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, Jul 30 2017 11:38AM

On 21 July 2017, at Waterstones Aberdeen, I read from my novel, Widdershins, (Chapter 7, 'The Hellish Circle'), and I gave a short talk about witchfinders.

I was pleased to meet some lovely local people, as well as support dog, Jasmine, and her trainee Loki.

For anyone who was unable to make it to Waterstones (or for anyone who wants further information), I've attached my notes below.

If anyone would like a copy of Widdershins, it's available to order from Waterstones, Foyles and Blackwells. International readers can get a copy delivered free from Book Depository, and e-readers can get it from Amazon (Kindle), WH Smith (Kobo) and i-Tune store (Apple devices).

If you came to the talk, thank you for coming, it was lovely to meet you, and I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn't make it, then I hope you enjoy the notes.

Best wishes, Helen

Notes from my talk

Good evening everyone and thank you for coming along tonight.

I’m from the north east of England, but for a short time, I’m an honorary citizen of the north east of Scotland while I work on my PhD at your beautiful university. Thank you all so much for coming here tonight to hear me read a little of Widdershins – a grand Scottish word I’ve pinched for my title!

As already mentioned, Widdershins is inspired by true events. In the middle of the 17th century, the people of Newcastle presented the common council with a petition demanding that something be done about the local infestation of witches.

It seems that the Witchfinder General (Matthew Hopkins) was either too busy fettling the witches in the south of England, or his fame hadn’t quite spread that far north. Either way, Newcastle was suffering something of a skills shortage, so it turned to its neighbour and sent two of its sergeants into Scotland to fetch back an expert witchfinder. And the witchfinder wouldn’t have needed too much tempting to cross the border. Newcastle Council paid him twenty shillings per witch, in what was perhaps the earliest example of local authority performance-related pay.

One of the most popular witch-testing techniques was witch pricking – and it seemed that this was the know-how that Newcastle wished to import from Scotland. Witch prickers would pierce a suspect’s skin with a variety of pricking devices ranging from pins and bodkins through to specially designed implements. Typically, an accused witch would be found to have a third nipple or teat about their person – not necessarily near to their chest. This teat, or even just a brown mark, would then be pierced with a needle. If no blood was let, or if no pain was felt, then the accused would be deemed guilty of witchcraft and put to death.

Just think about that for a second. Supernumerary nipples are relatively common in the population. I’m not going to ask if there are any members of the Triple Nipple Club here tonight. But I think it’s safe to say that there’s not a single person among us without a mole, beauty spot, birth mark or skin tag. Most adults have around a dozen of these hidden about our person. So you can see that even the most unskilled witchfinder would be hard-pressed to find a suspect without a mole.

The Scottish witchfinder wasted no time on arrival in Newcastle. He sent a bellman around the town – more or less inviting the locals to send out their witches, which they obligingly did. Thirty people were carted off to trial. Of these thirty, an astonishing twenty-seven were found guilty and set aside. Which tots up to a fairly handsome profit at twenty shillings per head. When you consider that an average working man would consider himself doing well to earn a shilling a day, this was not a bad afternoon’s work.

The witchfinder had something of an interesting technique. He would look for the devil’s mark. Then he would strip the women to the waist, bend them double and prick them in the top of the thigh. If they bled they were innocent, and if they did not, then they were deemed witches.

All was going swimmingly until a ‘personable and goodlike woman’ was tested. I think it’s safe to say that meant she wasn’t child-scaringly ugly… Her thigh was pricked and she was declared to be a child of the devil. At this point, a local naval doctor, one Lieutenant Colonel Hobson, intervened and insisted there was some form of trickery afoot. He demanded that the woman be stood upright (although, interestingly the record does not show that he insisted that the personable woman have her clothing restored). Once her blood had returned to the right parts of her body, he demanded that she be pricked again. This time, she bled. And the witchpricker declared that she was not a child of the devil, and she was set free.

Tragically, and puzzlingly, fifteen women and one man were still hanged on Newcastle’s Town Moor for witchcraft – making it possibly the single largest execution for witchcraft on one day in England.

The witchfinder was allowed to go on his way; he is said to have made his way to Northumberland where he was alleged to be charging three pounds per witch – which is pretty impressive inflation by anyone’s standards. At this point, an outraged former MP, Henry Ogle became suspicious and the witchfinder fled back to Scotland. It is said that he was arrested there and shortly before being executed, confessed to being responsible for the deaths of 220 women… So that’s a sort of happy ending.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to confirm the identity of the Scottish witchfinder, so John Sharpe in Widdershins is my own creation. However, in the course of creating him, I carried out a lot of research into witchfinders.

