Samlesbury Hall and its Witches


I visited Samlesbury Hall this month. You’d describe it as a Tudor-style Hall with its black and white timbers, whereas it is really 200 years older. It’s a wonderful building and charges no admission to visitors, its owners instead hoping you’ll tarry for a meal in its restaurant or choose to marry in its hall.

We in East Lancashire are familiar enough with the 1612 Pendle Witch trials, but at the same time, the Samlesbury Witches were also being tried at Lancaster. Thankfully, they were all acquitted, conceding the lime light to their less fortunate Pendle neighbours. Christine Middleton’s wonderful novel The Witch & her Soul (Palatine, 2012) gives the biography of Jane, alleged Samlesbury witch and member of the Hall’s famous Catholic Southworth family.

14-year-old Grace Sowerbutts accused Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and Ellen Bierley of stealing a baby to suck its blood, later cooking it for food and ointment production. As well as engaging in "diverse devillish and wicked Arts, called Witchcrafts, Inchauntments, Charmes, and Sorceries” the three women danced and had sex with "foure black things, going upright, and yet not like men in the face" for good measure.

When these accusations were made, the three women, upon being asked by Judge Bromley if they had anything to say, "humbly fell upon their knees with weeping teares", and "desired him [Bromley] for Gods cause to examine Grace Sowerbutts". Shockingly, defendants in witch trials had no right to a defence, so pleading with the judge to cross-examine the prosecution witness was their only hope. Perhaps Jane’s gentry status made the judge more sympathetic.

When thus examined, Grace admitted to being told to lie by one ‘Thompson’. This, it transpired, was Christopher Southworth, Jane’s uncle by marriage, who was in hiding at Samlesbury Hall. Southworth was a Jesuit priest, and when Grace was pressed for Christopher’s motives, all she could offer was that the women "goeth to the Church". In other words, they attended the local Protestant parish church, despite the Southworths’ famous clinging to Roman Catholicism, notwithstanding the heavy recusancy fines they were forced to pay.

Judge Bromley instructed the jury to acquit them, remarking to the defendants “God hath delivered you beyond expectation, I pray God you may use this mercie and favour well; and take heed you fall not hereafter: And so the court doth order that you shall be delivered.” Thomas Potts, the clerk to the court who recorded the proceedings, concluded

"Thus were these poore Innocent creatures, by the great care and paines of this honourable Judge, delivered from the danger of this Conspiracie; this bloudie practise of the Priest laid open".

Although some historians have suggested this was a show trial, so Judge Bromley could demonstrate to King James his commitment to expunging both popery and witchcraft from darkest Lancashire, Grace’s confession may well be true. Father Christopher Southworth, appalled that his niece should have become a protestant, would have her and her friends executed by the very protestant establishment to which they had converted.

Matthew 10: 34-36:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.

Samlesbury Church