Alleged Demon Possession and Witchcraft in Stuart Age Lancashire
In late Tudor and early Stuart times, a strange tale unfolded around seven individuals. They became known as ‘The Seven in Lancashire’, and the infamy of the case spread throughout England. We know about the details of what happened in great depth as two contemporary accounts were written by visiting clergymen, and these survive intact to this day.
The story centres around the Starkie family and began in February 1595. Nicholas and Anne Starkie lived at Cleworth Hall near Tyldesley with their son John (aged 10) and daughter Anne (aged 9). Anne was the first to start behaving oddly. She was “taken with a dumpish and heavy countenance and a certain fearful starting and pulling together of the body”. A week later, as John was setting out for school, he started to shout uncontrollably. As time went on, he began “falling into often and extreme fits”.
Their father Nicholas was at a loss over his children’s behaviour. He consulted a Catholic priest and then a doctor, but was unable to get much advice from either. About ten weeks later, he found Edmund Hartley, who did offer help. Hartley’s detractors would later describe him as a witch and a “conjuror”, but the best description would probably be what was then known as a cunning man. Cunning men or women were folk healers, users of medicinal herbs and charms.
Hartley’s influence seemed to calm the children, and for a year and a half he remained in the employment of the Starkie family. However, when his services seemed no longer to be required Hartley warned that if he left the family they would find it hard to find him again. Soon after he departed, John “fell a bleeding” and Hartley was summoned back. On his return, he stated that if the family had left it much longer he would have been so far away they would never been able to reach him. Perhaps glad of his return, and John’s temporary recovery, Nicholas was persuaded by Hartley to give him a pension of 40 shillings a year.
Some time later, Nicholas and Hartley went to visit Nicholas’s father at Huntroyde Hall near Burnley. Nicholas became ill that night, and the next morning Hartley proposed a remedy. He took Nicholas to a small wood near the house. There he drew the outline of a circle on the ground, about a yard and a half wide with crosses in it. He told Nicholas to tread out the circle, but Nicholas, probably fearing that this was some kind of sorcery, refused. This instance would later prove to be Hartley’s undoing.
By now Nicholas was tiring of Hartley’s services. When Hartley demanded “a home and ground to go with it” Nicholas refused, and Hartley flew into a rage. Nicholas decided he needed more help for his children, and to get rid of Hartley.
Dr Dee is Consulted
A physician suggested that Nicholas approach Dr John Dee, the famous astrologer and alchemist of Elizabethan England. By this time, Dee was the warden at the Collegiate Church in Manchester. However, late on in his life he was seeking to downplay anything from his past that smacked of heresy or unorthodox practices, whether those be religious or magical. To Dee’s mind this was a case of demon possession and he suggested Nicholas hire “some godly preachers”.
Dr Dee then sent for Edmund Hartley and rebuked him for his methods employed while treating the Starkie children. In turn Hartley fell out with Nicholas for not having faith in him, and for trying to get Dee involved.
New Year, More Troubles
Around the first of January 1597, the children went to stay with a relation, and Hartley accompanied them. On the way back home they said they wanted to see Dr Dee, who had requested that they visit him. Hartley refused, but they continued to insist and he relented. After they had seen Dee, Hartley became enraged, and told them it would be better for them not to have changed an old friend for a new one. He walked before them all the way to their home, refusing to speak further.
On Tuesday 4th January, trouble started up again. John was quietly reading when “something gave him such a blow on the neck, that he was suddenly stricken down with a horrible scryke, saying that Satan had broken his neck, and lay tormented and pitiful for a space of two hours”. That night he “lept out of bed with a terrible cry that amazed all the family, then he was tossed and tumbled a long time, was very fierce like a mad-man or mad dog, snatched and bit everyone that he laid hold of, with his teeth, not sparing his mother”. Anne too began to suffer fits again, and others were now drawn into the drama.
