Witchcraft in 17th Century Northowram

It remains a source of debate amongst scholars as to why the main phase of witch persecution in England occurred during the 16th and 17th Century. Many of the most infamous episodes occurred around then, including the Pendle and Berwick witch trials or self-styled “witchfinder-general” Matthew Hopkins’ reign of terror in East Anglia. The natural assumption is that belief in witchcraft is associated with scientific ignorance and superstition, yet rational thought was far more developed at this point in history than it had been during the medieval period, when hysteria over witches was considerably less pronounced.

Numerous factors have been invoked to explain why witchcraft became such an issue at this time. As with all historical processes, socio-economic dynamics are an obvious driving force and many accusations of witchcraft were certainly borne out of both rivalry between competing landowners or class resentment. Such allegations were an effective way of claiming the property of a neighbour or by which a poor member of the community could exact revenge on one of the emergent middle class families who had failed to show appropriate charity.

However, these influences were similarly present during the Middle Ages and cannot adequately explain why witch hysteria grew more pronounced during later centuries. What sets the 16th and 17th Century apart seems to be the religious strife which swept through England in this period with the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Civil Wars. The theological foundations of these revolutions generated a more intense religiosity amongst the general populace, begetting movements such as Puritanism, for whom the Devil was very real indeed, and a febrile atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust between opposing denominations.

The work of the Reverend Oliver Heywood makes an excellent case study in this regard. Heywood, a fascinating and formidable character, is regarded as one of the leaders of Nonconformism (an umbrella term for religious groups who rejected state worship) in northern England during the 17th Century. He spent much of his career based in the Coley and Northowram area, although he travelled widely across the surrounding district, with one source estimating that he would regularly clock up over ten thousand miles in a year. He also kept extensive diaries which are now regarded as a crucial source of social, religious and local history.

Heywood was born in Bolton in 1630 and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1647 at the age of seventeen. By 1650, he was the Nonconformist minister of the old church of St. John the Baptist at Coley, which he ran along Presbyterian lines. He was not impressed by what he perceived as the immoral behaviour of the local populace, writing “Oh, what rioting, rebelling, gluttony, drunkenness, abominable beastly luxury, lechery scarce heard of among the heathen.” This severe, disapproving attitude inevitably made him many enemies in the parish, who snubbed his sermons and even tried to disrupt provisions to him.

The religious authorities were also disturbed by Heywood’s activities and in 1659 he was briefly jailed for contravening the Act of Uniformity, which required all clergymen to use a standard English prayer book, and in 1662 he was excommunicated for the same offence. Following this, he lodged briefly with the former Parliamentarian officer, Captain John Hodgson, at Coley Hall before being forced back to Lancashire by the Five Mile Act of 1665, which forbade excommunicated ministers from preaching within five miles of their former parish.

This legislation was repealed in 1672, whereupon Heywood returned to Northowram to found a Presbyterian chapel by royal license. During this period, he lived at Northowram House which was also used at their place of worship. However, his license was revoked in 1674, whilst in 1685 his persistence earned him yet another excommunication, fine and brief spell in jail for “riotous assembly”. With the succession of James II and the Act of Toleration, he was finally able to build a congregation unhindered. The Heywood Chapel opened in 1688 at Northowram (where the United Reform church stands today) and he preached there until his death in 1702.

From Heywood’s diaries, it is clear that witchcraft was much feared by his congregation, especially the practice of “maleficium” (the use of magic to cause harm). Heywood was regularly consulted on these matters by sympathisers from across the surrounding region. In October 1665, for instance, he was called to Wakefield to see a “possessed” youth by the name of Nathan Dodgson. The boy was often seized by bursts of anger so violent several strong men could not restrain him or fits in which he would fall into a catatonic state. When he recovered he often claimed to have seen the apparition of the woman believed to be bewitching him.

In February 1672, Heywood travelled to Ripponden to the funeral of Richard Hoyle’s fourth son, who had succumbed to a mysterious illness thought to have been wrought by witchery, whilst he records in his diaries of February 1674 that a local man named Joseph Hinchcliffe hanged himself after he was accused of being a witch. However, despite Heywood’s Puritan inclinations, he remained sceptical of many such accusations and it is true that by the late 17th Century, whilst witch hysteria was still rife amongst the general populace, learned authorities tended to dismiss it as superstitious fancy.

In May 1683, a local member of his Northowram congregation by the name of Judith Higson sought his advice concerning her twelve year old son. The child was stricken with a strange distemper which left him swollen and insensible. One Dr. Thornton had informed the family that the illness was not natural and rather than prescribe medicine, recommended a cake mixed from wheatmeal, horseshoe stumps and the boy’s urine and hair. The doctor claimed this would break the power of his possessor and cause the witch to reveal herself. Heywood, however, was having none of it and recommended that Mrs. Higson pray and fast for her son’s recovery.

