Thursday 30 April 2009

The Witches of Warboys

I’m going to tell a story that those who are familiar with the Salem Witch Hunt might find eerily familiar. In many ways it probably reveals the consistent underpinning to mass witch persecutions; that the accusations were without objective proof; that the accusers were often children; that hysteria spread to more and more ‘victims’; that the spectacle of the ‘collective fit’ was one of the features of the trial.

Anyway, the setting is the village of Warboys in the county of Huntingdonshire in the fen district of the east of England. The date is 1593. Three members of the same family stand accused of witchcraft: Alice Samuel, John, her husband, and Agnes, her daughter.

Now standing on trial for their lives, the accusations against Alice and her family date back to 1589, when Robert Throckmorton and his family moved into the local manor house. Throckmorton was very well-connected, numbering one Sir Henry Cromwell, one of the wealthiest commoners in England, amongst his friends. The Samuels, in contrast, were among the meanest of the ‘mean folk’; poor, badly educated and with nothing at all in the way of social influence.

Not long after the family had settled in the village, Jane Throckmorton, Robert’s nine-year-old daughter, fell ill. Her symptoms are described in the only source of information we have about the events that followed, a pamphlet published three years after the trail, entitled, The most strange and admirable discoverie of the three Witches of Warboys, arraigned, convicted, and executed at the last Assizes at Huntington, for the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton Esquire, and divers other persons, with sundrie Divellish and grievous torments,

“About the 10th of November in the year 1589 Mistress Jane, one of the daughters of the said Master Throckmorton being near the age of 10 years [she was in fact 9 years and 3 months] fell upon a sudden into a strange kind of sickness of body, the manner whereof was as followeth. Sometimes she would sneeze very loud and thick for the space of half an hour together, and presently as one in a great trance or swoon lay quietly as long; soon after she would begin to swell and heave up her belly so as none was able to bend her or keep her down; sometimes she would shake one leg and no other part of her, as if the palsey had been in it, sometimes the other; presently she would shake one of her arms, and then the other, soon after her head, as if she had been infected with the running palsey.”

The sickness was believed to be epilepsy, until Jane accused seventy-six year old Alice Samuel of bewitching her. Soon after this other children in the area started to show the same hysterical symptoms in a chain reaction, blaming the same source for their afflictions. Now a conflict began, between the powerful Throckmortons, on the one hand, and the disempowered Samuels, on the other.

The Throckmortons were aided by Lady Cromwell, wife of Sir Henry, who arrived at the manor in early 1590 on a visit. She, too, accused Alice of witchcraft, taking a lock of the old woman’s hair by force and ordering it to be burned, a folk remedy to weaken a witch’s power. In anger Alice is alleged to have said, “Madam, why do you use me thus? I never did you harm as yet.” It was this ‘as yet’ that was to prove fatal for Alice in the end. That same night Lady Cromwell had nightmares about Alice, later falling ill, finally dying in July, 1592.

After this the accusations, which tended to come and go, became more hysterical than ever, with the children now accusing Alice of the death of Lady Cromwell. The matter finally came to the attention of the Bishop of Lincoln. In April 1593 Alice and her family were finally tried on a charge of witchcraft and murder. The author of the pamphlet claims that some five hundred people were in attendance. As at Salem a hundred years later the children provided a dramatic chorus of accusation. Joan Throckmorton, Jane’s older sister, spoke of spirits named Blue, Pluck, Catch and Smack sent by Alice to control her fits. She was aided by the chorus, who all broke down into a collective fit. Alice’s words to Lady Cromwell were also cited as evidence. All three were found guilty and hanged.

The irony here is that Lady Cromwell was the grandmother of Oliver Cromwell, who was to inflict a greater curse on England, exercising far more malign power than had ever been at the disposal of poor Alice Samuel.

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