Out of Time: A History of Witchcraft in Nottingham

Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Monday 26 October 2020
reading time: min, words

While many of the best-known events of England’s 17th century witch-hunt came with ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins in East Anglia, Notts was home to several high profile incidents of witchcraft, possession and exorcisms of its own. From exposing fraudulent exorcists to framing innocent women of murder, we take a look back at the history of witchcraft in Nottingham…


The practice of witchcraft can be traced back as far as the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and references to witches can even be found in the Bible. In fact, the belief that a person harnessed the ability to cast spells and influence the world through the practice of black art – for good or bad – has been commonplace throughout much of human history. Now widely accepted as fair game for children’s TV shows, West End musicals or costumes in a fancy dress shop, there was a time that, owing to the advent of Christianity and the increasingly negative connotations associated with witchcraft, being labeled as a witch came with the threat of being ostracized, a prison sentence or, in many cases, a gruesome death sentence. 

Whereas the pagan Saxons had their own witch-like female figures in the Valkyries, and Alfred the Great imposed the death penalty for those who used magic to kill in the 9th century, the contemporary perception of a witch – a female who harnesses dark powers to cast spells, control others or cause harm – was facilitated by the rise in dominance of Christianity. Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries there were very few popes who didn’t issue a papal bull against some aspect of witchcraft, and it was on 5 December 1484 that the ironically named Pope Innocent VIII made it legal to persecute those perceived to be witches. Resentment against the practise continued to grow, reaching fever pitch between 1550-1650, when all of Europe was gripped in a murderous witch-hunting craze. All over the continent, women found themselves bound and burnt at the stake – the punishment chosen because of their perceived alliance with the Devil, and the believed ‘purification’ nature of fire – and few were exempt. There are records of the executions of children as young as two, pregnant women and even one group of forty-two females being ‘oven-roasted’ in Neisse, in modern day Poland, in 1651. One German village outside of Trier was wiped out entirely during one 1586 purge after all 368 women were burnt. Although unique in not executing by fire, England was no different, and it’s believed over 100,000 people – mostly women – were executed for witchcraft in this country, with trials being recorded as late as 1717. Part fuelled by superstition, part by the mistrust of women in a male-dominated society and part by the rampant desire to root out all links to paganism and assert the dominance of Christianity, this lengthy witch-hunt was a national obsession for several turbulent generations. 

Although the bulk of Britain’s witch-hunting during this time came with Matthew Hopkins – the ‘Witchfinder General’ – in East Anglia, Nottingham played its part with several prominent events taking place here during this period of insanity. 

In 1597, Mansfield-born puritan preacher John Darrell could be found spewing his fire and brimstone rhetoric from the pulpit of St Mary’s Church in the Lace Market. The former lawyer and self-proclaimed exorcist told his congregation that the Devil had come to Nottingham, and had taken the form of, amongst other things, a newt, a cockerel and a group of Morris dancers. Whipping his crowd up into a frenzy, his words spread a sense of fear and anxiety throughout the city, and even the wealthiest of its residents became cautious of encountering Satan in one of his many forms. His career as an anti-Devil crusader began over a decade earlier, when the 21-year-old single-handedly exorcised a demon from the body of Katherine Wright, a girl from Derbyshire, and exposed Margaret Roper as the witch responsible. But having successfully brought Roper to trial, the local justice, Mr. Godfrey Foljambe, ruled against him, going as far as to threaten him with prison for wasting the court’s time.

Relocating to Bulwell, he returned to law until Foljambe had died, leaving him free to pick up his task once more. Despite having no formal qualifications, or having even been ordained, Darrell took on the title of Doctor of Divinity. He was called upon to cast out devils from fourteen-year-old Thomas Darling who had accused Alice Gooderidge of bewitching him. Gooderidge was promptly arrested, and died while awaiting execution. Next, he travelled to Lancashire, where he exorcised seven members of the Starkie household. By now, his reputation was spreading, and his exploits had been the subject of several books. At the invitation of the Mayor of Nottingham, Darrell returned to Nottingham to perform the exorcism of William Somers, a young apprentice, who was prone to seizures. Darrell performed his usual ritual, but warned that the Devil was likely to return, so severe was Somers’ possession. True to his word, the fits returned once Darrell had left. 

