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What we know about the Newcastle Witchcraft Trials of 1649 and 1650

The Newcastle witchcraft trials occurred in a period of economic, political and religious unrest. Political and religious turmoil was caused by defeat for the Scottish army in the Second English Civil War and the rise to power of the radical Kirk party in Scotland, who attempted to create a "godly society", a puritan society rooting out witches and other offenders. They passed a new Witchcraft Act in 1649 and encouraged local presbyteries to seek out witches. The intense period of witch hunting began in 1649 and continued into 1650, being largely confined to the Lowlands, particularly Lothian and Fife, but spilled over into northern England, where Scottish witch prickers were active. The period of rule by the Kirk party ended when Cromwell led an army across the border in July 1650.


Some 612 records of accusations of witchcraft are known for Scotland and Northern England in the years 1649 and 1650 and over 300 witches were executed in the witch trials. Most of these were in ad-hoc courts that had a much higher execution rate than those run by professional lawyers. Most of the witches were women and most of these of relatively low social status. The Devil featured  in some of the witchcraft trials, but they were mainly concerned with perceived harm through witchcraft.

Newcastle witch trials puritans in Newca

Most of the trials were initiated by the local minister and his session or consistory, who aimed to obtain proof or a confession from the accused person. Accused witches would often name other persons who were then tested for the crime, widening the hunt. The ChancellorJohn Campbell, 1st Earl of Loudoun expressed reservations about these confessions. In the later stages of the hunt the Parliament and its representative body the Committee of Estates supervised the trials more closely, and instead of issuing commissions of judiciary to local gentlemen, it began to send Sheriff Deputes to hold special justice courts in the localities. After 1650 witch trials entered a new phase, with a reduction in the total number of trails and the abandonment of local trials in favour of mixed central-local trials. Scottish witchcraft trials were notable for their use of pricking of a Devil's mark through which they could not feel pain. This process could turn into a form of torture in which a subject could be repeatedly pricked until they confessed. Newcastle during this time was known as Newcastle of Northumberland and was part of Scotland for a short term, In Scottland they did not just hang witches they would burn on pires. It was a very dark time in history. 


Newcastle witch trials puritans in Newca

Its believed that the Newcastle witchcraft trails started at Inverkeithing where the puritan minister Walter Bruce demonstrated an interest in witch hunting, being suspended for preaching that witches walked among the common people, they cursed and killed cattle and fed infant babies to the devil and lay with him and they too ate the flesh of dead children, these odd and sick ideas seem to have came from France who Scotland were very close with at that point in history. At the execution of witch's Margaret Henderson, Lady Pittadro in March 1649 in Scotland his preaching of the witches, the rhetoric spilled out and stories of witches spread far and wide. If witches were real then to the folk of these areas it explained the famine, the worst winter in decades that had killed off the crops, the wars and plague that had ravished this holly land. This interest seems to have spread to neighbouring parishes Including Berwick upon Tweed, Holly Island and Newcastle along with Gateshead. It actually took hold of Northumberland and Scotland and many would die, some were witches others criminals and beggars others had land and riches. It allowed the greedy folks in charge of local churches to strike and accuse a person and then take the land, homes or ships they owned along with live stock and crops. 

Some 612 records of accusations of witchcraft are known for Scotland, Northumberland including Newcastle and Gateshead in the years 1649 and 1650. Of these most, 399, are from 1649. They include 556 named persons and another 243 unnamed persons. According to Christine Larner, 1649 was "the year which may have seen the greatest number of executions in the whole of Scottish witch-hunting". More than 300 witches were executed in the trials, with as many as 200 executions in Lothian alone. The Newcastle witch trials involved 30 persons, claiming 28  victims, and was the last intense hunt in England. Out of the 30 witches there were  confessions of demonic pacts in the court records and the Devil was an important figure in the witch hunt, where several women confessed to associations with the Devil, renouncing their baptism and even to having sexual intercourse with him. As a result of these confessions five women were rapidly executed in 1649. Although 30 witches were accused in Newcastle after the town crier was sent into the town by the council and asked for anyone with an accusation against thy neighbours to step forward. Many were accused but they settled on 30 people in total, 28 would die from either starvation, suicide or torture with 14 women and 1 man hung on the Newcastle Town Moor as witches.


