The witch hunts of the Middle Ages stirred up a cauldron-full of deadly secrets in Hartlepool.
Hundreds lost their lives after being accused of witchcraft across the UK – such as County Durham’s Sara Hathericke, Jane Urwen and Frances Adamson.
Fortunately, many of those outed as “witches” around the Hartlepool area survived – although they were often ex-communicated or buried in unconsecrated ground.
“Fears that Satanic witches were threatening Christian life swept across Europe in the 16th century,” said local historian Bill Hawkins.
“No one knows exactly how many died after being accused of witchcraft, as no records exist. In the UK they were mostly hung, while in Europe they were burned.”
One of the earliest Hartlepool “witches” documented, Helena de Inferno, lived in Hart Village in 1454 and was said to “harbour fornicators”.
Witchcraft was by now punishable by death, but instead Alison was forced to stand with a piece of paper on her head in Durham Market Place, Norton and Hart.Local historian Bill Hawkins
More than a century later, on July 28, 1582, another Hart woman – Alison Lawe – was prosecuted for being a “notorious sorcerer and enchanter”.
“Villagers Janet Bainbridge and Janet Allenson were accused of going to her for potions to cure diseases, and this was enough to brand Alison a witch,” said Bill.
“Witchcraft was by now punishable by death, but instead Alison was forced to stand with a piece of paper on her head in Durham Market Place, Norton and Hart.
“Archive documents claim she survived her punishment, and was buried ‘peacefully’ at Hart just a few years later – on August 5, 1588.”
Another Hart “witch”, Ellen Thompson, did not enjoy such a peaceful ending. Indeed, she was accused of being a “fornicatrix” and excommunicated.
Following her death in 1596, she was allegedly buried under a stile at St Mary Magdalene Church – so worshippers would walk over her body on their way to church.
A second wise woman, Old Mother Midnight of Elwick, is also believed to have been buried in the same unconsecrated ground at Hart following her death in 1641.
“There were several witch-hunters, who travelled the country looking for witches. In the North East we had the Scottish Witchfinder General,” said Bill.
“He claimed he could detect witches by pricking them with a pin. If no blood flowed, they were guilty. A great many people fell victim to his claims.
“Indeed, in August 1650 17 women and one man were hanged for witchcraft on Newcastle Town Moor. Their remains were buried in unmarked graves.
“It was a terrible time, and many innocent lives were lost. It would be interesting to see if any of their descendents are alive today.”