Poor, old and ugly?
This typical depiction of the English witch in 16th and 17th century pamphlets is a stereotype which does not correspond with the much more varied characteristics of the women who were accused of witchcraft in court cases of the period. Yet it still shapes our ideas today, because very little of the witness testimony for criminal cases has survived.
This article by Annabel Gregory compares the pamphlet account of the most famous (and seemingly reliable) English witchcraft trial — that of the Pendle witches in Lancashire — with some witness testimony that has survived, including a rare case from Rye in Sussex for which there is a substantive body of evidence.
Reproduced (with permission, but without illustrations) from
History Today Vol. 66: 8 (August 2016), 41- 47.
As Henry Goodcole, chaplain at Newgate prison, left the latest hanging at Tyburn in 1621, he heard ballads about the executed witch already being sung in the streets of London: ballads which, he said, were full of inventions. He knew the facts about poor old Elizabeth Sawyer (‘crooked and deformed’) and he wrote a pamphlet setting these out. His ‘facts’, however, were mostly acquired not from the evidence presented at the trial, but from interrogations which he had conducted himself in the prison chapel after she had been convicted of murder by witchcraft. His interrogations started with the question: ‘By what means came you to have acquaintance with the Devil?’ and continued in the same vein. She confessed to him that she had sold her soul to the devil. But he admitted that it was only ‘with great labour’ that he got a confession out of her at all.
Goodcole was convinced of Sawyer’s guilt, yet neither the judge nor jury had been so sure. It was only after the examining magistrate suggested that the woman be searched for witch’s marks – signs that familiar spirits had sucked on her body as a reward for committing evil deeds – that the jury found her guilty, convinced by what the searchers had found.
Goodcole had a line in sensationalist pamphlets about notorious crimes. His best-seller was Heavens speedie hue and cry sent after lust and murther …, which went through three impressions. His pamphlet about Sawyer became the source for a play by Dekker, Ford and Rowley, published the same year, The Witch of Edmonton.
Pamphlets and ballads were the main source of news in this era before newspapers. Even people unable to read could listen to the ballads being sung in the market place with new words to old tunes. The pamphlets were at least as sensationalist as the most extreme tabloids today, with the same moralising tone. Those about witchcraft played on the stereotype of the English witch: a poor, old, ugly and cantankerous woman with no husband to keep her in order. Refused alms by a neighbour, she might send her animal familiar to kill or maim him or his cattle, or at least stop the butter churning. The familiar – perhaps a cat or a toad – would have a name like Piggin or Pyewackett and be rewarded by suckling teats in hidden parts of her body.
Literary authors as well as pamphleteers reiterated the assumption that it was poor, ugly widows who were accused of witchcraft. Yet, in reality, married women were at least as likely to be targeted as widows, which raises the question: were suspects of witchcraft really the marginal, helpless creatures that authors made out?* The animal familiar, the most ignominious aspect of the witch stereotype, appears in virtually every pamphlet account (apart from those that focus on spirit possession) but only rarely in more reliable sources, such as court transcriptions.
The pamphlets cover only a small sample, as little as ten per cent, of around 1,000 witch trials between the mid-16th century and the beginning of the 18th, when murder by witchcraft was a capital crime, punishable by hanging. Yet it is the pamphlets that provide our image of the early modern English witch, as almost all witness testimony for the criminal (Assize) courts was thrown away when trials finished and other sources provide minimal information. Such tracts are the basis for Tracy Borman’s Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction (2013), as well as a BBC documentary commemorating the 400th anniversary in 2012 of the trial of witches from Pendle in Lancashire.
Some of these witchcraft pamphlets do, nevertheless, give a greater semblance of reliability than those dealing with other crimes, such as murder, because they include some transcripts of trial documents. The authors were concerned not only with maximising sales but also defending the legal procedure. This was partly because witchcraft was notoriously difficult to prove and partly because such trials were still seen as somewhat novel. Before the middle of the 16th century, as on most occasions since, people had less extreme means of dealing with bewitchment than capital punishment.
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The most famous English witchcraft trial, that of the Pendle witches, also appears to be the most well documented. In the book-length account by court clerk Thomas Potts, he makes great show of only including ‘matter of record’, but manipulates the material to support his argument.
This was a mass trial by English standards, with a high proportion of executions. Of the 17 people prosecuted, ten were hanged (another died in prison). One of the judges asked Potts to write an account, perhaps to justify the execution rate, which normally only amounted to a quarter of prosecutions. There was also concern over claims of a miscarriage of justice, mentioned by Potts, in another case linked to the Pendle trial.