Margaret Byrom (an adult relative of Mrs Starkie) was visiting Cleworth Hall when Edmund Hartley himself began to throw a fit. She was asked to sit down behind him, hold him and speak to him. When he recovered himself, Margaret was unable to stand back up, became “benumb and giddy”, fell down and could not be roused. When she came to her senses, she then “nicknamed and tormented everyone present”, railing mostly against Hartley, and hit him angrily. Hartley said he feared he had harmed her, and tried to comfort her. She would not be placated, and said that he had bewitched her, and that even when she closed her eyes she could still see him. In subsequent days, she began having fits, and claimed to have been thrown by an unseen force towards the fire.
Staying at the Starkie household at that time were three children that Nicholas was being paid to tutor. These were Margaret Hurdman (aged 14), her sister Elizabeth (or Ellen) (aged 10) and Ellinor Holland (aged 12). These three children, together with John and Anne, would all now have fits. They would bark and howl one after the other until they all joined in like a “ring of 5 bells”. After they finished howling, they “fell a tumbling” and after that were “speechless, senseless and lay as if dead”.
The five children began to expand their behavioural displays. Elizabeth displayed a ‘miraculous’ ability to sew, far beyond her capability. Ellinor would call for an hour glass and be able to tell when it needed turning, each quarter of the hour, without looking at it. One time John preached, praying for the queen and peaceable government, and exhorted those listening to uphold the gospel. After two hours of this he stopped, and later denied all knowledge of his behaviour.
The children started to refer to their demons as their ‘lads’. Margaret Hurdman would discuss with her ‘lad’ all manner of fine clothes that she would own such as a “petticoat of the best silk, French bodie not of whale bone but horn,” and a “gown of black wrought velvet”.
One elaborate game involved John, Anne, Elizabeth and Ellinor gathering a different leaf from each plant in the garden. Then they went from room to room, each laying down the same unique leaf in the room that their peers did, apparently without seeing what each other had selected.
They children often took to being a group on their own, playing cards and dancing, only responding to each other and not to any of the adults in the household.
More general behaviours they tended to display were ones then commonly believed to be done by those possessed by demons. This included being able to answer questions in Latin (which none of them had been taught to speak), blaspheming about God and the bible, saying “filthy and unsavoury” things, contorting their faces, heaving and lifting their bodies and having bellies that were swollen.
Edmund Hartley’s Final Fall from Favour
At the end of January, Margaret Byrom (Mrs Starkie’s relative) decided to return home to her mother’s house in Salford. She was accompanied on the journey by Hartley. In the seven miles between the two houses, she had ten fits. Once she was ensconced at her mother’s, Hartley continued to visit her. However, he was unable to prevent her fits, and stated that she was beyond his help and he needed two or three more people to pray over her.
One day, Matthew Palmer, Dr Dee’s curate, visited with Nicholas Starkie to say prayers for Margaret. Palmer asked Hartley what he did to help her, to which Hartley replied that he prayed over her. Palmer then asked him to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Hartley began, but soon stumbled over the words and was unable to reach the end of it. Palmer suspected that Hartley was a witch and immediately informed two Justices of the Peace about him.
One of the JPs, Edmund Hopwood, began to gather evidence against Hartley. He came to speak to the children at the Starkie household, but when he asked them to give a report about Hartley, they became speechless and fell down. When they were finally able to say something, they reported that he had “stopt their mouths and would not suffer them to speak”. When Jane Ashton, a thirty year old maid servant of the Starkies, was asked by Hopwood to give testimony against Hartley, she began to bark and howl. At this, one of the children remarked “Ah Edmund dost thou trouble her now when she should testify against thee?”. Jane was the last of the Seven to be affected and only seems to enter the account at this point.
A similar pattern emerged when Hartley was brought before Margaret Byrom. Five times he stood in her presence and each time she was “cast down and struck dumb and could not speak one word against him”. Whenever he was removed, she would regain her speech and make her accusations.
Hartley was sent to Lancaster Gaol, but before he went was allowed to call at Cleworth Hall to gather his clothes. On seeing him, the children flew into rages and had “very violent and outrageous fits”. They ran at him and wanted to strike him, but were forcibly restrained.
