Warboys Witches : The story of the Throckmorton (also Throgmorton) children in Huntington, Essex, England, in 1589, is the first well-known case of allegedly possessed young people and the successful destruction of witches based on the evidence of minors (see possession).
Squire Robert Throckmorton of Warboys and his wife had five daughters: Joan, Elizabeth, Mary, Grace and Jane. As a wealthy landowner, Throckmorton supported many of his poorer neighbors, among them the Samuels. Alice Samuel and her daughter Agnes frequently visited the Throckmorton household and were well known to the girls.
In 1589 the youngest, Jane, began having sneezing fits and convulsions and fell into a trance. Her frightened parents consulted a Cambridge physician, Dr. Barrow, and a Dr. Butler. Looking only at Jane’s urIne, both doctors diagnosed bewitchment. When the 76-year-old Alice Samuel came to offer her sympathies, Jane cried out against her, accusing the old woman of witchcraft. Within two months, all the other sisters were suffering hysterical fits, and the eldest, Joan, predicted that there would eventually be 12 Demoniacs in the house. Sure enough, the maidservants fell victim to the spells; if any left Squire Throckmorton’s employ, their successors also became possessed. All pointed to Mrs. Samuel as the source of their torments.
Like other Demoniacs, the girls shrieked and contorted if the person attempted prayer or read from the Bible, especially the beginning of the Gospel of St. John. Such actions are generally accepted as the signs of true possession but may also have been a convenient way for the girls to avoid pious exercises. In the only account of the Throckmorton possession, probably written by the girls’ uncle, Gilbert Pickering, Elizabeth would throw fits to avoid religious lessons, only to come out of a tantrum if someone played cards with her, and to clench her teeth unless she ate outdoors at a particularly pretty pond.
Squire and mrs. Throckmorton doubted the girls’ possession, since they had only lived in the area a short time and no one had any motive for bewitching the family. They ignored the girls’ accusations and tauntings of mrs. Samuel.
In September 1590 the Throckmortons were visited by Lady Cromwell and her daughter-in-law. Lady Cromwell was the wife of Sir Henry Cromwell (grandfather of Sir Oliver Cromwell), the richest commoner in England. When she saw mrs. Samuel, who was one of the Cromwell’s tenants, Lady Cromwell angrily ripped the old woman’s bonnet from her head, denounced her as a witch and ordered her hair burned. Horrified, Mrs. Samuel beseeched Lady Cromwell, “madame, why do you use me thus? I never did you any harm, as yet.”
Back home, Lady Cromwell experienced a terrible nightmare, in which she dreamed that Mrs. Samuel had sent her cat to rip the flesh from her body. Lady Cromwell never fully recovered; her health gradually declined, and she died a lingering death 15 months later, in July 1592.
By this time, the girls were afflicted, only when mrs. Samuel was absent, not present. mrs. Samuel then was forced to live with the Throckmortons for several weeks in order to determine her effect on the children. mrs. Samuel, her daughter Agnes and another suspected witch also were scratched by the girls, a custom similar to Pricking. The girls constantly exhorted Alice to confess her dealings with the Devil and delivered pious speeches that moved onlookers to tears. Giving in to the constant pressure, Alice confessed just before Christmas 1592.
Not too long after Christmas, however, Mr. Samuel and Agnes convinced Mrs. Samuel to recant, and she again claimed her innocence, only to reconfess before the bishop of Lincoln and a justice of the peace in Huntington on December 29. All three Samuels were jailed, although Agnes was released on bail to allow the girls to extract incriminating evidence from her through more scratchings. mrs. Samuels confessed to having familiars, devils who were far inferior to the princes Beelzebub or Lucifer. She identified them as Pluck, Catch and White and the three cousins Smackes. The Demons often appeared as chickens.
The Samuels were not connected to the death of Lady Cromwell until the Throckmorton children accused Mrs. Samuel of bewitching her to death, thus placing her in jeopardy of capital punishment as a murderer under the Witchcraft Act of 1563.
The Samuels were tried on April 5, 1593, on charges of murdering Lady Cromwell by witchcraft. The court accepted the testimony of the Throckmorton girls, as well as several other persons who claimed that the Samuels had bewitched their livestock to death over the years. The jury took only five hours to convict all three.
Mrs. Samuel, Agnes and Mr. Samuel were hanged, and afterwards the Throckmorton girls returned to perfect health. Since Lady Cromwell had allegedly died due to the black offices of Alice Samuel, her husband, Sir Henry Cromwell, received all of the Samuels’ goods. He used the money to establish an annual sermon at Queens’ College, Cambridge, to “preache and invaye against the detestable practice, synne, and offence of witchcraft, inchantment, charm, and sorcereye.” The sermons lasted until 1812.
The Warboys case had a significant impact on public belief in witchcraft and the Evil Eye. The case was widely publicized, in part due to the impressionable judge, Edward Fenner, who, in collaboration with several others, produced a broadsheet, The Most Strange and Admirable Discoverie of the Three Witches of Warboys, published in 1593. The case also left an impact on the governing class. The Cromwells served in the Parliament of James I, who gained the throne in 1603. In response to public pressure for more stringent actions against witches, the Parliament passed a new Witchcraft Act in 1604, which stiffened punishment for some witchcraft offenses.
- Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Demonology. 1959. reprint, New York: Bonanza Books, 1981.
- Summers, Montague. The Geography of Witchcraft. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truner & Co. Ltd., 1927.