Day Twenty Eight - Tiana Wilson-Buys
Tiana Wilson-Buys is an unapologetic history geek. She combines her thirst for knowledge about medieval Europe with her love for travel and shares her experiences and learning points with others, with the aim of cultivating interest in travelling to explore and experience medieval times.
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The Scottish Witchfinder
“Surely, it is the dark magic of witches bringing these disasters upon us!” It is the year 1649 and the people of Newcastle-upon-Tyne have suffered a great deal. Two plagues, Scottish occupation and near starvation – all in the space of the past 15 years or so. They have had enough. And they know all of this is caused by witches – the preacher said so.
And so, the people demanded action from their leaders.
And the Common Council obliged. On 26 March 1649, the Common Council Book notes that “the petition concerning witches was read, and ordered that thanks be returned to the petitioners, and the common council will contribute their best assistance therein”. Their best assistance, indeed. They sent for the Scottish Witchfinder.
His name now lost to history, the Scottish Witchfinder was known to be very successful in ferreting out witches in all parts of Northern England and Southern Scotland. But he didn’t come cheap. His fee was a staggering 20 shillings for every witch he identified. But the people of Newcastle demanded action – and action they received. The Town Council ordered two sergeants, Thomas Shevel and Cuthbert Nicholson, to bring the Scottish Witchfinder to Newcastle in December 1649. Immediately, the town bellman started touring the streets, calling on townsfolk to report witchery. The moment they had been waiting for, had arrived.
Dozens of women were reported to be witches. At least thirty were brought to the Guildhall where the Scottish Witchfinder performed his work. They were stripped to the waist and prodded with pins. It was believed that a witch could be identified by pricking her with a pin – if she bled, she was innocent. If she didn’t bleed, however, she was declared a witch.
But here’s the thing – the Scottish Witchfinder was only paid the 20 shillings if the woman was identified as a witch. So, if she bled from the pin pricking, he would not get paid. One can see how this entire system of “witch hunting” was open to corruption. And the Scottish Witchfinder was a cunning man. He used a retractable pin with a point which could not penetrate the skin.
It is no surprise then, that 28 witches were identified and the Scottish Witchfinder left Newcastle a rich man.
These poor, innocent women were kept in Newgate Prison and the
Castle Keep. At least one was set free as “she was too pretty to be a witch”. The fate of all are unknown, but on 21 August 1650, 14 woman and one man were taken to the Town Moor where the gallows were set up. They were executed to the great delight of the townspeople and buried in an unmarked, mass grave at St Andrew’s Church in the city centre.
The Newcastle Witch Executions of August 1650 is the largest mass execution for witchcraft in English history.