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Witchcraft in 17th Century Yorkshire

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

A witch and black birds on the cover of a 17th century pamflet

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 three novels:

Cover for best selling novel Skulduggery

A reclusive family of copyholders guards their secrets amidst the isolation of their village. But when a brutal attack shakes their world, they find themselves teetering on the precipice of danger.

Set against the turbulent backdrop of the English Reformation, this masterfully crafted tale breathes life into a tapestry of unforgettable characters, both heroes and villains, all entangled in a meticulously realized historical mystery.

As the story unfolds, you'll be transported to an era so vividly depicted that it feels both utterly believable and astonishingly surreal. Prepare for twists and turns that will leave you gasping in surprise, and an ending so unexpected, even the most astute readers will be left in awe.

"Skulduggery" is a mesmerizing journey through a slice of history where deception runs deep, redemption beckons, and every secret holds the power to change lives forever. Prepare to be captivated by a tale that will keep you guessing until the very last page."

Cover of Red Winter Journey on a book, ipad and phone

In the tumultuous year of 1642, England is plunged into the throes of a brutal civil war, tearing families and communities apart as they pledge their allegiance to either the King or Parliament. Amidst this chaos, "Red Winter Journey" emerges as a sweeping saga, a timeless odyssey of adventure and heartbreak, sacrifice and unyielding love.

At its core, this unforgettable tale beats with the resolute heart of a mother's boundless love for her son, a love that will be tested to its very limits. As the war unfolds, their historic journey takes them on a rollercoaster of twists and turns, punctuated by a fiery passion that defies the ravages of time.

"Red Winter Journey" is a mesmerizing voyage through a divided land, where the bonds of love and loyalty are both the source of strength and the crucible of their trials. Prepare to be swept away by a story that will leave your heart pounding and your soul forever touched by the enduring power of human connection.

A cover of Dream of Courage and brothers Robert and John Rushworth

Step into a mesmerizing historical fiction thriller that will sweep you away on a pulse-pounding journey through time.

Meet the indomitable Rushworths, impoverished tenants bound to the stern Puritan, Jasper Calamy, within the forbidding walls of Haworth Manor. Theirs is a life of toil, tending sheep and weaving wool from meager scraps, remnants of a world that passes them by.

But when the audacious brothers, Robert and John Rushworth, embark on a daring quest to find their fortune amidst the bustling chaos of The Briggate in Leeds, they unwittingly trigger an extraordinary adventure. Hunted relentlessly by John Wilding, a brutish brogger with no regard for decorum, they must outsmart the very essence of the 'lower sort' that threatens to ensnare them.

In the shadowy recesses of a local tavern, mysteries simmer, and secrets abound. Here, Smythe, a enigmatic figure with a concealed past, thrusts Robert into the treacherous domain of The Haven. It is here that he crosses paths with Captain Girlington of 'The Pearl,' who holds the key to his destiny.

As danger closes in, will Robert elude its suffocating grasp, or will the ominous hangman's noose tighten its deadly hold? Amidst the lurking shadows, can he find a way to unite with his heart's desire, the enchanting Ursula, in a world where passion and peril intertwine?

"Dream of Courage: Facing Fear Head On" is an electrifying historical thriller that propels you across the ages, where courage is the priceless currency of survival, and love serves as the guiding light through the darkest of times. Brace yourself to confront fear head-on and embark on an unforgettable odyssey where destiny hangs in the balance.

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