Life in the time of the Witchfinder General
By Helen Steadman
The middle of the seventeenth century was a dangerous time to be a woman, especially in Newcastle in the north-east of England. One August day in 1650, fifteen women and one man were hanged for witchcraft.
At that time, Newcastle was run by a Puritan town council. When the locals petitioned the council to rid them of witches, the council responded swiftly. Since the Witchfinder General was dead and his sidekick had retired to take up writing, Newcastle was suffering something of a skills shortage. So, it turned to its neighbour and sent two sergeants to Scotland to fetch back a witchfinder. The witchfinder wouldn’t have needed much tempting to cross the border because Newcastle was paying twenty shillings per witch. (Perhaps this is the earliest example of local authority performance-related pay on record.)
The Chamberlain’s accounts of the time record the sum paid to the witchfinder as casually as if he were paying the wine bill. He lists the total of £15 19s 2d as the ‘bill of charges for the wiches for 2 weekes ending the 23th [sic] of August 1650 and other charges for executing the prisoners’.
A popular witch-testing technique was witch pricking – and it seems this was the know-how Newcastle wished to import from Scotland. Witch prickers would pierce a suspect’s skin with a variety of pricking devices ranging from pins and bodkins through to specially designed implements. Typically, an accused witch would be found to have a third nipple or teat about their person. This teat, or even just a brown mark, would then be pierced with a needle. If no blood was let, or if no pain was felt, then the accused would be deemed guilty of witchcraft and put to death.
Supernumerary nipples are relatively common in the population. I’m not going to reveal whether I’m a member of the Triple Nipple Club, but it’s probably safe to say there’s not a single person among us without a mole, beauty spot, birth mark or skin tag. Since most adults have around a dozen of these, even the most myopic witchfinder would be hard-pressed to find a suspect without a mole.
The Scottish witchfinder wasted no time on arrival in Newcastle. He sent a bellman around the town, more or less inviting the locals to send out their witches, which they obligingly did. Thirty people were carted off to trial. Of these thirty, twenty-seven were considered guilty and set aside. Which tots up to a fairly handsome profit at twenty shillings per head. Considering that a working man would consider himself doing well to earn a shilling a day, this was not a bad afternoon’s work.
The Scottish witchfinder had an interesting technique. He’d look for the devil’s mark on a woman. Then he’d strip her to the waist, bend her double and prick her in the top of the thigh. If she bled, she was innocent, and if she didn’t, then she was deemed a witch. This must have been quite a tantalising show for the local Puritans – especially since they’d banned Christmas and other all other forms of sinful stimulation, such as bright colours.
All was going swimmingly until a ‘personable and goodlike woman’ was tested. Her thigh was pricked and she was declared to be a child of the devil. At this point, a local naval doctor, Lieutenant Colonel Hobson, intervened and insisted there was some form of trickery afoot. He demanded the woman be stood upright and that she be pricked again, with himself at close quarters. This time, she bled, so the witchpricker declared that she was not a child of the devil, and she was set free.
Tragically, fifteen women and one man were still hanged on Newcastle’s Town Moor for witchcraft – making it possibly the single largest execution for witchcraft on one day in England.
Despite this travesty, the witchfinder was allowed to go on his way to Berwick in Northumberland where he began charging three pounds per witch – impressive inflation by anyone’s standards. At this point, an outraged worthy, Henry Ogle became suspicious and the witchfinder fled back to Scotland. It seems he was arrested there and confessed to being responsible for the deaths of 220 women…shortly before being executed. So that’s a sort of happy ending.
Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to confirm the identity of the Scottish witchfinder, so John Sharpe in Widdershins is my own creation. However, while creating him, I carried out a lot of research into witchfinders.
In particular, I looked at John Kincaid from Tranent, who was my chief suspect as he operated in the Borders. There’s a deposition from him in June 1649 at Dirleton Castle, in which he boasts of his ‘skill and dexterity in finding the divillis mark’. Kincaid was still at large in 1661 in Dalkeith, Scotland, where he tested a woman and pricked her with pins of about three inches. So insensate was this woman’s flesh that she couldn’t tell which part of her body had been pricked. Kincaid administered this test under oath and it was witnessed by seven people, including the local minister. Most likely, he was using a retractable pricking device.
One of Scotland’s most unusual witch prickers was John Dickson (it’s not hard to see why I called my witchfinder John). Dickson seemed to appear from nowhere, and yet was given a lucrative contract in Moray to clear its witches. As well as a daily subsistence rate of six shillings, Dickson was charging an eye-watering six pounds per witch – a sum that makes Newcastle’s twenty shillings per witch look positively frugal.
But John Dickson picked on the wrong person: a man called John Hay, who had friends in high places and more than a smattering of the law behind him. When this particular witchfinder was thrown in prison, an interesting discovery was made. John Dickson was a woman – Christian Caddell. However, despite sending as many as ten innocent people to the gallows, she was not executed, but instead transported to Barbados, which I understand was not the luxury destination it is today.
Finally, no discussion of witchfinders would be complete without a mention of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins and his sidekick, John Stearne who were operational in the south-east of England. The Witchfinder General came from Manningtree in Essex, which has one other famous resident: Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the UK. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will!
Matthew Hopkins was a dab hand at PR – long before PR was invented. To expel any doubts that might have existed in the minds of the good people of Essex, he and John Stearne each published a book setting out their techniques and reasoning behind witchfinding.
These diaries are filled with fascinating (if troubling) insights into what might go through the mind of a man determining whether someone should live or die. In his short book, Hopkins sets out fourteen questions and replies to them. These questions range from whether he is a witch himself, through to whether witchfinders are simply fleecing people.
In fairness to Hopkins, he appears to be rather cheaper than the Newcastle witchfinder. Hopkins states he charged only twenty shillings per town. On the face of it, this appears to be excellent value. However, it’s worth taking Hopkins’ word with a pinch of salt, not least because one town council spent a seventh of its annual budget on witchfinding and had to raise taxes as a result.
Some of Hopkins' justifications for finding people guilty of witchcraft are a little on the thin side. One of his favoured ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was a form of sleep deprivation known as ‘waking’, which meant the suspects were kept awake for several nights until they confessed. He cites one accused witch, who on her fourth night of being kept awake, confessed to having several familiars and imps. Hopkins lists the imps' names given by the woman as 'Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut &c. which no mortall could invent...' and so the woman was deemed guilty and put to death.
So, an innocent woman was sent to a terrible death on the grounds only of having a vivid imagination and a knack for making up names. Women and words can be a dangerous combination. It doesn’t bode well for writers…
‘Did all women have something of the witch about them?’
Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world.
From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft.
Inspired by true events, Widdershins tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them.
Helen Steadman lives in the foothills of the North Pennines, and she particularly enjoys researching and writing about the history of the north east of England. She is the author of the best-selling historical novel, Widdershins. This novel was inspired by the seventeenth-century witch trials in Newcastle. The sequel, Sunwise, is due to be published later this year by Impress Books. For her PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen, Helen is working on her third novel, Running Wolves, which is about the Shotley Bridge Swordmakers.