In this guest post from Sheilagh O’Brien, we learn a little more about where she discovered the interest and insight for her recent article on the Witch of Newbury, now fresh off the press on the Cerae website!
My interest in the Witch of Newbury came about in the early stages of researching my doctoral thesis on witch trials during the English Civil Wars (1642-1649). Two facets of the major pamphlet on the Witch of Newbury, A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery of a VVitch, struck me: the first was that the case took place outside of the English legal system; and the second was the weight it gave to the physical testing of the witch.
Pamphlets on witches – like those on the Witch of Newbury – give us what Marion Gibson has described as a ‘privileged view of an element within the development of a very specific and enduring myth […] which intersects in increasingly complex ways with what we perceive to be real.’
The pamphlets are often the most detailed records we have, not only for trial proceedings, but for what occurred around them. But even in those cases where we have multiple sources, including trial records and pamphlets, there are many details which we lack about the pre-trial testing, and how communal pressure was applied – if these things were even recorded at all.
That is not to say the records we have don’t provide many other detail, which often startle and confuse the unwary reader. Reading accounts of witches in early modern Europe, you rapidly become desensitised to the many bizarre and disturbing claims made by people who had been bewitched, or who had confessed to having done the bewitching. In the East Anglia trials I examine in my thesis there are many instances of this: in one narrative, swarms of lice were reported to chase down and attack a witch’s victims in broad daylight; another witch claimed to have two familiars in the shape of hounds, with boar bristles on their backs.
Another woman confessed she had seen the Devil in the shape of her recently deceased children, one saw him in the form of her dead husband. Some even said he dressed like a gentleman, and wanted to be their husband. Others claimed to have met the Devil as a little boy on a country road, or a talking dog in a lane late at night. In fact if there is one thing that can be said for early modern witch trials in England, it is that the details of each case are as unique as the person accused.
But these extraordinary details come from within a framework that does become familiar when you work on this area. These witches were accused by their neighbours, following confession they were brought before a magistrate or JP and informations and examinations were set down on paper. After this they would be placed in gaol, awaiting trial, usually by first the Quarter Sessions and then by the Assize courts. These cases were tried under laws we know and understand, and in a structure that by and large remains unchanged across the period.
But the woman killed at Newbury doesn’t fit into any of the normal frameworks. She doesn’t even have a name, because those who found her didn’t take her to trial. Instead the soldiers who saw her arrested her, tested her to see if she was a witch – as they thought – and then executed her that very day. This incident therefore gives us an unusual opportunity to see what a group of men claimed to have done when confronted by what they believed to be a witch. The circumstances of her death make the ‘Witch of Newbury’ one of the most unusual cases of witch persecution (as opposed to prosecution) in early modern England.
It is the extraordinary circumstances of the Witch of Newbury’s death which gives us unusual insight into witch beliefs outside of the legal system. Through texts like A Most Certain, Strange, and True Discovery of a VVitch we actually hear the story of people who believed they were confronted by a witch. Yet even here we are dealing with a second hand source, and so these ideas and the text in which they are found must also be critically examined. Although the ideas were not filtered through the framework of the English court system, they are still filtered through the framework of a witch pamphlet.
The Witch of Newbury was not the only woman attacked and killed by soldiers near or on the site of Civil War battles. The women who died may not have faced a court, but they were persecuted for many of the same reasons other women and men were prosecuted for witchcraft: The attackers judged them to be witches, in part because they thought them to be immoral. Or as one witch in Suffolk would confess: “pride and lustfullnes had brought her to this, […] for she had the deuill w[i]thin [her]”.
Whether the Witch of Newbury likewise regarded herself as having the Devil inside her, we can never know. Certainly her attackers believed that her actions, however potentially innocuous they may have been, were proof of the terrible and terrifying powers of a witch. As unusual as her case is, she met the same fate as more than five hundred others across England and thousands more across the early modern Christian world. Understanding how her attackers conceived of her and the steps they took to prevent her from harming them, gives us access into a world that is both very different, and alarmingly similar, to our own.
You can read Sheilagh’s full article, ‘A ‘Divellish’ Woman Discovered: The Witch of Newbury, 1643’, by clicking here.