Monday, 28 October 2013


There are many curious stories to be told about our churches, some about the actual fabric and furnishings, others about memorials or people connected to the church.
This page is about church connections with witchcraft.
The belief in  witchcraft  dates back to time immemorial.  A witch was a person who practised sorcery, having supernatural powers to work with evil spirits  or the devil.  The term was applied to anyone who had remarkable or inexplicable means of accomplishment.   It is said that between 1484 and 1782, at least 300,000 witches were put to death in Europe alone.  The laws of James 1 against witchcraft in the early 17th century were particularly severe and people were accused of witchcraft on the flimsiest ‘evidence’.
The Eye of God
In the churchyard at Newchurch in Lancashire there is an old gravestone referred to locally as  the witches  grave,  because of the name ‘Nutter’ and a skull and crossbones thereon.   A smaller stone close up to the wall of the church is more likely to be the grave of  Alice Nutter who, together with   Old Demdyke and Chattox, another two  alleged witches, is said to have robbed the graveyard at Newchurch, because bones and clay effigies were found in their homes.  Apparently all the women freely confessed to being witches and were subsequently executed.
This church at also has an unusual  ‘eye of God’ built into the outside fabric of the tower, which is said to have provided additional protection from the evil that once seems to have afflicted these parts.

Newchurch Church
The Eye of God
The witches grave



A witches  epitaph


Margaret Harper of Seaton Ross in East Yorkshire was accused of witchcraft and suffered the ultimate penalty, but not before she had written her own epitaph, which can still be seen on her weather worn gravestone in the churchyard at Seaton Ross :

‘ The faults you’ve seen in me strive to avoid.

Search your own hearts and you’ll be well employed.’




Margaret Harper's gravestone



The  Stoke  Dry  witch

A notice in the church of St Andrew at Stoke Dry in Leicestershire, asks the visitor not to believe the story that a former vicar sealed a witch in a small room over the church porch and left her there to starve to death.

Stoke Dry Church

Tools  of  the  trade
A large copper cauldron, which can be seen in the church at Frensham in Surrey, is said to be 400 years old.   This typical witches’ cauldron. 8ft.8ins in diameter and 14ins high, is said to have belonged to Mother Ludlam, a local witch who lived in a cave near Waverley Abbey.   It is also said to have been used for ale at the weddings of poor village maidens

Frensham Church
The witches cauldron




Witches’  conspiracy

The ruined 12th century pre-reformation church of St Andrew stands near the harbour at North Berwick in East Lothian.  It was here in 1590 that witches of both sexes gathered  to conspire with the devil’  by means of witchcraft, to cause storms in the Firth of Forth,  the object being to drown James V1 as he returned from Denmark.  The ‘ devil’ appears to have been Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell.   They were of course unsuccessful and the witches were put on trial.
 St Andrew's Church


The  Timble  witches

Landowner, Edward Fairfax of New Hall Farm, Swinsty, in the Washburn Valley near Otley in Yorkshire, certainly did his best to rid his area of alleged witches in the early 17th century.  Although Fairfax was a learned man, he was convinced that his two young daughters were being bewitched by a coven of local witches, and actually wrote the details in a manuscript as they developed.  Apparently his suspicions were first aroused when he found his eldest daughter, Helen, ‘ lying on the floor in a deadly trance.’  Although the girl soon recovered, the ‘visitations’ continued and soon the younger daughter, Elizabeth, also became afflicted.  Fairfax claimed that his daughters had ‘ visions’ during which apparitions of local witches appeared, and he heard his daughters, in their delirious condition, speaking to the witches, so he carefully wrote down everything they said.   Eventually Fairfax considered that he had enough evidence to confront the six local women, whom he accused of witchcraft. One of the women, Margaret Thorpe, was taken to nearby Fewston Church where she was forced to say The Lord’s Prayer ( a common test for a witch) and Fairfax declared that if she could not say the words, ‘ forgive us our trespasses,’ then it was certain proof that she was a witch.   Fairfax wrote in his journal, ‘ The woman being put to it, could not say those words by any means.  At first she repeated the prayer and wholly omitted them, and then being admonished thereof and urged to the point, she stood amazed, and finally could not utter them, of which many people were witness to their administration.’    They appeared at York Assizes in 1622 when Fairfax claimed that it was common knowledge that the coven met in Timble Gill where they were visited by the devil himself, and he produced his manuscript, entitled, ‘A Discourse on Witchcraft as it was acted in the family of Mr Edward Fairfax of Fuystone in the county of York in the year 1621 AD.’  in evidence.   The vicar of Fewston, Henry Graver, produced a petition which he has organised locally, and also spoke in favour of the six women.   They were found not guilty. 
 Fewston Church
Another curiosity at this church is situated in the churchyard.
Gravestones are a useful source of information, especially to the family historian.  However mistakes can be made and a gravestone to be found just opposite the church porch is somewhat misleading.  It lists members of the Ridsdale family who died early in the 19th century.   The inscription declares that Joseph Ridsdale died on 29th February 1826, and that his son died on 30th February 1802.   These two dates do not exist.
The Ridsdale gravestone

Wicked practice and sorcery

We are reminded of strange events which took place in 1617 by a monument in the church of St Mary at Bottesford, which depicts two children of the 6th Earl of Rutland – ‘two sonnes, both of which died in their infancy by wicked Practice and Sorcerye.’ They apparently died of ‘a loathsome disease brought on by a coven of witches.’ A Bottesford woman, Joan Flower, and her two daughters, Margaret and Phillipa. were employed at Belvoir Castle. Joan had a reputation of being ‘a monstrous, malicious woman, full of oaths, curses and imprecations irreligious,’ and was said to be an atheist. When the Countess dismissed Margaret for pilfering, Joan became even more loathsome, and seeking revenge, it is alleged that she and her two daughters submitted themselves to the devil and learned to cast spells. At this time both the Earl and the Countess were afflicted many times with ‘sickness and extraordinary convulsions,’ and, as malice increased in the three women, the whole Belvoir family ‘fell smart of their revenge.’ The eldest son, Henry, ‘sickened very strangely and died, and then Francis was severely tormented and most barbarously and inhumanely tortured by a strange sickness and also died.’ The three alleged witches, along with three other accomplices, were arrested at Christmas 1617. When examined by the Justices, Joan Flower asked for ‘trial by ordeal’ – she asked for bread to eat and said that if she choked and died, it would be sufficient proof of her guilt. When given the bread she did indeed choke to death and was confirmed as a witch. Margaret and Phillipa also confessed to being witches and were subsequently hanged at Lincoln Gaol on 11th March 1618.

St Mary's Church
Copyright Russ Hamer to whom I am grateful for allowing me to copy his Panoramio photograph

The Belvoir children 

No comments: