On or about this day 368 years ago, the woman purportedly depicted in this woodcut was summarily shot by parliamentary forces near Newbury. The picture gets reproduced in museum displays, etc: it was the title page of A most certain, strange, and true discovery of a witch being taken by some of the Parliament forces as she was standing on a small planck board and sayling on it over the river of Newbury: together with the strange and true manner of her death, with the propheticall words and speeches she used at the same time. Printed by John Hammond, 1643. George Thomason dated the publication more precisely to September 28th, which was the day the Earl of Essex led his undefeated army back into London after getting rather the better of the first battle of Newbury (Sept 20th). The image of course attempts no likeness, but makes the unknown, unnamed victim of the soldiers conform to a witch stereotype.
My main project here was to set off the pamphlet’s account against other references to this incident in the periodical press of the day. Having transcribed those accounts and passing mentions I have found made the newsletters, I then discovered that EEBO has not yet done a full text transcript of the 28th September pamphlet. So I did one, and here it is; but between the two long paragraphs (and after them) I will insert some comments of my own.
A most certain, strange, and true discovery of a witch, etc, 1643
“Many are in a belief, that this silly sex of women by no means attaine to that so vile and damned a practice of sorcery and Witch-craft, in regard of their illiteratenesse and want of learning, which many men have by great learning done, Adam by temptation toucht and tasted the deceiving apple, so some high learnd & read by the same temptation that deceived him hath bin so insnared to contract with the Divel; as for example, in the instancing a few, as English Bacon of Oxford, Vandermast of Holland, Bungay of Germany, Fostus of the same, Franciscus the English Monke of Bury, Doctor Slackleach, and divers others which were too tedious to relate of, but how weake women should attain unto it many are incredible of the same, and many too are opposite in opinion against the same, that giving a possibility to their doubtings, that the malice, and inveterate malice of a woman entirely devoted to her revengefull wrath frequenting desolate and desart places, and giving way unto their wished temptation, may have converse with that world roaring lion, and covenant and contract upon condition, the like hath in sundry place, and divers times been tried at the Assises of Lancaster, Carlisle, Buckingham, and elsewhere, but to come to the intended relation of this Witch or Sorceresse, as is manifest and credibly related by the Gentlemen, Commanders, and Captains, of the Earl of Essex his Army.
(RB: like many of these pamphlets, the recital of the incidents is offered as a proof that witchcraft exists, and in this case that sorcery can be practised by women, even if illiteracy prevents them from making a written contract. A female civilian had been executed without trial. Newbury was town which generally favoured the parliamentarian cause, so there needed to be a good reason for this atrocity. At the start of the following paragraph, we will see confusion as to exactly where this fatal encounter took place. If the army really was marching through Newbury, then it happened after the battle. But at the end, the ‘witch’ finally breaks down into speech, and makes prophecy of Essex’s forthcoming victory. The straggling march with troops foraging in the hedgerows sounds like conditions in Essex’s half-starved force as it moved east from Hungerford towards Newbury on Sept. 19th. Royalist forces moving from Wantage got to Newbury before Essex’s advance party, and were withdrawn towards Oxford after the battle, leaving Essex free to march through Newbury and on towards London.)
