Witch Trials

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The Chester witch hangings of the mid 1650's are often recalled in guidebooks, but there is a much deeper history to them than is commonly thought. It involves the execution of Charles I and possibly the whole question of how the country should be governed.

The Warrant to execute King Charles I. The first signature is John Bradshawe of Marple Hall, Cheshire.

The Medieval conception of "witchcraft" can be taken as falling into two broad camps. In a largely agricultural world with very little in the way of science the supernatural was often used as an explanation for events and to account for what passed for medicine, but often more after the fashion of potions. Some people were considered capable of manipulating the supernatural for good or ill, usually on a small-scale with various explanations being given such as spirits and familiars being involved. Others might have a knowledge of herbal medicine, which could often be effective and at least could have a "placebo effect". This first group might also be considered as including "fortune tellers", ranging from soothsayers to astrologers. On the other hand some considered that the only source of "diabolical" power was the Devil and that his ultimate purpose was to bring about the fall of the current church or government and lead to the supremacy of the Antichrist and in consequence the end of the world, thus the second camp would include those who actively conspired towards downfall of the state through "supernatural" means.

The traditional view of witchcraft included covens, familiars and pointy hats.

This article looks at the development of approaches to witchcraft and sorcery as connected with Chester and includes mention of some local cases and the little known "handbook on witches" published in 1617. Somewhat surprisingly this book was dedicated to the mayor and corporation of the city. It was perhaps a topical work, as in the same year as publication Elizabeth Wainewright of Hawarden, widow, and Richard Fazakarley, of Broadlane were both accused, "of going to charmers to be blessed" (a seemingly innocent practice). Charmers are believed by some to be distinct from witches and/or "cunning-folk" and tended to deal with curative medicine. Often they would apply hebal remedies while reciting a prayer or charm. The interesting thing about the Wainewright/Fazakarley case is that the accused were only the receivers of the blessing.

While accusations of witchcraft are often portrayed as often being the first step down a path with no good destination, it did not alawys go against tha supposed witch, as an unproven or frivilous accusation could lead to a return suit for slander. A case at Flint, lodged in 1617, was brought by William Banyon and his wife Katherine. The case (for forty pounds) was against William Starkie and his wife Anne. Anne, at Hawarden earlier that year, had allegedly said to Katherine "Thaw art a witch" (in English - as the writ notes). The outcome was that the verdict was for the plaintiff and assessed at damages of 20s but in the 1618 bill of costs, the total of the plaintiffs' costs was for the sum of three pounds and 14s 6d. The ability to bring a counter-claim for libel may go some way to explain why accusations of witchcraft were so rare in Wales.

The twist in the story of the "Chester Witches" may be the involvement of John Bradshaw who was the presiding judge at their trials, but was also the judge who had brought about the execution of Charles I. Some guidebook will say, if they mention him at all, that this was not the same John Bradshaw, but as disussed below, it was.

Incidentally "wich" as an element of Cheshire placenames has nothing to do with "Witchcraft", but is from Old English wīc (“abode, dwelling-place”), an early borrowing from Latin vīcus (“village”), from Proto-Indo-European *weyḱ- (“village, household”). Latin cognate to Gothic 𐍅𐌴𐌹𐌷𐍃 (weihs), Old High German weihs (“village, settlement”), from Proto-Germanic *wīhsą (“village, settlement”) of the same Proto-Indo-European root. Cognate to Dutch wijk (“neighbourhood”), and may replace it in borrowings. A related form with similar origin is Icelandic "vík".

The article starts with a consideration of the treatment of the supernatural in the Chester Mystery Plays, and then the general development of the laws relating to witchcraft in Europe in general and then Britain in particular, before turning to specific cases involving Chester. A few things that will hopefully become clear are that convicted witches in England were hanged not burned, and that there were a variety of reasons why the trials occurred and why they had the outcomes they did. Much more has been written on the subject than can be discussed and there are is a list of links to sources at the end.

Witches in the Chester Mystery Plays

Tales of witchcraft in Cheshire range from folk-lore to the those which sadly led to actual executions. However there was nothing on the scale of the witch trials elsewhere in England, particularly in puritanical East Anglia (due to the essentially commercial activities of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled "Witchfinder General") and Lancashire (which was however then a part of the diocese of the Bishop of Chester) although there is a connection between the "Pendle Witches" and Chester. The treatment of magic in the Mystery Plays only partly illuminates the context in which it was viewed at the time of the peak of the local "witch craze" but is a local reference point to start from.

The Ale-Wife often got a negative portrayal in the late medieval or early modern period. This varied from the seductive bar-maid to witch-like figures. The Ale-wife in the Chester play also rode with the Devil in the Midsummer Watch Parade - until she was banned.

In the Chester Mystery Plays (last performed in 1575) magic is always "diabolical" (as opposed to miracles), but there are no actual witches. There is an ancient Roman sibyl in "The Nativity" and some vague references to "pagan prophets", but the nearest approach to a female witch is the Ale-Wife in the "Harrowing of Hell" (performed by the guild of Cooks, Tapsters, Ostlers and Innkeepers). She was a rather comic character who was apparently a hit with the crowds during the Midsummer Watch Parade, even though she rode alongside the equally comic character of the Devil until she was banned from the procession. The ban was due to mayor Henry Hardware (1599-1600) who also:

  • "caused the giants which used to go at midsummer to be broken. ... The dragon and naked boys he suffered not to go in midsummer show nor the devil for the Butchers, but a boy to ride as other Companyes"

Ale was of course terribly important in a world where safe drinking water was difficult to come by and ale was both the most affordable and clean beverage available. At mealtimes in the Middle Ages, persons of all ages drank small beer, particularly while eating a meal at the table. The precise amount of ale that was ingested daily is not known, but it appears to have been up to a gallon a day per person. Table beer was around this time typically less than 1% alcohol by volume and was made from the re-boiled mash left-over from brewing a stronger beer - so it would not lead to intoxication. Brewing it would need a largish cauldon, which possibly helped the association with witchcraft implied in the play. The beer produced was just alcoholic enough to kill any bugs at a time when water was not at all safe, and to stop it going off in transit. Beer is well known to contain a large number of nutritive components, including vitamins (particularly B vitamins) and minerals (particularly selenium and silicon). It also has a high potassium/sodium ratio (usually in the ratio of 4:1). It would have been an important part of the diet. Although the profession was later taken over by men, the original brewing profession even back in ancient Mesopotamia was principally performed by women. Female brewsters became the scapegoat for the brewing community as a whole for the vices that the Medieval world feared from the production of alcohol. In 1540, the city of Chester ordered that no women between the ages of 14 and 40 would be permitted to sell ale, in the hopes of limiting the trade to only women above or below an age of sexual desirability.

It is worth noting that some appear to have taken the association between the Ale-wife and witches perhaps a step too far, claiming that Ale-wives are the prototypes for all witches. This is almost certainly untrue and the point being made here is that the Ale-wife in the Chester Mystery Plays is the nearest thing to a witch in those plays.


While the entertaining figure of the Ale-wife is at one end of the spectrum of spectacles involving witches and based on actual life, execution by hanging or burning is at the other. Exodus 22:18 is one of the most widely used passages to justify the need for witch-hunts by demonological "scholars" of the early modern period. The conventional "King James" translation is "Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live", but the original Latin is "Maleficos non patieris vivere", which can have several translations. The original Hebrew word "kasaph" can be translated as "seer, diviner or poisoner", and can therefore be interpreted as "fortune tellers" as well as brewers of bad ale and those who might misuse a knowledge of herbalism. There was quite some discussion in the context of witch trials as to what the much relied upon statement from Exodus was actually supposed to mean in its original context.

The history of this particular law is peculiar. West Saxon king Alfred (c. 848-899) incorporated a translation of (as he puts it) "the best part of chapters 20 to 22 of Exodus" into the prologue of his Domboc (his laws). Alfred’s source was the Vulgate, Jerome’s fourth-century, Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome translated the book of Exodus straight from the Hebrew and he used the ambiguous word "maleficus" to denote the "poisoners" and/or "magicians" that are condemned in the Talmud. Alfred was probably helped in his translation by Plegmund, and the word "maleficus" appears to have been translated with a specific intent:

  • "Þa fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon [anfon] gealdorcræftigan [galdorcræft] scinlæcan wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban" (those familiar with charmers, sorcerors and witches, shall not be let live)

First of all, Alfred in his late ninth-century book of secular law does not punish "malefici" themselves. He imposes the death penalty on women who consort with (and probably consult) malefici (which he defines as to include "charmers" by some translations). Secondly, Alfred seems to focus on the meaning "magician", using three different Old English nouns to explain the word maleficus and the kinds of magicians that women should not associate with: gealdorcræftiga (enchanter, charmer), scinnlæca, (deluder, deceiver, illusionist, necromancer, sorcerer) and wicca (wizard, witch, sorcerer, soothsayer). None of these words has anything in particular to do with poisoning.

Ælfric of Eynsham however, in his early eleventh-century Hexateuch translation uses the word "geunlybba", which can denote both ‘magic’ and ‘poisoning’ being from lybb meaning "medicine, drug, poison or charm":

  • "Ne læt þu lybban þa þe geunlybban [unlybban] wircon" (this can be very freely translated as: "do not let live those who work against life")

As can be understood, the early laws concerning witchcraft appear to have considered its negative impact as being at a very local level. Poisoning was not uncommon in the succession of the Anglo-Saxon kings, but this is not often associated with magic. There are a few exceptions, one being the probably folk-tale death of Werbode, Werburgh's sometime suitor who "was poisoned by an evil spirit, and died raving mad" - something that may have been added by later religious writers. In times before the advent of modern scientific understanding there would have been little difference in the perception between actual toxins and more symbolic threats to life. "Spirits" were simply a metaphor for how the natural world functioned. What is not present in these early laws is a strong theme that the power of a witch is essentially derived from a "devil" seeking to overthrow the state or church. The idea of magic being an existensial threat to the state does not appear commonplace in early times.

The Antichrist had been a popular figure in literature since the middle ages. Here he is pointing to a quote from Adso of Montier­-en-­Der.

A bigger threat

Another group involved with the Mystery Plays in Chester whose work involved cauldrons were the dyers, and may explain why they got the other "witchcraft" play. The Dyers play of "Antichrist" is unique in the tradition of English Mystery cycles and the one which religious campaigners against the plays found most troubling, radically papist, anti-protestant, and perhaps even treasonous. Christopher Goodman (1520–1603), the most vociferous opponent of the plays, claimed that this play was used to assemble and organize religious conservatives and to reassert their faith ("giveth great comfort to the rebellious papist"). The Antichrist promises miracles (raising the dead, trees growing upside down, his own resurrection) - all of which appear to have been performed on stage by the clever use of props. However the symbolism used in this play draws far more on the demonic rather than the malefic form of magic and here demonic magic is portrayed as a serious threat to the state, and indeed the whole status-quo of the universe.

Many have argued that the development of an "Antichrist" figure is linked to the development of the concept of heresy and/or religious schisms. The largest western schism was the Reformation and much has been written on the extent to which the "witch craze" in Europe was linked to the split between the Catholic and Protestant Churches. In some cases this even led to the Pope and the Antichrist being considered as one and the same.

Finally, the Tanners in the Chester Mystery Plays, possibly had the most "demonic" role: "The Fall of Lucifer" which was the first play in the cycle. Possibly the hellish working conditions in their tanneries was one reason they had this play allocated to them.

Popes, Heretics and Witches

Between 900 and 1400, many Christian authorities were unwilling to so much as admit that witches existed, let alone try someone for the crime of simply being one. This was not for lack of demand. Pope Gregory VII wrote to Harald III of Denmark in 1080 forbidding witches to be put to death upon presumption of their having caused storms, failure of crops or pestilence. Over the next few cernturies there was a gradual shift from the view that "witchcraft" was acceptable provided it did no harm to it being a capital offence.

The first recorded case of heretics being burnt in Western Europe in the Middle Ages occurred in 1022 at Orléans. In this early case the heretics were locked in a cottage which was then set on fire. Burning heretics had become customary practice in the latter half of the twelfth century in continental Europe, and death by burning became a statutory punishment from the early 13th century.

