So what was Witchcraft all about? When and how did it start? What was the connection with the Northampton Witch Trials and Delapré Abbey? And why do we still have this fascination?
From a child I loved fairy tales. I would read them over and over late at night under the bed covers by the light of a torch. The baddy was usually a witch; evil, menacing, ugly and extremely wicked. Picking on the vulnerable, taking advantage of the poor and innocent and casting spells over a cauldron with a black cat by their side. But where did this stereotype come from? And as a reader why do we feel justified when the witch gets their just deserts?
So let’s start at the beginning. Belief in witchcraft goes back centuries. But why did it begin? What was it based on? Why did it last so long? Why is it usually associated with women and not men and why were they persecuted? What had they really done?
It’s quite confusing to me where the belief in witchcraft began, but from my research I do get an uneasy understanding why it was used with such vigor. During the 16th and 17th centuries the family unit was deemed to be extremely important. Family gave strength to the small communities and protected them from external dangers. Back then women were not seen as individuals but as a vital part of the family unit. They were expected to have children, be a mother, loyal wife, undertake all the housework and stay in the home. So it seems strange to me that it was predominantly women that were accused of witchcraft, which obviously put pressure on the principle of the strong family unit. Or was it simply a time when women were beginning to question their role and wanted something more, which in turn led to jealousy, fighting for juxtaposition, blaming someone else or for the easy disposal of rivals and undesirables?
Interestingly, Europe and Scotland blamed witches for large disasters, grand acts of violence or deaths due to storms or earthquakes. However in England witchcraft was allegedly the source of smaller issues such as unexplained deaths and sickness, injury to livestock, begging, petty crimes and acts of healing. The authorities feared these crimes and so perhaps required someone to blame to try and safeguard the family unit which, as I have mentioned, was becoming vulnerable during this time.
In addition, King James VI of Scotland, who became King James I of England in 1603, was obsessed with witches and the need to rid society of them and their enchantments. He wrote ‘Daemonologie’ published in 1597 where within its 80 pages he describes witches as “detestable slaves of the Devil”. His purpose was to convince doubters of the existence of witchcraft and to inspire persecutors to act with “vigor and determination”. He describes witchcraft as “high treason against God.” As the book was written by the King it became very influential and was used in towns and villages across the land to hunt witches. Women, men and children were accused in their thousands, sweeping fear throughout England. Shakespeare also featured three witches in ‘Macbeth’ using their powers to lead the protagonist on a path of turmoil and eventual death.
The Northampton Record Society suggest in their book ‘Northampton in the History of Witchcraft’ that the belief in witchcraft among Elizabethan Christians was due to the influence of English Calvinism and the writings of three men: William Perkins, George Gifford and Scot.
William Perkins, a Cambridge preacher and lecturer on witchcraft at Emmanuel College, wrote ‘A Discourse in the Damned Art of Witchcraft’ where his thesis suggests that God gave Satan permission to act, women sign a pact with Satan and therefore the witch must die.
George Gifford, an Essex clergyman also shared this belief. He believed that witches existed and must be destroyed. However, the reason for their execution was due to proud and false conviction “that their spirits do these harmes” upon human beings, whereas God alone had power, and the evil which attributed to witches’ own power was in truth the punishment inflicted by an angry God. Scot, a Kentish country squire wrote ‘Discoverie of Witchcraft’ (which King James I had burnt and refuted when he wrote his ‘Daemonologie’) where he emphasised God’s exclusive power. He believed witches existed but actually “the poor doting woman” had not contracted with the Devil, nor harmed human beings or cattle, they were simply “melancholic”.
