Writer's Log

Welcome to my writer's log. I'm using this blog as my writer's notebook to keep a record of my writing and research activities. You're quite welcome to swing by and have a look.

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 07:01PM

As part of the research for my novel, Widdershins, I read the diaries of two of the better known witchfinders in England.

In perhaps an early attempt at PR, or damage-limitation at the very least, the very famous witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins (more commonly known as the Witchfinder General) and a witch pricker, John Stearne, published their diaries. The decision to publish may have been in response to one vicar who had had enough. John Gaule, vicar of Great Staughton published his own book, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts, in which Gaule criticised the work of the witch-finders and led to them being questioned by the judiciary.

These diaries are filled with fascinating (if troubling) insights into what might go through the mind of a man determining whether someone should live or die. In his short book, Hopkins sets out fourteen questions and replies to them. These questions range from whether he is a witch himself, through to whether witchfinders are simply fleecing people. In fairness to Hopkins, he appears to be rather cheaper than the Newcastle witchfinder. Hopkins states he charged only twenty shillings per town. This appears to be excellent value compared with the Newcastle witchfinder’s fee of twenty shillings per witch, and John Kincaid's eyewatering fee of six pounds for one witch in Scotland.

Some of Hopkins' justifications for finding people guilty of witchcraft are a little on the thin side. For example, he provides the names of some of the familiars of an accused witch. On her fourth night of being kept awake, the accused woman confessed to having several familiars and imps. Hopkins lists the imps' names given by the woman as 'Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut &c. which no mortall could invent...' So, this woman's fate has been sealed by her having a vivid imagination and a knack for making up names.

While Hopkins' book is short, to the point and easy to read, Stearne's book overflows with so many biblical quotations, it is quite hard to get to the point of his defence. But he also refers to waking and mentions Elizabeth Manningtree from Essex, who was kept awake for three days and three nights and who then confessed 'many things'.

Sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture by many regimes. Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister from 1977-83, talks about being tortured by the KGB by being kept awake for three days and three nights. He says that 'In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep...'

Despite using a range of terrible torture techniques to send dozens of (mainly) women to untimely and dreadful deaths, Stearne uses the bible as his defence and ends his book by reminding readers that he was doing God's work: 'And so I leave myself to the censure of the world, yet desire it might be left to the Almighty, who knoweth the secrets of all hearts: For, blessed are they that do his commandments, Revel. 22.14.'


Menachem Begin (1978) White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia. London: Futura Publications

John Gaule [1646] Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. London: Richard Clutterbuck. Accessed at: https://archive.org/stream/JohnGauleSermonOnWitches/John%20Gaule-Sermon-on-Witches#page/n5/mode/2up.

Matthew Hopkins (2010) [1647] The Discovery of Witches in Answer to Severall Queries, Lately: Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk and Now Published by Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder, for the Benefit of the Whole Kingdome. Qontro Classics

John Stearne (1973) [1648] A Confirmation and Discovery of Witch Craft. The Rota.

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:52PM

Before writing Widdershins, I’d planned for some time to write a book about witches. But it was only in the course of carrying out initial background research in 2011 that I learned about the Newcastle witch trials, which were reported in Ralph Gardiner’s book.

This book has possibly one of the longest and most interesting book titles in recent history: England’s Grievance Discovered, in Relation to the Coal-trade; the Tyrannical Oppression of the Magistrates of Newcastle; their Charters and Grants; the Several Tryals, Depositions, and Judgements Obtained Against Them; With a Breviate of Several Statutes Proving Repugnant to Their Actings; With Proposals for Reducing the Excessive Rates of Coals for the Future; and the Rise of their Grants Appearing in this Book.

Ralph Gardiner’s book includes a deposition given under oath by John Wheeler of London, along with Elianor Lumsdel and Bartholomew Hodshon. In that testimony, Wheeler states that the Newcastle authorities imported a witch-finder from Scotland. In cahoots with the local bell ringer, the Scottish witch-finder arbitrarily rounded up thirty women from the streets of Newcastle, took them to the town hall and stripped them to the waist. He then proceeded to test them for witchcraft and found twenty-seven of them guilty.

What intrigued me most about Wheeler’s report was that the witch-finder was interrupted during his examination of ‘a personable and good-like woman’. The interrupter was one Lt Col Hobson, who revealed the witch finder as a fraud. As a result of Lt. Col. Hobson’s intervention, the woman being tested was declared innocent and set free. However, despite the revelation of the witch-finder being a fraud, fifteen (or sixteen) people were still executed for witchcraft and the witchfinder was allowed to go free.

