Vol 1 – No. 5 – July, 1887 – Witchcraft in the North

It was once remarked by a Roman sage, that there were certain practices (sorcery, divination, and the like) which would always be prohibited and always pursued; and time has not failed to fulfil the prediction. Such impostures have their origin in the infirmities of our nature. The ignorant and the superstitious resort to charlatans who profess to forecast the future; men and women seek to know their “fortunes,” and become the prey of pretenders; and when there were believers in witchcraft (as there yet are even in the present day) there were also “witches” and “wise men” to profit by their weakness. Unhappily, also, as the annals of our country testify, many an innocent woman, to say nothing of some men, making no pretence to supernatural power or influence, has been brought under suspicion, and suffered violence and death at the hands of the fanatic and credulous. There were even mercenary “witch-finders” in former days, who traded on the belief in their skill; one of whom, at least, was overtaken by poetical justice, and found the fate in which he had involved his victims.

It may be read in local history how much repute these nefarious discoverers enjoyed in the town of Newcastle in the seventeenth century. On the 26th of March, 1649, a “petition concerning witches” having been read, it was “ordered that thanks be returned to the petitioners; and the Common Council will contribute their best assistance therein.” Two town sergeants were accordingly sent across the Borders, “to agree with a Scotchman who pretended knowledge to find out witches, by pricking them with pins, to come to Newcastle, where he should try such who should be brought to him, and to have twenty shillings apiece for all he should condemn as witches, and free passage thither and back again.” The man having arrived on his fearful errand, the town-crier was sent through the streets; and thirty poor women were brought to the Town Hall in response to the proclamation, most of whom were pronounced to be witches. The tragic end of all this miserable work came in the month of August, 1650, when, on one single day, fifteen so-called witches and a wizard, with nine mosstroopers, twenty-five men and women altogether, were hanged on the Town Moor in one fell swoop. In Northumberland, the witch finder pocketed in some cases as much as 3 apiece. But his game was now up. He was laid hold of by Henry Ogle, Esq., afterwards one of the members for the county, who required bond for his appearance at quarter-sessions. He then got away into Scotland, where he was brought to trial and execution, and confessed at the gallows that he had been the death of more than two hundred and twenty women!

The fortieth volume of the Surtees Society, comprising “Depositions from the Castle of York” (edited by the late Canon Raine), affords abundant evidence of the wide-spread prevalence of the belief in witchcraft at the time of the wholesale execution on Newcastle Moor.

The first case of witchcraft in the volume, associated with the county of Northumberland, was heard on the 15th of February, 1660, before Luke Killingworth, Esq. The charge was brought by a soldier of Tynemouth, named Michael Mason, who said that about the 20th of January, 1660, Elizabeth, wife of George Simpson, fisher, came into his house, and asked his daughter Frances for a pot of small beer. Her request being refused, she threatened to make the girl repent. Next day, she lost the use of one of her legs, and within four days the use of the other. She had then to keep her bed, and lay miserably tormented, crying out that Elizabeth Simpson did pinch her heart and pull her in pieces. But the complainant getting blood of her, his daughter had ever since continued quiet in her bed without any torture. She did not, however, recover the use of her limbs, but pined away in a most lamentable manner. The said Elizabeth was reported to be a charmer, and turned the sieve for money, and had been reported a witch. To draw the blood of a witch, was to counteract her evil influence. Such was the popular belief; and hence, when suspicion fell upon a woman, it was common to wound her, so that blood might flow.

The Tynemouth witch was, as we have seen, a repuced charmer. She practised “turning the sieve” for money: a common form of divination where property had been stolen and the culprit was to be discovered. The wise man or woman, on being consulted, invoked an answer by the riddle and shears, chanting with due gravity the mystic lines:

By St. Peter and St. Paul,

If _____ has stolen ______’s, ______

Turn about riddle and shears and all.

All was quiescent till the supposed offender was named, and then the revolving motion began!

Riddle and shears were variously adjusted. In a case heard before the Commissary for Northumberland in the month of January, 1567, it was stated of Margaret Lambert, “that, for certain things lackinge, she turned a seve upon a pair of sheres”: thus practising a form of divination resorted to among the Romans before they came into Britain, so high is the antiquity of conjuration and credulity.

