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13 tales of British witchcraft - from feeding demons shaped like dogs to sex with Satan

It's Halloween on Monday and thoughts will turn to witches and wizards and things that go bump in the night.

But before looking forward let's look back, to the history of witchcraft in the UK and some examples of black magic.

There is murder, execution, fornication with the Devil and the summoning of evil spirits among the stories of the past.

Here's a list of our favourite stories of British witchcraft:

1. Alice Samuel - Warboys, Cambridgeshire, 1593

In the 1580s Robert Throckmorton’s household was thrown into chaos when his daughters and maidservants suffered bizarre fits and nightmarish visions, subsequently blamed on Samuel’s magic.

In 1593 she was hanged with her husband and daughter for bewitching Lady Cromwell.

2. Elizabeth Gregory - North Moreton, Oxfordshire, 1605

Getty Halloween
Many people have been executed for practicing witchcraft


In 1604 Brian Gunter accused this woman of witchcraft after an altercation at a football match. Gunter put his daughter Anne up to faking bewitchment, including vomiting pins.

Scepticism led to Gregory’s acquittal, but Anne Gunter was exposed after King James I interrogated her.

3. Elizabeth Device - Pendle, Lancashire, 1612

Getty Pendle, Lancashire
Pendle, Lancashire, scene of accusations of cannibalism


Twelve witches were tried at Lancaster in 1612, half of them from two families who feigned witchery to profit from extortion and bogus healing.

Elizabeth Device led a coven that met at night, cooked up spells and even indulged in cannibalism. She and eight others were hanged.

4. Elizabeth Sawyer - Edmonton, Middlesex, 1621

This poor woman might have been acquitted had a court not ordered that her body be searched.

A teat where, it was said, she fed the devil’s imps was discovered, persuading the Old Bailey jury of her guilt.

Awaiting execution, she confessed to nursing two demons shaped like dogs.

5. John Lambe - Finsbury, London, 1628

Getty Finsbury, London
Finsbury, London, where two men connected to witchcraft were murdered


A notorious conjuror, astrologer and convicted rapist who, in the 1620s became advisor to Charles I’s favourite, the duke of Buckingham.

The fortunes of the two men became linked, and both were murdered in 1628, Lambe by an angry mob as he was leaving a theatre.

6. Elizabeth Clarke - Manningtree, Essex, 1645

Getty Manningtree, Essex
Manningtree, Essex, where a woman confessed to sex with the devil


A disabled widow interrogated by the witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, at the start of his two-year purge.

Over 100 women and men would be executed. Clarke confessed to having sex with Satan and fathering the monstrous creatures that appeared before Hopkins.

7. Patrick Watson - West Fenton, East Lothian, 1649


Watson was one of 300 witches burned in Scotland, 1649-50. These purges were driven mainly by godly clergy in the lowlands, assisted by professional witch-prickers.

The most notorious of these, John Kincaid, claims to have identified the devil’s mark on Patrick Watson’s back.

8. Anne Ashby - Cranbrook, Kent, 1652

Getty Cranbrook, Kent
Cranbrook, Kent, scene of copulation with Satan


Six women were condemned at Maidstone in 1652.

In court, Ashby admitted copulating with the devil and keeping a mouse-demon in her mouth.

She then fell into a swoon and her body swelled up to an alarming size.

All six were accused of harming neighbours with diabolic power.

9. Rose Cullender - Lowestoft, Suffolk, 1662

Getty Lowestoft, Suffolk
Lowestoft, Suffolk, was cited in Salem


Cullender and another widow, Amy Denny, fell foul of local people, and were accused of bewitching several children, one of whom died.

An eminent judge sent both to the gallows, and the case was extensively written about and even cited at the infamous Salem trials in 1692.

10. Janet Cornfoot - Pittenweem, Fife, 1705

Getty Pittenweem, Fife
Pittenweem, Fife, where Janet Cornfoot was stoned to death


Wild accusations by a teenage boy resulted in a number of people being persecuted as witches, including Janet Cornfoot.

She was beaten and stoned by a mob, then crushed to death under a pile of rocks.

Neither the boy nor her killers was ever brought to justice.

11. Ruth Osborne - Tring, Hertfordshire, 1751

Getty Tring, Hertfordshire
Tring, Hertfordshire, where a drowning took place


Fifteen years after the decriminalization of witchcraft, a butcher named Thomas Colley led a mob that threw an elderly couple, Ruth and John Osborne, into a pond, drowning Ruth in the mud.

Failing to see what he had down wrong, Colley was hanged for murder.

12. Bridget Cleary - Ballyvadlea, Tipperary, 1895

Getty Ballyvadlea, Tipperary
Ballyvadlea, Tipperary, where the last witch in Ireland was burned


Remembered as the ‘last witch burned in Ireland’, Bridget Cleary actually died because, it was said, fairies had swapped her for a replicant.

In vain, friends tried to break the spell, so her husband burned her to death using an oil lamp, a crime for which he served fifteen years.

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13. Helen Duncan - Callander, Perthshire, 1944

Getty Callander, Perthshire
Callander, Perthshire, where Helen Duncan lived


Nicknamed ‘Hellish Nell’ as a girl, Helen Duncan held séances where she claimed to materialize the dead.

She was convicted at the Old Bailey under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which made it illegal to pretend to conjure spirits, and served six months in Holloway Prison.

Malcolm Gaskill is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of Witchfinders: a Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (John Murray, 2005), a book about Matthew Hopkins, ‘Witchfinder General’, the subject of a new immersive experience at The London Dungeon”.

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