In the late twelfth century, Walter Map one of the clerks of the royal household of Henry II warns that the ancient heresy of the Publicans and Paterines has recently won many adherents. These heretics assemble at night and wait for a huge black cat, descending on a rope suspended in mid-air, to appear in their midst. Whether Map actually believed this is open to question: his only surviving work, De Nugis Curialium (Trifles of Courtiers) is a collection of anecdotes and trivia, containing court gossip and a little real history, and written in a satirical vein.

In 1233, a papal bull by Gregory IX established the Medieval Inquisition in Toulouse, France, to be led by the Dominicans. It was intended to prosecute Christian groups considered heretical, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians. These groups (while still professing to be christian) were seen as a serious threat to the authority of the Church and orthodoxy but there was little if any association with magic. One reason for Gregory IX's creation of the Inquisition was to bring order and legality to the process of dealing with heresy, since there had been tendencies by mobs of townspeople to burn alleged heretics without much of a trial.

Joan of Arc was put on trial for heresy in Rouen on 9 January 1431. She was accused of having blasphemed by wearing men's clothes, of acting upon visions that were demonic, and of refusing to submit her words and deeds to the church because she claimed she would be judged by God alone. As a heretic who had relapsed (by wearing men's clothes again) she was burnt at the stake. The illustration is from the Vigils of King Charles VII, anonymous (c. 1484, Bibliothèque nationale de France).

The Inquisition soon began to drift away from papal control and extend the scope of their remit. In 1258 Pope Alexander IV had to issue a bull - "Quod super nonnullis" - to prevent prosecutions for witchcraft. "Divination or sorcery" was not to be investigated by Inquisitors of the Church, who were tasked with investigating the then quite distinct crime of heresy. Crimes involving magic should be left to local authorities unless they had "knowledge of manifest heresy to be involved", wherein "manifest heresy" now included not only doctrinal differences but also "praying at the altars of idols, to offer sacrifices, to consult demons, (or) to elicit responses from them". At this period in Church history, the use of magic was not seen as inherently heretical, but rather rooted in superstition or erroneous beliefs - Inquisitors had far more important things to do than deal with hedge-witches.

In 1320 the papal stance (under John XXII) was officially changed with the bull "Super illius specula" and the position reversed entirely. Until this time the instruction had been to investigate accusations of magic only if heresy (in addition) was suspected. The new instruction was to consider all cases of "magic" as inherently heretical. Just why things changed is not entirely clear, but John XXII exhibited a marked concern over matters of sorcery, divination, and demonic invocation. He feared magical assaults and assassination attempts on his own person, and he used charges of heresy, sorcery, and idolatry as political weapons against his enemies. He also promoted the more general persecution of sorcery by ordering papal inquisitors to take action against sorcerers and by issuing a sentence of automatic excommunication against all those who practiced any form of demonic invocation that entailed the supplication or worship of demons. In 1329, with the papacy in nearby Avignon, the inquisitor of Carcassonne sentenced a monk to the dungeon for life and the sentence refers to: "multas et diversas daemonum conjurationes et invocationes" and frequently uses the Latin synonym for witchcraft, "sortilegia". The view was rapidly developing that magic and heresy were part of the same "demonic" conspiracy against the church.

In 1401, the English Parliament passed the De heretico comburendo act, which can be loosely translated as "Regarding the burning of heretics." Lollard persecution for heresy would continue for over a hundred years in England. The Fire and Faggot Parliament met in May 1414 at Grey Friars Priory in Leicester to lay out the notorious Suppression of Heresy Act 1414, enabling the burning of heretics by making the crime enforceable by the Justices of the peace.

In 1468 Pope Paul II declared that witchcraft and heresy were crimen exceptum: crimes so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded, so that torture could be used to extract an initial confession. Despite what some lurid modern accounts state (especially anything from Holywood that had Vincent Price in it), torture was seldom used in England, although their were cases where it was, mostly in Scotland. Scholars of English witchcraft have frequently remarked upon its singularity and its distinctiveness from the European model. Yet in spite of the tendency to see witchcraft as a relatively less exceptional crime in a European context, it is usually portrayed as an essentially special crime regardless of how it was categorised or of the legal framework in which it was prosecuted. Although the law largely developed after the Reformation it did allow for some forms of evidence, such as reliance of testimony of children, reputation, "witch marks" and even evidence from dreams and visions that were outside of the normal scope of trial procedure.

In 1484 Pope Pope Innocent VIII had issued a bull against charmers and magicians - "Summis desiderantes affectibus". The bull recognised the existence of witches and declared it heresy to believe otherwise. Next in 1486 a Dominican inquisitor (Heinrich Kramer) asserted in a formidable volume, "Malleus Maleficarum", that the Devil and his witches were conspiring on a gigantic scale to overthrow the Catholic Church. In the view presented by Kramer witchcraft and heresy were linked together and years later another author was added to the book to give it more "clout". The mid-17th Century then bore witness to the infamous “European Witch Craze“, a period of frenzied witchcraft accusations, prosecutions and executions, which are thought to have claimed the lives of up to one hundred thousand men, women and children across the continent. Precisely how many witches were murdered in Western Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is impossible to say, but the figure of 100,000 has been credibly reported for Germany, between 3,000 and 4,500 for Scotland and somewhat less than 1,000 for England between 1566 and 1685. There are just 42 cases of witchcraft trials on record in total across the whole of Wales - and only five alleged witches were ever executed. In Ireland witch trials were almost unknown, although between 1710 and 1711, 8 women were put on trial and found guilty of witchcraft on Islandmagee - the women were put in the stocks and then jailed for one year. In Catholic Spain and Portugal the numbers of witch trials were also few because the Spanish and the Portuguese Inquisition preferred to focus on the crime of public heresy rather than the crime of witchcraft.

George Marsh is executed by burning at Boughton.

Mary I ordered hundreds of Protestants burnt at the stake (for heresy) during her reign (1553–58) in what would be known as the "Marian Persecutions". These included the rather bungled execution of George Marsh at Chester as there was a shortage of wood and the rather exposed fire kept blowing away from him or burning down as more wood was sought. Foxe notes:

  • "The fire being unskilfully made, and the wind driving it in eddies, he suffered great extremity, which notwithstanding he bore with Christian fortitude. When he had been a long time tormented in the fire without moving, having his flesh so broiled and puffed up, that they who stood before him could not see the chain wherewith he was fastened, and therefore supposed that he had been dead, suddenly he spread abroad his arms, saying. Father of heaven have mercy upon me! and so yielded his spirit into the hands of the Lord. Upon this, many of the people said he was a martyr and died gloriously patient. This caused the bishop shortly after to make a sermon in the cathedral church, and therein he affirmed, that the said Marsh was a heretic, burnt as such, and was a firebrand in hell."

By the time of the Chester Mystery Plays (last performed in 1575), the idea that witchcraft was entirely demonic had taken a firm hold but in England witches were still hung rather than burned for heresy. Edward Wightman, a Baptist from Burton on Trent, was the last person burned at the stake for heresy in England in Lichfield, Staffordshire on 11 April 1612. Thus the witch hangings at Chester in the mid 1650's date from after the end of burnings for heresy. Very few burnings for witchcraft would actually happen in mainland Britain and all appear to have been in Scotland, where in most cases the witches were strangled first.


What the above shows is that attitudes towards "witchcraft" varied over time and place and were not always the vehement and often sadistic religious hatred which eventually emerged, especially in Germany and parts of France.

Various theories have been put forward for the reasons for the "European Witch Craze" of the 17th Century. For many years one primary explanation was either the climatic disturbance of the "Little Ice Age" or the outbreaks of various Pandemics - with "witches" being the convenient scapegoat. Indeed, historical temperature indexes and witch trial data indicate that, generally, as temperature decreased during this period, witch trials increased, however in some cases the fit is not good. A more recent proposal, which has gathered some support, is that "witch-hunting" was an activity intended to attract the loyalty of undecided christians during the reformation and counter-reformation. Put in economic terms:

  • "Europe’s witch trials reflected non-price competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches for religious market share in confessionally contested parts of Christendom. By leveraging popular belief in witchcraft, witch-prosecutors advertised their confessional brands’ commitment and power to protect citizens from worldly manifestations of "Satan’s evil". Similar to how contemporary political candidates focus campaign activity in "scapegoat" battlegrounds during elections to attract the loyalty of undecided voters."

Protestants in general also tended to be more wary of witches. Their rejection of ecclesiastical magic meant that there was no place for counter magic against the maleficium which tormented men and beasts. Catholicism, on the other hand, whilst condemning supernatural powers which stemmed from the Devil, believed in the possibility of supernatural acts provided they had divine sanction. The Catholic had at his disposal a whole panoply of remedies, denied to the Protestant, which included the sign of the cross, holy water and the invocation of the Virgin Mary and of a vast number of patron saints.

Luther himself authorized the execution of four accused witches, while Calvin urged Genevan officials to wipe out "the race of witches". The view taken in this article is that there was a shift in perception from witches being capable of performing crime to witches being inherently criminal and part of a conspiracy against the established order. This shift was accompanied by far more serious sanctions and therefore led to accusations being used either in essentially local disputes or to futher the ends of religio-political groups. In extreme cases this could even have reflected divisions with the protestant church itself, for example between the "mainstream" protestant churches and its more extreme sub-groups such as the Puritans. However in many instances this seems more contextual than causal. Other theories for the "top down" emergence of witch trials have included: a desire by the male medical profession to want to wipe out traditional midwives and other forms of potential competition - unlikely to be true as midwives often assisted the courts by examining witches foe "marks". It has also been put down to simple mysogeny, which appears to neglect that many of the accusers were women.

One theory which places the cause at a local level is a decline in the availability of charity for the old and/or poor. Many of the witnesses in the cases indicated that they had refused to give milk or butter to the poor when asked for it, and this has led to an explanation where the witness possibly felt guilt and assigned their next run of ill-fortune or illness to a curse on the part of the supposed witch. It could be that the mere existence of witchcraft laws promoted their use in local disputes which might start as a trivial village disagreement and end in a hanging. It is probably true that there were a variety of causes behind the proliferation of trials and that differing causes applied at various times and places.

English Witchcraft Laws

Plegmund's Well after restoration. To this day the well is still decorated with strips of cloth to bring good luck or cure an ailment.

In England and Wales, as elsewhere, belief in magic, such as holy wells, for example, had a long ancestry. In "primitive" times it was considered that special properties pertained to them; the Roman Catholic Church consecrated many pagan practices and long after the Reformation the healing qualities of wells continued to attract sufferers, in some cases until the present day. St. Winifred's Well, of course occupies the premier place in the region. Of the fifty-one wells identified in Flintshire, twenty-seven bear the names of saints. Eight are dedicated to St. Mary and four to St. Michael. There are a string of healing and/or magical wells associated with churches down the River Dee. In Chester these include such dubious examples as Billy Hobbies Well in Grosvenor Park and more reputed wells such as that of Plegmund, Alfred's archbishop. Folk belief in such "superstitions" was not seen as associated with anything criminal. Even though St Winefride's Well was essentially a symbol of the survival of Catholic recusancy in Wales, and visited by many of those connected with the Gunpowder Plot, it was still tollerated.

As noted above early English laws against witchcraft appear to go back the laws of Alfred. Similar crimes are mentioned in the laws of Æthelstan but the implication appears to be that a crime was generally only committed when the result was harm or injury.

The law developed into the concept of "treasonable witchcraft" where there was a specific attack on the current monarch. Joan of Navarre was accused of this in 1419, during the reign of Henry V and imprisoned for some time, A later case from 1441, that of Eleanor Cobham is discussed below, but in that case the crime was conspiring to bring about Henry VI's death (or rather determine when the king would die). These were both politically motivated cases. In neither case was the "witch" executed (although associates were).

Prior to 1542, Church courts dealt with many cases concerning witchcraft, cunning folk and sorcerers. Sanctions were directed more to penance and atonement than to harsh punishment. Often, the guilty party was ordered to attend the parish church, wearing a white sheet and carrying a wand, and swear to lead a reformed life. However Henry VIII had already encountered problems with prophecy in the guise of Elizabeth Barton the so called "Holy maid of Kent". Barton was attainted for treason by Parliamentary Act, on the basis that she had maliciously opposed Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and had prophesied that the King would lose his kingdom. On 20 April 1534 Elizabeth Barton was hanged at Tyburn. Witchcraft would figure in the king's split with Anne Boleyn, but her execution on the 19 May 1536 was on the charge of adultery, incest, and high treason.

