“A Detection of Damnable Driftes” is an octavo pamphlet from 1579 describing the contemporary trials of witches held at Chelmsford in Essex.
Printed in London shortly after the trial, it provides information on four women accused of witchcraft. Three were convicted and hanged, the fourth was released on a technicality. The main focus is on Elizabeth FrancisElizabeth Francis was an English woman tried three times for witchcraft and hanged in 1579.Elizabeth Francis was an English woman tried three times for witchcraft and hanged in 1579., who was convicted and, this time, sentenced to the death penalty. She was also the primary subject of the first English witchcraft pamphlet published thirteen years earlier in 1566 covering the first of her three trials; on that occasion her punishment was imprisonment for a year, during which time she was placed in the stocks.
The introduction, which shows the shifting attitude towards witchcraft, is followed by the details of the women; with the exception of Elizabeth’s, these are given in a narrative style, paraphrased by the pamphleteer.
Published in 1579 and featuring two illustrations, the octavo pamphlet’s full title is “A Detection of Damnable driftes practized by three Witches arraigned at Chelmisford in Essex, at the late Assizes there holden, whiche were executed in Aprill, 1579”. Despite the title, it records details of four women:[a] Elizabeth FrancisElizabeth Francis was an English woman tried three times for witchcraft and hanged in 1579.Elizabeth Francis was an English woman tried three times for witchcraft and hanged in 1579.; Ellen or Elleine SmitheEssex woman convicted and hanged for witchcraft in 1579Essex woman convicted and hanged for witchcraft in 1579; Alice Nokes; and Margery Stanton or Staunton. All were convicted then hanged except Stanton, who was released.
By Edward White, it was printed by John Kingston, whom White had employed to produce a similar publication earlier that year. The principle character, Elizabeth Francis, was also central to the 1566 chapbook, entitled “The Examination andFirst pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566. Confession of Certaine Wytches at ChensfordeFirst pamphlet describing witchcraft trials in England; it covers the testimony of witches at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566.“. As both pamphlets concentrate principally on Elizabeth, despite being almost thirteen years apart and the work of different printers, they may stem from the same source. Academic Timothy Scott McGinnis speculates the informant may have played a role in the trials, but concedes verification is impossible.
In contrast to other European countries, where several cities would have printing facilities, all Elizabethan publishing took place in London. Print runs may have been for up to a thousand copies, depending on how many the pamphleteer felt could be sold; it was more profitable to do another run if necessary than to be left with a surplus. The only extant copy of the pamphlet is held at the British Library.
In the same manner as the 1566 publication, the information concerning the accused is prefaced by an introduction, possibly written by a member of White’s staff. It urges the audience to be cautious against dealing with Satan, advocating that prayer should be employed as a defence against the Devil’s exploits. Whereas the epistle prefacing the Examination pamphlet was a kindly sermon railing against morality and sin with magic as a minor secondary discourse, the theme this time demonstrates the changed attitude towards witchcraft; it is now firmly interpreted as malevolent with direct instruction given to readers to shun and prosecute witches.
Elizabeth’s details are the first to be given following the introduction; the format deviates from that used in the earlier pamphlet, shaping it as a confession, while previously the legal documents covering her examination were reproduced without amendment. An inconsistency occurs in the printed version concerning Elizabeth’s victim, Alice Poole: the date of Alice’s death is recorded as 1 November 1578, but it could be inferred Elizabeth spoke with her around the time of the trial months later. The historian James S. Cockburn blames the pamphleteer for the error but academic Marion Gibson, believing it to be a faithful transcription, argues the anomaly could be attributed to a legal clerk and that, instead of being written after the assizes, it records Elizabeth’s statement when she was first arrested at the time the charge against her was causing Alice to be ill rather than responsible for her death. The original court documents have not survived, making any form of verification impossible, although lists of the very basic indictments, which only provide minimal information, are extant. The scholar Alan Macfarlane highlights the disparity between Elizabeth being quoted as stating the incident with Alice took place “about Lent last” whereas the indictment shows a date at the end of June.
Other accused women
The pamphlet only records evidence presented against the other three women. The first of these, Ellen or Elleine SmitheEssex woman convicted and hanged for witchcraft in 1579Essex woman convicted and hanged for witchcraft in 1579, was convicted of bewitching and causing the death of Susan, the four-year-old daughter of the widow Goodwife Webbe. Those who supplied the evidence are nameless with the text written in the narrative style of storytelling. Although given in the format of an itemised list, which is the standard presentation adopted for formal documents, the use of adjectives throughout the text indicates the pamphleteer amended and paraphrased for ease of reading and to make the story flow.
Similar imprecision arises in the penultimate narrative covering Margery Stanton or Staunton as her first name is not included, she is simply referred to as Mother Staunton. The modern-day academic Barbara Rosen describes her as “the most genuinely malicious of the group”. Eleven incidents are listed as evidence against her, but the specific charge documented was deemed inadequate, plus her alleged misdemeanours did not include killing any persons by witchcraft, only the fatal bewitching of livestock.
Alice Nokes, the fourth and last of the women included, was convicted on the charge of using witchcraft to kill but this detail is omitted by the pamphleteer. The indictment shows she caused the instant death of another Lambourne resident, Elizabeth Barfoot, by bewitching her. Described by Gibson as “clearly an imaginative account”, as in the narratives of the other women, the evidence against Alice presented in the pamphlet is vague on specific detail. The complaints regarding the other accused women were based on incidents surrounding villagers not complying with their requests for money or charity, whereas the tales of Alice’s misdemeanours leaned more towards insolence and argumentativeness, together with infidelity and adultery.
- The academic Marion Gibson speculates this discrepancy may have arisen due to extra material being added or be a reflection of “hasty editing”.