The Magic Hatters
Understanding the Story of the Bakewell Witches
The story of the Bakewell witches is unique within the annals of English witchcraft and a tale thought by some to be so fantastical that it may not even be true. Yet research cannot only place the event firmly in the context of the times, but it can also help create a picture of the events that originally brought the story into being.
The Old House
There are many reasons to visit the town of Bakewell. Beyond it being home to a true British classic in the Bakewell Pudding, its location in the heart of the Derbyshire Dales makes it the perfect hub from which to explore nearby attractions such as Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall. Yet for all that Bakewell has to offer, there is one location in the town that will instantly attract the more curious visitor; the wonderful Tudor building that now houses the Old House Museum.
Its a place chocked full of both local artefacts and more exotic items alike, with the very fabric of the building acting as a guide to the wider history of the local area. Having begun its life way back in 1534 as the home of local tax collector Ralph Gell, it was much expanded during the reign of Elizabeth I before going on to provide further use during the period in which the Industrial Revolution came to the town, at which time it was divided into a number of smaller cottages for the families of local millworkers courtesy of that ‘father of the factories’, Sir Richard Arkwright. But amongst all of the markers that are bound to the material history of the building, there is one in particular that may well act as a signpost to what is undoubtedly the most contentious tale of Bakewell's past.
Carved into an upright of the door frame that leads away from the guide shop, a pair of inverted, inch long V’s lay atop one another, creating the illusion of a letter W. This unassuming symbol is in reality, a call for the protection of the ‘Virgin of Virgins’, the mother of Christ. More specifically, it is a call for protection from the devilry of witchcraft, the town's connection to which centres on a truly remarkable story from the year 1608.
The symbol on the doorway of the museum is known as a witch-mark, placed there in the belief that such carvings were able to prevent the intrusion of evil intention, by witch or spirit, from crossing any threshold on which they were found. The witch-mark represents just one aspect of a worldwide tradition known as apotropaic magic.
Coming from the Greek meaning to turn away, the central idea of apotropaic magic - that protection can be afforded by the creation of an image - appears to be deeply rooted in the human psyche. A great example of an enduring symbol of such protection is that of the Turkish eye, the Nazar Boncuk. Found throughout the country on key-rings, fridge magnets, and all kinds of tourist goods, its inherent meaning as an amulet for protection is just as prevalent today as it ever was. Instanbul airline Fly Air used it on planes throughout their history; although their liquidation in 2006 may well show the magic doesn't work quite as well on matters of financial management as it does on evil spirits.
In the British Isles, apotropaic symbolism has been ever-present for thousands of years, be it in the form of prehistoric cave art, Christian crosses, or in the architectural imagery of gargoyles and grotesques, but on occasion, social circumstance has caused particular spikes in its popularity. At those moments, its implementation has been much the same irrespective of contemporary religious belief; and the witch-craze of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has left us with a legacy of such markings across houses, churches, and even in the landscape itself.
As with the museum in Bakewell, these marks are primarily found located on doorways, windows and fireplaces, and any other suitable place that a witch could conceivably use to enter a property. They will often take the shape of the double V symbol, but even more common is the elaborate, and really quite beautiful, daisy-wheel or Hexafoil pattern, which typically sees six semicircular petals stemming out from a central core. Chances are, whenever you're in a building with timber frames that date from the 1600s, if you look close enough, you'll find one.
Yet protection wasn't limited to just to homes and churches. In 2018, literally hundreds of apotropaic symbols were discovered in the cave complex of Creswell Crags, finally identified following two hundred years of mistaken belief that they were the remnants of local antique graffiti. Their creation likely an attempt to guard against spirits rising from the depths of the gorge.
It's clear that magical protection has always mattered to us, but could its use at the Old House in Bakewell have connections to one of the strangest stories of the witch-craze era to be found anywhere in the British Isles?
The Witches of Bakewell
The story of the Bakewell witches has proven to be a font of fascination for the past 200 years. From its first formal reference by sculptor and chronicler White Watson in his Observations On Bakewell at the turn of the ninetieth century, through to providing inspiration for a recent Escape Room attraction in Derby city-centre, the events of 1608 are very much as mystifying today as they ever were. To relay the story of our piece, we are perhaps best served by turning to the 1892 publication Bygone Derbyshire. Edited by a noted author of various local works, William Andrews, the tale of the witches that he included in the collection is attributed to a man by the name of Thomas Tindel Wildridge, a respected antiquarian and author originally from Hull, who provides not one, but two comprehensive versions of the tale for our consideration. The first of these would appear to be the story as told from the legend at its outset, whilst the second is likely the version of the story that cemented itself within local folklore in the years that followed. From reading between the two, as is the aim of this piece, we might just find something like the truth.
The First Telling;
Mrs. Stafford, a milliner of Bakewell, kept there a lodging-house. Early one morning as one the lodgers, a Scotchman, was lying awake while it was yet dark, he perceived through the clefts of his chamber-floor, rays of bright light. Peering down through one of the crevices, he recognised his landlady and a female companion in the room below, dressed as though for a journey. As he crouched over the hole, he heard Mrs. Stafford repeat these strange words;
“Over thick, over thin, now Devil, to the cellar in Lunnun.”
On the instant, all was silence and darkness. They had gone.
The Scotchman, startled at the occurrence, wondered what there might be in the lines and mechanically endeavoured to repeat them.
“Through thick, through thin, now Devil, to the cellar in Lunnun.”
