My debut historical novel, Widdershins, was inspired by the Newcastle witch trials that took place in 1650. While I’ve been out and about talking about my book, lots of people have asked me whether there were witches in Derwentside.
During the early part of my research, I went to visit the Consett & District Heritage Initiative HQ, and Arthur Harkness kindly provided me with a package of stories taken from various local history sources, entitled The Derwent Valley Witches (including the information below), for which, many thanks!
In the end, I decided to write about the Newcastle trials, which I learned about from Ralph Gardiner’s fascinating book, England’s Grievance Discovered…
The Derwent Valley witch trials happened quarter of a century after the Newcastle trials. So, I may write about these people in due course as I work my way forwards in time, or somebody else might like to pick up their pen as I’m sure there’s at least one novel tucked away here! (And since writing this post, a novel has been published on this very subject: The Ghosting of Anne Armstrong by Michael Cawood Green.)
Perhaps the most interesting source of information on the Derwent Valley witches is the depositions from York Castle in April 1673. Here, Anne Armstrong, who was evidently an equal-opportunities witchfinder, pointed the following people:
Alice Dixon, Anne Drydon, Anne Foster, Anne Parteis, Anne Usher, Anne Whitfield, Anton Hunter, Anthony Hunter, Catherine Ellott, Chr. Dixon, Dorothy Green, Elisabeth Atchinson, Elizabeth Pickering, Isabell Johnson, Isabell Thompson, Issabell Andrew, Jane Baites, Jane Hopper, Jane Makepeace, John Whitfield, Lucy Thompson, Margaret Milbourne, Mary Hunter, Michaell Aynsley, Thomasine Watson.
Armstrong’s accusations included being bridled and ridden like a horse to join a coven at Riding Mill. She stated that she’d watched the coven dine with the devil, who was sitting on a gold throne. He presided over a magical table, which filled and refilled with meat and drink. She also reports using cheese as something like a cross between a fortune-telling device and a truth serum. Clearly, seventeenth-century cheese was more potent than its twenty-first century counterpart, which will only give you nightmares if you’re unlucky. In any case, Ms Armstrong might have been suffering from hunger as most of her accusations involve food and drink in one form or another.
Worryingly, many of those accused did go on to confess to all sorts of heinous practices. Perhaps worst of all, Elizabeth Pickering of Whittonstall confessed that she had power over her neighbour’s beasts and that she had killed a neighbour’s child. However, Ms Pickering then went on to accuse several other people. It was fairly common during witch trials for one person to accuse others, perhaps in the hope of saving themselves. And of course, it’s not known what conditions the accused were held in prior to the trials and what methods might have been used to extract these confessions.
So far, I’ve not found out what happened to these people. It seems they were acquitted at the assizes and hopefully, went on to live out their natural lives.
If you want to read the depositions for yourself, then they’re available here:
Happy reading (and keep off the cheese), Helen