Monday, 16 July 2012

Pity Poor Jennet



                                Although she is included in the story of the Lancashire witches, Jennet Preston was, strictly speaking, a Yorkshire witch. She lived at Gisburn, now in Lancashire, but in the seventeenth century Gisburne-in-Craven was part of Yorkshire. The Register of Gisburn Parish Church records the marriage of Jennet Balderston to William Preston on May 10th 1587, so we may assume she would be in her mid-forties when the events took place some twenty-five years later. Potts is once more our primary source; he includes his account at the end of his Wonderfull Discoverie, although the events he describes took place before the Lancaster trials. Jennet Preston of Gisburn was made welcome in the home Thomas Lister of Westby Hall, where she had ‘free access, kind respect and entertainment’ – “Which of you that dwelleth neare them in Crauen but can and will witnesse it?” writes Potts. 


Thomas Potts - Trial of Jennet Preston 1612

Following the death of Mr Lister, in 1608, his son, also called Thomas, continued to extend kindness towards Jennet. Early in 1612, Jennet was brought before the Lent assizes at York, charged with causing the death by witchcraft of one ‘Dodg-sonne’s child’. The parish register of Bolton-by-Bowland (lying next to Gisburn) records a Thomas Dodgson being baptised on September 10th 1610, and a Thomas Dodgsonne buried on April 19th 1611, which may well be the same child. Jennet was tried before Judge Bromley and “by the fauour and mercifull consideration” of the jury was acquitted of the crime. 

St Mary's, Gisburn

Four days later, Jennet was at the Good Friday meeting at Malkin Tower, where, we are told, she was seeking assistance in bewitching to death Thomas Lister (the younger). On the evidence of the other witnesses, she was returned to York for the August assizes, charged 
…that shee felloniously had practised, vsed, and exercised diuerse wicked and deuillish Arts, called Witchcrafts, Inchauntments, Charmes, and Sorceries, in and vpon one Thomas Lister of Westby in Crauen.” 
She was said to have caused harm to Lister’s goods and cattle, and then evidence was brought that four years previously she had murdered Thomas Lister senior by witchcraft. Why this was never mentioned at the Lent assizes is a mystery. Why was she charged with the death of Dodg-sonne’s child but not the death of Mr Lister? If she was guilty now, why not then? Nevertheless, Anne Robinson ‘and others’ provided evidence in court that when Mr Lister was on his death-bed, he cried out in distress, saying, “Iennet Preston lyes heauie vpon me, Preston’s wife lies heauie vpon me; helpe me, helpe me,” whereupon he died. He was wrapped in a winding-sheet, and Jennet Preston was brought to his body and made to touch it, and before all present who saw, it bled fresh blood. This was proof to all that she was the murderer. 

Sir Kenelm Digby (him again), wrote of,  
“… the strange effect which is frequently seen in England, when, at the approach of the Murderer, the slain body suddenly bleedeth afresh,”
and King James, in his Daemonologie, also wrote, 
“…for as in a secret murther, if the deade carcase be at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it wil gush out of bloud, as if the blud wer crying to the heauen for reuenge of the murtherer, God hauing appoynted that secret super-naturall signe, for tryall of that secrete vnnaturall crime.” 
John Webster of Clitheroe, usually level-headed, writes,  
“… that such bleeding is absolutely true de facto, and also that there is something more than ordinary in it.” 
Extract from The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft - John Webster - 1677

Michael Dalton’s The Countrey Justice (1643) – a handbook for magistrates – lists “The Bleeding of the dead Body in his Presence,” as a cause for bringing a suspected murderer to trial. 
Extract from The Countrey Justice - Michael Dalton - 1643

Jennet Preston’s fate was sealed, for this was proof enough for a seventeenth century jury. She was hanged at York for a witch, protesting her innocence to the last, on Wednesday July 29th 1612.

Hanging the Witch

Jonathan Lumby puts forward an interesting theory in his excellent The Lancashire Witch Craze (1995). Thomas Lister senior did not die at Gisburn, as we may expect, but in nearby Bracewell, where, it seems, he was attending the wedding of his son, also Thomas, then aged sixteen. Lister senior was about thirty-eight, roughly the same age as Jennet Preston at the time, and Lumby suggests that there was more their relationship. If Lister was calling out for his lover on his death-bed, this puts things in a different light. Hours before, young Lister was a bridegroom and heir; hours later, he was master of the Westby estate. His dead father had called not for his wife, but his mistress. Obviously, there would be suspicion, glances and whispers. Jennet was still in the household, but would have been treated differently now. Thomas’s widow, Jane, would have treated her differently too. Resentment, suspicion, jealousy and guilt. All feeding and festering away in rural Gisburn. How long before thoughts of ill-will, revenge and blame were born? 
Young Lister wanted rid of Jennet, but he needed an excuse, as he didn’t want the truth about his father’s relationship with her to come out in open court. Hence, the convenient case of Dodg-sonne’s child. But that hadn’t worked, as the jury had been inconveniently merciful, so a second case was necessary, with the evidence massaged to fit his purpose. Witnesses had heard his father cry out Jennet’s name, but if the context were altered, a different interpretation could be read into this. And the bleeding corpse – well, Jennet would doubtless have wanted to see her dead lover one last time, so just add a little more detail. A little detail like the corpse bleeding. Your word against her’s. Job done. 
And who would know that if a corpse bled, it was because the murderer was present, and that this was evidence enough for a conviction? 
Why, a magistrate of course. Young Lister had gone to Bracewell to marry. His new bride, called Jane, like his mother, was the daughter of Thomas Heber. Thomas Heber was a magistrate. He was also the presiding prosecution magistrate at the trial of Jennet Preston at the August assizes at York. 
Job, as they say, very well done indeed.

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