“A part of the Army marching through Newbury some of the Souldiers being scattered by the reason of their loitering by the way, in gathering Nuts, Apples, Plummes, Blackberries, and the like, one of them by chance in clambering up a tree, being pursued by his fellow or Comrade in waggish merriment, jesting one with another, espied on the river being there adjacent, a tall, lean, slender woman, as he supposed, to his amazement, and great terreur treading of the water with her feet, with as much ease and firmnesses as if one could walk or trample on the earth, wherewith his softly calls, and beckened to his fellows to behold it, and with all possible speed that could be to obscure them from her sight, who as conveniently as they could they did observe, this could be no little amazement unto them you may think to see a woman dance upon the water, nor could all their sights be deluded, though perhaps one might but coming nearer to the shore, they could perceive there was a plank or deale overshadowed with a little shallow water that she stood upon, the which did beare her up, anon rode by some of the Commanders who were eye witnesses, as well as they, and were as much astonished as they could be, still too and fro she fleeted on the water, the boord standing firm bout upright, indeed I have both heard and read of many that in tempests and on rivers by casualty have been shipwracked, or cast over board, where catching empty barrels, rudders, boards, or planks have made good shift by the assisting providence of God to get on shore, but not in this womans kind to stand upon the board, turning and winding it which way she pleased, making it pastime to her, as little thinking who perceived her tricks, or that she did imagine that they were the last she ever should show, as we have heard the swan sing before her death, so did this divellish woman, as after plainly it appeared make sport before her death, at last having sufficiently been upon the water, he that deceived her always did so then, blinding her that she could not at her landing see the ambush that was laid for her, coming upon the shore she gave the board a push, which they plainly perceived, and crossed the river, they searched after her but could not find her she being landed the Commanders beholding her, gave order to lay hold on her and bring her to them straight, the which some were fearfull, but some being more venturous then other some, boldly went to her and seized on her by the arme, demanding what she was? But the woman no whit replying any words unto them, they brought her unto the Commanders, to whom though mightily she was urged she did reply as little: so consulting with themselves what should be done with her, being it so apparently appeared she was a Witch, being loth to let her goe, and as loth to carry her with them, they so resolved with themselves, to make a shot at her, and gave order to a couple of their Souldiers that were approved good marks-men, to charge and shoot her straight, which they prepared to doe: so setting her boult upright against a mud banke or wall; two of the Souldiers according to their command made themselves ready, where having taken aime gave fire and shot at her as thinking sure they had sped her, but with a deriding and loud laughter at them she caught the bullets in her hands and chew’d them, which was a stronger testimony then the water, that she was the same that their imagination thought her so to be, so resolving with themselves if either fire or sword or halter were sufficient for to make an end of her, one set his carbin close unto her brest: where discharging the bullet back rebounded like a ball, and narrowly he mist it in his face that was the shooter: this so enraged the Gentleman, that one drew out his sword & manfully run at her with all the force his strength had power to make, but it prevailed no more than did the shot, the woman still though speechlesse, yet in a most contemptible way of scorn, still laughing at them, which did the more exhaust their furie against her life, yet one amongst the rest had heard that piercing or drawing bloud from forth the veines that cross the temples of the head, it would prevail against the strongest sorcery, and quell the force of Witchcraft, which was allowed for triall: the woman hearing this, knew that the Devill had left her and her power was gone, whereupon she began alowd to cry, and roare, tearing her haire, and making piteous moan, which in these words expressed were; and is this come to passe, that I must dye indeed? Why then his Excellency the Earl of Essex shall be fortunate and win the field, after which no more words could be got from her; wherewith they immediately discharged a pistol underneath her eare, at which she straight sunk down and dyed, leaving her legacy of a detested carcase to the wormes, her soul were ought not to judge of, though the evils of her wicked life and death can scape no censure.
(The writer makes the desperate foraging sound like schoolboy fun, exactly like the boy Robinson looking for ‘bullaces’ at the start of The Late Lancashire Witches. In the imputed mood of levity, the ‘witch’ is sighted. I imagine that people who lived by lakes and rivers got very good at balancing on the slightest of craft: the woman’s apparent enjoyment of her skill brought to the mind of her assailants the kind of images of sorcerers floating on mere planks that we see in Olaus Magnus' Historia de gentibus Septentrionalibus, and hear about in tales of witches sailing in eggshells, sieves, etc.
It seems possible that the woman did scoff at or ridicule the soldiers. The Parliamentary cause had not gone well up to this point of the war, the Royalists were winning. Rather than larking about up trees, the soldiers were more likely to be very much on edge. A confused passage in the narrative seems to indicate that the woman thought she could cross the river to safety, but they seem to have gone to the trouble of rounding her up. She had said too much, they decided to finish her off. The initial impression that she was walking on the water itself, rejected by the very baptismal element itself, remains more potent in their jumpy response than any rational attention to her body board. Notice that they ask ‘what’, not ‘who’ she was: they seem at no point to have been interested in her name; her personal individuality was simply swallowed up in this new one, ‘witch’. Their attempts to shoot her are in effect her trial: that she is seemingly impervious to shot proves that she actually is what she is being shot for being, a pacted witch (and it says nothing about their potentially worrisome inability to shoot straight). After ‘scratching’, her power of ‘charmed life’ is broken, like Macbeth’s finally was, and she succumbs to a pistol shot beneath her ear. Had she been reported to have died after the first shots, this might have looked more like the murder it was, but she was by then safely incriminated to men who had no inclination to take her with them for trial (they all faced a battle, after all).
