17th century England

#AtoZChallenge: Q is for Quiet, Please!

For the A-Z challenge, I am posting writing and editing tips to help you improve and enhance your writing.

Q is for Quiet, please!


My novel, ‘The Black Hours’, deals with the rather nasty events of the 17th century English witch hunts, perpetrated by the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. In order to write the novel, I had to do a lot of research, and that research often took me to some fairly horrible places. I read things and now know things that I wish I didn’t.

When it came to writing the book, I wanted others to know all about the horrific things that had happened to REAL people, how they suffered and died in the name of religion, superstition and hatred. So, I duly included lots of horrific details. It was harrowing to write at times.

And it was harrowing to read. My first ‘beta’ reader was my son. Although he came back with lots of positives, he also said it was too much. There was too much horror. It needed toning down. The reader needed time to pause, to breathe, to recover.

I took his criticism on board, toned things down and then passed it, terrified, chapter by chapter, to my fellow MLitt students.

Again, the feedback was great and very positive. But there was still one common criticism. It was too dark, too horrible still. Could I tone it down? Give the reader a break?

So I did. The novel is still realistic (I hope), still contains the truth of what happened to many poor souls in that awful time. But there are also moments of lightness, of humanity, that I hope prevent it from being too much.

So writers, think about your readers. Yes, we know that action is important, that the plot must move forward, but if your book is fast paced, or dark, then do make sure to give your reader time to recover, to pause and collect themselves, to come up for air. Some time for quiet, please.


A Witchcraft Tour of England

pendle witches

England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to be spots where poor, misunderstood and persecuted women (let’s not forget that the majority of the witch hunt victims were women) can be remembered and honoured in some small way. These are the places I’d love to visit and re-visit.

The North West


No witchcraft tour would be complete without a visit to Pendle Hill in Lancashire and it’s a great place to start. Pendle was the location of the famous 1612 trial for witchcraft. The accused all lived in the area, and ten were hanged on Gallows Hill. Of course, rumours now abound that the hill is haunted – TV’s Most Haunted has filmed there. As a sceptic I don’t believe that these women haunt the hill – I like to think they are at peace, free from the horrible persecution they suffered and no longer afraid. But I must admit I’m not sure I’d like to spend the night on the hill!

The North East

witch pricking

Margaret Brown and thirteen other poor souls were hanged on the Town Moor in Newcastle in 1650. Margaret was a victim of ‘witch-pricking’ – it was claimed she had a devil’s mark on her body that, when pricked by a pin did not bleed. She protested her innocence right up to the last according to Ralph Gardener’s 1655 book ‘England’s Grievance’:

“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution.”

The Town Moor is a place I’d like to visit, to pause for a moment and think about poor Margaret and the other terrified accused – hoping against hope that something would end their terror.


mother shipton

I have heard a lot of stories about Mother Shipton and the ‘Petrifying Well’ or ‘dropping well’ in Knaresborough. It used to be believed that the water was magic – turning objects to stone. Now of course we know that the calcifying is due to the high mineral content of the water – but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. And Mother Shipton herself is an interesting character – allegedly born in a cave near the dropping well, she has become a legendary figure of folklore, renowned for her prophecies. There is a whole park devoted to her now, with the dropping well, cave, a museum, castle ruins and gardens. You can even buy a petrified teddy bear in the gift shop!

East Anglia


This area was the stomping ground of Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General.  There are a wealth of places to visit – though few traces of the man himself remain. I’ve visited Colchester Castle and stood in the cells where Hopkins interrogated his victims (a very spooky and uncomfortable experience). I’ve also eaten dinner in ‘The Mistley Thorn’, a lovely pub that stands on the site of the inn where Hopkins set up his witch finding business and where he is rumoured to have lived. The food is lovely. I did get a bit freaked out when leaving though as we decided to go for a walk in the dark – and I have to say it was incredibly chilling to think we were walking where Hopkins may have walked. My imagination did get the better of me, but that might have been the wine.


The South

coven of witches

Burley is a very pretty village in the New Forest known for its connection with the witch Sybil leek. Leek moved to the area in the 1950s and opened a shop – ‘A Coven of Witches’ – still open in the village. There are now other shops in the village selling various witch-related items and a tea shop called ‘The Black Cat’. I’ve been to Burley several times and it is a really beautiful place – and a bit of light relief too!

The South West

Museum of Witchcraft

Two places of note in the South West – the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall and Exeter in Devon.

