Ursula Sontheil, the Yorkshire Witch

Updated: 5 hours ago

Witchcraft and consequential witch hunting were at the time, a fact of life in England and the two thousand legal proceedings between 1560 and 1706 are a testament to that fact. The Puritan doctrine at the time lead by the ‘Protector of England’, Oliver Cromwell called for an end to unholy ways. Consequently, those found to be stepping outside those prescribed ways, such as those women who had children out of wedlock, could be labelled as a witch.

After the English Civil War, parliamentary backed Puritanism was coming to the forefront and huge political and religious divides occurred encouraging suspicion and tension in villages and towns throughout Yorkshire. The witch panic was a continuing result of this and grew widespread in England at the time. Some said that this was the churches and local ministers’ way of getting the masses back to prayer. Others at the time, suggested witchcraft was the Devil’s way of building an army for the end of the world.

What we do know of Ursula was passed from word of mouth as most at the time would have been illiterate. There were stories of unseen forces, floating and other fanciful tales, but she was more known for her prophesies and soothsaying.

It was reputed that Ursula was born out of wedlock, her fifteen-year-old mother shunned and banished from their village was forced to take up refuge in a cave. Born with a crooked nose, her back bent over and legs twisted Ursula was forced to walk with a stick. Later placed with a family in a nearby village when her mother was forced into a convent, she was able to go to school. Unfortunately, she was teased and taunted by children who would claim losing hair and tripping over when she approached. As a result, she was forced to leave and took up residence in the cave where she was born.

Amelia Sceats from the University of Huddersfield, in her article described Yorkshire at the time as having ‘a greater propensity to believe in the existence of covens of witches’ In fact, a man by the name of Edward Fairfax from the same town in which Ursula lived, accused two women of witchcraft to be responsible for the death of his daughter. The two women were jailed but later released after a petition was sent to the magistrate claiming their innocence.

Ursula lived a lonely life telling prophecies and ducking accusations of witchcraft such as the claim by Cardinal Wolsey that she was a witch and would be burned at the stake.

Ursula died in 1561 at the age of 73. The church refused to bury her therefore she was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Knaresborough, Yorkshire.

Throughout history most of the claims of witchcraft have been against women, especially women with too many children, women with too few children women who were different. Being too rich, too poor, and too female would have made life very precarious in 16th Century Yorkshire.

Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of two novels:

Skulduggery- An exciting, mysterious, fictional and historically accurate adventure pulls no punches about the life and hardships of peasant farmers living on the moors of Yorkshire in 1590. Reading this novel, you will walk the moors around Haworth and try a jack of ale at the Kings Arms; you will laugh, cry and feel empathy for young Thomas Rushworth and his family who face the rigors of life living as copyholders on Lord Birkhead’s land at Green Hall. Shenanigans, murder, deception, and love will keep you enthralled right until the end, but be forewarned as the author paints a realistic, literary picture which quite easily places you amidst the tale.

Winter of Red- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642. Now turn the page, if you dare, and follow the exploits of Tommy Rushworth as he tries to stay alive after being absconded into the Parliamentary Army. You will fear for Thomas Rushworth, his father, who is racing against time to save him from a war he wanted no part of. Reading this novel one can immerse themselves within the tale and discover the more colourful, candid details of what it was like to live in this rebellious time.

Dream of Courage-Coming Soon

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Ursula Sontheil, the Yorkshire Witch

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Sharon Whitlam Cole

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Novels by Paul Rushworth-Brown


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Bernard Smith

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