9 December 2018


Willow Winsham. England’s Witchcraft Trials. Pen and Sword, 2018.

Willow Winsham’s earlier book, Accused: British Witches Throughout History, rather than attempting a general overview of witchcraft accusations, which might sacrifice detail and context, made a detailed examination of eleven cases, chosen to reveal the development of public attitudes to witchcraft over the centuries.
This book continues in that vein, by reviewing five specific trials or groups of trials each of which allows us to understand the historic, personal and social background to the events described. All five will probably already be familiar to anyone with more than a cursory interest in witchcraft, but the author presents much that will be new to many students of the topic. Besides going back to original documentation such as trial records and the often sensational pamphlets that were published after each trial, she has scoured parish and county records to reveal more about the specific individuals described, their families and the nature of their lives and social connections.

East Anglia is perhaps the region most associated with witchcraft, and the first chapter describes the witchcraft accusations at the small Essex village of St Osyth. These seem to have begun with a dispute between two women Grace Thurlow and Ursula Kempe. who at first appeared to be great friends. Indeed Ursula helped cure sick Grace’s son using an old folk remedy. Grace was pregnant at the time, and Ursula had expected to be asked to attend to her at the birth of the child. However, in a decision that was to have tragic consequences for both families, another neighbour was invited instead.

Subsequently any illness or misfortune which attended the Thurlow family was blamed on Ursula who, it was claimed, had a “naughty” reputation. The accusations and counter accusations eventually embraced both families as well as their friends and neighbours. The result was that at least ten women from the village were arraigned as witches at Colchester in 1582. Kempe and another woman were found guilty and hanged, Others who were found guilty escaped hanging, but were imprisoned, and two other women died before they could even be tried due to the appalling conditions in the prison at Colchester Castle.

In the St Osyth tragedy all the people involved seemed to be of a similar social status, peasants and small farmers, as was the case in many similar incidents across Essex and elsewhere. However the incident which has become known as the ‘Witches of Worboys’ is an example of a more powerful family clearly persecuting women of considerably lower social status.

The Throckmortons were a wealthy local family, with links to the Cromwell family, including a great-aunt of the future Lord-Protector. When the family’s 9-year-old daughter Jane took ill with a fit of sneezing and convulsions, neighbours visited, including the elderly Alice Samuel. But when Alice sat next to the girl, Jane immediately denounced her as a witch. At first the Throgmorton parents did not accept this, and treated the girl’s condition as an illness rather than the results of spells and witchcraft. The girl’s fits and convulsions spread to her two sisters and eventually resulted in the bizarre situation that they only stopped in the presence of Alice Samuel, the ‘witch’ who was supposed to have caused them. In the end Samuel was held virtually as prisoner in the Throgmorton household in order to control the girls’ convulsions.

The girls seemed to be involved in a series of mind-games with the old woman, claiming that spirits she was controlling were causing their fits, and somehow the death of the elderly Lady Cromwell came to be attributed to her. From then on the case took its tragic and inevitable course, with Alice being tried as a witch, and hung, along with her own daughter who had become entrapped in the allegations, and hung at Huntingdon on 4th April 1593.

It is impossible to work out motivations here. Were the girls behaving out of childish malice, or was it a prank that got out of hand? Or were the children being led on by their parents or other adults. In which case why pick on Alice, whose first visit to the Throgmortons seemed motivated only by sympathy for the suffering child? The girls’ strange behaviour lasted for over three years, raising the question posed in the title of the chapter describing these events, ‘possession or posturing’. Whatever motivations and even genuine concerns were behind these acts, Winsham concludes “it is impossible to fully disguise the fact that the elderly and economically dependent Alice Samuel was, to all intents, hounded, abused and finally held prisoner by the more prestigious and well-connected family”.

The trials of the Pendle Witches have probably been written about, as fact and fiction, more than any other historical witch trials. The otherwise obscure Manx novelist Harrison Ainsworth would be virtually forgotten today but for his not-too-historically-accurate novel The Lancashire Witches, first published in book form in 1849, and remarkably has never been out of print since, the only one of his 39 novels with such a distinction.

As so many times before, the events leading up to the Lancashire tragedy began in a series of disputes between two families – the Southerns and the Whittles – over the theft of some clothes and flour. The claims and counter accusations of witchcraft escalated, often by many of those accused themselves quite readily admitting to conducting magical activities, both for good and evil. The complexity of the case are well set out by the author, who has has to make sense of often contradictory testimony and sometimes dubious contemporary sources.

One particularly damning piece of evidence was given by 9-year-old Jennet Device, despite even at that time the law theoretically  disallowing evidence from one so young. She gave evidence against her own brother and testified that she had seen others of the accused at a ‘coven’ where they pledged themselves to Satan. The case also seems to have become entangled in other religious and political concerns of the era, with suggestions that some of the accused were part of a recusant Catholic plot.