                                 Source: England’s Grievance Discovered*
Source: England’s Grievance Discovered*

It’s not clear why one woman was set free. From John Wheeler’s statement, we can only assume that being ‘personable and good-like’, she was saved by her good looks. This strange state of affairs stuck in my mind. It’s very hard to understand why anyone at all might have been executed for witchcraft. But it’s even harder to come up with any rational explanation as to why the authorities felt justified in executing people once the witchfinder’s abilities had been proven fraudulent.

My novel Widdershins is my fictional attempt at imagining what might have gone on in Newcastle during these very strange witch trials, which resulted in the largest number of people executed for witchcraft on one day in this country.


Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

*A = hangman, B = bellman, C = two sergeants, D = witch-finder taking money for his work.

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:42PM

Waking was used, and as the name suggests, the accused witch would be prevented from sleeping. In theory, this would prevent the devil or his imps from suckling the witch; in practice, it ensured the accused would be exhausted and more willing to confess to anything in order to get some sleep.

The accused were also walked, often as part of waking. This prevented them from sleeping, but also acted as a form of torture, walking barefoot for hours on hard floors would create enormous discomfort that would encourage confession.

Pricking was used as a definitive test for witchcraft. First, the accused would be closely examined for any sign of the devil’s mark or a likely teat for him to suckle. In reality, these might have been moles, warts, skin tags, birth marks or scars. Anything resembling a third nipple, irrespective of where it was found on the body, would then be pricked with a special blade or bodkin. When the devil’s mark was pricked, if the accused felt pain and bled, then innocence was declared. But if no pain was felt and no blood flowed, the accused would be found guilty of witchcraft and executed accordingly.

There are many theories attached to witch pricking. The lack of pain or blood might be to do with the witch pricker targeting parts of the body that are insensate to pricking. There is also evidence of witch-finders forcing people to bend double, making the blood rush to their heads, which might make a mole on the leg less likely to bleed. It seems that this technique was favoured by the Newcastle witch-finder.

Another explanation (and one which I prefer and use in my novel, Widdershins) is that witch prickers used doctored blades where the blade could retract into the handle (as with the middle pricker in the image above). In this way, the witch finder was free to choose which witch to find guilty and which witch to set free.

Image Source: http://shanmonster.net/witch/traits/mark.html (public domain)

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:35PM

As shown in my novel, Widdershins, many people who were tried as witches were often simply cunning women who provided plant-based medicine, midwifery and healthcare services for those who were unable (or unwilling) to pay for a physician. Likewise prone to suspicion were barber surgeons who also provided plant-based medicines and carried out blood-letting, bone-setting and amputations.

                              Freshly picked elder berries
Freshly picked elder berries

Other people who often fell under suspicion included the green women who gathered plants to provide the ingredients for cunning women and barber surgeons to prepare simples (herbal remedies made from a single plant) as well as more complex medicinal compounds. For instance, a green woman might pick elder berries and sell them to the cunning woman.

                              Elder berries ready for boiling
Elder berries ready for boiling

The cunning woman would then boil the elder berries with honey or sugar, along with warming spices, such as ginger or cinnamon, to create a curative linctus.

                               Elder-berry linctus
Elder-berry linctus

The resulting elder-berry linctus would then be sold to villagers to prevent or cure coughs, colds, flu and lung diseases. A close look at the freshly picked sprigs of elder berries will show that the sprigs resemble the inner lung, which may be why elder is associated with the lung.

Beyond this, suspicion also fell on neighbours when times were hard. It seems it was easier to accuse a neighbour of witchcraft than to accept that sometimes bad luck was behind horses going lame, babies being miscarried or crops failing. It must have also been a convenient solution to anyone you didn’t like the look of, who posed any kind of threat (whether real or imagined), or who might have posed a burden on the community – for example, the old, the poor, the disabled.

But it wasn’t just those administering folk medicine who risked accusation of witchcraft. Men of the cloth were also not safe. In the south of England, John Lowes, the vicar of Brandeston was swum; because he floated, he was then further tested and interrogated after being kept awake for several nights, before finally confessing to witchcraft.

Interestingly, it seems that the Rev. Lowes conducted his own burial service shortly before his execution. It’s interesting, not just because it’s strange to conduct your own funeral, but because most witches found guilty of witchcraft were put to death ‘without benefit of clergy’, which imperilled their eternal souls. So perhaps this was Lowes' attempt to ensure that he at least had a Christian funeral.

Caution: This article is for entertainment only. and is not intended to replace professional medical diagnosis, advice or guidance. Many plants are toxic and can have fatal consequences, and it is very easy to mistake one plant for another. Before picking, preparing or ingesting any plant, it is essential to ask a qualified herbalist or plant expert to indentify the plant first.


Wallace Notestein (2010) [1908] A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. New Haven, CT: Yale University.

