The Bakewell Witches, 1607/8

Compiled by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2001
“The Bakewell Witches” lyrics by Don Wise, © Copyright 1973

In an age where many of the explanations for the events of the natural world are taken for granted it is difficult perhaps to put ourselves in the “superstitious” frame of mind of a dweller in the Peak District of Derbyshire in late Elizabethan times. Fairies and elves, spells and charms were an integral part of life of the countryman, who would have understood few of the causes and effects of droughts and floods, crop failures, or sickness and health as we do today. However human nature being what it was, and still is, it is understandable that ordinary people would want to seek causes, in the same way that we do today, and for the same reason - to enhance the effects, if pleasant or to eliminate them, if the reverse!

The causes, or instigators - of triumph, or misfortune - were often personified. Whilst fairies - as portrayed in Shakespeare, for instance - were benign spirits, witches were not. So-called witches became blamed for evil, or unpleasant occurrences, when no other culprit could be found; and the remedy was to condemn the witch to death. It was a very fine line between calling on the wise woman for a healing potion, and believing the same could be a cause of harm!

In 1590-1, four witches of North Berwick were convicted of conspiring to murder King James VI (later to become James I of Great Britain), and his queen Anne of Denmark, and were burnt at the stake in Edinburgh. One wonders about the fairness of any trial, when allegedly one of the means of detecting a witch was to tie her hands and feet together, and throw her into the village pond. If she floated, she was allegedly a witch; if she sank (and presumably drowned) she was innocent, so the poor woman was condemned to death anyway - literally, a “double-bind”.

James had been born in 1567 and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots had been banished from Scotland when he was only an infant, as her Catholic idealism was not to the liking of the Scottish Establishment. It is possible therefore that a plot against James's life, by Catholic sympathisers may have been a genuine threat. To attribute it to “witchcraft” may have been a convenience, or a means to allow some other more high-ranking conspirators to escape detection; but whatever the reality, it is likely the event had the effect of making him very wary of so-called witches. He himself wrote a tract on ‘Demonologie’ which provided evidence to demonstrate the reality of witches. After he became King of England, in 1603, he persuaded Parliament to pass an Act against ‘Conjuration, Witchcraft and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits’.

Four years later, in February 1607/8, ‘The Witches of Bakewell’ were executed at Derby. Bess of Hardwick died, and was buried in Derby All Hallows (All Saints) Church, the same week.[1] Two years earlier, Guy Fawkes, and his co-conspirators, had attempted to blow up Parliament - these were turbulent times.

The story of the Bakewell Witches was later told by Bakewell's chronicler, White Watson - of a certain Mrs Stafford, a milliner, and her friend, or possibly her sister with whom she lived. Possibly as a widow, she was bound to take in lodgers to eke out a living. One of her lodgers was an itinerant Scotsman, but she evicted him for not paying his rent; and like many landlords and landladies in past and present epochs, one can readily imagine her throwing him out onto the street late at night, and keeping whatever she could of his as security for the debt.

Her mistake was to keep his belongings. If she had thrown out everything belonging to him at the same time, our tale may have had a different ending, or perhaps never been told at all... At any rate, presumably the fellow gave up any notion of being able to recover his possessions by paying his dues! The next we hear of him is that he was discovered dirty and ragged, hiding in a cellar in London, and brought before the London magistrate on a charge of felonious intent, for which he had the most amazing explanation...

The story he told the magistrate was that he'd arrived in London “by magic” - as a result of sorcery. An innocent man, he'd been asleep in bed in Bakewell when in the early hours, he was awoken by a bright light shining up through chinks in the floorboards in his upstairs room. Peering down, he saw his landlady and her sister, dressed in outdoor clothes, chanting a spell:

“Over thick, over thin,
Now Devil, to the cellar in Lunnon.”[see Updates, 2010 & 2012]

In the blink of an eye, they had disappeared; whereupon the vagrant found himself repeating their chant himself:

“Through thick, through thin,
Now Devil, to the cellar in Lunnon.”

In a trice, he was whisked away himself, still in his sleeping rags - as well the court could see - following after the women, who too had been transported to the same cellar. During their journey the witches had magicked away lengths of fine silk and precious goods from houses beneath their flight-path and were parcelling up their spoils by lamplight when their lodger appeared. It appears that Mrs Stafford was not at all surprised to see him, and had offered him a drink of wine; but the defendant's next awareness was of being discovered alone.

To all, except possibly the two women accused, this was clearly a case of witchcraft. The Justices in Derbyshire were informed, the premises in Bakewell searched, and the man's clothes were found there, exactly as he had said they would be!

