by Rebecca Clayton, Museum Futures Trainee
The image of the wicked witch has remained pervasive since Medieval times, a source of paranoia, demonisation and fascination. To this day those accused and found guilty during the seventeenth century witch craze have been wrapped up in those connotations, serving as a reminder of a society gone mad.
The likes of Salem in the US, and Pendle here in the UK have a local identity associated with witchcraft, they are the centres of the historical witch craze. Yet, Newcastle upon Tyne has an equally rich history of paranoia and persecution of deemed witches, occurring 42 years before the events of Salem, with the execution of 14 women and one man for witchcraft in 1650.
The names Matthew Bulmer, Elizabeth Anderson, Jane Hunter, Mary Potts, Alice Hume, Elianor Rogerson, Margaret Muffit, Margaret Maddison, Elizabeth Brown, Margaret Brown, Jane Copeland, Ann Watson, Elianor Henderson, Elizabeth Dobson and Katherine Coultor, have largely been forgotten. With the limited information we have, from the remaining public records that have stood the test of time, I endeavour to shed some light upon the horrors these 15 individuals were subjected to, to try and encapsulate the experience of those accused and found guilty of witchcraft in Newcastle.
This is not a story of purported imps, teats, or acts of maleficium. It is the story of (in the words of Ralph Gardiner) ‘these poor souls’, who, until the end of their lives, ‘never confessed any thing, but pleaded innocence.’
For a lot of people today, it’s hard to see how much the fear of witchcraft once permeated British society. However, for those who lived during the 16th and 17th century, paranoia of acts of sorcery was part of lived reality. Despite there being no fixed understanding of witchcraft, it was legitimised as a threat to society by acts of legislation enacted to root out its presence. Those who were accused of practicing witchcraft, according to the law, were enemies of God and the King.
Entering into the 17th century, the ruling monarch James I (then as James VI of Scotland) wrote a 3-part book named Daemonologie in 1597 on how to identify, prosecute and protect against accused witches. Witchcraft was defined, in his eyes, as having the power to cure or cast diseases, weaken the nature of men and make them vulnerable for women, more than the ordinary course of nature would permit. He believed that this power was given to them by serving the Devil as the master, and that witches were acting upon a desire for revenge or worldly riches, with the intent of hurting men or what they possess. This suggests that supernatural capabilities were attributed to women who deviated from the social, moral and patriarchal norms of the time.
As the religious and political authority of Scotland and later England as well, James I and VI gave sanction to the persecution of accused witches, laying the foundations for the procedures of the witch trials later on in the century. Furthermore, in 1604 a Witchcraft Act was passed in parliament that made witchcraft a felony, thereby transferring jurisdiction to common law courts. An act which stayed on the statutes until 1736.
“but in the end to spare the life, and not to strike when God bids strikem, and so seuerelie punish in so odious a fault & treason against God, it is not only vlnawful, but doubtlesses no less sinne in that Magistrate”
The 1640s marked a period of an increased number of witch trials and the rise of the witch-finder figure. Scotland experienced a period of social, political and religious turmoil and in 1649 the Witchcraft Act was extended. This entailed an intense period of witch hunts, where people were encouraged to seek out and punish witches, which ended up spilling over into the north of England as evidenced by the proceedings in Newcastle. A few years earlier in the south of England, Matthew Hopkins the ‘Witch-Finder General’, wrote a pamphlet on ‘The Discovery of Witches’ which was a treatise on how to identify a witch and a justification of his actions in his profession. In the 3 years he was active as a witch-finder (1644–1647), he was responsible for the deaths of approximately 300 women. Though self-appointed, witch-hunters were endorsed and sent for by the local authorities, as was the case in Newcastle upon Tyne.
In 1649, Puritan Magistrates at Newcastle sent two of their sergeants, Thomas Shevel and Cuthbert Nicholson, to Scotland as representatives, to agree with a Scottish witch-finder to come to Newcastle and try those brought to him. This witch-finder was never named, and their identity remains unknown to this day. Then, the Magistrates sent a Bell-man through the town inviting:
“All people that would bring in any complaint against any woman for a Witch, they should be sent for and tried by the person appointed.”
On 26th March 1649, 30 people (mostly women) were accused and brought to the town-hall to be tried. The trial involved being publicly stripped and pricked with a pin to identify whether or not they were a witch. A witch was said to have a devil’s mark on their body, where they were unable to feel any pain. At the town-hall, those accused had their clothes removed and their bodies searched for one of these devil’s marks, which were then pricked. If they did not bleed or could not feel anything, they were, undoubtedly, a witch. An invasive and implicitly sexualised method of trying the accused, that would inevitably shame them, no matter the outcome.
Due to the methods used by the witch-finder to ‘identify’ a witch, those accused had the odds stacked against them. It is now known that witch-finders (including the one used at the Newcastle trials) employed methods to ensure a guilty verdict. Considering that the witch-finder would receive 20 shillings per each successful prosecution (which would amount to over £100 per ‘witch’ in today’s money) and at the time, the average daily wage was around 3 pence, it’s not a stretch to assume that he was financially motivated to identify as many witches as possible. Contraptions where the pin or bodkin would retract into the hilt would be used, which would trick observers into thinking the flesh of the accused had been penetrated without causing any pain or blood to flow. 27 out of the 30 brought to the town-hall were identified as being a witch by the Scottish witch-finder. Of which, 15 were condemned to execution.