The fame of the Pendle case is due in large part to Potts’ melodramatic portrayal of the two stereotypically elderly and poor suspects: Chattox, ‘a very old, withered, spent and decrepit creature’, and Old Demdyke, ‘this sink of villany’. Their crimes, as he says, were well suited to the wild landscape in which they lived. What the latter’s daughter, Elizabeth (‘O Barbarous and inhumane Monster’), lacked in age she made up for in ugliness with one eye above the other, one looking down, the other up. These women begged from their neighbours and threatened them, if refused. They also provided charms to cure the bewitched. Their familiar spirits, Fancie, Tibb and Ball, variously took the shapes of dog, boy, man, cat, hare and bear. Other suspects from the trial who did not conform to the stereotype are mostly kept in the background, as in other pamphlets.
Despite Potts’ claims to veracity, he leaves out much of the evidence of independent witnesses and focuses instead on examinations of the suspects and Elizabeth’s youngest daughter. Even these documents he edits, continually repeating bits of them ad nauseam (to quote Marion Gibson, the prime analyst of these texts). By this means he contrives to shine a spotlight on familiars on the one hand and, on the other, on an alleged conspiracy to blow up Lancaster Castle.
Potts links this allegation several times with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Protestant fears of terrorism were easily sparked in a county notorious for its many Catholics (including the main suspects in this case) and this allegation was extremely flimsy. It was made by the young son of Elizabeth and was not corroborated by anyone else. Potts claims that Elizabeth confessed to orchestrating the plot but in fact she denied any knowledge of it.
The formal charges against the accused include neither this conspiracy nor the familiars, just the bewitching to death of particular people. Spirit familiars are mentioned by only one independent witness. All the others gave the usual story of an altercation with the accused, followed by somebody in their household suffering for it. The same is true of an account of a trial in St. Osyth, Essex, which includes a fascinating full transcription of the evidence of witnesses. It is in the examinations of the accused that familiars appear. Potts focused so much on familiar spirits because they offered the strongest possible evidence of guilt. Checking for teats on the suspect’s body usually resulted in something incriminating being found. In the St. Osyth case, the examining magistrate shamelessly bullied the suspects into admitting to having familiar spirits. Similar admissions were extracted by Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’, who used sleep- deprivation techniques in his private enterprise witch- hunt during the Civil Wars.
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Not all the legal evidence for the Assize courts was destroyed: some for the northern counties survives after the mid- 17th century. These testimonies are tantalisingly brief; too brief to have formed the basis for pamphlet stories. Yet many of them are long enough to convey the terror sometimes experienced by the witches’ victims induced not by familiar spirits, which are not mentioned in any of these cases, but by the witch herself, appearing to her victims in spirit form, through closed windows or doors:
Morpeth 1673. She did see the said Margaret Milburne, widow, standing on an oat skep [container] at her bed feet, thinking she was pulling her heart with something like a thread. Upon which this informer called on her master’s daughter that lay by her, who called of other people out of the room below. Who coming up found this informer in a swoon, who continued not able to speak for 3 or 4 hours.
Sometimes the witch has changed into the shape of an animal such as a cat, hare or bee:
Newcastle 1663. The said cat did violently leap about her neck and shoulders, and was so ponderous that she was not able to support it … [she] was so infirm and disenabled that the power of both body and tongue were taken from her … this informer verily believes that the said cat which appeared to her was Dorothy Stranger [the accused], and none else.
In the witchcraft pamphlets, by contrast, there are only one or two instances of such hauntings by witches. Potts says shape-changing by humans is impossible (echoing King James I’s work on witchcraft, Daemonologie, as he often does). He refers to a suspect turning into a dog in a case, not at Pendle, that was discovered to be fraudulent. Potts pokes fun at the fraudster’s attempt to create a believable case, pointing out that the latter fails to provide the suspects with familiar spirits. This, he says, would have helped the jury form their judgment.
The suspects in these late 17th-century cases are generally not stereotypical figures. Wives outnumber widows by three to one and suspects are often described as taking part in the everyday activities of the community: dealing in barrels, selling cherries, caring for a grandchild, for example.
They are sometimes said to gain power over their victims, as in the following overheard interchange between mother and daughter:
If thou canst but get young Thomas Haigh to buy thee threepennyworth of indigo, and look him in the face when he gives it thee, and touch his locks, we shall have power enough to take life.