Witchcraft Acts

The first Witchcraft Act in England was introduced in 1542 (Henry VIII's Act of 1542 (33 Hen. VIII c. 8) ). It was concerned both with treasure finding by divination and harm by witchcraft, and forbade anyone to:

  • ... use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to the intent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose ... or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become ...

The Act was repealed in 1547. The Witchcraft Act of 1563 (5 Eliz. I c. 16) introduced the death penalty for any sorcery used to cause someone's death. This included the casting of horoscopes on the rather dubious basis that predicting a death was similar to causing it. Ferdinando Stanley's mother, Margaret Stanley, Countess of Derby, had for example been excluded from the Queen's court and placed under house-arrest for allegedly plotting against Elizabeth (by having a horoscope prepared to see when the queen would die - the astrologer got the axe although Margret claimed that the accused sorcerer, William Randall, was in fact her physician). Stanley inherited a prominent social position that was both dangerous and unstable, as his mother was heir to Queen Elizabeth I under the Third Succession Act (see: Shakespeare and Chester). As discussed below it would be suggested that witchcraft was involved in his death.

Pamphlets about witchcraft were very popular. This one is from 1579. After a preface to the reader condemning the practice of witchcraft and advising the avoidance and prosecution of witches, the pamphlet gives an account of the doings of Elizabeth Stile – a 65-year-old Windsor woman accused of witchcraft – and three other women

The first woman executed for witchcraft in England was probably Agnes Waterhouse who was hanged on 29th July 1566. She confessed to having been a witch and that her familiar was a white cat (later turned into a toad) by the name of Satan, sometimes spelled Sathan. Agnes was put on trial in Chelmsford, Essex, England, in 1566 for using witchcraft to cause illness to William Fynne, who died on 1 November 1565. She was also charged with using sorcery to kill livestock, cause illness, as well as bring about the death of her husband. The Chelmsford trial was typical of English witchcraft in the absurdity of the charges and the emphasis upon the familiar -something that was rare elsewhere. The chief evidence against Agnes Waterhouse came from a twelve-year-old neighbour, Agnes Brown. Child evidence was a common feature of many cases. In her testimony, Agnes Brown described the demon as a black dog with a face like an ape, a short tail, a chain and a silver whistle around his neck, and a pair of horns on his head.

Indictments for homicide caused by witchcraft begin to appear in the historical record in the period following the passage of the 1563 Act. Out of the 1,158 homicide victims identified in the surviving records, 228 or 20.6% were suspected of being killed by witchcraft. By comparison, poison was suspected in only 31 of the cases. Out of the 157 people accused of killing with witchcraft, roughly half were acquitted. Only nine of the accused were men.

The Waterhouse trial appears to have kicked off something of a craze for the publication of pamphlets on witchcraft. One of the earliest and most notorious British witchcraft pamphlets was published in 1579: "A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, Fower Notorious Witches." Stile was a sixty-five-year-old widow and beggar accused of bewitching an innkeeper. The pamphlet describes her association with three other old women known as Mother Margaret, Mother Dutten, and Mother Devell, as well as a man named Father Rosimunde, who could transform himself "into the shape and likenesse of any beaste whatsoever he will". The folkloric image of the crone was established through the images in the pamphlets and repeated in similar pamphlets over the next century. By the 1590s, the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, the idea of the witch in England had crystallised as an old, very poor woman, lame or blind in one eye, and inclined to lose her temper over personal slights. Her dry, twisted and ageing body was a kind of poison, and she was believed to be able to harm people and animals simply by speaking to them or looking at them.

While king of Scotland, James VI became utterly convinced about the reality of witchcraft and its great danger to both himself personally and his kingdom, leading to the North Berwick witch trials that began in 1590. James was convinced that a coven of powerful witches was conspiring to murder him through magic, and that they were in league with the Devil. In 1597, with the end of the trials, James published his study of witchcraft, "Daemonologie". Shortly after becoming king of England he passed his 1604 "Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits" (the 1604 Wichcraft Act). It was this statute that was enforced by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witch-Finder General whose career flourished during the English Civil War. The witch incident involving James in Chester depicted in the Chester Pageant of 1910 is entirely fictitious, and nothing of the kind occurred during James' actual visit of 1617. To be fair to James, he later came to believe that many of the witchcraft cases and especially possessions were based on false evidence.

The methods of investigating witchcraft used by Hopkins drew heavy inspiration from the Daemonologie of King James, which was directly cited in Hopkins' own book: "The Discovery of Witches" (1647). Although torture was nominally unlawful in England, Hopkins often used techniques such as sleep deprivation to extract confessions from his victims. He would also cut the arm of the accused, possibly with a blunt knife, and if she did not bleed, she was said to be a witch. Matthew Hopkins died at his home in Manningtree, Essex, on 12 August 1647, probably of pleural tuberculosis: the story that he was tried and executed by his own methods is a myth.

Although Cromwell himself never appers to express an opinion on witchcraft, the attitude of Cromwell's government to witchcraft can hardly be more explicitly expressed that as set out in the Act of General Pardon and Oblivion of 1652, which excludes:

In 1589, King James VI of Scotland sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne of Denmark. The return journey was troubled by bad weather and during their voyage to Scotland terrible storms forced the ship to seek shelter in Norway. James put the storms down to a plot againt him by witches.
  • "..all Offences of Invocations, Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorceries, Inchantments and Charms; and all Offences of procuring, abetting or comforting of the same; and all persons now Attainted or Convicted of any the said Offences."

Sir Thomas Browne, who has links with Chester, would become involved in the subject in 1662 and his legal analysis would later be used at the Salem Witch Trials. Witch trials would last almost to the end of the Stuart period. Alice Molland is often said to have been the last witch to be executed in England, in 1685. In 1712, Queen Anne pardoned Jane Wenham who had been sentenced to death for witchcraft, which served as a signal to the authorities that prosecution for such "crimes" should be ceased (however, the last witch execution was not Molland but Mary Hicks in 1716). The last to be executed as a witch in Scotland was Janet Horne in 1727, condemned to death for "using her own daughter as a flying horse in order to travel". Janet Horne was burnt alive in a tar barrel. Nine years after her death the witchcraft acts were repealed in Scotland.

The Witchcraft Act 1735 (9 Geo. 2 c. 5) was an Act of the Parliament which made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising witchcraft. With this, the law apparently abolished the hunting and executions of witches in Great Britain. Magical powers were soon replaced by "scientific" ones. Franz Anton Mesmer, the German father of mesmerism, introduced his theory of "Animal Magnetism" in 1779 as a cure for physical and mental ailments. Spiritualism developed and reached its peak growth in membership from the 1840s to the 1920s. "Secret" societies such as the Golden Dawn developed in the 1880's. By the late 1890s and turn of the twentieth century the Romani fortune tellers of Blackpool (and elsewhere) were actively and boldly advertising their services by displaying large signs for palmistry and other means of foretelling the character and future of their clients.

However in September 1943, Helen Duncan was jailed under the Witchcraft Act 1735 on the grounds that she had claimed to summon spirits. In November 1941, Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth at which she claimed the spirit materialization of a sailor told her HMS Barham had been sunk. To conceal the sinking from the Germans and to protect British morale, the Board of Admiralty censored all news of Barham's sinking. Because the sinking of HMS Barham was revealed, in strict confidence, only to the relatives of casualties, and not announced to the public until late January 1942, the Navy started to take an interest in her activities, and a possible "leak" in Naval security. Duncan's trial almost certainly contributed to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, which was contained in the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 (itself repealed in 2008). The 1951 Act prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium, or other spiritualist while attempting to deceive and to make money from the deception (other than solely for the purpose of entertainment).

Witchcraft in Chester

Turning now to witches at Chester, the city itself appears to have bred none of its own (there were however cases at Christleton and Eccleston) and the city's association with witchcraft relies on trials of those who were supposed witches elsewhere as well as some other incidental connections. "Witchcraft and Demonianism" by Cecil L'Estrange Ewen (Heath Granton, London, 1933, p. 413-422) claims that there sixty-nine charges of witchcraft in the Palatinate, but more recent research has shown that there were some 34 accusations of witchcraft which reached the Chester courts over the period 1589-1675 with most cases being centered on the mid 1650's and all but two were women. These 34 cases led to eight executions and possibly one death in prison, and almost all of these were possibly associated with petty squabbles. However the types of characters involved illustrate how complex consideration of the subject can get.

One of the interesting aspects of the Chester courts is that the same Judges also sat in North Wales, where the law on Witchcraft was historically somewhat distinct. This possibly explains the discrepancies in the figures. The term "witch" did not exist in Wales before the English influence of the sixteenth century, after the 1536 Act of Union; the first recorded usage is in William Salesbury's 1547 Welsh-English dictionary. Witchcraft accusations also happened on a much smaller scale to the wider continent of Europe; in Wales, between 1594 and 1698, there were only around forty-two accusations, resulting in between one and five executions, which is significantly less than the hundreds or even thousands of accusations taking place across Europe. The people of early modern Wales were more concerned with reconciliation and compensation to the victim than they were with harsh punishments, and this is evident in the outcomes for the majority of the witchcraft cases brought against alleged witches in the early modern Welsh period.

Chester's gallows were located at Boughton as shown here on the map by Braun and Hogenberg.

An accused witch, could be tried in a church court, at quarter sessions (local courts), or at an assize court, where they could be condemned to death. The process, however, was similar at every level. Somebody would complain to the local Justice of the Peace (JP) that the accused had, for example, bewitched, a person, an animal, or a foodstuff, or a child. Whether or not the complaint is taken any further depended on how energetic the JP was and how much he believed in witchcraft. Thus, unless the Chester JP's were particularly zealous there may have been other cases which never made it to the courts.

The next stage is that all this evidence is put to a grand jury of twelve men, who decided whether to take it to trial or not. At the trial, those who submitted written complaints would take the stand and give their evidence aloud and under oath and any "confession" would be read out. It was customary that there was no defence lawyer for those accused of felony. The truth was expected to emerge from the written testimonies that had been taken before the trial. Because the assizes only happened twice a year, there was always a great deal of business to get through. Routine trials lasted just 15–20 minutes. Even complex ones rarely lasted 30 minutes. In contrast to modern times, the defendant was effectively presumed guilty unless proved otherwise. After that, the jury would decide on guilt. Because the assizes did not meet often it would be common for several independent cases to come up at the same time, hence the groups of witches tried at the same session did not always know each other or even live near each other. A misunderstanding of this scheduling of the hearings may have led to misconceptions that witches who were hanged together had worked together.

While women were hanged for witchcraft they could be burned for "petty treason" - the murder of their husband (or for servants their mistress) which carried a mandatory sentence of burning at the stake up to 1789. The last (and only) such case at Chester was 23rd April 1763 when Mary Heald, a quaker from Tatton near Knutsford, was convicted of the murder of her husband, Samuel. She put arsenic in his "fleetings", a form of milk curds, and was committed to the castle at Chester, and then found guilty. She was "burnt to death" but strangled first. The last burning at the stake in England was Catherine Murphy 18th March, 1789 at Newgate for the "High Treason" crime of counterfeiting coins.

The witchcraft cases associated with Chester demonstrate a variety of causes, as discussed below.

Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1441)

Illuminated miniature of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and his second wife Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester from the Liber Benefactorum of St Albans by Thomas Walsingham, Cotton MS Nero D VII.

The first case associated with Chester is clearly a political one. Witchcraft trials involving commoners were few in the Middle Ages and those which did occur mainly concerned cases toward people of the elite or with ties to the elite, often with a political purpose.

Eleanor Cobham was an English noblewoman who was mistress to the Duke of Gloucester and then became his second wife. In 1441 he divorced her when she was charged with Witchcraft by King Henry VI. Immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Henry VI, Eleanor was accused of trying to assassinate the King using witchcraft.