Nor was Heywood himself exempt from allegations of witchcraft and it exemplifies how the religious friction of the period was fertile ground for breeding such hysteria. As a radical Nonconformist preacher, who believed that private faith alone was sufficient for salvation rather than adherence to the religious laws of the state, Heywood must have appeared to many pious Anglicans, and indeed certain rival Nonconformist sects, as the very agent of the Devil. Accusing religious dissenters of witchcraft was a common response to unfamiliar forms of worship, not to mention an effective way of limiting their influence and competition.

Thus, during a gathering at the Rastrick house of rival minister by the name of John Hanson, somebody referred to only as N.C. is recorded as commenting that people dare not approach Heywood’s house for fear of witches. A rumour was abroad that the wife of B. Jagger had been seen leaving Heywood’s residence one Sunday night, during which time she was supposed to have “got power” over a maid of Anthony Waterhouse. The servant girl was soon “distempered and strangely taken” and in her delirium claimed to see the apparition of Jagger’s wife. She died within a fortnight.

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Published in: on September 10, 2010 at 20:11  Leave a Comment  
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Curiosities of Coley Hall

The earliest references to settlement at Coley are found in the Wakefield Court Rolls in 1277 and 1286, pertaining to land owned there by Sir John de Coldelay, whose surname the word Coley was no doubt corrupted from. Later, in 1326, Brother Thomas Larchier, prior of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem recorded that Henry de Coldelay “held a certain tenement in Coldelay of their house,” which is to say that de Coldelay rented the land from the Knights, for the sum of five shillings per annum. For such a tenure, the de Coldelays would have enjoyed certain privileges including not having to submit their corn to be ground at the mill of the Lord of the Manor, or “do suit at his court”.

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaller, were a Christian military order originally established in 1080 to care for sick pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, their martial designation stemming from the frequent need to provide an armed guard during the Crusades. The Knights were granted an exemption from all but papal authority and from the payment of tithes, whilst they were gifted land across Christendom from which to draw an income. In England, however, all property of the Knights was confiscated during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540 whereupon their land at Coley passed to the Manor of Batley.

The 17th Century Nonconformist preacher and diarist Oliver Heywood, who was for a time incumbent at Coley Chapel wrote that Coley was “once a priory in popish times” but whilst the Hospitalalers certainly owned the land, there is no primary historical or archaeological evidence to suggest they actually maintained a community on the site (although neither has it been strenuously sought). However, certain clues do remain in the name of nearby Priestley Green and the preponderance of holy wells in the area, including Helliwell Syke, Lister Well and St. John’s Well which was believed to possess healing powers and can still be found in a field above the hamlet at Coley Hall.

Nonetheless, several remembrances of the Hospitallers’ ownership of Coley do still endure. The patron saint of the Order was John the Baptist and in addition to St. John’s Well, Coley Church (built in 1812 on the site of the earlier 16th Century chapel) is similarly dedicated, whilst preserved inside the church is the original cross from Coley denoting its tenure. It is also interesting to note that John the Baptist was often depicted as a severed head and the gateway to Coley Hall features a particularly fine example of the archaic stone head motif. Although the relief was carved in 1649 more than a century after the Hospitallers had lost the land, that fact does not preclude the persistence of the image in the local psyche.

The land at Coley passed into the hands of the Sunderland family (of High Sunderland) on 29th April 1572 and it is thought that the body of the current Hall was built by Samuel Sunderland around 1640, passing to his nephew Langdale in 1646. During the Civil Wars, Langdale fought for the Royalists as a Captain of a Troop of Horse under the Earl of Newcastle and whilst he was resident at the Hall, it suffered badly from bombardment by passing Parliamentary troops, necessitating the rebuilding of its south frontage. The victorious Commonwealth later imposed a decimation tax on Langdale forcing him to sell Coley along with the family estates at High Sunderland.

In 1657 the new owner William Horton leased the Hall for fifteen years to Captain John Hodgson, who’d fought for the Parliamentarian cause in the Civil Wars. For a period, Hodgson gave refuge there to Oliver Heywood whose uncompromising Nonconformity had seen him driven out as vicar at Coley Chapel, jailed under the Acts of Uniformity in 1659, prosecuted for riotous assembly and twice excommunicated in 1662 and 1685. Heywood’s controversial reputation was such that he was even accused of witchcraft, when John Hanson declared that following a visit to Heywood’s house the wife of one B. Jagger had “got power” over a maid of Anthony Waterhouse, who soon died.

