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Northern History ISSN: X (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: Women, Witchcraft, and Slander in Early Modern England: Cases from the Church Courts
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Northern History ISSN: X (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: Women, Witchcraft, and Slander in Early Modern England: Cases from the Church Courts of Durham, Peter Rushton To cite this article: Peter Rushton (1982) Women, Witchcraft, and Slander in Early Modern England: Cases from the Church Courts of Durham, , Northern History, 18:1, , DOI: / To link to this article: Published online: 20 Nov Submit your article to this journal Article views: 699 View related articles Citing articles: 5 View citing articles Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at Download by: [ ] Date: 26 January 2017, At: 02:53 WOMEN, WITCHCRAFT, AND SLANDER IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND: CASES FROM THE CHURCH COURTS OF DURHAM, PETER RUSHTON EUROPEAN WITCHCRAFf has provided the means for the exploration of many fundamental aspects of early modern society, from the progress of rationality to the status of women.! While most studies, with a few honourable exceptions, 2 have concentrated on the secular criminal courts, this paper will examine the light cast on witchcraft beliefs by the cases concerning witchcraft brought under ecclesiastical law. The church court records can provide revealing glimpses of two aspects of witchcraft. Firstly, the types of persons presented, and their alleged practices suggest that the ecclesiastical authorities were using a very different definition of witchcraft from that prevailing in the criminal courts. One purpose here will be to see if this was so in Durham and Northumberland. Secondly, the virtual monopoly by the church courts of slander cases in this period raises the question of whether there were opportunities at the local level for private suits against accusers that could defeat witchcraft accusations. 3 An examination of the substance and circumstances of the slander cases involving witchcraft will, it is hoped, establish the extent to which this was so. Cohn has demonstrated the importance of penalties for false accusations in the medieval period, and it is of critical interest to discover if there were any such deterrents operating in England during the era of the witch craze. 4 Church court proceedings may therefore permit a more detailed examination of the range of official attitudes on the one hand, and of the tactical possibilities of defeating or deterring accusations on the other. 1 See K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Harmondsworth, 1973), A. Anderson and R. Gordon, 'Witchcraft and the status of women - the case of England', British Journal of Sociology, XXIX (1978), J. K. Swales and H. V. Mclachlan, 'Witchcraft and the status of women: a comment', British Journal of Sociology, xxx (1979). 2 P. Tyler, 'The Church Courts at York and Witchcraft Prosecutions, ', Northern History, IV (1969), and A. Macfarlane. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (1970), for example. 3 The most recent study is J. A. Sharpe, Defamation and Sexual Slanders in Early Modern England: The Church Courts at York, Borthwick Papers, no. 58 (York, 1980). For defamation suits and witch craze, see B. P. Levack, 'The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of ', Journal of British Studies, xx (1980), N. Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons (1976), p. 161 for the discussion of the talion. PETER RUSHTON 117 Recent research has revealed that the church courts remained an important force after the Reformation in the areas of inheritance, slander, and divorce, as well as in the control of immorality and unorthodox religious practices. 5 It is hard to say to what degree the Durham courts were forceful and successful during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, given the generally more fragmentary state of historical record when compared with other dioceses. 6 The impression given is that from the late fifteen-sixties the influence of the courts extended to the remotest parts of Durham and Northumberland, by itself no mean achievement. Also, some courts retained considerable vigour into the eighteenth century: the consistory, for example, was still dealing with slander cases involving witchcraft accusations as late as Two aspects remain obscure, however. First, there is the problem of the division of labour between the church and the secular courts, particularly interesting in Durham where so many magistrates were also clerics. 