Poor Mary mewed like a cat, but was she really a witch?

The name of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins struck fear wherever he roamed
The name of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins struck fear wherever he roamed

In the first of a series of articles about the subject, we go back hundreds of years to examine the reach and influence of witchcraft in Dacorum.

The first law against witches was passed in the reign of Henry VIII and the practice of witchcraft was at its height in Elizabethan England.

It continued well into the 17th century when men like Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witch-Finder General’, carried out more than 200 trials and executions at the height of the Civil War between 1645 and 1647, until public opinion finally turned against his reign of terror.

The so-called witches who were victims of this persecution were generally old women, often widows, and it was mostly a rural preoccupation.

The last woman in Hertfordshire actually condemned as a witch was Jane Wenham of Walkern, but she escaped the grisly fate of so many others and was pardoned in 1712, making her home in Panshanger.

The last woman to be drowned as a so-called witch was the ill-fated Ruth Osborne of Long Marston, whose story will be featured in more detail later in the series.

One of the most detailed accounts of how women came to fall under suspicion of occult powers comes from 1664, and the publication of a booklet called A Relation Of Mary Hall Of Gaddesden Reputed to be Possessed Of Two Devils.

Mary was the daughter of Sam Hall, a blacksmith from Little Gaddesden.

She began to sicken in the autumn of 1663 and she was sent to Dr Christopher Woodhouse of Berkhamsted to be cured of her convulsive fits and strange ejaculations.

He prepared a stinking ‘suffumigation’ over which the poor girl had to hold her head.

She seemed to recover, but soon strange voices and noises were heard from her – like a mewing of cats and a barking of dogs and unintelligible phrases.

If anyone said to her: “Get thee out of her, Satan!” the spirits would reply: “We are two!”

Sometimes the spirits said they were in the shape of serpents or flies and that they had possessed the unfortunate girl.

They also made claims that they were above God and often came down the chimney, riding on a stick.

They told her to put her head in the fire or into a pot of boiling water.

The doctor even put her nail-parings in the chimney to exorcise the bad spirits – hardly a scientific solution!

Sam Hall was an Anabaptist and Mary suffered greatly at the hands of pious folk who prayed for her and wrestled with her demons.

She would tremble in fear when the doctor’s noxious potions were being made up.

It was accepted that the maid was very young and modest and she was not assuming possession by devils to gain attention or money.

She underwent a cure by a minister of the parish, but no records exist of how she lived after the exorcism. She was certainly no ‘witch and a bitch’!

You can find out more about the subject in A Short History of Berkhamsted by Percy Birtchnell, published in 1972, which is full of interesting facts about the town and its people.