Hey there readers and listeners, I’m on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back.
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This episode can be found Here on Patreon
Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and Ellen Bierley stood in the dock, shackled and bound. The setting, the Lancaster Assizes, August 18th 1612 – where the Demdikes and Chattoxes were tried for witchcraft. Accused of wielding magic with malicious intent, the ladies are accused of murdering then eating a baby. Their accuser, a fourteen year old relative of the Bierleys named Grace Sowerbutts. Eating a baby was one thing, but ‘The Salmesbury Witches’ had the temerity to magically bully young Grace – and that was more than she could take.
For years Jennet, Aunt Ellen and their pal Jane made Grace’s life a living hell. They transformed into dogs to frighten her. Whenever feeling at ease, they psycho-kinetically seized her by her hair, levitated her above a hay bale – then unceremoniously dumped her atop the bundle. Some times they would fly her over a barn and threaten to leave her on the roof. One time the ladies hypnotised her into trying to drown herself. Grace was terrified, sooner or later, they would murder her.
Furthermore, there was that murder and cannibalism charge. Once, Grace claimed – the Salmesbury Witches took her to the house of a Thomas Walshman, his wife and their baby. The ladies snuck into the house and kidnapped the baby. Once free and clear, they sucked the baby’s blood. The young child was then returned. The witches departed. This was bad enough, but – the court heard the child passed on the following night. Days later Jennet and Ellen returned – removing the body from its grave. They then cooked and ate part of the body – the remainder being turned into a magical ointment used to shape shift.
Thomas Walshman took the stand, confirming he did indeed have a young child, recently passed.
Grace Sowerbutts, delivered her evidence – and was a shockingly effective witness. Even on an action-packed day full of outlandish tales of murder, a tale of brazen pedicide and cannibalism particularly chilled the gallery. As it turned out, the extremity of the crime actually saved the ladies. The people in the public gallery were so horrified, they demanded young Grace be recalled. They needed to hear every last detail of the heinous crime.
And when young Grace was recalled – she completely fell apart on cross examination.
Why falsely accuse family of witchcraft and murder? One word, revenge.
Lancaster County may have been thin on the ground of actual, bona fide witches, but there was no shortage of recusants in the area. England first turned Protestant in 1534 after King Henry VIII railroaded the Act of Supremacy into law. Increasingly frustrated with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (the couple failed to make an heir together – something the King put down to God punishing him for marrying Catherine – who was originally betrothed to his deceased older brother Arthur) Henry tried to get a divorce, so he could marry Anne Boleyn – one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting. When the Pope refused to allow the divorce, the nation became Protestant overnight. Henry’s daughter Mary I reverted England back to Catholicism during her reign (1553- 58). Her persecution of Protestants earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. Elizabeth I reverted the kingdom back to Protestantism with the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1559.
The current King, James I, was Protestant. After a cabal of Catholic plotters attempted to blow him up in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, James rushed his own legislation through – The Popish Recusants Act of 1605. Catholics were barred from public office, were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch, and risked the loss of up to a third of their land if they didn’t attend a Church of England sacrament at least once a year. In 1612 orders were sent out to all the justices of the peace in Lancashire to make lists of recusants in the area.
As such, many Catholics kept their religious affiliations secret. These recusants covertly attended underground churches, run by secretive priests. Jane Southworth’s uncle Christopher Thompson was one such priest.
Christopher and Jane Southworth belonged to an aristocratic recusant family in the region – the family Patriarch Sir John Southworth of Salmesbury Hall. Sir John was openly Catholic, and refused to denounce his faith. This led to multiple arrests and fines. The family were almost completely openly, or covertly Catholic – this included Christopher – a Jesuit preacher who assumed the surname Thompson and went off the grid in to avoid the authorities. Sir John’s son, the recently deceased John Jr was married to Jane. The couple made quite a scene when they walked away from Catholicism, and began attending Anglican masses. Infuriated, Sir John disinherited John jr.
As Grace was questioned in detail by a couple of justices of the peace, it became clear the charges, originally aimed at eight women – five of whom weren’t tried for lack of evidence – had come by way of Christopher. The defections of John jr and Jane led to further defections from Christopher Thompson’s church. To get revenge, and likely to discredit the apostates before he lost all his flock, Thompson groomed Grace in her outrageous lie.
Judge Sir Edward Bromley dismissed the case, finding Jane Southworth, Jennet and Ellen Bierley not guilty. His closing remarks “ God hath delivered you beyond expectation, I pray God you may use this mercy and favour well; and take heed you fall not hereafter: And so the court doth order that you shall be delivered“