Bideford has one claim to fame that some may find discomforting, namely that it was the last place in England where the hanging of witches took place. This happened in August 1682, when three women went to the gallows after being found guilty of witchcraft.
and Susanna Edwards
were put to death on the strength
of little more than gossip.
Their execution highlighting a tragic period in the countries history. It was a time when women who lived on their own, or were old and perhaps a little eccentric, were vulnerable. It was a time when an insect bite could be taken as a mark of the devil and where a cat or magpie seen at someone’s house would be taken as the sign of the diabolical at work.
From the late 15th Century through to the mid eighteenth century, 200,000 people were put to death across Europe on the grounds of witchcraft.
Witch-hunting in England saw about 500 people put to death and reached it’s heights in the 1640s with figures such as Matthew Hopkins gained national notoriety. He claimed to hold the office of Witch Finder General, though no such title was ever bestowed by Parliament.
For anyone familiar with Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, the way innocent people could be branded by others during the witchcraft craze is clear. But by the late seventeenth century, that craze had faded in England and most trials ended in acquittal, which made the Bideford Trials all the more unusual in that they ended in execution.
The misfortunes of those three women from Bideford began in July 1682, when one of the town’s shopkeeper’s, Thomas Eastchurch, reported to some of the town’s constables that Temperance Lloyd had been practising witchcraft. Temperance was subsequently arrested and locked up in an old chapel before being taken before the justices to answer for her crimes.
The actual charges she faced were listed as ‘suspicion of having used some magical art, sorcery or witchcraft upon the body of Grace Thomas, and to have had discourse or familiarity with the devil in the likeness or shape of a black man.’ The evidence against Temperance was thin in the extreme. For example, Grace Thomas was convinced that Lloyd was responsible for her illness simply because she had been so relieved when Thomas had regained her health.
Other ‘evidence’ included that fact that a magpie had flown to Thomas’s window. The evidence may have been thin, but when Lloyd was questioned by the justices on July 3rd, she confessed to the charges and effectively sealed her fate. She stated that she had in fact killed three people and blinded another.
The case against the other two women, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards, was triggered after a local women, Grace Barnes, blamed Trembles for her illness. She was subsequently arrested, as was Edwards, who had been begging for food along with Trembles.
Once again the evidence against the two women was little more than gossip, over-heard conversations and marks on their bodies. But once again the women did not put up a strong defence of themselves. Trembles blamed Edwards for luring her into witchcraft and eventually Lloyd was drawn into the case, being blamed by Edwards. Public opinion at the time also saw Lloyd as the one who had effectively debauched the other two.
The actual trial of the three women took place in Exeter on 19th August 1682, with the dubious evidence arrayed against the women. That evidence may have been limited, but hysteria of the times gave it added credence and the women’s appointment with the hangman was ensured when they readily admitted their own guilt.
The executions took place on 25th August at Heavitree, which is just outside Exeter.
It was a public event, with children sitting on the shoulder of their parents to get a better view and clergyman loudly berating the women for their crimes. The gravity of their situation must have suddenly hit home to the women, as they stated their innocence and denied the charges against them. But it was too late and their sentence was carried out.
Temperance Lloyd was the last to be executed. The Sherif asked whether she believed in Jesus Christ and Lloyd replied: “Yes, and I pray Jesus Christ to pardon my sins.” And then the noose was placed around her neck and she left this world, taking with her the reasons why she had confessed to a crime she could not possibly have committed.
Why did women not declare their innocence before and why had they so readily admitted to their crimes in the first place? Were they incapable of grasping what was happening, did they revel in their notoriety, or were they simply unable to deal rationally with the irrational situation they had to deal with?
The witch-trial period was a dark chapter in our history. It was a time when women, and it was overwhelmingly women, could face the death penalty for being different, old, foolish or eccentric. It was a time when the power of gossip, hearsay and jealousy could be enough to leave you facing the death penalty.
A plaque commemorating the deaths of the three women can be viewed on the wall of Rougemont Castle in Exeter.