I won’t say too much about the Witchcraft Museum other than saying again how utterly fabulous it is – quirky and weird, packed full of witchcraft related stuff, but you can read about my visit here.

Alice Molland plaque

I regret not stopping in Exeter on my way to Boscastle as I would have liked to have seen the plaque at Rougemont Castle commemorating the execution of the Bideford witches and Alice Molland – you can find out about Alice here.

I know I have missed out some wonderful places but there are so many that it is hard to choose. And I know I have also ignored Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – I am planning separate posts on the history of witchcraft in these countries.

Do you know of any interesting places connected to witchcraft in England?  I’d love to know about them (any excuse for a holiday – I mean research!).


I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be.

Flowers, Friends, Food and Fun – 17th Century Wedding Customs

17th century weding band

Researching my novel ‘The Black Hours’ was often a very dark and depressing business, focusing as it did on real accounts of persecution, terror, torture and death. When I came to write the prequel ‘Blackwater’, I did find some light relief. There is a wedding in ‘Blackwater’ and so I spent a much more cheerful afternoon reading up on the wedding traditions and customs of the 17th century.

My main source for this research was a lovely booklet by Denise Taylor called ‘17th Century Wedding Customs’. This booklet, though small in size, is packed full of useful information and interesting facts that really helped me to envisage the wedding between Samuel and Elizabeth. And it was refreshing to research using something other than the internet – something that I know I overuse.

wedding customs

As we are now coming into the most popular times for weddings, I thought I would provide a small glimpse into the way weddings, particularly those of the lower classes, were enacted all those years ago, courtesy of Denise Taylor’s helpful booklet.

Before they even got to the wedding, lower class adolescents in the 17th Century had a lot more freedom than you might think. This had a lot to do with young people very often leaving home early to take up jobs in service. This independence at a young age provided plenty of opportunities to spend time alone with members of the opposite sex, often without any chaperone.

These sweethearts would give gifts to show their affection. A silver coin, broken in half with one half kept by each of the couple, was enough to signify an engagement. Oaths and prayers would often be said over these coins, giving them much significance and importance, and making these tokens valued not only as a signifier of love, but also as a talisman against evil spirits.

It was very rare that a new dress was bought specially for a wedding. Most brides would simply wear their best dress, usually the one they wore to church, possibly with some extra adornment. More important than the dress were the bride’s garters! These were generally blue in colour, and were regarded as trophies. For although they were worn by the bride, tied just above the knee, they formed the centre of a rather risqué tradition. Once it was bed time, rather than being left in privacy with her new husband to remove the garters, they were instead removed by the ‘bride-men’ (two bachelors who would have led the bride to church carrying branches of rosemary). The garters would then be fastened to the men’s hats.

Along with garters, gloves were also important. These would be given to the bride either by her groom, or by a failed suitor who would use the opportunity to show her that she had chosen he wrong man, by presenting her with the most extravagant gloves he could afford.

Flowers were as important then as they are now. Most country brides would dress their hair with wildflowers, myrtle or miniature sheaves of wheat. Myrtle would also be used in the bouquet along with orange blossom. When the bride left the church after the ceremony, wheat would be thrown on her head to bring fruitfulness – perhaps a pre-cursor to confetti.

Orange blossom - a traditional wedding flower

Orange blossom – a traditional wedding flower

If the bride lived in the north, then she may also have cake broken over her head! This again was a fertility charm. It was also believed that the future could be seen in the broken pieces of bread and that those who gathered the pieces would have good luck.

Eating and drinking was very important. Cakes, meats and treats would all be specially prepared, with the whole community helping to provide a feast for the couple and their guests. The traditional tiered cake of today’s weddings may have featured, but in the earlier part of the century, the wedding ‘cake’ was likely to consist of small buns built into a huge pile and placed before the couple at the table. The couple would try and kiss over this mound of cakes – if they managed to reach each other they were guaranteed prosperity and plenty of children.

Going to bed on the wedding night was not a private, romantic affair. Instead, the couple were escorted to bed by the bridesmaids and groomsmen. Once the garters had been removed and distributed, the bridesmaids would undress the bride, making sure that any dress pins were removed and thrown away, lest they bring misfortune. The bride would then be surrounded by her female relations and friends, waiting in the ribbon be-decked bed for her groom. He would climb in with his bride and then all the guests would come into the bedchamber to wish the couple luck. The company would then return to their celebrations, finally leaving the newly-weds in peace!

Some of the traditions may seem rather odd, but many haven’t really changed that much through the years; the flowers, the friends, the food and the fun remain an integral part of wedding celebrations.


