Edmund Hartley, (died March 1597), the Tyldesley witch, was a cunning man who was alleged to have practised witchcraft at Cleworth Hall in Tyldesley, Lancashire for a year in 1595–96. Hartley was hanged, twice, after a trial at Lancaster Assizes in March 1597. Part of the evidence against him was that under interrogation he was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Perhaps the most likely explanation for the events leading to Hartley’s arrest is an outbreak of sexual hysteria similar to that which triggered the Salem witch trials eighty years later.
Superstition and belief in witchcraft were rife at the end of the 16th century in England, as were religious tensions between the supporters of the new faith – the Church of England – Puritans, and adherents of Roman Catholicism. Lancashire was a sparsely populated county at the time of the Reformation and remained a stronghold of Catholicism throughout the Elizabethan era; the county was reputed to contain more witches and believers in witchcraft than any other. Cunning folk were regarded as distinct from witches however, and were called on to perform acts of healing.
Anne Parr, who had inherited Cleworth Hall, married Nicholas Starkie of Huntroyde in Burnley depriving her Roman Catholic relations of what they considered to be their inheritance. Some of them were said to have prayed for the death of her four children who died in infancy. The Starkie’s surviving children, Ann aged about ten, and John, two years older began having fits. Their father spent £200 on doctors with no success and became convinced they were “possessed by the Devil”. He asked a Catholic priest to exorcise the evil spirits but he declined, claiming that he was not carrying his book of exorcism. In desperation Starkie approached Edmund Hartley, a “magician” and travelling “conjurer” who was in the neighbourhood and asked him for help.
Using charms and herbal potions, Hartley was able to calm the children but not cure them completely. Starkie paid 40 shillings per year for Hartley’s services but he demanded more. Starkie refused to give him a house and land, whereupon Hartley threatened him. That afternoon three other children in the house, Margaret and Ellinor Hurdman and Ellen Holland, a maid, Jane Ashton and a relative, Margaret Byrom, also became affected.
Starkie suspected that Hartley was by then part of the problem and consulted John Dee, the warden of the Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral). Dee was reluctant to become involved, but rebuked Hartley and advised Starkie to consult “some godly preachers”. For a short while all was quiet at Cleworth Hall but the children’s fits and bouts of shouting returned. Jane Ashton and Margaret Byrom were affected after being kissed by Hartley who “breathed the Devil” into them. Byrom tried to escape to her home in Salford but Hartley followed her and was found there by preachers who had pursued him. Under examination Hartley was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and was accused of witchcraft.
Hartley was arrested and sent to Lancaster Castle gaol. At his trial in March 1597, Starkie testified that the previous autumn while in the woods at Huntroyde, Hartley had drawn a circle “with many crosses and partitions”. Starkie’s evidence led to the death penalty. Hartley’s execution was botched; at the first attempt to hang him the rope broke, and even though Hartley repented he was hanged at the second attempt.
The story of the demonic possessions at Cleworth Hall was documented by George More, who with John Darrell
and several others including a local curate, arrived at Cleworth Hall after Hartley’s execution in March 1597 to dispossess the seven of their demons. In turn Darrell and More were imprisoned for their involvement in the dispossessions.
Although the parents of the children believed them to be bewitched, there are clear signs of sexual hysteria similar to that which triggered the Salem witch trials eighty years later. As well as bewitching Jane Ashton and Margaret Byrom by kissing them, it was alleged that Hartley had lain with the maid on her bed. The girls’ account of a “furry little devil which entered little holes” also has evident Freudian undertones.