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Nightjar
  • Writer's picturePaul Jameson

Humphrey Winch, Witch Trials, and a Little Corner of Bedfordshire

Okay. Wow.

History...


This is why I love being back in the UK. It's like every little corner of the country, every field, hill, and coppice, has a story to tell; a story that keeps on expanding and connecting in the weirdest of ways. The reason this one caught me out, all unexpected and surprised-like, was because NIGHTJAR, published in 2018, included the village of Everton, in Bedfordshire, and Saint Mary's Church as major locations, yet it wasn't until today (August 4th, 2023) that I discovered both have a link to the executions of nine women as witches. How had I not discovered this before?


Now Nightjar is a strange story - one of speculative fiction - that incorporates superstition, belief, the fear of things that are different, and Celtic Fae in an ancient landscape. Indeed, there is mention of executions - one as has taken place, and others yet to be - but these are a fiction, as are the accusations of witchcraft within it. The locations though are real. Sandy and Everton are places you can visit, as are the churches, pubs, Celtic hill forts, Roman roads, and railway bridges used as settings So imagine my shock - today - when out of the blue I discover Everton and Saint Mary's have very real links to superstitious belief and the execution of witches in the 17th century...


All in the form of one Sir Humphrey Winch.

(The above gallery features my own photos of Saint Mary's Church, Everton)


Humphrey Winch (1555-1625) was a leading politician and judge who held estates in Everton, Potton, and Gamlingay, all within close proximity of each other on the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire borders. However his illustrious reputation was dealt a serious blow in the Leicester Witch Trials of 1616 - also known as the Leicester Boy Trials.


At these trials, fifteen women were charged with witchcraft based on the evidence of a 13 year old boy, John Smith. It seems none of the women's names were recorded. During the trial at the summer assizes, it was claimed the boy suffered fits as a result of possession by the women's familiars, would write in Hebrew and Greek characters, enjoyed inordinate strength, and spoke in strangled phrases. Sir Humphrey Winch and Sir Ranulph Crewe, both presiding at the trials, listened to the charges against the fifteen women, found the boy to be a credible witness, and sentenced nine of the women to death by hanging that very same day. The remaining six women were placed in prison to await their turn - which was to be quite some time, as a month later they were still awaiting execution when King James, on passing Leicester, intervened. . .


Being extremely knowledgeable in such matters, King James called for the boy John Smith to be re-questioned, and had little trouble determining the child was fraudulent. Indeed, the child broke down and confessed that he was lying. Of the six women in jail, five were released, the sixth having died whilst imprisoned.


Despite the damage to his reputation caused by the witchcraft trial's, Winch remained on the bench until he died suddenly at Chancery Lane from a stroke in February 1625, after which an impressive memorial was raised to him in St Mary's Church, Everton. Strangely, back in the days when I was writing NIGHTJAR and I was visiting the locations mentioned to better describe their state, feel, and being in the novel, I actually took a picture (unknowingly) of the memorial to Sir Humphrey Winch which is shown below.


And there you see him.


Humphrey Winch,

Witch Trials,

And a little corner of Bedfordshire. A case perhaps, of art unknowingly imitating life...

 

If there's a topic you'd like me to consider in a blog, a book you think I really need to read and review, or a TV Series you think I'd enjoy (and you'd like me to include it in my blog) drop me a line and let me know.


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