Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part 2

(Check out Part 1 here)

The charges against the women are very serious. Whilst the Pendle witches are accused of maleficium (harm by witchcraft) the Salmesbury women are instead charged with the child murder and even cannibalism. Fourteen-year-old Grace Sowerbutts begins proceedings with her testimony. She alleges that that both her grandmother and aunt, Jennet and Ellen Bierley, are able to transform themselves into dogs and that they have "haunted and vexed her" for years. Even more bizarrely she claims that on one occasion her relatives have taken her to the house of Thomas Walshman and his wife, stolen a baby and driven a nail into its navel through which they sucked its blood. According to Grace, the child died the following night and that, after its burial at Samlesbury Church, Ellen and Jennet dig up the body, take it home, cook and eat some of it and use the rest to make an ointment that enables them to change themselves into anything they wanted to be.

As if these charges were not enough Grace produces further spectacular revelations. She alleges her grandmother and aunt, with Jane Southworth, attend sabbats held every Thursday and Sunday night at Red Bank, on the north shore of the River Ribble. At these secret meetings they meet with "foure black things, going upright, and yet not like men in the face", with whom they eat, dance, and have sex with. Grace even suggests there are more witches involved that she knows of.

Any chance that the evidence from Grace will be dismissed is dashed when others line up to undermine the defendants. Thomas Walshman, the father of the baby allegedly killed and eaten by the accused sets the tone when he offers his evidence next. He confirms that his child has died of unknown causes at about one-year-old. He adds that Grace Sowerbutts was discovered lying as if dead in his father's barn on about 15 April, and did not recover until the following day. Two other witnesses, John Singleton and William Alker, confirm that Sir John Southworth, Jane Southworth's father-in-law, has been reluctant to pass the house where his son lived, as he believes Jane to be an "evil woman, and a Witch". It is clear to some that personal grudges are now being waged but all the same it is still mounting evidence against the accused. 

When the judge asks the accused how they will reply to these charges many felt the trial will soon finish. What they do not expect is for the women to fall on their knees, plead with him and with weeping tears request that the trial judge, Sir Edward Bromley cross-examine Grace Sowerbutts.

This is a defining moment in the trial. The court recorder, Thomas Potts notes that immediately "the countenance of this Grace Sowerbutts changed". The judge sees this as evidence “a priest or Jesuit” has coached the child making her "the perjuring tool of a Catholic priest". Soon after the prosecution witnesses "began to quarrel and accuse one another", and eventually admit that Grace has been coached in her story by a Catholic priest called Thompson.

With this in mind, Bromley commits the girl to be examined by two Justices of the Peace called William Leigh and Edward Chisnal. Under questioning Grace readily admits that her story is untrue, and said she has been told what to say by Jane Southworth's uncle, Christopher Southworth aka Thompson, a Jesuit priest who is in hiding in the Samlesbury area. Leigh and Chisnal question the three accused women in an attempt to discover why Southworth might have fabricate evidence against them, but none can offer any reason other than that each of them goes to the Anglican Church.

Next the judge ordered the jury to find the defendants not guilty after the statements have been read out in court. Potts then goes on to praise the judge for his “great care” in rooting out a wicked Papist plot that would have seen three innocent (Protestant) women sent to their deaths. The judge also warns those in the court that they need to be constantly on their guard against manipulative people who had no respect for “kindred or friendship.” With this the court case finishes and unfortunately little is known about what happens next to the individuals concerned.

The Salmesbury case is a fascinating study in medieval court life and their outlook on witchcraft. It illustrates how easily people make accusations about witchcraft that play havoc with the lives of those who accused. Paranoia and opportunism then allow for these situations to rapidly escalate in gravity and scope. Fortunately common sense eventually prevails. 


Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part One

It scarcely seems believable that people were genuinely afraid of witches during the medieval ages. Common beliefs held that witches cause untold distress. A lot of these fears inform people’s expectations and as paranoia increases so do the charges. 