Do you have any unusual wedding traditions in your part of the world or particular to your family? I’d love to hear about them.

17th Century Wedding Customs by Denise Taylor is available on Amazon.co.uk here.

Find out more about ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be. 

Matthew Hopkins – the man behind ‘The Black Hours’

hopkins 1

Matthew Hopkins is a man whose name has gone down in history as the notorious Witchfinder General, thought to be responsible for the executions of around 200-300 women and men between 1644 and 1647. When compared to the gruesome spree of deaths in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Lorraine, Austria including Czech lands – Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia) where estimates of deaths reach about 30,000, this may not seem many, however, Hopkins and his associates had more people killed in that short space of time than in all the other witch hunts in England combined in the previous 160 years.

Hopkins was certainly prolific then, and must have been a man with a firm belief in what he was doing – the numbers indicate a zeal that cannot simply be explained away by the generous rewards he was given by those grateful for his services. This zeal must surely have its roots in Hopkins’ childhood and adolescence, but, frustratingly for those interested in his motives and his mind-set, there is very little known about his background, other than a few parish records; these throw little light on the influences that made Hopkins the man he was.

What we do know about Hopkins then, comes from this short period of time when he was extremely active.  His first victim is thought to be 80-year-old Elizabeth Clarke. This poor woman was ripe for suspicion – she was old, poor, and was missing a leg. She was kept awake for three days, and under this extreme stress, understandably broke down – admitting to having had carnal relations with the devil. It seems ridiculous to us now – but all those years ago this would have been believed.  Poor Elizabeth implicated others, and was hanged – the first of many.


Keeping his suspects awake was only one method in Hopkins’ repertoire. Torture was actually illegal in England at the time; surprisingly, perhaps, depriving someone of sleep for days on end was not considered to be torturing them! Hopkins was careful to stay within the law – and fortunately for him this still enabled him to utilise many methods that would fill most people with horror. He is believed to have used the infamous swimming test. The idea behind this was that since witches had in effect renounced their baptism, any body of water would reject them. The hapless victims were tied, usually right thumb to left toe, and left thumb to right toe. They were then lowered into water. If the victim sank – she was innocent of witchcraft. However, there was the possibility that the dunking would kill her. If she floated, then that was proof of her guilt.

witch swimming

Witch pricking was another method – and it has been claimed that Hopkins had a trick up his sleeve when it came to this one. It was thought that a witch would have areas on her body that would not bleed – either because they were the place where the devil had kissed her to seal their pact, or because this was the spot from which she suckled her familiars. The woman would be pricked with a needle, and if the skin did not bleed, then this was proof of her guilt. Hopkins may have had a special pin made with a retractable blade – the point retracting into the handle when it met resistance. This way, he could quickly establish a suspect’s guilt.

witch pricking

As mentioned in a previous post – the exact circumstances of Hopkins’ death are not clear. He died very young – probably before he reached thirty, most probably from tuberculosis. However, there are some who believe that he met a far more deserved end – his deep knowledge of witchcraft led some to suppose that he was in league with the devil himself. The story goes that he found himself accused and was subjected to the swimming test. When he apparently survived this he was hanged. An alternative story is that people simply got fed up with his accusations and with the money that his services cost them, and he ended up being hanged by a mob.

Tuberculosis, execution or lynching? Whatever his eventual fate, in his short life, Matthew Hopkins brought fear, suffering, pain and death to many innocents. It can only be hoped that when he faced his own demise he felt at least some small remorse for what he had done – however, it is more likely that his religious mania comforted him in his death; a comfort that was denied his poor victims.


‘The Black Hours’ is a tale about the English witch hunts. Matthew Hopkins, self -styled Witchfinder General, scours the countryside, seeking out those he believes to be in league with the Devil. In the small village of Coggeshall, 17–year-old Alice Pendle finds herself at the centre of gossip and speculation. Will she survive when the Witchfinder himself is summoned?

A tale of persecution, superstition, hate and love, ‘The Black Hours’ mixes fact with fiction in a gripping fast-paced drama that follows the story of Alice as she is thrown into a world of fear and confusion, and of Matthew, a man driven by his beliefs to commit dreadful acts in the name of religion.

5* reviews:

‘The atrocities of witch hunting are brought to life in this vivid and enthralling page-turner’

‘A historical novel of the highest calibre’

‘A standout first novel’

‘Convincing characters and very engaging, this is a must-read’

‘The Black Hours’ is available through Amazon in both kindle and paperback versions, from Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and the Apple store.

