Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The Witches of Warboys and the Death of Lady Cromwell

The case of the Warboys Witches is perhaps one of England's most well known witch-trial cases. The details are related at length in the extensive albeit descriptively-titled 1593 pamphlet:

The most strange and admirable discovery of the three Witches of Warboys, arraigned, convicted and executed at the last Assizes at Huntingdon, for the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton Esquire and divers other persons, with sundry Devilish and grievous torments: And also for the bewitching to death of the Lady Cromwell, the like hath not been heard of in this age.

According to the account, when one of the daughters of Robert Throckmorton fell ill with strange fits, the family did not at first suspect witchcraft to be behind her illness. As his other daughters also started to share their sister's strange symptoms however, suspicion slowly but surely grew, and the finger was pointed at local woman Alice Samuel, fuelled by the girls themselves naming her as their tormentor, along with, eventually, her husband John and daughter Agnes.  

The Manor House at Warboys 
(With kind permission of Philip Almond)

It was mid-March 1590 when Lady Susan Cromwell nee Weeks, entered the story. Second wife to Sir Henry Cromwell, (who was not only an influential man in the area but also happened to be the landlord of the Samuel family) Lady Cromwell and her daughter-in-law visited the beleaguered Throckmorton household to offer their sympathies for the suffering of the children.

According to the pamphlet, Lady Cromwell:

'...had not long stayed in the house but the children which were there fell into their fits. And were so grievously tormented for the time that it pitied the good lady's hear to see them, insomuch that she could not abstain from tears.'

It was not long before she sent for Alice Samuel; being unable to refuse a summons from the wife of the family landlord, Alice had no choice but to attend, whatever her misgivings might have been. Much to her horror, upon Alice's arrival the condition of the ill children worsened, something that did not bode well for the Samuel family for:

'Then the Lady Cromwell took Mother Samuel aside, and charted her deeply with this work, using also some hard speeches to her.'

Being thus accused of causing the suffering of the children, Alice was understandably upset, denying the accusation and retorting that the Throckmorton's accused her unjustly. It wasn't Master and Mistress Throckmorton who accused her, Lady Cromwell reminded Alice firmly, but the girls themselves who pointed the finger, the spirit that spoke through the girls when they were in their fits vowing that Alice was to blame for their pitiful condition.  

Joan Throckmorton, hearing Alice's denial, insisted that Alice was indeed responsible despite her protestations to the contrary, and that there was a spirit with her who was saying as much at that precise moment. The girl professed extreme surprise to learn that no one else present could hear the 'spirit' speak, as she herself could hear it loud and clear. Throughout this, Alice Samuel continued to insist that she had nothing to do with the strange illness that had invaded the household, but Lady Cromwell, unconvinced, wished to question her further in the presence of a visiting divine, Master Doctor Hall.
Oliver Cromwell, Step-Grandson to Lady Susan 
(Wellcome Library, London)

Alice made excuse after excuse however, and it was clear that she intended to leave for her home without satisfying Lady Cromwell in her questions. Thus frustrated, Lady Cromwell pulled off the kerchief Alice wore over her head and cut off a lock of her hair. Not only that, but she took the old woman's hair lace and gave both to the mother of the children with the instruction to put both in the fire to burn them in order to break Alice's power over the girls. At this unexpected and unwarranted violation, Alice Samuel lost whatever composure she had remaining, uttering the fateful and – some later vowed, fatal – words:

'Madam, why do you use me thus? I never did you any harm as yet.'

What happened next goes unrecorded, but Lady Cromwell left the Throckmorton household that night to return home. She did not sleep well at all, and was 'very strangely tormented' by dreams of Alice Samuel. Her agitated state woke her daughter-in-law who was sleeping with her, and she woke Lady Cromwell in turn, at which the older woman described how a cat, sent to her by Alice Samuel had tormented her in her sleep, threatening to pick the skin and flesh from her arms and body.