8 Secondly, there is the problem of division of labour within the sector of church courts, which is hard to assess from records revealing a stream of apparently identical presentments flowing through courts at all levels from the visitations to the High Commission. Possibly the choice of court was made by the churchwardens and clergymen who presented the cases according to an estimate of their seriousness. What emerges from the records of the courts is the difficulties that faced the ecclesiastical authorities in this period in ensuring an efficient system of prosecution in the parishes. One major problem was the recurrent shortage of parish officers, particularly of churchwardens. Men were frequently reluctant to serve as churchwardens, and consequently some parishes were periodically without any at all. Even if they did agree to serve, they were frequently subjected to local pressure not to present people before the courts, and if they did not comply, could be reviled or physically assaulted. Attacks on churchwardens were often cited at visitations in Durham and Northumberland throughout the period; as late as the sixteen-sixties one was assaulted by having scalding holy water thrown at him. As a result of this kind of treatment, some communities 5 See F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life - Morals and the Church Courts (Essex, 1970), and R. Houlbrooke, Church Courts and the People During the English Reformation, (Oxford, 1979). 6 In York, for example; see Sharpe, Defamation, and P. Tyler, NH, IV. 7 Box of Depositions, ; two penances, one dated 1713 (all manuscript sources are in the Department of Palaeography, Durham, unless otherwise stated). 8 D. S. Reid, 'The Durham Church Establishment: The Gentry and the Recusants, ', Durham County Local History Society Bul~etin, XXII (1978), 22. 118 WOMEN, WITCHCRAFT, AND SLANDER were without churchwardens - Boldon in 1596, or Washington in 1598, for example. Refusal to serve was common - Boldon again suffered from this in This kind of pressure naturally hampered the efficient functioning of the ecclesiastical judicial system since churchwardens were fearful of presenting cases. In one instance, in Bamburgh deanery in 1621, a churchwarden admitted that he knew of diverse offences in his parish, but he had no intention of presenting them before the courts 'till he were called in question'.10 It was also the case that some local clergy were not trusted to give an accurate opinion and as a result their allegations were ignored. For example, the rector of Haltwhistle, Thomas Astell, was involved in a series of cases in the sixteen-twenties. He sued in the consistory court in tithe and (probably) defamation suits and was the defendant in a case brought by Richard Fetherstonehalgh, gentleman, in 1629, where he was alleged to have stolen books, furniture, and building materials from the parish church, and to have erected a stack-yard on some graves of the Baylie family. More interestingly, Astell was said to have refused communion to one man for not paying his 'reckoning' (a tithe payment probably), and to Alice Armstrong because he had heard she was a witch. In the light of his other dubious activities, Astell was not believed and the accusation. was turned against him as evidence of his poor character. There seems to have been a complete breakdown in trust here, reflected in the further allegation that Astell had been paid for the absolution of one of his parishioners, but had asked for more money and still presented him at the Corbridge visitation. Significantly, among the crucial witnesses were the curate, the parish clerk, and one of the defendants in an earlier tithe case, Christopher Golightly, who was probably a close relative of the parish clerk. 11 This case illustrates a general point that will be discussed in detail later: a simple accusation was frequently far from sufficient. In a number of instances an apparently plausible accusation was used, not as evidence of witchcraft, but as an indication of faults in the accuser. A deathbed identification of the 'blak devell of Edeedsbrig' by Thomas Hopper in the mid-fifteen-seventies was discounted on the grounds that he was ill and the accused was his father. None of the witnesses took seriously his imprecations to the 'devil' to go away but instead interpreted them as a reflection of his mental disturbance in his 9 Visitations, 3 fol. 41a; Consistory Court ex officio Act Books (henceforth C.C. ex off. A.B.), 4-11 September 1596, 19 August 1598, and 5,12 July Archdeacons' Act Books, 3, fol. 92a (henceforth A.A.B.). 11 Consistory Court Depositions (C.C.Dep.), 12, 17 March 1629; Consistory Act Books (C.C.A.B.), 10, 8 October 1624, and 11,17 June 1630. PETER RUSHTON 119 illness. Yet in fairly similar circumstances Margaret Hooper was able to persuade her husband and friends of the physical presence of the devil in her bedroom in Edmondbyers in 1641, a solemn account of which was published in a London pamphlets. 12 Clearly the general character of the accuser and his present state played a part in determining the amount of credence given to an accusation. When the character of an accuser had been brought into dubious light within the claustrophobic relationships of a small community, as Astell's had, the legitimacy of an accusation was likely to be attacked along with the accuser. Despite administrative difficulties the church authorities in Durham and Northumberland produced a number of prosecutions between the fifteen-sixties and the sixteen-thirties. Because of the poor survival rate of records, we cannot know whether this number, twenty-four cases involving twenty-nine people, is representative or but a proportion of those that occurred. 