Not the Pendle Witches – but close by

Once upon a time – in about 1582 – there was in Pemberton in Lancashire a poor widow woman with two beautiful daughters. Well actually when the story starts her husband was still alive and we have no idea what her daughters looked like. The husband was sick, and they spent money and promised more to buy cures, but to no effect. He died and widow Winstanley – that was her name – was so poor that she had to pay his medical bill with cheese. (Lancashire cheese is generally very good – obviously not as good as Wenslydale, but then what is?)  So this newly widowed woman and her two daughters, Alice and Elizabeth, were living very poorly, when into their lives came a yeoman of Norley, Alexander Atherton, a man of good having and greater expectations, and he fell like a ton of bricks for the younger daughter, Elizabeth. Being a rational man, this upset him very much. He was well-to-do and could and should have looked much higher for a wife than this pauper girl. He wrestled with his afliction for a time, and then, being unable to overcome his feelings, he offered her honourable marriage, and she turned him down flat.

He was amazed. This marriage, so much to her advantage and equally to his disadvantage, she had unaccountably rejected. He could only think that the long months spent repressing his love might have altered his appearance for the worse. Being aware of his own worth he did not give up, with the result that the widow, her daughters and half a dozen others visited Norley, with staves, bucklers, swords and daggers, and beat the crap out of him. That was the early-modern way of dealing with stalkers. This made him think, and he worked out what must be the problem. If a rational man like himself could fall in love with such an unsuitable and ungrateful young woman, then it must be because he had been bewitched.

He went up to London to take physick and instruct a lawyer.

He determined that the medico, who had so unsuccessfully attended Widow Winstanley’s late husband, must be the culprit. The man’s name was Ralf Osbarston, originally of Wigan, and I can’t read his profession. He was probably a local cunning man, an unlicenced healer. For some reason he is not included in the subpoenas or in the interrogatories. Anyway Atherton claimed that the widow had procured a love philtre from Osbarston and slipped it into a spiced ale that he drank in her company at John Wayte’s house in Pemberton.

A commission was issued from Star Chamber to take evidence in Wigan, and the three woman gave depositions. They are very short and say in effect. “We don’t know what this man is talking about.”  It seems that the commissioners did not feel the need to press for anything more.

It is interesting that in the Pendle area a man’s mind turned to witchcraft when things went wrong.

TNA STAC 5/A1/36

TNA STAC 5/A22/33

And you are indebted to Helen Good for drawing your attention to this case.


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