Tales and Traditions of the High Peak

By William Wood (1862)

Transcription by Andrew McCann, © Copyright 2002

The Witches of Bakewell

“During the reign of James the First, the witches of Bakewell were hanged.”
[Extract from a parchment roll in which remarkable events for a long series of years are recorded by different attornies of Derby.
The above entry or note was made by Edward Brooke, Attorney of the Borough Court.]

“Dr. Johnson thought we were not authorised to deny that there might be witches, because nothing proved their non-existence.”- Marsh's Lectures on the English Language.

So conspicuous a place as Bakewell, in the district of High Peak, claims some further notice, than the execution of its reputed witches; hence a few other particulars of this now fashionable town will precede the subject of the title of this sketch.

Of the precise antiquity of Bakewell little is known beyond what is furnished by vague conjecture. Like all other places it has had its relics of Roman origin; yes, the antiquary finds a Roman altar, or something appertaining thereto, and he immediately writes - Bakewell built by, or known to the Romans - certes. The Saxon Chronicle. however, contains a notice of the undoubted origin of Bakewell, as a town:-

“Edward the Elder fortified Nottingham, and then marched into Peakland, to Badecannwllan (or the bathing well) and commanded a town to be built in its neighbourhood, and to be strongly garrisoned.” Prior to the arrival of Edward the Elder,- which was A.D. 924,- Badecannwllan would consist of half a dozen mud huts, probably, situated around the bathing well, thirough which these rude domiciles would have their certain origin.

The site of the station of Edward the Elder can still be particularly distinguished; the extensive ramparts and mounds can be traced at the present day,- indeed, Castle-field, Warden-field, Court-yard, and Garland-close, palpably indicate a once-existing castle or fortification of strength and importance. It was this monarch who made Bakewell the seat of jurisdiction for the High Peak.

Near a thousand years have elapsed since the devastating King of Wessex, with his army of conquerors, were encamped on the Castle-hill; when their proud banners waved in the breeze which swept over a dreary waste, now the site of the metropolis of the Peak.

Down the long vista of one thousand years let the imagination wing its way. Let it behold from the Castle-hill's high summit, a few cabins studded around the health-creating well; let it extend its view to the numberless hirsute hills, and far-spreading lanigerous vales, then return to the present, and contrast the two vastly varied scenes: the uncultivated waste, converted to rich fields of fertility; the mud huts passed away and splendid structures occupying their sites; ignorance and poverty supplanted by wealth and intelligence; these, with other countless, advantageous changes, so visible to the mental eye, how delightful it is to behold; how pleasing to the imagination to gaze on such impressive manifestations of the onward progress of human civilization; such irrefragable evidence of the development and divinity of the human mind !

Bakewell's greatest gem is the fine old baronial mansion - Haddon Hall, of which so much has been written that it would be superfluous to give anything here beyond a very brief notice. In the reign of Anne, the first Duke of Rutland kept one hundred and forty servants at Haddon; and for twelve days at Christmas the house was kept open in the true style of old English hospitality. At the conclusion of the American war, two hundred couples danced in the long Gallery; and the festive board was again spread, some twenty-five years ago, in honour of the coming of age of the Marquis of Granby, now his Grace the Duke of Rutland. This noble family left Haddon Hall, for Belvoir Castle, about one hundred and fifty years ago; and now the council board, where the mighty chieftains sat, is deserted. The minstrel's song,- the merry laugh, the shouts of mirth and revelry, no more are heard.

Silence now pervades this once joyous place: all is hushed, as the broken minstrel, silent as the grave! Time - the ever-rolling stream of time washes all away before it, “the cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces”, eventually perish before its overwhelming flood. Look here, proud arrogant man; read in this fast-perishing mansion, the transitory duration of earthly stability.

Another relic of high antiquity to be met with at Bakewell is the headless Cross standing in the Churchyard; it is very ancient, but inferior in embellishment to that in Eyam Churchyard. The Bakewell Cross was removed some centuries ago from Rowdale, to the place where it now stands. Its ornaments and devices are similar to those of the Penrith Cross in Cumberland. The octagonal tower of the old church, like the present, was crowned with a lofty spire, long admired as an interesting object.[1]

The western part of the nave was highly decorated with Saxon ornaments. The waters of Bakewell are not so much celebrated by a very deal as those of Matlock and Buxton, being almost twenty-four degrees lower in temperature than those of the latter place. But the salubrity of the atmosphere at this pleasant and interesting place and the privilege of angling in the Wye, have rendered it a place of fashionable resort during the summer months - that is to say, a place of temporary stay for the great numbers passing to and from the great gem - Buxton.