Scottish and Newcastle witchcraft trials were notable for their use of pricking, in which a suspect's skin was pierced with needles, pins and bodkins as it was believed that they would possess a Devil's mark through which they could not feel pain. The witches' mark (not to be confused with a witches' teat) indicated that an individual was a witch. The witches' mark and the devil's mark are both terms applied to essentially the same mark. The beliefs about the mark differ depending on the trial location and the accusation made against the witch. Evidence of the witches' mark is found earliest in the 16th century, and reached its peak in 1645, then essentially disappeared by 1700.


The Witch or Devil's mark was believed to be the permanent marking of the Devil on his initiates to seal their obedience and service to him. He created the mark by raking his claw across their flesh, or by making a blue or red brand using a hot iron. Sometimes, the mark was believed to have been left by the Devil licking the individual. The Devil was thought to mark the individual at the end of nocturnal initiation rites. However there is a theory of this mark also being scaring from the use of a Devils pin or pin of slumber as its recorded in some folk stories. This pin was a Blackthorn pin and it was said to be used to prick the witch, if the wound went septic then the Devil refused that witch but if it was fine she was excepted by the devil. This is still a practice used today in some traditional witchcraft families.


The witches' teat was a raised bump somewhere on a witch's body. It is often depicted as having a wart-like appearance. and quite large.


Thie pricking was often undertaken by professional witch prickers, such as John Kincaid, who was active in finding marks on the Newcastle witches but this is still debated due to poor record keeping, he found marks on Patrick Watson and Manie Halieburton at Dirleton Castle before June 1649 and George Cathie, who was operating in Lanarkshire in November 1649. 


The Newcastle trials began after the town council engaged a Scottish witch pricker, who was paid 20 shilling for each guilty witch he found, but his methods raised the suspicions of the English Lieutenant-Colonel Hobson and he was eventually forced to flee Newcastle, he escaped from the court house. According to Newcastle notable Ralph Gairdiner, he continued to operate in Northumberland and was arrested, escaped again and fled back to Scotland. There he was again arrested and later executed, having admitted to having caused the death through fraudulent means of over 220 women accused of witchcraft in Scotland and England. He was eventually captured in Edinburgh and dragged through the streets and stoned before being hung at the gallows which stood on what today is the Royal Mile.


You can see the haunted artefact, a Scottish witch prickers needle on our witchcraft tour. 

In Newcastle in a small court which we believe is today known as Lloyds Bar on the Newcastle Quayside, John Kincaid and his men would hold the witch in front of a jury of men only, there undergarments would be removed along with any under skirts and they would then claim that if this person was a witch they would have no blood as the devil himself had suckled her dry through the witches teat. They would then insert the needle in to the witches thigh and remove the needle. If she did not bleed, her dress would be placed back down and found guilty of witchcraft. On the 16th witch the judge was changed out for a new judge, the English Lieutenant-Colonel Hobson who had medical knowledge through his time in the military. Colonel Hobson seen how the witch pricker, who is claimed to be John Kincaid and his aid Cuthbert Nicholson were basically conning the court. By lifting the witches frock and baring her private parts to an all male jury the women would become embarrassed and her face would flush red, the pricker would insert the needle and with a lack of blood lose due to the human body naturally redirecting the blood to her face, she was found guilty but the English Lieutenant-Colonel Hobson called John Kincaid's, Cuthbert Nicholson, Thomas Shovel's bluff and challenged the men to further tests, when they failed Colonel Hobson called the men out as liars, they fled by stealing horses and hid within Northumberland where John Kincaid was almost arrested again but fled only to be caught 2 years later in Scotland and killed.


Witch pricking needles Newcastle witches
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Pricking could turn into a form of torture in which a subject could be repeatedly pricked or stabbed until they confessed; many of the confessions gained in the 1649–50 trials were obtained in this way. In 1649 the Committee of Estates passed an Act that prevented torture in cases of witchcraft, but it was probably never implemented. In 1652, after the English occupation, it was reported in England that six witches had been whipped, their feet and heads burnt with lighted candles while they were strung up by their thumbs with their hands behind their backs. This, like most torture, was carried out by local clergy and magistrates without a warrant from the central courts, usually in trying to obtain an initial confession. B. P. Levack argues that torture was more common in "panic years" like 1649, leading to a growth of hunts as confessions and the names of other potential witches were obtained.

