Philip Almond / Religion

The Lancashire Witches

The arraignment of the Lancashire witches in the assizes of Lancaster during 1612 is England’s most notorious witch-trial – here Philip Almond recounts the drama and paranoia of those volatile times. 

Infanticide, Cannibalism, and an English Sabbath: The Story of the Samlesbury Witches

Four hundred years ago, in a Lancaster courtroom on Wednesday 19 August 1612, a fourteen year old girl called Grace Sowerbutts gave evidence relating to the eighteen witches who were tried for murders at the Lancaster Assizes in England – more commonly known as The Lancashire Witches.

Speaking to the investigating magistrate Robert Holden, Grace’s evidence – recounted in the book The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches – was against three women of Samlesbury: her grandmother Jennet Bierley, her aunt Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, three of those who were tried for murder at Lancaster. The significance of Grace’s testimony though resides in the fact that it is the first story of witchcraft in England that significantly incorporates elements of European witchcraft, notably, infanticide, cannibalism, a Satanic Sabbath, and sex with the Devil.

According to Grace, she went one night with her grandmother and her aunt Ellen Bierley to the house of Thomas Walshman in Samlesbury. All the household were asleep, and the doors were locked. Somehow, Jennet Bierley opened them, and the three of them entered the house. Jennet Bierley went alone into the room where Thomas Walshman and his wife were asleep. She brought out a small child that had been in bed with its parents, and then sat Grace down by the fire with the child. Jennet Bierley then took a nail and thrust it into the child’s navel. After that, she took a quill, placed it in the hole made by the nail, ‘and did suck there a good space.’ [1] She then placed the child back in bed again. Jennet and Ellen then returned with Grace to their own homes. Grace told Robert Holden that neither Thomas Walshman nor his wife were aware that the child had been taken. And she added that, when Jennet pushed the nail into the child’s navel, it did  not cry out. The child had not thrived from that time on, she informed him, and had subsequently died.

Grace further testified that, the night after the child had been buried, she accompanied Jennet and Ellen to the graveyard. There, they ‘did take up the said child.’ [2] Jennet Bierley carried the body to her own house. Some of it she boiled in a pot, some of it she roasted on the fire. Both Jennet and Ellen ate some of each. They tried to persuade Grace, and also Ellen’s daughter Grace Bierley, to eat some of the child with them, but they refused to do so. Jennet and Ellen Bierley then boiled the bones of the Walshman child in a pot. According to Grace, they said that they intended to anoint themselves, ‘that thereby they might sometimes change themselves into other shapes.’ [3] This was all too much for the magistrate Robert Holden and he closed the first examination of Grace Sowerbutts.

When Robert Holden had Grace Sowerbutts re–sworn, and began his interrogation of her again, she did not disappoint him. According to Grace, about six months earlier, in late 1611, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, Jane Southworth, and  Grace  met at a place called Red Bank, on the north side of the River Ribble every Thursday and Sunday night for a fortnight. They had crossed the river magically from the Samlesbury side of the river, with the help of ‘foure blacke things’, that stood upright, yet did not have the faces of humans. [4] At Red Bank, they found magical food which the other three women ate. Although Grace was encouraged to eat by her grand–mother, the food looked too strange to her, and she did not eat it. After they had eaten, the three women together with Grace danced, each of them with one of the black things. After their dancing, she assumed that the three women had sex with three of the black things, for she herself too believed that ‘the black thing that was with her, did abuse her bodie.’ [5]

The Story of the Samlesbury Witches

The Famous History of the Lancashire Witches, c. 1780.

Infanticide, cannibalism, and Sabbatical orgies on the banks of the Ribble – all very much a world turned upside down. It is the first English description of an assembly of witches on English soil that incorporates European traditions of witchcraft and demonology. English witchcraft has no tradition of infanticide and cannibalism. There is no evidence to suggest that all this was the invention of the examining magistrate Robert Holden. So how did a fourteen year old girl know of such things?

The atmosphere in court was electric. The evidence was damning. The presiding Judge Bromley asked the prisoners what they had to say in reply to the evidence presented. They, on their knees and weeping, maintained their innocence and begged him to examine Grace Sowerbutts to determine who had encouraged her or who had it in for them.

