Little Bits of History

Not Just in the US

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 19, 2014
Samlesbury witches

Samlesbury witches

August 19, 1612: The Samlesbury witches trial is held. Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley were accused of witchcraft by 14-year-old Grace Sowerbutts. The women were from the Lancashire village of Samlesbury and their trial was held at the Lancaster Assizes in England. There were a series of trials held here over a two day period and they were among the most famous witch trials in English history. Thomas Potts, the clerk to the court, published the proceedings in a book entitled The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Over the two days, eleven witches were sentenced to death.

The charges against the three Samlebury witches included child murder and cannibalism. The Pendle witches, also tried during this two day period were accused of maleficium or causing harm by witchcraft. These eleven people were charged with the murder of ten people by using witchcraft. Nine women and two men were tried, ten of them found guilty and hanged. The remaining person was found not guilty. The Samlebury women were much luckier. The case against these three collapsed “spectacularly” when Sowerbutts was exposed by the judge as “the perjuring tool of a Catholic priest.” The three were acquitted.

The witch trials in England during the 16th and 17th centuries are seen today as part of the religious struggles between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches as both attempted to stamp out all heresy in any way possible. Lancashire at the time was considered to be a wild and lawless region and yet, these trials were held not only to purge the area of witches, but also of “popish plotters” or Catholics. King James I had come to power in 1603 and was sure witches in Scotland had been plotting against him. His 1597 book Daemonologie, insisted on the prosecution of witches. After he came to power a law called “An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits” was imposed. Breaking the law was a capital offense but even the king was often skeptical of evidence given at trial.

Catholic priests had been forced into hiding since Queen Elizabeth I had taken the throne in 1558. In 1612, all justices of the peace were ordered to compile lists of people who refused to attend services of the Church of England, a criminal offense. John Southworth had been one of these people and Jane was a relative although there was no love between them. Even before the trial began, five of the Samlesbury witches has been released. The Bierley women were related to Sowerbutts and the young girl accused them of turning themselves into dogs and bothering her.  All three were accused of killing a toddler and taking her body after she was buried and making it into a soup. Under cross examination, Sowerbutts admitted she had perjured herself and the women were released.

A fair trial is one in which the rules of evidence are honored, the accused has competent counsel, and the judge enforces the proper courtroom procedures – a trial in which every assumption can be challenged. – Harry Browne

Every test, every trial, every heartache that’s been significant, I can turn it over and see how God has turned it into good no matter what. – Charles Stanley

Extraordinary afflictions are not always the punishment of extraordinary sins, but sometimes the trial of extraordinary graces. – Matthew Henry

A fox should not be on the jury at a goose’s trial. – Thomas Fuller

Also on this day: “Milk from Contented Cows” – In 1856, Gail Borden received a patent for condensed milk.
The Old Wes – In 1895, John Wesley Hardin, Texas outlaw, was shot.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral – In 1768, the Russian cathedral was founded.
Caesar – In 43 BC, Augustus came to power.

One Response

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  1. hairballexpress said, on August 19, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Wonderful post! It’s pawful that it was so easy to accuse someone of witchcraft then- the paranoia must have been hopelessly out of control. *(Glad I’m a kat)*

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