Lancashire witches’ trial history forgot

Lancaster Castle where the Samlesbury witches stood trial
Lancaster Castle where the Samlesbury witches stood trial

The Pendle Witches are a part of Lancashire folklore but Barry McCann investigates the curious case of the Samlesbury Witches who faced trial 405 years ago this week.

The year 1612 is well remembered in Lancashire history for the trial and conviction of the Pendle Witches. Not as well recalled is another group of alleged witches tried at the same Lancaster assizes whose story has been overshadowed by their Pendle counterparts, but is no less intriguing.

The Samlesbury Witches were Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and Ellen Bierley. They were accused of witchcraft, child murder and cannibalism by 14-year-old Grace Sowerbutts, who was actually Jennet’s granddaughter and Ellen’s niece.

Their trial took place on August 19, 1612, presided by Sir Edward Bromley who began by discharging five of an original eight Samlesbury defendants with a warning.

Jane, Jennet, and Ellen were left to face charges of using “diverse devillish and wicked Arts, called Witchcrafts, Inchauntments, Charmes, and Sorceries, in and upon one Grace Sowerbutts.” They pleaded not guilty. Grace was the first to testify, claiming her grandmother and aunt, Jennet and Ellen Bierley, had “haunted and vexed her” for years.

These vexings included: Levitating Grace to the top of a haystack by her hair and attempting to persuade her to drown herself in the Ribble.

Attending sabbats with Jane Southworth where they met with “foure black things, going upright, and yet not like men in the face”, and with whom they ate, danced and had sex. Causing the death of a baby belonging to one Thomas Walshman and his wife, after which Ellen and Jennet dug up the body from its grave to cook and eat, and to make a magic ointment with which to change themselves into other shapes.

Thomas Walshman confirmed his child had died of unknown causes, aged one, adding Grace Sowerbutts was once discovered lying as if dead in his father’s barn and did not recover until the following day. Two other witnesses, John Singleton and William Alker, claimed Sir John Southworth, Jane Southworth’s father-in-law, believed her to be an “evil woman, and a Witch.”

In his record of the Witch trials, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, Thomas Potts, clerk to the Lancaster Assizes, claims that when asked by the judge to answer the charges against them, the accused “humbly fell upon their knees with weeping teares”, and “desired him (Bromley) for Gods cause to examine Grace Sowerbutts”. Immediately “the countenance of this Grace Sowerbutts changed” and the witnesses “began to quarrel and accuse one another.”

Bromley had two JPs, William Leigh and Edward Chisnal, examine Grace more closely. She confessed the story to be untrue and the work of Jane Southworth’s uncle, Christopher Southworth aka Master Thompson, a Jesuit priest hiding in the Samlesbury

area. Leigh and Chisnal asked the accused women why Southworth would fabricate evidence against them. They could offer no reason other than that each of them “goeth to the heathen (Anglican) Church”.

After the statements had been read out in court Bromley ordered the jury to find the defendants not guilty, since Grace Sowerbutts was “the perjuring tool of a Catholic priest.”

He further told the women, “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.”

Potts concludes his account with the words: “Thus were these poore Innocent creatures, by the great care and paines of this honourable Judge, delivered from the danger of this Conspiracie; this bloudie practise of the Priest laid open.”

There is the suggestion of theirs being a show trial to not only demonstrate the purging of alleged witches but also of Catholic plotters, given this was just seven years after the foiled Gunpowder Plot.

So the idea that a Catholic priest supposedly set them up to be accused of witchcraft would have appealed to the anti-papist sentiments of a judge keen to please his master, King James.

It also handed the Judge an opportunity of being seen to “let some go” and reassure those who doubted their impartiality. Indeed, Thomas Potts holds up their acquittal as a vindication of the judges.

Given the witch trials under King James I were rooted in the religious struggles of the period, and his own paranoia of witchcraft, then the trial of the Samlesbury witches is symptomatic of this very charged climate.