Examples of this include calling for Satan's aid using a cat as a medium; causing financial ruin, death as revenge on an unwilling suitor and rather euphemistically ‘causing lameness to her husband’. No wonder then today we say when accusations are running wild that accusers are pursuing a ‘witch hunt’.

Fear of witchcraft during the Middle Ages is widespread. Even the King himself, James I has a purient interest in these matters. He reads many witch books and appoints himself expert enough to explain his views in a book called ‘Daemononlogie’. This fear can even be traced back as far as 1441, when Eleanor, wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and brother of Henry V is accused of using sorcery to attempt murder of the new King, Henry VI. These charges are so serious that two of her ‘accomplices’ are executed and she has to divorce her husband. Paranoia even exists well into the 1640’s when Mathew Hopkins infamously becomes a notorious witchfinder general and starts to rounds up, torture and executes suspects. Estimates suggest he murders hundreds of ‘witches’ in this manner and also uses the famous torture of drowning suspects on the basis that the innocent go to heaven and the guilty will not drown.

One of the most famous examples of this fear in our country to ever happen begins in 1612 in Salmesbury. The case of the Salmesbury Witches is very interesting in its own right and neatly contrasts with the Pendle Witch trial that happens at the same time, in the same location in Lancashire but has a different outcome. In this later saga two families fall out with each other and ended up implicating one another in witchcraft. The prosecution rely upon one main source of evidence for all this, Jennet Device, a nine year old daughter of one of the two families. As flimsy as it sounds it is still enough in the eyes of the law for ten people to be executed for their ‘crimes’ based on her evidence.

The Samlesbury witches involves three women from the Lancashire village of Samlesbury—Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley. They are accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft. Their trial at Lancaster Assizes in England on 19 August 1612 is one of the few recordings we have left of how witches are dealt with and so it offers us lots of insight into how others think at that time.

How the saga develops also sheds some light on why prosecutions happen. Back on 21st March 1612 Alizon Device meets John Law and a petty disagreement ensues. A few minutes later he suffers a stroke. The local magistrate, Roger Nowell investigates the case and after some heavy-handed interrogation he manages to extract evidence and confessions out of Alice and ten others. They are sent to Lancaster jail for sentencing at the next court hearings.

News of this large scale witch prosecution spreads rapidly and other Lancashire magistrates become aware of it and either out of fear or trying to leverage cynical advantage (by obtaining a large number of successful prosecutions) decide to seek out witches in their own area. One such investigator is Robert Holden. On 15 April 1612 he begins investigations in his own area of Samlesbury. Sure enough he finds eight individuals who are then committed to Lancaster Assizes. 

A trial is held for them at Lancashire castle on 19 August 1612 in front of Sir Edward Bromley, a judge seeking promotion to a circuit nearer London. As the trial begins Bromley orders the release of five of the eight defendants from Samlesbury, with a warning about their future conduct. For the remainder though there is no let up. The three women left (Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley) are accused of using "diverse devillish and wicked Arts” on Grace Sowerbutts (Jennet's grand-daughter and Ellen's niece) for which they plead not guilty.


Part two can be found here

The Salmesbury Witch Trial, Part Two

Friday, 10 July 2015

How Henry VIII Helped the Astronauts Land on the Moon in 1969

On the face of it the idea of a link sounds implausible and far-fetched and yet when NASA engineers were at a loose end on how to create a strong yet flexible astronaut space suit for a trip to the moon they decide the best option is to look at the King Henry VIII suit of armour.

Throughout the 1950’s they experiment with a variety of designs that will allow astronauts to move unhindered so they can travel around the moon whilst being protected from the atmosphere. The problem they come up against is that the existing options are either very cumbersome or just slightly modified versions of fighter pilot clothing that offer little flexibility. Suddenly in a moment of inspiration one of the engineers argues that perhaps a workable solution already exists if they will only examine the best medieval armour that has been made. So the NASA engineers head off on a mission to find the best examples of medieval armour to assist them in finding a solution to their problem.

