Delving deeper into Yorkshire's 17th century witch hunting trials with findings that could re-write history

Sinister accusations of sorcery and witchcraft in the 17th century are long believed to have spelled fearful consequences for those left facing the hangman's noose.

Pictured (left to right) Victoria Ryves, a curator, from Heritage Doncaster, with Nick Crouch, a researcher for Heritage Doncaster's Changing The Record project, in the grounds of St Michaels Church, Rossington, near Sheffield. Image James Hardisty

But as researchers delve into the finer details surrounding Yorkshire's witch hunts, a deeper truth begins to emerge that could yet shatter long-held illusions.

There is drama to be found amid the records of scorned courtroom accusations, but for some women, new research suggests, the witch trials were to prove rather less sensational.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Of 37 women accused of being a witch in Yorkshire in the 1600s, new findings show, only four would go on to be convicted and hanged, with many more surviving in pardon.

Pictured (left to right) Victoria Ryves, a curator, from Heritage Doncaster, with Nick Crouch, a researcher for Heritage Doncaster's Changing The Record project, in the grounds of St Michaels Church, Rossington, near Sheffield. Image James Hardisty

One woman, Joan Jurdie, lived 20 years after trials to see her grandchildren born, with newly uncovered records detailing a life more affluent than imagined.

Read More

Read More
Remembering a hero's welcome on 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's visit to Le...

"It goes against the grain about what we think we know about witches in the 17th century," said Nick Crouch, a researcher with Heritage Doncaster who uncovered the findings.

"Everybody presumes these poor old women, often widows, were sent to the gallows.

"The focus on a few big witch trials gives an impression this was going on all the time," he added. "It clearly wasn't. What we do see is a bit of 'rough justice' being handed out within societies."

The Changing the Record project from Heritage Doncaster, backed by Arts Council England, looks again at the area's history to re-appraise what really happened.

Approaching history with fresh eyes from under-represented communities, it is examining the first-ever women's working class movement, black history, and women against pit closures.

What has become apparent with Doncaster's witch trials, is that history is subjective.

New findings

Mr Crouch, a retired IT professional who began exploring Joan Jurdie's history as a community volunteer with the project, uncovered parish records that show her date of death some 20 years after her trial.

It took some doing, double tracking name changes and spelling errors through her husband and grandson, alongside the baptising of her son at Rossington Church.

Alongside the death records of her husband, they prove she lived a relatively comfortable life, with a servant and a home large enough to house at least one horse.

"We've never known what happened until now, when we discovered Joan Jurdie's death records. They show she must have been acquitted," said Mr Crouch.

"Our view, that once accused of witchcraft some terrible machine of public justice would swing into action, doesn't seem to have any foundation at all.

"What is clear, though, is that parish records didn't serve women very well."

'Snippets of truth'

While the findings do shed new light on a history corrupted by dramatisation surrounding Salem, the Pendle witch trials, and witchhunter Matthew Hopkins, they also show a darker side.

Nearly two thirds of the accused were widows, scorned with derision and vulnerable to bullying, with the findings painting a picture of insidious gossip.

Victoria Ryves, project manager for Heritage Doncaster’s Changing the Record project, said the findings have shattered all previous understanding of what happened to those accused.

"A lot of what we understand about Joan Jurdie, or what we thought we knew, was influenced by fictional accounts," she said.

"It's snippets of truth. If we start to look deeper, we can find where the truth really lies.

"These were real women, in England, in Doncaster, being accused of something that completely turned their lives upside down.

"The stories of women are sadly marginalised in history, particularly women like Joan who were very ordinary. It does change your perception."

Joan Jurdie

Historians have always believed that Joan Jurdie was a tragic victim of the witch-hunts, executed despite her claims of innocence.

A sometimes midwife, she had been accused of witchcraft in 1605 after refusing to attend a birth over a perceived slight. When the woman and child died, neighbours began to point fingers.

Magistrates had dismissed accusations in court, but three years later she was charged again at Doncaster Assizes with causing the deaths of three more people.

Until now, nobody has known what happened next, with common belief being that she was sentenced to hang.

Mr Crouch's findings show she was a woman in her 50s, with a teenage family and at least one servant. Her husband died having been thrown from his horse, which suggests some standing.


Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.