Hartley had now become the scapegoat for the actions of the Seven. However, his arrest and incarceration did little to change the behaviour of the children. In one instance, they told Mrs Starkie that an angel in the form of a dove had come from God. They stated that they had to follow it to heaven through a little hole under their beds or through a wall. Four of them, one morning, spent their time on their knees, before fleeing from the family and neighbours, running from room to room and calling them devils. Elizabeth and Ellinor began to declare how many fits they would have, and for how long, using the hour glass to time them.
Meanwhile in Salford, Margaret Byrom claimed she had been visited by various demons in differing forms. She said a dwarf with half a face, long shaggy hair and black cloven feet threatened to carry her away if she prayed. A great black dog, a big black cat and finally a big mouse all appeared one after the other, each one throwing her down to the ground, depriving her of her senses, and preventing her from eating or drinking.
However, perhaps the Seven knew that the tide would soon be turning. On one occasion, Elizabeth and Ellinor did not eat for three days, only speaking to each other and their lads. At last they said that their lads had allowed them to eat. One could have toast and a drink, the other a possett of sour milk. But neither of them could keep the food or drink down, and one of the girls remarked “Thou naughty lad, thou makes us sick, for thou knowest the preachers will come shortly”. Plans were afoot to bring in new expertise, and a new approach.
Edmund Hartley’s Trial and the Search for Another Solution
At the trial of Edmund Hartley, he was charged by Nicholas Starkie of bewitching the children. The contemporary accounts say that the jury was convinced of this. Perhaps there was some reticence to condemn him though. Some may have had their doubts, because John and Anne’s strange behaviour had occurred some two months before Nicholas had engaged Hartley. However, when Nicholas recounted the story of the drawing of the circle near his father’s house at Huntroyde, this was enough to damn Hartley. He was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death.
Nicholas Starkie once again sought help, returning to see Dr John Dee. It was Dee’s butler who gave him advice this time, telling him of his nephew, Thomas Darling of Burton. The boy had been ‘possessed’ and successfully exorcised by a clergyman called John Darrell. Nicholas then began a letter-writing campaign to get Darrell to come to Cleworth Hall, and enlisted a reluctant Dee to also write. After receiving a number of letters, John Darrell agreed to to visit the household and prevail over an exorcism.
The First Day: The Clergy Arrive
John Darrell brought with him George More, a pastor from Calke in Derbyshire, to help with the exorcism. They arrived on 16th March 1597, just a short time after Edmund Hartley had been hung.
They found that John had been well for a fortnight, Anne for four days. They then sent for the other three children, who all “bade them welcome”. The next moment one was thrown back with force. This happened to each of them in turn and they began having fits and were “strangely and grievously tormented”. The clergymen then heard Jane Ashton the maid howling and, on seeing her, noted her belly was swollen.
Darrell began preaching to John and Anne while Nicholas held them. Both of them cried out loudly, and John was cast down on the bed, with a great stomach pain, feeling his heart would burst. When the Bible was quoted, he replied “blaspheming” saying “bibble babble” ( i.e. Bible babble).
The clergymen beat a retreat outside. Speaking to Nicholas in the quiet of the garden, they explained their plans for the next day. They were going to lead a day of fasting, preaching and prayer. To help them, they sent for Mr Dickens, the Starkie family’s minister at the parish church in Leigh. That evening, the clergy spoke with the afflicted again and, as before, the whooping and yelling began again.
The Second Day
The next day, John Darrell, George More and Mr Dickens prepared themselves to lead the prayers and preaching. Thirty neighbours had gathered to support them. The Seven were laid on couches in the large parlour, and preliminary prayers were said. At 7 o’ clock, Mr Dickens began giving the first sermon.
All seven started “roaring and belling” and had to be held down. They struck themselves, pulled their own hair and cried out. Margaret Hurdman kept saying “I must be gone, I must be gone, whether shall I go, whether shall I go, I will not die, I will not die” over and over. Later she said “I cannot tarry, I cannot tarry, I am too hot, I am too hot, let me go, let me go”.
