A lot of the city’s history was blown to bits during the war, but thankfully, the stories still remain intact, passed down from generation to generation. And few tales are as dark and alarming as the execution of the ‘witches’ of Exeter.
Witch Hunting in the UK
When we think of the witch trials, we usually think of the USA, and in particular, the horrible events at Salem. However, the relentless persecution of women was very much alive and well in Europe, and the UK was no exception.
The Pendle Witch Trial of 1612 is perhaps the country’s most famous witch-hunt – where 10 Lancashire women were found guilty of witchcraft and hung for the crime. However, the good folk of Exeter were executing witches as early as 1566, and the city was also the last place to kill women for witchcraft in the UK.
Exeter’s First Witches?
According to the historian Professor Stoyle, two women were accused of witchcraft in Exeter in 1566, only three years after parliament introduced a statute, stating that those who used ‘conjurations, enchantments and witchcrafts’ should be sentenced to death.
These women, Maud Park and Alice Mead, were forced to appear before the city court, where they were sentenced for causing death and injury through use of ‘magic art’. Unfortunately, there are no surviving records of what happened next, though it’s entirely likely that they were put to death for this ‘crime’ – making them some of the first women to be executed for witchcraft in the country.
…And the Last
Whilst we can’t prove that Exeter was the location for the first witch executions, history is fairly certain that it was the site for the last witch-related killing in the UK.
In 1683, over a hundred years after Maud Park and Alice Mead, three females were accused of witchcraft; Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles. Although all three ladies were elderly, they were all sentenced to death, and were hung from the Heavitree Gallows. A further woman was executed in Exeter just two years later – Alice Molland.
Vicious Persecution – Bred from a Fairytale
In our enlightened times, it’s unthinkable that a woman could be killed for being a witch. After all, we know that the evil witches of folklore are only to be found in fairy stories, not in our neighbourhood.
Sadly, this wasn’t always the case, and as such, hundreds of women (perhaps thousands) were killed for ‘practicing witchcraft’. It’s a fact that never ceases to make me bristle – not least because it was such a vicious, merciless persecution. I can’t even begin to imagine the terror and pain that those women went through.
I strongly suspect there’s a story to be told about the Exeter ‘witches’. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to have a go at telling it!