Witch Trials

Dover Castle - the Seat of the Lord Warden, Constable of Dover

Dover Castle – the Seat of the Lord Warden, Constable of Dover

Theodore (602-690), Archbishop of Canterbury, published the first ecclesiastical laws condemning witchcraft in England, in the seventh century. It would seem from this that the fear of witchcraft had been around for a long time before and it continued, reaching its peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At that time, on a county basis, Kent was second only to Essex in indictments with East Kent providing the most cases.

One of East Kent’s earliest recorded cases concerned Eleanor Cobham (c.1400–1452), the second wife of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447). Duke Humphrey was the youngest son of Henry IV (1399–1413) and appointed Lord Warden and Constable of Dover Castle (1415-1447) on 27 November 1415 by his eldest brother, Henry V (1413-1422). Duke Humphrey held the office for 32 years and throughout his tenure he was very popular throughout the Cinque Ports and was generally referred to as ‘Good Duke Humphrey’.

Landing of Emperor Sigismund, Good Duke Henry challenging him. Window in the Stone Hall, Maison Dieu

Landing of Emperor Sigismund, Good Duke Henry challenging him. Window in the Stone Hall, Maison Dieu

On 16 March 1415-16 (the new year started on 25 March), Sigismund of Luxembourg, King of Hungary and Croatia (1387-1437) and later Holy Roman Emperor (1433-1437), accompanied by the Archbishop of Rheims, visited Henry V to bring about what was hoped to be a reconciliation between Henry and the King of France, Charles VI (1380-1422). One of Duke Humphrey’s first duties was to challenge the Emperor, as he arrived at Dover, demanding his intentions and assurances that he would not attempt to excise any authority in England. When he was satisfied, the Emperor and his retinue were allowed to disembark. This scene is depicted in one of the windows in the Stone Hall, Maison Dieu.

Henry VI (detail) from a window in Maison Dieu.

Henry VI (detail) from a window in Maison Dieu.

Henry VI (1422-1461 + 1470-1471) succeeded his father to throne when he was only 6-years old but by Henry V’s will Duke Humphrey was appointed the Lord Protector to his nephew. Following the death of his elder brother, John, Duke of Bedford (1389-1435), Duke Humphrey became second in line to the throne and claimed the right of Regency. However, as the young Henry VI grew up he started to view Duke Humphrey with suspicion that was fuelled by his uncle’s enemies. In 1428, Humphrey had married his mistress, Eleanor Cobham who was said to be beautiful and clever. Eight years later, she was granted the robes of a duchess for the Garter ceremony.

Sometime after this rumour was rife that Eleanor had consulted astrologers who told her that Henry VI would suffer a life threatening illness in the summer of 1441. However, when Duke Humphrey’s enemies consulted their astrologers they found no evidence to show that the king would become seriously ill and therefore, if the rumours were true, Eleanor was guilty of treason. Thomas Southwell, Humphrey’s and Eleanor’s chaplain, Roger Bolinbrook, Eleanor’s personal clerk and Mary Jourdemain, a well-known witch were arrested. They were all charged with treasonable necromancy and following their interrogation, Eleanor was arrested. She denied most of the charges levied against her but did admit to consulting with Mary Jourdemain to obtain potions to help her conceive.

Southwell died while a confession was being extracted from him in the Tower of London. Bolinbrook and Jourdemain were brought to trial. Both found guilty Bolinbrook was hung drawn and quartered and  Jourdemain was burnt at Smithfield.

At Eleanor’s trial it was alleged that she had predict Henry VI’s death and used ‘spells’ to become pregnant in order to bear the future king. She was ‘examined’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele, at Leeds Castle and declared a witch. Eleanor was doomed to be burnt at the stake but because of her high birth, was reprieved. Instead, on 13 November 1441 she was made to walk the streets of London holding a burning taper – a punishment usually reserved for prostitutes. She was then obliged to divorce her husband and to spend the rest of her life in prison. At first Eleanor was sent to Chester Castle then Kenilworth, followed by Peel Castle on the Isle of Man and finally, in March 1449, Beaumaris Castle, Angelsea, where she died on 7 July 1452.

The reaction of Dovorians to all of this had been outrage and Henry VI threatened the town with serious penalties. However, two years before, William de la Pole (1396 -1450), the King’s Lord Chamberlain, negotiated a marriage treaty between the King and Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482). The couple married on 22 April 1445 and in November 1446, Henry VI, under Margaret’s influence, pardoned the people of Dover.

