, , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Full House

XIR109478 The Witches' Sabbath (oil on canvas) by Goya y Lucientes, Francisco Jose de (1746-1828) oil on canvas Museo Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid, Spain Giraudon Spanish, out of copyright

The Witches’ Sabbath (oil on canvas) by Goya.

Newcastle University hosts a number public lectures as part of their Insights Series. I was fortunate enough to attend last nights lecture by James Sharpe, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of York, and author of a number of influential works on historical witchcraft (listed at the end of this post).  Whether it was simply down to the continued fascination historical witchcraft still holds on the popular imagination, or the exuberantly tabloid headline from the local newspaper a few days before, the lecture hall was packed to the rafters.

The talk was a lively and fascinating look at how witchcraft expressed itself in the North East of England, and whether in this region witchcraft was distinct from the rest of England. Professor Sharpe covered a lot of ground, in what is a very complex subject, in only an hour.  The talk highlighted some of the advances in the study of historical witchcraft in the past thirty years, some of which cast into doubt some of the received wisdom regarding the witch craze. Here are some of the elements of the lecture that I found particularly interesting.

The influence of Scotland in North East England

Burning a witch at the stake.  16th Century European Woodcut

Burning a witch at the stake. 16th Century European Woodcut

One of the determining features Professor Sharpe identified in possibly distinguishing North East witchcraft and witch hunts from the rest of England,  may have been the region’s proximity to Scotland.  In Scotland, Prof Sharpe noted that there had been an aggressive Reformation which when coupled with a de-centralised judicial system (where the local laird or lawyer could be responsible for prosecuting accused witches, possibly for financial gain) may have created an atmosphere in which witch hunts thrived.  Historical records suggest 2000 witches were executed in Scotland (preferred method: burning), as compared to 500 recorded executions in England (preferred method: hanging) – basically you were 12 times more likely to be executed as a witch in Scotland than in England.  I have to say, I was surprised by the comparatively low figures for executions for England (and even Scotland) – Professor Sharpe quoted figures of 40,000 executions across Europe during this period (80% of which were women). There may be many people particularly in the Pagan community who may strongly disagree with these numbers; but it is worth considering that however many were actually executed, the fact that anybody was persecuted or executed for witchcraft is in itself a tragedy.

One possible example of the influence of Scotland on the North East of England can be found in a rather chilling footnote in relation to a case tried by the Ecclesiastical Courts in Berwick in 1599. A man was accused of fornication, his wife was accused of witchcraft, he was let off,  she was burned at the stake over the border in Scotland.  But perhaps Berwick, with its constantly shifting border was a special case.

The Newcastle Witch Trials

Nevertheless, Newcastle has the dubious honour of being the scene to one of the largest witch hunts in England in the seventeenth century (only Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne in Essex and East Anglia could boast a higher head count).  Perhaps this was indeed down to the proximity with Scotland.  And, lets face it, the authorities in Newcastle called a Scottish Witch Pricker to examine the accused witches – so there must have been links.  Professor Sharpe took the time to explain the famous image below which shows the Newcastle Witches being hanged.


The Newcastle Witches being executed by hanging. On the left is the bell-ringer who called for people to make their accusations while on the right, the witch pricker is being paid.

Anne Armstrong and the Witches Sabbat

Clearly the lecture was leading up to the eponymous heroine Anne Armstrong. In 1673 Anne Armstrong gave a startling account of a witches Sabbat to Northumbrian Magistrates, the account is utterly unique in English witch trials.

Anne Armstrong accused Anne Baites of Morpeth of bewitching her and of attending Satanic meetings at what is now the Wellington Pub in Riding Mill.  Anne also accused three other women of supping with ‘theire protector which they called their god in the Riding house.’  Anne’s account contains classic continental elements of dancing with the devil (in this case unusually called ‘protector’), shape-shifting, and an attempt to incriminate large numbers of others (both named and by description) as being present at the Sabbat. Interestingly the deposition also contains one of the earliest uses of the word Covey/Coven (a term only in use for about 10 years in Scotland/England at that time).

V0025811ETR Witchcraft: witches and devils dancing in a circle. Woodcut,

Early woodcut of a witches Sabbat

As quoted in the Evening Chronicle[1] Professor Sharpe said of Anne’s account:

“One of the big things that witches were meant to be doing outside of the UK at this time was having meetings where they got together in large numbers, they would fly there, have sex with the devil and eat the bodies of babies.

“It was a Satanic gathering.

“But this part of witchcraft is absent from England at the time, apart from in the case of Anne Armstrong.”

Frustratingly the historical record is fairly scant as to who Anne was, although it does appear that she lived in Birchen Nook near Stocksfield in Northumberland and was a servant girl at Burytree House.  Professor Sharpe considers that the evidence suggests she was quite young – probably a teenager – which fits the profile for a lot of accusers.  Her vivid account of a Witches Sabbat provides tantalising glimpse into the mind of a young girl who tried to start a witch hunt and it generates so many questions.  Was she local or did she come from Scotland? (Armstrong is a name found on both sides of the English/Scottish border).  How did a young servant girl in the North of England come up with this very continental account of a Sabbat? Was the reference to the Devil as ‘protector’ a sly dig at Cromwell The Lord Protector(!) We will probably never know – as Professor Sharpe commented – the historical record for this period of North East history is very patchy indeed.  One thing is for certain though, what ever other regional/national similarities or dissimilarities, this account of a Witches Sabbat is unique to the North East.

The difference between English and European Witch Hunts

One of the issues that came up in the lecture was: why wasn’t the continental model adopted in England and why didn’t the English witch hunts reach the staggering proportions of those elsewhere?   The view proposed was that England had certain differentiating features:  it was, officially at least, a protestant country and this may have made the parodying the Catholic Mass in a Continental Style Witches Sabbat less likely (a by-product of this would be fewer opportunities for the accused to counter-accuse and cause trials to mushroom as they did in Europe).

In relation to Scotland, England’s reformation had been gentler; and unlike Scotland, England had a centralised judicial system peopled by trained judges. In addition to this serious charges of witchcraft were tried in secular not ecclesiastical courts.  All of these factors combined to create a climate where, despite the belief in witchcraft being almost universal, there was less willingness for those in control to let witch hunts get out of hand.  In fact, Anne Armstrong’s colourful accusations did not result in the accused being executed.

Altogether, this was a fascinating lecture providing much food for thought.  On a parting note, one of the most poignant elements of the evening was seeing the burial list from St Andrew’s church in Newcastle; the list that named those executed for witchcraft in 1650 and who were buried in the Churchyard not a stones throw from where we were sitting.  England may not have had the large-scale witch hunts seen on the continent, or in Scotland, but that should not diminish the individual and communal tragedy that each of those names represented.

St Andrews BW

St Andrews Church, Newcastle. Last resting place for many of the Newcastle Witches. Image by Lenora.

The lecture was recorded and should be available soon on the Newcastle University Website or via itunes:


Books and Articles about Historical Witchcraft by Professor James Sharpe

Instruments of Darkness; Witchcraft in England 1550 – 1750 (1996)
The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: a horrible and true Story of Football, Witchcraft Murder, and the King of England (1999)
Witchcraft in early modern England (2001: second edition in preparation)
In Search of the English Sabbat: Popular Conceptions of Witches’ Meetings in Early Modern England

Other sources


http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/sex-devil-dark-sorcery—8581831 [1]