The Bideford Witches

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol.VII, (1912-1913), Exeter: James G. Commin. 1913, pp. 37-40.


R. Pearse Chope

Prepared by Michael Steer

The Bideford Witch Trials resulted in the last ever hangings for witchcraft in England, when Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards were tried and convicted in 1682. Much of the evidence used in the conviction was hearsay. The death penalty for witches was abolished in England in 1736. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Note 11. THE BIDEFORD WITCHES (V.. par. 96, p. 152.) - An editorial note in reply to this query calls attention to the account given in Watkins' Essay towards a History of Bideford, but implies that only two of the three witches were executed, although the account distinctly states that all three suffered the death penalty, and this statement is supported by Jenkins' History of Exeter (p. 180). The trial formed the subject of a paper read before the Devonshire Association by P. Q. Karkeek, in 1874 (Trans. Devon Assoc., vi. pp., 736-763). The author gives not only the above account, but also a second (less accurate) account from another contemporary pamphlet, which has been summarised by A. H. Norway in his Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall (pp. 372-3). The case, indeed, created great interest at the time, and a doggerel ballad of seventeen verses to the tune of "Doctor Faustus or Fortune my Fee" was published under the title: - "WITCHCRAFT DISCOVERED AND PUNISHED. Or, the Tryals and Condemnation of three Notorious Witches, who Avere Tryed the last Assizes, holden at the Castle of Exeter, in the County of Devon, where they received Sentance for Death, for bewitching several Persons, destroying Ships at Sea, and Cattel by Land, &c."

Mr. Karkeek quotes a letter from Lord Keeper Guilford (then Lord Chief Justice), who was at Exeter at these Assizes, but there are two passages relating to the matter in the Lives of the Norths, which are not generally known, and are, I think, worth recording. The first occurs in the Life of the Lord Keeper. It appears that his lordship "dreaded the trying of a witch. It is seldom," says the author, the Hon. Roger North, H that a poor wretch is brought to trial upon that account, but there is, at the heels of her, a popular rage that does little less than demand her to be put to death: and, if a judge is so clear and open as to declare against that impious vulgar opinion, that the devil himself has power to torment and kill innocent children, or that he is pleased to divert himself with the good people's cheese, butter, pigs, and geese, and the like errors of the ignorant and foolish rabble, the countrymen (the triers) cry this judge hath no religion, for he doth not believe witches; and so, to show they have some, hang the poor wretches. All which tendency to mistake requires a very prudent and moderate carriage in a judge, whereby to convince, rather by detecting of the fraud, than by denying authoritatively such power to be given to old women.

"His lordship was somewhat more thoughtful upon this subject; because that, in the year in which Mr. Justice Raymond was his co-judge in that circuit, two (sic) old women were hurried out of the country to be tried at Exeter for witchcraft; and the city rang with tales of their preternatural exploits, as the current of such tattle useth to overflow. Nay, they went so far as to say that the Judges' horses were at a stand, and could not draw the coach up the Castle Lane: all which the common sort firmly believed. It fell out that Raymond sat on the Crown side there, which freed his lordship of the care of such trials. But he had really a concern upon him at what happened; which was, that his brother Raymond's passive behaviour should let those poor women die. The cases were so far clear, viz.: that the old women confessed and owned in court that they were witches. These were two miserable old creatures, that, one may say, as to sense or understanding, were scarce alive; but were overwhelmed with melancholy and waking dreams, and so stupid as no one could suppose they knew either the construction or consequence of what they said. All the rest of the evidence was trifling. I, sitting in the court the next day, took up a file of informations taken by the justices, which were laid out upon the table, and against one of the old women read thus: -  “This informant saith he saw a cat leap in at her (the old woman's) window, when it was twilight; and this informant farther saith, that he verily believeth the said cat to be the devil, and more saith not.' The judge made no nice distinctions, as how possible it was for old women in a sort of melancholy madness, by often thinking in pain, and want of spirits, to contract an opinion of themselves that was false; and that their confession ought not to be taken against themselves, without a plain evidence that it was rational and sensible, no more than that of a lunatic, or distracted person; but he left the point upon the evidence fairly (as they call it) to the jury, and they convicted them both, as I remember; but one most certainly was hanged." (pars. 191-2).

The other passage occurs in Roger North's autobiography, and is to the same effect. He speaks of Judge Raymond as "a mild, passive man, who had neither dexterity nor spirit to oppose a popular rage, and so they were convict and died."

In F. A. Inderwick's Side-lights on the Stuarts (1888) a list is given of the indictments for witchcraft on the Western Circuit from 1670 to 171 2, inclusive. This list is extracted from "The Gaol Books" and may, therefore, be regarded as authoritative. Mr. Inderwick, however, states that the three women were severally tried at Exeter on 14th August, 1682, before both Sir Francis North, Lord Chief Justice, and Sir Thomas Raymond, but according to the Lives of the Norths, previously quoted, this is incorrect - the trial was before Sir Thomas Raymond only. Temperance Lloyd was acquitted of murder in bewitching Lydia Burman to death, but was convicted of witchcraft in consuming the body of Grace Thomas. Susannah Edwards was convicted of consuming by witchcraft the body of Dorcas Coleman, and Mary Trembles was convicted of similar witchcraft on the body of Grace Barnes. They were all sentenced to death, and left for execution. This is often cited as the last instance of executions for witchcraft, but Mr. Inderwick has found a subsequent case at Exeter only a short time after. On 20th March, 1684, Alicia Welland was tried before Chief Baron Montague, at Exeter, and being convicted of witchcraft on the bodies of Jane Snow, Willmott Snow, and Agnes Furze, was sentenced to death and left for execution. In July, 1689, Margaret Young was tried before Sir Robert Atkyns, Chief Baron, for bewitching William Mundy, and, being convicted, was sentenced to death, but afterwards reprieved, and this was apparently the last capital conviction in the West of England. As late, however, as 1707, a woman, Maria Stevens, appears to have been indicted and tried at Taunton Assizes for "Bewitching Dorothy Reece."  She was acquitted, and this, as far as can be ascertained, was the last case of witchcraft on the Western Circuit.                             R. Pearse Chope.