In the year 1563, Alice (wife of Robert) Swan was adjudged by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to make confession after the minister, in St. Nicholas’s Church, Newcastle, on a Sunday, that “by the means and procurement of Margaret Lawson, Anne Hedworth, Elizabeth Kindleside, Agnes Rikerbye, Anne Bewike, and Jerrerd Robison,” she had “of filthy lucre, and under colour of a singuler and secret knowledge of lost thinges, used by the space of certen yeres to cast or tourne the riddle and sheares,” being “akinde of a divination or charming”; to her sorrowful repentance of which the congregation were called upon to bear witness. The form of confession is set out in the twenty-first volume of the Surtees Society, being “Depositions and other Ecclesiastical Proceedings from the Courts of Durham.”

Again, in 1573, there is mention of a “wyff in Newcastell” that “culd torne the ryddle, and tell of things that weir stolne,” thus turning a penny by the credulity of her customers. One Alison Lawe, as appears by the parish register of Hart, in the county of Durham, was sentenced in 1582, as “a notorious sorcerer and enchanter,” to do penance in the market-place of Durham, “with a papir on her head,” and also in the parish churches of Hart and Norton. She had been consulted all round about; and there was an accusation made against Janet Allenson and Janet Bainbridge, of Stockton, that they had “asked councell at witches,” and resorted to Alison Lawe, for the cure of the sick.

We now come to cases of alleged witchcraft in Newcastle, and find the Chief Magistrate gravely listening to the most marvellous charges. Thus, on the 8th of August, 1661, John Emerson, Esq., Mayor, heard Robert Phillip, labourer, depose that in the month of December, 1660, he fell sick, and was lying awake, pained at the heart, and having his head anointed for the headache, when, the door being shut, there came before him the wife of William Johnson of Sandgate, and two other women. “Wype off that on thy forehead,” cried Margaret Johnson, “for it burns me to death!” Puffing and blowing, and breathing vengeance, she stood before him; till, after a scene which he continues to describe, and in which he declared his trust in Christ, a voice commanded them to begone, and they vanished away.

Sir John Marlay, the defender of Newcastle against the Scots in 1644, succeeded to the chair at the end of September, 1661; and on the 10th of October, “Winifrid Ogle, of Winlington White House, spinster,” and “Jane Patteson, servant to Mr. John Ogle, of Winlington White House, spinster,” gave evidence before him against Jane Watson, on an accusation of witchcraft. Marvellous evidence it was! Winifrid Ogle, hearing that two of the children of Jonas Cudworth (woollen-draper) were at the house of Thomas Sherburn, watchmaker, in sore pain, being bewitched, went to the place, and found them, in great extremity. Jane Patteson was also there; and she and one of the children cried out that they saw the witch, Jane Watson. The child said the witch brought her an apple, and was very earnest (for her) to have it. Presently after, the people of the house cried “Fire fire!” upon which, Winifrid Ogle “see something like a flash of fire on the farr side of the roome, and she see a round thing like fire goe towards the chimney, and the said childe was several tymes speechles, and in great torment and pain, and halfe of the apple the child spoak of was found at the bedfoote.” Jane Patteson, when the child cried, “There is the witch! there is the witch, Jane Watson!” said, “I see the witch”; she then “seeing a woman in a red waistcoate and greene petticoate, which woman was gon under the bed presently. “Her master, Mr. John Ogle, then” came with his rapier, and thrust under the bed therewith; and she further saith that some of the people in the house told her they heard something cry like a swyne upon the said thrust under the bed.”

Heightening the absurdity of this gross charge, Elizabeth, wife of Thomas Richardson, of Blaydon, yeoman, deposed that about eight years before, being then living in Newcastle, she fell very sick, and was much tormented in her body. “She sent for a medicer called Jane Watson, who came to her, and tooke her by the hand, but doth not now remember what she said to her, but immediately after the paine left her, and a dogg which was in the said house presently dyed.”