Jane Ashton, the maid, seemed to be the worst of all, having very violent fits. Darrell and Dickens decided to work on her separately, removing her from the other six and leaving More to preach to them as they lay (by now) on the floor. It was More that was present at their ‘deliverance’. When Dickens returned, the six rose up one after the other and said they were free of their evil spirits. They leapt, danced and praised God. More warned them that Satan would try to re-enter them, but that they were all strong enough to resist. By the time this happened it was now between 5 and 6 pm.
The six gave accounts of what their banished demons had looked like. Margaret Byrom stated that hers had come out of her throat and had the appearance of a crow’s head, Elizabeth’s was a hedgehog, John’s was a hunchback and Anne’s a “foul ugly man with a white beard and a hunch on his chest”.
Darrell was still working on Jane Ashton, and did not know what had happened with the other six. He continued to work with Jane until four o’clock in the morning. He later professed regret at not being present to witness the others’ ‘deliverance’. That night, the children all claimed the demons had come back and set upon them. Mr Dickens told them to pray, and to resist. With his guidance, they were able to do this and all fell asleep. The next morning, they claimed the demons had threatened them or offered gold to re-enter their bodies.
The Third Day
The next morning, fifty people were present. Jane had still not been ‘delivered’. All three of the clergymen took turns saying prayers. As George More’s turn dragged on, he grew tired and wanted one of the others to take his place. At this point, Jane grasped his hand and said “Nay for God’s sake leave me not yet, stick to it a little longer and you shall see he will depart shortly”. The other pastors joined in, and she rose up and thanked God that the spirit had left her.
For the Seven of Lancashire, it was now all over. John Darrell and George More took their leave and returned to the Midlands. However, Darrell and More remained committed to their cause. They believed that this was a case of demon possession caused by a witch, namely Edmund Hartley. However, such accusations, tossed around so lightly, could have serious consequences.
The Aftermath for Darrell and More
John Darrell returned to Nottingham and became embroiled in another exorcism case, that of a boy called William Sommers. When Sommers accused someone who had powerful connections of being a witch, the case turned against him and his exorcist, Darrell. Accusation and counter-accusation dogged the affair, with the boy being accused of pretending to be possessed, him confessing to this, recanting it, and finally accusing Darrell of coaching him.
The consequence of all of this meant that John Darrell and George More ended up on trial before a panel that included the Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury. Nicholas Starkie’s letter stating that they had performed a successful exorcism in Lancashire did little to impress those judging the pair. They were thrown out of the clergy and into prison where they spent almost two years. When they were released, they were told they could not talk about their work or write about it. Both disobeyed, and a publication war of pamphlets broke out between them and the Church of England.
Five years after their trial, in 1604, new laws were passed as a direct result of John Darrell’s and George More’s work in Lancashire and the Midlands. A law was passed banning unauthorised exorcisms, and forbidding all fasts (which were commonly carried out at exorcisms). A second law made it a capital offence to conjure up spirits.
The Aftermath for the Starkie Household
John and Anne seemed to suffer from no after effects when the affair was over. They both married, and John inherited his father’s estates at Cleworth, Huntroyd, and Kempnough. He served as Sheriff of Lancashire, and was also a Justice of the Peace. While working as a J.P. he became involved in the second Pendle witch trial. This involved a boy called Edmund Robinson who claimed to be a ‘witch finder’. John was made a Colonel in the Civil War, in charge of protecting the Blackburn Hundred area.
Jane, the Starkie family’s maid, left and went to live with her uncle. There she converted to Catholicism, and George More wrote bitterly that she was repossessed, blaming the Catholic clergy’s “conjurations and magical enchantments” for bringing an evil spirit into her again.
