Belles of Bideford: The Witches of Devonshire

Black cats, brooms, and crooked noses; this beloved season invites us all to dress up as our favourite Halloween monster, the witch. From Hocus Pocus to Harry Potter, our obsession with magic and the supernatural is as strong as ever, but it is easy to forget that this was once a very real belief and one that resulted in thousands of executions across Europe; a vast witch-hunt which is rumoured to have ended in the city many of us students now call home, Exeter.

In 1682, Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, and Alice Molland from the North Devonshire village of Bideford were the last women to be hung for crimes of witchcraft and the magical art. The accusations began when a local shopkeeper accused Temperance Lloyd of summoning the devil - who manifested once in the form of a man and again in the form of a cat - to bewitch an illness upon another woman in the village.  Like most of the accused during this period, Temperance denied all charges, but through questioning, and most likely torture, she confessed to the crimes. With poor Susannah Edwards and Alice Molland found guilty through association, they alongside Temperance were hung to the death in Heavitree, just outside of the city of Exeter.

To our modern eyes this is a clear crime, one of the many injustices made against women, but to the society three hundred years ago it was a very real epidemic and one that required meticulous examination and evidence.  The ‘witch-hunters’ guide, also known as Malleus Maleficarum, presented a specific set of guidelines to assist in identifying a witch; this ranged from recognising a witch’s ‘familiar’ to the infamous Devil’s mark found on their body.  Historians have been unable to accurately state how many fell victim to the witchcraft craze of early modern Europe, but it has been estimated that over 60,000 men, women, and children were executed for crimes of magic and association with the Devil.  In 2013, an online petition was created in attempt to pardon the three Bideford witches of their accused crimes, but over the years the victims of the witch-hunt have become part of a ghost story, lost to the squeals of children at bedtime and students in fancy dress stores.

The character of the ‘witch’ is rich in history, and even to this day we are fascinated by the supernatural and the unexplainable.  So, this Halloween, I invite you all to open your minds and question whether those executed for apparent satanic crimes are victims of an oppressive society, formed from the fire of gender inequality, or, if these women (and men!) were in fact part of a spiritual world which, to this day, society cannot comprehend.