Another Newcastle case, even more remarkable, is that of Dorothy Stranger, who sometimes appeared in her own proper person, sometimes as a cat. The presiding magistrate was Sir James Clavering, Bart., the Mayor of 1663-64, Jane, wife of William Milburne, deposed, on the 10th of November, 1663, that about a month before, she sent her maid to the house of Daniel Stranger, cooper, to get some casks cooped. His wife Dorothy inquired why her dame did not invite her to the wedding supper (there being, apparently, as will be seen by the evidence of a subsequent witness, some relationship between the two families). She said she would make the girl’s mistress repent it; it would be dear to her. On Friday se’nnight (October 30), being alone in her chamber, there appeared to Mrs. Milburne something in the shape of a cat, which “did leape at her face, and did vocally speake with a very audible voyce, and said that itt had gotten the life of one in this howse, and came for this informer life, and would have itt before Saturday night. To which she replyed, I defye thee, the devill and all his works. Upon which the catt did vanish.” Going down the cellar on Saturday last (November 7), “to drawe a quarte of beare,” she unlocked the door, and in the inside was the said Dorothy Stranger, who again threatened her life, and attempted to cast a cord over her head, but was prevented. Next day being Sunday, while dressing for church, a cat of the same shape as the former “did leape att her throat,” and vowed to overcome her yet. It bit her arm, and then let go and disappeared. One day (November 9), in the afternoon, it leaped upon her on the stairs, brought her down, and kept her there for a quarter of an hour, without power of her body and tongue. At night, “the said Dorothy did in her perfect forme appeare,” and “tookehold of her arme and pulled her, and would have pulled her out of bed if her husband had not held her fast, and did nip and bite her armes very sore, and tormented her body soe intollerably that she could nott rest all the night, and was like to teare her heart in peeces, and this morneing left her.” Her belief was that the cat which appeared to her was Dorothy Stranger; and, having a desire t see her that morning, sent for her, but she was very loth to come. When she came, “she gott blood of her, at the said Stranger’s desire, and since hath been pritye well.”

Next year (1664), on the 8th of August, there was a further examination of this case, when Mrs. Milburne said that, after getting blood, she was in good condition, and not molested for a quarter of a year; but in the night of the 16th of January, Dorothy came again, “in her own shape,” and once more in July. On this last occasion, she first appeared as a grey cat, which “did transforme itselfe into the shape of the said Dorothy Stranger, in the habitt and clothes she wears dayly, haveing an old black hatt upon her head, a greene waist-coate, and a brownish coloured petticoate.” “Thou gott blood of me,” she said, “but I will have blood of thee before I goe,” and, flying violently upon her, she cut and scratched her, and drew blood, and then vanished away.

“Strange,” as Canon Raine remarks, “that any magistrate should write down such ridiculous evidence!”. There was a further witness, Elizabeth Stranger, widow, who stated that, about six or seven years before, her daughter Jane, then wife to Oswald Milburne, baker and brewer, being on the Sandhill, met Dorothy Stranger. Dorothy told her she should never see the Sandhill again. “Comeing home imediatly, she fell sick, and lanwished above a yeare, and dyed.” In her sickness she had sad and lamentable fits, and cried out most hideously, saying, “Ah, that witch-theafe, my ant Dorithy, is like to pull out my heart. Doe not yow see her, doe not you see her, my ant Dorithy, that witch?” And so “to her very last howre did cry out of the said Dorothy Stranger.”

During the mayorality of Sir James Clavering, there was one more case of witchcraft. Anthony Hearon, baker and brewer, deposed, on the 20th of July, 1664, that, about five weeks before, his wife bought a pound of cherries of Jane Simpson, huckster, whose charge was eight-pence. Reproving her for taking more of her by two-pence than she did of others, she was scurrilous and threatening. “And, within a fewe dayes after, the saide Dorothy tooke sickness, and hath beene most strangely and wonderfully handled, and in bedd had most sad and lamentable fitts, to the admiration and astonishment of all spectators, being sometymes rageing madd, other tymes laughing and singing, other tymes dispareing and disconsolate, other tymes very solitary and mute.” On Saturday, she had a sad fit at three in the morning, crying out that one Isabel Atcheson and Jane Simpson did torment her, and were about the bed to take her away; “and he did clearly see Isable Atcheson standing att the bedd side, in her own shape, clothed with a green waist-coate. And, he calling upon the Lord to be present with him, the said Isabell did vanish.”

Still another case was heard on Friday, February 3, 1665, before the then Mayor of Newcastle, Sir Francis Liddell, Knight. The defendant was Mrs. Pepper, who practised medicine and resorted to charms in the treatment of her patients. She had been called in to Robert Pyle, a pitman, whose wife Margaret now gave evidence, deposing that he had a fit shortly after tasting some water which Mrs. Pepper gave him to drink. He was “most strangely handled”; and “the said Mrs. Pepper did take water and throwed itt upon his face, and touke this informer’s child, and another sucking child, and laid them to his mouth. And, she demanding the reason why she did soe, she replyed that the breath of the children would suck the evill spiritt out of him, for he was possessed with an evill spiritt; and she said she would prove itt either before mayor or ministers that he was bewitched.” One of Mrs. Pyle’s neighbours, Elizabeth, wife of Richard Rutherford, tailor, deposed to seeing the patient in his fit. “There was then there one Mrs. Pepper, a midwife; and she did see her call for a bottle of holy water, and tooke the same, and sprinkeld itt upon a redd hott spott which was upon the back of his right hand, and did take a silver crucifix out of her breast, and laid itt upon the said spott. And did then say that she knewe by the said spott what his disease was, and did take the said crucifix, and putt itt in his mouth.”