13 We shall never know whether the original number rivalled that in the equivalent courts in York. 14 However, the cases do seem to fit the general pattern of church prosecutions for magic or witchcraft. First, few of the cases refer to hurt or damage to people: they are mostly concerned with practising or believing in different types of charming or divination. When the nature of the actions is given in detail, it usually turns out to be divination, by turning the riddle and shears, or attempts at curing cattle. Alice Swan, for example, prosecuted in the consistory court in the fifteen-sixties, admitted trying to divine things by turning the riddle and shears for 'filthy lucre and under colour of a singular and secret knowledge of lost things', which she admitted was a kind of divination or charming forbidden by temporal and spiritual laws. 15 This was a kind of divination in which the suspended riddle, or sieve, hung by the shears stuck into the rim, would turn at the mention of the name of the thief, or lover, that the client wished to trace. 16 Another variety of this was to cast 12 Depositions and Other Ecclesiastical Proceedings from the Courts of Durham, ed J. Raine, Surtees Society, XXI (1845), 272, and Most Fearefull and Strange News from the Bishopricke of Durham (originally London 1641, reprinted by M. A. Richardson, Newcastle, 1843). 13 The survival of court records is heavily concentrated between the fifteen-sixties and the sixteen-thirties for all courts. I believe I have found most of the references to witchcraft extant. 14 Tyler, NH, IV, passim. 15 Dean and Chapter Library, Durham, MS 124, fol. 167b, and Raine, Depositions, Durham, p Note the comment on the case of the wife of Thomas Grace of Stannington (Vis., 4, fol. 98b), in M. A. Richardson, The Local Historian's Table Book, Historical Division (Newcastle, 1841), I, 231, and W. Henderson, Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1879), p. 234. 120 WOMEN, WITCHCRAFT, AND SLANDER coloured pieces through the sieve and read some significance into what was held in the mesh. 17 This kind of identification of people could of course have serious implications, leading to accusations of theft. Consequently, one John Rennyson of Ingram (in Alnwick deanery) was presented not only for sorcery by turning the riddle but for staining the character of a number of honest persons. IS In this way divination could lead to defamation, in the eyes of the ecclesiastical courts. A major part of the supposed witchcraft or sorcery (the courts do not distinguish between the two) was the use of magic to cure the illnesses of people or animals. Robert Todd of Morpeth, for example, was prosecuted in 1601 on suspicion of being a 'mediciner of Cattle or a charmer of hunges hurt' - referring to hung or prolapsed cattle. 19 Two women, Katherine Thompson and Anne Nevelson, were presented in 1604 for being charmers 'of sick folkes and their goods, and they use to bring white ducks or drakes and to sett the bill thereof to the mouths of the sicke person and mumble uppe their charmes in such a strange manner as is damnible and horrible'.20 In other cases it seems as though the personal behaviour alone caused suspicion; one Janet Farre of Rock, near Alnwick, was 'supposed to be a witch and hath spoken bad speeches tending to witchcraft'.21 Because many of the accused were selling their services to their fellow villagers, the church courts seem to have had a policy of punishing the credulity of clients as much as the sin of the witches. It is therefore not uncommon to find a witch and her clients prosecuted together in the same court. The 'witches of Hart', as local historians have come to call them, were in fact Allison Lawe and two of her clients presented in Lawe was allegedly a notorious sorcerer and enchanter, while Janet Bainbridge and Janet Allenson were accused of 'asking counsell at witches and resorting to Allison Lawe for the cure of the sicke'. 22 Similarly, Elizabeth Browne was prosecuted at the Alnwick visitations in 1601, together with George Hunter, who was accused of trying to cure Stephen Cramer's cow 'by goeing to the house of Elizabeth Browne and there cutt a pece of turfe 17 Seethe case of Jane Urwen, probably defamation, C.C.Dep., 12, July to February A.A.B., 3, fol. 21a, 29 April A similar case, where the technique involved was that of the Bible and key, occur at fol. 46b. 19 Vis., 5, fol. 91b, 14 October Ibid., fol. 70a. 21 Vis., 4, fo1. lob. 22 Richardson, Table Book, p. 219, and W. Fordyce, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatinate of Durham (1857), II, 242. The original source seems to be no longer extant. PETER RUSHTON 121 of the house, asked the milke for god's sake and so it was gott againe'.23 In other cases the credulous clients alone were punished, for buying charms or taking counsel of witches. 