WITCH HUNTING

Suzy Nightingale writes about the late night,  cabinet of curiosities event about the witch hunts at the National Archives in Kew.

Poisonous gossip accusing women of witchery, the mysterious scent of Egyptian mummies during a theatrical ‘unwrapping’ and the ‘First Ladies of Egypt’ – fearless Edwardian women and their pioneering work in Egyptology were merely three of the fascinating topics covered at Kew’s National Archives at Night event. Hosting a suitably macabre itinerary for Halloween, the Archives building was bustling with hundreds of guests eager to delve into the darker side of history. Of course we felt most drawn the witches, on which we’ll focus here; and oh, it certainly got dark…

The persecution of women during the infamous Pendle witch trials is well known, but did you know that, twenty years later, it all began again thanks to the accusations of a young boy and his pushy father? Setting neighbour against neighbour, poisonous gossip, suspicion and superstition entwined to create a volatile atmosphere that once again cast a dark shadow over an entire community. In a talk entitled The Second Pendle Witch Scare: The Lancashire Witch scare of 1633-43, Dr Jessica Nelson read a letter sent by one William Conway, describing in a state of some excitement, the fact that a pack of up to nineteen female witches had been “discovered” in Lancashire. Witch scares were not uncommon, the previous Scottish scares inspiring Shakespeare to include them as malevolent characters in Macbeth; but this was a witch hunt with a difference. The finger that pointed at the women this time belonged to a ten year old boy.

Encouraged by his father, Edmund Robinson declared he had seen witches congregating in their small community, and was toured around communal gatherings with the claim he alone, for a fee, could point them out in the crowd. One of the accused was an elderly woman called Margaret Johnson, who came to be known as ‘the penitent witch’ as she was the only one to ‘confess’ to her crimes. Under interrogation by the Privy Council, she claimed a man dressed in black had repeatedly approached her, offering the power to hurt humans and beasts as she wished, in exchange for her soul. At first she turned him down, she said, but his seductive offers eventually persuaded her to sign her name in his book of captured souls. As the interrogation continued, it became clear (even to The Privy Council, who expressed their concerns in a report) that Margaret was a very confused and frail old lady, perhaps with what we’d now recognise as dementia, who changed her story many times. Interestingly, no matter how hard and how often she was pressed to ‘admit’ the other accused were fellow witches, she strongly protested their innocence, citing their daily prayers in the cells and stating they were true, godly women.

Another of the seven women Edmund accused, Mary Spencer aged 20, gave a spirited defence and denied outright being a witch. Her male neighbour, a man by the name of Nicholas Cunliffe,  said she’d bewitched a bucket, bidding it run to her (as Dr Nelson wryly pointed out during her talk, one might think this a ‘rubbish use of witchcraft’), but Mary explained she liked to roll her bucket down the hill and race it to the bottom, the court record showing she “…prays God to forgive Nicholas Cunliffe, who having borne malice to her and her parents these five or six years has lately wrongfully abused them.” Her parents having both been condemned to death in the previous assizes. During the court proceedings, Mary often complains the overwhelming noise from the public gallery is so loud she couldn’t even hear many of the accusations against her, so how could she properly defend herself? A chilling reminder of the mass panic and blood-lust that had been whipped up by this pervasive atmosphere of malice among neighbours. In yet another case of a woman being accused by a male neighbour with whom she’d had a previous disagreement, Francis Dickinson stood firm in her denial of witchcraft, passionately using attack as her form of defence, and detailing the disagreement she’d had with her male accuser over the purchases of a cow and, later, some butter that led to bitter arguments culminating in her eventually being accused of being a witch.

During their investigations, the Privy Council took it upon themselves to carefully examine the bodies of the women, looking for signs their familiars had suckled from hidden teats, even examining the cervix for unusual markings or dried blood from a recently suckled spot. Somewhat surprisingly, the concluding report of surgeons and midwives stated nothing unnatural was found on any of the women, no extra teats (in the cervix or elsewhere), no signs of evil-doing. And so, the Privy Council had nothing to go on but one confession from an old, confused woman whose word they already seriously doubted. In the end they resorted to interviewing Edmund Robinson, without the presence of his father (who’d previously refused for his son to be questioned alone). Eventually (we don’t know how long) Edmund confessed he had made up the whole thing up. But why? He’d first invented the tale as he’d been told to collect the cattle in for his parents, but went to play instead. To evade punishment he thought back to the stories he’d heard of the first Pendle witch trials, thereby getting himself out of trouble and enjoying the attention they afforded him. When others then surged forward to further accuse the women he’d named, it became clear rumours and suspicions had long been bubbling beneath the surface against any women who dared to argue with a male neighbour or caused trouble in any way. Edmund didn’t know what a bandwagon to be leapt upon his stories would cause, and Dr Nelson made the point that his father was most culpable, as he’d been the one to seize on the money-making opportunity in which his young son could now, for a pocketful of coins, travel around looking for and ‘recognising’ witches.

So what became of these women once the Privy Council had Edmund’s confession, confirming what they’d already feared was a case of hysteria following false accusations? Were the doors to gaol flung open as the women were triumphantly released? Far from it. In fact, from what records we have, we know most of the accused women died in prison. Despite their now assumed innocence, they’d been kept imprisoned in such devastatingly terrible conditions they became ill and died there. There are no records of what became of Margaret. We can only suppose that, already elderly and frail, she’d succumbed early to the vile conditions she’d been kept under. Pontificating on why the women had not been released, Dr Nelson assumes their deaths provided a convenient underlining of the whole, poisonous affair. Had the women been released back into the community, we can perhaps imagine their righteous fury at the neighbours who’d accused them, the continuing whispered suspicions, an on-going miasma of malice. A sad, stark truth we must consider is that these angry – innocent – women who’d refused to back down were seen as better dead than making mischief. A community washing their hands of blame by turning their heads. A wiping of the slate with bloodied hands…