Perhaps after Pendle, the best known witchcraft incident in England is the case of Matthew Hopkins, much represented, and usually misrepresented, in fictional versions. It seems likely that Hopkins had no official authority for his self-proclaimed role as ‘Witch-finder General’, and was more of a freelance witch-hunting entrepreneur, offering his services to local communities. Plenty of people seemed to have had grievances against neighbours, tradesmen and clergymen to ensure that there were plenty of takers for the services of Hopkins and his henchman John Stearne.

Their reign of terror took place in the midst of the English Civil War, when people saw the settled fabric of civil society collapsing around them and normal neighbourly relationships could not be taken for granted. Again, it is remarkable how readily people would admit, even boast, of their magical powers, describing their ‘imps’, who brought them instructions from the devil, and willingly gave chapter and verse for the curses they had put on to other village folk. Because, as Winsham is at pains to point out in describing these trials, people from all levels of society had no doubt whatsoever that witches were real, they could be anyone, anywhere, they were dangerous, and if exposed they would most certainly deserve death.

Well almost everyone. In the midst of the civil turmoil, a splendidly titled news-sheet, The Moderate Intelligencer denounced the panic, wondering “whence it is that Devils should choose to be conversant with silly women who know not their right hands from their left is a great wonder”. A bit sexist perhaps, but a valid point.

Hopkins, like many such chancers throughout history, had a good line in self-justification. No, he wasn’t torturing people when he forced suspects to walk around their cells for days at a time, he was just ensuring that they stayed awake and did not fall prey to the imps which were standing by to further bewitch the victim. Similarly with ‘swimming’ a witch to prove their guilt or innocence, Hopkins allowed that other, less scrupulous, witch-finders might do this to force a false confession, he would only do this with the agreement of the accused and anyway he would only do it in the summer months when the water was warmer. What a gent!

Another complaint made against him was that he was charging too much for his services: “All that the witch-finder doeth is to fleece the country of their money, and therefore rides and goes to towns to have employment”. Mathews had an answer for that too. He charged only £20 a time and “does sometimes ride twenty miles for that … and finds three or four witches there, and if it be but one, cheap enough”. 

As rural life gradually began to return to something like normality, the demand for Hopkins’ and Stearne’s services began to dry up, and opinion began to turn against them, leading them to attempt justification of their work, Sterne writing A Confirmation and Discoverie of Witchcraft to justify the pain and death the pair had caused. Rumours continued after the two men died, some suggesting that Hopkins had faked his death and made his way to New England, just in time for the Salem trials. In fact he died in August 1647, according to Sterne “without any trouble of conscience”.

The Bideford Witchcraft trials in 1682 are believed to be the last in England in which the accused, having been found guilty, were sentenced to death. Indeed, by this time it was increasingly rare for such trials to end with a guilty verdict at all, partly as a reaction to the excesses of the Civil War period, and also as part of a gradual shift in public and official attitudes towards witchcraft claims.

The events in Bideford, North Devon, began in a painfully familiar manner, with an elderly widow, Temperance Lloyd, being accused of attacking a neighbour, Grace Thomas, through magical means and causing her “illness and suffering”. It was actually Lloyd’s brother-in-law Thomas Eastchurch who made the complaints to the local magistrates. The claim was that Temperance was tormenting Grace by sticking pins into a doll made in her image, and thus causing constant pricking pains and making her belly swell enormously.

When accused, Temperance Lloyd denied having such a doll, but remarkably – and also it would seem from such cases, quite typically - she did admit to having a piece of leather which she would pierce with a pin. When arrested and jailed after this admission, Thomas claimed that her pains subsided.

Questioned by magistrates and later by the local rector at the parish church, she made further confessions, such as meeting with spirits, taking the form of a cat to enter houses and now also of having a ‘puppet-figure’ which she stuck pins into. Gradually the claims and accusations began to implicate other local women, and eventually four ‘witches’ stood trial at the court in Exeter – Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, Susannah Edwards and Alice Molland. All were found guilty and hanged. Although all had made confessions, we have no way of knowing just how much pressure, even torture, was used to extract them. The others withdrew their claims at the last moment before execution, but Lloyd was adamant unto the end that she was responsible for the persecution of Grace Thomas.

There has been much speculation as to why these executions should have taken place at such a comparatively late date compared to other witchcraft cases, as it seems likely that the magistrates and other officials involved in the judgement were dubious about the guilt of the accused. It has been suggested that the executions went ahead to prevent wider social unrest and a possible new witch-hunting frenzy which might have drawn in more local people.

The value of this book is in the insights which the author has drawn out about the personal and family lives of both the accused and their accusers, and the complex social, religious and political environment in which these trials took place. It is detailed and well-referenced, but lucidly written and an entertaining as well as an illuminating read, which sets to right many assumptions and misconceptions about witchcraft in English history. I would however have appreciated an index. Nevertheless, this is highly recommended not just for students of witchcraft, but for anyone interested in the social history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially its darker side! – John Rimmer.

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