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 ) 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).