If you follow the River Ribble as it loops down its Valley, past Pendle, Clitheroe, Whalley and Blackburn, it comes to Samlesbury, before running down to the sea at Preston. There stands the splendid black-and-white timbered Samlesbury Hall, once home to the Southworth family. The Southworths were one of the old Lancashire Catholic families, and Samlesbury Hall was central to those locals of the old faith.
Sir John Southworth had been Sheriff of Lancashire three times, in the 1560s, but had spent much of his later life imprisoned for his beliefs. The Recusancy Acts, from 1593 on, had fixed the civil, and sometimes criminal, penalties for refusing to acknowledge the Anglican Church, and recusants were required to pay fines, for example, for not attending Anglican services. In early 1612, a decree had been announced that Justices of the Peace should make lists of known recusants in their areas. Protestants like Roger Nowell and Nicholas Bannister complied, as opponents of Catholicism, but Bannister’s son-in-law, Robert Holden of Holden Hall, Haslingden, was both Magistrate and Catholic.
When he arraigned the ‘Samlesbury witches’ his motives were a strange mirror of his fellow Magistrates. Jane Southworth was the daughter of Sir Richard Sherburne of Stonyhurst, another old Lancashire Catholic family. She married John Southworth, son of Thomas Southworth. Thomas was the son of old Sir John, and had converted to the Church of England, thereby incurring the wrath of his father. Old Sir John was said ‘not to have liked’ his grandson’s bride, not least because, like his son (her father-in-law), she had forsaken her Catholic faith. News reached Magistrate Holden that Jane, together with two more women of Samlesbury who had converted from Catholicism, was involved in witchcraft.
The accusations were made by a fourteen-year-old, Grace Sowerbutts, who claimed that Jennet Bierley, her grandmother, had ‘in the likenesse of a black Dogge, with two legges’ had tried to persuade her to drown herself in the Ribble. At another time, her grandmother and Ellen Bierley, her aunt, had taken a baby from its sleeping parents, driven a nail through its navel and sucked from the hole. The baby died, and Jennet and Ellen Bierley had gone to St Leonard’s Churchyard, disinterred the corpse, cooked and ate it, and seethed the bones in a pot and
“… with the Fat that came out of the faid bones, they faid they would annoint themfelues, that thereby they might fometimes change themfelues into other fhapes.”
|Eating dead babies|
These women, with Jane Southworth, had met with ‘black things’ that had carried them, and young Grace, over the Ribble to the Red Bank, where they had danced and eaten, and these black things had then laid the four of them down and ‘did abufe their bodies.’ Jane Southworth, she said, had many times taken her from her bed to a hay-loft, where she was beaten, left unconscious and bewitched.
|Dancing with Black Things|
In the courtroom at Lancaster Castle, fourteen-year-old Grace Sowerbutts, like nine-year-old Jennet Device before her, began to give her evidence. Unlike Jennet, however, she raised suspicions and pretty soon the case collapsed as she admitted that she had been ‘schooled’ by a Catholic priest, Master Thompson. This ‘Thompson’ turns out to have been the brother of Jane Southworth’s father-in-law, Thomas, and was really Father Christopher Southworth. Young Grace, a Catholic, had been sent to this priest to learn her prayers, but he had coached her in her lies, with a view to discrediting and punishing the Protestant coverts in the Samlesbury area. In all, seven persons from Samlesbury were called to Lancaster, although Potts only gives us the evidence against the three women mentioned. As you may expect, all seven were returned to Samlesbury, declared innocent.
|Who'd be a Papist in 17th Century Lancashire?|
Judges Bromley and Altham condemned these nefarious Papist tricks, conveniently forgetting the example set by John Darrel, George More and other such Protestant clerics when the shoe was on the other foot. Jennet Device, “being a yong Maide” of nine years old, is praised for “…what modeftie, gouernement, and vnderftanding, fhee deliuered this Euidence”. Grace Sowerbutts, in contrast is “this impudent wench,” her testimony a “… Legend of Lyes.” Astonishingly, the judges even point out how
“…the wrinkles of an old wiues face is good euidence to the Iurie againft a Witch. And how often will the common people fay (Her eyes are funke in her head, God bleffe vs from her).”
They mock the idea that Jennet Bierley “ … transformed her felfe into a Dogge. I would know by what meanes any Prieft can maintaine this point of Euidence”, but had permitted the evidence of “ … a toade, or something like a toade,” against Margaret Pearson. Horses, as they say, for courses.
|Dedication from Potts - Wonderfull Discoverie|
Thomas Potts dedicated his book, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, to Sir Thomas Kynvet (the capturer of Guy Fawkes) and Lady Elizabeth, his wife, and is careful to include in it the ‘evidence’ of the Malkin Tower plan to blow up the Castle at Lancaster, as a reminder to the King of the Gunpowder Plot of seven years before. Maybe the gesture was appreciated, as Thomas Potts was, in 1615, rewarded with "…the keepership of Skalme Park - for the breeding and training of the King’s hounds.”
Nice work if you can get it.