Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part 2

(Check out Part 1 here)

The charges against the women are very serious. Whilst the Pendle witches are accused of maleficium (harm by witchcraft) the Salmesbury women are instead charged with the child murder and even cannibalism. Fourteen-year-old Grace Sowerbutts begins proceedings with her testimony. She alleges that that both her grandmother and aunt, Jennet and Ellen Bierley, are able to transform themselves into dogs and that they have "haunted and vexed her" for years. Even more bizarrely she claims that on one occasion her relatives have taken her to the house of Thomas Walshman and his wife, stolen a baby and driven a nail into its navel through which they sucked its blood. According to Grace, the child died the following night and that, after its burial at Samlesbury Church, Ellen and Jennet dig up the body, take it home, cook and eat some of it and use the rest to make an ointment that enables them to change themselves into anything they wanted to be.

As if these charges were not enough Grace produces further spectacular revelations. She alleges her grandmother and aunt, with Jane Southworth, attend sabbats held every Thursday and Sunday night at Red Bank, on the north shore of the River Ribble. At these secret meetings they meet with "foure black things, going upright, and yet not like men in the face", with whom they eat, dance, and have sex with. Grace even suggests there are more witches involved that she knows of.

Any chance that the evidence from Grace will be dismissed is dashed when others line up to undermine the defendants. Thomas Walshman, the father of the baby allegedly killed and eaten by the accused sets the tone when he offers his evidence next. He confirms that his child has died of unknown causes at about one-year-old. He adds that Grace Sowerbutts was discovered lying as if dead in his father's barn on about 15 April, and did not recover until the following day. Two other witnesses, John Singleton and William Alker, confirm that Sir John Southworth, Jane Southworth's father-in-law, has been reluctant to pass the house where his son lived, as he believes Jane to be an "evil woman, and a Witch". It is clear to some that personal grudges are now being waged but all the same it is still mounting evidence against the accused. 

When the judge asks the accused how they will reply to these charges many felt the trial will soon finish. What they do not expect is for the women to fall on their knees, plead with him and with weeping tears request that the trial judge, Sir Edward Bromley cross-examine Grace Sowerbutts.

This is a defining moment in the trial. The court recorder, Thomas Potts notes that immediately "the countenance of this Grace Sowerbutts changed". The judge sees this as evidence “a priest or Jesuit” has coached the child making her "the perjuring tool of a Catholic priest". Soon after the prosecution witnesses "began to quarrel and accuse one another", and eventually admit that Grace has been coached in her story by a Catholic priest called Thompson.

With this in mind, Bromley commits the girl to be examined by two Justices of the Peace called William Leigh and Edward Chisnal. Under questioning Grace readily admits that her story is untrue, and said she has been told what to say by Jane Southworth's uncle, Christopher Southworth aka Thompson, a Jesuit priest who is in hiding in the Samlesbury area. Leigh and Chisnal question the three accused women in an attempt to discover why Southworth might have fabricate evidence against them, but none can offer any reason other than that each of them goes to the Anglican Church.

Next the judge ordered the jury to find the defendants not guilty after the statements have been read out in court. Potts then goes on to praise the judge for his “great care” in rooting out a wicked Papist plot that would have seen three innocent (Protestant) women sent to their deaths. The judge also warns those in the court that they need to be constantly on their guard against manipulative people who had no respect for “kindred or friendship.” With this the court case finishes and unfortunately little is known about what happens next to the individuals concerned.

The Salmesbury case is a fascinating study in medieval court life and their outlook on witchcraft. It illustrates how easily people make accusations about witchcraft that play havoc with the lives of those who accused. Paranoia and opportunism then allow for these situations to rapidly escalate in gravity and scope. Fortunately common sense eventually prevails.