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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. 

A fourteen-year-old girl named Grace Sowerbutts provided testimony about the eighteen witches who were tried for murder at the Lancaster Assizes in England four hundred years ago on Wednesday, August 19, 1612, in a courtroom in Lancaster. These witches are more well known as The Lancashire Witches.

Speaking before the investigating magistrate Robert Holden, Grace presented evidence against three Samlesbury women—her grandmother Jennet Bierley, her aunt Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth—all of whom were on trial for murder at Lancaster. This story was detailed in the book The Wonderfull Discovery of Witches. But the real significance of Grace’s testimony lies in the fact that it is the first English account of witchcraft to heavily combine elements of European witchcraft, such as cannibalism, infanticide, a Satanic Sabbath, and sexual relations 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.

Grace Sowerbutts did not let Robert Holden down when he asked her to re-swear and resumed his questioning of her. About six months prior, in late 1611, Grace, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth got together every Thursday and Sunday night for a fortnight at a location known as Red Bank, which is located on the north side of the River Ribble. Through the aid of “foure blacke things,” who were upright but lacked human faces, they had magically crossed the river from the Samlesbury side.4] The other three women consumed the supernatural food they discovered at Red Bank. Grace’s grandmother encouraged her to eat, but she refused since the food seemed too odd to her. Following their meal, Grace and the three women danced, each holding one of the black objects. She believed that “the black thing that was with her, did abuse her bodie,” thus she assumed that the three women had sex with three of the black things after their dancing. [5]

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

It was very much a world flipped upside down, with infanticide, cannibalism, and Sabbatical orgies on the banks of the Ribble. It is the first account in English of a gathering of witches in England that combines European witchcraft and demonological beliefs. There is no history of infanticide or cannibalism in English witchcraft. There is no proof that Robert Holden, the examining magistrate, invented any of this. How, then, did a fourteen-year-old girl find out about these things?

The courtroom atmosphere was electrifying. The proof was unfavorable. Judge Bromley, who was presiding over the proceedings, requested the inmates to respond to the evidence that was provided. They insisted on being innocent, kneeling, and pleading with him to investigate Grace Sowerbutts to find out who had supported her or had something against 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.

In the beginning, Grace was questioned about the veracity of her charges against her aunt Ellen, grandmother Jennet, and Jane Southworth, alleging that they had “killed the child of Thomas Walshman, with a naile in the Navell, the boyling, eating, and oyling, thereby to transforme themselves into divers shapes.” [7] If the claim is to be believed, she gave up right away and denied everything. She accused Christopher Southworth of being the culprit, saying, “One Master Thompson, whom she took to be Master Christopher Southworth, did perswade, counsel, and advise her, to deale… against her said Grandmother, Aunt, and Southworth’s 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]

Christopher Southworth was a person. He was actually a Catholic priest who spent 1579–1586 training in Douai and Rome and living in concealment at Samlesbury Hall, his family’s home. Grace Sowerbutts’ mother had brought her to him, most likely in the hopes of having her exorcised, after noticing some behaviors that strongly implied Grace was under the Devil’s control.

Without a doubt, Christopher Southworth seized the chance to use Grace to accuse his widowed aunt Jane Southworth and a number of his family’s tenants of witchcraft. And he took the opportunity to impart to Grace some of the nuances of high-class European demonology. Even the most ardent witch hunter could not have imagined the knowledge she in turn provided to Robert Holden.

Witches who murdered children by drawing blood were a part of an ancient European custom that dates back to the first half of the fifteenth century. However, they evolved into a recurring aspect of the witch’s persona that extended beyond demonologies and court records. For instance, the dialogue Strix, penned by Italian humanist Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola and initially published in 1523, contains a depiction of bloodsucking witches that strikingly resembles Grace Sowerbutts’s. When the skeptic Apistius asked her how the witch Strix killed children, she answered,

At night, we broke into the homes of our adversaries through doors and other openings that were left open for us. We picked up the small children and carried them to the fireside as their parents slept. There, we stuck the needle under their nails and extracted as much blood as our mouths could contain by pressing our lips to the wounds. [10]

Apistius continued his questioning, “Why didn’t the children cry out?” The witch told him, “They are so sound asleep that they don’t feel it while we are doing it.” However, when they are awoken later, they scream aloud, cry, wail, and occasionally even pass away. [11]

Whether Christopher Southworth was aware of Pico’s Strix is unknown. Four Italian editions of the immensely successful Strix were published between 1524 and 1556. Thus, it is not unfeasible. On the subject of cannibalism, nevertheless, we are more well established.

