The Samlesbury Witches

On August 19, 1612, three women—Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley—were brought to trial on charges of witchcraft. The trial of these women, known as the Samlesbury Witches, would become one of the most famous in English history.

As often seems to be the case in sensational witch trials, this one was started by a teenage girl—one Grace Sowerbutts, who accused the three women of practicing witchcraft. Even crazier charges of child murder and cannibalism were added on later.

Things looked pretty dire for the three women from the get go. The judge, Sir Edward Bromley, was looking for a promotion and wanted to impress King James, who was famously paranoid about witchcraft (he even wrote a whole book about it, Daemonologie, which he published in 1597). Five other women had been arrested in addition to Jane, Jennet, and Ellen, but they were released with a warning before the trial began. The three remaining defendants pleaded not guilty to their charges.

Grace Sowerbutts was the chief prosecution witness, as well as the granddaughter of Jennet Bierley and niece of Ellen Bierley. So much for family ties. She claimed the women had haunted her for years and at one point had tried to persuade her to drown herself. She also testified that they’d stolen a baby to suck its blood, then dug up its corpse after it was buried so they could make a stew out of it. According to Grace, Jennet, Ellen, and Jane would regularly meet with four demon-like creatures, with which they danced, ate, and had sex.

Because teenagers have never been known to lie about anything, the people of the town believed Grace. But the case fell apart bizarrely when, upon the suggestion that Grace actually be cross-examined by the judge, she and the other witnesses began quarreling amongst themselves, and it became clear that Grace had been coached in her story by a local Catholic priest. When questioned, Grace confessed that this was true, and that the priest was Jane Southworth’s uncle by marriage. Apparently, the Southworth family, which had remained staunchly Catholic, weren’t fond of Jane, who was Anglican and had married the sole Southworth son to go Anglican as well. Presumably, the other women had been roped into the insanity simply because they, too, were Anglican.

To his credit, Bromley’s desire for justice outweighed his desire for a promotion, and he ordered the jury to find the defendants not guilty. The jury did so, making these women some of the luckiest people ever accused of witchcraft. In the end, Bromley got his promotion, and the hated Jane Southworth’s eldest son, Thomas, inherited his grandfather’s estate of Samlesbury Hall.

 



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