The Warboys Witches

The Warboys Witches

My wife lived in Warboys before we married and her brother still continues to live there in the family home. Fairly early on in our courtship and possibly before that as a resident of Huntingdon I was aware of the phrase the Witches of Warboys, I knew nothing of them other than that.

There was and is a pond in the centre of the village at the fork of the roads High Street and Mill Green it is called the Weir (pronounced ware). Popular legend suggests this is where the witches were tried for witchcraft and then drowned. The early method of determining guilt for witchcraft:

*It was a popular belief that a witch could not sink if submersed in water.  Suspected witches were put through a process called “swimming” or “floating.”  The victim’s left hand was tied to her right foot, and her right hand was secured to her left foot before she was thrown into a body of water.  It was believed that the innocent would sink while the guilty remained afloat.  Sometimes a rope was fastened around the suspect’s middle in case she proved her innocence by sinking beneath the water.  Both the Church and the courts of law disapproved this method of proving guilt, but it was still practiced throughout England (Holmes 137).

The Weir at Warboys as it is now (photo credit Robert Hogg)

This wasn’t the case with the trial of 76 year old Alice Samuel, her husband John and her daughter Agnes.

Alice’s accuser was initially Jane (possibly Joan by some accounts) Throckmorton the 9 year old daughter of the Squire Robert Throckmorton. In November 1589 Jane accused Alice of causing her to suffer fits, Jane’s four sisters and some of the family’s servants began exhibiting similar symptoms. When Alice Samuel was brought to see the children their illness became worse and they had the urge to scratch her.

Robert Throckmorton was a close friend of Sir Henry Cromwell one of the wealthiest men in the country at that time and grandfather of Oliver Cromwell. Lady Cromwell visited the Throckmorton household in March 1590, whilst there she interviewed Alice Samuel at the family home the Manor House in Warboys. The interview served to confirm as far as Lady Cromwell was concerned the suspicions the Throckmortons had of Alice Samuel. During the interview, Lady Cromwell cut a lock of Alice’s hair and gave it to Mrs Throckmorton to burn, (a folk remedy believed to weaken the power of a witch).

Lady Cromwell was tormented by Alice Samuel in her dreams and later was taken ill and died (she was buried in 1592). This death and the events in Warboys were enough apperent proof to put Alice and her family on trial for Witchcraft

The Manor House at Warboys (Estate Agents photo Fine and Country)

From Wikipedia:

The Throckmorton family

“The first allegations declaring Alice as a practitioner of witchcraft were made in November 1589. Following this, there were a total of twelve maid-servants of the Throckmorton household (in addition to the five daughters) who experienced fits and the torment of Alice Samuell’s witchcraft. Jane’s fits were described as such: “Sometimes she would neese [sneeze] very loud and thick for the space of half an hour together; and evidently as one in a great trance and sound lay quietly as long, soon after would begin to swell and heave up her belly so as none was able to bend her or keep her down, sometime thee would shake one leg and no other part of her, as if the palsie had been in it, sometimes the other, presently she would shake one of her arms and then the other, and soon after her head as if she had with the running palsie”.

Jane’s mother and grandmother were by the child’s side while other neighbors came to see her. When Alice Samuel came in, the child proclaimed: “Grandmother look where the old witch sitteth (pointing to Samuell) did you ever see one more like a witch than she is: Take off her black thrumbed [shaggy or fringed] cap, for I cannot abide to look on her”. Jane’s mother thought nothing of this at first, thinking her child was sleep deprived and sick. However, because Jane continued to get worse, her parents sent her urine to Doctor Barrow of Cambridge, who sent medicine to Jane three separate times thinking it would heal her. It did not. After the third time, the Doctor inquired whether there were any signs of sorcery or witchcraft involved that the parents could see. Jane’s urine was then sent to a family acquaintance, Master Butler, for examination and he sent back the same remedies that Doctor Barrow had sent. Exactly a month later, on the same day almost to the hour, two more of Master Throckmorton’s daughters fell sick to the same illness that was afflicting  Jane

These daughters, two to three years older than Jane, cried out: “Take her away, look where she standeth here before us in a black thrumbed cap it is she that hath bewitched us and she will kill us if you do not take her away”.