Similar to blood sucking, cannibalism also exists. Although there were older myths about medieval heretics that before it, the eating of infants by witches was a European custom that dates back to the early fifteenth century. It is a prime example of the witch being compared to the anti-mother. This was not a bloodsucking custom; instead, the witches would kill, bury, exhume, cook, and then consume infants in their groups.

The Story of the Samlesbury Witches
            A circle of demons and witches, from Nathaniel Crouch, The Kingdom of Darkness, 1688.

Robert Holden told him that Jennet Bierley had cooked and eaten the Walshman infant, and that Jennet had done so. This report is based on the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum of the Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer. [12] It seems unlikely that Southworth was unfamiliar with it, as it was the first printed manual on witchcraft and witch hunting.

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

We prey not only on baptized newborns but also on unbaptized ones. With our rituals, we murder them in their cots or as they lie next to their parents. We then steal their bodies covertly from the tomb and boil them in a cauldron until the flesh is nearly edible and the bones have been extracted, all while pretending that they have been crushed or have died of some other cause. We create a paste out of the more solid material that suits our tastes, artistic endeavors, and flight movements, and we fill a container with the more fluid liquid. After adding a few ceremonies, anyone who drinks from this container is instantly made knowledgeable and ascends to the position of master in our sect. [13]

But according to Grace’s evidence, the “soup” prepared from the Walshman child’s bones was made in such a way “that thereby they might sometimes change themselves into other shapes.” Even the Malleus Maleficarum simply promoted the illusion of a true change of witches into animals, manufactured by demons.

However, there was one very significant exception to this rule, which was published for the first time in Paris in 1580, when Christopher Southworth was undergoing priestly training at Douai, France. This was the De la Démonomanie des Sorciers by Jean Bodin. Bodin accepted the existence of animal transmutation. [14] Furthermore, he believed that one of the main crimes of witchcraft was infanticide—the practice of witches raising their infants into the air and then killing them by putting “a large pin into their head.” [15] Furthermore, he is aware that ointments are used to facilitate “magical” travel to witches’ assemblies. [16]

Similarly, with regard to the Sabbath, Grace’s account was not overly elaborate in terms of demonological theories (no references to the Devil, demons, or even evil spirits, for example); however, these gatherings had all the characteristics of a European witches’ Sabbath, including magical transportation, nighttime get-togethers, eating, dancing, and having sex with black objects, possibly featuring animal faces. Once more, the most likely source is probably Bodin’s De la Démonomanie des Sorciers. For each of the previously listed aspects, albeit much more clearly, can be found. [17]

Therefore, we find high demonology in the evidence of a possessed child, which was spread by a Catholic priest who was hiding in Samlesbury Hall, the house of his family. On the surface, it didn’t seem like it would make him popular with the locals. Why, therefore, did he do it? The accused were aware of the response to that. They all agreed that Southworth had implicated them in leaving the Catholic religion and in their conversion to Protestantism. And Thomas Potts explained that he had come up with this idea as retaliation after Southworth had failed to win them back to Catholicism.

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.

The accusation, trial, and eventual release of the Salmesbury witches were influenced by a number of factors, including a troubled child, family conflicts, religious strife in early modern England, elite demonologies that framed reality and were intended to cast suspicion on women for witchcraft, a Catholic justice of the peace eager to demonstrate that a Catholic could also be loyal to the Crown, the back-and-forth between powerful Catholic gentry and Protestant authorities in the North of England, the revelation of fraud by a fourteen-year-old girl, and deceit by a jealous Catholic priest.


Philip 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 includeThe Witches of Warboys and England’s First Demonologist.

You may like to read: Weimar Germany, More Than A Cabaret.

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