The witnesses, gathered behind her, began quarrelling and accusing each other. When quizzed by the judge, Grace Sowerbutts’ face told it all . But she attempted to bluff her way through it. She would admit to nothing. But she did say that she had been sent to ‘a Master’ to learn. He did not, she claimed, have anything to do with this. But Judge Bromley smelled Popery: ‘if a Priest or Jesuit had a hand in one end of it,’ he told the court, ‘there would appeare to bee knaverie, and practise [chicanery] in the other end of it.’ [6] Getting nowhere fast, Judge Bromley adjourned the case, and handed Grace over to the puritan clergyman William Leigh, rector of Standish, and to an Edward Chisnal, also of Standish, both of them justices of the peace. They examined Grace on that same day and made their report to the judge.

Grace was first asked whether the accusation she had made against her grandmother Jennet, her aunt Ellen, and Jane Southworth of ‘the killing of the child of Thomas Walshman, with a naile in the Navell, the boyling, eating, and oyling, thereby to transforme themselves into divers shapes’ was true. [7] If we believe the report, she folded instantly and denied it all. And she laid the blame on Christopher Southworth: ‘one Master Thompson, which shee taketh to be Master Christopher Southworth, to whom shee was taken to learne her prayers, did perswade, counsell, and advise her, to deale… against her said Grand–mother, Aunt, and Southworths wife.’ [8] And she went on to say that she never ‘did know, or saw any Devils, nor any other Visions, as formerly by her hath beene alleaged and informed.’ [9]

Who was Christopher Southworth? He was in fact a Catholic priest, trained in Douai and Rome from 1579-86, hiding out in his family’s house, Samlesbury Hall. Grace Sowerbutts’ mother, troubled by a set of behaviours that strongly suggested Grace was possessed by the Devil, had taken Grace to him, probably in the hope of an exorcism.

Christopher Southworth no doubt took the opportunity to use Grace to implicate Jane Southworth, his widowed aunt by law, and several of his family’s tenants in witchcraft.  And he seized the chance to introduce Grace to some of the intricacies of elite European demonology. The information that she in turn gave to Robert Holden must have surpassed the hopes of the most avid witch hunter.

Witches that killed children through sucking their blood were part of a European tradition that went back to the early part of the fifteenth century. But they became a common feature of the persona of the witch that went beyond trial documents and demonologies. Thus, for example, in the dialogue entitled Strix, first published in 1523,and writtenby the Italian humanist Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, we find a description of blood sucking witches that remarkably mirrors that of Grace Sowerbutts. In answer to the question  by the sceptic Apistius how the witch, Strix, killed children, she replied,

We entered the houses of our enemies at night, by doors and entranceways that were opened for us, and, while their fathers and mothers were sleeping, we picked up the tiny children and took them over by the fire. There we pierced them under their nails with the needle, and then, putting our lips to the wounds, we sucked out as much blood as our mouths would hold. [10]

Apistius went on to wonder why the children didn’t cry out. ‘While we are doing it,’  the witch informed him, ‘they are so sound asleep that they don’t feel it. But afterward, when they are awakened, they cry out loud, and weep, and wail, and get sick, and sometimes even die.’ [11]

We do not know whether Christopher Southworth was familiar with Pico’s Strix. The Strix was a highly popular work, and went through four Italian editions from 1524 to 1556. So it is not impossible. However, we are on firmer ground with the matter of cannibalism.

As with blood sucking, so with cannibalism. The eating of children by witches was also part of a European tradition that went back to the early part of the fifteenth century, though it had precursors in earlier stereotypes about medieval heretics. It exemplifies the metaphor of the witch as the anti–mother. Rather  than blood sucking, this was a tradition of witches killing, burying, exhuming, cooking, and then eating children in their assemblies.

The Story of the Samlesbury Witches

A circle of demons and witches, from Nathaniel Crouch, The Kingdom of Darkness, 1688.

It is the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum of the Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer that we find behind Robert Holden’s account of Jennet Bierley’s cooking and eating of the Walshman child, as told to him by Grace. [12] As the first printed handbook of witchcraft and witch hunting, there is little doubt that Southworth would have been familiar with it.

According to the Malleus Maleficarum, when asked about the method by which infants were captured, a certain sorceress replied,

We prey on babies, especially those not yet baptized but also those baptized. … With our ceremonies we kill them in their cribs or while they lie beside their parents, and while they are thought to have been squashed or to have died of something else, we steal them secretly from the tomb and boil them in a cauldron until all the flesh is made almost drinkable, the bones having been pulled out. From the more solid matter we make a paste suitable for our desires and arts and movements by flight, and from the more runny liquid we fill a container… Whoever drinks from this container is immediately rendered knowledgeable when a few ceremonies are added, and becomes the master of our sect. [13]

According to the evidence of Grace though, the ‘soup’ that had been made from the bones of the Walshman child was so ‘that thereby they might sometimes change themselves into other shapes.’ Even the Malleus Maleficarum did not argue for a real transformation of witches into animal form, but only for the demonically created illusion of it.

