5 British Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials of 1692 to '93 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. Here are the stories behind five witch trials from across Great Britain.
1. BIDEFORD, DEVON
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.”
Despite a great deal of the evidence brought against the women being little more than hearsay, all three were found guilty and executed on August 25 at Heavitree, outside Exeter. A plaque commemorating the women on the wall of Exeter’s Rougemont Castle, where the trials were held, is dedicated to “the hope of an end to persecution and intolerance.”
2. WARBOYS, CAMBRIDGESHIRE
In 1589, a young family named the Throckmortons moved into the manor house beside the church in the tiny rural English village of Warboys, 20 miles north of Cambridge. Soon afterwards, one of the family’s young daughters, Jane, began suffering seizures and fits, which the local doctors found impossible to ease or cure. Then one day the Throckmortons’ neighbors—John and Alice Samuel, and their daughter Agnes—happened to pay the family a visit, but as soon as Alice arrived and took a seat by the fire, Jane’s condition suddenly worsened, and she began to point wildly at Alice, screaming, “Look where the old witch sits!” The mother quickly rebuked Jane and thought nothing more of it. But as more of the children began showing similar symptoms and a respected physician was unable to discover the cause, suspicions returned to the Samuels.
Even Lady Cromwell, the wife of Oliver Cromwell’s grandfather and a close friend of the Throckmortons, once confronted Alice about her apparent crimes; when Lady Cromwell died a little over a year later, her “murder” was added to the list of crimes of which the Samuel family were eventually accused. Imprisoned and tried before the Bishop of Lincoln, Alice, John, and Agnes Samuel were all found guilty of witchcraft and hanged in April 1593.
3. NORTH BERWICK, EAST LOTHIAN
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 '92, 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. Once suspicions were raised, one of the first to be accused was Geillis “Gelie” Duncan, the young servant of a local chamberlain, who confessed under torture to practicing witchcraft when her apparent gift for healing the sick aroused suspicion. Duncan implicated three further people in her confession, who each implicated several others, who were all then in turn brought in for questioning. 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. Another, Euphame MacCalzean, was burned alive without being granted the “mercy” of being hanged first, an astonishingly severe sentence even for the 16th century. In all, a total of six supposed witches were executed.
Eventually, the supposed network of witchcraft James and his court uncovered led him to believe that his cousin Francis Stuart (or Stewart), 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. In 1593, however, Bothwell staged a short-lived coup in James’s court and took the opportunity to have himself acquitted of the charges against him. After James retook control, Bothwell fled into exile and died in Naples in 1612.
4. PENDLE HILL, LANCASHIRE
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 (in a different but related case) 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, 10 men and women were hanged as a result of the trials.
5. SAMLESBURY, LANCASHIRE
Following the arrest of Alizon Device in Pendle in 1612, the discovery that witchcraft was being practiced in Lancashire caused a wave of paranoia that swept across the county and eventually implicated three women—Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and her daughter Ellen (or Eileen) Bierley—from the neighboring village of Samlesbury. Tried at the same Lancashire hearing as the Pendle witches, the trio were suspected of witchcraft by Jennet’s 14-year-old granddaughter, and Ellen’s niece, Grace Sowerbutts. Her grim testimonial accused the women of everything from shape-shifting (Jennet had reportedly transformed herself into a dog right before Grace’s eyes), to cavorting with demons (“black things going upright, yet not like men in the face,” as Grace described them), to cannibalism (the three women had supposedly abducted a young baby from a local merchant, Thomas Walshman, and drank blood from its navel; when the baby died a few days later, they were accused of robbing the grave and cooking the remains).
Unlike the trial of the Pendle witches, however, the Samlesbury trial was quickly turned on its head. With the evidence against them concluded, Jane, Jennet and Ellen were finally given the chance to speak and immediately pleaded with the judge not for clemency or mercy, as might have been expected, but to force Grace to tell the court who had coerced her into making the accusations against them. Grace’s immediate look of guilt raised the judge’s suspicions, and he ordered her to be taken from the court and interrogated by two justices of the peace. When they returned, it emerged that the entire grim story had been concocted by a local priest who—at a time of considerable religious upheaval in Britain—had strong-armed Grace into incriminating her Protestant relatives. All three women were acquitted.