Updated: Feb 27, 2021
The prosecution and hanging of two men and eight women on Pendle Hill in Lancashire in 1612 has long caught the public imagination. The story has been retold in puppet shows, pamphlets, plays and novels. However Chard has its own hanging and witches.
Thanks to Sue Heward for putting together and sharing this story.
Jane Brooks was originally from Shepton Mallett and died in Chard on 26th March 1658. She had been tried and found guilty of witchcraft and was hanged at the gallows above Snowdon Toll
This drew to an end a series of events that began in November the previous year. The events described were between Henry Jones and his family and Jane Brooks and her sisters. Henry Jones arrived home one day to find his son significant pain down his right side and unable to speak. When he finally recovered his speech, he told his father and cousin that an old woman had come to the door asking for bread.
When he gave it to her, (a point worth noting, as usually in such accounts injuries are inflicted in return for a refusal of whatever has been requested). She in turn gave him an apple. After stroking him along his right side with her hand, she left. He then fell into the same condition that his father had found him.
Old women from the village who fit the description provided by Richard Jones' were rounded up and brought to the house for a makeshift identity parade. Among them were Jane Brooks and her elderly sisters. As they entered the house, the boy was once again struck dumb. This was a sure sign to everyone assembled that these were indeed the guilty parties.
Seeing his son returned to his previous state, Henry Jones attacked Jane, He repeatedly beat her until Richard recovered. What state Jane was in at this point is unknown. but given her age and documented fragile state, it cannot have been a pretty sight.
The story continued a week later when Richard Jones met Brooks' sister, Alice Coward. He again fell ill, seemingly as a result of their meeting. Over the next few days Richard asserted that a hag visited him on several occasions; on one such visit Gibson, the cousin who witnessed the first case of the boy's illness, struck the apparition with a knife. On investigation the constable discovered Jane had an injured hand. Jane and her sister were arrested, but acquitted of witchcraft in Castle Cary.
On 25th February 1658 Henry Jones was lifted from the ground by an unseen force and transported a distance of three hundred yards, including over a stone wall, before being set down forcefully on a doorstep. The impact was to leave Henry unconscious. When he came to, Jones claimed that Brooks had grabbed his arm and lifted him through the air. There were other accounts of strange happenings; in one instance, Henry’s son, Richard, was not where he had been left, but was discovered collapsed in another room with no idea how he had got there. He was also once found hanging in the air, his hands resting against the ceiling for quarter of an hour. Henry made no secret of his belief that Jane had lifted him up and pinned him there. To further compound Janes' guilt, this feat was supposedly witnessed by no less than nine people. As the accusation could not be disproved Jane was found guilty.Jane was finally condemned to death at the Chard Assizes and executed on 26th March, 1658.
Jane was one of an estimated 500-1000 people in England to be put to death between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries for witchcraft.
Originally, witchcraft practices were associated with those who were skilled in using plants and other ingredients to make home remedies for humans and their animals. Over time attitudes changed and witchcraft became associated with devil worship. It was made a capital offence, punishable by death in 1563. The most intense phase for witch trials was during the Civil War of 1640s and the Puritan era of the 1650s, a time of heightened intolerance, religious fervour and suspicion of difference. Jane’s death occurred during this period.
Although, up to 25% of all those executed were male, the vast majority accused were women. Most supposed witches were poor older women, like Jane and Alice and were particularly vulnerable to accusation because of the roles they took on in their community. They often looked after infants and cooked for families. If people sickened and died they were the first to be blamed. Women were also seen as weaker in their Christian faith and to be more likely to be seduced by the Devil.
Any women who were unfortunate enough to also have a disfigurement were suspects. Warts and moles were said to be teats used to suckle the Devil’s imps. Witches were supposed to convene with the Devil through small animals such as black cats, known as the witch’s familiar. The superstition about black cats is still with us today, pet rehoming charities suggest that black cats are the least likely to find a new home!
Want to learn more, or plan a future trip why not try visit the Museum of Witchcraft in Bocastle, north Cornwall.
Thank you to the Winsham Blog 'The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful', who provided more background information to add to Roger's research.
Images of the Toll House are taken from the Museum's photographic archives. This is a large collection and can be visited by booking an appointment through email@example.com