Eleanor had consulted "astrologers" that told her that the King would fall ill and die. These rumours reached the King who had the "astrologers" questioned and they claimed that Eleanor instigated the necromancy. The astrologers were Thomas Southwell, Humphrey’s and Eleanor’s chaplain, Roger Bolinbroke, Eleanor’s personal clerk and Mary Jourdemain, a well-known witch and all were arrested. Southwell died while a confession was being extracted from him in the Tower of London. Bolinbroke and Jourdemain were brought to trial. Both found guilty, Bolinbroke was hung drawn and quartered and Jourdemain was burnt at Smithfield.

Before she could be captured and imprisoned Eleanor escaped to Westminster Abbey. Eleanor was questioned by religious leaders and confessed she had obtained ‘potions’ to help her conceive. Eleanor was found guilty, her husband divorced her and she was condemned to life in prison. In 1442, Eleanor was imprisoned at Chester Castle, she was later moved elsewhere, Kenilworth, followed by Peel Castle on the Isle of Man and finally, in March 1449, Beaumaris Castle, Angelsey, where she died on 7 July 1452. Eleanor is arguably Chester's most famous "witch". The choice of Chester is due to her being placed in the custody of the Stanley's (see: Stanley Palace).

Ann Mylner (1564)

In October 1563 Anne Mylner, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Randulphe Mylner, citizen of middling rank of Chester, was sent to round up his cattle. Upon her return she was suddenly afraid and "thoughte that she saw a whyte thing compassing her round about". The following day she "was sore in all the partes of her body", and became bedridden. This became a noted case of "possession".

John Fisher, in "The Copy of a Letter Describing the wonderful woorke of God in delivering a Mayden within the City of Chester, from an horrible kinde of torment and sicknes" (16 February 1564) notes how vinegar could be used as a remedy:

  • "At the last Maister Lane called for vinegar, whereat the sta[n]ders by marveiled, saying, that ye thing with much more had bene often tymes attempted, but to no purpose. Notwithstanding he ceased not to call styll for it, saying, that God might do that then, which he did not before, and so received viniger, put it into his mouth & blewe it into the Maydes nostrils, wherat she cryeth a Lady, Lady. He the[n] wiled her to cal upo[n] God, and the bloud of Christ & in these doinges she being astoni[sh]ed, he called againe for more viniger, Wherat she cried: No, no, no more for Gods sake."

In this case of Anne Mylner, she had stopped eating, developed a swollen belly and began having convulsions every hour or so. Anne’s alarming case drew curious persons from all parts of the city including the cathedral canon and "divers persons of reputacion". John Lane heard about about Anne’s case four months later when he came to preach in a town nearby and encountered some of her neighbours. Anne had been ill for four months but made a startling recovery after the vinegar treatment. Anne was immediately dressed and fed and the next day she attended Lane’s sermon at St Mary on the Hill, Chester. This was 1564/5 and the new Bishop of Chester William Downham (1561-1577) was previously thought by many Puritans to be lukewarm in his pursuit of Catholic recusants and was only now beginning to take action.

Ferdinando Stanley (1594)

Laws against witchcraft were passed in 1542 and 1563 during the reign of Elizabeth I, with further legislation enacted in 1604 during the reign of James I. In parallel, the development of printing and an increase in middle-class literacy promoted the expansion of literature on the subject. Ferdinando Stanley is only peripherally associated with Chester but there was a discussion of witchcraft in accounts of his death (there was no trial). It is often thought that king James oversaw a greater persecution of witches but more accused witches were executed in the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558–1603) than under her successor, James I (1603–25).

As noted above Ferdinando Stanley's mother née Lady Margaret Clifford was placed under house arrest for suposedly using sorcery to predict when Elizabeth would die, and even of planning to poison Elizabeth. Simply predicting the death of a monarch was a capital offence at the time. Fernando Stanley died in mysterious ciricumstances on 16 April 1594 but a contemporary note of the Earl's symptoms, the remedies he took, and the grounds for suspicion of witchcraft survives. Chronicler John Stow (1524/25 – 5 April 1605), who provides the account of Stanley's final illness, gathers a good deal of evidence for a witchcraft hypothesis: -

Ferdinando Stanley - at one time second in line to inherit the crown, then died "in a sea of vomit" and his body was so corrupted that even wrapped in lead none could approach it.
  • The first of Aprill being the mondaie before his honor fell sicke, a woman offered unto him a supplication, or petition, wherein her request was, that it would please him to give, or assigen her a dwelling place neere unto himselfe, that she might from time to time reveale unto him such thinges with speede, which God revealed unto her for his good. This petition was thought vaine therefore refused.
  • On the fift of Aprill, in his chamber at Knowsley about five of the clocke at night, there appeared sodainly a tall man, with a gastly and threatening countenance, who twice or thrice seemed to crosse him, as he was passing through the chamber, and when he came unto the same part of the chamber where this shadow appeared, he presently fell sicke, and there vomited twice. The 10. of Aprill about midnight, was founde in his bed chamber by one master Halsall, an Image of waxe with haire, like unto the haire of his honors head, twisted through the belly thereof, from the navell to the secrets: This Image was spotted, as the same master Halsall reported unto master Smith, one of his secretaries, a daie before anie paine grew, and spots appeared on his sides and bellie. This Image was hastely cast into the fire by master Halsall, before it was viewed, because he thought by burning thereof, as he said, he should relieve his lord from witchcraft, and burne the witch who so much tormented his lord, but it fell out contrary to his love and affection, for after the melting thereof, he more and more declined. The 12. of Aprill, one Iane a witch demanded of master Goborne, whether his honor felt no paine in his lower parts, and whether he made water as yet or no: and at that verie time notwithstanding all helpes, his water utterlie stopped, and so remained till he died.
  • A homely woman, about the age of fiftie yeeres, was found mumbling in a corner of his honors chamber, but what God knoweth. This wise woman (as they termed her) seemed often to ease his honor both of his vomiting and hickocke, but so it fell out, which was strange, that when so long as hee was eased, the woman her selfe was troubled most vehemently in the same maner, the matter which she vomited, being like also unto that which passed from him. But at the last, when this woman was espied by one of the doctors tempering and blessing (after her maner) the juice of certaine herbes, her pot where into she streined the juice, was tumbled downe by the said doctor, and she rated out of the chamber, notwithstanding she did still saie that she would not cease to ease him, although she could not perfectly helpe him, because hee was so strongly bewitched. He himselfe in all the time of his sicknesse cried out that the doctors laboured in vaine, because he was certainly bewitched. He fell twice into a traunce, not able to moove, hand, head, or foote, when he would have taken physicke to doe him good. In the ende, he cried out often against all witches and witchcraft, reposing his onely hope of salvation upon the merits of Christ Jesus his Saviour.

Whether some of the events surrounding the death of Ferdinando Stanley are additions to the facts cannot be determined. Different sources suggest that his death was due to the consumption of toxic fungi, perhaps even by accident, or that it could have been deliberate poisoning by arsenic.

Elizabeth Lightbone (1613)

1613 saw the first "traditional" witchcraft case linked with Chester. This starts with what appears to be a local village dispute, but does not appear to end with an execution. The climate had now shifted such that accusations could be a convenient way of causing problems for a neighbour.

Elizabeth, wife of yeoman William Lightbone, was accused of several counts of witchcraft against her Christleton neighbours. On 30 May, 1613, she was believed to have bewitched Richard Rider so that he became lame until 20 September of that year. Prior to that, on 8 August, 1606, she had bewitched Richard Burrowes, causing him to languish until December. Finally, Elizabeth was accused of bewitching Mary Cotgreave on 20 May, 1611, causing her to become lame, a condition that continued until the time of the indictments made against Elizabeth at the Chester Quarter Sessions of 27 September, 1613, when she was found guilty on all three counts, but notably none of the victims died.

Elizabeth pleaded pregnancy, and although she was still in prison on 25 September, 1616, she was pardoned on 9 September of that year and is presumed to have been released. Due to this, it is assumed that Elizabeth was indeed with child, although evidence of the whereabouts of Elizabeth or her child after her pardon is frustratingly lacking.

Thomas Cooper (1617)

Cooper's 1617 book "The Mystery Of Witchcraft" was dedicated to those in charge at Chester.

Cooper is Chester's example of the writer of a tract against witches. The work is a confused and biased rant which may have only been published by the printer to cater for a very niche market, perhaps even to poke fun at the authors of such works.

Thomas Cooper (1569/70 - 1626 or later) was born in London, attended Westminster School, then Christ Church, Oxford, taking his B.A. in 1590 and M.A. in 1593. He became vicar of Great Budworth in Cheshire, then in 1604 moved to Holy Trinity church, Coventry. At Oxford, Cooper was drawn to "magical practice", something that was not uncommon at the time, although he later became an opponent of things magical. The work for which Cooper is best known and which most commonly gets cited from is his "The Mystery of Witchcraft", 1617. This was printed by Nicholas Okes who was mostly a publisher of drama and was involved in many editions of works by the playwrights of the period, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, James Shirley, and John Ford. The work was perhaps not very widely read, for "The Mystery of Witchcraft" was re-issued in 1622 with the new title of "Sathan transformed into an angell of light", which was probably calculated to restore sales. The body text itself has not been reset, but a new dedication to the "worthy Governour of the East In­dian Merchants" replaces that to "the Mayor and Corporation of the Ancient Citie of CHESTER" in the 1617 volume. This looks as though unsold copies of Nicholas Okes' print run were left over in such numbers five years later that an attempt to shift a few more copies was made via the new title and the left-over copies being re-bound between new covers and end pages.

Cooper is quite happy to suggest torture as a means of investigation:

  • "Now concerning Examination, this may either be made by Question from the Magistrate, by certaine wise and crosse Interrogations to this end: Or else by Torture, when together with words, some violent meanes are vsed, by paine, to extort confessi∣on, which may haue necessarie place when the partie is obstinate."

From the fragmentary evidence available, Cooper appears to have been an associate of John Bruen (1560–1625) and may have personally witnessed the "possession" case of twelve-year-old Thomas Harrison the "Boy of Northwich" in 1601/2. Bruen's biographer William Hinde (1568/9–1629), curate in the parish of Bunbury, and Bruen’s brother-in-law, writes of Bruen's own interest in the "Boy of Northwich" case and Cooper himself mentions that he witnessed "a child afflicated by the power of Sathan and ... though the confederacie of some Witches thereabout". Bruen is best known for his activities around Chester smashing up crosses in an iconoclastic frenzy. By the time Cooper came to write his book he was evidently of similar and firmly puritan views, ranting almost incoherently against demonic activity which he saw everywhere. He believed that the wife of John Hales of Coventry had been killed by witchcraft that that attempts had been made to posess his own children. As noted above, Cooper dedicated this work to the Mayor and Corporation of the city of Chester (where he had lectured briefly in 1600 - possibly at St Peter) as well as the magistrates of Cheshire, among whom he singled out for special mention Mr Warburton of Arly and Mr Marbury of Mere. The former was in all probability the Cheshire gentleman, Sir Peter Warburton (c.1540–1621), a protégé of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. He was MP for Chester in the Parliaments of 1586, 1589, and 1597. Stanley Palace was built for him in 1591. His son, also Peter, was named as the executor of the will of the Northwich lecturer Thomas Pierson (d. 1633), who played a central role in the "dispossession" of Thomas Harrison.

The Northwich case of "dispossession" was not unique.

All the principal actors in the "Northwich case" and the case of Anne Mylner were dead by the date of the most notable Chester witch trials, but Cooper, among his almost endless rants, makes it clear that his view of "demonic" witchcraft is that it is a challenge to the status-quo made through those who otherwise have no power in the world (in his view, women). Perhaps in this his attitude is coloured by his own experimentation as a student.

The first execution for witchcraft at Chester was Sibil Marcer of Acton on 18th April 1631, and the last Mary Baguley ("The Heild End Witch") of Wildboarclough in 1675. Mary was arrested by the parish constables and taken before the Assize at Chester charged with the murder of Robert Hall, who she had visited several times in the days before he died. The Baguley case hinged on the little elm-wood box of dried herbs that Mary admitted to having left in Robert’s cottage. The herbalist summoned as witness couldn’t identify them, and Mary knew them by unfamiliar names. It was enough to prove that Mary was a witch. The verdict was inevitable. On the sixteenth of October 1675, Mary was convicted of killing Robert Hall of Wincle by magic, and on the following morning she was hanged. The herbs could equally well have been an ineffective treatment than a cause of death.

