The Samlesbury Witches

‘The Samlesbury Witches’ by Christine Goodier MA

The Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 are among the most significant such events in English history.

Notorious at the time, the people involved in the tales of murder and cursing and familiar spirits have become part of Lancashire folklore. “Old Demdike,” “Old Chattox,” “Squinting Lizzie” and “Mouldheels” are recognisable names. The villages around Pendle Hill still market themselves to tourists who are eager to catch a glimpse of a past that never existed in quite the way they believe.

In all, ten people were convicted of witchcraft at the Summer Assize held in Lancaster Castle in August 1612. But they were not the only defendants. Held in the same dungeon below the Well Tower, dragged before the same judge and subject to the same vagaries of judicial justice, were others, originally eight in number, who came from Samlesbury, and who stood accused of crimes every bit as dreadful as those supposedly committed by the men and women from Pendle. They have gone down in history as “The Samlesbury Witches.”

The Trial. August 18th 1612.

Of the original eight defendants, only three actually came to trial, Jane Southworth and Eileen and Jennet Brierley. The remainder were freed on the order of the Judge, Sir Edward Bromley, although they were warned that they had been fortunate to escape and were all required to provide sureties against their future conduct. The chief evidence (indeed the only real evidence) was- as in the Pendle case- supplied by a young girl, this time fourteen year old Grace Sowerbutts. Again, as in the more famous case, the witness was related to some of the defendants, for Grace was niece to Eileen and granddaughter to Jennet. The hysterical and fantastic stories told by the girl, with the help of her father, Thomas, included a tale of awful murder as well as hints of a widespread network of witches who held Sabbaths and consorted with demons.

The Evidence

The evidence, as recounted by Thomas Potts in his “Wonderfull Discoverie” was a confused account of Grace’s numerous abductions, when the girl would be taken by some unknown force to the haylofts or barns of her neighbours, where unspecified abuses were perpetrated upon her. Upon discovery she would lie insensible for days. She also told how her grandmother had transformed into a dog, right before her eyes, and while in this form had tried to force Grace to drown herself. Grace told of the murder of a baby, the child of Thomas Walshman. According to Grace’s testimony Eileen and Jennet stole the child from its parents’ bed and drove a nail into its navel through which they sucked its blood. After a few days the child died. Not content with this the two women then supposedly dug up the child’s body and cooked and ate it before rendering what remained. With this they anointed their bodies in order to be able to change shape. Grace also spoke of midnight meetings at Red Bank, where the two women and Jane Southworth regularly met “black things going upright, yet not like men in the face” with which they danced, ate and fornicated. Grace was invited to join in. She also spoke, chillingly, of knowing the names of many others from the area who regularly met at what can only have been Witches Sabbaths.

Although there were some similarities between the two cases, a large part of the evidence in the Samlesbury trial was actually quite unlike that levelled against the defendants from Pendle. There were no accusations going back over the years, no evidence of deviant behaviour and no instances of threat or unexplained death. Grace’s testimony was uncorroborated, and the best the prosecution could find against Jane Southworth was that her father-in-law, Sir John Southworth (long dead) had avoided Jane whenever he could and may have considered her to have been a witch. However it is entirely possible that Sir John actually died before Jane’s marriage.

In fact, the Southworth connection was to prove decisive in this case. The family was one of the oldest in the county. Owners of Samlesbury Hall, the family had split at the Reformation, with one half adhering to Roman Catholicism and the other becoming pillars of the Protestant Church. Later in the seventeenth century a member of his own family would betray another John, (a Catholic priest later made a saint) to his death. And it was Catholicism that was about to take centre stage at this trial, with dramatic results.

An Amazing Revelation

After the prosecution had concluded, the three defendants were allowed to speak. The women immediately fell to their knees and begged the judge to make Grace tell the court who it was that had “set her on” to make her accusations. They were rewarded by the look on Grace’s face. Initial questioning revealed that the girl was unable to add anything in her own words. Immediately the judge told the court that it was obvious to him that “a priest or Jesuit” had had a hand in coaching the child.

He ordered two of the J.P’s present to interrogate the girl, and they duly returned to report that, indeed, when faced by this accusation Grace had immediately recanted her testimony. She admitted that she had been told what to say by one Christopher Southworth, a Jesuit.

Once this ‘revelation’ was made Potts states that it was obvious all along. The evidence had been flawed in that everyone knew that witches had familiar spirits in the shape of dogs, but did not become dogs. The descriptions of the black spirits Grace had seen at Red Bank were also inconsistent in that they did not look like men, whereas everyone knew – and indeed Old Chattox herself had testified to this – that familiars in the shape of men were fair of face. Potts goes on to accuse Thomas Sowerbutts of trying to cash-in on the notoriety of the arrests in Pendle. He adds that the things the three were accused of we so horrible that even “the witches of Pendle were never so cruel or barbarous” as to have committed.

Inevitably, the women were acquitted, with Potts praising the judge for his “great care and paines” in rooting out a wicked Papist plot that would have seen three innocent (Protestant) women sent to their deaths. The judge warned those present to be constantly on their guard against such “bloudie practices” which were the norm for people who had no respect for “bloude, kindred or friendship.”

Potts does not mention that the Pendle trials were on-going, or that people were still being convicted on the flimsiest evidence, albeit without the get-out of a convenient Catholic conspiracy to save them.

So what was going on here?

Why would a Catholic priest do such a thing? It cannot have been his failure to convert the women: half of Lancashire would have qualified under this criteria. Why give Grace such faulty information? He, better than most would have been conversant with the current beliefs in the practice of the craft. And why risk a traitor’s death if apprehended? For what?

And it also seems clear that, from the start, the information that was revealed at the trial was already known to the authorities. If this was, indeed, the case then the Samlesbury trial was political, a show-trial, meant to discredit the Catholic Church even further and to frighten people who were still sympathetic to the Faith into turning their priests over to the authorities. It was also no coincidence that the priest in question was a Southworth. We already know that the family was split, and this may have been an attempt by political opponents to further blacken the family name.

And the Sowerbutts? There may have been reasons for Thomas to want to accuse two of his in-laws but why Jane became embroiled is harder to say. Maybe her name was enough? It is highly likely that these accusations were seized upon by the authorities at a very early stage. It is even possible that Fr Southworth was somehow involved with Grace’s family, even that Grace was exploited by the authorities themselves: the truth is always much harder to find when hidden behind so many ulterior motives. But if this is the case then the women who stood trial that summer in Lancaster were surely victims twice over.

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