Witchcraft in 17th Century Yorkshire

Updated: 3 days ago

In the period from 1560 to 1650, witchcraft was a fact of life in England, proved by the hundreds of witchcraft trials that took place. In the Protectorate of England led by Oliver Cromwell, Puritans believed that women were more likely to be tempted by the Devil so when difficulties arose in the community the blame was easily placed on his female disciples. The more likely story was that the local minister was using witchcraft to stem anti-social behaviour and entice the masses back to church.

The first women accused of witchcraft were those that strayed from the Puritan lifestyle and were outcasts such as women baring children out of wedlock and common healers who produced home remedies. Of all the witch trials in York, Isabella Billington in 1648 was the only state sanctioned witch to be burnt at the stake in Yorkshire. Others were brought to trial, usually because of difficulties in the community, and most often than not appearances before the magistrate were based on hearsay and not clear evidence.

A rare manuscript of a 17th century witchcraft trial was written by Edward Fairfax from Yorkshire in 1621, who blamed the death of his daughter on six local women who reputedly lived in the forest and cast spells. They were imprisoned then later released then imprisoned again after new evidence was brought forth by Fairfax. They were finally acquitted after locals signed a petition claiming their innocence but their reputations were tarnished for life.

Across Europe up to half a million people, believed to be witches, were killed between 1500-1650 with approximately 85% of them being women. In 1648 old Mrs Green from York was turned over to a mob and burnt at the stake rather than being hanged for her crimes of witchcraft as charged by the magistrate.

Social misfortune and crop failure were the main cause of witch persecution as people had no other explanation and being a superstitious lot, blamed the death of livestock on local women.

One such ‘witch hunter’ Matthew Hopkins was paid handsomely for his services often using sleep deprivation and torture to gain a confession. He would disrobe women and prick any marks found on their body to see if they bled. If they did not then it was a sign that the Devil was protecting them. Of course, the ‘witch pricker’ used had a spring mechanism which retracted when placed against the woman’s skin so it didn't bleed. If a confession was not forthcoming, the accused would be bound and thrown into a ducking pond to see if she would float or sink. If she floated and some did, they were convicted as this was the sign of the Devil’s baptism and God’s refusal. Either way Matthew Hopkins and his assistant received their bag of coin.

This cruel time and the witchcraft obsession of its people feature in my new novel 'Dream of Courage' still in the development stage. How? Well you must wait until January 2021when it will be released.

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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