And “through” instead of “over” it was, for a hurricane swept him up and whirled him away, half-naked as he was, and in a moment, confused, and tattered to ribbons, he found himself sat by the side of the two witches - for they could be nothing else - in a cellar, lighted by a dim lamp. The witches were busily engaged in tying up parcels of silk and similar goods, which he somehow understood they had “lifted” from shops as they passed along their aerial flight though the city - for he instinctively he was in London. The witch, Mrs. Stafford, handed him some wine and upon drinking it he immediately became unconscious. When he came to his senses, he found himself alone in the cellar. Shortly after, he was taken into custody by a watchman and being haled before a justice, was charges with being found in an unoccupied house with felonious intent. Asked by the justice where his clothes were, he replied that they were at he house of one Mrs Stafford, at Bakewell in Derbyshire.
“Bakewell, Derbyshire! Cried the astounded justice, “have you walked thence, clothed but with that shirt torn in such a manner?”
“I came - I know not how. But Mrs. Stafford came hither in like fashion. I was at bed at three of the clock this present morning in Mrs. Stafford’s house in Bakewell. I repeated certain words used by Mrs. Stafford and her sister - as I think - and I came to London as I have said, but they have gone back, as I suppose in like manner as they came.
“This,” said his worship solemnly, “is very clearly a case of witchcraft. Take down the depositions of this worthy man. See that he be provided with apparel. Lay information before the justices of Derbyshire to the end that these witches may be committed to gaol, tried according to the evidence and duly executed.”
The Second Telling;
In the year 1608, a Scotchman, whose execrable name has not come down to us, lodged at the house of a Mrs. Stafford, an industrious milliner of Bakewell. With her there lived as her assistant, a person who was her sister, or a female friend. The Scotchman got into arrears with his rent, and, he leaving his lodgings, Mrs. Stafford detained some of his clothes as a lien. We know tongues in the early days of King James I. were likely to have been more unpolished in their usage than they are now on similar occasions; and it is far from unlikely that some biting words took place, perhaps on both sides. At all events, the Scotchman, gravitating by the inexorable laws of northern nature to London, there conceived the diabolic plan of vengeance he so successfully carried out. He retired to a cellar, stripped himself, hid his clothes, and attracted the attention of the watch. On being subjected to the “interrogatories ” of the worshipful member of the bench, he invented a story of how, imitating a magic spell of Mrs.Stafford, he had, in the twinkling of an eye, been transported over no less than five counties, to find himself the companion of the two witches.
Days had been when all men - save Macbeth - feared witches. They had now come when they were more hated than feared. Nearly every man in magisterial authority was called upon at one time or another to decide upon cases of witchcraft, and it was but an imitation of the silly and superstitious king, for each man to take pride in being a witch-finder, or a witch exterminator. The London justice was an extreme specimen of such foolish credulity, and set the cumbrous but dreadfully effective machinery of the law in motion. The ex-lodger had his revenge. The "witches” of Bakewell were hanged,-a notable example, but only one among many which might be adduced to fill to the full the account of one of the most deplorable and disgraceful periods of English history.
Two accounts of the same wondrous tale, both somewhat devilish in their way. With many such legends, clarification is often enabled by a thorough search through the corresponding Assize records, in which trials for witchcraft are surprisingly well attested, complete with the accusations, testimony and resulting sentence, all born out with relative clarity.
However, in this respect, Derbyshire on the whole is something of an outlier. Although Assize court records of the Midland circuit (of which Derbyshire was a part of) begin officially in 1559, little to nothing survives today relating to matters pre-1662, reportedly thanks to a fire in the nineteenth century. Whist this is the reason often given for a lack of further inquisition and subsequent discovery in the case of the Bakewell witches, I feel that by placing the story and its details within the context of the time, and making a comparison to other cases elsewhere, we still have ample opportunity to learn more about the reality of events in 1600s Bakewell.
The Witch Craze
Throughout the Middle Ages, witchcraft had always been an agenda item for both religious rulers and royalty alike, but it was with the publication of one particularly popular book in 1486 that fervour around the subject kicked into overdrive. Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) by Heinrich Kramer was a work that directly placed the matter of witchcraft into the light of heretical persecution, in a manner that spoke to ecclesiastical and intellectual audiences alike. Inspired by the sentiment shared in the Book of Exodus (‘you shall not permit a sorceress to live’), upon publication, the perception of those accused of practicing witchcraft dramatically shifted. They were no longer living in the shadows of the law, but rather they had become fully-fledged, officially sanctioned, targets for persecution.
Of course, as with any such ideological licence, for some people the encouragement to persecute any such supposed witches was variously used as a convenient tool to curry political favour, make financial gains, or most commonly, to simply attack those which local society deemed undesirable.
It was just so easy to do; too easy. After all, this was fast becoming a state-sponsored profession. As referred to elsewhere in this collection, prior to taking the English throne in 1603, King James IV of Scotland had not only directly overseen the trials in North Berwick, but had in 1599 published Daemonologie, his personal treatise on the subject.
It is from this swirling ideological whirlpool that the Bakewell story was born. But assuming we do not take the account of the Scotchman's 3 am teleportation as literal, I suspect the truth of the tale is to be found within its more subtle details. Clearly, something must have happened in London in 1607 that would enable such a wild prosecution to be forthcoming. That is, of course, assuming the case of the Bakewell Witches is based in reality at all.