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A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 17

The affair started at the village of Surey


had been in the later seventies

and throughout the eighties. Yet there were certain features that distinguished the period. One of them was the increased use of exorcism. The expelling of evil spirits had been a subject of great controversy almost a century before. The practice had by no means been forgotten in the mean time, but it had gained little public notice. Now the dispossessors of the Devil came to the front again long enough to whet the animosity between Puritans and Anglicans in Lancashire. But this never became more than a pamphlet controversy. The other feature of the period was far more significant. The last executions for witchcraft in England were probably those at Exeter in 1682.[2] For a whole generation the courts had been frowning on witch prosecution. Now there arose in England judges who definitely nullified the law on the statute-book. By the decisions of Powell and Parker, and most of all by those of Holt, the statute of the first year of James I was practically made obsolete twenty-five or fifty years before its actual repeal in 1736. We shall see that the gradual breaking down of the law by the judges did not take place without a struggle. At the famous trial in Hertford in 1712 the whole subject of the Devil and his relation to witches came up again in its most definite form, and was fought out in the court room and at the bar of public opinion. It was, however, but the last rallying and counter-charging on a battle-field where Webster and Glanvill had led the hosts at mid-day. The
issue, indeed, was now very specific. Over the abstract question of witchcraft there was nothing new to be said. Here, however, was a specific instance. What was to be done with it? Over that there was waged a merry war. Of course the conclusion was foregone. It had indeed been anticipated by the action of the bench.

We shall see that with the nullification of the law the common people began to take the law into their own hands. We shall note that, as a consequence, there was an increase in the number of swimming ordeals and other illegal procedures.

The story of the Lancashire demonomania is not unlike the story of William Somers in Nottingham a century before. In this case there was no John Darrel, and the exorcists were probably honest but deluded men. The affair started at the village of Surey, near to the superstition-brewing Pendle Forest. The possessed boy, Richard Dugdale, was a gardener and servant about nineteen years of age.[3] In April, 1689, he was seized with fits in which he was asserted to speak Latin and Greek and to preach against the sins of the place. Whatever his pretensions were, he seemed a good subject for exorcism. Some of the Catholics are said to have tampered with him, and then several Puritan clergymen of the community took him in hand. For eight months they held weekly fasts for his recovery; but their efforts were not so successful as they had hoped. They began to suspect witchcraft[4] and were about to take steps towards the prosecution of the party suspected.[5] This came to nothing, but Dugdale at length grew better. He was relieved of his fits; and the clergymen, who had never entirely given up their efforts to cure him, hastened to claim the credit. More than a dozen of the dissenting preachers, among them Richard Frankland, Oliver Heywood,[6] and other well known Puritan leaders in northern England, had lent their support to Thomas Jollie, who had taken the leading part in the praying and fasting. From London, Richard Baxter, perhaps the best known Puritan of his time, had sent a request for some account of the wonder, in order to insert it in his forthcoming book on the spirit world. This led to a plan for printing a complete narrative of what had happened; but the plan was allowed to lapse with the death of Baxter.[7] Meantime, however, the publication in London of the Mathers' accounts of the New England trials of 1692[8] caused a new call for the story of Richard Dugdale. It was prepared and sent to London; and there in some mysterious way the manuscript was lost.[9] It was, however, rewritten and appeared in 1697 as _The Surey Demoniack, or an Account of Strange and Dreadful Actings in and about the Body of Richard Dugdale_. The preface was signed by six ministers, including those already named; but the book was probably written by Thomas Jollie and John Carrington.[10] The reality of the possession was attested by depositions taken before two Lancashire justices of the peace. The aim of the work was, of course, to add one more contemporary link to the chain of evidence for the supernatural. It was clear to the divines who strove with the possessed boy that his case was of exactly the same sort as those in the New Testament. Moreover, his recovery was a proof of the power of prayer.


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