Lady Cromwell was so disturbed by the dream that she did not sleep again that night our of sheer terror. Not only that, we are told that 'not long after' she fell ill with a strange sickness. It might have been brushed off as coincidence, but the fits suffered by the lady were said to be similar in nature to those experienced by the Throckmorton girls. The only difference was that she was perfectly aware of the fact the whole time, unlike the girls who were periodically unaware of others in the room with them. Throughout, Lady Cromwell never forgot the words uttered to her by Alice Samuel, that she had not caused her any harm – as yet. Lady Cromwell passed away on 11th July, 1592, a year and a quarter after her ill-fated visit to Warboys.  

It was downhill for the Samuel family from then on. In preparation, Agnes Samuel and Joan Throckmorton were lodged together in the Crown Inn in Huntingdon. Upwards of 500 people were estimated to have visited the pair, attempting and failing to bring Joan out of her fits. On the day of the assizes themselves in April 1593, John Samuel was finally compelled to utter words he had previously refused, admitting that he was a witch and had been party to the death of the Lady Cromwell and commanding Joan Throckmorton to come out of her fit. He was right to have been apprehensive about repeating the words, as the girl appeared as if cured the moment he uttered them. Alice Samuel had also been made to repeat the same words before this point and the same cure was witnessed.  

That evening the judge himself along with several gentlemen and fellow justices attended the pair and it was proved beyond doubt that the only thing that ended Joan's fits was a charge recited by Agnes. 

'As I am a witch and a worse witch than my mother, and did consent to the death of the Lady Cromwell, so I charge the Devil to let Mistress Joan Throckmorton come out of her fit at this present.'

Tragically for Agnes, the girl recovered in full view of those in attendance.  

The following day three indictments were made against the Samuels: the first and most damning was that they were to blame for the death of Lady Cromwell through bewitchment, while the other two dealt with the bewitching of the Throckmorton girls and others in the Throckmorton household. All three were criminal offences under the 1563 Witchcraft Act, but bewitching to death carried with it the death penalty, a crime of which, after the matter was debated for five hours, the Samuel family were found guilty.  

On the day of their execution, Alice Samuel was asked as she stood on the ladder in her final moments to confess again to the murder of Lady Cromwell through witchcraft. She was guilty, she told the assembled crowd, and, when asked why she had borne the lady so much animosity Alice admitted it was because Lady Cromwell had cut some of her hair and burned it along with her hair lace, and that her actions had been carried out in the spirit of revenge. She also implicated her husband in the murder, although right to the end she refused to involve her daughter, trying to protect Agnes to the end. (John Samuel himself never admitted to anything aside from the charge he was forced to recite and neither did Agnes, both going to the noose maintaining their innocence.)

Lady Cromwell's widower, Sir Henry Cromwell, received the goods belonging to the Samuel family, as his right as their landlord. There cannot have been much due to their status, but there was enough money at least to commission an annual sermon to be preached at Huntingdon against the detestable sin of witchcraft. This was carried out until 1812; by that point however the focus had shifted to become instead an indictment and warning against the believing in, rather than the carrying out, of witchcraft.  

Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live: A Tour of England's Witchcraft Legislation

From the middle of the 16th century, to be found guilty of witchcraft was officially a felony in England. Accordingly, if you were unlucky enough to be found guilty of carrying out a range of related practices, you could expect to find yourself facing punishment, from a relatively lenient stint in the pillory to facing the gallows.

What could lead to conviction? And what punishment could you expect at any given point throughout the two centuries that followed? Here is a handy run-down of witchcraft legislation in England.  

1542 Witchcraft Act: An Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery, and Enchantments.

This short-lived piece of legislation appeared on the statute books in the closing years of the reign of Henry VIII, stipulating that to be found guilty of killing someone by witchcraft was punishable by death. The guilty party would also forfeit their lands and goods, and the option of benefit of clergy (the sparing of life if the condemned could read a passage from the bible) and sanctuary were also revoked.

Death was likewise the punishment for the crimes of causing wasting or illness by witchcraft (or even the intent to do so), wasting or destroying another's goods (and again the mere intent to do so was considered as bad as actually carrying out the act itself) attempting to locate treasure, money or stolen goods, and also inciting someone to love another against their will through magical means.