The other six executed at Chester were in two groups in 1653 and 1656 and are discussed in more detail below. There is one further case of death in custody: Elizabeth Powell, a widow. She died from various ailments after a long period of detention: and spent the last six years of her life (dying in 1670) a prisoner in Northgate, Chester, on a charge of witchcraft. It has been suggested that Powell had been accused by Thomas Annion, a blacksmith, in the hope that he could gain her assets (which would actually be forfiet to the state as a felon). Annion existed as he appears in lease (counterpart) of 1659 from Thomas Ravenscrofte of Bretton, co. Flint, esq., to Thomas Annion of Chester, blacksmith, "of a messuage, etc., and 10 lounds of ground in Aston, co. Flint. Term: the lives of the lessee, Elizabeth Annion his wife, and their son, Thomas Annion. Yearly rent, £1 11s. 8d., two hens at Christmas, and two days' reaping in harvest. Consideration, £34."

Francis Done (1627)

Libel cases were sometimes brought by those accused of witchcraft. This was particularly useful given that once accused a witch would have no defence attorney in court. The history of defamation law in England is somewhat obscure; civil actions for damages seem to have been relatively frequent as far back as the Statute of Gloucester in the reign of Edward I (1272–1307). The law of libel emerged during the reign of James I (1603–1625) under Attorney General Edward Coke who, in his judgement on one case, said that a person's "good name ... ought to be more precious to him than his life". At that time libel and slander were virtually the same thing.

In Chester these libel cases were heard in the Consistory Court of the Cathedral. The Chester Consistory Court was established in 1541 and met in a room, which still survives, in the south-west corner of the cathedral. The Chester Records Office holds a partial set of papers relating to the 1627 Tarporley libel case of a Francis Done against Emma Mosse who accused her of “practising witch craft and making potions” (reference EDC 5/1627/62). This appears to have backfired badly, as the case rapidly turned into a series of attacks by both sides on the character and reputation of the other.

Frances had a reputation for infdelity, and the evidence presented shows that one Randle Mosse informed her husband that, "Frances had beene caught with or committed adultery". With regards to the alleged witchcraft Emma was not the only local with a grievance against Frances. Another neighbour Anne complained that Frances Done had made a medicine for her but that:

  • "her husbands said daughter being sicke did affirme and say that if she then died she would take it on herdeath that the said Frances Done was the cause of her death".

As for Emma's cause for complaint, it would appear that jealousy was at the root of it for she complained that, "by witchcraft Frances caused the foresaid John Done her husband to marry her which otherwise he would not have done". She even described the possible means of this witchcraft, which featured a toad: "the said Frances Done took a toad and lay it in a hillock till it was dead and that then she could make or take a powder out of it with which she could bewitch anybody". Just how they became aware of this is not made clear.

Just the 1625 cases in the Consistory Court at Chester list the following related "libels": Robert Meacock of Upton c Emma & Wm Basford saying, "a plague on thee and thy children" - libel; and Edmund Crewe and Joanna his wife c Maria Goldsmith saying "God's curse light upon them and the old witch" - libel.

In 1628 William Laud became bishop of London and would be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Charles I in 1633. This co-incides with a fall in the number of publications on witchcraft which continued until the outbreak of the Civil War. Only a few new editions of older works, and a few new books in which allusions to witchcraft formed only a small part were allowed to pass the official censor. Much the same was true of plays which featured witchcraft. On the fifty-one witchcraft pamphlets published in the period 1603-60, 14 were published between 1603 and 1622 and 37 between the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 and the Restoration in 1660. Not one was printed in England between the last three years of James I and the whole of the reign of Charles up to the outbreak of war. In fact the only one published was smuggled in from Holland. Charles seems to have made a real attempt to banish witch-mania.

Reputation was very important at the time: in 1662 Anna Wright accused Maria Briscoe of killing her 12 year old daughter in November 1661 by witchcraft in a rather gruesome fashion. This was part of a long-standing dispute beteen the two women. Maria brought a claim for libel/defamation. An especially damming piece of evidence was that "the mother of the said Mary was arraigned and hanged for a witch and the said Mary is very much suspected by that evil and diabolical arte" (there is no proof this was true). The court eventually ruled against Anna who was required to do pennance, but two years later Maria appeared on a charge of witchcraft. Her case was dismissed but she committed suicide by drinking poison soon afterwards.

John Bridgeman (1634)

Bridgeman is fairly typical of the Anglican bishops of his time. He believes in witchcraft but not particularly zealous and is prepared to accept that in some cases accusations might be unfounded, even when supported by a confession. He even agrees that in "backward" places like Lancashire a charge of witchcraft might be brought to get revenge on a neighbour. However the case with which he was most concerned involved a "witch hunt" where the motivation was essentially financial.

John Bridgeman (2 November 1577 – 11 November 1652) was Bishop of Chester from 1619 until when the English episcopy was abolished by Parliament on 9 October 1646. In 1634 he was called to interview some of the accused in the Lancaster Witches Case, as at that time his diocese included Lancaster. This was not the Pendle Witch trial of 18–19 August 1612, but another mass trial which eventually became the basis of the play "The Late Lancashire Witches". The play is a satire which pokes fun both at the Puritans and the High Anglicans and perhaps indicates that attitudes towards witches were changing. The play was enormously popular.

Bishop John Bridgeman, who had Werburgh's shrine turned into a throne for his use. It was a throne he would soon be evicted from. Bridgeman appears in convocational robes like Archbishop Laud as shown above, but is provided with trappings: gloves and a book. The illustration is by Thomas Trotter (circa 1750-1803): NPG D26748

The case on which the play is based had started when, in November 1633 a ten years old boy, Edmund Robinson, began making accusations of witchcraft against women living in his neighbourhood in Lancashire. Soon, other neighbours started making similar accusations, and within a few months a group of twenty people, mostly women, and a few men, were on trial for their lives at Lancaster Assizes. Child testimony in witchcraft trials was an accepted form of evidence. This type of evidence fearured in the original Pendle Witch Trials in 1612, where the star witness was a nine-year-old girl called Jennet Device.

Edmund Robinson's evidence was that he was picking berries near Newchurch in Pendle when two hounds appeared, one black and one grey, who he initially thought were coursing a hare. They turned into a woman and a boy, the former of which he recognised as Frances Dickonson, wife of John Dickonson. She then conjured the boy companion into a white horse, upon which Robinson was set and carried him to Hoarstones, about a quarter of a mile away. There he alleged other witches arrived on horseback and adjourned to a barn, where six of them knelt and pulled on ropes hanging from the roof, from which smoking flesh, butter and milk came falling down into basins. Taking fright, Robinson fled the scene and was pursued by some of the witches to a place called Boggart Hole before they gave up, and he was able to arrive home late and muddy.

Seventeen of them were found guilty, but the judge who presided over the case was uneasy about the verdict, and referred the case to the Privy Council. One of those convicted was called Jennet Device. This could have been the same Jennet Device from the 1612 Pendle witch trials as her age was right, her name was right and the location was right. In the 1633 case, Jennet was charged with the murder of William Nutter’s wife, Isabel, thus re-establishing a link with the Nutter family name from the earlier trial. The reason for the judge's unease may well be the manner in which:

  • "the boy, his Father, and some others beside did make a practice to go from Church to Church that the Boy might reveal and discover Witches, pretending there was a great number at the pretended meeting whose faces he could know, and by that means they got a good living, that in a short space the Father bought a Cow or two, when he had none before." (John Webster)

King Charles had taken an interest in the case and wanted some of the witches brought to London as, unlike his father, he was sceptical about witchcraft. The matter then became the subject of great public interest: when Sir William Brereton was travelling in Holland in June of 1634, a little while before four of the women had been brought to London, he met King Charles's sister, the Queen of Bohemia, and at once, apparently, they began to talk about the great Lancashire discovery. Brereton mentioned the discussion in his diary (June 3rd):

  • "where after the queen had put me upon a discourse of the discovery of our Lancashire Witches, she answered it with a relation of a discovery of witches in Westphalia, where a whole village, all witches ; and amongst them was the Bishop of Wurzburg's chancellor and his page, all whom deservedly burned."

The Privy Council undertook their own investigation, asking the Bishop of Chester to interview some of the accused women and going so far as bringing them, as well as young Edmund Robinson himself, to London for further examination. Bishop Bridgman of Chester acted promptly upon the order to examine the witches held in Lancaster gaol. On June 15 he sent his report to Secretaries Coke and Windebank. Of the seven selected for the King to interview by the king, only three had survived: "John Spencer, Alice Higgin, and Jennet Loynd, died lately in gaol, and Jennet Hargrave, laid sick past hope of recovery."

The bishop had, however, on June I3th examined the three survivors, Margaret Johnson, Mary Spencer and Frances Dicconson. Margaret Johnson, a widow sixty years of age, was so convinced of her own guilt that she had handed herself in to the authorities and obliged them with a classic witchcraft confession, including selling her soul to a demon called Mamilian. She repeated her confession to Bridgeman adding that she had additional teats upon which the demon would suckle:

This is the letter that accompanied the examinations carried out by the Bishop of Chester when he sent them on to the Privy Council..
  • "...she said that most commonly at his coming to her, he hath the use of her body, and she had some lust and pleasure thereby. And after this he appeared to her in other shapes: as sometimes of a brown coloured dog, sometimes as white cat, and at other times like a hare, and as those shapes did suck her blood “at 2 duggs or papps” in her private parts, one whereof is as big (she says) as her little fingers and half as long, the other less. But since she lay in prison they have shrank up and grown less then formerly..."

Bridgeman apparently had little belief in her confession:

  • "The old woman, Margaret Johnson, alias the penitent witch, with tears in her eyes, after an exhortation by the Bishop, replied, I will not add sin to sin. I have already done enough, nay too much, and will not increase it. I pray God I may repent.' And when she confessed as is set down in her examination, often acknowledging that she was a witch, but more often faulting in the particulars of her actions, as one having a strong imagination of the former, but of too weak a memory to retain or relate the other."

Bridgeman also makes it clear in his report that Edward's father had been been willing to drop accusations it return for money:

  • "And it was offered to be deposed before me at Lancaster by Mary Fisher widow (where the parties were in the Assizes Week) that if Dickenson would have given the accuser Robinson 40s (shillings) before the Arraignment (formal reading of criminal charge) neither he nor his son (the boy that first set this business on foot) would have said anything against her, but when she (hearing thereof) advised her husband to give nothing, Robinson said he had no malice to any but her."

The comments of the Bishop and his questions to the prisoners are of interest as they show his attitude to witchcraft. Obviously he discounts much of the evidence, emphasising the part that local jealousy and gossip have played in incriminating the witches and wrote of the area:

  • “Conceit and malice are so powerful with many in those parts, that they will easily afford an oath to work revenge upon their neighbour.”

The Bishop brings out the tragedy of the condition of the victims in Lancaster gaol. But at the same time he does not discredit the possibility of witchcraft itself, and he has the usual seventeenth century view of witchcraft as worship of the Devil. Four of the witches (Jenett Hargreaves, Frances Dicconsen, Mary Spencer and Margaret Johnson) were sent down to London where they were originally lodged at an inn but later moved to a prison where they could be viewed by bribing the guards. The whole matter became something of a public specatacle. In London the witches were also examined by surgeons and midwives to see whether they in fact had the the reported witch marks. The surgeons' report on the examination of the witches was sent from Surgeons' Hall on July 2. Under direction of William Harvey, the King's two surgeons with five others and ten midwives had inspected the women, and reported no mark on Jennet Hargrave (apparently recovered), Frances Dicconson, or Mary Spencer. On Margaret Johnson there were two unnatural marks, one of which they thought caused by leeches.