Dilston Physic Garden runs excellent courses in botanical medicine. For more information, visit: http://dilstonphysicgarden.com/workshops/

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:24PM

While carrying out research for my novel, Widdershins, I became intrigued why one woman was first found guilty of witchcraft at the 17th century Newcastle witch trials, but after the witch-finder was revealed as a fraud she was then set free. The woman was not named, but she was described by John Wheeler as a 'personable and good-like' woman, from which we might infer that her good looks saved her.

In his deposition, John Wheeler states that thirty women were brought into the town- hall. The witch-finder stripped them and then thrust pins into their bodies. Using this technique, he found twenty-seven of the thirty guilty.

In discussion with Lt. Col. Hobson, who was present, the witch-finder claimed that he knew whether women were witches or not based purely on their looks. When he began testing the aforementioned 'personable and good-like woman', Lt. Col. Hobson intervened and said 'surely this woman is none, and need not be tryed'. However, the Scottish witch-finder said she was a witch because the town had said she was a witch and that she must be tried.

According to Wheeler, the witch-finder then, 'in sight of all the people, laid her body naked to the waste, with her cloaths over her head'. He then drove a pin into her thigh, but she did not bleed. According to Wheeler, fright and shame had caused all her blood to contract into one part of her body. Of course, bending double would make the blood rush to her head. The woman was declared to be guilty and a child of the devil.

Wheeler says that Lt. Col. Hobson had 'perceived the alteration of the foresaid woman, by her blood settling in her right parts' and he insisted that the woman be tested again. This time, her clothes were pulled up to her thigh, and he required that the witch-finder push the needle into the same place. This time, under the close supervision of Lt. Col. Hobson, 'it gushed out of blood' and the witch-finder cleared her and said she was not a child of the devil.

Shockingly, despite the fact that the Scottish witch-finder was clearly a fraud, and one prepared to send innocent women to a terrible death, he was still allowed to collect his wages and move on to further, even more lucrative work in Berwick. Even more shocking, fifteen(or sixteen) of the people he'd found guilty were still executed for witchcraft.


John Wheeler's deposition in Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:12PM

My novel, Widdershins, is inspired by the seventeenth-century Newcastle witch trials.

The common council of Newcastle, in perhaps the earliest incidence of local authority performance-related pay, is said to have paid the witch-finder twenty shillings per witch.

Things were just as grim down south, where Aldeburgh spent over one-seventh of its annual budget on witch-finding. They had to pay for the witchfinder general, Matthew Hopkins, and a special tax was put in place to raise money.

But it seems that either inflation set in, or prices rose further north. When the Scottish witch-finder fled Newcastle following the trials, John Wheeler stated that he went ‘went into Northumberland, to try women there, where he got of some three pound a-peece’.

According to John Wheeler, Henry Ogle a former MP seized him, but the witch-finder got away again, this time mostly likely back to his native Scotland. There is a record of him there being paid six pounds for ‘brodding ’ a woman called Margaret Denham at Burncastle near Lauder. In addition to this eye-watering fee, it seems he also charged a further four pounds for ‘meat and drink and wyne’. More worryingly, two men were also paid forty-five pounds for guarding Margaret Denham for a month. It seems that the witch-finding industry was a most profitable one. Not least, because Margaret Denham was a wealthy woman who had to pay for her own testing and execution, which still left sixty-five pounds following her death.


Hugo Arnot's Criminal Trials, appendix, in J. Sands (1881) Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, Chapter 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.

Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

Newes from Scotland (1591) 'Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last.' London: William Wright (in Special Collection Ferguson Al-a.36 at Glasgow University).

By Helen Steadman, May 21 2017 06:02PM

There is no definitive evidence as to who the Newcastle witch pricker was. In my forthcoming novel, Widdershins, my witch finder is the fictitious John Sharpe.

However, one possibility is that the Newcastle witch-finder might have been John Kincaid, the notorious witch pricker from Tranent in the south east of Scotland. Certainly, he was testing people in North Berwick shortly before the Newcastle witch trials. So, as he was a hundred miles away pricking people to determine whether or not they were guilty of witchcraft, it’s not inconceivable that Kincaid was the witch-pricker invited to cleanse Newcastle of its alleged infestation of witches.

D. Webster’s Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts on Witchcraft, includes a declaration from John Kincaid, Pricker when he was in Dirlton in June 1649. This declaration was witnessed by six local officiaries. Kincaid’s declaration discusses how he tested a man and his spouse for witchcraft.

It seems that the couple in question, Patrik Watsone and Menie Halyburtoun, presented themselves voluntarily to Kincaid at Dirlton Castle near North Berwick in Scotland. After testing them with a pricking device, Kincaid claimed ‘I found the divillis marke upon the bak syde of the said Patrik Watsone…’ and ‘…upon the left syde of the said Menie Halyburtoune hir neck a littill above her left shoulder…’ He found them both guilty after pricking the devil’s marks he claimed to find about their persons, and finding that these marks were insensible and did not bleed.

