The Samlesbury Witch Trial

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The Samlesbury Witch Trial

Lancaster, Lancashire The 19th of August 1612 AD

The Pendle Witches are more famous, but the parallel case involving three supposed witches from Samlesbury, a Lancashire village between Preston and Blackburn , perhaps gives a clearer view of the early 17th century witch-craze and its roots.

Lancashire at this time was a rough place, dangerous for travellers and still holding to the old faith in many places, with family rivalries and local vendettas resulting from religious differences. Add to that King James I ’s own fascination with witchcraft meaning the authorities were less inclined to laugh off sillier tales and it can be seen how the conditions were ripe for tales – and trials – of the supernatural.

At the trial which began on August 19 1612 in Lancaster , five other defendants already having been dismissed by Judge Sir Edward Bromley, three women were accused of turning themselves into dogs; of child murder – they were said to have sucked its blood – and later of cannibalism, supposedly having dug up the babe’s body and cooked part of it. Further, they were alleged to have been regular attendants at black Shabbats.

But Judge Bromley having heard the evidence of principal witness Grace Sowerbutts, a girl of 14, and of supporting witnesses, himself cross-examined Grace. She rapidly recanted her story. It came out that the motive behind the accusations was that the three ‘witches’ were Anglicans in a very Catholic area, one of them – Jane Southworth - the widow of a prominent convert to the Anglican church who had been disowned by his Catholic father. Further, it was stated by Grace that she had been coached in her false evidence by a Jesuit priest. The case thus failed, the jury ordered by Judge Bromley to find the three defendants not guilty.

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