What happened with the other four of the seven is not known, but the infamy of the case reached London. One of its most famous playwrights, Ben Johnson, referred to the Starkie case and John Darrell in his play The Divell is an Asse:
Did you ne’er read. Sir. Little Darrell’s tricks,
With the boy o’ Burton, and the 7 in Lancashire,
Sommers at Nottingham? All these do teach it,
And wee’ll give out, Sir, that your wife has bewitched you
Afterthought: Why Lancashire, why Demons and Witches?
Lancashire in Tudor and Stuart times was still relatively poor compared to the rest of the country. Its political administration was woefully lacking, with the Duchy of Lancaster being based in London, and used merely to raise revenue. The Earl of Derby had some influence, taking the brunt of administrative duties with the help of a handful of other local landowners. The county’s clergy were often not well educated, and religious life was focused on the poor chapels as opposed to the parish churches.
Superstition was rife, with traditional beliefs in the supernatural lingering far longer in this corner of England than elsewhere. The mutual distrust between the different factions of Christianity meant that blame for misfortune and scapegoating were always ready to break out. Lancashire had the largest concentration of Catholics in the whole of the country, and they were viewed with huge suspicion by the Protestant Church of England. The Church of England itself was divided, with a conservative wing and a ‘progressive’ puritan one. The conservative wing did not want exorcisms to take place, believing they were a dangerous spectacle. They thought that such events could cause people to become overly emotional, engender social disharmony and lead to witch accusations. They also felt that in the present day there were now no longer miracles and demon possession, that such things had only occurred in biblical times. The opposing puritan wing of the church believed that exorcism could and should be done, and that it was a good way of demonstrating God’s power in the world to the masses.
This fear and mistrust between Christian factions and a widespread belief in witches, demons and magic were the backdrop at the close of the Tudor period. As the Stuart period began, King James I ascended the throne in 1603. He had recently authored and published a book called Daemonologie, in which he made it clear that witches, demons, magic and sorcery were all real things. The climate was such that, just nine years later, the most famous of all English witch trials would take place, that of the Pendle Witches.
Author’s Note: I have used the contemporary accounts of John Darrell and George More to write this piece. While they largely agree with each other, there are some contradictions, which I have tried to reconcile. In the early parts of their accounts they report what the family saw, and in the latter part what they themselves observed and thought to be happening. They clearly believed in witchcraft, magic and demon possession. I do not, and see them all as a form of folk belief. Readers are of course free to make up their own minds. The clergymen’s original accounts are very much worth reading. If you type their titles into a good search engine, you can read their original texts, for free.
John Dee had an associate called Edward Kelley, who lived with Dee at his house near the River Thames. There Kelley persuaded Dee he could speak to angels. Edward Kelley was also active in Lancashire, and in one instance he convinced people he could speak to the dead and make them foretell the future. For the full story, see our page here.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
The site of the hall (now Cleworth Hall Farm and livery stables) is on Cleworth Hall Lane in Tyldesley. There is a public footpath that can be walked up to view the site, and which carries on beyond into the countryside. There is no parking on the lane, but there are local housing estates nearby.
A True Narration of the Strange and Grevious Vexation by the Devil of 7 Persons in Lancashire, by John Darrell (1600)
A True Discourse Concerning the Certaine Possession and Dispossession of 7 Persons in One Familie in Lancashire, by George More (1600)
John Dee and the Seven in Lancashire: Possession, Exorcism, and Apocalypse in Elizabethan England, Stephen Dowd (2010), Northern History, vol. 47, no. 2, pp 233-46
Seeking the Supernatural: The Exorcisms of John Darrell and the Formation of an Orthodox Identity in Early Modern England, Bradley J Mollmann (2008), Miami University
The Lancashire Witch-Craze: Jennet Preston and the Lancashire Witches, 1612, Jonathan Lumby (1995) Carneige Publishing
In the Labyrinth: John Dee and Reformation Manchester, Manchester Region History Review, vol 19, Stephen Dowd (2008)
The Cockpit of Conscience: Society, Politics and Religion in Stuart Lancashire 1603-1714, J.A. Hilton (2020). This excellent book is available from the author- see details on the Northwest Catholic History Society here