No incident connected with Bakewell is of that appalling character as the legal murder of two ignorant women, who were seized at their residence in Bakewell, dragged to Derby, and barbarously hanged, on the ignorant charge of witchcraft; and this so recent as 1608, in the reign of that witch-ridden monarch, James the First. Dymond, in his Moral Essays, says, that one of the popular errors of the present day is to look back on past times with too much partiality - deeming them much better than the present, always exaggerating the modicum of good, and overlooking the evil; but who can look back on the horrible scene of the execution of the Bakewell witches, and not shudder at the gross malignity of the superstition then prevalent? Is not the retrospection painfully disgusting? Thanks to the schoolmaster! he is abroad,- witchcraft is erased from the tablets of popular belief; and Bakewell will never more see her wizard daughters sacrificed at the bloody altar of the fearful monster - fanaticism!

It may be to some persons amusing to peruse the account of the evidence on which the Bakewell witches were condemned and executed; of which evidence the following was that by which they were principally criminated. These two mis-named witches were distinguished as principal and assistant, the name of the former was Mrs. Stafford, she was a milliner at Bakewell, to which occupation she joined that of keeping a boarding or lodging-house; and it was on the evidence of a lodger that she and her confederate lost their lives. This lodger was a Scotchman, who stated that lying awake one morning very early on his bed, he perceived through the crevices of the chamber floor a great and unusual light in the room below. Curiosity prompted him to ascertain the cause by peeping through one of the interstices; when, to his surprise, he beheld Mrs. Stafford and her accomplice preparing for a journey; and then listening, he heard Mrs. Stafford audibly repeat the following lines:

“Over thick, over thin
Now d---l to th' cellar in Lunnun,”

and immediately they vanished, and all was dark. Startled at this strange scene, the frightened lodger thoughtlessly repeated the same words nearly:-

“Through thick, through thin
Now d---l to th' cellar in Lunnun,”

But ere the last word was delivered, a rush of wind passed through the room, which carried him away in his night-clothes, and in a moment he was seated all tattered and torn beside Mrs. Stafford and the other witch in a lamp-lighted cellar in London. The witches were tying up large parcels of silks and muslins which they had purloined in an instant from the shops in the metropolis. Mrs. Stafford immediately handed himsome wine, which he drank, and then fell fast asleep.

When he awoke his companions were gone, and he was taken by a watchman before a magistrate on suspicion of having been concealed in an unoccupied room for sinister purposes. “Where are your clothes?” said his Worship.

“They are at Mrs. Stafford's house in Bakewell, Derbyshire,” replied the wary Scotchman.

Bakewell, in Derbyshire! “Why, have you walked from there with only a shirt torn into ribbons on your back?” his Worship rejoined.

“I came - I don't know how, 'twas like a wind; but Mrs. Stafford came the same fashion. I was in bed at three o'clock this morning, at Bakewell, and Mrs. Stafford too, but she's gone back, and her sister too, I thinks it is”, said the wily villain.

“Ah! ah !” exclaimed his Worship, “this is witchcraft, clear case! clear case, indeed! Take down his depositions; bring him some clothes, away to Bakewell! Seize the accused witches, convey them to the county gaol. Try them on this good man's evidence, and execute them immediately. Praise the L--d !”

Ridiculous and incredible as this may appear now, it is a fact irrefragable and undeniable, that Mrs. Stafford and her female accomplice in witchcraft were executed at Derby, A.D. 1608, on the evidence here adduced; that is to say, a Scotchman had had some of his clothes detained by Mrs. Stafford, at Bakewell, for lodgings, after which he went to London, stripped himself, and swore to the effect afore-stated.

The reader will not withhold his credence to the monstrous fact of the Bakewell witches, when he is informed that, during the long; Parliament, three thousand supposed witches were executed in England. One was burnt in Scotland in 1722, the Judge was Captain D. Ross; and for the same imaginary crime, a woman was burnt at Glacus, Ireland, so recent as 1786! Dreadful fanaticism!

The Bakewell witches are by some confounded with the Leicestershire witches, Margaret and Phillipa Flower, daughters of Joan Flower, near Belvoir Castle, who were specially arraigned and condemned before Sir Henry Hobart and Sir Henry Burnley, Judges of assize, for confessing themselves actors in the destruction of Henry, Lord Rosse, “with their damnable practices against others the children of the Right Honourable Francis, Earl of Rutland, of Haddon and Beaver Castle”.

They were executed at Lincoln, the 11th day of March, 1618-19. Besides the above, there were others who assisted them in their supposed “Pythonissa dealing”; three were known as the Belvoir witches,- “Anne Baker, Joan Willimot and Ellen Greene”, who luckily escaped the fate of the Flowers, although they severally underwent searching examinations before “Francis, Earl of Rutland, Sir George Manners, Knight, and the Rev. Samuel Fleming, Doctor of Divinitie, one of his Majesties Justices of the Peace for the county of Leicester.”


[1] Tradition says that on the completion of the old spire, a father and son were engaged in finishing the highest part, when on a sudden the son looked backwards or sideways and said: “see, father, Bakewell meadows are on fire !”
“Lord have mercy on thy soul !” replied the father, who saw, ere the last word had escaped his lips, his beloved child fall to the ground and there lie almost literally dashed to pieces.

Transcribed by Andrew McCann in February 2002.

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