The parents were then worried, but could not understand why any such harm would come to them, for they had only moved into the town the “Michaelmas before” (September 29, 1588). Their youngest daughter, nine years old, fell sick less than a month later. Soon after this, the oldest daughter, fifteen years old, fell sick. She was sickest out of the five. Both cried out against Alice Samuell. Their eldest sister, had been the strongest, strived with the spirit, and was grievously tortured not being able to overcome it. This caused her to “(neefe), screech and groan very fearfully, sometimes it would heave up her belly and bounce up her body with such violence that she was not kept upon her bed”. When sitting in a chair, her fits often caused her to break that chair.

The daughters could not see, hear or feel while in these fits. They accused Mother Samuel, asking for her to be taken away. These fits would sometimes last for half a day and happened up to six or seven times a day. They believed that God freed them of this sorcery and afterwards, the sisters remembered nothing of what they had been saying. “

Following the death of Lady Cromwell in 1592 Alice Samuel was interviewed by a local clergyman she confessed to being a witch but withdrew her confession the next day, later she was interviewed by the Bishop of Lincoln and she confessed to him. She was imprisoned in Huntingdon together with her daughter and husband. The family were tried in April 1593 for the murder of Lady Cromwell by witchcraft. Alice’swords to Lady Cromwell,

“Madam, why do you use me thus? I never did you any harm as yet”, were used against her at the trial.  All three were found guilty and hanged.

Following her execution, the hangman and his wife examined Alice’s body and found a witches mark, the so called third nipple, a teat like growth on the pendula. This was taken as proof of guilt.

There seems to be no apparent motive behind the actions attributed to Alice Samuel’s actions in relationship to the Throckmortons. Lady Cromwells’s assault on Alice could be said to be a motive but without the Throckmorton incidents Lady Cromwell wouldn’t have been involved.

Agnes during the trial ended Jane’s (Joan’s)fits by commanding the devil to leave her. She (Agnes) also adimitted she was a witch and was complicit in the murder of Lady Cromwell.

The fens at that time were a strange place, getting around was either by boat, horse or on foot. The watery landscape was a place of mists will o’ the wisps, strange lights and suddden unexplained disappearances, the threat of disease too was never far away. Herbal remedies were for most people the only medicines available, opium poppies were grown widely, the opium produced was used for treating the symptoms of amongst other things the Ague. There is a fine line between those making and supplying medicines and those thought to be involved in witchraft, particularly in a time of ignorance and superstition.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Very much the same skills required for both, one would think. Totally unrelated facts…
    – poison is a woman’s wepon of choice; poisonings are usually carried out by women
    – Agatha Christie (although on the other side of the country) was an expert in plant-based poisons.

    Reply

    • What amazed me was when I went on a tour of our local nature reserve our guide highlighted the hemlock growing in abundance around the reserve. He said that there was more than enough to poison the whole town growing on that site alone.
      Your comment put me in mind of your excellent short story, “Best Friends” in your Witch Way collection.

      Reply

  2. thanks for the plug, Phil 🙂

    Reply

  3. Greetings from San Francisco- I have just read Marlowe’s “Legends of the Fenland People”, which includes this episode. It’s a chilling story, for lots of different reasons. I’m enjoying your blog!

    Reply

    • Thank you Elizabeth, I’m pleased you’re enjoying the blog.
      The Fens are a much different landscape to where you live, we just have flat earth and enormous skies., no hills to speak of certainly no mountains.

      Reply

      • My great great grandfather Robert Holmes, was from Hogsthorpe, a place called Charity Farm, and I finally made it there in 2017. https://wordpress.com/post/dinnshenchas.wordpress.com/1614

        I loved the land there- I thought it was beautiful. Much of the coast of CA is plotted on sea marsh/drained wetlands, so there’s that correspondance. I hope to make it back as soon as the dread virus is tamed. I would love to bike from Skeggness throughout.

  4. Some of my ancestors were Holmes from Stickney in Lincolnshire and nearby according to census records. My Great Grandmother was Ellen Holmes born in Stickney her father was George Holmes also born in Stickney. She married my Great Grandfather William Dixon from Metheringham in Kentish Town London.

    Reply

    • It is quite a popular name in those parts! My Holmes and Waterman family were from Hogsthorpe and Mumby, and other places around there…
      Truly a lovely place, that part of Lincolnshire. I really enjoyed seeing it, and seeing Charity Farm as well.

      Reply

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