When John Parr died, his daughter and sole heiress Ann inherited his property at Cleworth, near Leigh, Lancashire. Ann was the widow of Thurston Barton, and in 1578, she was remarried, to Nicholas Starkie, of Huntroyd. The newly-weds moved into Cleworth Hall and started a family.
Their first four offspring died in infancy, but they had two more children, a boy, John, and a girl, Ann, who lived. In 1595, the two children began to suffer from convulsions and Nicholas spent the vast sum of £200 in doctors’ fees trying to find a cure, but none was found. He became convinced the children were possessed and approached a Catholic priest, who claimed not to have a book of exorcisms, so then he turned to a local cunning-man, or ‘conjuror’, called Edmund Hartley. We think of a ‘conjuror’ as an entertainer who pulls rabbits out of hats, but in Elizabethan times this was someone who conjured, or called forth, spirits.
|A Cunning Man conjuring|
Hartley, (in some sources called Edward or John), was engaged for £2 per year, and by means of ‘certayne popish charmes and herbes’ he kept the fits under control. After eighteen months Hartley thought he deserved a rise, which Starkie refused, and the fits became much worse. Three other girls being brought up in the household became possessed, as did Jane Ashton, a housemaid in her thirties, and Margaret Byrom, a thirty-three years old spinster and visiting family member. The seven demoniacs screamed and swore, howled and blasphemed. The boy John would deliver lengthy sermons on God’s wrath and fearful judgements to come. Starkie was sure Hartley was now behind all this, and had bewitched the females by ‘kissing’ them, when he had breathed devils into them. He consulted Dr John Dee, then at Manchester, who refused to get involved, but told him to consult some ‘godly preachers’, with whom he would ‘consult concerning a public or private fast’. Dee also admonished Hartley for his ‘fraudulent practices.’ Starkie had Hartley brought before two magistrates, who sent him to Lancaster Castle for trial. In March 1597, he was tried for witchcraft, but the court could ‘find no lawe to hange him’. Starkie then conveniently remembered that, on a visit to his father at Whalley, Hartley had taken him into a small wood, (at Spring Wood?), where he had drawn a magic circle with ‘many crosses and partitions’ on the ground and recited a short spell. This was enough for the court. Hartley was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Declaring his innocence to the last, he went to hangman, but on the scaffold the rope broke and Hartley fell down, upon which he ‘penitentlie confessed’. Another rope was brought and Hartley was successfully hanged.
Two Puritan ministers, John Darrel and George More, were brought to Cleworth, where they witnessed the bedlam there. As a Bible was brought in, the children mockingly chanted ‘Bi-ble, Ba-ble, Bible, Babble’, so on the following day Darrel and More, another minister and thirty other people gathered and spent the day praying and fasting.
The possessed fell down and saw their own demons leaving them, then bled from their nose and mouth and became unconscious. All except Jane Ashton were delivered, although the unclean spirits returned later and tried again to enter the house, when more prayers repulsed them. The Starkie household was cured, and did not suffer again. Jane Ashton went to live with a Catholic uncle, and was exhibited, howling and barking, as a warning to Catholics of what might befall them if they converted to Protestantism. The Devil, it seemed, was abroad in Lancashire.