Potts refers to getting power once in the Pendle case, but there is a significant difference: when the suspect touches a victim, it is the suspect’s familiar who gains the power, not the suspect.
The testimonies of the late 17th- century Assize cases suggest that suspects were more empowered than those in the pamphlet accounts. They have power in themselves to change shape, haunt and kill with witchcraft. Suspects in the pamphlets are at least as evil but the power is not really in them, it is in the familiar spirits whom they feed and who sometimes, but not always, do the suspect’s bidding. The latter scenario fits with an idea that authors constantly reiterate, that women are more easily seduced by the devil than men because they are the weaker sex. It was not her power that was being demonstrated but that of the devil. But this fits not at all with the accounts of witches in the late 17th- century cases: why would they need animal familiars if they could change into the shapes of animals themselves?
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We need not rely only on such brief testimony for more direct evidence of witch beliefs. There is one detailed case from southern England that has much in common with the late 17th-century Assize cases but little in common with the pamphlet accounts. The accused woman in this case, Anne Taylor, appeared to one of her victims in spirit form and had no animal familiars. Her accusers saw Taylor as a threat because she had more substantive concerns than simply seeking revenge for being refused a penny or some pins, as in many of the pamphlet accounts. While she did not fit the stereotype, being young and married to a gentleman, she was a healer who inherited skills from her mother, which was true of many suspects in other cases, and an outspoken one at that. The case does not lack spirits but they are similar to the fairies described in cases in Scotland: they were morally ambivalent, sometimes helpful, sometimes vindictive. Note that in the Taylor case, as in all others around this date, all witnesses are for the prosecution so we do not hear the voices of the suspects’ allies.
Taylor’s case was tried in 1607-09 in Rye in Sussex, a backwater of the English legal system. It was one of the Cinque Ports, where the King’s Justices had no authority to try crimes (hence the survival of its records). Rye had been one of the major ports on the south coast in the mid-16th century but was by this time in decline. The judges were the town’s mayor and aldermen. Taylor was accused of bewitching the previous mayor by his widow, who was now wife of the current mayor.
In 1607 rumours spread around Rye of spirits playing puck-like practical jokes; gripping limbs until they went numb; and blowing up a cannon together with the town’s gunner. Alarmed by this spirit invasion, the magistrates interrogated the main source of the rumours, Susan Swaffer, the wife of a poor sawyer (a person who saws wood). She said four spirits – two men and two women – had appeared to her, offering to help her find treasure in the garden of her landlady, Anne Taylor. Her search proved fruitless, even with Taylor’s assistance. The magistrates let her talk, asking few questions. When they interrogated Anne, they asked her to comment on the points made by Susan, which on the whole she refused to do.
Susan must have been relieved to have Anne Taylor help her deal with the spirits, for Anne and her mother, old Widow Bennett, were reputed to be ‘cunning folk’ (from con, ‘to know’). Such people often used spirits to help cure illnesses, find lost or stolen goods or make predictions. Unlike the stereotype of ‘white witches’, neither of these Protestant women used charms or amulets; they prescribed ointments and medicines and used a simple form of astrology, involving good and evil days, to predict the outcome of illnesses.
However, the Bennett women were rather too much given to predicting people’s deaths for the peace of mind of some of their neighbours. Their immediate neighbour, Master Clement Whitfield, gentleman, said that when his wife was ill back in 1603, Anne and her mother ‘did enquire in what manner my wife did fare’; they said they ‘knew her disease, and that it would cost her her life’. This must have been alarming behaviour in people on whom you relied for cures. So alarming, indeed, that Mistress Whitfield started hallucinating:
my wife when she lay sick [did say] that Goody Bennett and her daughter Annis had bewitched her, and I could not persuade her to the contrary … for many times she did awake me suddenly in my sleep, and said to me, ‘Look, husband, where Anne Bennett stands at my bed’s head, and she hath set me my time how long I shall live.’
His wife died in 1604.
Particularly alarming for the associates of the mayor, Thomas Hamon, was Anne’s prediction when he suddenly fell ill in July 1607, that ‘he was taken in such sort, and in such a bad day and ill hour, as he would never escape the same’ and that he would die as a result of a spirit gripping his body very tightly. Within days, Hamon was dead. Were Anne or her mother, who had been so interested in Hamon’s death, responsible for it?
