Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part One

It scarcely seems believable that people were genuinely afraid of witches during the medieval ages. Common beliefs held that witches cause untold distress. A lot of these fears inform people’s expectations and as paranoia increases so do the charges. 

Examples of this include calling for Satan's aid using a cat as a medium; causing financial ruin, death as revenge on an unwilling suitor and rather euphemistically ‘causing lameness to her husband’. No wonder then today we say when accusations are running wild that accusers are pursuing a ‘witch hunt’.

Fear of witchcraft during the Middle Ages is widespread. Even the King himself, James I has a purient interest in these matters. He reads many witch books and appoints himself expert enough to explain his views in a book called ‘Daemononlogie’. This fear can even be traced back as far as 1441, when Eleanor, wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and brother of Henry V is accused of using sorcery to attempt murder of the new King, Henry VI. These charges are so serious that two of her ‘accomplices’ are executed and she has to divorce her husband. Paranoia even exists well into the 1640’s when Mathew Hopkins infamously becomes a notorious witchfinder general and starts to rounds up, torture and executes suspects. Estimates suggest he murders hundreds of ‘witches’ in this manner and also uses the famous torture of drowning suspects on the basis that the innocent go to heaven and the guilty will not drown.

One of the most famous examples of this fear in our country to ever happen begins in 1612 in Salmesbury. The case of the Salmesbury Witches is very interesting in its own right and neatly contrasts with the Pendle Witch trial that happens at the same time, in the same location in Lancashire but has a different outcome. In this later saga two families fall out with each other and ended up implicating one another in witchcraft. The prosecution rely upon one main source of evidence for all this, Jennet Device, a nine year old daughter of one of the two families. As flimsy as it sounds it is still enough in the eyes of the law for ten people to be executed for their ‘crimes’ based on her evidence.

The Samlesbury witches involves three women from the Lancashire village of Samlesbury—Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley. They are accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft. Their trial at Lancaster Assizes in England on 19 August 1612 is one of the few recordings we have left of how witches are dealt with and so it offers us lots of insight into how others think at that time.

How the saga develops also sheds some light on why prosecutions happen. Back on 21st March 1612 Alizon Device meets John Law and a petty disagreement ensues. A few minutes later he suffers a stroke. The local magistrate, Roger Nowell investigates the case and after some heavy-handed interrogation he manages to extract evidence and confessions out of Alice and ten others. They are sent to Lancaster jail for sentencing at the next court hearings.

News of this large scale witch prosecution spreads rapidly and other Lancashire magistrates become aware of it and either out of fear or trying to leverage cynical advantage (by obtaining a large number of successful prosecutions) decide to seek out witches in their own area. One such investigator is Robert Holden. On 15 April 1612 he begins investigations in his own area of Samlesbury. Sure enough he finds eight individuals who are then committed to Lancaster Assizes. 

A trial is held for them at Lancashire castle on 19 August 1612 in front of Sir Edward Bromley, a judge seeking promotion to a circuit nearer London. As the trial begins Bromley orders the release of five of the eight defendants from Samlesbury, with a warning about their future conduct. For the remainder though there is no let up. The three women left (Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley) are accused of using "diverse devillish and wicked Arts” on Grace Sowerbutts (Jennet's grand-daughter and Ellen's niece) for which they plead not guilty.

Part two can be found here

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part Two