The witches of East Yorkshire: Halloween special
East Yorkshire witnessed the last burning of a 'witch' in England. James Campbell explores the region's dark past ...
NESTLED in the gentle rolling hills of the Wolds and dotted along the sweeping North Sea coastline, East Yorkshire's villages hide a dark past.
A few hundred years ago, this was not the place to be if you were an old woman, ugly, or suffered from a skin blemish.
And forget dabbling in herbal medicine or healing others with alternative methods.
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Whether out of fear, superstition or sheer malice, women were routinely punished with prison, the stocks, torture and even death for being witches.
In fact, Pocklington was the last place in England where a woman was burned for being a witch.
Little is known about Old Wife Green but, whatever she did, in 1630 the parish register records she was burned for being a witch. This was not the official punished meted out by the authorities – witches were generally hanged.
But a mob, angered by the old woman's practices, took her to the square and burned her.
Perhaps the most infamous witch in the area was Isabella Billington.
While many innocent women were put to death, Isabella was not one of them.
The 32-year-old had crucified her mother before burning a calf and a cockerel as an offering.
She was hanged in 1649 for the crime, along with her husband, who was also involved.
Some of the accusations levelled at women appeared to be ludicrous.
In 1654, Elizabeth Roberts, the wife of a Beverley joiner, was charged with witchcraft after a man claimed to have seen her turn into a cat.
According to the supposed victim, in this form she lay on him in bed and attacked him, causing him to fall into a trance. When he recovered his senses he saw her in human form escaping up a wall.
Later, he claimed she appeared to him as a bee and threw him violently from one place to another, despite the efforts of five or six people to hold him down.
It was possible he was trying to worm his way out of charges of adultery.
Drawing the blood of a witch was thought to blunt their powers.
In Skipsea, in 1650, Ann Hudson was charged with witchcraft after a sick man recovered when he scratched her and drew her blood.
Other guards against witchcraft included charm stones from the Holderness beaches and horseshoes hung upside down.
Another "witch" was Peg Fyfe, who reputedly skinned a young resident alive in the 1660s and was later hanged for the crime but swallowed a spoon to save herself.
However, she was finished off by two passing knights.
York resident Eileen Rennison published a book entitled Yorkshire Witches this year and is an expert on the local history of witchcraft.
She said: "In the East Riding there was a strong presence of witches. There were three cases in Pocklington, including Old Wife Green, but there were many more across the region.
"Old Wife Green supposedly sacrificed animals, but to what purpose we can't gather."
There were many motives for accusations of witchcraft, Mrs Rennison says: "It was all rather a mixed bag. There was a great deal of superstition.
"Often, if there was an illness, they'd put it down to witchcraft.
"Sometimes women were accused of being witches out of sheer malice and often there was a family feud behind it."
One such case was that of Faith Corbet, who claimed servants Alice Huson and Doll Bilby had bewitched her.
"Faith's parents didn't believe her initially," Mrs Rennison said.
"She clearly did not like Alice and remained hysterical.
"Eventually, her parents informed the authorities.
"We don't know how they got her to confess but Alice admitted she had met the Devil in the moors.
"He gave her five shillings to bind her to him."
Another case fuelled by hate was the execution of Mabel Brigge, of Holmpton in Holderness.
"Isabel Buck asked Mabel to perform a fast for her to retrieve some money, which was a common religious activity," Mrs Rennsion says. "But Isabel accused Mabel of carrying out a black fast – a tool used by witches to curse others – against the king.
"Mabel was tried for treasonous witchcraft and executed.
"There was apparently a feud between the Buck family and someone close to Mabel."
The death of so many women is a dark chapter in human history.
"There was just so much ignorance and superstition," says Mrs Rennsion.
"In Yorkshire they were more tolerant than in other parts of the country but many were still punished and killed.
"Most of the women were old and many were just eccentric.
"It was probable a good number of them suffered from dementia.
"If you were ugly or had moles then you could be in trouble."
"I think it's terribly sad and tragic that so many innocent women lost their lives."