The Witches of Warboys were Alice Samuel, her husband John and their daughter Agnes, all from the village of Warboys in the historic county of Huntingdonshire, who were executed for witchcraft in 1593. The account of their case spread widely through an anonymously written pamphlet, The Most Strange and Admirable Discouerie of the Three Witches of Warboys Arraigned, Convicted, and Executed at the Last Assises at Huntington, published that same year. The historian Wallace Notestein has suggested that the case was probably the most celebrated of the 16th-century English witch trials.
Ten-year-old Jane Throckmorton, one of the five daughters of Sir Robert Throckmorton, head of a prominent local family, became ill. A neighbour, Alice Samuel called at the house, whereupon the sick child cried out “Did you ever see … one more like a witch then she is … I cannot abide to looke on her.” Jane’s parents apparently thought nothing of it at the time, but when an eminent physician from Cambridge, Dr Barrow, having treated the child without success, asked the parents if they suspected witchcraft, although they answered in the negative, doubts began to be harboured. And when three other of the Throckmorton children fell ill in the same way as Jane, and also accused Alice of being a witch, their uncle, Gilbert Pickering, decided to step in. He forced Alice to appear before the children, at which they fell to the ground “strangely tormented”, and insisted on scratching her hand.
The Throckmorton’s suspicions about Alice grew, and they forced her to live with them as a servant, to keep a closer eye on her. But a visit to the family home by Lady Cromwell in 1590 proved to be Alice’s ultimate undoing. Lady Cromwell decided to employ a practice believed to curtail a witch’s power; she cut off a lock of Alice’s hair and threw it into the fire, at which Alice protested “I never did you any harm as yet.” When two years later Lady Cromwell fell ill and died, the Throckmortons accused Alice of having caused her death by witchcraft.
Confession and trial
Under prolonged interrogation, and in an effort to save herself, Alice eventually confessed that she had given her soul to the Devil, and a clergyman was sent for to preach a sermon of repentance. But the following day Alice withdrew her confession on the advice of her daughter Agnes, and as a result the Throckmortons extended their accusation of witchcraft to Agnes and Alice’s husband John.
At her trial for murder by witchcraft in 1593,[a]At that time those similarly accused of witchcraft were tried in groups rather than individually. Alice once again tried to save her life by claiming that she was pregnant, but as she was then in her seventies she was not believed. Her daughter Agnes was also advised to plead pregnancy, to which she replied “Nay .. will I not do; it shall never be said that I was both a witch and a whore.” The trial lasted for five hours, at the end of which all three of the family were found guilty and sentenced to be executed.
Wallace Notestein observes that “from beginning to end it [the case against the Samuel family] had been the strong against the weak. It is likely that Jane Throckmorton had indeed suffered from some minor infirmity, but Alice Samuel was probably also right in claiming that her own troubles were caused by the children’s “wantonness”, with the others eager to share some of the attention lavished on Jane.
|At that time those similarly accused of witchcraft were tried in groups rather than individually.