The Cornish Witch Trials

On the 24th November 1653 the Mercurius Politicus, a weekly newspaper published in London, reported the following:

CORNWALL

A witch near Lands End accused, and accuses others. Eight sent to Launceston goal. Some probably executed.

Unfortunately any details of this particular case, and along with undoubtedly many others, have vanished in the intervening three hundred or so years. The names and circumstances forgotten as far as I have been able to establish. But there are some stories from that turbulent period that have survived and they give us a fascinating glimpse into the lives, fears and preoccupations of Cornish people in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Although hundreds of women (and men) have been accused of witchcraft in Cornwall over the past few hundred years there is a list of just a few who’s stories became infamous. These are the women we know actually stood trial for being a witch in Cornwall before the law that made this a crime punishable by death was repealed in 1736. Their names and the dates if their court cases were as follows:

  • Anne Piers – 1581
  • Ann Jeffries – 1645
  • Mary Clarkson – 1676
  • Jane Noal – 1686
  • Betty Seeze – 1686
  • Mary Guy – 1695
  • Mary Daye – 1696

The information that is still available in each woman’s case varies greatly from one to another, both in detail and reliability. We must also always be mindful of the years that have passed and the changes, errors or embellishments to their stories which have inevitably occurred.

Anne Piers – Padstow’s Pirate Witch

It was in 1541 that witchcraft was first ‘denounced by the law’ in England, that is to say that it became illegal, but it wasn’t until years later that any actual charges were brought against individuals. Witchcraft was a serious crime punishable by death but it was also a crime that was incredibly easy to accuse someone of on simple hearsay, with little or no proof. Women often fell foul of petty disputes, silly superstitions or just bizarre prejudices which saw them accused of being a witch just for being old or unmarried for example. Anne Piers is the earliest of the Cornish women that I have found who was charged with witchcraft but she is also one of the women who almost certainly became a victim of gossip, bad blood and possibly even jealousy.

Anne Piers lived in Padstow with her husband William and their daughter, Honour but it was her son, John, who was the cause of Anne’s troubles. John Piers was a notorious pirate who was eventually caught and put to death for his crimes. At the time of John’s arrest his mother was accused of handling his stolen plunder and unusually she was also charged with the much more serious crime of witchcraft. The records we have of the case seem to imply that many local people believed that Anne was directly responsible for her son’s success as a pirate. They apparently thought that she had kept him safe from the authorities and assisted his exploits using her ‘dark arts’.

Entrance to Padstow Harbour

On the 25th October 1581 Anne’s case was heard by three local examiners – George Grenville, Sir Richard Grenville and Thomas Roscarrock. No specific instances of Anne practising witchcraft were cited as far as I have been able to establish and no evidence other than hearsay. The examiners took statements from twelve men from Padstow –

‘some of the better sort and of most credit of the town of Padstow and of the said parish . . . whether they know or ever heard that Anne Piers of Padstow did practise witchcraft or had the name to be a witch,’

These men included the local vicar, Robert Archer, and other upstanding members of the community, customs officials and police constables. All of them confirmed that they had no knowledge of Anne Piers being a witch. The allegations of witchcraft were completely unsubstantiated and these men, who should have been the first to condemn Anne, agreed unanimously that the accusations were untrue. But what they also agree upon however was that Anne was leading what they all considered a ‘loose life’ and it was this that had brought about the charges against her. There is some implication that local people were intimidated by her.

In hindsight the charges of witchcraft against Anne may simply have stemmed from her so called ‘disorderly behaviour’, the court heard that on many occasions she had been seen out very late at night unsupervised by her husband, and also possibly because of bad feelings towards her for her profitable, criminal behaviour. Was she being punished for the spirited and resourceful (if illegal) way she was living her life?

Anne was acquitted of all charges.

You can find more of her story and John Piers’ exploits HERE.

Ann Jeffries – Healer

Ann Jeffries was born in the small village of St Teath near Camelford in December 1626. The family were poor, Ann’s father was a labourer, and as a child she went to work for a wealthy family, John and Joan Pitt. She took on domestic duties and acted as a nanny to the couple’s two children, Moses and Mary. Much of what we know about Ann’s life comes from the jottings of Moses Pitt later in his life, he was obviously just a child when the events actually happened.

In 1645 when she was 19 years old Ann was found having some kind of seizure in the garden of the Pitt’s house. When she recovered she told them that she had seen ‘fairy people’ all dressed in green and hiding in the bushes. From this time onwards Ann was considered something of a healer and a clairvoyant. The ill and infirm started travelling great distances to consult Ann and she was said to have been able to predict the future, including that the Stuart monarchy would be restored to the throne.

