She’s a witch!


Today’s snippets are taken from a little-known pamphlet published in 1866 entitled A brief History of Witchcraft, in which Mr F Marshall Esq. gathered together stories and accounts of a variety of interesting witchcraft trials. Before the fifteenth century, witchcraft was associated with a loose tradition of folkloric beliefs, which included astrology, fortune-telling, fairies, ghosts, and herbal medicine; in short, it was part of the wide-spread culture of superstition inherited from medieval theology and pagan tradition. But from the 1560s onwards, as the Reformation took hold, women of the peasant class in particular, became increasingly isolated by the new religious fervour; and their popular customs, whether as remnants of the old Catholic faith, or daily village life, were incorporated by the male Protestant elite into concepts of witchcraft and sorcery. What follows are several examples of the sorts of stories which circulated in the 16th and 17th centuries, and which often led to innocent women being executed and burned at the stake.

In 1589, in the village of Warboys in Huntingdonshire, Mr Robert Throgmorton began to notice all five of his children suffering fits and unusual convulsions. During these events, they would call out the name of a Mother Samwell, the wife of a neighbouring labourer: ‘while their limbs were distorted and their minds on the stretch, the name of this Mother Samwell frequently escaped their lips, they crying out that she had bewitched them.’ Summoned to Mr Throgmorton’s home to account for her ‘behaviour’ Mother Samwell reluctantly arrived, bringing along her daughter for company. ‘ At that moment three of the children were standing by the fire perfectly well; but no sooner had the two women entered than they fell down, strangely tormented, so that, if they had been let alone, they would have leaped and sprung about like a fish newly taken out of the water.’ A lady visitor, at this point, addressed the old woman, ‘and call’d her a witch, and abused her, and pulled of her kercher [cloth head piece], and cut off some of her hair, and gave it to Mrs Throgmorton for a charm. Unfortunately this had the effect of causing Mrs Throgmorton to dream of Mother Samwell and her cat and fall into fits herself. She died a year later and the blame was placed firmly at the feet of Mother Samwell. The children continued to mutter about Mother Samwell’s wicked practices; citing the names of five imps which supposedly attended the woman; Pluck, Smack, Hardname, Catch and Blew. As the result of vigorous examinations of Mother Samwell and her family by the authorities, she, along with her husband and her daughter, was put on trial for witchcraft and summarily hanged.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Agnes Browne and her daughter Joan, long suspected of being witches, were chatting with a Miss Belcher and other women in the village of Guilsborough, when things took an unexpected and less than ladylike turn. Joan made a comment ‘so unfitting and unseeming the nature of womanhood that those who heard her were shocked.’ Miss Belcher then slapped Joan, ‘only to make her leave the company, which she accordingly did.’ As a result of this ‘pretty squabble’ the women of the village began to worry; they were ‘smitten with sudden terror, fearing that they had provoked the rage of one potent to do evil.’ Four days later Miss Belcher collapsed and was carried to her bed. Her face ‘was many times so disfigured by beeing drawne awrie that it bred both feare and astonishment to all the beholders, and ever as shee had breathe, she cried, ‘Heere comes Joan Vaughn, away with Joan Vaughn.’ Miss Belcher’s brother, Mr Avery, ‘became mightily indignant at the supposed cause of the mischief.’ Taking matters into his own hands, he ‘ranne sodainly towards Mrs Browne’s house; but to his astonishment, when he came to the door, he found he could not enter, through some infernal agency restraining him. The devill stood there sentinell, and kept his station well.’ Mr Avery subsequently also collapsed with fits, and Agnes Browne and her daughter were immediately apprehended and sent to Northampton Gaol. Along with the supposed crimes against Miss Belcher and Mr Avery, the women were also accused of consorting with another known witch, an old woman called Mother Rhoades. They had apparently ridden one night ‘all upon a sow’s backe’ to meet her. (This method of transport must have been relatively new in this period, because it was much more traditional to accuse witches of flying around on the backs of cats). Like Mother Samwell, Agnes Browne and her daughter were tried and executed for witchcraft.

A curious tale of a bewitched family living near Daventry in 1658 is also included in the pamphlet. A woman known as Widow Stiff had two daughter, one of whom ‘began one day vomiting water, and continued doing so till she had brought up three gallon, to the great admiration of the spectators. Then she diverged to the dry good line, and vomited a vast quantity of stones and coals. Some of them weighed a quarter of a pound, and were so big that she could scarcely get them out of her mouth. This process lasted about a fortnight; and, while it continued, the articles of furniture in the house exhibited lively propensities. Flax would not burn on the fire; the bed-clothes sprang off the beds of their own accord; a sack of wheat could not be persuaded to stand upright after the door of the room had been shut upon it; the goods in the hall would spin about when no one was looking; milk was spilt by an unseen hand; pellets of bread were thrown about by an undiscoverable spirit; and divers other tricks were played.’ Mr Marshall concludes, ‘some that had been long suspected for witches were examined, and one sent to gaol, where, it is said, she still plays her pranks.’

The extent to which the accusation of witchcraft could be used to condemn a neighbour for some personal slight, is demonstrated in a story from 1745, in which an old woman called Osborne was suspected of bewitching a neighbour because he had refused to lend her some buttermilk. This neighbour, a Mr Butterfield, sent for a harmless ‘white’ witch to confirm his suspicion regarding Osborne. When the white witch had done so, presumably by whatever methods white witches used, Mrs Osborne’s house was surrounded by an hysterical crowd brandishing pitchforks and staves. Despite the attempted intervention of the authorities, the old woman and her husband were dragged from their house, their hands tied behind their backs. They were taken to Longmarston on 22nd April and ducked. Ducking involved tying a suspected witch to a chair and then ‘ducking’ it in either a pond or a river. If the woman and the chair sank to the bottom, she was deemed innocent. However if she floated on the surface, she was condemned as a witch. In either case she would be lucky to survive; if she sank to the bottom she would often drown, and if she floated she would usually be condemned to death. Mr Marshall reports, ‘The old woman died from the effects of the cruelty, and a chimney sweep named Colley, who especially distinguished himself by his brutality towards her, was afterwards executed and hung in chains.’

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  • October 15, 2009 - 8:44 pm | Permalink

    The Reformation did engender much change at societal level. Witchcraft became a motif by which the elite could prosecute anyone who perched on the margins of society, or who refused to subscribe to the Protestant norm.

  • October 12, 2009 - 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating insight into how the change entailed by the Reformation effected society. I’d never really understood why witchcraft was so specifically associated with that period before.

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