The Pendle Witches – a high price to pay for some pins!

As mentioned before here on my blog, the characters in ‘The Black Hours’ are named after real victims of the witch hunts. Alice Pendle is an amalgamation of the first name of Alice Molland, a woman executed in Devon in 1685 (find her story here) and the location of a famous prosecution in 1612 in Pendle Hill in Lancashire.


This trial and the subsequent executions are perhaps the most famous of the prosecutions in England. Many were accused in the interrogations that followed, including members of the same families: Elizabeth Southerns, a woman in her eighties (also known as Demdike, another name used in ‘The Black Hours’), her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device; Anne Whittle, also known as Chattox (the surname given to poor Mary, who suffers in childbirth in ‘The Black Hours’) and her daughter Anne Redferne. Others accused at various points were Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray, Jennet Preston (whose first name was used for Jennet Everard in ‘the Black Hours’), Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Brierly, Isabel Robey and Margaret Pearson.


The trial of the Pendle witches was played out against a background of religious turmoil and intolerance, in a place with a strong Catholic background. Under Catholic Queen Mary, the people of Pendle were safe to follow Catholicism, but when Elizabeth came to the throne, Catholic priests had to go into hiding. In Pendle, and other remote areas, however, Mass continued to be celebrated, albeit in secret (leading to the use of priest hides, such as those in Harvington Hall.

Elizabeth was succeeded in 1603 by James I (James VI of Scotland). His ascension was met with hope by Catholics; however, these hopes were soon dashed. And King James also had a strong interest in witchcraft. He believed that witches had caused a storm that threatened a ship carrying him and his wife to Scotland.  He even wrote a book’ Daemonologie’, that instructed his subjects to denounce and prosecute any supporters or practitioners of witchcraft.


Into this atmosphere of religious intolerance, suspicion and superstition came Roger Nowell, Justice of the Peace for Pendle. In 1612 Nowell, along with other JPs in Lancashire, was instructed to compile a list of recusants in the area. These were Catholics who refused to attend the English church and take communion. While compiling this list, Nowell heard a complaint from the family of a pedlar, John Law, who claimed to be a victim of witchcraft.

According to John Law’s family, the poor man was ‘afflicted’ and fell to the ground after refusing to give Alizon Device some pins. This is the accusation that Nowell investigated, and in the course of these investigations, the two families were implicated. The Device family, Demdike, Chattox and Redferne were sent to Lancaster Castle to await their trial for witchcraft. In nearby Salmesbury, another JP, Robert Holden, arrested another eight suspected witches.

Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.

Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.

Of course, most of those accused never stood a chance of acquittal. Jennet Preston was charged with the murder by witchcraft of a local landowner and was tried first, at the York assizes. Apparently, the corpse bled fresh blood when she touched it. She was duly sentenced to death by hanging and was executed on the 29th of July 1612 on the Knavesmire, which is now the site of York racecourse.

At the Lancaster Assizes, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock and Isabel Robey  (who was from Windle, St Helens) were found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill. Elizabeth Southerns died while awaiting trial and Alice Gray was found not guilty.

pendle witches

Of the eight Salmesbury witches, five were released. The other three, Jane Southworth, Jennet Brierley, and Ellen Brierley were accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft, and the charges brought against them included child murder and cannibalism. However, under questioning, Sowerbutts admitted that she was lying, and all three were acquitted.

Margaret Pearson was acquitted of both murder and of bewitching a neighbour. She was, however, found guilty of bewitching a horse – a crime for which she was punished by being made to stand upon the pillory for four successive market days in Clitheroe, Padiham and Colne with a sign on her head stating her offence.

These trials are well documented and have spawned many books including Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Daylight Gate’ which is apparently being adapted by Hammer Films. A search for the Pendle Witches brings up a myriad of results; images, news articles, gift shops selling Pendle witches merchandise, even videos claiming ghostly sightings including ‘Most Haunted’ (watch if you dare!):

There is even a photograph of snow melting on Pendle Hill, seemingly making the form of a witch on a broomstick:

snow witch pendle

It seems then,  more than 400 years on, we are still fascinated by the tale of these poor accused ‘witches’, sacrificed in the name of superstition and ignorance, and all for the sake of a few pins!