How can we explain such a tale based on what would be plausible today? Why would an uneducated man, such as presumably this vagrant was, have the imagination to conjure up such a story? Now we might ask “what was he on (‘Magic Mushrooms’ in the cellar?), or perhaps question whether he'd been watching too many episodes of StarTrek (“Beam me up, Scotty!”); although perhaps he'd been ill - the effect of a fever inducing the hallucination, and he really did believe the truth of his tale. Or maybe someone with a vested interest of getting rid of the landlady put him up to it... At any rate, his explanation was accepted rather than the women's versions, and as a result of their ex-lodger's testimony these two innocent Bakewell women were executed at Derby, proven ‘beyond doubt’ to be witches. [One source of the account says they were burnt, another says they were hanged].

Note this is well before the more celebrated ‘Salem Witch’ Trials in 1692. The last witch to be accused in Salem was Sarah (NOYES) HALE, wife of the minister at Beverly MA, in November 1692.

Bibliography

Author unknown - The Innocent Witches of Bakewell. Article from The Peak Advertiser 31st July 1995, p5.
Bunting, Julie - A Bakewell Portrait Gallery. Article from The Peak Advertiser 25th June 2001, pp34-5.
Turbutt, Gladwyn - A History of Derbyshire. Published by Merton Priory Press, 1999; pp 992-3.

I was contacted in October 2007 by Dave Usher, an American with a keen interest in English folk music. He told me that songs about the persecution of witches were common in the early years of 16th century Jacobean England under King James, and specifically, a melody about “The Bakewell Witches” was performed at the Sidmouth Folk Festival in 1974 - by a group called “Mr Gladstone's Bag”. He has been fascinated by it ever since, and he was wondering if I had further details of the words, as they were difficult to make out on the recording he made.

I had to confess I had never come across any more than the above chorus, so he kindly sent me a copy of his recording, and also his attempt to decipher the words.

Dave did an admirable job of capturing them from his recording, but we now have a copy of the lyrics directly from the author himself, Don Wise. He hadn't sung the song for some years, but revived it recently as a consequence of interest from the US, which he learned of via an article published in The Peak Advertiser in 2010. His original text, to which he composed the tune, came from a Derbyshire Newspaper of the 1870s, so it appears that it was in fact a traditional song, of which the author of the article said “I remember my father's labourers singing [it] forty years ago...” [i.e. circa 1830]. He has also donated a copy of a recording (mp3) to Bakewell Museum.

The Bakewell Witches

A Scotsman on his travels, for London being bound,
He chanced to stray one day into fair Bakewell town
He enquired after lodgings for to rest his weary frame
And so it was to Mrs. Stafford's lodging house he came
Chorus: Over thick and over thin, now devil! To the cellar in London
Over thick and over thin, now devil! To the cellar in London

It was a few days later that his rest there did expire
For Mrs. Stafford for the lodgings now the payment did require.
But he had not the money for to pay all that he owed
So she seized on his possessions, threw him out upon the road
And it's over thick and over thin...

So he journeyed on to London with vengeance in his mind
But when he reached that city no lodgings could he find.
At length into some cellar for rest he had to creep
Where a watchman came upon him as he lay there asleep
And it's over thick and over thin...

Well the watchman then arrested him and took him to Newgate
Where the following day he did appear before the magistrate
And to maintain his liberty to vengeance he did resort
And he said it was by witchcraft to the cellar he was brought
And it's over thick and over thin...

“For last night I stopped to take my rest in Derby's pleasant land
Being in the town of Bakewell as you might understand.
Mrs. Stafford and her sister my lodgings did supply
And these words I overheard there as on my bed I did lie”
And it's over thick and over thin...

“Well, I mumbled these words in my sleep and a strange wind then blew
And it was in this London cellar that my senses I came to.
Where Mrs. Stafford and her sister they were bundling up some clothes.
They gave to me a sleeping draught when to Bakewell they did go.”
And it's over thick and over thin...

Now the Scotsman by this story his liberty has gained.
Mrs. Stafford and her sister down to Derby Gaol are ta'en
Where this story and his clothing did prove their overthrow
And despite their pleas of innocence to the gallows they did go
And it's over thick and over thin...

Words & Music © Don Wise 1973

References

[1] The Remembrances of Arthur Mower.

Account provided by Rosemary Lockie © 2001, 2007, 2010.
Thanks also to Dave Usher, and to Don Wise for permission to publish his lyrics.

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