The History Jar’s previous post showed that James’ witchcraft trials were no respecter of rank, although it is telling that Francis Stuart survived the encounter. When James became king of England as well as Scotland he carried his interest in witches with him- not that trials were a new phenomena- between 1560 and 1701 there were 279 trials for witchcraft in Essex and those are only the ones that made it into the record books.
Like James, Henry VIII had thought that witches were plotting against him. And let’s not forget the rumour concerning Anne Boleyn. It was suggested that she carried the “devil’s mark” in the form of a mark on her neck and in the existence of a sixth finger on her right hand. Elizabeth introduced a law against witches in 1563. James was simply able to dust the law down and remind folk that practising witchcraft and consulting with them was an offence punishable by death.
Probably the most famous English case during the reign of James I was that, in 1612, of the Pendle Witches where three generations of one family found themselves on the wrong end of the swimming test (that’s the one where if you sink and drown you’re not a witch but if you bob to the top of the water having had your hands tied to your feet then you were a witch and having been hauled out and dried off could be burned.) To be honest it’s the case that springs to mind when thinking about Jacobean witch trials. Yet, in Scotland between 1603 and 1624 there were approximately 420 witchcraft trials a year which is a lot of elderly crones when all is said and done, even if only half of them were executed.
There were many fewer trials in England, Notestein suggests somewhere between forty and fifty, but they did tend to have a much higher profile and were mostly at the start of James’ reign. Take for example the scandalous affair of Francis Howard, Countess of Somerset and the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower. Francis was said to have gained poisons from her friend Anne Turner who had a reputation for being a wise woman and it it was discovered had associated with Simon Forman who had predicted his own death. Even worse, if possible, Cunning Mary (a name with which to conjure) told the court that Francis had promised her a £1000. Anne was executed for her part in the murder whilst Francis who pleaded guilty was quietly pardoned and released.
Other notable cases were as follows:
- Royston in Hertfordshire, Joanna Harrison was found to have in her possession the bones of a man and a woman. Her property was searched after she made a man ill simply by looking at him.
- The Bakewell Witches demonstrates that it paid not to get on the wrong side of anyone. “A Scotchman staying at a lodging-house in Bakewell fell in debt to his landlady, who retained some of his clothes as security. He went to London, concealed himself in a cellar, and was there found by a watchman, who arrested him for being in an unoccupied house with felonious intent. He professed to be dazed and declared that he was at Bakewell in Derbyshire at three o’clock that morning. He explained it by the fact that he had repeated certain words which he had heard his lodging-house keeper and her sister say. The judge was amazed, the man’s depositions were taken down, and he was sent to the justices of Derby.” The writer (Wallace Notestein) added that there was little evidence for this but that a number of women were hanged in Bakewell on charges of witchcraft at this time.
- Witches discovered in Northamptonshire. Eight women were accused of torturing a man and his sister as well as causing lameness in the neighbourhood. One of them Agnes Brown had a wart that was taken to be the devil’s mark. She and her daughter already had a dubious reputation. Another was suspected because a child looked at her in church and when he got home went into convulsions.
- Arthur Bill and his parents were accused of bewitching Martha Aspine.
- The Pendle witch trials which was essentially two families at feud with one another. Sixteen women found themselves locked up in Lancaster Castle on witchcraft charges.
- In Bedford Mother Sutton and her daughter,Mary, fell foul of the local landowner who was called Enger. Enger claimed that on moonlit nights Mary was in the habit of manifesting herself at his side. She would sit and knit and tell him that if he agreed her terms that he would be restored to full health.
- The Leicester witch hangings. A boy had fits and claimed that they were caused by witches. As a result nine women were executed and six more were saved by James who was on progress and found that the boy was lying.
- The Earl of Rutland claimed that both his sons had been killed by witches. The Belvoir witches were tried in Lincoln. Joan Flower and her two daughters were dismissed from Belvoir Castle and when the second of the earl’s sons died it was realised that not only had he been killed by witchcraft but so had his sibling who had died several years earlier. It should be noted that Joan and her daughters had been dismissed some five years before the boy died. I’ve posted about the death of the earl’s sons earlier. https://thehistoryjar.com/2018/01/20/witchcraft-scandal-and-the-duke-of-buckingham/
- The saw called Bilston Boy case. Essentially thirteen year old William Perry craved attention and got it by having fits. He accused Jane Clarke of causing the fits and the case went to trial. It was only thanks to a very perceptive bishop that Jane didn’t hang.
- The Fairfax case in York saw six women accused on the testimony of children.
Notestein, Wallace (1909) A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718.