Alice Gooderidge (died 1596) was a Staffordshire woman accused of witchcraft on the testimony of a fourteen-year-old boy, Thomas Darling,[a]Called The Burton Boy in some accounts. who claimed that she had caused him to become possessed by a demon. What is known of the case comes from a pamphlet published in 1597, The most wonderfull and true storie of a certain witch, Alse Gooderidge of Stapenhill. Shortly after Alice’s death, Darling was forced to admit that he had invented the story, so that “god should be glorified and his worde the better thought of”.
The academic Diane Purkiss has suggested that the play Mother Red Cap, first performed in 1597, may be a reflection of the events surrounding Alice’s trial.
On 17 February 1596 Thomas Darling and his uncle Robert Toone went hunting for hare in Winsell Wood, about half a mile (0.8 km) from Burton, in Staffordshire. Toone and his wife Elizabeth were Darling’s guardians, to whom he had been sent by his parents in the hope of advancement. Darling and his uncle became separated in the heat of the chase, so the boy decided to make his own way back to his uncle’s house. Along the way he encountered an old woman, and while passing her he farted, to which the woman reacted with “Gyp with a mischief, and fart with a bell. I will go to Heaven, and you will go to Hell.” Later that day Darling began the first of a series of fits, from which he suffered for the next several months.
Diagnosis and treatment
Concerned for her nephew’s health, Elizabeth Toone took a sample of Thomas Darling’s urine to a physician for analysis. Finding nothing amiss, the doctor offered his opinion that Darling could have been bewitched, but Elizabeth was unconvinced. She believed he was suffering from epilepsy, and brought in a local cunning man, Jesse Bee, to look after him. But Bee also diagnosed bewitchment, for which his treatment was to sit with the boy and read from the Gospel of St John; the notes Bee made of the condition’s progress form the basis of The most wonderfull and true storie. Soon Darling produced his story of having fallen out with Alice, and the idea of demonic possession began to take hold.
Darling’s grandmother, Mistress Walkeden, sent for Alice, and together with the boy’s schoolmaster Oliver Rampaine and Robert Toone, questioned her in Burton Town Hall. Alice admitted to having encountered Darling in the wood, but claimed that was him who abused her, by calling her the witch of Stapenhill,[b]Alice’s mother, Elizabeth Wright, is also sometimes known as the witch of Stapenhill, because she cured livestock by making the sign of the cross and praying. to which she had responded “Every boy does call me witch, but did I ever make your arse to itch?” Some of the bystanders encouraged Darling to scratchMethods used to identify witches. Alice, a not uncommon although controversial test in England for witches, also known as scoring above the breath, to which she submitted in the hope that it might result in him withdrawing his accusation. Alice admitted that she did not attend Communion, and when asked to do so proved unable to correctly recite the Lord’s Prayer. Robert Toone concluded that there might be something in the allegations made against Alice, and she was reported to the local magistrate, Thomas Gresley. Alice was arrested on 14 April and held in Derby gaol.
Over two days at the beginning of May, Alice and her mother were questioned and submitted to further tests by Gresley and Sir Humphrey Ferrers. Both women were searched for witch’s marks, which revealed that Alice had on her belly “a hole of the bigness of two pence, fresh and bloody, as though some great wart had been cut from the place”, which was taken as evidence that the devil had recently been sucking her blood. Perhaps encouraged by having her feet “warmed” by their closeness to an open fire, Alice confessed on the second day of her interrogation that she had sent the Devil in the form of a little red and white dog called Minny to torment Darling.
Alice was returned to gaol, and nothing more is known of her story except for the ending of The most wonderfull and true storie: “Now the witch is dead. Had she lived, she would have been executed.” There is no evidence Alice ever went to trial, but if she had done, it is likely that under the terms of the Witchcraft Act 1563A series of Acts passed by the Parliaments of England and Scotland making witchcraft a secular offence punishable by death. she would have been sentenced to a year in prison, as a first-time offender.
On the same day as Alice’s confession, 3 May, Darling was visited by the Puritan divine Arthur Hildersham, accompanied by a number of other ministers including John Darell, who prayed for his deliverance. On 27 May Darrell returned, and suggested that the boy might be cured if the family adopted a regime of prayer and fasting; the following day, Darling vomited up “a number of demons”, and reverted to his normal self.
In 1599 the Darling affair was investigated by Samuel Harsnett, then chaplain to the Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft.[c]Samuel Harsnett was appointed Archbishop of York in 1628. Under interrogation Darling admitted that he had lied in the evidence he had provided against Alice, but he subsequently wrote to Bancroft repudiating his confession, claiming that it had been made under duress, and that he had been “drawn on by subtilties to make the said confession”.
Darling was a student at Oxford in 1602, when he was tried by the Star Chamber and sentenced to be whipped and have his ears cropped for criticising Bancroft and the Vice-Chancellor for promoting papistry.
Although Alice was probably about sixty on the day she encountered Thomas Darling in the wood, she did not conform to the stereotypical image of a witch. She was married, had fairly substantial land holdings, and had family living in the town of Burton, all of which may go some way to explaining why she did not come under suspicion sooner than she did.
The Church of England had been going through a period of political upheaval since the 1570s. It was clear to its leaders that Puritanism posed a threat to the Church’s integrity, and they were keen to avoid any new religious schisms. Although Darrell’s apparent success in exorcising Darling challenged claims by the Church of Rome that members of the Catholic clergy were the only ones to whom God had granted the power to dispel demons, his increasing notoriety as one of the most celebrated of the Puritan exorcists was less welcome, and was the chief inspiration for the seventy-second canon, which forbade exorcism without episcopal permission.
The belief that devils could take possession of a human was largely abandoned by the medical profession and educated laymen across Europe by the end of the 17th century.