Witchcraft in Hertfordshire

In Hertfordshire where cases for witchcraft have survived, almost ninety percent of those accused were women.

Accusations included : murder by witchcraft, causing illness by witchcraft, bewitching cattle, causing storms, causing butter to fail and stealing crops by magic.

“accusations of witchcraft were more common in rural areas than in towns, probably because superstition lingered longer in the countryside, especially it seems (from the geographical spread of cases) in North Herts”

(From Herts Memories Web page, see link below)

There were three cases in Ashwell and two in Hitchin. But there was an incident in Norton that is not mentioned by these historians.

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Norton is a small, ancient place. The church once belonged to the Abbey of St Albans (from c.795, ‘although they lost control of it’ for a period before it was restored to them in a charter of 1007. A church is thought to have been on the present site since 1002, and a priest is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). The present St Nicholas Church in Norton dates from about 1119, built by the Norman Bishop of Ely. From 1258 pilgrims were granted hospitality in the parish on their way to and from the shrine at St Albans Abbey. In 1291 Pope Nicholas IV granted indulgences to pilgrims visiting the church at Norton for the four feasts of the year dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

When Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey of St Albans in 1539, Norton church became the property of various aristocratic families. By the middle of the 17th century “Norton seems to have been Puritan by persuasion”. It was during this time that a scandal erupted involving witches in the village!

Around the middle of the 17th century this record appeared:


“The Divels Delysions or a faitfull reaction of John Palmer and Elizabeth Knott two notorious witches lately condemned at the sessions of Oyer and Terminer in St Albans. Together with the confession of the aforesaid John Palmer and Elizabeth Knott executed July 16. Also their accusations of several witches in Hitchin, Norton and other places in the county of Hertford.” London (Printed for Richard Williams Singer at St Albans 1649 July 19th)

Simon Walker, in his book ‘The Witches of Hertfordshire’ writes, “Murmuring and chanting, an elderly man and an elderly woman set a clay doll on fire. In the village of Norton, Goodwife Pearls felt as if she was burning. The fever took hold and she died.”

In 1649, John Palmer and his kinswoman Elizabeth Knot were condemned and executed for Witchcraft at St Albans. Palmer confessed that he had signed a pact with the devil and had been in Satan’s service for sixty years. He admitted to seducing Elizabeth Knot into serving the devil and together they had murdered Goodwife Pearls through sorcery. To add to his crimes he had two devil’s familiars which sucked his blood, one in the form of a dog called George and the other in the form of an attractive woman called Jezebell. He also claimed to have the ability to transform into a toad, although he gave no reason why!

The main evidence for this witchcraft case is a pamphlet called “The Devil’s Delusions or A faithful relation of John Palmer and Elizabeth Knot, two witches lately condemned at the Sessions of Oyer and Terminer at St Alban’s, 1649.” The case is unusual in England as it implies witches acted in groups rather than individually. This was very uncommon in England and mentions a human familiar as well as an animal one.

John Palmer may have been a simple old man, or a manipulative villain. Could he have been tortured into confessing or was he proud of his powers? He may well have burned a clay doll of Goodwife Pearls, intending to kill her, and was convinced that her death confirmed his supernatural powers.

A genealogy study reveals a tiny bit more information:

On 18th September 1642 William Perle married Susan Wright in Ardeley village, Hertfordshire.

Susan was christened on 7 December 1617 Ardeley, Hertfordshire by her father Robert Wright born 1581 Ardeley, son of Michael Wrighte.

Susan’s mother was probably Elizabeth Anderson from Rushden (near Wallington Herts) she married Robert Wright on 29th November 1611.

Susan Perle seems to be the poor victim, “Goodwife Pearls”. If she was baptized when she was born, she would have been aged only 32 years when the fever took her. The term ‘Goodwife’ used to mean a lady who was head of her household, so either her husband had left her or, more likely she was widowed. Her marriage had not lasted even seven years.

1649 was a particularly turbulent year in English history, for the king was executed and there was great civil disruption – people took sides – Parliamentarians or Royalty – each representing a different attitude to life. Perhaps Goodwife Pearls had chosen a side disliked by John Palmer?

Palmer’s accomplice is named Elizabeth Knott. The records available suggest that she was a very young woman, compared to John Palmer. She was probably born Elizabeth Mussage, an unusual surname.

Elizabeth Mussage married Jeames Knott on 1st November 1641 in Baldock (close to Norton)

Looking for a kinsman link, the only record to suggest a link between the Palmer family and Elizabeth Knot appears in a marriage:

Nicholas Palmer and Alice Mussage in Baldock on 21.7.1641

The Mussage women, Elizabeth and Alice, may have been sisters or cousins. Most girls married before the age of twenty five, so using this number, one can guess they were born circa 1616.

There was a Mussage family in Cheshunt at the end of the 1500s and in 1575 William Mussage married Joan Skott in Baldock (19.5.1575)

They could have been the Mussage’s grandparents? There are no other records for Baldock….

Jeames Knot came from Baldock, he was christened on 9th August 1618 in Baldock by his father William Knot.

If Jeames was a couple of years older than Elizabeth, 1616 very well could be a good guess for her year of birth.

So, Nicholas Palmer may be the link between Elizabeth Knott and John Palmer.

In the record John Palmer is said to be an old man. If he was around sixty he would be born in the 1590s.

Neither Nicholas Palmer or John Palmer seem to come from Baldock, or no records survive. Their genealogy links are presently unproved. It does seem, however, that John Palmer may have been much older than Elizabeth Knott. If she is the correct individual, her husband, James Knott, disappears from the Hertfordshire records after his wife’s execution, as do Nicholas Palmer and his wife Alice.

The interesting thing about this trial for witchcraft in 1649, is that John Palmer said that there were others who participated in the craft. Thus there may have been a witches coven in Hertfordshire, right in the middle of a strict, puritan community and this was certainly a scandal for the times!

Today Norton is a quiet place on the outskirts of Letchworth Garden City. At the time of Goodwife Pearl’s death Letchworth was just a small village along the lane. Behind the church of St Nicholas and it’s graveyard lies a field filled with lumps and bumps. This was once part of the original village and may well have been where John Palmer and Elizabeth Knott plotted the death of Goodwife Pearls. A path goes through the field where the street once ran. As one walks along the furrow, one can easily imagine old Palmer and his young accomplice, passing wordlessly by. Perhaps they would just slightly raise an eyebrow in secret acknowledgement knowing that soon, on the witches sabbath, they would meet and cast their darkest spells.

Genealogy undertaken by Misty Tarot Cloud

Read ‘The Witches of Hertfordshire’ by Simon Walker

Other Ref : https://www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/topics/witchcraft/witchcraft-in-hertfordshire


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