She did witch unto death Agnes Ratcleife

These fragments come from Henry Goodcole, a chaplain of Newgate prison.  In 1621 he wrote an account of the sensational trial of Elizabeth Sawyer, a poor woman convicted of witchcraft and subsequently hanged.  Her case attracted widespread attention, and in the same year, a play entitled The Witch of Edmonton, written by John Ford, Thomas Dekker, and William Rowley, was performed at the Cockpit Theatre.  In this play Elizabeth is depicted as a victim of vicious abuse by the authorities; echoing writers such as Reginald Scot (Discoverie of Witchcraft,1584) who sought to temper belief in witchcraft and supernatural activity. No formal records of Elizabeth’s trial survive..

A great, and long suspition was held of this person to be a witch, and the eye of Mr Arthur Robinson, a worthy Justice of Peace, was watchfull over her and her ways. Seeing the death of Nurse-children and Cattell strangely and suddenly to happen, and to finde out who should be the author of this mischiefe, an old ridiculous custome was used, which was to plucke the Thatch off her house, and to burne it, and it being so burnd, the author of such mischiefe should presently then come. And it was observed and affirmed to the Court, that Elizabeth Sawyer would presently frequent the house of them that burnt the thatch which they pluckt off her house.

This triall, though it was slight and ridiculous, settled a resolution in those whom it concerned, to finde out by all meanes they could endeavour, her long, and close carried Witchery, to explaine it to the world; and being descried, to pay in the ende such a worker of Iniquity her wages, and that which shee had deserved, (namely, shame and Death). Her face was most pale & ghost-like without any blood at all, and her countenance was still dejected to the ground.  Her body was crooked and deformed, even bending together, which happened but a little before her apprehension. That tongue, which by cursing, swearing, blaspheming, and imprecating, as afterward she confessed, was the occasioning cause of the Divels accesse unto her.

On Saturday, being the fourteenth day of April 1621. this Elizabeth Sawyer late of Edmonton, in the County of Middlesex Spinster, was arraigned, and indited three severall times at Justice Hall in the Old Baily in London. Which Inditements were, viz.

That she, the said Elizabeth Sawyer, not having the feare of God before her eyes, but moved and seduced by the Divell, by Diabolicall helpe, did out of her malicious heart, (because her neighbours where she dwelt would not buy Broomes off her) revenged her selfe on them in this manner, namely, witched to death their Nurse Children and Cattell.

She was also indited that shee the said Elizabeth Sawyer, by Diabolicall helpe, and out of her malice afore-thought, did witch unto death Agnes Ratcleife, a neighbour of hers, dwelling in the towne of Edmonton where shee did likewise dwell, and the cause that urged her thereunto was because that Elizabeth Ratcliefe did strike a Sowe of hers in her sight, for licking up a little Soape where shee had laide it, and for that Elizabeth Sawyer would be revenged of her, and thus threatned Agnes Ratcleife. That evening Agnes Ratcleife fell very sicke, and was extraordinarily vexed, and in a most strange manner in her sicknesse was tormented. Oath whereof was by this Agnes Ratcleifes Husband, given to the Court, the time when shee fell sicke, and the time when shee died, which was within foure dayes after she fell sicke: and further then related, that in the time of her sicknesse his wife Agnes Ratcleife lay foaming at the mouth, and was extraordinarily distempered. The said Agnes Ratcleife lying on her death-bed, these wordes confidently spake: namely, that if shee did die at that time shee would verily take it on her death that Elizabeth Sawyer her neighbour, whose Sowe with a washing-Beetle she had stricken, was the occasion of her death.


 Witch (1592)
Master Arthur Robinson had often & divers times, upon the complaints of the neighbours against this Elizabeth Sawyer, laboriously and carefully examined her, and stil his suspition was strengthened against her that doutlesse shee was a Witch. Information was given unto him by some of her Neighbours, that this Elizabeth Sawyer had a private and strange marke on her body, and he sitting in the Court at that time of her triall, informed the Bench thereof, desiring the Bench to send for women to search her. 
The Bench commanded officers to fetch in three women to search the body of Elizabeth Sawyer, to see if they could finde any such unwonted marke. One of the womens names was Margaret Weaver, that keepes the Sessions House for the City of London, a widow of an honest reputation, and two other grave Matrons, brought in by the Officer out of the streete, passing by there by chance, were joyned with her in this search of the person named, who fearing and perceiving she should by that search of theirs be then discovered, behaved her selfe most sluttishly and loathsomely towards them, intending thereby to prevent their search of her. Nevertheless, nicenesse they laid aside, and according to the request of the Court, they all three searched her, and made their answer unto the Court, being sworne thereunto to deliver the truth.  And they all three said that they, a little above the Fundiment of Elizabeth Sawyer found a thing like a Teate the bignesse of the little finger, and the length of halfe a finger, which was branched at the top like a teate, and seemed as though one had suckt it, and that the bottome thereof was blew, and the top of it was redde. This view of theirs, and answere that she had such a thing about her, which boldly shee denied, gave some insight to the Jury of her.  Who upon their consciences returned the said Elizabeth Sawyer, to be guilty, by dibolicall help, of the death of Agnes Ratcliefe onely, and acquitted her of the other two Inditements.

A Relation what shee said at the place of Execution, which was at Tiborne, on Thursday, the 19. day of Aprill 1621.

This confession which is now read unto me, by Master Henry Goodcoale Minister, with my owne mouth I spake it to him on Tuesday last at Newgate, and I here doe acknowledge, to all the people that are here present, that it is all truth, disiring you all to pray unto Almightie God to forgive me my grievous sinnes.

This was confirmed, in the hearing of many hundreds at her last breath, what formerly she in prison confessed to me. We whose names are heere subscribed, do thereby testifie, that Elizabeth Sawyer late of Edmonton in the Countie of Midds. Spinster, did in our hearings, confesse on Tuesday the 17. of Aprill, in the Gaole of Newgate, to Master Henry Goodcoale Minister of the word of God, the repeated foule crimes, and confirmed it at her death the 19. of Aprill following, to be true.

Deare Christians, lay this to heart, to subvert you· that so you that doe detest her abhominable wordes, and wayes, may never taste of the cup nor wages of shame and destruction, of which she did in this life: from which and from whose power, Lord Jesus save and defend thy little flocke. Amen.

An e-text of The Witch of Edmonton can be found here

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One comment

  • February 23, 2011 - 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Despite sickness being unexplained and probably incurable, witchcraft madness had to be in a time of insane fear of single, older women who had cats and didn’t behave “normally”.

    If I understood the English properly, poor old Elizabeth Sawyer didn’t even kill her neighbour… rather she witched her to death. What did she do – curse at the neighbour? Steal one of her chickens?

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