Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Bideford Witches

My novel – The Pendle Curse – has some of its roots in a true story. In August 1612, ten men and women were convicted, in Lancaster, England, of crimes related to witchcraft and subsequently hanged on Gallows Hill. They became known to history as the Pendle Witches.

They were not alone.

In England’s West Country, in the county of Devon, lies the charming seaside town of Barnstaple.

Peaceful enough now, but in 1682, the last women to be hanged for witchcraft were captured there, held in Exeter before being tried for their alleged crimes, convicted and then executed. The three were old, confused, poor and scared. This unhealthy combination appears to have been their downfall.

Rougemont Castle, where they were held prior to their trial, is now a picturesque ruin and tourist attraction, but back in the seventeenth century, it was a fortress, strong enough to withstand a siege and easily robust enough to house three feeble women.

 In fear for their lives, each of the women accused the other. Mary Trembles blamed Susannah Edwards for leading her astray. Susannah Edwards blamed Temperance Lloyd for precisely the same misdemeanour.

So what heinous crimes had these women committed that they should be sentenced to hang?

Temperance Lloyd stood accused of the murders by witchcraft of a number of people. Three women also testified that she had made them suffer by using the dark arts. Grace Thomas swore that on two occasions she had been tormented by stabbing pains. An account of her accusation reads:
'Sticking and pricking pains, as though pins and awls had been thrust into her body, from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, and she lay as though it had been upon a rack.'

 A witness – Anne Wakely – claimed she had seen a magpie fly to Grace’s window and said Temperance Lloyd had told her that she was visited by a black bird that changed into a black man. Thomas Eastchurch, a shopkeeper, was Grace’s initial accuser and he added fuel to the fire by claiming he had heard Lloyd talking about the black man persuading her to go to Grace Thomas’s house to ‘pinch and prick her’.

While Lloyd denied harming Grace Thomas, her testimony was confused, as she did confess to having stabbed a piece of leather nine times – the exact number of times Grace Thomas claimed to have been stabbed. 

Two more women came forward to claim that they too had been harmed in similar fashion by Lloyd, who eventually admitted all charges - including charges of the murder of three local people and the blinding of another. She then claimed to have been a witch for over 20 years. She said she had sunk ships at sea. If she hadn’t been mentally unhinged before, it seems she certainly was by the time she was put in the cart to wheel her to the gallows. A contemporary report says, she was, "all the way eating, and seemingly unconcerned".

Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards seem to have suffered guilt by associating with Temperance Lloyd. All three women were reported as being seen in each other’s company, begging. Whether by fair means or foul, confessions were obtained from all of them. Their trial took place on 19th August 1682 – exactly 70 years after the trial of the Lancashire Witches from Pendle.

In those 70 years, the political mood had changed and, even though condemned, most ‘witches’ were usually reprieved. Not in this case. The whole area was alive with speculation and interest, The witches were popularly convicted. To reprieve them now could lead to civil unrest. No reprieve was granted and all three hanged. As she was about to die, Temperance Lloyd was asked if she believed in Jesus Christ. She replied, "Yes, and I pray Jesus Christ to pardon all my sins." She then calmly accepted her fate.
Judge Sir Thomas Raymond had directed the Jury that,
"these three poor women were weary of their lives, and that he thought it proper for them to be carried to the Parish from whence they came, and that the Parish should be charged with their Maintenance; for he thought their oppressing poverty had constrained them to wish for death".
The local populace thought differently. Their will prevailed.
In 1685, a fourth woman – Alice Molland – was also tried, convicted and sentenced to death but, unlike the other three, no actual record exists of her being hanged, although she is mentioned in a plaque on the wall of the ruined gatehouse:

The Devon Witches. In memory of Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles, of Bideford, died 1682, Alice Molland, died 1685, the last people in England to be executed for witchcraft, tried here & hanged at Heavitree*. In the hope of an end to persecution and intolerance.