The Witches of Warboys, Cambridgeshire
The true tale of The Witches of Warboys is an illuminating one, made all the more fascinating because of its connection with Oliver Cromwell. It is also patently a tragic miscarriage of justice that illustrates how those merely accused of witchcraft had little or no hope of avoiding a dreadful fate.
In the Cambridgeshire village of Warboys (though then it was in Huntingdonshire) in 1589 the young daughter of a wealthy squire, Robert Throckmorton, began to suffer fits which failed to respond to treatment by two medics of consequence, and when an old woman came to visit the house the girl, Jane, accused her of being the cause, and of witchcraft.
After a time Jane’s sisters developed the same outward signs of illness, and even the female servants suffered similarly. The old woman, Alice Samuel, was forced to remain in the Throckmorton household, though the logic of this is not clear. When Lady Cromwell came to stay the following year the affair took a turn for the worse for Alice, for as ever when the house had visitors the fits mysteriously became more pronounced. Lady Cromwell, a family friend and the wife of Sir Henry Cromwell, and posthumously to be the grandmother of Oliver Cromwell, cut a lock of Alice’s hair and burned it, showing this lady of high standing considered the woman a witch. Fatally Alice asked why she acted thus as she had as yet never harmed the rich visitor, who inevitably had nightmares that very night and – the time gap is almost laughable – died in 1592, her less-than-sudden death naturally linked with Alice’s words.
Poor Alice was persuaded to confess to witchcraft after prolonged ill-treatment, but recanted the next day. She, her husband and her daughter, all implicated in the witching, were tried in Huntingdon, inevitably found guilty and hanged in April 1593.
King James I who came to the throne a decade later took an active interest in witchcraft, and even wrote on the subject. The Warboys case was one of great importance for the entire country in that it involved a great figure like Sir Henry Cromwell, and was said to have influenced the passing of the 1604 law on witchcraft once James was on the throne, a law that would lead to many unjust accusations and executions in the century and more to come.
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