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The Trial of the Bideford Witches
Frank J. Gent BA MA
Chapter One: Seventeenth-century Bideford
Chapter Two: The Justices Inquiry
Chapter Three: Witchcraft Beliefs in the late Seventeenth Century
Chapter Four: The Symptoms
Chapter Five: The Trial at Exeter Assizes
Chapter Six: The Execution
Chapter Seven: Aftermath
If you would like to see some of the original sources, I have made available two publications concerning the trial:
[1682, 43 pages. The depositions made by the witnesses to the magistrates in Bideford]
[1682, 7 pages. Apparently unreliable account not based on evidence]
Reproduced from the book by C. L'Estrange Ewen
The trial of the Bideford witches in 1682 although well-known has been little studied. Previous accounts have concentrated on reproducing the original sources mostly for their antiquarian and sensational value, and no attempt made to analyse and understand the events in their wider social and historical context.
The Bideford trial merits closer examination in several respects. Firstly, it came at the very end of the witch-hunting craze of 1550 to 1660. There were very few executions for witchcraft in England after the Restoration, and the Bideford witches were almost the last to be executed in England. By that time most witchcraft trials ended in acquittals; the circumstances in which such a retrogressive act could have taken place deserve careful study.
Secondly, the trial was exceptional in that it concerned events in an urban, even cosmopolitan, environment. Most studies of seventeenth-century witchcraft concentrate on village life; how did it occur in a thriving, bustling provincial town with a cultured, educated and wealthy elite? A third problem which needs to be studied is the apparent acquiescence of the victims in their fate. They appear to have made little or no attempt to deny the charges made against them either before or during their trial.
Finally, the trial gives us an extraordinary, exceptional and valuable insight into the lives and mentality of ordinary people at the close of the seventeenth century. We hear the very words they spoke, we can recapture the excitement of those distant events in a way no other source could provide.
When I originally wrote this booklet, already fifteen years ago, I was living in Bideford without any income as I renovated an old cottage. Access to major libraries was difficult, for reasons of distance as well as finance. I did not read, for instance, Wallace Notestein's History of Witchcraft in England. I finally read a copy a year ago, and was impressed with his work, well in advance of his time. He gives a very good account of Joseph Glanville's work, corroborating what I also felt. He also had access to another pamphlet about these trials, published in 1687. I went to the trouble of seeing a copy of his book after reading Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel, where she recounts the story of the Bideford Witches using Notestein as her source. Although her account of the trial is not very clear, the book as a whole provides an excellent background to the topic and period.
My own booklet received a kind review in Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries after I published it, and I quickly sold enough copies to recover my expenses. Since then it had been forgotten, but once it was footnoted in the book Wenches, Wantons and Witches by Marianne Hester it began to be noticed and there has been a renewed interest. The National Curriculum has also led to some interest from schools.
For the past few years I have worked from an office next to the courts in Exeter, the old Assizes where the witches were tried and sentenced. I was surprised and moved when I came back from my summer holiday in September 1996 to look out of my office window and see a new plaque affixed to the wall of Rougemont Castle bearing the following inscription:
Almost certainly, though, the Bideford women were the last to be executed for witchcraft in England. The only evidence for this dubious honour belonging to Alice Molland (or Welland) comes from Side-lights on the Stuarts by J. Inderwick. According to his extracts from the Gaol Books, which do not appear to have been checked by subsequent scholars, she was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced by Chief Baron Montagu, and left for execution. It would appear that execution never took place, for nothing survives in the form of the ballads and broadsides that marked any public executions.
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