There’s magic in the name.
A clear sky, a blue sky,
And sunsets all aflame.”
Come on, you can’t possibly tell me you didn’t see this one coming.
Because I, your good friend Patricia, have been dying to write about this!
I do have a thing for the weirder parts of our world, that’s certainly true. And I suppose, my grandmother is partly to blame for that. That woman, God rest her soul, knew how to weave a tale and tell it in such a way that you couldn’t walk away unaffected. She never had the chance to get an education, and I doubt she ever wrote anything more than her weekly grocery lists and name on her wedding papers, but boy oh boy, she knew how to tell a great story! It’s a superpower, I’m telling you!
Being from an older generation, raised with the stories told by her own grandparents and the traditions of an area fraught with superstitions, her own tales always included one thing: witches.
Be it a good or a bad witch, this supernatural figure was a staple in my grandmother’s stories. There was always a pointed hat too, of course, and a broomstick. Sometimes a cauldron along with a few potions. Oh! How could I forget about the black cat?
And you know, this month, wonderful October, with its red leaves and cool breezes, is brimming with magical energy and ancient superstition. I’m sure you all know Samhain, or more commonly known as our very own Halloween! If not, then the one and only Emma Linfield has written a lovely article on the subject which you can find right here!
And that got me thinking!
Why don’t I tell you a couple of things about the age-long myth of the hag with the pointed hat that whispers to the moon on the days of Autumn Harvest?
Fits the spooky mood, doesn’t it?
The Salem witch trials of 1692 to 1693 might be among the most famous in history but they were by no means alone—nor was the paranoia that surrounded the grim witch hunts of the 17th and 18th centuries unique to New England. Witch trials were being carried out all across Europe right through to around 1800.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at a few famous witches and witch trials of England!
When Even a Duchess Wasn’t Safe…
The stand-out sorcery case of the pre-witch-trial era was that of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. In 1441 she stood accused of employing a magician named Roger Bolingbroke and a Wise Woman named Margery Jourdemayne to kill Henry VI by sorcery.
They were found guilty, and to warn others against such practices, Robert was made to stand upon a stage constructed in the churchyard of old St. Paul’s Cathedral while a sermon was preached against magic. His magical paraphernalia was also exhibited, including wax images, a scepter and swords draped with magical copper talismans. He was convicted of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered.
Margery was burned at Smithfield either as a heretic. Cobham underwent public penance, pleading that she had hired the magicians not to kill the king but to use their magic to enable her to have a child by the Duke of Gloucester. She was imprisoned for life.
Complicated Family Affairs
The North Berwick witch trials of the late 16th century are notable not only for the sheer number of people involved—over the two years from 1590 to 1592, around a hundred supposed witches and warlocks were implicated in the case—but because the trials were, for much of their duration, personally overseen by the king himself, James VI of Scotland. James was convinced that a local coven of witches had together raised a storm to wreck the ship on which he and his new bride, Anne of Denmark, were returning home from their wedding in Norway.
One of the accused, Agnes Simpson, a local midwife and healer, was even taken before the king himself for questioning; after confessing to more than 50 crimes brought against her—including relieving the pains of a woman in labor by suffering them herself, and even baptizing a cat—Simpson was executed in January 1591.
Eventually, the supposed network of witchcraft James and his court uncovered led him to believe that his cousin Francis Stuart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, had been behind the entire plot, and had worked with the coven to plot to kill the king and secure the throne for himself.
Beggars Can’t Be Choosers…
The Bideford witch trial that took place in Devon in the far southwest of England in 1682 was one of the last in England to lead to an execution. The three women involved were Temperance Lloyd, a local widow—who had already been acquitted of the murder of a man by witchcraft in 1671—and two beggars, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards, who had allegedly been spotted conversing and begging for food with Temperance.
Together, the three were suspected of causing the illness of a local woman, Grace Thomas, by supernatural means—although the full list of accusations thrown at the trio included a claim that a demonic figure in league with Temperance had transformed himself into a magpie and flown through Grace’s window to peck her while she slept; Grace later reported that she had suffered “sticking and pricking pains, as though pins and awls had been thrust into her body, from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet.”
I feel pricking pains from time to time…
So, my foot has either grown numb or…
The Pendle Witches
The Pendle Hill witch trials of 1612 are amongst the most famous in British history, partly because their events are so well documented, partly because a number of those involved genuinely believed that they had supernatural powers, and partly because so many of the accused were eventually executed. Only one of the dozen individuals implicated in the case, Alice Grey, was found not guilty, and one, Margaret Pearson, was sentenced to being pilloried, but was spared the gallows.
The trials began when a young woman named Alizon Device, from Pendle in Lancashire in northwest England, was accused of cursing a local shopkeeper who soon afterwards suffered a bout of ill health, now believed to have probably been a mild stroke.
When news of this reached the authorities, an investigation was started that eventually led to the arrest and trial of several members of Alizon’s family—including her grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns, a notorious practitioner of witchcraft known locally as “Demdike”—as well as members of another local family, the Redfernes, with whom they had reportedly had a long-standing feud. Many of the families’ friends were also implicated in the trial, as were a number of supposed witches from nearby towns who were alleged to have attended a meeting at Elizabeth Southerns’s home on the night of Good Friday 1612.
The first to be tried was Jennet Preston, who was found guilty and executed in York on July 29; the last was Alizon Device herself, who, like her grandmother, was reportedly convinced that she indeed had powers of witchcraft and freely admitted her guilt. In all, ten men and women were hanged as a result of the trials.
Signed and Sealed
Witch trials in England had slowed to a trickle by the time of the Civil War of the 1640s, but during this period of turmoil and strife the ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins and his sidekick John Stearne set about sowing a trail of fear and death across the eastern counties.
In August 1645, the Corporation of Great Yarmouth sent for the two men to examine sixteen suspected witches, five of whom were subsequently sentenced to death. One of them, an old woman, confessed to having made a pact with the Devil in the guise of a tall black man. He took a penknife and scratched her hand until the blood flowed, then guiding her hand she signed her name in blood in his book.
Hopkins died two years later, having instigated some 300 trials that led to the execution of some 100 people.
Love Thy Neighbor…or Not.
The laws against the crime of witchcraft were repealed in 1736 but, in the absence of legal redress, communities periodically took to enacting mob vengeance against suspected witches.
In 1808 several young women in the village of Great Paxton in Cambridgeshire began to suffer from fits and depression—all signs of evil at work. Then a local farmer accused Ann Izzard of magically overturning his cart while returning from the market in St Neots.
A mob broke into the cottage of Ann and her husband, and she was dragged semi-naked out into the yard where they beat her in the face and stomach with a club. Others scratched her arms to draw blood, and so break her witchery.
She wisely fled to another village and instituted legal proceedings, resulting in the prosecution of nine villagers at the assizes.
Well… that escalated quickly!
I don’t know about you, but I’m mighty glad not to be living back then! I can just imagine someone accusing me of being a witch after seeing me tending to my herbal garden, watering my lavender plants!
The truth is, I just love a cup of tea! 😉
Written by Patricia Haverton