Here’s the account of the incident in Certaine Informations from Severall Parts of the Kingdome, September 25, 1643 - October 2, 1643; Issue 37.
“The general vote of the souldiers that are returned from the fight at Newbery is, that a Witch was sent by the Cavaliers into their Army to do mischiefe, who being shot at, was so impenetrable, that no bullets would pierce her, whereupon a Captaine bid shoot her with a button, and one of the souldiers pulled a brasse button from his doublet, and therewith charging his pistoll, fired it upon her head, and slew her. If it be true that she were a witch, and sent by the Cavaliers, as the common voice it, [illeg.] will verify the old verse, viz. Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo
But it will be thought ridiculous that any man should be shot free. Whereunto we answer, that we have heard some English Commanders that have been in the Swedes wars, credibly affirme, that it is an ordinary thing in those parts.”
In this other parliamentary account, the witch was a royalist agent. The forces of hell are deployed against the trained bands. The 1645 pamphlet, Signs and wonders from heaven shows the persistence of this belief that eliminating witches would nullify Prince Rupert’s preternatural invulnerability: “It is likewise certified by many of good quality and worth that at the last Assises in Norfolke there were 40 witches araigned for their lives, and 20. executed: and that they have done very much harme in that Countrey, and have prophesied of the downfall of the King and his Army, and that Prince Robert (sic) shall be no longer shot-free: with many strange and unheard of things that shall come to passe.” Curious, then, that the September 28th pamphleteer made so little of the ‘witch’ as a spell-casting antagonist, or as an associate of Prince Rupert: she is surprised (in his account) while intent on her own recreations, like Acrasia being caught unawares in her Bower of Bliss. I had not come across buttons as efficacious against supernatural things – a silver coat button would have been more familiar. But a brass one worked (as it would).
For the royalist side Mercurius Britanicus Communicating the Affaires of Great Britaine, October 10, 1643 - October 17, 1643; Issue 8, offered this derisive account of what was claimed. It in turn shows no compassion for the dead woman, but does insinuate something of the injustice: the witch was killed ‘before she was born’ (where I think the intended sense is, before she became one):
“And that the Citie may have plenty of strange things together, the Faction made a fine new Witch, borne and brought forth at Newbury, which (you must know) was the true cause why so many trained bands lost their lives, and this Witch (for certaine) they saw walke upon the water, being as light-heeld as any of the She-Committee, and had an impenetrable skin till a faithful Shoomaker scratched her on the arme, by which meanes they put a Pistoll to her eare, and so discovered her to be a Malignant woman, that is (said master Peard) a Witch or Sorceresse. So this Witch being killed (before she was borne) their victory went on bravely.
And for the Witch, since you have so much faith in her as we heare, we will sell ye her grissels and bones, you may make spels and charmes of them to keep you Shot-free and Scot-free: I am persuaded you are so superstitious, you thinke one tooth of such a grave, old woman may be the preservation of Prince Rupert himselfe, and His majesties whole Army.”
Mercurius Aulicus (1643: Oxford) (Oxford, England), Sunday, October 15, 1643 reports on the contents of some intercepted letters. The incident appears (for this writer) among the other follies the parliamentarian forces entertained: prejudices, lies, hopeful rumours, and absurdities, the wild words of a defeated rabble:
“Though their forces are not many their lyes are, which since they prosper so ill in print, they convey them confidently in writing (though sometimes they expresse a sensible sigh for the unluckinesse of their cause) many of which were this weeke were intercepted. One writes to his sister Mistresse Mary Greene, that he saw the French Ambassador come into London, but Oh sister (said he) his very horses head had all Crosses on. (sure they were not horses) Another, one Broughton, writes to Alderman Basnet at Coventree, that his unkle George Gresley saw an old Witch at Newbury with his very eyes (nay with his very eares). Another writes to his friend at Coventry that he received a wound at Auburne by one of my Lord Jermyn’s Souldiers nine inches deepe. Another writes that, Prince Rupert is mortally wounded…”
Whoever she was, perhaps an eel-catcher, trout fisher or reed-bed cutter on the Kennet, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had the folly to laugh at tired, hungry and nervous soldiers, men who were capable of believing anything of their enemy. She was, after a bit of shooting and missing, killed, and then posthumously incriminated according to that dictates of that convenient excuse, witchcraft.