Northampton History Society suggests that the persecution of witches in England directly parallels the career of the Puritans, which is where Delapre Abbey briefly comes in. In 1601 William Tate inherited Delapré and used it as a centre for local Puritans (ref. Andrew Cambers ‘Print, Manuscript and Puritanism in England’ 1580 – 1720). In 1603 he brought John Cotta to the area from Cambridge University. In 1616 John Cotta wrote ‘The Trial of Witchcraft’ where he tried to demonstrate the “true and right method of disclosure”. It’s an incredibly difficult book to read but needs to be recognised for offering an alternative view of ‘witchcraft’ at a time when the King supported witch-hunting. In this book John Cotta acknowledges that where there is good there must also be evil. He refers to the bible to demonstrate that there are both good and evil spirits. Good spirits are expressed in Scripture as either angels or messengers of God and are sent to holy men for special holy ends (Isaiah 6:6). Evil spirits are the work of the Devil and there are two kinds: “For one’s own ends, without any reference or respect to any contract or covenant with men” or they are “Transcendent works and are done with a respect or reference into some contract or covenant with man.” However he goes on to make a case for the innocent. He dispels the suggestions that there is a sign or mark of a witch and says that “ridiculous traditions” such as fits of the bewitched when seeing the face of a priest or being touched by holy ointments ‘are vain and far unworthy of any serious consideration’.
So onto the Northampton Witch Trials. Rheia Smith (‘Northampton Live’ 21st June 2020) writes that the trials in Northampton, although not as famous as other trials, may have been a catalyst to the famous Pendle Witch Trials a year later.
There were five alleged witches who were executed in 1611 on the site of Abington Park, Northampton. Guilsborough was the home of two of the witches, a mother Agnes Brown and her daughter Joan Vaughan. Incidentally, the ‘Witch and Sow Pub’ in Guilsborough had a symbol of 3 witches riding a pig, which now hangs in the village hall and the village ‘Welcome Sign’ depicts the image of a typical witch flying on a pig.
Rheia Smith reports that Agnes Browne, allegedly a witch, who along with her daughter bewitched and tormented another family unit. She was described in the pamphlet announcing her execution as “a woman from poore parentage and poorer education.” This was quite common in women accused of witchcraft. They were often poor, vagrants, beggars or came from poor families and had little or no education. The daughter, Joan Vaughan was accused with her mother Agnes Browne of bewitching Mistress Belcher and Master Avery, both from Guilsborough and an unnamed child to death. There appears to be some sort of feud between the two families. Belcher struck Joan and “reproached her unseemly behaviour.” The mother and daughter were then said to have caused Belcher to feel “an intolerable pain and to become disfigured.”Incredibly it was believed that the remedy for those affected by witchcraft was to scratch a witch. Master Avery (Mistress Belcher’s brother) attempted to lure the duo out of their home but was stopped by an “invisible force” outside the property. Allegedly, Avery then suffered the same fate as his sister and became unwell and tormented. This lasted until Agnes and Joan were arrested by Sir William Saunders in Northampton.
While Agnes and Joan were imprisoned, Belcher and Avery were allowed to scratch them, thus ending their torment. They were incited for witchcraft, sentenced and executed. The most famous aspect was that two weeks prior to their arrest, Agnes was seen riding a sow with two other witches to visit an old witch named Mother Rhoads, who had died before they had arrived and had called out in her last breath that her three friends would meet her again “within the next month.” They were executed on 22nd July 1611.
The legal English method of executing witches, Ralph Davis of Northampton states, was “being Hanged till they were almost dead, the Fire was put to the Straw, Foggots and other Compustiblematter, till they were ‘Burnt to Ashes’.” According to the methods of the time, the witches had a fair trial. Due process of the law was followed. Peter Laslett states that the witch-craze was “another case of conscience” for the local magistrate called upon to pass judgement on wretched old women, hysterical girls and neurotic youths hounded by the superstitions of their neighbours. A 17th century pamphlet speaks of “the discretions or conscience of our judges” and remembers Hales’s exhortation to the jury. It suggests that many of the more humane and compassionate magistrates and jury men must have suffered some agonising moments.
Fortunately, by 1700 witchcraft trials came to an end and the witch laws were repealed. There were several reasons why witch hunts ceased: the first being the Royal Society investigations into witchcraft, the second being the resistance of the laity against witch-belief, and finally the influence of philosophers such as Pompanazzi, Decartes, the English Deists and the German Pietists. Interestingly Northamptonshire along with Huntingdonshire persisted in witch-belief longer than other English counties.
So what was witchcraft all about? In summary I suggest, the time was ripe for old superstitions, rivalry, jealousy and above all fear to ignite, which led to a period of terror for the sick and vulnerable. It became an excuse for the rich and powerful to rid themselves of undesirables. It was an excuse to blame someone else for your own misfortune.
By Veneeta Rayner, Delapré Abbey volunteer