24 It seems as though the church authorities were worried by the effect such magical practitioners were having on other people - and on occasion made a point of this. Alice Swan, for example, confessed to the 'procurement' of her collaborators and clients under the persuasion of the devil and begged forgiveness from the Christians she had offended. 25 The most dangerous influence could exist in those cases where the practitioner also had a powerful position in the local community. This was particularly clear when the accused was a clergyman. It was by no means unusual for clergymen to be prosecuted for some kind of magic, and examples are found in several parts of England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Durham, as in York, the High Commission was the court that dealt with these cases, primarily because of the severe penalties it could inflict. 26 There are hints of the involvement of local clergy in witchcraft in other courts: three people in 1620, prosecuted in the archdeacon's court, claimed to have learned their witchcraft or sorcery from Thomas Lyons, formerly curate of their parish of Earsdon (near Tynemouth). Certainly Lyons was a likely candidate: he had been accused of marrying excommunicated persons sixteen years earlier, an allegation nearly repeated by two people clandestinely married in Presumably it was publicly known that he had little loyalty to the laws of the church. In a more blatant case, though, the local people could provide evidence for prosecution before the High Commission. This happened in the case of John Vaux, curate of St Helen's, Auckland until his prosecution in After sixteen years there he was presented for 'sundry misdemeanors', mostly concerned with the casting of figures to find stolen or lost property. The interesting thing is that Vaux had already been tried before the Assizes and reproved, so the High Commission case represented a bid for a second conviction. The collection of witnesses against 23 Vis., 5, fo1. 12a. 24 Vis., 4, fols 163a and 173a, Bellis Yarrowe of Bellingham; also C.C. ex off. A.B., 7, fo1. 37a, two men for resorting to charmers and sorcerers. 25 As f.n See Tyler, NH, IV, 99, and The Courts of the Archdeaconry of Buckingham, , ed. E. M. Elvey, Bucks Record Society, 19 (1975), A.A.B., 2, fols 53a and 139a. See H. H. E. Craster, History of Northumberland, IX (1909), xi for this reference and an account of the attack on a witch in the time of George Lyons, a hundred years after this presentment. I am obliged to Mr R. Hudleston for the 1604 reference. 122 WOMEN, WITCHCRAFf, AND SLANDER him was impressive: only two of the twelve were under thirty, three were gentlemen and five yeomen. They alleged that for many years Vaux had used several almanacs (which he left on the communion table) to divine the location of lost property, and had been seen to write mysterious 'libels and epigrams', or notes and figures, that the witnesses did not understand. He was suspended from the ministry for three years, imprisoned during the pleasure of the commissioners, and required to pay costs. Unfortunately they had not taken into account the poverty of Vaux and his family, so had to award them a part of the stipend of his replacement in the cure, and after a year restored him to the position. 28 The punishment of Vaux was unusually severe, probably because he was considered to have abused his position of trust. The majority of cases came before lesser courts with less swingeing powers, and the punishments were those permitted to the church - penance, or purgation before witnesses. The general intention was to ensure a public confession of sin rather than to punish crime. Certainly this seems to be another example of the much-vaunted mildness of English attitudes towards witchcraft. Whether or not this is a fair assessment, it is certainly true that few of the convicted witches in the Durham church courts had to do more than public penance. In the case of the witches of Hart, in three places, once in Durham market-place, and once in the churches of Norton and Hart, on successive Sundays. Others were sentenced to be purged of their sin, with or without witnesses to stand for them. 29 The consequences of refusal to obey the orders of the court are not clear: it may be that the large number of excommunicated persons in Durham and Northumberland had behaved in this way. Even then the implications of standing excommunicated cannot have been too daunting, to judge from the length of time people were willing to remain in that state. Two or three years were not unusual terms for excommunication to run, and in one unusual case a woman had stood excommunicated for between sixteen and twenty years for fornication. 30 It was possible to use the High Commission to summon those who remained recalcitrant; as we have seen, this could result in imprisonment. But even that court was not necessarily treated with respect by some: in 1616, the churchwardens of 28 Dean and Chapter Library, Durham, vol. 16, fol. 65, and vol. 17, fol. 58, and The Acts of the High C
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