In 1667 (July 4), “Thomas Sherburne, Watchmaker,” occurs again in a case of witchcraft, heard “before John Emerson, Mayor.” Margaret, the wife Sherburne, deposed, that on Monday (July 1), Emma Gaskin, of Sandgate, came to her door, begging; and the servant, Elizabeth Gibson, said she had nothing for her, for she had got too much ill by her already. Witness, looking out of the window, asked Gaskin what she did there, and bade her begone; and the woman said to the maid that she hoped she would either break her neck or hang herself before night.” And the said maide hath never been well since; for the night after she tooke her fitt, which she had done many tymes before, and lay, that she could not speake for about half an houre; and when she was in that condition, there began a thing to cry like a henn among the people’s feet; and as soon as it began to cry, the said Elizabeth did begin to smile and laugh; and then the thing that cryed like a henn did, as they thought, flawter with the wings against the bords of the floor; and when it left off the said Elizabeth came out of her fitt, and asked what that was that cryed, as she thought, like a henn; for she heard it, and saw the woman that came to ask something for God’s sake goe out at the doore, and is still worse and worse.”

In the year 1673 was heard what Canon Raine describes as one of the most extraordinary cases of witchcraft that has ever been printed. “We are here introduced to a witchfinder who plays the part of Matthew Hopkins, and tells us her experiences, which are of the most peculiar description. The reader must test her depositions with his own critical acumen. He must draw his own conclusions as to the accuracy of the tale that would run like wildfire through Durham and Northumberland. I know nothing of the result of the affair. I need not say that the accused persons deny their guilt.” The proceedings occupy eleven pages of the volume. The barest outline is all that we can lay before our readers. Many days were given to the strange inquiry at Morpeth. Sir Thomas Horsley and Sir Richard Stote, Knights, and Humfrey Mitford, James Howard, John Salkeld, and Ralph Jenison, Esqrs., occur as sitting magistrates; and one session by Jennison was held in Newcastle. Ann Armstrong, of Birchen or Birks Nooke, the witchfinder, who had been servant to one Mabel Fowler, of Burtree House, gave evidence against a number of persons, men and women, and described their marvellous assemblies, over which the devil presided, “sitting at the head of the table in a gold chaire, as she thought, and a rope hanging over the roome, which every one touched three several times, and whatever was desired was sett upon the table, of several kinds of meate and drinke; and, when they had eaten, she that was last drew the table and kept the reversions.” “Lucy Thompson, of Mickley, widow, upon Thursday in the evening, being the 3rd of April” (the witchfinder was giving this evidence at Morpeth on Wednesday, the 9th of April), “att the house of John Newton, of the Riding, swinging upon a rope which went cross the balkes, she, the said Lucy, wished that a boyl’d capon with silver scrues might come down to her and the rest, which were five coveys consisting of thirteen persons in every covey; and that the said Lucy did swing thrice, and then the said capon with silver scrues did, as she thinketh, come downe, which capon the said Lucy sett before the rest off the company; whereof the divell, which they called their protector, and sometimes their blessed saviour, was their chief, sitting in a chair like unto bright gold. And the said Lucy further did swing, and demanded the plum-broth which the capon was boyled in; and thereupon it did immediately come down in a dish, and likewise a bottle of wine, which came down upon the first swing.” The company made report to the president of the harm they had done in various directions, to life and limb and property, and were commended in proportion to the mischief they had wrought. “Mary Hunter said she had killed George Taylor’s filly, and had power over his mare, and that she had power of the farre hinder legg (of the ox) of John Marche.” She (Ann Armstrong) had been ridden to these meetings with an enchanted bridle, recovering her own proper shape when it was removed. “Ann, wife of Thomas Baites, of Morpeth, tanner, hath beene severall times in the company of the rest of the witches, both at Barwick, Barrasford, and at Riding Bridge End, and once att the house of Mr. Francis Pye, in Morpeth, in the seller there. The said Ann Baites has severall times danced with the divell att the places aforesaid, rideing upon wooden dishes and egg-shells, both in the rideing house and in the close adjoyninge. She further saith that the said Ann hath been severall times in the shape of a catt and a hare, and in the shape of a greyhound and a bee, letting the divell see how many shapes she could turn herself into.”

