10th June 1692: The Execution of Bridget Bishop

‘Innocence! Dear girl,
Before the world was, innocence 
Was beaten by a lion all round the town.
…And liked it.’
From ‘The Lady’s Not for Burning’ by Christopher Fry (1907-2005)

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century almost 50,000 people were executed for witchcraft in mainland Europe.  In Britain however the incidence of witchcraft prosecutions was proportionally very much smaller and there were a number of reasons for this, not least the legal prohibition on the routine use of torture to gain evidence.

But witchcraft trials did take place in Britain and in her colonies, and there were executions. In the main however the British were skeptical about witches.  Those who fervently believed in it, like Calvinist Protestants and King James I who even wrote a book about it, had usually been directly influenced by European beliefs.

The most famous cases of multiple prosecutions for witchcraft under the British legal system were the Pendle Witch Trials in 1612 and the Salem Witch trials in 1692, and there are some strong similarities between the two sets of cases.

Both communities were isolated from the cultural norms of larger and more diverse areas.  In both communities there was a degree of religious conflict, the Pendle villagers were mostly Roman Catholic ruled over by a Protestant gentry.  In Salem there were such political and religious divisions that once the charges of witchcraft began, all descended into a chaos of accusation and counter-accusation.

Both cases involved multi-generational discord and feuding between peasant families and most horribly, both cases relied on the evidence of pre-pubescent girls.  In the Pendle case, the nine year old Jannet Device was a key witness (illegally as she was under fourteen - the legal age technically required) and Alison Device, one of the accused who also gave evidence and was later hanged, was only eleven.  At Salem, a little girl called Dorcas Good was accused and kept in prison for eight months – she was four.

The first woman to be charged with witchcraft in Salem was Bridget Bishop. She was in her late fifties, single – as were a disproportionate number of the accused, and she kept a tavern where it was possible to gamble and drink alcohol – even on the Sabbath.  She was charged with stealing eggs and a labourer in the village swore he had seen her transform herself into a cat. Other women also accused of witchery said she was one of their number. A jury of married women was set to search her body for incriminating evidence. It was thought that witches often had an extra nipple by which they could suckle their familiars – the cats, toads or rats who carried out their bidding. Sure enough Bridget was deemed to have an ‘excrescence’.

Several villagers then testified against her; they said she was responsible for misfortunes that had befallen them.  It was even suggested that while being transported under guard past the Salem meeting house, she caused a part of the building to fall to the ground. A verdict of guilty was returned by the jury - Nathaniel Saltonstall one of the Judges was so horrified at the conduct of the trial that he resigned.  Chief Justice Stoughton signed Bishop's death warrant and on June 10th 1692, Bridget Bishop was hanged.

During the Salem case, 162 people were charged with witchcraft, of these 120 were women and the majority of these were unmarried women aged between 50 and 60 years of age. Women without children or husbands were particularly prone to being accused of sorcery and one is tempted to ask what role were they seen to have in society? If they ceased to be part of the close woven fabric of the community and became independent outsiders they might easily be seen as scapegoats for the evils that befall any community from time to time. Hmmmm - food for thought.

One of the things you rarely see discussed was the possibility that some of these women really were practising what they thought was witchcraft. That well might have been true in the Pendle case. In that sort of situation witchcraft might have been something the accused tried to invoke as a tool to intimidate their neighbours or something they boasted they practised as a means of self- aggrandisement.  Of course there were those people in a community - often old and wise, skilled in healing and psychologically astute who had reputation for beneficent magic – but it was dangerous reputation to have should you happen to offend one of your neighbours.

Much has been written about the mass hysteria that can bring about such horrific events. There have been numerous analyses of the reasons, from religious, economic, political and feminist perspectives.  The most important thing I think, is simply to remember that the innocent also die – and not just in the seventeenth century.

This an Austrian version of bread and butter pudding; the name translates as 'Witches Stake'.


12oz (350g) stale white bread or brioche
2 -3 sweet apples
4 tbsp white sugar
1 pinch ground cinnamon
½ (250ml) pint full cream milk
4 eggs
4 tsp rum or brandy
1 tbsp butter
Oven 180c

Peel the apples quarter them and cut them into slices approximately a quarter of an inch thick

Slice the bread into triangles about the same size as the fruit. Pour the milk into a bowl and add the eggs and rum. Mix well. Then take the slices of bread and let them soak in the mixture for a few seconds.

Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in a small bowl.

Grease a shallow ovenproof dish. Now layer the bread and apple slices alternately. 

Sprinkle a bit of the sugar-cinnamon mixture on top of every layer. For the best result, start and end with a layer of bread. Pour over any milk/egg mixture left over. Sprinkle a few flakes of butter on top with the last bit of cinnamon sugar and put the dish into the oven for 45 min at 180°C.

You can see from the picture that I didn't make triangles, I couldn't get a brioche loaf and wasn't at home to make one, so I used bought brioche rolls, which were fine although a bit fragile, I should have left them a day or so to go stale. It was delicious though and like a traditional b & b pudding, open to lots of variation.

I fix mine eye on thine, and there 
    Pity my picture burning in thine eye ; 
My picture drown'd in a transparent tear, 
    When I look lower I espy ; 
        Hadst thou the wicked skill 
By pictures made and marr'd, to kill, 
How many ways mightst thou perform thy will? 

From 'Witchcraft by a Picture' by John Donne (1572-1613)


Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

this is truly fascinating!... I need to re-read!

Liz Woods said...

Thank's Dom, I have been reading a county by county account of witchcraft trials in Britain - you'll be interested to know Lincolnshire features!

Jennifer said...

There are many reasons to be grateful for having been born in modern times - this is certainly one of them. Your bread and butter pudding looks like being today's pudding.

Jo said...

Brilliant stuff Liz! Why do you think that it was called Witches Stake? I assume that is a reference to burning at the stake, so I wonder if it is to do with the layering of the bread and apple slices with reference to the stacking or layering of the faggots, the kindling used? Horrible thought though!

Liz Woods said...

Layering the faggots I think. It's a common misconception that all witches were burned at the stake - and that was the practice in Europe, in Britain like poor Bridget they were hanged.

Pilgrim said...

Sobering to see my mother's maiden name here. Suddenly makes it more real.

Liz Woods said...

That does give you a start doesn't't it? It's happened to me before not with my parents surnames which were very common but when I see my grandmothers surnames, I always wonder if there is a connection. Doing the family tree took four years out of my life...but I'm cured now..xx