Image magic, i.e. creating an image of a person and causing harm to them through the pricking or otherwise tormenting of the image, was also included in the list of actions leglislated against in the act. 

The digging up of wayside crosses to find treasure that was suspected to be buried underneath was clearly a problem in Tudor England, and accusations and arrests for this offence were still taking place well into the first quarter of the 17th century

Interestingly, the actions mentioned in the Act were those more often associated with men than women, with the exception of love magic, suggesting that the stereotypical woman witch was not the true target of this piece of legislation. 

The act was repealed by Henry's son, Edward VI upon his accession to the throne in 1547.


The remains of Woodhey Cross, Cheshire
(Image by Espresso Addict)

1563 Witchcraft Act: An Act against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts

Witchcraft didn't return to the English statute books until 1563, during the reign of Elizabeth I, and this Act marked the first concerted move against witchcraft and related actions. 

Causing death by witchcraft was still punishable by death and the removal of benefit of clergy and sanctuary still applied. (Where loss of goods and lands were concerned however, dower portions and inheritance were  now exempt from the general rule.) 

A sliding scale of offences came into force with this act, as the wasting of another or causing lameness or likewise destruction of goods was punishable on a first offence not by death, but by imprisonment for twelve months. The guilty party would also have to suffer a stint in the pillory four times during that year, along with publically confessing to their crime, but it was still, arguably, better than the previous blanket alternative. (Given the state of the prisons and the frequency of outbreaks of illness however, many unfortunately did not survive their incarceration.)

 A second offence was treated less leniently however, and to be found guilty a second time for the offence of causing wasting or destruction of person or goods resulted in death. A second offence of intending to cause wasting and lameness or destroying goods was punished by imprisonment for life, as was attempted treasure hunting and provoking others to unlawful love.  

Victims of this Act include:
Agnes Waterhouse, the first to be executed for witchcraft in England, executed 1566
Alice, Agnes and John Samuel, The Warboys Witches, executed 1593 

(Image: Wellcome Collection)

1604 Witchcraft Act: An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits.

This Act was one of the earliest pieces of legislation to be passed in the reign of James I – hardly surprising from a monarch with such a personal interest in witches. (James published his anti-witchcraft Daemonologie in 1597, and he was believed to hold a personal vendetta against witches due to his belief that the Berwick Witches had tried to kill him and his Queen.)

As with previous legislation, death was the punishment for bewitching someone to death. Causing illness or destroying goods was again punishable by death for a first offence rather than the two-tiered approach of the 1563 Act. For intending to cause illness or harm to goods, treasure hunting or love magic, a first offence brought imprisonment for a year and four stints in the pillory (for 6 hours at a time) and a repeat offence of any of these acts however brought the death sentence.

A noteworthy departure made the calling up of or communicating with spirits or familiars punishable by death for the first time, rather than just causing death by such means. An additional crime listed in this Act was the exhumation of corpses for use in witchcraft.  

Victims of this Act include:
Anne Whittle and Elizabeth, Alizon and James Device, among the infamous Pendle Witches - executed 1612
Mary Lakeland, one of England's very few verifiable witch burnings, executed 1645

1736 Witchcraft Act:

Under this act in the reign of George II witchcraft ceased to be a felony; instead the belief in witchcraft became the crime and those who accused others of being a witch could and did find themselves – often bewildered to be doing so – before the courts at the instigation of those they had accused.  

Despite the passing of the Act, belief in witchcraft and related superstitions was slow to decline, and particularly in areas such as Devon and Dorset, suspected witches continued to be attacked and accused outside of the court room well into the 19th century and beyond.

The Act itself was used well into the 20th century, most famously in the case of the prosecution and imprisonment of spiritualist medium Helen Duncan in 1944. The Act was not repealed until 1951, when it was replaced by The Fraudulent Mediums Act.  

People convicted under this Act include:
Helen Duncan, the last person to be imprisoned under the Act, imprisoned January 1944
Jane Rebecca Yorke, for pretending in the existence of spirits of the dead, (last person convicted under the Act) bound over and fined £5, July 1944

Helen Duncan displaying the 'ectoplasm' for which she was 
so famously known.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)