My novel, Widdershins and its sequel, Sunwise, are both inspired by the seventeenth-century Newcastle witch trials. There is a very well known picture, which is often used to illustrate witch trials, but it’s not usually recognised that this illustration represents the 1650 Newcastle witch trials. It appears in Ralph Gardiner’s 1655 book about the Newcastle coal trade, England’s Grievance Discovered.
The plate shows the witchfinder on the right receiving his pay, and on the left is the bell ringer who accompanied him around Newcastle, encouraging people to send out their witches. It’s interesting that the artist has chosen to show the witchfinder receiving his money, rather than, say, testing witches. Clearly, almost four hundred years ago, people suspected witchfinding was no more than a money-making venture, even if it cost people their lives.
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. 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, where prices were even higher.
In Scotland, there is a record of John Kincaid, a well-known Scottish witchfinder being paid six pounds for ‘brodding’ [pricking] 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.
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.
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).