Such is a sample of the extraordinary depositions of Ann Armstrong, who was under examination on seven several days. On the last of these days (May 14), she deposed that, “she being brought into Allandaile by the parishioners for the discovery of witches, Isabell Johnson, being under suspition, was brought before her; and she, breathing upon the said Anne, immediately the said Anne did fall down in a sound (swoon), and laid three-quarters of an houre; and, after her recovery, she said if there were any witches in England Isabell Johnson was one.”

Armstrong had deposed, on the 9th of April, that Anne Forster, Michael Ainsley, and Lucy Thompson, among other confessions made to the devil, told him that “they made all the geer goe of the mill (Hiding Mill), and that they intended to have made the stones all grind till they had flowne all in pieces.” Robert Johnson, of Riding Mill, was afterwards examined, and in the course of his depositions said that about some sixteen days before Christmas, 1672, he could not by any means get the mill set; and about the hinder end of the holidays, “being sheeling some oats about two hours before the sunn-setting, all the geer, viz., hopper and hoops, and all other things but the atones, flew down and were casten off, and he himselfe almost killed with them, they comeing down against him with such force and violence.”

John March, of Edgebridge, yeoman, who had been to Birkside Nooke to see Ann Armstrong, deposed that she, hearing him named, began to speak to him, “and askt him if he had not an ox that had the power of one of his limbs taken from him; and, he telling her he had, and enquireing how she came to know, she told him that she heard Mary Hunter, of Birkside, and another, at a meeting among diverse witches, confess to the divell that they had taken the power of that beast.” With much more evidence of the same kind.

George Taylor, of Edgebridge, yeoman, whose foal had fallen sick and died, deposed “that coming to Birkside to speak with one Ann Armstrong, whoe had oftentimes formerly desired to have seen him, and she being asleep upon a bed, her sister awakened her and raised her; and being asked if she knew him, or could name him, she answered that if he were the man that had a fole lately dead, and if he lived at Edgbrigg, his name was George Taylor. Upon his demanding on her how she came to know it, she told him that she had heard Mary Hunter, of Birkside, widdow, confesse itt before the divell at a meeting they had that she had gotten the power and the life of his fole.” She told him, moreover, of other confessions of power over his stock; and he had a grey horse, the dam of the same foal, pining away; “and he thinks that all his goods do not thrive, nor are like his neighbours’ goods, notwithstanding he feeds them as well as he can, but are like anatomyes.”

Mark Humble, of Slaley, tailor, deposed that he was walking to the high end of that place, between seven and eight years before, and met one Isabel Thompson, formerly suspected of witchcraft; and, looking over his shoulder, he saw her hold up her hands towards his back. On reaching home, he grew sick, and for three or four years he continued very ill by fits.

With the depositions of this witness, the extraordinary case comes to a termination. Incredible are the stories told by the professional witchfinder; and marvellous the credulity of the men who went after her, and gave corroborative evidence!

Sir Thomas Horsley heard a case at Morpeth on the 17th of May, 1673. Margaret Milburne, widow, was the woman accused of witchcraft. She asserted her innocence. But Dorothy Hymers, of Morpeth, who often took sick fits, “verily believed that she was the cause of her grievances” ; and Isabel Fletcher, of the same place, had a similar persuasion. “She had heard her reputed for a witch”; and, seeing her approach, “fell into a swoune.” Next day, when “dressing a room, she apprehended the said Margaret put her head in at the window; upon which she fell into her distracted condition again, and continued soe five or six houers, insomuch that she was holden by severall people.”

This is almost the last case of supposed witchcraft found by Canon Raine in the county of Northumberland. “I am happy to say,” he observes in his preface, “that in no instance have I discovered the record of the conviction of a reputed witch. All honour to the northern juries for discrediting these absurd tales! And yet some of these weak and silly women had themselves only to thank for the position they were placed in. They made a trade of their evil reputation. They were the wise women of the day. They professed some knowledge of medicine, and could recover stolen property. People gave them money for their services. Their very threats brought silver into their coffers. It was to their interest to gain the ill name for which they suffered. They were certainly uniformly acquitted at the assizes; but no judge, or jury, or minister, could make the people generally believe that they were innocent. The superstition was too deeply rooted to be easily eradicated.” Nor is it rooted out yet. Every now and then we are reminded that it lingers still. But no magistrate would in the present day listen for a moment to such tales as were told by Winifrid Ogle and Jane Milburne in the seventeenth century; nor would anyone be denounced for discountenancing the cry of witchcraft.


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