Were the witches of Royston real... or imagined?

Suspected witches kneeling before King James in Berwick, in King James's Daemonologie. Picture: Wiki

Suspected witches kneeling before King James in Berwick, in King James's Daemonologie. Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Daemonologie - Credit: Archant

To mark Local and Community History Month 2019, which aims to increase awareness and promote local history in the community, we’ve deleved into the case of two of Royston’s most spellbinding historic characters.

A tile depicting the Royston witches Christina and Alice Stokes on the outside of Cambridge Wine in

A tile depicting the Royston witches Christina and Alice Stokes on the outside of Cambridge Wine in Kneesworth Street, Royston. Picture: DANNY LOO - Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO

In 1542, Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act which defined witchcraft - the perceived facility to summon evil spirits and demons to do harm to others - as a crime punishable by death. It was repealed five years later, but restored by a new Act in 1562.

It had already been deemed heresy and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484, and from that time until around 1750 around 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe - and two women from Royston became part of the attrocity, or did they?

In 1606, a pamphlet entitled 'The Severall Practices of Johane Harrison and Her Daughter, condemned and Executed at Hartford for Witchcraft the 4th of August Last, 1606' was published in London.

In an article from Herts County Council's community archive network website, Herts Memories, Nicholas Blatchley said: "According to the pamphlet, a good deal of paraphernalia for inflicting curses was found at their home, and Johane confessed to using them to commit her crimes.

Royston writer Graham Palmer. Picture: Courtesy of Graham Palmer

Royston writer Graham Palmer. Picture: Courtesy of Graham Palmer - Credit: Archant

"To a 17th century perspective, at least, it must have seemed an open and shut case.

"Two cases involved farmers who'd fallen ill after insulting Johane. In one case, the sickness was described as 'sometimes in a pestiferous heat, at others a chill cold, but at all times in continual aches and wracking of his limbs'.

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"The man was persuaded that the remedy was to draw blood from the witch, and he succeeded in scratching Johane, "upon which within three or four daies he is up and goes abroad".

"However, Johane took him to court for assault, successfully claiming five shillings plus costs. The illness then returned, and the man eventually died." Nicholas said a second case was simply described as: "In the same she served another who meeting her out of the towne took the like revenge upon her and recovered."

He continued: "Another case involved a woman who accidentally splashed Anne while washing clothes. Subsequently, her baby's cradle collapsed, killing the child. Anne was also alleged to have 'bewitched a wealthy man's daughter in the towne'.

"The last tale concerns an altercation Johane had in an alehouse with a notorious drunkard. After he'd insulted her at great length, she cursed him that "thou throwst in thy drink apace, but shall not find it so easie coming out." Later that evening, the man developed an infection on his penis and an agonising stomach ache — though we're not told the outcome of this."

There is some debate as to whether the Royston witches existed at all. No mention is made of them in the assize records for the Summer Sessions of 1606 at Hertford, where they were said to be tried, but there was an Alice and Christina Stokes from the town.

Nicholas added: "Whatever their names, and whether or not they were actually real, the story of the Harrisons seems one of a great many examples of the poor, old and marginalised being demonised in the popular imagination during the witch scare of the 16th and 17th centuries."

Royston writer Graham Palmer researched the witches as part of his Cracked Voices project alongside composer Jenni Pinnock.

The project, which includes a song cycle and booklet, gives voice to forgotten characters from the borderlands of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire.

Graham said: "I first came across the story of the witches when I was putting together an art trail for Creative Royston, which included a tile that a Greneway student created - based on Liz Beardwell's image of the witches. It is still on the wall of Cambridge Wine in Kneesworth Street.

"When Jenni and I started writing Cracked Voices we were desperate to include a fair share of women. It was really difficult to unearth them. Women generally weren't considered important enough to be written about in old documents.

"When they were, it was normally only because they had married a rich or powerful man or that they'd done something shocking.

"The Royston witches come in the second category! The fact that most of their supposed victims were men speaks volumes. The question has to be asked, while other places have treasured tales of local 'witches', why did Royston choose to communally forget them? I think there are only two explanations, either the town's men were ashamed of the women, or they had a guilty conscience."

The Cracked Voices booklet, which includes the Royston witches, is available from the museum, library, No 3 Royston or online at cracked-voices.co.uk. All proceeds go to the parish church restoration fund.