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The Bewitching: Jill Dawson reveals the tale of the Warboys witches

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A macabre and dangerous world is uncovered in this story of witch trials in a Cambridgeshire village by local author Jill Dawson.

Based on real events, The Bewitching reveals the peril women faced as they got older or lost their looks and popularity in Elizabethan England. It follows the fate of 76-year-old Alice Samuel who is drawn into an unfolding horror after visiting her neighbours in her Fenland village and finding one of the daughters has fallen ill.

When she is accused of causing the illness by witchcraft, Alice has no inkling of how quickly matters will escalate and fails to grasp the danger she is in. Evidence starts to mount against Alice and soon the entire village is swept up in the frenzied persecution of one of their own community.

Jill Dawson. Pic by Joanne Coates (57701502)
Jill Dawson. Pic by Joanne Coates (57701502)

The tale of the Warboys witches is documented in a scandalous pamphlet written after the case in 1593, which reveals how suspicion was cast on the old woman. Jill knew she wanted to uncover why certain older women were vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft and why frequently their accusers were other women.

“I first heard about this case when I moved to the Cambridgeshire fens in 2003 and read a brilliant novel called Weird Sister written by Kate Pullinger, which was a contemporary ghost story that mentions it and so it has always been in my mind,” says Kate.

“In the past I’d visited Salem and the moving memorial to those who were executed there, with its giant stones inscribed with haunting phrases of the victims: ‘If I would confess, I should save my life.’ It was amazing then, to find, right on my own doorstep, a story with such similarities: the witches of Warboys.

“I started researching it during lockdown. And really, it is an extraordinary story.”

In 1589 five girls, aged from eight to 16, the daughters of the Squire of Warboys, began having fits and visions and accused their neighbour Alice Samuel of having bewitched them. Once the wife of local land-owner Sir Henry Cromwell (the grandfather of Oliver Cromwell and son of Richard Williams, the nephew of the Cromwell made famous by Hilary Mantel) also accused Alice, her fate was sealed.

The Bewitching by Jill Dawson (57701510)
The Bewitching by Jill Dawson (57701510)

Jill says: “The illness the girls suffered from - hallucinations, fits, losing their appetite, has much in common with other mystery illnesses which seem to particularly beset girls such as the sleeping refugee children of Sweden or American high-school children with contagious seizures studied by neurologist Suzanne o' Sullivan. What was really going on for the five Throckmorton daughters?

“There were five girls and the first very casually says Alice is the reason I'm having these fits. And what's so fascinating is everybody believed her, so the whole case, which is true, and comes to a very shocking ending, is started by these girls and continued by these girls. They just keep saying, yes, she's a witch. She's bewitching us. She's the reason we're sick. They were all sort of getting these fits and transfers. And it's 100 years before Salem. So it's got real similarities, but it's not the same. And I suppose it just fascinated me wondering what would make them do that, if you like, what were the issues between the posh squire’s family with the five daughters and the poor neighbor, Alice Samuel. And information about It's all contained in one long historic document which is a pamphlet but it keeps saying there were no other issues and that Alice absolutely was a witch. So I investigated more about why the case had such currency and it's partly because the Cromwells got involved.”

Author Jill Dawson (57701500)
Author Jill Dawson (57701500)

There were no witch-finders in the Warboys case, this was an occasion of girls and women accusing other women of being witches and men taking up the attack with enthusiasm. This is a surprising but common aspect of much of the witch accusations – that many of the accusers were also women. Those accused of being witches were 85 percent female, and often old too.

Jill adds: “In writing The Bewitching I was interested in power. Who has it, who seeks it, how it plays out in rural places and small isolated communities. How men wield it. How women and girls might try to seize it. Presenting teenage girls as seductive, demonic and powerful, as they are in Arthur Miller's The Crucible or Stephen Kings' Carrie, seemed to me laughable when you consider that all judges, church leaders, pamphlet writers, scholars, demonologists, executioners and those presiding over the trials, indeed over life and death, were male. If it was not their innate evil, or sexuality - what was it that made the five Throckmorton girls and their visitor Lady Cromwell, pick on their neighbour Alice and send her and her family to their ghastly fate?”

The Cromwell connection particularly interested Jill. She says: “Henry Cromwell lived at Ramsey and Hinchinbrook and he had tremendous power as a landlord. Once his wife accused the the neighbor of being a witch, things went from bad to worse. So there's something to learn here about power. There's something about who is wielding it. And there's this focus on the girls as if they were at the center of everything, whereas I kept thinking anyone intelligent would think that girls between the ages of eight and 16 do not actually have any power in a society. They're not the church. They're not the judges. They're not the people bringing the trials. They're not the academics. They're not the people writing the pamphlet. I just didn't buy it. So that's what The Bewitching is - it’s my attempt to uncover a story that feels true using a great deal of historic research, which I always love.”

Author Jill Dawson (57701504)
Author Jill Dawson (57701504)

Jill also wanted to investigate what could really have caused the symptoms the girls suffered as they match up with modern conditions offen exhibited by groups of girls. She said: “My sense was that there was something going on within the family, or that's what I present in The Bewitching, that was very troubled. And the girls were profoundly affected by that. If you're someone who believed in witchcraft, and people still do the world over in different cultures and countries, you could believe that that's what's going on. And if you don't, I shouldn't offer another expiration as it may be a spoiler. This is a powerful stpry to uncover and I want it to be apage turner for readers.”

Alice Samuel, who is accused of bewitching the girls and causing their symtoms seems to be typical of the type of woman tried for witchcraft. Jill says: “She was an older woman who just spoke her mind. So you know, they didn’t like her because she was rude. She just never ever is in any way charming, or people pleasing. And you get that sort of feeling when reading about her. To me it's a classic case of misogyny, ageism, dislike of older women, fear even of older women. The accusers said she wasn't a healer. But the evidence shows she was invited to the house because the girl was sick, originally. So I think that's an untruth. I think she was invited because of her healing skills. But they covered that up because they didn't want there to seem to be any reason for inviting a witch into their home. There wasn’t an obvious reason to scapegoat her except that she was outspoken and didn't sort of kowtow to the new Squire and the authority.”

Stories of Witchcraft have been back in the news lately, with everything from women’s rights campaigners wearing t-shirts with slogan saying “This witch doesn’t burn” to the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon offering an apology for the “egregious historic injustice” done to the t housands of people – mainly women – tortured and executed for witchcraft in Scot land between t he 16t h and 18t h centuries.

Jill says: “These were ordinary people, not criminals. Their trials were usually forced confessions. Many of us – especially if our ancestors were servants, or poor, or lived in rural communities – might well be related t o someone who was tried and executed for being a witch. The Bewitching tells a true story: in Warboys in the late 16t h century, five girls accused their neighbour of bewitching them, and the place was soon in the grip of witch mania. What took place has much in common with the Salem witch -t rials a century later, but it happened in Cambridgeshire, about half an hour’s drive from where I live. During the pandemic, my husband and my mother were both shielding, so I felt particularly cut off. Theories about who was to blame for Covid, conspiracy theories, misinformation, rage at our governments, new suspicions about whether people were likely t o contaminate us, all swirled around me, echoing the fears of the period I was writing about. When illness or misfortune strikes, those without power feel their lack intensely. What can they do, who is to blame? During the time I wrote the novel, powerful men like Jeffrey Epstein and Prince Andrew were in the news. Girls and women were finally speaking out.”

The Bewitching by Jill Dawson is published by Sceptre, priced £20.

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