I grew up in Exeter, and – like J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, who attended University there – I have been heavily influenced by the city’s historic architecture, and by the whispers of witchcraft which still haunt its streets. As a teenager I went to a nightclub next to the Castle where some of the witch-trials took place and this caught my imagination. My new book Witchcraft in Exeter: 1558-1660 explores the deep roots of witch-belief in Exeter during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. For centuries people have been simultaneously fascinated and terrified by witches and they have inspired books, plays and films from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Sir Walter Scott’s novels and poetry to the film-maker Nic Roeg’s Witches.
For centuries people have been simultaneously fascinated and terrified by witches and they have inspired books, plays and films from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Sir Walter Scott’s novels and poetry to the film-maker Nic Roeg’s Witches.
My book charts the progress of each case of alleged ‘witchcraft’ from accusation to ultimate sentence drawing on research into the number of court cases and executions in the Devon city over a 100-year period and charts the progress of each case of alleged ‘witchcraft’ from accusation to ultimate sentence. Going through centuries-old court records, manuscript chronicles and registers of births, marriages and deaths, I discovered that Exeter was not only the last place in England where people were hanged for practising ‘dark arts’, but that these were just the last in a series of executions which may have begun as early as 1566. In fact, Exeter may have been one of the first places in the kingdom to sentence a witch to death.
Between the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 and the accession of Charles II in 1660, more than 20 local women and men were accused of being ‘witches’ or ‘sorcerers’, and denounced to the local magistrates. Many of these individuals were believed to possess ‘familiar spirits’: demons in the shape of small animals, like rats and toads, which unleashed their evil powers to ‘waste’ both livestock and humans on the witches’ behalf.
It’s long been known that Exeter witnessed the last English witch-executions. In 1683, three elderly women from North Devon – Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles – were hanged at Heavitree Gallows, while in 1685, another Devon woman, Alice Molland, was sentenced to death at the Exeter Assizes. What we didn’t realise before was that further alleged witches were also executed in Exeter over the preceding 100 years.
The world-famous witch trials at Salem, in colonial America, have been the subject of many books and films, as has the mass witch-hunt led by Matthew Hopkins – the so-called Witch-finder General – in East Anglia in the UK between 1645 and 1647. Yet it’s too rarely appreciated that there were other centres of witch-prosecution in Tudor and Stuart England as well. In Exeter, there was a long succession of indictments and prosecutions during the 16th and 17th centuries, which resulted in many unlucky women and men being banished, imprisoned or sent to the gallows.
In Exeter, there was a long succession of indictments and prosecutions during the 16th and 17th centuries, which resulted in many unlucky women and men being banished, imprisoned or sent to the gallows.
Among the cases of witch-craft highlighted is one which occurred soon after a Parliamentary statute of 1563 first decreed that those convicted of using ‘conjurations, enchantments and witchcrafts’ should suffer the death penalty. Two local women, Maud Park and Alice Mead, appeared before the city court in 1566 and were charged with causing death and physical injury through the exercise of ‘magic art’. Park and Mead were both found guilty, and although no record of their execution survives, if they did indeed fall victim to the noose – as seems all too likely – then they were among the first people in England to be executed for witchcraft following the passage of the statute.
Further hangings of witches certainly took place in the city soon after this case. In 1585, for example, an Exeter woman named Thomasine Shorte was convicted of killing the entire family of an unfortunate local weaver through the exercise of the ‘black arts’ and was executed at the city gallows. Then, in 1609, an Exeter labourer named Richard Wilkyns was likewise hanged, after having been convicted of killing and hurting both people and livestock through witchcraft.
Other cases discussed in my book include those of Mary Stone, an Exeter widow, who in 1620 was accused of killing chickens, infesting a household with lice and killing a man by bewitching him – causing him to fall from a field stile. She was also alleged to have commanded a familiar, in the shape of a rat, to spy on a woman and ‘do her harm’. Similarly accused of conspiring with familiars was Joan Baker, whom witnesses claimed kept toads in a pot and who was even seen with a toad sitting in her lap. It’s believed Stone somehow escaped a death sentence and continued to live among her suspicious neighbours. The fate of Baker, who appeared in court in 1653, is unknown.
In my book I provide numerous other individual stories of black magic, sorcery, curses and alleged murder which combine to tell an intriguing tale, shedding powerful new light on occult belief in Tudor and Stuart Exeter and on the dark, uneasy world of the urban ‘witch’.
The book Witchcraft in Exeter: 1558-1660 by Professor Mark Stoyle is published by The Mint Press and available from 10 November 2017.
Professor Stoyle will launch the book with a talk, ‘Witchcraft in Exeter’, at Exeter Guildhall at 7pm on Friday 10 November. Tickets, priced £4, available from Eventbrite.
Mark Stoyle is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton. In addition to his academic work, Mark has also appeared on many TV and radio programmes, including the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, The Great British Story: A People’s History, Inside Out, Making History and Word of Mouth.