Over the next few hundred years, Coley Hall passed through the hands of a succession of owners until 1961 when it was bought by Richard Pickles who found it in a near-derelict state and set about restoring it. In articles for the Brighouse Echo dated 24th February and 24th March 1962, Mr. Pickles describes experiencing a number of hauntings at the Hall. In one particular room the bed seemed vibrate for no reason and his dog would growl at some invisible presence moving around the room, whilst a motor mechanic working in a garage converted from old stables adjacent to the Hall was the victim of poltergeist activity which saw him showered with soil and stones.

However, it was Mrs. Pickles who witness the apparitions most associated with the Hall when she was confronted by the figure of a Cavalier leaning against the mantle. This experience was echoed by testimony from Mr. G.E. Gudgin, trustee of the estate of the late John Herbert Fletcher whose wife Anne Sunderland had been the last member of that family to reside at Coley. Gudgin recalled being told by Fletcher that on one occasion he had descended for breakfast to find the ghostly figures of two cavaliers in the morning room. A neighbour also recalled Anne Sunderland once showing him a priest-hole in the Hall, where there was a bloodstain reputed to belong to a murdered cavalier found hiding there.

Some have speculated that one of the Cavalier ghosts was that of Langdale Sunderland, expressing his displeasure at the Hall’s later occupancy by his Parliamentarian rivals John Hodgson and Oliver Heywood. However, this doesn’t entirely fit as Langdale dies in 1698, long after Hodgson’s tenancy had ended and ownership of the Hall returned to the Sunderland family in 1775. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers were the most frequently seen spectres, even though there were supposedly others; Anne Sunderland also used to speak of the ghost of a white lady known as Caroline Anne who would appear from the oak panelled bedroom at the top of the main staircase.

The Fleece Inn, Elland

The Fleece Inn — located amidst the rather incongruous surrounds of 1960s social housing at the top of Elland’s Westgate but in close proximity to both the Long Wall and Ellen Royde — is one of the most historically significant buildings in the district, not to mention one of the most haunted. The structure standing today is a classic 17th Century U-plan building which began life in approximately 1610 as a farmstead called the Great House and it is thought the remains of an even earlier dwelling may be incorporated in its fabric.

The Fleece’s reputation for hospitality stretches back to 1745 when it was still divided into three separate houses and one tenant by the name of George Readyhough provided ale for three thousand troops under General Oglethorpe who were marching to intercept Bonnie Prince Charlie on his return north. However, probably it’s most illustrious guest was Joachim Von Ribbentrop, recorded in the guestbook during the 1920s when he was employed as a travelling wine salesman, some years prior to his more infamous career as the Nazi Party’s Foreign Minister.

In 1782, prior to its conversion to an inn, the building was used as a vicarage by one Reverend Houghton, whilst after 1791 an upstairs room in the establishment was rented out to a particularly odd Nonconformist sect known as the Thumpers, who believed in praising God through jumping up and down. Their frenzied motion caused the floor to shake to such an extent that a chair in the room would also start to leap around and long after the sect had departed, that chair was said still to jump about of its own accord from time to time.

Later in the 19th Century, the Fleece gained a reputation as something of a riotous establishment. A story goes that one market day in Elland, a traveller attempted to defraud a local man who caught him out and chased the cheat back to the inn, where he was lodging. A fight ensued and one of the men was mortally wounded, his blood leaving a stain on the staircase which no amount of scrubbing could ever remove. The staircase and its grisly marking was a prominent feature in the bar for many years but sadly it was destroyed by careless workmen during renovation work in the 1980s.

However, a second memorial to the incident remains in the graveyard of Saint Mary’s Church. The vicar at the time, Rev. Christopher Atkinson, had long complained about the dissolute behaviour permitted at the Fleece by its landlord William Wooler, and so on the headstone of the murdered man, he ordered the following epitaph be inscribed: “Be warned ye thoughtless – ne’er that place frequent / Where sinners meet and revel all the night / And mix not in drunkenness and fight / Frequent it not nor its bad name know / For there lo! I received a fatal blow”.

The narrative of the murder is sometimes cited as the genesis of the Fleece’s most famous phantom, Old Leathery Coit. However, his story is strictly speaking not connected to the inn at all, but to a barn behind it which was demolished sometime in the 1960s. It is also likely that the tale of Leathery Coit, first recorded in print by Lucy Hamerton in her 1901 tome Olde Eland, has a much older provenance than the mid-1800s. The story certainly has all the characteristics of a folkloric haunting and may have been known in Elland for centuries.

Old Leathery Coit was usually described as a headless apparition in a battered leather coat, who would drive a carriage pulled by headless horses from Westgate down Church Lane and Eastgate to Old Earth and back again. At midnight, the doors of the barn behind the Fleece were said to open without human assistance and as he furiously rode out, it would create a sudden rush of wind. Hence, whenever such a gust was felt in the Westgate area during the hours of darkness, local people would comment “There goes Old Leathery Coit”.