Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Bideford Witches

I’m researching 17th Century Exeter - again - a city I love because you cannot turn a corner without seeing part of it's amazing history. Rougemont Castle, named after the characteristic red stone prevalent to the area from which it was built, is a romantic looking ruin now tucked into the ancient city walls, but contemporary drawings show a substantial Medieval fortress designed to withstand a seige - where the Bideford Witches were tried in August 1682.
The Castle in a 19th Century Engraving

Mary Trembles, Temperance Lloyd and Susannah Edwards were convicted of witchcraft at the Exeter Assizes, and subsequently hanged - the last to be executed for this offence in England. Their chief crime appears to be that the three accused were female, old, poor and confused.

The Bideford Witch Trials

Lloyd was accused of causing the death of several persons through the black arts to which she confessed. Trembles and Edwards were accused of causing sickness through witchcraft. Trembles blamed Edwards for leading her astray and Edwards likewise blamed Lloyd. Lloyd confessed she had been a witch for 20 years, and that she had sunk ships at sea. She went to the gallows in the usual cart: "all the way eating, and seemingly unconcerned".

It appears the women made deliberately suicidal confessions, and their parish was determined to have them die rather than live on charity.

In his charge to the Jury Sir Thomas Raymond gave his opinion (as he recounted it in a later pamphlet) that "these three poor women were weary of their lives, and that he thought it proper for them to be carried to the Parish from whence they came, and that the Parish should be charged with their Maintenance; for he thought their oppressing poverty had constrained them to wish for death". An outcry by their indignant neighbours swayed the Jury, nevertheless, to convict.

In 1685, an Alice Molland was sentenced to death by Chief Baron Montagu at Exeter. She left for execution, but no record of the actual hanging itself exists. There is a plaque on the ruined gatehouse at Rougemont Castle that bears the names of Temperance, Susannah and Mary as well as Alice, which would suggest she was hanged.The inscription reads:

The Devon Witches. In memory of Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles, of Bideford, died 1682, Alice Molland, died 1685, the last people in England to be executed for witchcraft, tried here & hanged at Heavitree. In the hope of an end to persecution and intolerance.

Legend says there was an actual tree located a mile outside the city on Magdalen Road where hangings were routinely carried out. Heavitree - appears in Domesday Book as Hevetrowa or Hevetrove, and in a document of c.1130 as Hefatriwe. There was a known execution site at Livery Dole and has contained an almshouse and chapel since 1591, it is thought most likely to derive from heafod–treow (old English for "head tree"), which refers to a tree on which the heads of criminals were placed. Maybe the exact location will never be known.

"Livery Dole" is from the Old English Leofhere, a man who owned the land, and dole, meaning a piece of land. From 1531 to 1818 hangings were performed on a nearby site known as "Magdalen Drop".

Andrew Alleway's Mural in Exeter

A mural in Musgrave Row, Exeter, was painted in 2008 as part of the refurbishment of the city centre, represents the Bideford three in pointed hats round a cauldron with Rougemont Castle in the background.

The Gatehouse of Rougemont Castle
'Pardon Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles’ is an online petition calling for the government to annul their conviction “for actions they could not have committed.”

It closed in August 2013 with 426 signatures.

Click here for a more detailed account of the 'Witch's' alleged crimes
Click here for the Petition to Free Them

Author whose latest release, ‘Royalist Rebel’ a biographical novel set in 17th Century England, is released by Pen and Sword Books under the name Anita Seymour

TWITTER: @AnitaSDavison

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