Witchcraft in Doncaster
By Victoria Ryves, NPO Programme Manager
The History, Health and Happiness team have been getting spooky this October around the borough.
The team have been sharing the stories of two women accused of witchcraft in Doncaster in the 1600s, as well as some of the spooky objects from our collection.
Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries
In the 16th and 17th Centuries a witchcraft frenzy swept across Europe. It is estimated by some historians that between 1482 and 1782, around 100,000 people across Europe were accused of witchcraft, and some 40,000–50,000 were executed. It is thought that approximately 500 people in England were executed for witchcraft during this period.
In England, Henry VIII was the first to define witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. The Witchcraft Act of 1542 said it was forbidden to:
“…use devise practise or exrcise, any Inovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchcrafts enchantementes or sorceries to thentent to funde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to provoke any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawful intente or purpose.”
By 1562 the Witchcraft Act was updated to only lay down the punishment of execution for witchcraft with intended to kill. As a result, witches accused of using their powers to cause a death would be punished in the same way as those accused of murder—by hanging. For intent to hurt or destroy goods, one year’s imprisonment was seen as sufficient, and six hours in the stocks was the punishment given for lesser deeds.
James I introduced another Witchcraft Act in 1604 that moved the crime away from the church courts to the courts of common law. James I was really superstitious and had a deep rooted belief in witchcraft. He even published a book on the subject called Daemonologie in 1597. Under James I’s law any witch who had committed a minor witchcraft offence and was accused and found guilty a second time was sentenced to death straight away.
It wasn’t until 1735 that the death penalty was removed for witchcraft. However, witchcraft remained illegal and subject to fines and imprisonment.
The law stayed on the statute book until 1951 and the last prosecution under a Witchcraft Act took place in 1944.
Who were witches?
In the 16th and 17th centuries, any unforeseen circumstance could be attributed to witchcraft, such as the death of a child, bad harvests, or the death of cattle. Inevitably, suspicion fell on anyone who was different. Any eccentricity of lifestyle or manner could lead to accusations of witchcraft, but some accusations were simply malice. Neighbourhood gossip and reputation were powerful in this period and this can be seen in the ripple effects that accusations caused in some areas.
Not all those accused of witchcraft were women. Across Europe 1 in 5 people accused of witchcraft were male. However, because women were thought to be weaker and therefore more vulnerable to the devil’s temptation, it isn’t surprising that more women were accused. Many of the women accused were also the poor and elderly, and many were widows.
How could you prevent it?
People believed they could use a variety of things to keep witchcraft at bay. For example, a rowan tree was thought to be a tree with magical properties. A twig of it placed over the doorway could act as a guard against witches. Iron was also thought to have powers to keep people safe from witchcraft, so people nailed iron horseshoes above their doors.
How could you prove someone was a witch?
Those accused of witchcraft faced a trial. Some were also subjected to torture to elicit a confession, including thumb screws. There were also tests for witches, including the infamous swimming test.
Witchcraft accusations in Doncaster
In 1605 Joan Jurdie of Rossington was accused of witchcraft. She was accused of causing the death of Jennet Murfin.
In November of 1604 Joan was invited to attend the birth of Jennet Murfin’s child. It was typical in this period for the women of a village to gather during a birth. For some reason Joan did not attend. She also refused to take part in the traditional drink and ‘labour cake’ following the birth. It was believed that she had some ill intent towards the family.
This belief was reinforced when Jennet Murfin fell ill two days after a visit from Joan. Accusations were then made that Joan must be a witch.
Early in 1605, the Mayor of Doncaster, Hugh Childers, was presented with a series of depositions from Joan’s neighbours.
Anne Judd, Jennet Murfin’s sister, testified that she had visited Joan’s house and Joan had asked after Jennet and the baby. When she was told that they were unwell, Joan apparently replied ‘she is not at the worst, she will be worst yet’. This was interpreted as a threat. Anne also testified that before her death Jennet had said she was ‘ridden with a witch’ and had told Katherine Dolfin that ‘she hath killed me, I may never recover’. Jennet had then gone on to say that she had been feeling fine until the visit from Joan.
Katherine Dolfin was called before the Mayor and confirmed what Anne Judd had said. Katherine also told the Mayor that she had previously been to Joan to seek help from her witchcraft and Joan had cured her sick child. In a later testimony Katherine Dolphin also said that a Jane Spight of Rossington had previously sought help from Joan for a sick calf. She went on to add that following her previous testimony Joan had threatened her and her husband and immediately following this an ox, cow and steer had fallen ill will a mysterious illness.
Joan Jurdie’s servant confirmed that her mistress had given Anne Judd sage leaves and honey to rub on to her sister’s baby’s sore mouth and confirmed that she had heard Joan make the remark that Jennet would get worse.
Eventually Joan Jurdie was brought forward for examination. She denied all the accusations made against her and said that she had no special powers.
Peter Murfin was then called to testify and his testimony seems to have caused some confusion as he seems to have confused the dates of his wife’s death, resulting in the time line being disrupted.
However, despite all this testimony the Mayor and Justices of the Peace seem to have been convinced of Joan’s innocence. There is no evidence of her receiving any punishment.
Unfortunately though, Joan’s story does not end here. It seems that the neighbours continued to conspire against her. In 1608 she was charged again, this time for using witchcraft to cause the deaths of Hester Dolfin, Jane Dolfin and George Murfin. The families of these three people were previously associated with her initial case. There are no details on the outcome of this case. However, if Joan had been found guilty on this occasion it would have been very likely that she would have been sentenced to hang.
The diary of Yorkshire gentleman Abraham De la Pryme hints at a trial of a Doncaster woman Jane Blomeley. His diary says that at the court sessions in 1623 Jane Blomeley was accused of having ‘feloniously practised and exercised certain detestable arts, called witchcraft and sorcery’ leading to the death of Frances Craven, wife of Marmaduke Craven, yeoman.
 A very brief history of witches by Suzannah Lipscomb, https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/history-witches-facts-burned-hanged/
Helen Duncan was tried and prosecuted as a witch in 1944. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/modern/oddities_modern.shtml