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*
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 ) 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.