Then, in July 1634, before a Justice of the Peace named George Long, the young Edmund admitted that he had made the whole thing up to avoid punishment from his mother for coming home late and for failing to bring the family cow home for milking, having been distracted by playing with friends in the fields. The seventeen people were acquitted. Unfortunately, though, it is unlikely to have been a happy ending. At that time, it was a requirement to pay for your time in prison even if found innocent and if you couldn’t pay, you had to stay until you could. It is improbable that most of those arrested would have been able to pay the fees, and records from Lancaster Gaol show that Jennet Device was still incarcerated there in 1636, as were Jennet Hargave, Mary Spencer and Jennet Dicconson three of the four witches taken to London. There is no mention of Margaret Johnson; it is possible that she had been released, but it is also possible that she had died in gaol.

Lancaster was not yet through with its witches. Early in the year 1635 the Bishop of Chester was again called upon by the Privy Bouncil to look into the cases of four women. There was some delay, during which a dispute took place between the bishop and the sheriff as to where the bishop should examine the witches, whether at Wigan, as he proposed, or at Lancaster. The civil authorities of the Duchy of Lancaster may have resented the bishop's part in the affair. When Bridgeman arrived in Lancaster he found two of the women already dead, presumably of jail conditions. Of the other two, the one, he wrote, was accused by a man formerly "distracted and lunatic" and by a woman who was a common beggar; the other had been long reputed a witch, but he saw no reason to believe it.

John Bradshaw

Bradshaw was a judge in witchcraft cases, which were held before a jury who would actually decide on guilt. He was very deeply involved in both local and national politics. He was religiously devout and a strongly republican supporter of law and order. It is difficult to say whether he believed strongly in witchcraft or whether he simply applied the law as approved by government. He sentenced some witches to death, but was also known to acquit in cases where the evidence was dubious.

John Bradshaw (1602-1659) had been appointed Chief Justice of Chester in 1649 in part recognition of his services as Lord President of the High Court which had tried and sentenced Charles I to death and which sat from 20th-27th January 1649. Bradshaw would remain in the post until his death. He was born in 1602 probably at Wybersley (Wyberslegh) Hall in the village of High Lane near Stockport, Cheshire, or possibly at the nearby Peace Farm, Marple (his father farmed at both) and baptised on 10 December in Stockport Church. As a child he attended the free school at Stockport, as well as schools in Bunbury and Middleton. Bunbury plays a much larger role in the history of Cheshire than might be thought given its small size and relatively isolated location.

The "Puritan Room" at the Grosvenor Museum, with portraits of Cowper, Bishop Lloyd (of Bishop Lloyd's House) and Aldersey (associated with Leche House). A walk around Chester will bring these historical characters into much sharper focus. The hat is a Capotain.

Thomas Aldersey (whose portrait also hangs in the Grosvenor Museum) had founded a grammar school at Bunbury in 1575, which was incorporated on 2 January 1594 as "The Free Grammar School of Thomas Aldersey in Bunbury" – now Bunbury Aldersey School. He gave the school, together with substantial endowments, over to the Company of Haberdashers on 21 October 1594. It was the first school that the Company – now predominantly an educational charity – administered. At the same time, he established a preacher and curate in Bunbury, and gave the tithes and advowson (patronage) of the parish church to the Haberdashers' Company; this was the first ecclesiastical living to come under the Company's control. Dorothy Williams Whitney has suggested that this gift was associated with the later Puritanism of the Company of Haberdashers, and Bunbury became an early centre for Cheshire nonconformism amongst clerics.

After studying English law in London, Bradshaw was called to the bar at Gray's Inn on 23 April 1627. He possibly served on the provincial bar of Congleton until he became mayor in 1637, although that may be another person of the same name. In 1649 he was made President of the High Court of Justice to try the king. Other lawyers of greater prominence had refused the position. The King himself, as well as much of the court, professed to having never heard of him. King Charles refused to recognise the authority of the court and would not plead. After declaring Charles I guilty as a "Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer, and a public enemy," Bradshaw did not allow the king any final words. King Charles was beheaded in front of the Banqueting House of the Palace of Whitehall on 30 January 1649. Bradshaw was chosen as Chief Justice of Chester and Flint on 22nd February 1649.

Chester in 1653

The Justice of Chester was the chief judicial authority for the county palatine of Chester, from the establishment of the county until the abolition of the Great Sessions in Wales and the palatine judicature in 1830. Within the County Palatine (which encompassed Cheshire, the City of Chester, and Flintshire), the Justice enjoyed the jurisdiction possessed in England by the Court of Common Pleas and the King's Bench. While the legal reorganisation of Wales and the Marches under Henry VIII diminished the authority of the Earl of Chester (i.e., the Prince of Wales) in the County Palatine, the authority of the Justice was, in fact, increased. In 1542, the Great Sessions were established in Wales, that country being divided into four circuits of three shires each. Denbighshire, Flintshire, and Montgomeryshire were made part of the Chester circuit, over which the Justice presided. Under Elizabeth I, a second justice was added to each of the Welsh circuits.

In the decade from 1641 to 1650 no accusations of witchcraft were brought before the courts at Chester and therefore none under Bradshaw between his appointment as Chief Justice in 1647 and 1853. Of course during the early part of this period Cestrians were very much involved in the Civil War. The bulk of the accusations were from 1651-1660 when there were 15 cases brought before the courts. Six of these led to executions. While there had been nine cases in the decade 1631-1640 these had only led to a single execution (Sibil Mercer) in 1631 (under Chief Justice John Bridgemean). In the years 1589-1630 there were only six cases brought with no executions. After Bradshaw'd death there were four cases brought before the courts up to 1680 with a single execution (Mary Baguley) in 1675 (under Chief Justice Job Charlton). On the face of it, the peak of the trials and executions, in 1653 and 1656 occurred when Bradshaw was in clear conflict with Cromwell and this might be taken as an indication that there was a political aspect to the trials. There was a political background, but the evidence does not suggest a clear connection with the trials.

The witch trials in Chester were held in the Commonhall at that time located in what was to become the Music Hall which had been built as St Nicolas Chapel early in the fourteenth century. The Common Hall of the city was removed here from Commonhall Street in 1545 and it remained as such until 1698. Some information on its later history as a cinema can be found on Chester Cinemas. The Flint cases were held in the "Old Court House" in Church Street. This building is probably the second oldest in Flint and dates from the 17th century, with a frontage from the 19th century. The upper floor was once a courthouse while the ground floor was used for markets. The staircase inside reputedly came from Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship Great Eastern. Judges, including Bradshaw, came to the courthouse for assizes sessions, when suspects charged during the preceding months would be tried. By the 1790s the assizes court had moved from Flint to Mold.

Bradshaw and Witch Trials

Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache (1626-1698) with a black servant, by Sir Peter Lely, c1651. She was an educated woman and a supporter of Charles I. Rumours about her have included witchcraft, poisoning her husband and having several children by Oliver Cromwell. They are all probably untrue, although she was a member of the "Sealed Knot".

It is worth noting that one reason for the pile of confusion written about Bradshaw and the witch trials at Chester is that there was more than one person involved with the name John Bradshaw. One other was the prosecutor of some of the cases and it has been wrongly claimed that it was this Bradshaw who was the judge in the case of Charles I. It was not - Bradshaw was the Chief Justice of Chester and was the judge in both cases (see, for example, "God's Battleaxe" by R. L. Bradshaw which discusses the point extensively).

The following section looks at the witch trials that Bradshaw took part in during the years 1653-57 and the political events of the same period. Cromwell was away on campaign from the middle of 1649 until 1651, and the various factions in Parliament began to fight amongst themselves with the King gone as their "common cause". Cromwell tried to galvanise the Rump Parliament into setting dates for new elections, uniting the three kingdoms under one polity, and to put in place a broad-brush, tolerant national church. However, the Rump vacillated in setting election dates and failed to produce an alternative for tithes or to dismantle other aspects of the existing religious settlement.


On 20 April 1653, Cromwell dismissed the Rump Parliament by force, setting up a short-lived nominated assembly known as Barebone's Parliament: named after one of its members: Praise-God Barebone. The members were chosen by Cromwell and the Army Council instead of being elected, and it soon became known as Barebone's Parliament to its many critics, Barebone proving a likely target due to his name and his apparently humble origins. Bradshaw refused to submit in silence to such a daring infringement of Parliamentary liberties and resolved to take his place as head of the Council of State the afternoon that the Rump was dissolved. The Lord General was not to be so easily diverted from his purpose and expelled the Council and its members in the same manner that he had dismissed the Commons. Addressing Bradshaw and those assembled with him, he said:

  • "Gentlemen, if you are met here as private persons, you shall not be disturbed; but if as a Council of State, this is no place for you; and, since you cannot but know what was done at the House in the morning, so take notice that the Parliament is dissolved."

He was stoutly resisted by Bradshaw, who replied:

  • "Sir, we have heard what you did at the House in the morning, and before many hours all England shall hear it; but, Sir, you are mistaken to think that the Parliament is dissolved, for no power under heaven can dissolve them but themselves; therefore take you notice of that."

On 26th September 1653 three women were brought before Bradshaw and Thomas Fell at the commonhall of pleas and charged with "wickedly devilishly and feloniously .. and of malice aforethought using certain wicked and devilish arts .. in entertaining evil spirits and bewitching Elizabeth Furnivall, who had languished and died". The women were:

  • Mother and daughter Elen and Elizabeth Stubbs,
  • Anne Stanley.

They were accused of two counts of murder and one count of "bovicide" (the death of a cow). The supposed murder victims were Anne Lowe of Chelford (who died on March 7th 1646) and Elizabeth Furnivall of Nether Alderley (who died June 16th 1653). The cow belonged to Thomas Grastie of Warford and was evidently bewitched on October 9th 1652. Elizabeth Furnival is said to have been the niece of John Bradshaw, but no confirmarion of this can be found. The witnesses against them included Ralph Furnivall (the husband of one of the victims) and one Katherine Stubbs, who may have been a relative of the accused of the same name. They were all found guilty by the jury of the murder of Furnival (but not of Lowe) and hanged at Boughton about 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 17 October 1654. Two days after the execution, Elizabeth Johnson of Rainow was accused of witchcraft, but Bradshaw and Fell threw the case out, probably on the grounds that she was simply senile.

Hughes contains this illustration of the entrance to the Music Hall from St Werbergh's Street (it is still much the same today and can be reached by walking down Music Hall Passage).

After the dissolution of the Barebones Parliament, John Lambert put forward a new constitution known as the "Instrument of Government". It made Cromwell Lord Protector for life to undertake "the chief magistracy and the administration of government". Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector on 16 December 1653, with a ceremony in which he wore plain black clothing, rather than any monarchical regalia. However, from this point on Cromwell signed his name 'Oliver P', the P being an abbreviation for Protector, which was similar to the style of monarchs who used an R to mean Rex or Regina, and it soon became the norm for others to address him as "Your Highness".


In Chester an outbreak of plague in the spring of 1654 prompted the corporation to rebuild the house of correction so as to have somewhere to get the homeless off the streets. The plague did not become an epidemic and was restricted in its spread, owing, it was supposed, to the precaution of confining the diseased to their houses. The was also, due to the plague, an ordinance for holding "the countie-court for the countie of Chester at the town of Northwich".

In 1654 Bradshaw was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Stafford and Cheshire, but because, on 12 Sept, he refused to sign the recognition pledge put on Members to declare their recognition of the new army-backed government, he took no seat for either constituency. He was summoned by Cromwell before the council of state formed by him on becoming protector, together with Vane, Rich, and Ludlow, and was bidden by Cromwell to take out a new commission as chief justice of Chester. He refused to submit to the order. He declared that he had been appointed during his good behaviour, and had done nothing to forfeit his right to the place, as he would prove before any twelve jurymen. Cromwell did not press the point, and Bradshaw immediately afterwards went his circuit as usual. But Cromwell revenged himself by seeking to diminish Bradshaw's influence in Cheshire.

During the first nine months of the Protectorate, Cromwell with the aid of the Council of State, drew up a list of 84 bills to present to Parliament for ratification. But the members of Parliament had their own and their constituents' interests to promote and in the end not enough of them would agree to work with Cromwell, or to sign a declaration of their acceptance of the Instrument of Government, to make the constitutional arrangements in the Instrument of Government work. Cromwell dissolved the Parliament (January 1655) as soon as it was allowed under the terms of the Instrument of Government, having failed to get any of the 84 bills passed.