“She could cure broken bones and such diseases as the falling sickness, an ability she first practised on Pitt’s mother.”

Tony Deane & Tony Shaw, The Folklore of Cornwall, 1975

Ann is said to have spoken with the fairy folk often, Moses wrote that he once saw her dancing with them in the garden, and she also prepared food for them, a favour they apparently returned later. Some accounts say that Mary Pitt, who was three or four at the time, told her parents that she saw the fairy folk too.

About a year after she had first been taken ill in 1645 Ann was confined in Bodmin Goal accused of witchcraft. Local magistrates had been informed of the events in St Teath and quickly decided that the Devil must be involved somehow. Although she was never formally charged Ann was cruelly left in a cell without food or water for a long period of time, some accounts say weeks. The story goes that she only survived because the fairies came and cared for her, remembering her kindness to them and bringing her all she needed. John Tregeagle, the Justice of the Peace, tried to gather evidence against her but failed and was eventually forced to release her on the condition that she did not return to the Pitt’s house.

Ann moved to Padstow for a while and then married William Warner, a bailiff for Sir Andrew Stanning in Devon. It is said that many people still believed in her powers and continued to call on her to cure the sick. She eventually died of old age in 1698.

Mary Clarkson

Unfortunately for us all knowledge of what happened in the case of Mary Clarkson has all but vanished. I can find no mention of a ‘Mary Clarkson’ in any of the parish records for Cornwall in that period, though her name may have been spelt differently or the records may have been lost. There appears to be no record of who accused her or what the circumstances were which led to her trial. All we know is that it happened in Cornwall in 1676 and that she was acquitted.

Frontispiece to Matthew Hopkins’ Discovery of Witches (1648) showing two witches calling out the names of their demons.

Jane Noal & Betty Seeze

The Morrab Library in Penzance holds a copy of a small pamphlet printed in 1686. It is an account of an accusation of witchcraft recorded and later published by Peter Jenkins, the Mayor of Penzance and Justice John Geose. the booklet is entitled:

A true account of a strange and wonderful relation of one John Tonken, of Pensans in Cornwall, said to be bewitched by some women, two of which on suspicion are committed to prison. He vomitting up several pins, pieces of walnut-shels, an ear of rye, with a straw to it half a yard long and rushes of the same length, which are kept to be shown at the next Assizes for the said county.

Snappy title!

The two women mentioned were Jane Noal, alias Jane Nickless, and Elizabeth (Betty) Seeze of Penzance who were accused of witchcraft together in 1686. Their accuser was a teenage boy called John Tonkin (or Tonken) who was then 15 or 16 years old. Tracking down these women as ‘real’ women in their communities was almost as difficult as it was for Mary Clarkson. However, in March 1642 Emmanuell Seeze of Penzance was recorded in the Protestation Returns and with a fairly unusual surname it is possible that he may well have been a husband, brother or father of Betty.

The events which led to the accusations and the trial were witnessed by John’s uncle Edward Plimrose and began in April 1686 when the boy was “taken with sudden fits”. On the 4th May John claimed that he had been visited by a woman “in a blue jerkin and red petticoat with yellow and green patches.” The woman told him that his fits would stop when he had vomited nutshells, pins and nails. John told his family what he had seen and then a short time afterwards was “taken with fits of striving and yoaking, insomuch that two men could scarce hold him down . . .” On this occasion the boy was said to have brought up three pins and half a walnut shell and then more of the same a few days later.

John told the witnesses that the woman was appearing to him often and sometimes took the form of a cat or a mouse hiding in the thatch of the cottage. He said that she had told him she would strangle him or poison him.

“The woman another time appeared to him and told him he should bring up nails . . . a few hours after the boy cried he was pricked in the heal, the people that were present turned the bedcloaths off and found a new threepenny nail fast in his heel . . . he also brought up a piece of dry bramble and several pieces of flat sticks, which put together made the form of a breeting needle such as the fishermen make their nets with.”

The pamphlet records that John repeatedly asked the woman tormenting him her name, indicating that he clearly did not know her. The last time John had one of these episodes he said that the woman appeared to him again but this time she was with two others. She told him she would trouble him no more and after this day “the boy was pretty well again and goes abroad with crutches”.

It is never explained why John was cured and why the witch decided to leave him alone; how exactly Jane and Betty came to be accused is not explained in the pamphlet either. The two are just referred to as “old women” and that may have been their only crime. The two men writing the account of the case, Jenken and Geose, seem to revel in the details however, suggesting that the women have given themselves to Satan and quoting the Old Testament verse – “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. At the end of the narrative they express their desire that the women “will be found out at the next Assizes” and get what they deserve. It seems that they have already decided Jane and Betty are guilty.