Susan Swaffer was indicted for entertaining spirits that December and subsequently convicted. The death sentence was reprieved because she was pregnant. Anne’s indictment for aiding and abetting Susan did not proceed to trial because she had fled to Kent, beyond the jurisdiction of the Rye court.
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The Swaffers were recent incomers to Rye but Taylor came from a well-established local family of butchers, the Bennetts. Protestants – if somewhat unconventional – since before the Reformation, they and their fellow artisans – ‘very simple and … of small substance’ – were something of a thorn in the side of the more traditionalist merchant elite. By the middle of the century, however, in a time of prosperity, Anne’s grandfather was successful enough to join the aldermanic bench.
There was no love lost between Anne and the mayor’s family. Hamon’s widow reported that she often cursed them both and she allegedly said, among other derogatory comments, that:
It were no matter if the divell did fetch away his body … to be an example for others, for she doubted that the divell had his soul already, for that he was an evil liver.
Anne’s antipathy to Hamon may have seemed particularly challenging to the merchant elite, because it reflected the views of others in the town. Hamon was not popular. As most of the population and the corporation itself got poorer, the rich, curiously, seemed not to have been badly affected. Indeed Hamon and other rich inhabitants were buying up the town’s assets.
An extraordinary incident had triggered outbursts against Hamon ten years earlier, in 1597, a year of dearth throughout the country, following several bad harvests. His stepson, an impoverished tailor named Simon Duron, had been twice convicted by the magistrates of theft and on the second conviction was hanged; a sentence that was unheard of in this small town. A couple of days after Duron’s first trial, a fisherman declared that he ‘wished that Master Mayor [Hamon] were hanged’ and a master fisherman standing nearby endorsed his opinion, saying ‘diverse were of that mind, if they durst say so much’. Taylor said later that Hamon had taken against Duron’s Huguenot refugee mother: ‘He had misused his other wife [Catherine Duron] greatly, which [I know] very well …’
Anne was not just outspoken but experienced extraordinary good fortune which, in suspicious minds, could have pointed to supernatural powers. She had been heavily indebted following the death of her father and brother during the plague epidemic of 1596, yet the women of the family not only survived this, but she contracted a most advantageous marriage in 1603 to a Kentish gentleman, George Taylor.
Anne was saved from hanging thanks to the intervention of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, a member of James I’s Privy Council. As a representative of the government, he sought to challenge the ancient privileges of the Cinque Ports and stop the magistrates from trying any capital crimes. Northampton failed in this endeavour but at Taylor’s trial the magistrates, clearly fearing further intervention if she were convicted, chose one of her friends to be foreman of the jury. She was acquitted of bewitching Hamon to death. Susan was pardoned in 1611.
After the trial, George Taylor was made a freeman of the town and was then employed, along with the vicar, to represent the town in some negotiations over the silting up of the harbour.
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Anne Taylor was totally unlike what we think of as a typical witch; a poor, old woman living on the margins of society. She seems to have been targeted because of her influence in the town. Evidence from other local sources mined by Malcolm Gaskill suggests that many other suspects were not like the stereotype either. Some had allies, as in the Rye case (among the artisans and more radical Protestants), and in other towns witchcraft accusations sometimes reflected factional conflicts.
Pamphleteers helped propagate the stereotype of the witch. Salacious tales of familiars helped sell the publications, offering the opportunity to recount details that were elicited when a suspect was interrogated. As well as their names, there were the shapes in which the familiars appeared, their colour, gender, how and where they were fed and who gave them to the suspect. Value was added if she also admitted that she had sold her soul to the devil.
I do not mean to imply that the concept of the animal familiar was alien to witnesses and suspects: it is mentioned in enough different sources to indicate that it was a genuine part of English popular lore. But a desire for profit, or the need to legitimate a contentious legal process, influenced the slant given to a pamphleteer’s story.
The surviving trial evidence gives us a very different image of women accused of witchcraft from that given in the pamphlets. The witnesses were no doubt familiar with the idea that it was women’s weakness that made them susceptible to seduction by the devil, but the evidence suggests that, in practice, when confronted by a suspect, they usually saw not a feeble old hag in thrall to her familiars, but a woman who, in her own self, exerted power in the community.
Philip C. Almond, The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill (I.B. Tauris, 2012).
Malcolm Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Marion Gibson (ed.), Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing (Routledge, 2000).
J.A. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England (Hamish Hamilton, 1996)