Some time later, Somers was admitted to the workhouse, where he admitted to working under Darrell’s instructions. The Archbishop of Canterbury ordered a full investigation, which determined that out of all of the people he’d ‘exorcised’, only one had not been acting under his prior instructions. It was disastrous for Darrell, whose exposure as a charlatan meant an end to his days of battling the Devil. He was imprisoned in disgrace, and died just two years after his release in 1602. The book written about his fall from grace, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, was widely distributed, and even read by Shakespeare, influencing elements of King Lear

Less than two decades after Darrell’s exposure, three women took up employment at Belvoir Castle. The Earl and Countess of Rutland had needed additional staff owing to an expected visit from King James I (who himself was obsessed with witchcraft, and even published his own book on the subject) and Margaret and Phillipa Flower, along with their mother Joan, had gladly accepted the opportunity for work. Known to be ‘herbal healers’ who had fallen on hard times, the Flower women were immediately unpopular with the other staff at the castle, and were soon dismissed after accusations of theft and other misdemeanours. 

It’s hard to imagine that events like this were not just momentary lapses of reason, but rather a sustained and all-consuming terror that gripped this country by its throat and didn’t let go for over three centuries

Soon after dismissing the three new staff members, things started to go wrong for the Earl and Countess of Rutland. First, they became seriously ill with convulsions. Next, their son and heir, Henry, died and their two younger children, Francis and Katherine became similarly ill. It was after Francis died shortly after, leaving the Duke without a male heir, that the Flowers were arrested. Nine women had recently been hanged in Leicester for having bewitched a young boy in a case that bore a striking resemblance to the Rutland's own misfortune. 

During their interrogation, Joan professed her innocence. But during the journey to Lincoln, where she was to be jailed and interrogated further, she requested a piece of bread to act as a substitute for the Eucharist. Despite not being a church-goer, her captors obliged and, so the legend goes, Joan exclaimed that something so blessed could never be consumed by a witch, before choking to death on her first bite.

With their mother dead, Phillipa and Margaret were left to face interrogation on their own. Margaret admitted that her mother had practised witchcraft, whereas Phillipa claimed all three of them had entered into communion with ‘familiar spirits’ – supernatural entities that assisted witches in their practise of magic – in their schemes. They even went as far as to name their mother’s cat, Rutterkin, as one of the familiars. Both were found guilty, and hanged in Lincoln, although it has been said that Phillipa managed to either drug or bewitch her guard and escape, where she lived the rest of her days in Kent. The Earl and Countess remained so convinced that witches had been responsible for their sons’ deaths that their monument in Bottesford church read:

In 1608 he married ye lady Cecila Hungerford, daughter to ye Honorable Knight Sir John Tufton, by whom he had two sons, both of which died in their infancy by wicked practises and sorcerye”

In 2013, historian Tracey Borman put forward a theory that the Flowers had actually been the victims of an elaborate plot manifested by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, a favourite of King James I. Planning to marry Katherine, the Duke and Countess’ daughter, the removal of both male heirs would leave him free to inherit the title. The theory put forward suggests that he had the sons poisoned, which could also explain why other members of the family also became ill, and used the presence of the notorious Flowers women as a smokescreen. After all three women had been executed, Villiers did in fact marry Katherine. 

The reason men like Villiers were able to so easily demonise the Flowers, or any number of other women whose names are lost to history, but whose pain and suffering was real, is explained by how widespread the fear of witches was in England. Marks found at the prehistoric caves at Creswell Crags in North Nottinghamshire, previously thought to be graffiti, are now considered to be the work of local residents who feared that the caves acted as a gateway to Hell. The etchings were an apparent attempt to prevent witches, bad spirits and even the Devil himself from emerging. 

It’s hard to imagine that events like this were not just momentary lapses of reason, but rather a sustained and all-consuming terror that gripped this country by its throat and didn’t let go for over three centuries. The Age of Enlightenment heralded a new era where reason took prominence over superstition, and accusations of witchcraft slowly started to diminish. It was a time where the majority of the population were illiterate and, not only was life short and brutal, but its hardships remained mostly unexplained. When there is a lack of education and an excess of fear, stoked by the likes of John Darrell, it’s all too easy to ostracise and blame one particular group. Looking at how certain media outlets demonise immigrants coming to Britain in 2020, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how witches were persecuted to such a barbaric extent just four centuries ago. 

Though many of the Acts against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, the practice still recorded some activity. An accused witch was found drowned in Essex in 1863, and in 1945 the body of an elderly farm laborer was found with his throat cut and his torso pierced with a pitchfork. His murder remains unsolved, although the man was known locally to practice black magic. Despite the stories, these deaths might not have been linked to witchcraft at all, perhaps they were isolated anomalies, or maybe the witch-hunts never fully died out after all.

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