Today we take a trip to the village of Milton in Bedfordshire at the start of the 17th Century. The close-knit nature of village life meant that tensions often ran high, a fact made painfully evident in the case of Mother and Mary Sutton, two hog tenders accused of bewitching horses and cattle, paralysing a servant, and tormenting a seven year old boy to death.
Mother Sutton had apparently lived for the best part of twenty years in the area without incident, her daughter Mary moving in at a later date to help in her advanced age. This came to an end however when Mother Sutton had cause to fall out with Master Enger, a gentleman landowner in the local area. Over a period of time he found his horses and swine were destroyed and driven mad by an unseen hand, the animals cannibalising or drowning themselves in their frenzy. Previous injuries to his livestock were also seen in a new light, and he and several other villagers grew to believe them caused by the machinations of the Sutton women.
Matters came to a head, however, when Henry Sutton, (one of Mary Sutton's three “bastard” children) was apprehended by one of Enger's servants for throwing stones and mud at local children in the Mill Dam. When he didn't stop, the man struck the boy round the ears. In umbrage, the child ran home to tell his mother, thus setting a fatal chain of events in motion.
The next day, as Enger's cart was taking corn to market, a fat black sow appeared before the horses. According to reports, it turned and spun in the road, bewitching the horses who dragged the cart this way and that, before finally running off with their load. Although the goods were recovered and the horses calmed, the very same thing occurred again on the way home. To further compound matters, the same sow was seen by a servant going into Mother Sutton's house the day after.
The same servant who had boxed Henry Sutton's ears and accompanied the cart, then suffered an incident in the fields where he worked. After being stung by a beetle he fell into a trance, incapable of movement or speech, much to the horror and bewilderment of his fellow workers. Enger was summoned and helped his servant home, where he was confined to bed, with very little hope given for his recovery. During this torment, it was claimed that Mary Sutton entered through his window to sit at the foot of his bed. There she worked at her knitting or stared at him, making lewd suggestions as to how he could cure himself by taking her to bed. Upon being rebuffed, Mary departed, freeing the servant to speak and tell his master what had happened.
To help the man, Master Enger found Mary tending her hogs; when she would not come willingly with him to his house, she was forced onto horseback and dragged there with considerable force. Taken to the suffering man's bedside, blood was drawn from her, upon which the servant's condition was said to noticeably improve. Before leaving, however, Mary was seen to touch the man's neck, causing him to fall back into a state once more.
Amidst a great deal of gossip and hearsay, Enger's seven year old son, hearing reports of Mary and Mother Sutton's supposed behaviour, threw stones at Mother Sutton and called her a witch. Not long after this incident the boy fell ill and died. The grief-stricken Enger, in no doubt that Mary and her mother were to blame, sought advice from a friend, who suggested he have the women swum to ascertain their guilt.
Accordingly, Mary was again accosted by Enger, beaten senseless, and dragged to the Mill Dam where she was throw into the water with a rope around her middle. She is said to have sunk a little before floating, before being taken from the water. A group of local women were ordered to search Sutton for signs or marks, and a teat was supposedly found under her left thigh. She was floated a second time, bound toe to thumb; this time Sutton was reported to have spun around as if caught in a whirlpool. It is said that even with servants on either end of the rope tossing her up and down, she could not be made to sink.
A woodcut of the swimming of Mary Sutton.
Taken from the 1613 Pamphlet,
With Mary still professing her innocence, it was Henry Sutton who allegedly informed against his mother and grandmother, securing their conviction. Either voluntarily or under duress, the boy repeated that he had heard the two women discussing revenge on Enger, through the use of their familiar spirits, Dicke and Jude, with the aim of tormenting the man and killing his son. After this, Mary broke down and confessed, confirming the story told by her son.
Mother and Mary Sutton were imprisoned in Bedford Gaol, put on trial and found guilty of witchcraft on Monday 30th March, 1612. Both were hanged a few days later on 7th April.
This case is of particular note as it is the first example of using water to test a witch in England. (Although the practice had been used on the continent much earlier, and the cold water ordeal had been used on women suspected of other crimes prior to this date.)