Although torture was illegal in England, it was not beyond witch-finders to use forms of torture to force the accused to confess to their supposed crimes. The ‘Witch-finder General’ Matthew Hopkins would drive his victims to exhaustion to force them to confess to their crimes. This was done by tying them to a stool in an uncomfortable position and having them watched for 24 hours, intending to produce intense discomfort and deprive them of sleep, until they confessed. Forms of psychological torture such as public humiliation were used, but it is unclear the exact methods were used against the victims in 1649 at the Newcastle town-hall. It has been said that Matthew Bulmer, who was found guilty and executed at these trials, was forced to walk barefoot over broken brick while being led by a mule for 24 hours, to the point where his bones came out of his feet. Although, it’s not confirmed at what point these events occurred (if at all); was this a form of torture used to extract a confession? Did this occur post-trial?
A reason why both improper and illegal methods were accepted as court procedure for witch trials is due to the perception around the crime at the time. 16th century French jurist and political philosopher Jean Bodin asserted that witchcraft was so heinous a crime that:
“one must not adhere to the ordinary rules of prosecution, proof of such evil is so obscure and difficult that not one out of a million witches would be accused or punished if regular legal procedures were followed.”
Yet, it is important to note that witch-finders were not a universally accepted and heralded profession at the time. Hopkins’ pamphlet, for example, was written as a defense of his profession, in response to criticism regarding his methods.
Ralph Gardiner, briefly mentioned at the start, recounted the trials a few years after the events took place in a book of writings about grievances that had occurred in the county of Northumberland. This is the most detailed account of the witch trials that we have, and it is through this that we know the names of the victims executed. In this, he describes in detail the proceedings that dispute the reputability of the witch-finder’s methods, and of the questions raised by those present at the time.
At the trial, a Lieutenant Colonel Hobson questioned the Scottish witch-finder who said that he knew whether women were witches or not by their looks, as one of those searched was a ‘personable and good like woman.’ According to Gardiner, Hobson stated that ‘surely this woman is none, and need not be tried.’ Yet the Scotsman and the townspeople said that she was a witch, and she was therefore tried:
“in sight of all the people laid her body naked to the Waste, with her cloaths over her head […] and then he ran a pin into her Thigh, and then suddenly let her coats fall, and then demanded whether she had nothing of his in her body but did not bleed.”
This identified her as a child of the Devil, and therefore, guilty. However, in perceiving this alteration, Hobson charged the woman to be brought again and required the witch-finder to run the pin in the same place as before.
“then it gushed out of blood, and the said Scot cleared her, and said she was not a child of the Devil.”
According to the witch-finder, anyone could be a witch, and he would be able to identify them on sight. To Hobson, on the other hand, this person was too young and too pretty to be a witch, highlighting that there was believed to be particular characteristics associated with being a witch. I’m sure it’s not hard to conjure up an image of a witch as an ugly, old woman, as these stereotypes have stood the test of time. Although, now they have less damning consequences — at the time, those deemed to have those characteristics would be more likely to be found guilty of witchcraft and therefore would be executed. Equally, in Ralph Gardiner’s account it specifies that the bell-man sent for people to bring forth charges against any ‘woman’ as a witch. Whether or not those were in Gardiner’s terms or the bell-man, it reveals that there was an expectation that it would be women who were to be brought. Nowadays, the terms ‘crone’, ‘hag’, and ‘witch’ tend to be used as insults against women, with gender encoded in the definition. In questioning the validity of the witch-finder’s methods, Hobson exposes the prevailing notions of the time and inconsistency of court procedure, wherein the lives of those on trial were at stake.
There are varying accounts of when the trials and executions occur, although there are a accounts in the Reference library at the Discovery Museum which specify the 21st August 1650 as the execution date (corroborating with how both the years 1649 and 1650 mentioned in Gardiner’s text). If this is correct, what happened to those found guilty of witchcraft between the date of the trial 26th March 1649 and the date of their execution on the 21st August 1650? Unfortunately, these are questions we don’t yet have the answers to. What we do have are transcripts of the Chamberlain’s accounts covering the period, detailing the financial charges to the jailor for holding the witches. In October 1650 there was a £30 sum, likely to be an annual summary from October 1649-September 1650. So, a more leading question we might ask is, what were the purported witches subjected to during their time in prison before their inevitable death?
On the 21st August 1650, Matthew Bulmer, Elizabeth Anderson, Jane Hunter, Mary Potts, Alice Hume, Elianor Rogerson, Margaret Muffit, Margaret Maddison, Elizabeth Brown, Margaret Brown, Jane Copeland, Ann Watson, Elianor Henderson, Elizabeth Dobson and Katherine Coultor; were led from the Gallows to Town Moor where they were executed. Their execution was a horrific public spectacle, as was the custom of the time. It was believed that capital punishment was an event where justice was served and would deter others from transgressing from the law. Gardiner’s account of the events includes a drawing of the scene, and, though not realistic, it captures the event as manifesting as a form of urban theatre.
On the day, Margaret Brown beseeched God that a remarkable sign might be seen at the time of their execution, to prove their innocence. As soon as she was turned off the ladder:
“her blood gushed out upon the people to admiration of the beholders.”
They were all buried at St. Andrews Church in the city centre. Though the graves were unmarked, it is important to note that they were buried in hallowed ground, contrasting to the burial customs of supposed children of the devil.
In recent years, the bones of those found guilty of witchcraft have reportedly been uncovered near the church. They were identified as such by the holes in their kneecaps — apparently, witches had nails driven through them after their execution, as to prevent them from rising from the dead. Although, information surrounding this has not been confirmed.
The nameless Scottish witch-finder, ‘fell from grace’ so-to-speak, as after these events unfolded (and another attempt to try women in Northumberland), he was forced to flee to Scotland. There, he was cast into prison, indicted, arraigned and condemned for his actions and upon his execution, confessed that he had caused the death of above 220 women in England and Scotland. Though you could say justice had been served in his case as the unlawfulness of his actions were exposed, it did not prevent this miscarriage of justice against all those women found guilty, who, in often cases are still referred to as witches to this day.