In the case of Newcastle witch Mathew Bonner who was accused of the typical crimes of the time, intended to shock such as shape shifting into a black cat where he would lure children away for ritual sacrifice, he was accused of necromancery, child abduction and killing children to summon demons along with grave robbery. Mathew Bonner, sometimes called Bulmer in his case was forced to walk barefoot over broken brick while been led by a mule in the dungeon at the Newcastle Keep Jail. He was tortured like this for 24 hours. Eventually his bones came out of his feet. Some women were sodomised while locked up, others beaten. 

Often people see witch dunkings as execution on a chair but it was actually classed a torture. This is where a witch in some cases had there thumbs tied to there big tows, crouched over and then dunked to see if they would float, if a witch floated then the witch was guilty, if the witch sand and drowned then the witch was innocent. This took place in Washington Tyne and Wear during the 1649 trials where 3 women were killed in the village pond. A dunking chair was used to lower the witch into the water and see if she could survive. Another form was to place a witch in a large barrel of holly water, a crucifix was placed over the barrel embedded in to the gate that sealed the barrel closed. If the witch pushed her face against it or kissed the cross then she was Innocent but if she /he did not the witch would drown and be found guilty and her body burned

“John Willis of Ipswich upon his Oath said, that he this Deponent was in Newcastle six months ago, and there he saw one Ann Watson a witch drove through the streets by an Officer of the same Corporation, holding a rope in his hand, the other end fastened to an Engine called the Branks, which is like a Crown, it being of Iron, which was muzzled over the head and face, with a great gap or tongue of Iron forced into her mouth, which forced the blood out. And that is the punishment which the Magistrates do inflict upon chiding, and scolding women, and that he hath often seen the like done to others".


The Names of the Executed Newcastle witches, note how we have two males very similar but listed separately, some believe it is two males executed and other scholars believe it is the same man. We sadly do not have the full list of names of every witch accused. Many committed suicide, others died of starvation, caught illness and died in prison. We know 30 were arrested and 28 actually died.

NOTE: Only 14 witches were hung, sometimes it reads as if we hung 14 women and 1 man, that man was included in the 14 executions of 1649 and 1650 witchcraft trials. We also see that the press and other sites claim the date 1650 however, all deaths are listed as 1649. 

  1. Mathew Bulmer was Hanged and burnt at Newcastle in 1649

  2. Isab' Brown Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  3. Margrit Maddeson Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  4. Ann Watson Hung for witchcraft and using magick to have her wicked way with a lord, Executed Newcastle Town moor 1649

  5. Ellenor Henderson Accused of witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  6. Ellenor Rogers Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  7. Ellsabeth Dobson Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  8. Mathew Bonner Executed for wizzadry and shape shifting, Newcastle 1649

  9. Mrs Ellsabeth Anderson Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  10. Jane Hunter Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  11. Jane Koupling Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  12. Margrit Brown Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  13. Margrit Moffit Hung for witchcraft, Newcastle town moor 1649

  14. Ellenor Robson Hung for witchcraft & blood letting, Newcastle town moor 1649

Margaret Brown surrendered to God and cursed that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution, to give evidence of her innocence, and as soon as ever she was turned off the Ladder, her blood gushed out upon the people to admiration of the beholders. Somehow the rope opened up her jugular vane and she covered the crowd in blood as she span. She was the cut down but we can't say if she was innocent or not. 

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Once upon a time in a land scored by war, where rats with flees of death ran freely from the frigates that heaved within the riverside as ladies of the night consorted with pirates and smugglers. Puritan men seen fit to brand your flesh as a fornicator or hang and burn you as a witch. Overshadowed by the Castle in ruins through war and the sounds of  dog fights and bear bating along with illegal taverns fill the dank rotten air from the raw sewage that fills the sides of streets, the smoke from the chimney stacks weighs heavy upon your chest as you flee, scared in the night. You have been accused of giving yourself to the devil, that you were seen dancing with foul beasts that danced on there hind legs like cats and dogs, goats as crows flocked above you, you were seen dancing naked by a neighbour who heard you denounce your baptism and call out to the dark man who the bestowed gifts of the witch upon you, you then had a witches familiar who suckled your blood and aided you in sinister ways. Your now been hunted like a dog with no where to hide, face either burning or hanging but first torture...


This is a true story, hear all about this and so much more during The Newcastle Witchery Tour. Click Here to find out more! 

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