Frustratingly, as far as I have been able to establish, the outcome of the trial is not known.

Mary Guy & Mary Daye

Launceston Castle once had a tower known as the Witches Tower which collapsed after a violent storm in 1833. According to William Paynter, the Cornish authority on witchcraft, the tower adopted its name after a witch was burnt at its base. It is thought that over a dozen witch trials were held in Launceston during the 17th century, as the note at the beginning of this article goes someway to confirm, but any details of those cases have pretty much been lost, apart from just one.

It is now generally excepted that Mary Guy and Mary Daye were probably the same person and that time has muddled the details of this trial somewhat. Records show that Mary was tried at Launceston for bewitching Philadelphia Rowe in 1695/96. The name ‘Philadelphia Rowe or Row’ is a pretty unusual one and I feel fairly confident that I have tracked the family down to the parish of Paul near Penzance, where this name appears in the church registers during the 18th century.

At the trial Philadelphia is said to have claimed that an apparition or a ghostly figure was constantly troubling her and that she had also been vomiting pins, straw and feathers. She blamed Mary Guy for her troubles, accusing her of ill-wishing her. Fortunately for Mary however her trial was presided over by Lord Chief Justice John Holt (1642 – 1710). Holt was not a local man, he had in fact been born in Abingdon, then in Berkshire, but travelled the country to attend regional assizes. He was a member of the Privy Council and in a time when the legal system was considered at best inefficient and at worst corrupt, Holt had a reputation for fairness, knowledge of the law and uncompromising integrity. Also, luckily for Mary, he had strong opinions when it came to ending the prosecution of witches.

Holt had become concerned about the legitimacy of witchcraft trials after observing the Scottish witch hunt of 1661. Though he believed that witchcraft was indeed possible he observed that the majority of the women accused were actually innocent and that it was the role of the judge to ensure a fair trial, to ensure that they weren’t lead astray by superstition. Holt appears to have travelled the length and breadth of England hearing witch trials, the year before his journey to Launceston he had been in Bury St Edmunds for the trial against Mother Munnings and in 1696 he tried Elizabeth Horner in Exeter. In all Lord Chief Justice Holt is thought to have heard at least ten witchcraft cases during his career – he is believed to have acquitted all the accused women – including our Mary Guy/Daye in Cornwall.

At the Launceston trial it is said that Holt was not at all impressed at the claims of Philadelphia Rowe and found no evidence against Mary Guy. She was acquitted and released.

Final Thoughts

When I set out to uncover what history I could of the Cornish witch trials I had no idea what I was going to find. It is a relief therefore that, as far as it is possible to know, all the women listed here though badly treated seem to have been acquitted and escaped capital punishment. But there can be little doubt that the belief in and fear of witchcraft was very powerful in Cornwall and lingered here for hundreds of years after these particular women were accused. Consequently some in our community were wrongly punished, ostracised and badly treated by their neighbours. But it is important to remember that many more were actually valued, even revered, for their abilities and their knowledge and that is an idea I intend to explore further . . .

Further Reading

The Parson Ghost Layers – Cornwall’s Exorcists

Captain John Piers – Cornish pirate

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7 thoughts on “The Cornish Witch Trials

  1. Witch hunts were a shameful part of religons past. So many women brutally treated . Then there was also the Inquisition. In both aspects the Church has nothing at all to be proud of.

  2. Lovely post on the supposed witches. I’m sure there weren’t any actually!!! No wonder they were all acquited in the courts of law even back then.

  3. Thanks for another fascinating article! Of course back in the 16th/17th centuries the true concept of mental illness hadn’t yet been properly identified and often conditions such as hysteria and even epilepsy were mistaken for ‘diabolical possession’ when they more than likely had an innocent cause. These so called witches tried to ‘treat’ others with their concoctions, or actually lived with the conditions themselves, which could often explain their ‘hallucinations’. And women were seen as ‘unstable beings’ just for having a womb (with all it’s accompanying conditions) back in those days!
    I was going to say that we had come a long way in our thinking, until I discovered that interestingly the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which made it a crime to accuse someone of witchcraft, was in force up to 1951 – with the last person in England convicted under it as late as 1944!

  4. Great article. My wife is related to Tammy Blee the white witch of Helston. A portrait of her hangs in both the Royal Cornwall museum in Truro and at the witchcraft museum in Boscastle.

    1. Hi Jake thank you! And how cool to be have Tammy as an ancestor! I’m planning another article about Cirnish witchcraft in the future so Tammy might be in that one I think 🙂

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