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Frightened Agnes Samwell foolishly confessed to being a witch

Posted in Historical articles, History, Magic, Superstition on Thursday, 30 May 2013

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This edited article about Agnes Samwell originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 273 published on 8 April 1967.

Witch, picture, image, illustration

Arresting a witch

Agnes Samwell, on this day of our Lord 4th April, 1593, you stand accused of the frightful crime of witchcraft . . .”

The voice of the clerk echoed through the Huntingdon courtroom and all eyes swivelled to the prisoner, a bent old lady known as Mother Samwell.

As various witnesses gave evidence against her, the members of the grand jury shuddered in superstitious fear. In those days witches were not odd characters in fairy-tale books but – in the minds of most people – persons who had made a pact with the devil, and who could cast spells. Because of this widespread fear of witchcraft, many innocent people suffered.

The case against Mother Samwell was based on the fact that the children of a well-to-do neighbour had developed fits. Doctors could find no reason for this complaint. But their parents began to wonder when one of the children, coming out of a fit, pointed to the unfortunate Mother Samwell and said: “Did you ever see anyone more like a witch than she is?”

Rumours spread that Mother Samwell had bewitched the children. A friend of the family, Lady Cromwell, sent for Mother Samwell, cut off a lock of her hair and threw it into the fire – a practice which in those days was believed to be an antidote to such spells.

Unfortunately Lady Cromwell was taken ill soon afterwards and died. Mother Samwell was blamed. She was taken before the Bishop of Lincoln. Terrified by her arrest and the dreadful things that had been said about her, the old woman broke down and confessed to the Bishop that she was indeed a witch.

Mother Samwell, her husband and daughter were immediately thrown into Huntingdon jail, where the old woman withdrew her ‘confession’, saying that she had been frightened out of her wits and did not know what she was saying at the time.

At the trial one witness stated that he had called Mother Samwell ‘an old witch’ and soon afterwards his horse had died. To him it was obvious that the horse had been bewitched out of revenge.

On such evidence Mother Samwell, her husband and daughter were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

Nowadays, ‘witchcraft’ is very much a thing of the past. The last ‘witch’ to be executed in Britain was Janet Horne, who was burned at the stake in 1727, in Scotland.

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