There was no parliament during 1655 after the dissolution of the First Protectorate Parliament in January.

George Booth may have been involved with the failed Penruddock uprising of March 1655. Cromwell (influenced by Lambert) then divided England into military districts ruled by army major generals who answered only to him. The 15 major generals and deputy major general called "godly governors" were central not only to national security, but Cromwell's crusade to reform the nation's morals. The generals not only supervised militia forces and security commissions, but collected taxes and ensured support for the government in the English and Welsh provinces. Commissioners for securing the peace of the Commonwealth were appointed to work with them in every county. While a few of these commissioners were career politicians, most were zealous puritans who welcomed the major-generals with open arms and embraced their work with enthusiasm. The Major-Generals thought that a compliant parliament would be the best way to raise money to pay for the Army occupation, and the Navy both of which were involved in the Anglo-Spanish War (1654–1660), but none was formed until late 1656.

In 1655 the Major-General in charge of Cheshire, Tobias Bridge, persuaded leading gentry not to enter Bradshaw as the county's parliamentary candidate at elections to the next parliament. There had been a proposal to nominate him for the city of London, but that came to nothing. Cromwell had effectively achieved his aim to keep Bradshaw out of Parliament. "Serjeant Bradshaw," writes John Thurloe jubilantly to Henry Cromwell in Ireland (26 Aug. 1656), "hath missed it in Cheshire, and is chosen nowhere else". Bradshaw was now an open opponent of the government. According to an anonymous letter sent to George Monck he entered early in 1655 into conspiracy with Haslerig, Pride, and others, to seize Monk as a first step towards the army's overthrow. He was also suspected, on no very valid ground, of encouraging the Fifth Monarchy Men (they were an extreme Puritan sect) in the following year.


The early part of 1656 was dominated by the Naylor case. Nayler achieved national notoriety when he re-enacted Christ's Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem by entering Bristol on a horse. He was imprisoned and charged with blasphemy. Narrowly escaping execution, he was sentenced to be put in the pillory and on there to have a red-hot iron bored through his tongue, and also to be branded with the letter B for Blasphemer on his forehead, and other public humiliations. During the Rule of the Major-Generals, Charles Worsley governed a district consisting of Cheshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire. He confiscated the property of Royalists, put Roman Catholics in jail, suppressed horse-racing, and promoted the public good according to his own ideals. He died suddenly in June 1656 at the age of 33 and was buried in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Fragmentary records show that Bradshaw tried a further witchcraft case at Flint in Wales on 7th April 1656. In August 1656 an attempt was made by Cromwell to deprive him of his office of chief justice of Chester. In private and public Bradshaw vigorously denounced Cromwell's usurpation of power, and he is credited with having asserted that if such conduct ended in the Protector's assumption of full regal power, he and Cromwell "had committed the most horrid treason (in their treatment of Charles I) that ever was heard of".

A further three women were sentenced to death by the judges at Chester in 1656 and were again hanged at Boughton (a fourth is said to have fled to Wrexham). Those hanged (15th October 1656) were:

  • Ellen Beach who "did exercise and practice the Invocation and conjuration of evil and wicked spirits, and consulted and covenanted with, entertayned, imployed, ffed and rewarded certayn evill and wicked spirits",
  • Anne Osboston having "on the 20th November exercised certayn artes and Incantations on Barbara Pott, late wife of John Pott, of Ranowe, from the effects whereof she died on the 20th of January then next following", and, lastly,
  • Anne Thornton who did "wickedly, divillishly and feloniously devise, excercise and practiuce certaiyne divellish and wicked acts".
John Bradshaw (1602-1659) from a c1862 illustration by George Perfect Harding.

Beach was from Rainow and so appatenrly was Osboston. Thornton was from Eaton but had moved to Eccleston when widowed and it was suggested that she had:

  • "three imps in the likeness of animals - Pygin, resembling a mole, Russoll, a grey cat, and Dunsott, a dun dog".

Thornton's "wicked acts" included the murder by witchcraft of Daniel Finchett son of yeoman Ralph Finchett of Ecclesston. Daniel was three days old when he became ill on the 9th February 1656 and died on the 11th.

Beach, the widow of collier John Beach, was accused at the session held on the last day of March 1656 that she:

  • "...on the 12th of September 1651, and on diverse other days as well before as after, at Rainow, did exercise and practice the invocation and conjuration of evil and wicked spirits with which she consulted, entertained and rewarded. On the said 12th September the said Ellen Beech did exercise certain witchcrafts upon Elizabeth Cowper, late of Rainow, spinster, whereby she, from the 12th day to the 20th of September, did languish and upon the 20th day died."

Osboston, as well as the death of Mrs Pott was charged at the same session that she had: "on the 17th July 1655, practiced ‘sorceries’ on John Pott, a yeoman of Rainow, who too died less than a month after". In addition Osboston had:

  • "..practiced certain wicked and devilish acts upon John Steenson, husbandman, which caused his death on the 20th of September. On the 30th of November 1651, Anne used enchantments upon Anthony Booth of Macclesfield, gentleman, causing his death on the 1st April following."

Before the trial John Bradshaw's eldest brother Henry was one of those appointed to conduct a preliminary examination of the three witches (who had supposedly killed six people). Two years later a "Colonel Bradshaw" is recorded as examining another witch prior to her trial. This was probably also brother Henry as he was colonel of the Macclesfield militia. Following the fighting, Henry Bradshaw served in Cheshire as a magistrate and commissioner for the sequestration (confiscation) of royalist property.


In 1657, Cromwell was offered the crown by Parliament as part of a revised constitutional settlement, presenting him with a dilemma since he had been "instrumental" in abolishing the monarchy. Cromwell agonised for six weeks over the offer. He was attracted by the prospect of stability it held out, but in a speech on 13 April 1657 he made clear that God's providence had spoken against the office of King: "I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again". Cromwell was ceremonially re-installed as Lord Protector on 26 June 1657 at Westminster Hall, sitting upon King Edward's Chair, which was moved specially from Westminster Abbey for the occasion. The event in part echoed a coronation, using many of its symbols and regalia, such as a purple ermine-lined robe, a sword of justice and a sceptre (but not a crown or an orb).

Bradshaw was to hear another witchcraft case (at Flint) when Dorothy Griffith of Llanasa Parish in North Wales was tried for witchcraft. She had been accused by a mariner by the name of William Griffith of performing witchcraft on a beach near the Point of Ayr. However in this case the local community rallied around the accused and attested to her good character. In her petition to the judge, which included 31 signatories as to her innocence, Dorothy asks him:

  • "..to seriously consider the great malice of one William Griffith, binge the cheefe enemy of your peticioner, who said the night before your petcioner was accused by him as hee went out of an alehouse confirrming with an oath that he would doe harem unto Griffith the Dedwydd or some of his children (meaning the father of your petitioner) and accordingly brought a false accusation against her."

The 31 signatures on the defence of Dorothy Griffith included: Edward Mostyn of Talacre, who was created a baronet in 1670, and belonged to a branch of the Mostyn family which long remained true to the catholic faith; Edward Morgan of Golden Grove, who also came from a Catholic family, and was a royalist captain in the Civil War; and William Smith, the puritan vicar, had been instituted at Llanasa in 1647. Dorothy also had the advantage that their were two judges sitting, the other being Thomas Fell (1598–1658), of Swarthmore Hall, Ulverston, Lancashire, considered to be "a good lawyer and a good man", whose widow Margaret was to marry George Fox, the founder of the Quakers.

There is no definite proof that Dorothy Griffith was aquitted but there is no record of an execution.

One theory as to what happened in the Griffith case is that William witnessed the phenomenon known as "Corpse Candles". In Welsh and Irish folklore, the Corpse Candle is a small ball of light said to be an omen of imminent death of a close relative or the death of a nearby residence. They were thought to trace the path to which a funeral would take place and the body of the deceased would travel on its way to being buried. They were also known to be seen traversing graveyards and swamps at night, and there was a swamp near the beach. Thw phenomenon is now believed to be of natural origin and caused by the oxidation of the products of decomposition in the same way as a Will-o'-the-wisp.

Bradshaw (together with Cromwell and Ireton) was subjected to posthumous execution: their remains were exhumed, and they were hanged, beheaded, and their remains were cast into a pit below the gallows. Bradshaw had been dead for the shortest time and his body was still reasonably intact.

In the same year there where were four indictments against Anne Ellis who had actually been arrested and escaped from custody before being re-aprehended at Wrenbury. Anne Ellis was examined on 3rd June, 1657, and admitted to all the accusations of malefice activities made against her. The document was signed by Anne Ellis and she was committed to gaol but escaped from the constable again. Once again she was recaptured. Her case came up before Bradshaw and Fell in Flint on the 28th September 1657 when Anne Ellis was among the prisoners at the Great Sessions of the County of Flint, finally on trial for witchcraft. The indictments were:

  • on the first she was accused of bewitching a cow belonging to Susan Addams (and another belonging to Edward Ffoulke);
  • on the second of bewitching Jane, daughter of Elizabeth Jeffreys, who languished until 31 May 1656. The evidence showed that Jeffreys claimed that she feared, in the summer of 1654, that Anne Ellis was the reason her child had fallen sick, and wanted Anne to bless the child. She complied, and the child recovered, but not long after fell sick once more and died around Whitsunday 1656. Before she died, Jeffreys’ child had ‘indicated that her distemper coincided with her mother’s quarrels with Anne’;
  • on the third, that "not havinge the feare of God before her eyes but by the instigacion of the Divell . . . did use, practise and exercise certayne wicked and divillish arts called witchcrafts, inchauntments, charmes and sorceries in and upon one Margaret Hughes (the child of Gwen Hughes). . . being then an infant of the age of one yeare in the peace of God and the publiqe peace . . . [so that] . . . her whole body was much pined, wasted and consumed";
  • on the fourth, of having bewitched Richard Hughes (son of Elizbeth Taylor) who "was and yet is much wasted and lamed". The evidence contains the amusing note that when Elizabeth Jeffreys had taxed Anne about cursing Richard Hughes, who had been a cripple for eight years, Anne replied "Why did he pisse downe her chimney?"

Anne Ellis appears to have been an impoverished woman who had often relied on her neighbours for charity and may possibly have threatened them with consequences if they did not help her out. At the time of her re-arrest in 1657, Anne was actually living with Elizabeth Jeffreys. Jeffreys later testified that Anne was capable of extreme anger, and that "when displeased shee doth hurte". It was not out of neighbourly love that Elizabeth Jeffreys invited Anne into her home, but rather fear of what Anne was capable of. It is also noted in her testimonial that, for Elizabeth, "it was better for her to keepe her (Anne) than another for that shee was affrayd of her".

A careful reading of the case indicates that several persons felt a sense of guilt towards Anne Ellis. They had not always acted towards her in that spirit of neighbourliness which was one of the mainstays of village life and a central Christian duty. Susan Addams's daughter had refused Anne milk because she could not spare any: Gwen Hughes remembered that four years ago she had declined to give meat upon demand to Anne, who had departed discontented; Margaret Hughes and other children had eaten bread in Anne's house in her absence, that is, the bread of a person forced to beg for her living; John Birch was reputed to have fallen out with Anne. Most revealing of an uneasy conscience, perhaps, is the remark of Margaret Barnatt that when Anne came to her house for relief the previous Whitsunday she gave her some, "although not of the best". In April 1658 Ellis appeared before the Spring Session of the Court. The Grand Jury having found that the first two were "not true bills" and a Petty Jury having acquitted her of the third and fourth charges, she was discharged.

Even though Anne Ellis had admitted guilt the jury in Wales had a different approach to that in Cheshire. The result of her case, acquittal, was not unusual for women accused of witchcraft in earty modem Wales. The court case elicited an acknowledgement of guilt from Anne, underlining the reason for the trial, thus inter-personal and communal harmony had been restored because the accused witch had admitted her guilt in court.


