400 years since the Northampton Witch Trials

Looking Glass Theatre are doing the Crucible to fit in with 400th anniversary of the Witch trials in Northampton.
Looking Glass Theatre are doing the Crucible to fit in with 400th anniversary of the Witch trials in Northampton.

COME Halloween and there will be plenty of people in Northampton ready to don their black hats and dress up as witches.

COME Halloween and there will be plenty of people in Northampton ready to don their black hats and dress up as witches.

But a few centuries ago, few would have been so ready to identify themselves as such, because being labelled a witch could lead to a grisly fate.

It is now 400 years since The 1612 Northampton Witch Trials, which saw six accused of the “crime”, which was then punishable by death, and these were not the only “witches” to be hunted down in the county.

Donna Scott, who has organised an exhibition about the trials at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, has extensively researched the topic.

“The alleged witches were gathered together in Northampton Castle, which was also where the trial was held over the Lent assizes of 1612,” said Donna.

According to manuscripts studied by Donna there were six accused, two of these were a mother and daughter, Agnes Browne and her daughter, Joan Browne (or Vaughan).

“Agnes and Joan were accused by a gentlewoman, Elizabeth Belcher, and her brother William Avery. Mistress Belcher took a dislike to Joan and accused her of putting a curse on her. After that she is said to have fallen ill and was reported to have sent her brother to try to lift the curse. As Will-iam approached the cottage he said an invisible force held him back.

lifting the curse

“In those days people presumed you wouldn’t be brought to trial unless you were guilty. There was no ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

“It is also reported that the brother marched down to the cells and knocked down the old woman, cutting open her eye and causing it to bleed. It was thought then that if you made a witch bleed it lifted the curse.

“They were kept in prison until July 22 when they were taken to Abington Gallows (now in Abington Park) and

“We often hear stories of burning the witch, but very few were burnt. This was more in Scotland.”

Another hanged at Abington Gallows in 1612 was Arthur Bill, of Raunds, who was accused of bewitching the body “to death” of Martha Aspine, alias Jeames.

Donna said: “The pamphleteer writes that it was difficult to pin Arthur for this crime, but he had been suspected of bewitching cattle previously. Also he and his parents were described as having an “evil life and reputation”.

“It was decided to try all three by water and so Northampton has the dubious boast of having the first recorded use of water ordeal to test witches.

“What exactly happened to Arthur’s parents afterwards is not officially recorded, though the pamphleteer was certain they were witches and recounts that Arthur’s mother cut her own throat ‘to save the hangman a labour’.

“On his execution, Arthur gave a speech to say that “Authority was turned into Tyranny, and Justice into extreme Injury”.

Another Northamptonshire woman arrested in these trials was Mary Barber of Stanwick, arrested on May 6, 1612, by Sir Thomas Tresham, for “bewitching a man to death, and doing much harm to cattle”.

Another hanged at the gallows was Helen Jenkenson, of Thrapston, who was charged with bewitching a child to death.

“She was subjected to a search looking for “that insensible marke that all Witches have in some place or other of their bodies” by a Mistress Moulsho, who announced that such marks had been found,” said Donna.

Bewitching laundry

“Jenkenson is said to have taken revenge by bewitching Mistress Moulsho’s laundry, causing her smock to be covered in images of toads, snakes and other ugly creatures.

“Other known witch trials included that of Ann Foster, of Eastcote, an old woman who was often heard muttering to herself, who was accused by a neighbour, Joseph Weedon, of bewitching his horses, cattle and sheep.

“She was treated terribly during her imprisonment, chained to a post inside the jail. Her chains must have been too tight as they caused painful swellings.

“Rats were seen around her, and rather than being protected from them, observers merely came to the conclusion that it was in this form that the Devil was coming to her. She was hanged as a witch on August 22, 1674,” said Donna.

There is some controversy 
surrounding the last executions for witchcraft in Northamptonshire, said to have taken place in 1705.

“These were two ‘loose women’,” said Donna. “While they were imprisoned, it was said the women caused humiliation to anyone who visited them, causing a Mrs Laxton’s skirts to fly over her head and a prison keeper, who had threatened to put them in irons, to dance naked in the yard for an hour.

“They were were hanged on Northampton Heath (now The Racecourse). Before they died, they decided to make a spectacle of their execution by openly declaring they were witches and calling on the 
Devil to rescue them.”

However, some historians 
argue that the last official witch execution was actually a few years earlier, at the gallows in Exeter in 1688.

“A Northampton man was actually killed in the Salem witch trials in America,” added Donna.

“He was pressed to death because he refused to confess, which meant more and more stones were laid on him. I think in his case it really came down to a property dispute.”

A dramatisation of the Salem witch trials will also mark the anniversary as The Looking Glass Theatre Company perform Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (see The Guide, inside) in Abington Park Museum’s Courtyard.

James Smith, producer, said: “No one is sure where the site of the gallows was, but we will certainly be performing pretty near it. It will make for a really atmospheric setting, and the way the play is being performed, will leave the audience asking, were they really witches?”

A ghost tour will take place at the museum on Halloween when the town’s “witches” will be discussed. For further information visit www.