                              Witches consort with the devil in N.Berwick
Witches consort with the devil in N.Berwick

Following Kincaid’s revelation, the deposition of Menie Halyburtoune (again witnessed by six local officiaries) on 1 July 1649, subsequently detailed her copulating with the devil, following this spectacle being reported by her husband.

John Kincaid of Tranent was still at large as late as 1661, when he was reported in Dalkeith in Scotland. Here, he tested a woman called Janet Peaston, claiming he’d found two devil’s marks upon her body. When Kincaid pricked these marks, the woman felt no pain, and no blood was let. In fact, so little pain did she feel when pricked, she was unable to correctly identify the points on her body where she had been pricked. This is surprising, given that ‘they being preins of thrie inches or thairabout’. Yet, Kincaid still subscribed to his test under oath and this test was witnessed by seven people, among them, the local minister and elders including a Major.

We may never know the true identity of the Scottish witch-finder employed by Newcastle, but John Kincaid was a notorious witch-pricker who worked in the borders between Scotland and north-east England, and so he is certainly one possibility worth considering.


Newes from Scotland (1591) 'Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last.' London: William Wright (in Special Collection Ferguson Al-a.36 at Glasgow University).

J. Sands (1881) Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, Pitcairns' Justiciary Records, vol 111., p. 602 in Chapter 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.

D. Webster (1820) Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts on Witchcraft and the Second Sight; with an Original Essay on Witchcraft, Edinburgh: Thomas Webster.

By Helen Steadman, Apr 9 2017 07:53PM

Hello again,

Just in case you missed it, here is the beautiful cover designed for my forthcoming novel, Widdershins, which was inspired by the seventeenth-century Newcastle witch trials.

Widdershins Front Cover
Widdershins Front Cover

Widdershins Backdrop with Book
Widdershins Backdrop with Book

The cover and backdrop were created by the marvellous people at Toucan Design, and they cleverly incorporate some of the key elements of the novel: elderberries and leaves, hawthorn leaves and witch prickers, with Jane Chandler and John Sharpe shown in silhouette.

And finally, here is a sneaky peek at one of the part illustrations that will feature in Widdershins. This was created by the talented Francesca Heward at Chess Heward Fine Art, and if you stay tuned, there are more lovely illustrations to come from Chess...

Part Illustration: Elderberries in a Basket
Part Illustration: Elderberries in a Basket

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Apr 9 2017 07:24PM

Hello again,

If you'd like to find out what inspired my forthcoming novel, Widdershins, which is inspired by the seventeenth-century Newcastle witch trials, check out my guest blog with the lovely Amy McLean. In the article, I reveal five things that inspire my writing, as well as five books that have inspired my writing (well, four that inspired me and one that had the opposite effect).

You can visit Amy's blog here.

Best wishes, Helen

By Helen Steadman, Feb 13 2017 11:58AM

Impress Books has signed my historical novel, Widdershins, which is a book about witches and witchfinders. (Click here if you'd like to read the full blog post from Impress Books.)

Widdershins was inspired by the real-life Newcastle witch trials that took place in the mid-seventeenth century, where fifteen women and one man were executed in a single day.

My novel tells the story of two people: John Sharpe, a Scottish witch-finder who came to Newcastle in the seventeenth century to rid the town of its witches; and Jane Chandler, an apprentice healer who used herbs to cure the sick.

Launch day is set for 1 July 2017, and although it feels like a long way off, it's only 138 days (not that I'm counting, or anything)!

What makes it all feel very real is that my book is already listed on Amazon and Waterstones for pre-order, complete with its very own ISBN! If you want a sneaky peek of the full synopsis, just click on one of the links.

In the meantime, getting ready for publication has been a new experience for me. As an editor and proofreader, I've often been involved in various aspects of publishing, but by looking down the other end of the telescope. So, it's been quite a novelty to be on the receiving end as an author.

Contract signing was very exciting, done in duplicate, and on paper with actual ink. It feels strange to deal with ink and paper when everything seems so virtual these days. Then came a long form to fill out all about me, my book, the cover and the characters.

Next came revisions. So far, I've been through two rounds of revisions with my editors (plural - I know!), which was surprisingly pain and anxiety free - for me, anyway, I can't speak for my editors...

Now, we're into cover design, and I was kindly consulted for any ideas and thoughts I might have. I've just seen an early mock-up, which was an excellent design. Soon, it will go to the designers to work up. I'm itching to see the next iteration, and I'll post the final cover here once it's available.

By the way, for anyone who wants to know, widdershins means going anti-clockwise, in the opposite direction to the sun, something which used to be associated with sinister goings on, witchcraft and occult practices. It's a word oft-used by DH Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, and Terry Pratchett...

Best wishes, Helen

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