Halloween is a time for ghosts and ghouls, monsters and witches. Today these are happy, fictional characters but 400 years ago witchcraft was seen as real. In an age when little about the natural world was understood by science, so much that was uncertain or unknowable was explained with magic. If you, or your child, or your cow fell sick and died, that was as likely as not due to the malign acts of a local witch.
In the summer of 1604 Hull was experiencing another plague epidemic. In what must have been an atmosphere of panic and suspicion, many people thought that the infection could only be explained by black magic.
We know this from a brief account in one of the Bench Books – the minute books of the town’s governing Bench of Aldermen (C BRB/2). A transcription of the account by historian of Elizabethan Hull Helen Good is available.
|Extract from the Hull Bench Book, Sep 1604 [C BRB/2]|
In September 1604 a judge, Baron John Savile, arrived in Hull to hold a Session of Gaol Delivery, a trial of serious criminal cases. Baron Savile found that many (“divers”) people, men and women, were to be tried for witchcraft. Unfortunately we don’t know any specifics of the cases but it is likely that fear of the plague had prompted neighbour to turn on neighbour, and long festering disputes and resentments had broken out in wild accusations of witchcraft.
Witchcraft was in everybody’s mind. The new King James I had arrived from Scotland the year before with experience and a morbid interest in witchcraft. A new law was about to come into force at Michaelmas (29 September) 1604 tightening up an existing law of 1563. Under both laws witches who were found guilty of harming people were to be put to death.
On 4 September Baron Savile found five men and women guilty of witchcraft: Roger Beadney; John Willerby; Mary Holland; Janet Wressell, alias Beamont; and Janet Butler. All five were sentenced to be hanged. Helen Good makes the point that the surnames of the witches were not Hull names, but were to be found in the three parishes of Hullshire – Hessle, Ferriby and Kirkella – which came under the authority of the town. These people were outsiders, literally and figuratively.
Baron Savile is unlikely to have been a gullible man; he was intelligent, well educated, and a hugely experienced lawyer. But he may have had a point to prove to the new King – that the Common Law could deal with witchcraft – and he was also a committed Puritan, a group of Christians traditionally unsympathetic to accusations of witchcraft.
So Beadney, Willerby, Holland, Wressell and Butler were hanged on Saturday 6 September, on the gallows where Adelaide Street now stands, then in the royal manor of Myton, where a field was once called Gallows close. Hull didn’t run to employing a fulltime hangman. According to the Bench Book, Baron Savile reprieved a horse thief, Henry Oliver, tried and convicted before him, on condition that he hang the witches. As a horse thief Oliver will have known his way around ropes and halters.
|Illustration of witches being hanged, 1655|
Before Oliver’s noose went round his neck, John Willerby confessed “many
Thing[s] and at his deathe accus[ed] divers for witchcraft”. We can imagine the last desperate angry ranting of a man with nothing to lose, accusing former friends and neighbours in a scene reminiscent of The Crucible or The Name of the Rose.
We don’t know where the witches were buried. Soon after the trial, the Bench ordered various sanitary improvements which would have had a greater impact on the Hull’s public health than ridding it of witches.
But that, I’m afraid, would not have been the view of most people in Hull in 1604.
Happy Halloween everyone!
Martin Taylor (City Archivist)