Blog, History Posts
Comments 2

Shropshire Witches – Witchcraft In The Early Modern Era

Researching witchcraft in Shropshire is similar to panning for gold when the river has run dry. These days, there is a wealth of information regarding the ‘European Witch Crazes’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but Shropshire is rarely mentioned. Even when Shropshire does come up, it’s for no more than a sentence or two. This lack of history can perhaps be accredited to the narrowness of the field of study. Between 1563 and 1736, less than 500 executions were carried out for the crime of witchcraft in England.1 Europe on the other hand saw 100,000 individuals tried and less than 50,000 put to death.2 Accusations of witchcraft also rarely saw just one person implicated, resulting in numerous ‘suspects’ popping up once once the accused was questions. This resulted in localised pockets of witches being discovered in certain towns and villages, rather than nationwide witch hunts.

It should perhaps reassure Salopians that there is so little to find regarding the history of witches in our county, and that the ‘historical accounts’ we do have are often based on shaky historical data. As Tracy Borman states in the opening to her study of the trial of the Flowers women in Leicestershire ‘contemporary sources are both startling vivid and frustrating patchy’. There has been a tendency for English studies to focus on the more notorious witch trials such as The Witches of Warboys, The Pendle Witches and the Bideford Witches. Borman herself comments that she learnt of the Flowers women while growing up, through local folklore and stories. She then went on to research the history behind those tales. In another study of witchcraft in early modern Europe, a table of prosecutions doesn’t mention England as a whole, but instead includes the figures for ‘Essex Co., England 1560-1602’4 where 158 women, and 24 men were ‘accused, indicted or tried for witchcraft’5. The dramatic scale of events such as those in Essex have, by some in the past, been overblown to represent the mentality in all English counties.

Part of the reason that accounts of these trials managed to survive is due to the rise of popular print. Matthew Hopkins published The Discovery of Witches to defend his actions and methods as the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ and publishing houses reprinted salacious pamphlets such as accounts of the trial of the Flower Women and their magic practices. A modern comparison would be tabloids printing features on the latest gossip regarding celebrity affairs, and politicians being caught out misbehaving. Another source for our knowledge of witchcraft in England comes from the confessions of the suspected witches. While these may have been prefaced with the assurance that suspects had provided these confessions of their own free will, Hopkins himself described the various techniques that could be employed to encourage witches to admit their guilt. Walking the suspect appears to have been a favourite of the Witchfinder General, and involved keeping the suspect awake for days by ensuring that they were kept moving.

Studies such as those by Gary St. M. Nottingham do tell us that witchcraft accusations did occur in Shropshire6 though he disagrees with Samantha Lyon7 regarding the execution of Mrs Foxley in Shrewsbury quarry. According to Lyon, Mrs Foxley was executed for witchcraft after poisoning her husband, whereas Nottingham states that Mrs Foxely was burnt not for witchcraft, but for treason, as ‘to poison her husband was considered at the time to be a treasonable act’8. According to Nottingham, no witches were actually burnt in Shropshire, and apart from Bessie of Belle Vue in 1570 where the verdict has been lost to time, only ‘three other trials were held in Shropshire all gave a not guilt verdict on the defendent. 1659 – Janet Wright … 1663 Joseph Wright… 1666 Maria Davys’9.

Nottingham’s four witchcraft trials all take place in Shrewsbury, perhaps suggesting that his research focused the northern Shropshire towns, or that records of Shropshire witches are fiendishly difficult to find. Lyon briefly mentions Margaret Bridgens in her entry for November 1649, who was accused of ‘exorcising witchcrafts, charmings, sorceries ect’ at Court Leet in Ludow, and the court record survives to this day thanks to the Shropshire Archives.

Reference to ‘one Mother Garve of the Castle-foregate’ who was ‘punished in the corn-market for going about to bewitch and enchant a cat of hers [with] a disease from her neighbour’s sow, and yet, notwithstanding, the sow died of the said disease’10 can be found in A History of Shrewsbury. Unfortunately there is no specific date or method for this punishment, only the heading 1579-80, suggesting that this took place during the reign of Elizabeth I, and before James I. At this point in time, as Keith Thomas eloquently explains, ‘the distinction between magic and religion was an impossibly fine one.’11 While not officially condoned by the Church, some practices were allowed and in some cases even encouraged.

Emphasis on the blessed properties of items such as consecrated bread, and holy water lead to individuals sprinkling bits of those items, like charms, across their houses, and fields. This blurring of the lines between Christianity and magic was used by reformers to help support their arguments for change. Even after the Reformation, there would have been those who clung to their old beliefs. Time has long since proved that beliefs are a difficult thing to quash. Just as the Romans adopted native gods into their pantheon by matching them up to their own deities, pagan sites and holidays were merged into the Christian calendar. While this may have been an effective way at easing the way for a new religion, it would opened the door for church approved ‘magic’ and a grey area regarding its practice. Thomas’ quote from the council of Malines in 1607 clears the situation up perfectly by stating ‘It is superstitious to expect any effect from anything, when such an effect cannot be produced by natural causes, by divine institution, or by the ordination or approval of the church’12. In short, if it is not done by a nature, a priest, or god himself, then it’s wrong.

The rest of Shropshire’s witch legacy appears to be confined to folklore. In a brief reference to South Shropshire, Nottingham references a Shropshire Nursey Rhyme at the start of his book.

