It is 1629, and the town of Reading is a vibrant centre of trade and travel. It lies on the main road between Bath to London and, within the fields that encase it, boasts industries including cloth making, innkeeping and other trades, such as shoemakers, bricklayers, pewterers, haberdashers, boatsmen, wheelwrights and sail makers. The market, where cut-purses would lurk amidst the crowds, would have the smell of goods sold there hanging in the air: of meat from the butchers, fish, bread and also ale from the many taverns dotted around Castle Street, Minster Street and Broad Street. Those who had enjoyed too much ale would be sent to the dank gaol to sober up and would answer to the council for any loose, drunken words the next day. The tall Medieval towers of St Mary's, St Giles and St Laurence churches poke up towards the clouds, while the Abbey, once a flourishing centre of royal wealth, religious life and business, has begun to crumble into disuse. Seven bridges cross over the river that twinkles around the town and strangers are eyed with suspicion. Reading was a vibrant, religiously devout and sometimes suspicious town. And in its bustling streets lived five women who would all be affected by accusations of witchcraft.
Elizabeth Griffyn, 1626
In the warm August of 1626, a witch trial began in the centre of Reading. Hughe Patye, 'about a yere nowe past', had visited William Griffyn's house in Friar Street and 'did see Griffyn's wief laye a piece of white waxe and paper into the chimney, under the brickes, but to what purpose he knoweth not; neither doth he knowe whoe made or wrote the charm, or where the woman had it.' You have to wonder why Hughe Patye decided to spill the beans over a year after the event, but the case continued, nonetheless.
A number of people were interviewed by the town's superiors. One was a woman named Ellyn Beale. Hughe Patye and his wife, along with four other women, turned up at her house one evening at around 8pm and asked to go through her house to get to William Griffyn's house. He 'requested them to goe with him to see the wickednes of Griffyn's wief, and the witchery she intended against his wief and her husband.' Certain that Elizabeth had something to hide, Patye then 'requested Mathewe Beale to pull downe certen brickes in the chimney, and within 4 or 5 brickes they should see her villany, but at that tyme they could fynd nothinge.' Two days later, Ellen says, on Thursday morning, she returned to Griffyn's house. It's not known if she sneaked in or was welcomed in, perhaps exasperated, by the family. She knelt at the fireplace and 'pulled downe a bricke more, and there she found a small paper with a rusty pin in it, and upon the paper was written the word Elizabeth 4 tymes, and the word Paty once, and with all a peice of browne paper waxed or pasted, and almost consumed.' Ellyn quickly forwarded this evidence to the town Constables.
The Griffyn family is finally interrogated, with William saying he knows nothing about this - although does reveal that Hughe Patye had been violent to him. He did 'misuse him in wordes and did kicke him grevously' and told him that his wife wanted to poison him. Elizabeth Griffyn, the accused, 'saith she never did see any suche thing', didn't know about the wax paper or rusty nail in the chimney and never knew 'any witche, charmer, inchaunter or sorcerer in the world' and fully denied the accusations.
It's not known what happened to Elizabeth, but you have to wonder whether the Witch Craze had struck Hughe Patye and he became increasingly paranoid about William's wife. The witness accounts often talk about Hughe's violent attitude, confusion and 'discontent of mind'. Perhaps Elizabeth was a woman who had made enemies, or there was an underlying resentment between the families that turned Hughe against her. Or maybe Hughe had had some bad luck and looked to Griffyn as the scapegoat. And you have to also wonder whether the rusty nail and the waxed paper was staged to frame Elizabeth, Hughe being so sure of her crimes and Ellyn Beale conveniently having found her 'evidence' two days later, before sending it to the constables. Unless new records come to light, we'll never really know.
Kathren Roose, Joane Patey and Anne Clinch, 1630
In January 1630, the papers of St Mary's record three women buried, with the note alongside: 'apprehended for a wich'. They were Kathren Roose on the 10th and then Joane Patey and Anne Clinch on the 13th. Did these women all die together? Were they tried and executed? Did they happen to argue with a neighbour who was struck down with illness days or weeks later? Further records of these women don't survive, so we have no way of knowing, but the ominous note scribbled next to their names could be a clue that they were perhaps victims of the early Stuart witch craze.
