Tuesday, April 19, 2016

On this day in 1621: remembering Elizabeth Sawyer, convicted witch.

Three hundred and ninety five years ago today, Elizabeth Sawyer was led out to her hanging at Tyburn, after having been found guilty of the murder by witchcraft of Agnes Ratcleife.

Candidly described in the sole surviving report of her life and death as 'a very ignorant woman', Sawyer had lost her temper during her trial: 

"she was not able to speake a sensible or ready word for her defense, but sends out in the hearing of the Judge, Jury, and all good people that stood by, many most fearefull imprecations for destruction against her selfe then to happen, as heretofore she had wished and indeavoured to happen on divers of her neighbours: the which the righteous Judge of Heaven, whom she thus invocated, to judge then and discerne her cause, did reveale."

There's a sense that what she said in court (in this fashion) was the reason for her conviction. Certainly Henry Goodcole, the Chaplain of Newgate, who hastily wrote up his account of her conviction and the confession he finally got from her  ("though with great labour it was extorted from her"), shaped up and framed her story as a caution for all against blaspheming. He concludes: 

"Deare Christians, lay this to heart, namely the cause, and first time, that the Divell came unto her, then, even then when she was cursing, swearing, and blaspheming ... Stand on your guard and watch with sobrietie to resist him, the Divell your adversary, who waiteth on you continually, to subvert you that so you, that doe detest her abhominable wordes, and wayes, may never taste of the cup nor wages of shame and destruction, of which she did in this life..."

Her blasphemies seem to have caught everybody's attention. These days, we are fascinated by familiars, but plenty of witches had plenty of familiars in animal form without getting a play written about them. You can see their interest: Goodcole has her say:

"The first time that the Divell came unto me was, when I was cursing, swearing and blaspheming; he then rushed in upon me ... the first words that hee spake unto me were these: 'Oh! have I now found you cursing, swearing, and blaspheming? now you are mine.'"

And he adds a side note, reporting a spectator's extraordinary interest - he can't seem to get over it:

"A Gentleman by name Mr. Maddox standing by, and hearing of her say the word blaspheming, did aske of her, three or foure times, whether the Divell sayd 'Have I found you blaspheming?', and shee confidently sayd', 'Ay'."

Mr Maddox then disappears. He ought properly to appear among the list of names who attest to the truth that what is recorded was her confession. Goodcole promises this a couple of times in his text, but the names never got added. Doubtless Goodcole ran out of time.

Blasphemy as the moment of diabolic access went directly into the play Dekker, Ford and Rowley wrote about her.

But enough: almost 400 years later, that play has featured largely in my professional life as a university teacher. I think I know just about everything one can know, through the strange refractions of the pamphlet and the play. It is like peering into a fog, in which you can just about hear a voice, angry and lost.

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