As Halloween is almost here, we thought we would dive into one of the most chilling incidents from North Devon’s history: The Bideford Witch Trials.
The Bideford Witch Trials are one of the England’s most remarkable witch trials, partly because by the time they took place, witch hunting had mostly died down and the majority of trials ended in acquittal. The fact that this one ended in execution and that it took place in a fairly sophisticated area, rather than an isolated, rural community was incredibly unusual. That and it is widely believed that these women were the last to be executed for witchcraft in England make the Bideford trials some of the most famous in British history.
So, what happened?
The Bideford Witch Trials took place in 1682 in the town of Bideford in North Devon and involved five women. Two of the women were of good means and family, so not only never went to trial but were cleared of all wrong doing, the other three however were poor, unmarried and lived off of community funds. These three were accused, arrested and convicted resulting in their execution. Contemporaries from the time noted that the three of them were outsiders and were known to beg for food around the town and to make a little money by selling fruit like apples to wealthier residents.
The three women, Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards were not thought to be close but were known to beg for food together. Mary and Susanna did know each other, but there doesn’t seem to be a strong connection to Temperance.
Let’s go through the charges and how suspicion fell on each one.
Not much is known about Temperance’s life prior to the trials but what we do know is that she was abandoned by her husband and found herself in Bideford among the influx of Welsh migrants after the Civil War. She was known to be living in poverty and was seen to be selling apples around Bideford to make money. On one occasion, a child stole an apple from her and when the mother refused to pay for it, Temperance expressed anger. Some time later, the child fell ill and was unable to be treated by doctors, which led to one of the charges of witchcraft against her. This wasn’t the main reason she was convicted however.
Temperance’s problems really began when she was accused of witchcraft in July of 1682 by local shopkeeper Thomas Eastchurch after his sister in law, Grace Thomas fell ill. As Thomas was a respected local gentleman and business man, his claims were taken very seriously. Much of the suspicion came from the fact that Grace was suffering from a mystery illness that Temperance had celebrated her recovering from.
Thomas claimed that he heard Temperance admit to being a witch and confessed to meeting a mysterious man who had tempted her to torment Grace. Initially Temperance had refused but eventually agreed and would be seen following Grace home. This man, who was believed to be a manifestation of the devil, wanted Temperance to kill Grace and according to Thomas’ statement, Temperance and this man were together during the attack on Grace, and did so invisibly.
Elizabeth Eastchurch, Grace’s sister, backed her husband’s claims saying that she had found nine pricks on Grace’s knees, something common in cases of witchcraft.
Later, under interrogation, Temperance refuted claims of using a form of medieval magic but did admit to pricking a piece of leather nine times, the same number of marks found on Grace’s knees.
It wasn’t just the Eastchurches who accused Temperance or gave evidence against her. Another local woman, Anne Wakeley also acted as a witness, she claimed to have seen a magpie fly into Grace’s window prior to her falling ill. Magpies have long been associated with folklore, especially in places like Devon, so one flying through a window did raise suspicion which later fell on Temperance when she was seen near a magpie at another time. Anne Wakeley said that this meant that Temperance had a familiar that took the form of a magpie and also claimed that Temperance had marks on her body that looked like teats that she had used to feed a man who could turn into a bird.
Another claim was made against Temperance but these charges were dropped. William Herbert Jnr testified that his father declared that Temperance was responsible for his father’s death ten years before. Later after being questioned, Temperance would however admit to killing William Herbert Snr.
Temperance was arrested shortly after Thomas made his complaint. She was locked in the town chapel for two days before being taken to see Thomas Gist, the Mayor of Bideford and John Davie, the town Alderman, who were serving as the town’s justices. She was questioned and an investigation was launched, during which time she was allowed to speak to a priest. While with the priest, Temperance confessed to turning into a cat, stealing a doll and placing it in Grace Thomas’ bedroom. She did however refute the other charges. After being interrogated by the justices again a few days later, Temperance changed her story and admitted to all the charges against her, claiming to have killed William Herbert, a two women called Lydia Burman and Anne Fellow. She also claimed to have blinded another woman, Jane Dallyn. Following this she was committed to Exeter Gaol to await trial, once there she was reported to say that she only admitted to the crimes because she believed she was under the protection of the mysterious man that her accusers had seen her with.
Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards
Mary Trembles was of Irish descent and had found herself unmarried and marooned in Bideford following the deaths of her parents. She would spend most of her time begging and relying on the charity of the town’s elders. She was denounced alongside Susanna Edwards a few weeks after Temperance was moved to Exeter Gaol.
Susanna was born illegitimate and widowed young, contemporaries say she was mostly alone in the world and had few friends, though she was thought to have been friendly with Mary Trembles. The pair were accused for witchcraft after Grace Barnes blamed them for her mystery illness, her husband John was one of the main witnesses against them, as was a man called William Edwards.
William Edwards stated that he heard Susanna Edwards talking about how the devil had carnal knowledge of her body and that she and Mary had gone to the Barnes household to kill Grace and did so invisible.
This along with the testimony of Joan and Anthony Jones helped solidify the charges against the two. Joan Jones claimed to have overheard a conversation between Mary and Susanna in which Mary asked how Susanna had become a witch and that she had been told that a man wearing all black had offered to grant her powers. Joan went on to say that Susanna and Mary openly discussed harming Grace Barnes and spoke of being intimate with the devil. During the initial questioning of the pair, Joan’s husband Anthony Jones pointed out that Susanna was wringing her hands and declared it was because she was using magic to torment someone, Susanna cursed him and he was overcome with a shaking fit after which he fell unconscious for half an hour and would later claim to have been bewitched. He gave a statement the following day and the justices moved to question Mary. During her interrogation, she confessed to being a witch and blamed Susanna Edwards, Susanna would then follow this up with a confession of her own in which she also admitted to tormenting another local woman, Docus Coleman.
Docus had her own statement added to the record shortly before the trial and said that she had suffered a mystery illness and that her doctors had suggested that she was the victim of witchcraft.
The trail and the aftermath
The three women were tried together before judge Thomas Raymond and Lord Francis North. At the time, witchtrials were seen as being apart from other crimes and as such, the trials were held differently. Unlike other crimes, suspicion was adequate grounds for a trial, even without evidence. Other differences included children being allowed to be witnesses and give testimony and that being absent from the crime scene did not count as proof of innocence.
The testimonies were heard by the judges and a jury made up of local men from the Exeter area. Reports from the time say that Judge Raymond let the emotional atmosphere of the court and raised no objection to the guilty verdict. None of the women denied the charges and alternated between being resigned to their fate, scared and displaying genuine conviction that they could be capable of witchcraft.
Following the trial, it would have been usual for the women to have been imprisoned rather than executed. However, Lord Francis North wrote a letter to the Secretary of State urging him that the execution go ahead. His letter claimed that by not executing the women, there was likely to be an uprising in Bideford and that it would make the law look weak and would lead to a resurgence of illegal witch hunts. The Secretary of State agreed and a date was set for their execution, despite other similar trials at the time ending without a death sentence.
Mary, Susanna and Temperance were executed in Exeter on 25th August 1682. As they made their way to the gallows, they were berated by a priest and began to recant their confessions to no avail. Susanna went first, followed by Mary and then Temperance. The execution took place at the Heavitree Gallows on the outskirts of the city and their bodies were dumped on unconsecrated ground which today makes up part of a car park for the University of Exeter.
You can find out more about the Bideford Witch Trials by visiting the Burton and exploring the town of Bideford, where you’ll find memorials to the three women.