Edith Wills, 1634
Sometime in late May 1634, Edward Bonevant started coming down with 'shaking fittes' that lasted for between four and eight hours at a time. His wife said that 'all his joynts and lymmes are taken with a shakinge in that violent manner that 2 or 3 must hold him,' and says that 'he cannott speake, and makes a shreekinge noise and knowes noe-bodye.' When his fits subside, Edward tells his wife that it feels as if a mouse runs up and down his body during the fits. The local doctor, Dr Bird was called, and could not ascertain the cause. And so it wasn't long before the finger was pointed at Edith Wills. Edith was said to have argued with Edward, as they exchanged various names and insults. Suspicion arose when Edward fitted the day after arguing with Edith. A Joane Greene, who also lived in Reading, said that Edward had confided in her that 'he thought in his conscience that he was troubled by some ill spirit,' and thought it was Edith that had caused it.
The idea that witches were behind illnesses was nothing new but was reinforced by James I's 1597 book (written while he was James VI of Scotland and Elizabeth I ruled England) Daemonologie, where he stated that he can "prove by diverse arguments, that Witches can, by the power of their Master, cure or cast on disseases...".
Although William, Edith's husband was adamant that they were both 'free and not guiltye of any manner of witchcraft,' it was ordered that they be examined for unusual marks or teats. William was found to have a blue spot on his skin that bled when it was pricked and was let go. Edith was 'searched' by eight local women - one of them being Joane Greene who had testified against her, meaning that these searchers were certainly not independent of the case. Predictably then, they reported 'that uppon the searche of her bodye, they find under her armepitt somethinge like a nipple, but more soft and flaggye, and the like in her hippe, and in her privie partes somethinge like a teate.'
The Stuarts believed that demons would be summoned to suck on witches' hidden teats and nipples to feed. And with all the moles, lumps, swollen glands and skin tags on a body, it was inevitable that the searchers, biased as they were, would find something suspicious on Edith. The records indicate that there were 'other diverse' complaints about the couple and their suspected activities. We already know that Edith was argumentative, having originally argued with Edward Bonevant. And so it's possible that she had created other enemies in the town, who, once word got out about these suspicions, also came forward to the council to make their own complaints. It's likely to our modern eyes, that Edward suffered from some form of epilepsy. But with no evidence, a case based on hearsay and a biased physical examination Edith was slapped in the gaol, while the council noted they would have her back for more interrogations. After that, we don't know what happened to her, as she disappears from the town records. But if the word of the 1604 Act Against Witchcraft was followed and she was found guilty at a formal trial, she would have suffered 'paines of death as a Felon or Felons, and shall lose the priviledge and benefit of Clergy and Sanctuary.'
The hunting down and interrogation of witches in the early seventeenth century would have been damaging to these women in a number of ways. The rumours and street talk would have ruined a woman's reputation, as gossip spread throughout the town. The humiliation of being stripped and physically searched for 'evidence' of witchcraft and evil doings was bad enough, their bodies - even their 'privie parts' examined. Cases built only on grudges, rumours, paranoia and hearsay and biased investigations - and we can see that once someone had it in for you, once you were declared a witch your fate was sealed. It is telling that all five women disappear from the town's records as soon as they enter them. Were they imprisoned? Did they die in jail, or on their release, go on to live a quiet, obedient life away from the authorities? Were they executed? The truth is, we don't know. But perhaps we can take comfort that according to estimates, out of the 513 witches tried in England between 1560 and 1700, only 112 were executed.
What do you think? Do you know any more about any of these women, or witchcraft in Reading or Berkshire? Let me know in the comments below!
Parliament: Religion and Belief - Witchcraft. Accessed 15 May 2020
The Statutes Project; Text of The Act Against Witchcraft, 1604. Accessed 15 May 2020
Reading Records, Diary of the Corporation, edited by JM Guilding, vol. 2 and 3 (1892)
Gutenberg, Daemonologie, King James I, 1597, accessed 15 May 2020