Cromwell is thought to have suffered from malaria and kidney stone disease. In 1658, he was struck by a sudden bout of malarial fever, and spurned the only known treatment, quinine, because it had been discovered by Catholic Jesuit missionaries. This was followed directly by illness symptomatic of a urinary or kidney complaint. The Venetian ambassador wrote regular dispatches to the Doge of Venice in which he included details of Cromwell's final illness, and he was suspicious of the rapidity of his death. He died at age 59 at Whitehall on 3 September 1658.

After Oliver Cromwell died, his son Richard succeeded him as Lord Protector and reinstated Bradshaw as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.


Bradshaw was elected MP for Cheshire in the Third Protectorate Parliament in 1659. During the same year Bradshaw moved to Westminster after falling dangerously ill with a 'quartan ague' or malaria.

The Devils Cabinet-Councell. discovered, or the Mistery and iniquity of the good old cause. Cromwell (and Bradshaw) were demonised in satirical illustrations by Royalist propagandists throughout the Civil War period.

For some years the "Sealed Knot" had been starting to plan an uprising but early attempts were cancelled. Another attempt was to be made in 1659. The warning issued by the Sealed Knot failed to reach Lancashire and Cheshire in time, and on 1 August 1659, with the encouragement of the Presbyterian clergy, George Booth mustered five hundred supporters at Warrington in Lancashire and advanced to a rendezvous with Cheshire insurgents at Rowton Heath near Chester. See "The Booth Rising" for more on this.

The political situation was by that time so chaotic that in October 1659 Bradshaw gave up the effort:

  • "animated by his ardent zeal and constant affection to the common cause, upon hearing those words, stood up and interrupted him, declaring his abhorrence of that detestable action, and telling the council, that being now going to his God, he had not patience to sit there to hear his great name so openly blasphemed ; and thereupon departed to his lodgings, and withdrew himself from publick employment." (Ludlow Edmund. Memoirs, vol 1)

Bradshaw died on 31 October 1659, aged 57. He was buried with great honours at Westminster Abbey. The eulogy was given by John Rowe. On his deathbed Bradshaw said that if called upon to try the King again he would be "the first man in England to do it".

Bradshaw was himself to hang: on 30 January 1661 – the twelfth anniversary of the regicide – the bodies of John Bradshaw, Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton were ordered to be exhumed and displayed in chains all day on the gallows at Tyburn. At sunset, the three bodies that had been displayed publicly as those of the three judges being executed posthumously were all beheaded. The bodies were thrown into a common pit and the heads displayed on pikes at Westminster Hall, with Bradshaw's head on the middle of the three pikes.

The story of John Bradshaw's remains being removed to Jamaica by one of his sons should be dismissed as fabrication as, for one thing, Bradshaw had no sons; he died childless and willed his estate to his nephew another Henry Bradshaw.

Did Bradshaw have a motive?

Looking at what was happening in Bradshaw's life at the time of the witch trials he participated in could he have had an alterior motive? He was certainly on a position where his political status was being challenged, largely because of his opposition to Cromwell having been raised to a position effectively equivalent to that of the late king.

Bradshaw's reputation was obviously later coloured by the fact that in 1649 he was made president of the parliamentary commission to try Charles I, and duly condemmed the king to be executed. He is often portrayed as a harsh judge. However, after the Civil War and before the execution of Charles, Bradshaw produced over a thousand reports as regards the sequestration of the assets of Royalists. Those still held at the National Archives paint a picture of a thorough, just, and dedicated lawyer, and while his belief in republicanism was intense, his correspondence does not show any sign of religious bigotry

As noted above there were two main kinds of witch trial - those where the allegation was against a "malefic" witch, and those were there was an implication of pacts with the Devil or a definite statement of them. In the six Chester "hanging cases" it appears that the prosecution was of the second type. Almost all ordinary people (including the witches) would have believed in magic, but the conception that Devil was the only possible source of magic would have been mostly in the minds of the prosecutors and the more educated people associated with the trial. This can be seen in the type of charges brought where the acts are "devilish" or included the use of "evil and wicked spirits".

Bradshaw was certainly a staunch Puritan as well as a dedicated Republican, his support for religious and political radicals was unpopular in Cheshire, and is said to have been a contributory factor in encouraging Booth's Uprising of August 1659. It could be argued that Bradshaw was trying to improve his political position, but there is no real evidence of this.

Although the trials were before a jury a judge could throw out evidence that was untrustworthy and direct the jury to aquit, Bradshaw clearly did not find against the accused witch in every case and he would also find in favour of those who had been unjustly maligned as witches. As the cases discaussed above appear to show the view taken by the jury on witchcraft appeared to differ between England and Wales.

Exploring the History

The Court of Common Pleas in which the trials were held is now Superdrug in St Werburgh Street but the building has been much altered. It is possible to visit the site of Execution at Chester at Barrel Well Hill but there is little to see other than St Giles Cemetery. The ditch at Chester Castle where executed witches were buried is now a service road. The Consistory Court at the Cathedral still exists and can be viewed through the doorway.

Other Myths

The guidebooks to Chester contain some further information about witchcraft, not all of which is true and some of which cannot be verified from written or other credible sources. Some works also repeat theories as to how witch trials arose without placing these theories and their authors in their proper context. For example, in 1967 Hugh Trevor-Roper argued that the trials were the result of "learned demonologists", but was also keen to make a point about persecution due to his wartime experiences. In Trevor-Roper's view, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries can ultimately be traced back to the conflict between the religious values of the Reformation and the rationalistic approach of what became the Enlightenment. Others place more weight on local disputes or climate change.


One newspaper article claimed 32 witches were executed in Chester. This isn't true, there were about that number of trials (34), but only eight executions. The same article has John Bradshaw being a "local power-crazed judge" and states that he presided over all 32 trials over a 10-15 year period during the 1650's and 1660's. Actually, he was judge for ten years (1649-1659) and presided over two witchcraft cases leading to executions only in 1653 and 1657, which found only six people guilty. He could not have presided over anything in the 1660's as he died (on halloween} in 1659 and was dug up and hanged in 1661. Nothing suggests he was "power-crazed".

Barrel Well Hill

This service road at Chester Castle is believed to mark the location of the Castle Ditch near where witches were buried after hanging.

A myth sometimes heard in Chester is that witches were rolled down the hill in barrels into the River Dee to determine whether they were guilty or not. If they sank they were guilty and if not they were innocent. There is actually no historical basis for this form of "trial by ordeal" and a far more rational explanation is that this was the site of a well which once excavated was lined with barrels to support their sides. Rather gory stories exist elsewhere of a form of execution in which the victim is rolled downhill in a barrel through which nails have been hammered. Obviously, that would be very injurious. How the story of the (spiked or not) barrel became current in Chester is difficult to determine, but it does turn up in many folk-tales, including "Brothers Grimm" Germanic ones such as the Goose Girl. One possible source may be a confusion with the story of John Clare as found in Joseph Hemingway's History of the City of Chester - written in 1831:

  • "About the centre of this elegant group of buildings, thirty years ago, stood that memento mori to the passing traveller, vulgarly called the gallows, where many of our unfortunate fellow creatures have forfeited their lives to the violated laws of their country. A short time prior to this period, this terrific engine of death had its station exactly on the opposite side of the road, which, on account of its elevated situation, received the appellation of Gallows Hill, which, hy a precipitate descent, and without an inclosure, went down to the Dee. There is an incident connected with this place of execution worthy of recording. In May, 1801, as three malefactors, convicted of burglary at the spring assizes, were conveying to execution in a cart, one of them, named Clare, when opposite the gallows, and just when the vehicle was turning, gave a sudden spring, and threw himself upon the top of the precipice descending to the river, and jumped, rolled, and tumbled along till he was precipitated into it. The weight of his irons sunk him to the bottom, and before he could be brought up, life was entirely extinct. Although the unfortunate fellow thus evaded the letter of his sentence, in escaping being hanged by the neck till he was dead, yet the finisher of the law was unwilling to forego his official duty, and the dead body of the criminal was tied up after his breath had departed. The most afflictive part of the tragedy was, that the two poor men who were in a like condemnation, were kept in a state of awful suspense until the dead carcase of the drowned man was tied up beside them."

The Museum of Policing in Cheshire records that on May 9th 1801 "Thompson, Morgan and Clare" were indeed executed for burglary. However "Infamous Cheshire" records that while Thompson and Morgan were unpopular forgers who had "cheated and ruined the lives of a number of local people", John Clare had some sympathy because he had committed a relatively minor crime. At his trial, John Clare had shouted that "he would never hang" - technically he did hang, although he drowned first.

Witches Graves

When the new Magistrates Court was constructed in 1991 a number of graves were discovered. While there is no official report on the matter the following information could be obtained from workers on the site:

  • a plague graveyard was uncovered where the victims of an Anthrax outbreak were believed to have been interred. This required the treatment of the ground with lime (calcium oxide). Anthrax spores can survive for very long periods of time in the environment after release;
  • some of the graves appeared to be those of "witches" and various talismans were found on the site;
  • a quantity of the topsoil and been removed (possibly unofficially) and sold on to the owner of a house who had used it on the construction of a garden in a disused railway cutting. This required removal as a precaution, much to the shock of the owner.

The story cannot be confirmed by documentary evidence, although a photograph exists of the ground at the site covered with a white powder which could be lime. Incidentally, it was later discovered that the calcium lime actually preserves anthrax spores.

The traditional burial place for witches in Chester was in the "Castle Ditch" just outside of the graveyard of St Mary on the Hill. However some appear to have possibly been buried within the churchyard. An entry in the parish records reads: "1656 - 'Three witches hanged at Michaelmas Assizes, buried in the corner by the Castle Ditch in the churchyard 8th of October'".

Bridget Bostock

By the 18th century science had progressed to the point where more rational explanations were being sought. Nicholas Robinson (1697–1775), a governor of London's Bethlem Hospital, wanted to account “mechanically” for mental as well as bodily diseases. In "A treatise on the virtues and efficacy of a crust of bread: eat early in a morning fasting, to which are added some particular remarks concerning the great cures accomplished by the saliva or fasting spittle" Robinson refers to Bridget Bostock a "wise woman" of Coppenhall (where Crewe is now), and ascribes her cures to a "scientific theory":

  • "Old Bridget Bostock…hath, in her life-time, made it her business to cure the country-folks, her neighbours, of sore legs, and other disorders; but her reputation now seems so wonderfully to increase, that people come to her from far and near.. ..She cures the blind, the deaf, the lame of all sorts, the rheumatic, King’s evil [scrofula], histeric fits, falling fits, shortness of breath, dropsy, palsy, leprosy, cancers, and, in short, almost every things, except the French disease [syphilis], which she will not meddle with, and all the means she uses for cure is, only stroking with her fasting spittle, and praying for them."

She came to national prominence after she was featured in a local newspaper in August 1748, when she was about 70 years of age. Her fame became such that by the following month she was receiving 600–700 visitors a day seeking her assistance, and she soon decided that she would only see those she had dealt with before or who were deaf. Sir John Price, a Welsh baronet, repeatedly importuned Bostock to raise his wife from the dead, but she refused. Nothing is known of her after 1749.

Michael Goble

There is a story that, in 1898, Michael Goble, a local historian, began investigating and researching the story of the "Boughton witches". He is reputed to have claimed that during the course of his research he was visited by the spirits of three demented women, who threatened to bring forth the devil should the historian not pledge to abandon his investigation immediately. Undaunted, Michael Goble continued to pursue his project, but never saw it finished. He died in 1902, - whilst visiting Gallows Hill. Other than the mention on the website, there is no separate confirmation of any truth in this. The same three witches also feature in guides as:

  • "In the 17th century three ladies, Thornton, Beech and Osbertson, were found guilty of being witches by the Witchfinder General and burned in the Castle Ditch. They haunt St Mary's Churchyard during Halloween"

In reality Thornton, Beach and Osboston had nothing to do with the Witchfinder General and were not burned in the Castle ditch.

Sources and Links


There is a vast literature on the witch trials and many reasons have been given as to what the motivations for these were. Many writers propose a single cause, although others suggest that the causes differed from place to place and time to time. Indeed, the study of witch trials and the reasons for them is such a complex subject that there are even university courses dedicated to it. A note of caution is needed when studying the literature as some of it is quite badly researched (hopefully not mine).

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