Was old Heptonstall a hotbed of witchcraft?

The St Thomas A Beckett Church, Heptonstall - a silent sentinel against vile practices? How many witch hunters or accusers are buried in this churchyard?
The St Thomas A Beckett Church, Heptonstall - a silent sentinel against vile practices? How many witch hunters or accusers are buried in this churchyard?

The affair of the Lancashire Witches of 1612 (“Halifax Link to the Pendle Witches,” 10 March), should not make us think women in Calderdale escaped being accused of witchcraft. Take, for example, a case in the upper Calder Valley in 1646.

At the end of that year, a certain Mrs. Elizabeth Crossley and others in the Heptonstall area were charged with using witchcraft to cause the death of a child. In the first instance, information seems to have been laid against certain persons before magistrates Charles Fairfax (1597-1673 – uncle of Parliamentarian army officer, Sir Thomas Fairfax) and Thomas Thornhill of Fixby (1585-1663).

The depositions taken before them are dated December 21st, 1646. Henry Cockcroft of Heptonstall, clothier first gave his evidence. He said that Elizabeth Crossley went to his house the week before Michaelmas begging for alms. She had an evil reputation as a witch and was not pleased with what she was offered. Two nights later, Cockcroft’s two-year-old son William, until then in good health, began to have fits, and eventually died. Deciding his son had been bewitched, Cockcroft visited Mary Midgley, whom he suspected of being in league with Elizabeth Crossley, and accused her of causing his child’s death. Mary confessed that she had certain powers, but said Mrs. Crossley and her daughter Sarah, with Mary Kitching, were those who had caused the child’s death. This confession seems to have been wrung from the witness with threats, as someone else swore Cockcroft had both threatened and struck Mrs. Midgley before she confessed to being a witch.

Further evidence against Elizabeth Crossley was given in the depositions of Daniel Briggs of Wadsworth, who testified that, about two years previously a child surnamed Shackleton had been seized with severe pain, and lay crippled for three months. One day, Briggs and the maid who cared for the child, took it to a neighbour’s house, where it was seen by Rev. William Whaley, minister of Cross-stone Chapel, who told them that, if they met with any persons on their homeward journey, they would be possessed with a longing “to mawle them on the head.” Clearly, the curate accepted that the child had been bewitched, for he considered the possibility of its path being crossed by the person who had done it the injury. His hint to maul such a person on the head, shows his belief in an old tradition, that, if blood could be drawn from a witch, the victim would recover. Briggs and the maid set out, and did indeed meet Elizabeth Crossley. The maid, carrying the child, tried to warn her off, but Mrs. Crossley went up to her and asked how the infant was. Although Briggs suspected Mrs. Crossley had power over the child, he was afraid to touch her. A night or two later, the maid, remembering the minister’s injunction, struck Mrs. Crossley with a candlestick, after which the child began to rally. However, apparently the spell was not broken, for the child had a relapse shortly afterwards, and then died.

From the deposition of another witness, it seems Mary Midgley was also suspected of bewitching her neighbours’ cattle.

Unsurprisingly, all parties in this case accused denied complicity.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to show how this extraordinary case terminated. The credulity of those times seems extraordinary to us today.

David C Glover