Everyone knows the story of the Lancashire witches.
They were the ten men and women that were hung on Gallows Hill after being found guilty of Maleficium, causing harm through witchcraft in 1612.
While the Pendle Witches were immortalized and remembered, the Samlesbury Witches seemed to escape popular history.
Who were the three women accused of such heinous crimes as child-murder and how did they escape the noose when the Pendle Witches didn’t?
We will explore their trial, the evidence brought against them, the differences between the Samlesbury and Pendle Witches and how the trio walked free.
The reformation and Pendle’s influence
We brushed on the reformation slightly in the last article but tended to focus more on James I and his obsession with Witchcraft, particularly his book Deamonologie.
What also had a mass influence on the societal divide at the time was the Reformation.
For those not in the know, the Reformation was a split in the Catholic Church, pre-Early Modern times Catholicism was the only recognized church, it was the law of worship. Other Christian faiths like Hussites and Cathars were squashed out in Crusades that mirrored the forays into the Middle-East.
Catholicism was Christianity and most kingdoms were so intertwined with religion that monarchs bowed down to Rome.
They relied on divine right to hold their crown, God had given it to them and to shy away from Rome was to shy away from that right.
That all changed in the 16th Century. Theologians across Europe decided that religion no longer needed to be at the behest of rich, Latin speaking overlords that controlled faith and governance.
Calvinism, Lutheranism and all manner of alternate Christian sects broke away from the Catholic Church, publishing holy books in the vernacular and promoting a stripped back, self-imposed religious sect.
This was Protestantism. Religion without priests, without Latin, without the Eucharist, communion, monks or nuns, permeated across Europe.
Whilst most European citizens saw the reformation as means to get closer to god and find true faith, others took it as an opportunity to take full control of their crown, to split the church from the state and, in our case, get a serious divorce.
Many are well versed in Henry VIII’s own reformation and the creation of the English Church. His passing of the Act of Supremacy in 1534 made him supreme head of the Church in England not the Pope. Thus any allegiance to Rome through Catholic beliefs was considered treasonous.
This aspect of British life became intensely important to the northwest where Catholicism appeared so ingrained in day-to-day life that it was hard to eradicate.
Northern England was much less urban and industrious and the ideals of new-fangled Protestantism had not caught on. Rural areas were still strongly Catholic and clung onto their community Church.
In fact, the only major Catholic uprisings, starting with the Pilgrimage of Grace, began in Yorkshire in 1536, gathering support from dissidents in Cumberland, Northumberland and Lancashire and was followed up by a rebellion in Westmorland the next year.
By the time of James I, the first Stuart king, there was still a deeply Catholic populous in Lancashire and it was James’ desire to eradicate it.
Justices of the Peace, the sheriffs of Early Modern England, were ordered to compile a list of recusants, those refusing to attend the Anglican Church.
We’ve already discussed the possibility that Pendle’s justice, Roger Nowell, targeted the well-known Catholic Nutter family during the Pendle Witch Trial to curry favor with the king, using witchcraft as an excuse to rid his patch of Catholics.
After Nowell brought the Devices, Nutters and all the other Pendle Witches into Lancaster gaol to face trial, the Samlesbury justice took the opportunity to investigate his own area. It was almost as if Pendle had kickstarted a trend, trials came in waves with the ’emergence’ of witchcraft in one area causing others to consider their neighbors and friends.
This is when the Southworth family enter the equation and strangely, it was Anglican faith and a spiteful Catholic within their family that led to the trial.
Much like the famous Towneley’s in Burnley, the Southworth’s were part and parcel of Lancashire, one of the old families whose bloodline permeated throughout history.
Their ancestry centers around Samlesbury Manor, a house previously owned by the d’Ewyas family, it was destroyed in 1322 when a party of Scottish invaders led by Robert the Bruce penetrated areas of Carlisle, Yorkshire, East Riding and Chorley.
Unlike the Towneleys, the d-Ewyas were the descendants of Anglo-Saxon stock. Ralph the Timid, Earl of Hereford was the grandson of Æthelred the Unready King of the English.
His son Harold d’Ewys took that name for the first time and came to hold the Herefordshire lands. Although very little is known about him, he was favored by the Anglo-Saxon King, Edward the Confessor, who raised Harold after Ralph died in 1057.
Harold’s main descendants were the Sudeleys of Gloucestershire, a much more prestigious and long-lasting family name, with the Sudeley baronage lasting into the 20th Century and Sudeley Castle still standing proud in Winchcombe.
It was his younger son Robert FitzHarold d’Ewyas that carried the name forward. He would have lived during William the Conquerors’ invasion of England when the Anglo-Saxon noble class was replaced by a Norman lineage.
The name continues, births and deaths across Hereford and Gloucestershire until 1259 when John d’Eyas married Cecily de Samlesbury, taking Samlesbury hall into their possession. His daughter Alice married Sir Gilbert II de Southworth of Warrington, another traditionally Anglo-Saxon family who at some point married into Norman stock, with Gilbert’s forefather Ormeus Magnus carrying the nickname: ‘Ormeus the Norman.’