Naturally one site they are very interested in looking at is the Tower of London as it is well known for its excellent collection of armour. In 1962 a team arrives in England and examines a suit of armour designed for Henry VIII that was created for 1520 Festival of Cloth the and is held in the Tower of London.

They are astonished at what they find. Looking at it carefully they can see that the layers of armour completely cover the whole body down to the millimetre without restricting flexibility. The solution hit upon hundreds of years ago is to use overlapping layers carefully designed to allow movement without the plates rubbing against one another. When one of the team has a moment to reflect upon this he says that if only they had known this earlier they might have saved themselves years of wasted effort.

If you would like to read more about King Henry VIII then check out

Henry VIII and his infamous Festival of the Cloth of Gold Meeting, 1520.



Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Real James Bond, Dalziel-Job and his adventures in Wartime Norway, 1940, Part 2

The German land forces take Narvik during the early stages of World War Two without much difficulty and 3,000 troops are soon stationed there. Then British ships arrive and their infantry move eastwards and retake Narvik. Patrick then flouts orders and goes on a motorcycle straight into the town to meet the Mayor and warn him of the need to evacuate within the next 24 hours before the town is bombed by the Germans .

Patrick endures great hardship with unflagging spirits despite having barely any sleep at all. He is helped by some French Legionnaries. Patrick notes many are often half-drunk and willing to steal but they also have a tough character and are generous to a fault. One in particular sticks in his mind. He is a wounded man and yet shows his gentle nature despite his obvious pain and gives Patrick a cigarette to help him. Patrick does not even smoke but is so overwhelmed with gratitude he smokes his first and last ever cigarette .

Times runs out and the Germans strike hard. Two Norwegian coastal defence ships are sunk with only eight men surviving out of a crew of 182 on the ‘Eidsvoll’ ship. Such is the speed and shock of the attack on Narvik, the local garrison commander mistakenly assumes the German ships are actually British ships and the troops landing are there to help the Norwegians. When he finds that the troops are German, Colonel Sundlo, warns the Germans that he will order an attack in 30 minutes if they do not re-embark. However the German commander, Dietl holds firm and tells him this will only lead to needless bloodshed .

A standoff ensues but eventually Sundlo decides to capitulate and surrender the port. In so doing he takes a risk as he knows it might look cowardly. As soon as this happens Dalziel-Job’s particular role becomes evacuating the allied soldiers from the town as quick as possible. However he feels deeply troubled with his conscience at the thought of leaving behind all the civilians. It is at this point he shows his brave character by deciding to disobey orders to ‘not repeat not’ help the civilians .

Instead he makes use of his knowledge of the Norwegian coastline to facilitate the evacuation of the civilians too. On 2nd of June the Germans begin bombing with 23 bombers who proceed to set the town ablaze. When the Mayor and Patrick leave the town on to the last fishing boat on the harbour quay one Friday evening on the 7th June less than one hundred people remain in the town .

Far from this being the end of this particular adventure Patrick then has to deal with the aftermath of disobeying his orders. Not to be outdone though he next displays his cunning. According to his son Iain "He made sure he took the Major of Narvik back with him. He got the Norwegian King, who was based in London then, to present him with a medal, so he really couldn't be court marshalled after that .”

As if that did he would still be a war hero and yet afterward he still went on to do so much more. He learnt how to parachute, navigate using a miniature submarine and ski backwards and most excitingly get involved with the clandestine undercover 30AU unit . It is here he is introduced to Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels and takes on various missions deep within Nazi held territory. One of the commanders in the unit, Rear-Admiral Jan Aylen, later described Dalzel-Job as "one of the most enterprising, plucky and resourceful" people he had encountered during the war . Who knows what other great stories have been hidden away from us that were carried out whilst on ‘Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.

If you liked this story then you will also enjoy reading about 

The Real James Bond, Dalziel-Job and his adventures in Wartime Norway, 1940, Part 1