1612 - 'The Famous Witches of Samlesbury'
Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and her daughter-in-law, Ellen Bierley, were accused of witchcraft by Grace Sowerbutts, the teenage granddaughter of Jennet. They were incarcerated at Lancaster Castle and tried at the Summer Assizes.
Jane’s husband, John, was a grandson of Sir John and heir to the estate, but he had recently died. His Uncle Christopher, (a priest in the Church of Rome), appears to have strongly objected to Jane, because ‘…she would not be dissuaded from the Church.’ When Grace was sent to him ‘to learn her prayers’, he must have seen an opportunity and coached her to accuse Jane and the others, of witchcraft.
According to Grace’s convoluted stories, the women had abused her and killed a twelve-month-old baby. They then exhumed the body from Samlesbury churchyard, cooked and ate it, but saved the fat to anoint their bodies, so that they could change their appearance.
At the trial, the other witnesses also committed perjury, stating that Sir John had thought Jane was a witch and been so scared of her, that he would avoid his granddaughter-in-law if he possibly could, and would also avoid passing her home. (This, despite the fact that Sir John had died seventeen years earlier, whilst Jane was still a young girl, growing up at Stonyhurst).
When Jennet was questioned, she said that the priest must have taught Grace the accusation, to punish her, ‘…for that she went to the [Parish] Church.’ As Ellen gave similar evidence, Christopher’s other witnesses began to quarrel and accuse each other, ‘but in the end,’ continues the court clerk, ‘some that were present told his Lordship, [the Judge], the truth [and] all things were laid open at large.’
The jury were then able to acquit the ‘famous Samlesbury witches.’
('The Famous Witches of Samlesbury’, is available from the Samlesbury Hall shop).