Gilbert was given half the manor and he rebuilt Samlesbury Hall over the site of the old house in 1325.
Their strongly Catholics beliefs of the Southworths seemed to grow stronger with time as the reformation and religious schisms dominated the Early Modern era.
The third John Southworth (warning: there are a lot of John Southworths) took a leading role in several plots to overthrow the vehemently Anglican Elizabeth I who had followed her father’s path of Catholic persecution.
He had been privy to plots that would have replaced the Queen with Mary I of Scotland and could have had some hand in planning the failed Northern Rising in 1569 which saw hundreds of earls in the north rise up against Elizabeth. The result was a resounding defeat for the north and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for treason.
It is also believed that he was the father of the ‘white lady,’ a ghost who supposedly haunts Samlesbury hall to this day. The legend goes that she fell in love with an Anglican boy, displeasing John who forbade her to marry.
Her lover was found by her brothers and killed along with his two friends. She was sent away in disgrace and died in some foreign convent.
Sir John continued to be known as a serial recusant who had been arrested on several occasions for not recognizing the English Church but sometime between 1582 and 1584 his son John broke away from the family and supported the Praish of England.
The son John was disinherited for his actions.
His beliefs may have softened later as he began to reluctantly attend the English Church in 1588. His disinherited son married Jane Sherburne in 1598, three years after his death. He never saw his son marry an Anglican but his beliefs about Jane almost condemned her to death.
Jane Southworth accused
Jane and the fourth John Southworth lived in Samlesbury lower hall, having seven children together before John’s untimely death in 1612.
Her Anglican faith did not make Jane popular with the Southworths, especially her husbands’ uncle Christopher.
Christopher, a Catholic priest, decided to use a girl called Grace Sowerbutts to accuse Jane, as well as Grace’s aunt and grandmother, of witchcraft.
Grace had been sent to Christopher to learn from him, possibly by her father Thomas, he and Christopher seem to have engineered a means to get the Anglicans in their community shunned and arrested, using witchcraft as a guise.
14-year-old Grace claimed that Jane, her grandmother Jennet Bierley and her aunt Eileen Bierley, had dragged her by the hair from her bed, come to her in the visage of a black dog (a black dog was referenced throughout the Pendle trial) and tried to press-gang her into their ‘sisterhood,’ implying that they were part of some sort of covern.
The trio, and five others, were committed to Lancashire Castle and put with the Lancashire witches, awaiting the next Lancashire assize or trial to be held.
Like the Pendle trial, the court case was recorded in Thomas Pott’s Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.
Trial or show trial?
Only Jane, Jennet and Eileen ever made it trial.
The remainder were freed on the order of the Judge, Sir Edward Bromley, although they were warned that they had been fortunate to escape and were all required to provide sureties against their future conduct
Bromley seemed to have been well aware of what was going on, Grace was the only evidence in this case and all three of the accused who would go to trial were well known Anglicans in amongst staunch Catholics.
That didn’t stop the chief witness, Grace, making both harrowing and serious accusations against the three women.
She claimed that they killed a one-year-old boy using a nail, ate part of his flesh and then boiled the bones into an ‘unctuous ointment’ which could be used to change their appearance.
Bromley was obviously skeptical of the evidence presented and appointed justices of the peace, William Leigh and Edward Chisnal to further investigate during the trial and it very quickly fell apart.
When questioned further, Grace had little more too add and when both Eileen and Jane claimed that they had been targeted due to their faith and named Christopher Southworth as the priest was involved things came into place rapidly.
Other witnesses connected to the Southworths had lied, John Singleton and William Alker claimed to the court that the now dead third Sir John had thought Jane was a witch and been so scared of her, that he would avoid passing her home, despite the fact that Sir John had died seventeen years earlier, whilst Jane was still a young girl growing up in a neighboring village.
Some admitted to lying, the Wonderful Discoverie of Witches read: ‘some that were present told his Lordship, [the Judge], the truth [and] all things were laid open at large.’
The trio were acquitted.
Many historians see this trial as too cut and shut to have been real. Bromley, eager for promotion, knew the evidence against the Samlesbury three was weak and probably used the trial as a means to demonize Catholicisim, a thesis presented by Rachel Hasted.
Much of Grace’s evidence was dismantled and it had always gone against the believed ideals and perceptions of British witchcraft held in James I’s Deamonologie. Witches couldn’t transform themselves into animals, the animals were familiars who came to them, creating a link between them and the devil. Similarly, they did cause death through physical acts, using a weapon but merely used the familiars to target and maim.
Bromley used the trial to his advantage and the root of the accusations were laid at the door of Grace who was denounced as the ‘perjuring tool of a Catholic priest.’
In short the trial had turned swiftly from one attacking witches to one condemning Catholics, further proof that the higher powers were able to manipulate the courts to curry favor and dictate outcomes that suited them.