Although Duke Humphrey’s power was on the wane, on February 1447 he called Parliament together at Bury St Edmunds. When he arrived he was arrested and charged with high treason and three days later was dead – believed by Dovorians to have been murdered on the orders of William de la Pole. Humphrey’s death meant that next to the royal couple, William de la Pole was the most powerful man in England. In 1448, he was created the first Duke of Suffolk but the next three years saw the loss of nearly all of the English possessions and De la Pole was held responsible. On 28 January 1450, he was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London and sentenced to death.

North side of Market Square showing Lloyds Bank and Dicken's Corner, where the Church of St Peter once stood, said to be haunted by the headless ghost of William de la Pole

North side of Market Square showing Lloyds Bank and Dicken’s Corner, where the Church of St Peter once stood, said to be haunted by the headless ghost of William de la Pole

This was then commuted to five years in exile on the Continent but as his ship was crossing the Channel, on 2 May 1450, it was besieged and de la Pole was beheaded. The headless body was dumped on Dover beach and then taken to Wingfield, Suffolk for burial. According to Dover folklore locals, to avenge the death of Duke Humphrey, assassinated De La Pole and the head was buried in a chalk receptacle in St Peter’s Church. This stood, at that time on the northeast side of Market Square. The rest of that story can be read in Haunted Dover, suffice to say, the headless William de la Pole is said to haunt the part of Dover’s Market Square where St Peter’s church once stood.

The first recorded witch trial to take place in Dover was on 30 June 1558. This involved Clement Baker and his wife and was held in front of the Mayor, Thomas Colley and six Jurats (senior councillors). The couple were found guilty and were ordered that they, ‘shall for their evil demeanour and behaviour depart this town of Dover as a banishment for the space of one whole year and a day within this fourteen days next ensuing the date herafter and not come within the same towne upon payn of such punishment and fine as shall happen.’

Town Hall, Market Square, 1606-1834 demolished 1841, where Dover's witch trials took place. Dover Museum

Town Hall, Market Square, 1606-1834 demolished 1841, where Dover’s witch trials took place. Dover Museum

The punishment was lenient for those days and it was also unusual for a man to be prosecuted. A great work on witchcraft was written by Reginald or Reynold Scott, as he signed himself (1541-1599), of Scot’s Hall, Smeeth, near Ashford. Following considerable research, including attending witch trials he published his 16-volume treatise in 1584, ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft wherein the Leud dealing of Witches and Witchmongers is notablie detected…’ Throughout, he tried to protect those accused from persecution, saying that most were women and were ‘… commonly old and whose cheefe fault is that they are scolds‘. He went on to say that ‘… in tract of time the witch waxeth odious and tedious to hir neighbors; and they againe are despised and despited of hir: so as sometimes she cursseth one, and sometimes another; and that from the maister of the house, his wife, children, cattell &c. to the little pig that lieth in the stie … Doubtlesse (at length) some of hir neighbors die, or fall sicke; or some of their children are visited with diseases that vex them stangelie: … Which by ignorant parents are supposed to be vengeance of witches.’

The books were received with universal condemnation and as was custom of the day, the common hangman burned them. However, they were reprinted in 1651 and in folio in 1655 and James VI of Scotland (from 1603 James I of England), published ‘Demonologie’ printed in Edinburgh in 1597. The King’s work was aimed at refuting Scott’s sympathetic stance with James calling him that ‘damnable heretic Scot.’

In his work, Scott said that both children and adults were encouraged to inform on relatives and neighbours – children made 25% of witchcraft claims. Once accused, then inhuman tactics were used to extract a confession. Initially they were stripped and the ‘devil’s mark’ – a pimple, wart, growth or supernumerary nipple from which, it was believed the devil or ‘familiar’ could suckle, was searched for and included the internal examination of the anus and sexual organs.  If none were found, then the accused was ‘pricked,’ they were scratched all over until a ‘devil’s spot’ was found. It was believed that only the devil or familiar could see one but that it was insensitive to pain and did not bleed, hence the scratching. Next, the confession was obtained. This was obtained by beatings, deprivation of sleep and being walked. The latter was continuous and could last several days during which time the accused was not allowed to go the lavatory although excrement was sometimes washed off with cold water.  Throughout all of this, the accused was continually asked leading questions by a cleric, Bible in hand.