… and when the pricking time did tell
the finder came from fiery hell
to rid this earth of monstrous beasts
and lay them down for the devil’s feasts

And now a ghoul he wanders still
to find the child that bears him ill
for Gideon Planke will find you out
for he is coming… have no doubt!

According to Nottingham when Gideon Planke arrived in South Shropshire ‘he was given very short shrift, being tied to a tree and killed.’13 Nottingham links Planke with Matthew Hopkins, whereas other sources name him as an apprentice to Hopkin’s partner John Stearne. However, the suggestion that Planke is perhaps an entirely fictional character may well have merit, as his name does not appear in Stearne’s ‘A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft’. Published after Hopkin’s death, Stearne defends both his reputation, and that of Hopkin’s. He disputes claims that Hopkins had been tried and executed for witchcraft, stating ‘I am certain (nothwithstanding whatsoever hath been said of him) he died peaceably at Manningtree, after a long sickness of a consumption’14. If Planke had been a colleague of Hopkings and Stearne, then it seems strange that he was not mentioned by Stearne in this pamphlet. He states that neither he or Hopkins took bribes or made accusations based on monetary motivations. Stearne was defending the professionalism of the Witchfinders two years after Planke’s supposed mob execution, yet not a whisper of Planke appears.

While there would seem to be poetic justice in the stringing up of a witchfinder, (possibly part of the reason why it was rumoured that Hopkins was tired and executed for witchcraft), the story of Gideon Planke is most likely just than. A story, much like that of Jean Salvage in Charlotte Burne’s book of Shropshire Folklore.15 Caught gleaning from a farmer’s field, she cursed the farmer so that no-one and no animal would work for him. When the curse took effect the farmer was forced to return Jean Salvage and allow her to glean as much as she and her neighbour wanted in order for the curse to be lifted.

As previously stated, there is a huge amount of information on the European Witch Hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth century once you start looking, but more often than not the specifics of localised areas require a significant amount of sifting to uncover. Once accused, the slander of witch was a difficult mantle to escape and suspicion was dangerous. While the historian in me is frustrated not to find more on the topic, the Sallopian is quite please to see that Shropshire didn’t go witch-mad with the rest of Europe. For Shropshire, the witchfinder was the villain in a fairy-tale.

  1. Winsham, Willow. England’s Witchcraft Trails. Pen and Sword History, 2018 pg.xi
  2. Borman, Tracy. Witches: James I and the English Witch-Hunts. Vintage 2004. pg.xvi
  3. “…”
  4. Apps, Laura and Gow, Andrew. Male Witches In Early Modern Europe. Manchester University Press, 2003. pg.45
  5. “…”
  6. Nottingham, Gary St. M. Welsh Borders Witchcraft: A Rendition of the Occult History of the Welsh March. BM Avalonia, 2018
  7. Lyon, Samantha. A Grim Almanac of Shropshire. The History Press, 2013
  8. Nottingham, Gary St. M. Welsh Borders Witchcraft: A Rendition of the Occult History of the Welsh March. BM Avalonia, 2018 pg. 41
  9. “…”
  10. Owens, H & Blakeway, J.B. A History Of Shrewsbury. Harding, Lepard, and Co, 1825 pg.562
  11. Thomas, Keith. Religion And The Decline Of Magic. Penguin Books, 1991. pg.33
  12. Thomas, Keith. Religion And The Decline Of Magic. Penguin Books, 1991. pg.55
  13. Nottingham, Gary St. M. Welsh Borders Witchcraft: A Rendition of the Occult History of the Welsh March. BM Avalonia, 2018 pg. 41
  14. Stearne, John. A Confirmation and Discovery of Witches. William Wilson, 1648. pg.61
  15. Burne, Charlotte Sophia. Shropshire Folk-lore: A Sheaf of Gleaning
This entry was posted in: Blog, History Posts

by

Carol Forrester is a writer trying to be a better one. She’s currently working on a poetry collection 'It's All In The Blood'. She has a 2:1 BA degree in history from Bath Spa University, enjoys judo at least twice a week, and tries to attend poetry events around the Midlands when she can. Her flash fiction story ‘Glorious Silence’ was named as River Ram Press’ short story of the month for August 2014 and her short story ‘A Visit From The Fortune Teller’ has been showcased on the literary site Ink Pantry. Her poems ‘Sunsets’ and ‘Clear Out‘ were featured on Eyes Plus Words, and two of her poems were included in the DVerse Poets Pub Publication ‘Chiaroscuro’ which is available for purchase on amazon. More recently her poem ‘Until The Light Gets In‘ was accepted and published at The Drabble and her poem ‘Newborn’ was published by Ink Sweat & Tears. She has been lucky enough to write guest posts for sites such as Inky Tavern and Song of The Forlorn and has hosted a number of guest bloggers on her site Writing and Works.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Beyond The Past And After Hours #Prosery | Writing and Works

  2. Anonymous says

    Interesting article with some food for thought…. However researching the history of witchcraft trials in Shropshire one useful work which seems to have been forgotten is Ewen L’Strange’s 1930 work on witchcraft trials whereby he lists and examines all those that he could find at the time… I am sure there would have been more cases in Shropshire and a thorough consideration of church archives for the area may very well reveal others too.

Please take the time to tell me what you think, I love receiving feedback. :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.