On this day in history : 19th August 1612 – Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and Ellen Bierley are put on trial accused of practising witchcraft, including child murder and cannibalism….
The three women lived in the village of Samlesbury in Lancashire…. Everyone has heard of the Pendle Witches, where a total of ten were convicted at the Pendle Witch Trails – but the tale of the Samlesbury Witches is not so well known…. In fact eight people from Samlesbury were accused – and were held in the same dungeon at Lancaster Castle as those from Pendle…. They were also hauled before the same Judge, Sir Edward Bromley, at the same Lancashire assizes….
Out of the eight accused from Samlesbury only three came to trial – Jane Southworth, who had recently been widowed and mother and daughter Jennet and Ellen Bierley…. They were accused by 14 year old Grace Sowerbutts, the granddaughter of Jennet and niece of Ellen, of practising witchcraft upon her – she was the chief prosecution witness….
It was a complicated time in British history…. King James I had succeeded the throne, following the death of his cousin Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 – and he was a great believer in witchcraft…. In 1604 a new law came into force in England ‘An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits’…. The death penalty was imposed for anyone believed to be causing harm through witchcraft….
At the time Lancashire was regarded as being a particularly lawless part of the country…. Many had refused to abandon Catholicism after Elizabeth I became Queen – large numbers still attended Mass, which was held in secret…. In the year of the witch trials it was ordered that each Justice of the Peace draw up a list of those who did not attend Church on a Sunday – which was a criminal offence at the time….
The Southworth family, who lived at Salmesbury Hall, were divided by their religious beliefs…. Most of them remained Catholic but the eldest son, John, converted to the Church of England…. As a result he was disinherited by his father…. Jane Southworth was the widow of John – and the mother of seven children…. She, along with Jennet and Ellen, was accused of using ‘diverse devilish and wicked Arts, called Witchcrafts, Inchauntments, Charmes and Sorceries, in and upon one Grace Sowerbutts’…. All three pleaded not guilty….
Grace claimed her grandmother and aunt could turn themselves into familiars in the form of dogs and that they had ‘haunted and vexed’ her…. She said they had tried to persuade her to drown herself and had pulled her up to the top of a haystack by her hair…. She told of how they had stolen a baby from Thomas Walshman and his wife, so that they could suck its blood…. The child died; they cooked the body, ate some and then used the rest to make ointment to transform themselves into other beings…. Grace also claimed that the three attended Sabbats every Thursday and Sunday night and they met ‘Faire black things, going upright and yet not like men in the face’…. She accused them of eating, dancing and then having sex with these beings….
Thomas Walshman confirmed that his child had died of unknown causes…. He said that Grace had been found lying as if dead in his father’s barn on or around the 15th of April and she did not recover until the following day…. The three defendants, when asked to respond, fell to their knees weeping and begged the Judge re-examine Grace…. The witnesses then began to quarrel and accuse each other….and eventually Grace admitted that she had been put up to it by Jane’s uncle-by-marriage…. Christopher Southworth, also known as Thompson, was a Catholic priest who had gone into hiding….
When the three accused women were asked as to why they thought such evidence had been fabricated against them, the only reason they could give was that they attended the Anglican Church….
Lord Bromley ordered that the jury find the three defendants not guilty….
“God hath delivered you beyond expectation. I pray God you may use this mercie and favour well; and take heed you fall not hereafter: And so the court doth order that you shall be delivered”….
The Witches of Pendle were not so fortunate….