The ‘final test’, the accused faced was to be ‘swam’. Wearing only their underclothes, they were dragged to a stream, the harbour or village pond. The big toes and thumbs were tied together cross-wise and a rope was tied around the waist so that the person could be retrieved after the event. They were then thrown into the water and if they drowned they were declared innocent, if they floated, this proved that they were a witch and brought out to be tried in a church court. The evidence from the confession, swim and pricking along with the allegations made by the accusers would be then used and when found guilty the person was either hung or burnt.

Sandwich - looking towards St Peters Church 1886-89 by J L Roget - Dover Museum

Sandwich – looking towards St Peters Church 1886-89 by J L Roget – Dover Museum

The 1631 records of Sandwich, tell of Goodwife Reynold who having ‘been swum for a witch’ and was hanged. In 1645 the same fate was metered out to Widow Drew and in her case the accounts show that ‘been swam for a witch’ cost the locals 2s (10pence) but after her death ‘her goods were sold at auction’ – one assumes to pay for the punishment.

That year, 1645, Joan Wallingford, Joan Cariden, Jane Hott and Elizabeth Harris were found guilty of practising witchcraft at Faversham and the first three were executed. Apparently, Thomas Gardener fell out of a tree or a window and hurt his posterior, which became a source of amusement. Angry, he blamed Joan Wallingford as the true cause of the accident, saying that it had been brought about by witchcraft. Joan, subjected to the usual interrogation procedure, confessed that she was a witch and named the other three as accomplices. Her pet dog was cited as her familiar.

Faversham town pump where the alleged witches were hung.

Faversham town pump where the alleged witches were hung.

Joan Cariden and Elizabeth Harris, following the usual interrogation, also confessed. Jane Hott denied witchcraft but did ‘admit’ to a familiar – ‘a thing like a hedgehog but as soft as a cat had paid regular visits to suckle from her.’ They were all swum but floated. Jane Hott said that this had happened because one of the spectators had previously had his way with her and had laid bets that she would not sink. Three of the women, Joan Wallingford, Joan Cariden and Jane Hott were hung on Monday 29 September 1645 from a tree near Faversham’s town pump. Why Elizabeth Harris was not included and what happened to her is not clear.

In the 1640s, Nell Garlinge of Coldred was thrown into the village pond but drowned and therefore declared innocent. At about the same time, another woman simply known as Esther was dragged three miles from her hut in Nonnington to Adisham pond where she too was hurled into the cold water. Esther floated and the crowd, ‘mad with superstitious wrath, pelted the poor woman with stones,’ until a farmer called upon his men to rescue her. Unfortunately, he was too late as Esther was dead on his arrival.

Coldred Village Pond where Nell Garlinge died during being 'swum'.

Coldred Village Pond where Nell Garlinge died during being ‘swum’.

Sometimes, good sense did prevail. When Goodwife Gilnot of Barham was accused by her neighbours of witchcraft, Henry Oxinden (1607-1642), the local squire, wrote a letter to Dean Isaac Bargrave (1586-1643) at Canterbury Cathedral, saying: ‘Sir, my earnest request unto you is that you will not lightly believe such false and malicious reports as you hear, or may hear alleged against this woman, whom I believe to be religiously disposed … And for so much as the neighbours help themselves together, and the poor woman’s cry, though it reach to heaven, is scarce heard here upon earth, I thought I was bound in conscience to speak in her behalf.’

The last execution, in England, for witchcraft took place in 1685. So when Hanna Baker of Elham was found guilty of ‘inchanting cattell’ in 1703, she was sent to prison for a year. She was also made to stand in Elham pillory on ‘the day after Ladyday (25 March), St John’s Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas (25 December) for the space of six hours.’

St Mary's Church, West Langdon

St Mary’s Church, West Langdon

The laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, but that did not mean that ‘hunts’ were over. In 1762, a quarter of a century later, the wife of John Pritchers of West Langdon was dragged from her house for about a mile along a dirt track. When the posse reached the home of a thirteen-year-old boy whom she was supposed to have bewitched, she was ‘pricked’ in order to find a ‘devils spot.‘ The crowd convinced she was guilty, were about to ‘swim’ her, when a local magistrate intervened and saved the poor woman’s life. The chief perpetrators of what had happened were both convicted.

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 16 September 2004
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About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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