But there was one highly influential exception to this, first published in Paris in 1580, while Christopher Southworth was in France at Douai, training for the priesthood. This was Jean Bodin’s De la Démonomanie des Sorciers. Bodin endorsed the reality of transformation into animal form. [14] Moreover, he viewed infanticide by witches raising their children into the air and then killing them by inserting ‘a large pin into their head’ as one of the key crimes of witchcraft. [15] And he is aware of the use of ointments to enable ‘magical’ travel to witches’ assemblies. [16]

So too with the Sabbath, although Grace’s account was not highly ramified in terms of demonological theories – there is no mention of the Devil, demons, or even evil spirits, for example – these meetings had all the features of a European witches’ Sabbath – with magical transportation, night time gatherings, eating, dancing, and sex with black things, with (perhaps) the faces of animals. Bodin’s De la Démonomanie des Sorciers is again perhaps the most likely source. For all of the features mentioned above can there be found, though much more explicitly. [17]

So in the evidence of a possessed child, we find high demonology, transmitted via a Catholic priest hiding in Samlesbury Hall, his family home. It was, on the face of it, unlikely to endear him to the locals. So why did he do it? Those accused  knew the answer to that. They were agreed that they had been incriminated by Southworth for having converted to Protestantism and for having left the Catholic faith. And Thomas Potts added the explanation that, when Southworth had been unable to convert them back to Catholicism, then he devised this plan in revenge.

With the  confession of counterfeiting and conspiracy with Christopher Southworth by Grace Sowerbutts, and the revelation that Southworth was conspiring against them for having converted to Protestantism, the case against the Samlesbury witches fell apart. Bromley promptly ordered the jury to find them innocent, which they duly did.

A troubled child, conflict within and between families, religious conflict in early modern England, elite demonologies framing the reality of things and calculated to throw suspicion on women for witchcraft, a Catholic justice of the peace anxious to show that a Catholic too could be loyal to the Crown, part of the give–and–take between northern Catholics generally, powerful Catholic gentry, and Protestant authorities in the North of England, the exposure of fraud by a fourteen year old girl and deceit by a vengeful Catholic priest – all of these played their role in the accusation, trial, and eventual release of the witches of Salmesbury. ■

Lancashire-WitchesPhilip C. Almond is Professor Emeritus of Religion at the University of Queensland, and author of our new book The Lancashire Witches. He is internationally respected for his work on religion and the history of ideas, especially during the English Enlightenment. His nine previous books include The Witches of Warboys and England’s First Demonologist.

[1] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches (London, 1612), sig. L.2.r.

[2] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.r. The evidence of Grace was often confused, both with respect to timelines and  events. Elsewhere, Grace says that she did not know how they got the body ‘out of the grave at the first taking of it up.’ See Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.v.

[3] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.r.

[4] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.v.

[5] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. L.2.v.

[6] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. M.4.r.

[7] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. M.4.v. As we have seen, at least according to the account given by Potts, Jane had not been implicated in this by Grace.

[8] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. M.4.v.

[9] Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches, sig. N.1.r.

[10] Quoted by Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief  (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 278.

[11] Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief, p. 278.

[12] The question of authorship is disputed as to whether it is by Kramer with the participation of Sprenger or by the former alone. For an argument in favour of the former, see Christopher Mackay (ed. & trans.), Malleus Maleficarum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), i. 103–21. I will assume that Kramer was the primary author and attribute the work to him.

[13] Mackay (ed. and trans.), Malleus Maleficarum, pt. 2, qn. 1, ch. 2, 97C–D.

[14] See Randy A. Scott (trans.),  Jean Bodin: On the DemonMania of Witches (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1995), book 2, ch. 6.

[15] Scott (trans.),  Jean Bodin: On the DemonMania of Witches, book 4, ch. 5.

[16] Scott (trans.),  Jean Bodin: On the DemonMania of Witches, book 2, ch. 4.

[17] See Scott (trans.),  Jean Bodin: On the DemonMania of Witches, book 2, ch. 4.


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