Click to access isabel_robey.pdf




Vexed and Troubled Englishmen

vexed and troubled

I am currently working on a prequel to my dark historical novel ‘The Black Hours’, focusing on Maggie Prentice and her daughter Elizabeth. Looking for a suitable name for the mother of Samuel Pendle, I did a quick Google search for popular names of the time (my research is usually far more involved than that, honestly!) I stumbled upon a 1968 book ‘Vexed and Troubled Englishmen’ by colonial historian Carl Bridenbaugh, concerned with the period from 1590-1642 and using sources such as parish and court records to give an idea of the circumstances that caused people to leave the country and settle elsewhere. Mike Foster compiled a list of names using the book for Ancestry.com. Besides each name he has given an extremely brief summary of the reason for their inclusion in the book. It is this brief sentence that makes compelling reading, giving as it does a little snapshot into the lives of these real people. Some of them are sad, some baffling and others completely hilarious. Here is a very small selection:

Awdy Bartholomew, South Elmham, Norfolk – vicar, unlearned & useless

Ayres John, London – “poor man”, called Hanna Mobbs a whore

Banks William, Wetherby, Yorks – begat bastard 1614, whipped

Barrett Bridget, Lewes Ct – stuck pins in Mrs Dumbrell in church

Benbury Christopher, Southampton brewer – bad beer 1630

Brooke Ralph, Arlington, Sussex – wore horns in churchyard at wedding

Cauker Katherine, Somerset – had bastard child, whipped 1617

Dell Ann, wife of Sditch butcher – unlicensed surgery 1615

Lincolne Marie, Swanton Morley, Norfolk – jilted 1597

Merrett Thomas, Somerton, Somerset – bawdy thievish alehouse 1627

Laney Julius – branded as dangerous beggar aged 7yrs

Johnson Otilwell, Manchester – lacked chimney for hovel fire

Why on earth did Ralph Brooke wear horns in a churchyard? And what kind of unlicensed surgery was Ann Dell, butcher’s wife, carrying out? Then there are the clutch of unfortunates; poor, jilted Marie Lincolne, and Otilwell Johnson, lacking a chimney! Behind each of these sentences there surely lurks a story and some of these characters will hopefully be turning up in one of my future novels. In the meantime I chose the name Bridget for Samuel’s mother. As a character, she is definitely the type of woman who would stick pins in someone in church!

You can see the full list here

And you can even buy the book here (if you have ninety quid to spare!)


Researching the Past in the 21st Century

When I first embarked on my novel ‘The Black Hours’ I spent many hours researching  17th century England – it’s civil war, religion, the lives of ordinary people and, of course, Matthew Hopkins and his notorious witch hunts. Lots of the information I used for the book I found online – it is amazing just how much is out there, freely available in a few clicks. How I would have managed without the internet I really don’t know, but I suspect it would have taken me a great deal longer to gather everything I needed. I am so grateful to those who spend their time making all this information available for anyone who cares to look – the masses of history sites and blogs that provide so much intriguing detail, whether professional, scholarly or amateur.  It all helped me to build a picture as close as I could get to the sights, sounds and smells of 17th Century England. I was even able to read extracts from Matthew Hopkins’ own pamphlet ‘The Discovery of Witches’ which gave me a valuable insight into the workings of the mind of this driven individual.


Matthew Hopkins’ pamphlet was written to defend his practices and refute allegations that he was in league with the devil himself

Of course, I didn’t rely solely on the internet.  I also read widely, including the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of the Witches’. This 15th Century treatise details the methods that should be used in the prosecution of witches including how to identify them and how to secure a conviction. It made for a great many disturbing evenings! But it also provided a context for the world of Alice and her grandmother, and indeed the world of Matthew. Although written 150 years before my novel takes place, the beliefs within it were still held to be true and almost certainly had some influence on Hopkins.


The Malleus Maleficarum was written in 1486. The Latin title translates as ‘The Hammer of the Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword.’

This research fascinated me, and I could willingly have devoted years to it – however, I had a book to write!  And now the book is done I have a whole load of notes and facts and bits and bobs, some of which made it into the book and some of which didn’t. So in these blog posts I’d like to share some of the interesting details I learned along the way, and hope that in doings so, more will be understood about this dark time in history and its victims, those poor souls whose stories are often overlooked and forgotten, reduced to names on a list that does no justice to their suffering. I’d also like to share some of the experiences I had researching and writing the book – it can be a lonely experience and I often read the blogs of other writers when I needed a bit of inspiration and focus. I’d love to hear from other writers and from those interested in history. Please feel free to leave a comment, to visit my Facebook page or to follow me on Twitter. And if you have any interesting stories about the ‘poor buggers’ hidden behind the scenes of the history books, I’d love to hear them!