Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a tale of alleged witchcraft that came to the courts...
It was with much foreboding that three women from Samlesbury stood in the dock at the Lancaster Assizes in mid-August 1612 before Sir Edward Bromley.
After all, earlier in the week, the so-called Pendle Witches had been tried and convicted in the same courtroom and sentenced to death.
Old Jennet Bierley, her daughter-in-law Ellen Bierley and Jane Southworth were accused by Grace Sowerbuts of bewitching her, so that her body wasted and she was consumed. Grace was 14 years old – believed to be a ripe time for bewitchment and possession. Her evidence was that she had for some years past been fearfully tormented by these women, for they had dragged her by the hair of her head and lain her on the top of a hay-mow where she lost all sense of feeling and awareness. She also claimed that Jennet Bierley had appeared to her, first under her own shape and form, and then as a black dog that tempted her to cast herself into the water. All three women according to her had taken her to a place where men danced with them and abused their bodies.
The most serious claim was that they had carried her to the house of one Thomas Walsham at the dead of night, and there they killed his child, by putting a nail into its navel, and after took it forth to a grave and did boil it and ate some of it, making oil of the bones.
In the defence of the accused it was said that Grace Sowerbuts was of Papistical leanings and that she had been put up to all this by a Popish priest called Thompson, whose real name was Christopher Southworth, and was a relation of old Sir John Southworth, the great Popish lord of the district.
It was also claimed that the accused Jane Southworth was a near relation of the Southworths but was hated by the family with her being a convert to the Protestant faith. Indeed it was claimed that Sir John had been known to ride miles out of his way to avoid passing by her house.
The yeoman Thomas Walsham told the court his child had died the previous year after a sickness lasting three weeks or more, though of what illness he knew not.
The judge invited the three prisoners to reply to the incredible accusations whereupon, whilst weeping tears, they begged him to challenge young Grace and force her to admit her mischief.
Sir Edward Bromley, who had cared nothing for the protestations of the Pendle witches took a different stance this time.
He consequently took the opportunity of questioning Grace Sowerbuts’ testimony, seeing her as an excitable young maid who had a slender regard for the truth.
In addressing her, Sir Edward claimed she had been put up to the task by those keen to suggest the accused had bewitched her.
Eventually he got her quietly to deny all she had asserted and to confess she was an imposter and that every accusation was a lie and a
fallacy from beginning to end.
That she had gone of her own free will to the hay lofts and covered herself with hay and straw and that no child had been done to death by nails into its body.
It was apparent that, as lapsed Catholics who had gone over to the Protestant church, the three accused had been seen as easy prey for the scheming Thompson and young Grace had been used as a tool to seek revenge on the heretics.
The trial concluded with a ‘not guilty’ verdict recorded for all three prisoners who were freed after a stern exhortation from Sir Edward who scarcely seemed to relish their release. Likewise, four others from Samlesbury who stood accused of witchcraft, were released that day due to a lack of evidence.
l See next week’s Retro for the tale of the sole survivor from the family of Pendle witches.