Denham Exorcisms (1585–1586) – The Exorcisms of six fraudulent Demoniacs by 12 Catholic priests, the chief of whom was a Jesuit, William Weston, also known as Edmunds. Most of the exorcisms took place in the home of Sir George Peckham of Denham, Buckinghamshire, England. The “possessions” were fake, part of a conversion campaign against Protestants and a political plot against the Crown.
An account of the exorcisms was written by Samuel Harsnett, chaplain to the bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, and published in 1603. It was entitled A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, to with-draw the harts of her Majesties Subjects from their allegance, and from the truth of Christian Religion professed in England, under the pretence of casting out devils. Practiced by Edmunds, alias Weston a Jesuit, a divers Romish Priests his wicked associates. Where-unto are annexed the Copies of the Confessions and Examinations of the parties themselves, which pretended to be possessed, and dispossessed, taken upon oath before her Majesties Commissioners for Causes Ecclesiasticall. Weston arrived in England in September 1584, during a time of severe persecutions of Catholic clergy. Several Jesuits had been martyred, and some had fled the country. The Act of 1585 made Jesuits and seminary priests guilty of treason simply by being in England. Anyone who harbored them was guilty of felony. And the Witchcraft Act of 1563 made the conjuring of spirits—which included exorcism—punishable by death on the first offense. Nonetheless, Weston and the priests undertook the exorcisms, ostensibly in order to convert Protestants back to Catholicism.
There was a greater factor involved: the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary, queen of Scots, and allow the Spaniards to invade England. The first person exorcized by Weston in England was William Marwood, a servant of Anthony Babington, a Catholic nobleman from Derbyshire, who later visited Denham in order to witness the exorcisms of the six Demoniacs. Two of the exorcising priests, John Ballard and Anthony Tyrell, were part of the plot; Ballard was a leader of it and convinced Babington to join it. Weston probably knew about it and used the exorcisms to help the plot succeed.
Four of the Denham Demoniacs later confessed to faking possessions. If the other two confessed, their records have been lost. Two were Protestants: Sara Williams, 15, a servant at Denham, and her sister, Frideswid or Fid, 17, who took over Sara’s chores when she began having fits. Fid fell in the laundry and was persuaded that she had become possessed too. Two were Catholic: Annie Smith, 18, a family friend of the Peckhams, sent to Denham because she was having fits, and Richard Mainey, about 18, an Englishman who had become a Friar Minim in France but left the order because of their strictness and the fact that he disliked fish, their dietary mainstay. He also suffered hysteria. The Demoniacs faked visions, revelations, prophecies, and convulsions. Their Demons praised Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers, proclaiming them to be faithful servants of the Devil. The exorcisms were witnessed by huge crowds. During the course of the year, at least 500 persons converted, according to the published account. The exorcisms involved intoxicating, nauseating potions and stinking fumes. The Demoniacs were bound to chairs and forced to drink a vile potion of oil, sack, and rue. Chafing dishes of burning brimstone were held under their noses. No wonder that the Demoniacs lost their reason, believed themselves to be truly possessed, and babbled about Demons. They were shown relics of English saints, bones that they had been coached to identify correctly. The priests put bones into the mouths of Sara and Fid; the girls did not have to fake revulsion that was taken as a sign of Demonic horror.
Mainey’s Demon, Modu, said that Sara and Fid had been bewitched by Goodwife White of Bushy, a woman who was commonly believed to be a witch. The priests captured White’s cat and whipped it until it “vanished away.” They sent a messenger to Bushy, where White was found in childbed, having lost her baby in childbirth. Fid accused the priests of murder.
Of all the Demoniacs, Mainey put on the best show. Prior to Easter 1586, he announced that every Sunday he would have a vision of purgatory, and on Good Friday he would ascend to heaven. Not surprisingly, a large crowd gathered on the appointed day to witness this event. Mainey lay on his bed, preached and prayed in a stern fashion, and then lapsed into a two-hour trance. When he awakened, he sighed and groaned and said: My time is not yet come: our blessed Lady hath appeared to me, and told me that I must live longer yet: for that God hath reserved me for a further purpose to doe more good, and to tell of strange wonders.
Mainey had more theatrics in him. The last exorcism occurred on April 23, 1586. Mainey’s Demon, Modu, appeared and said that he was accompanied by seven other Demons, “all of them Captaines and of great fame.” They acted out the Seven Deadly Sins. When this gross display was finished, Modu cursed the “popish priests” and said that all of Mainey’s visions were false, intended to induce Catholics to worship devils disguised as Christ and “Saffronbag,” as he called the Virgin Mary. The Demons departed.
On August 4, 1586, Weston and Ballard were arrested by orders of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s “spymaster,” who had been carefully watching Catholic activities, including the Denham exorcisms. Denham’s house was raided, and most of the occupants were arrested. Other priests were jailed. No incriminating evidence against Weston could be found, but nonetheless he was imprisoned in Wisbech Castle for 10 years. Tyrell became an informer for the Crown.
Ballard, Babington, and other conspirators rounded up were tortured and tried at Westminster Hall in London. They were sentenced to be hanged and their bodies drawn and quartered. They were executed in two batches on September 20 and 21. Ballard was among the first to go. Their executions were so bloody and horrific that the crowd witnessing them was revolted. They were hanged but were cut down before they were dead and were butchered alive. Queen Elizabeth also was revolted at the news and ordered the second batch of conspirators to be hanged until they were dead and their bodies then butchered.
The Babington plot thus was foiled and ultimately led to the execution of Mary, queen of Scots in 1587. Meanwhile, Weston did not sit idle in Wisbech Castle but continued to stir up warring religious factions among English Catholics. In 1602, an inquiry was launched into the Denham exorcisms, followed by the publication of the broadsheet, which may have been part of an effort to smear Weston.
Further Reading :
- Walker, D. P. Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.