The Last Witches of England
On the morning of Thursday 29 June 1682, a magpie came rasping, rapping and tapping at the window of a prosperous Devon merchant. Frightened by its appearance, his servants and members of his family had, within a matter of hours, convinced themselves that the bird was an emissary of the devil sent by witches to destroy the fabric of their lives. As the result of these allegations, three women of Bideford came to be forever defined as witches. A Secretary of State brushed aside their case and condemned them to the gallows; to hang as the last group of women to be executed in England for the crime. Yet, the hatred of their neighbours endured. For Bideford, it was said, was a place of witches.
Though ‘pretty much worn away’ the belief in witchcraft still lingered on for more than a century after their deaths. In turn, ignored, reviled, and extinguished but never more than half-forgotten, it seems that the memory of these three women – and of their deeds and sufferings, both real and imagined – was transformed from canker to regret, and from regret into celebration in our own age. Indeed, their example was cited during the final Parliamentary debates, in 1951, that saw the last of the witchcraft acts repealed, and their names were chanted, as both inspiration and incantation, by the women beyond the wire at Greenham Common.
In this book, John Callow explores this remarkable reversal of fate, and the remarkable tale of the Bideford Witches.
The Bideford witches' story is an essential piece in England's witchcraft history. Callow has researched it properly and deeply for the first time, and his astonishing discoveries shed new light on this tragic and bizarre story. He draws the reader into the story, retelling it with vibrant characterisation. We come away with a thoughtful understanding of what it meant to be deemed a witch, tried as a witch, and to die as a witch. * Dr. Christina Oakley Harrington, Founder & Director, Treadwell's, UK * I read the book with considerable interest and enjoyment - others have written on the Bideford witches, but not in this sort of depth. John Callow has been remarkably successful in reconstructing the story of the three 'Bideford Witches' executed in 1682. He maintains an imaginative and accessible narrative grounded in the relevant documentation and the relevant historical context, which will immerse the modern reader in the tragedies and complexities of the early modern witch hunts. * James Sharpe, Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History, University of York, UK * This is a stirring and multilayered book. At its heart is a very sad story, but one that needs to be heard. The cautionary tale Callow spins here is not the war between superstition and reason, but in the ways in which we have historically vilified and marginalized those in poverty, especially women, and the lengths we go to in silencing their voices. * Dr Amy Hale, Anthropologist and Folklorist, writer of Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of the Fern Loved Gully, USA *
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