begged the Queen to use whatever power she possessed to help him. The Queen claimed however that she had not held any power for years, but did promise to see what she could sort out.

The prisoners were left to themselves. Lord Percy then revealed to his friend of having sent for the greatest lawyers in the land on his behalf. All refused their assistance, however. A typical response came from Robert Wyatt of Somerset: "What you ask is against reason and God. I spit on you and your master, and look forward to passing water over both your graves at a later date." A more personal response came from John "Stinker" Watts, who happened to be a school acquaintance of Edmund and Percy: "Dear Percy, of course I remember being at school with Prince Edmund and yourself, and so was very interested by your letter. May you both die horribly. Yours, John Watts."

Baldrick, however, had a cunning plan. Edmund considered it brilliant and commented, "You may capture the eagle, but you cannot clip its wings!" Edmund proclaimed, with a sinister laugh, that he would not be so meek the following day.

Conclusion of the witch trial

The second day of the trial begun with exhibitions of hostility between the audience and the accused. The Pursuivant then informed Edmund that the blessed "Satin the Confessor" was unable to be with them due to his untimely death. However Satin reportedly had time to make a signed confession: "I, Black Satin, confess that my former master, Edmund, is the servant of Satan and I spoke to him on the matter frequently over a gallon of stable boy's blood."

The Pursuivant then called the second and last witness of the prosecution. Jane Firkettle (played by Barbara Miller), an old woman. She claimed to have recognise Edmund among the crowd. Edmund had apparently never met her before. He presumed Mrs. Firkettle had seen his face on a coin. Pursuivant questioned her on having committed sins of the flesh with Edmund. Her positive reply caused the surprise of her alleged lover. Firkettle claimed feeling deeply ashamed of this relation. Edmund added his own shame "I mean, look at her!" Pursuivant asked her to describe these foul deeds. Jane claimed that after their first kiss, Edmund had turned into a wild animal. Three months later she was reportedly pregnant. She bore him a son, little Johnny. This "John Grumbledook" was revealed to the court, but Edmund claimed to see no resemblance between himself and the white poodle (Edmund's alleged son).

The Pursuivant remarked on the three proofs of witchcraft this court had found:

  • A cat who drinks blood.
  • A talking horse.
  • A man who propagates poodles.

Harry consequently announced that three accused persons were found guilty. Their sentence was to be execution by burning on Friday August 14, 1495.

Awaiting execution

While awaiting execution, Edmund and his two companions had their heads shaved. Each prisoner was attached to a ball and chain. Their attempts to bribe the guards in order for them to allow their escape failed; the guards had apparently been approached by many prisoners in this way.

Prior to his execution, Edmund was visited by his mother and his wife. At eleven, Leia was too young to feel concern over the event of being about to become a widow, but thought her bald husband looked funny. Leia informed the "boys" that there was no news of a reprieve since everyone was looking forward to this execution. She complained over having to be in her room during it, but thought that her window might provide for an even better view of the event. Leia also offered Edmund a gift from his own mother, a doll. Edmund was disappointed but did exchange farewells with his "dear".

Failed execution

The hour of the execution eventually arrived. Edmund, Percy and Baldrick were carried on wooden racks to their place of execution in the presence of an obviously excited crowd.

Prince Harry suggested to the Pursuivant that this must have serve as one of the most difficult parts of his job. The Witchsmeller affirmed it but actually appeared disinterested.

Baldrick had a last minute cunning plan to suggest, but Prince Edmund told his servant to "f**k off" (deliberately coughing over the word). He had his own plan to stall the execution, offering a confession of:

  • Having on occasion done things wrong.
  • Having erred and strayed like a lost ox or sheep.
  • Having coveted the adultery of his father.
  • Having disgraced the ass of his neighbour.
  • Having been a witch.

His confession over, Edmund had no further way to postpone his own demise. Edmund reported feeling uncomfortable and let his doll slip through his hands and into the fire, where it was revealed to have a striking resemblance to the Witchsmeller. The Pursuivant started complaining of heat, and within minutes had burned to death along with the doll, while the flames never touched the three prisoners and their bonds were broken. Both Edmund and Percy thought it was the result of Baldrick's plan and thanked him for saving them. Baldrick, however, had no idea of the reason for these events.

Meanwhile, at the castle, a cured King Richard was greeting his wife Gertrude and daughter-in-law Leia. The King enquired on the activities outside his castle. Leia explained that "Uncle Harry" was going to burn Edmund alive; Gertrude, however, assured her husband that everything had been sorted out by that time. Leia was surprised to see sparkles flying out of the eyes of the Queen, now revealed (to the viewing audience and to Leia, if not to the rest of Court) as a witch.

Trivia

  • This is the one episode of the first Season that mentions Edmund having sex (so as to allow his genes to get passed along for Season two). Edmund is mentioned as being a virgin in the previous episode, The Queen of Spain's Beard, but three years go by offscreen between the two episodes. However, the truth of Jane Firkettle's claim to have had sex with Edmund is questionable.
  • When Edmund unwittingly picks up the dagger from the table, and is summarily arrested, he calls his brother 'Henry' rather than 'Harry'. In the pilot for the series, the prince was originally known as Prince Henry

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