In particular, I looked at John Kincaid from Tranent, who was my chief suspect. He was certainly operational in the borders, and was famous for being able to find the devil’s mark on witches.

There exists a deposition from him in June 1649 (14 months before the Newcastle trials) at Dirleton Castle, near North Berwick, in which he boasts that he has ‘some skill and dexterity in finding the divillis mark’. The deposition describes his testing of a man and his spouse. He found a devil’s mark on each of them and claimed these marks ‘were not sensible’, indicating that they had no feeling. Insensate flesh was also said to be a sign of being a witch. Upon pricking these insensate marks, they gave forth no blood, which was a sure sign of being a witch. Curiously, the couple in question had volunteered to be tested after the man watched his wife copulating with the devil…

John Kincaid was still at large in 1661 in Dalkeith where he tested a woman who had two devil’s marks about her. He was reported as pricking her with pins of about three inches. So insensate was this woman’s flesh that she could not even tell which part of her body had been pricked… Kincaid administered this test under oath and it was witnessed by seven people, including the local minister.

Most likely, he was using a retractable pricking device – anyone who was a child in the seventies may have had one of those joke plastic daggers with a retractable blade that you could stick in your thigh to terrify your granny.

Perhaps one of Scotland’s most unusual witch prickers was John Dickson (can anyone hazard a guess why I called my witchfinder John?). John Dickson seemed to appear from nowhere and was given a highly lucrative contract in Moray to clear the place of its witches. As well as a daily subsistence rate of six shillings, Dickson was charging an eye-watering six pounds per witch – a sum that makes Newcastle’s twenty shillings per witch look positively frugal.

But John Dickson picked on the wrong person once too often. First, a man called John Hay, who had friends in high places and more than a smattering of the law behind him. Gradually, reports began to be made against this particular witchfinder who was thrown in prison. It was only at this point that an interesting discovery was made. John Dickson turned out to be a woman – Christian Caddell. However, despite sending as many as ten innocent people to the gallows, she was not executed, but instead transported to Barbados.

Finally, no discussion of witchfinders would be complete without a mention of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, and his sidekick John Stearne who were operational in the south of England. The Witchfinder General came from a small town called Manningtree in Essex, which has one other famous resident: Margaret Thatcher. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will…

It seems that Matthew Hopkins was also something of a dab hand at PR – long before PR was invented. To expel any doubts that might have existed in the minds of the good people of Essex, he and John Stearne each published a book setting out their techniques and reasoning behind witchfinding.

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. However, it’s worth taking Hopkins’ word with a pinch of salt, bearing in mind that one of the town councils in the area spent one-seventh of its annual budget on witchfinding and had to raise taxes as a result…

Some of Hopkins' justifications for finding people guilty of witchcraft are a little on the thin side. One of his favoured ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was a form of sleep deprivation known as ‘waking’, which meant the suspects were kept awake for several nights until they confessed. By way of example, he reports one accused witch, who on her fourth night of being kept awake, 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, which is bad news for any writers in the room…

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. 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. So, I’ll leave you to ponder on his words: '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.'

Sources for further information

Arnot, H. (1881) ‘Criminal Trials’, appendix, in J. Sands Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, ch. 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.

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

Gaule, J. [1646] Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. London: Richard Clutterbuck.

Hopkins, H. (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

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).

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

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

Steadman, H. (2016) http://helensteadman.com/writers-log/

Steadman, H. (2017) Widdershins, Impress Books, Exeter.

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

Tyne & Wear Archives (2011) [1650] Newcastle Chamberlain’s Accounts. Available from: http://blog.twmuseums.org.uk/question-how-much-does-it-cost-to-burn-a-witch-answer-15-19s-2d/.

Webster, D. (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, Jul 30 2017 10:00AM

This autumn, I'll be visiting the beautiful Peak District to talk about my novel, Widdershins. As well as unwrapping Widdershins to read a chapter, I'll also be talking about witches, witchcraft and witchfinders.

Come along to The Bakewell Bookshop in Matlock Street, Bakewell to find out more. Or, click on the events section of my website for more details.

If you're on Facebook, you can sign up for the event on my author page. See you in September!

Best wishes, Helen

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 06:35PM

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, 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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