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The Hand of Sussex Witchcraft or Not?

Who was Mary Holt?

In the 1934 edition of Sussex County Magazine, a W. Albery reported that a hand allegedly belonging to a Mary Holt had been brought into the Steven’s Auction rooms earlier that year. The thumb was missing. The story behind the hand was that Mary Holt had been hanged for witchcraft in Pulborough in the 18th century. But Mr Albery was not convinced this was true.

In Mary’s defence  

In defence of poor Mary, Mr Albery revealed his research that between the reigns of Henry VIII and George II, there were 33 indictments for witchcraft in Sussex and only one hanging. That was a Margaret Cooper who was hung in 1575 in “Kirdeforde” following her trial at the Sussex Assizes in East Grinstead. Her crime was the “bewitching” of a Henry Stoner on the 1st April “who languished until the 20th April, when he died” and for making “children of wax” with which to bewitch people and cause death.

It’s interesting that by comparison, for the same period, Essex recorded 473 indictments for witchcraft and 82 executions.

But there was no trace in Albery’s research of the records of a Mary Holt.

Mr Albery also surmised that the missing thumb was a red herring. Burning the hand was a common punishment in the 17th and 18th centuries and this was done to the fleshy part of the thumb. In medieval times, mutilation and dismemberment were common and cropping of the ears survived into the 16th century. Mr Albery records the case of an Edward Baker convicted of forgery at the Sussex Assizes held at Horsham in July 1663, his punishment being, to be “set upon the pillory in Battell with a paper on his head showing his offence and have one of his ears cut of” in addition to a year in prison.

Sussex witchcraft

So who were the witches of Sussex?

We may not have had many witch trials in Sussex, but we had a few, and stories abound. In 1654 at Horsham, Jane Shoubridge of Withiam was indicted for bewitching Mary Muddle (12 years) and Clement Shoubridge of Withiam (a widow) was indicted for bewitching a Benjamin Caught and Mary Muddle. Tried before Sir Orlando Bridgman (a well-known judge) and a jury, both women were acquitted.

An article in The Post (a community magazine serving residents of Hove Park, Westdene, Tongdean, Withdean & Patcham) in 2012 suggests that between “1558 – 1736 Home Circuit Records list only 16 people prosecuted for witchcraft in this county. Of these, there was Joan Usbarne accused in 1572 of bewitching to death a bull and a cow, Alice Casselowe charged with bewitching one ox and two pigs, Agnes Mowser who, in 1591, was accused of bewitching a young woman named Ann Flemens,  and Margaret Cooper mentioned above. Then there was  Margery Banger, widow, and her daughter Joane from Hove were cited on May 1588 for being “vehemently suspected to be notorious witches and common practisers of the same”. They were acquitted.”

The last recorded indictments for witchcraft in Sussex was in July 1680 at the Horsham Assizes, when Alice Nash was indicted for bewitching Elizabeth Slater aged 2 ½ and Anne Slater 5 ½ both of whom died.

Still no Mary Holt.

Sussex legend

What do West Sussex Records Office say?

In 2017, the West Sussex Records Office published a short feature Witchcraft and the “Wicked Women” of Sussex.

It described the case of “cunning woman” Mother Mary Scutt of Bury, who was accused of witchcraft in 1603 based on her treatment of various illnesses and ailments and cures for unwanted pregnancies. It also describes two women in 1645, Martha Bruff and Ann Howsell, who were “ordered by the Mayor of Rye to be put to ordeal by water as suspected witches”.

The same feature also recites various acquittals, in particular Susanna Swapper and Anne Taylor of Rye escaped punishment in 1607 for being healers and a woman accused in Brightling of bringing spirits down upon a Joseph Cruttenden and his wife, who was cleared of all charges.

Still no Mary Holt.

Legends and folkelore

Jacqueline Simpson’s book Folklore of Sussex has a whole chapter dedicated to witches. Simpson recounts one of the most infamous local anecdotes being of a witch’s ability to turn into a hare, who when chased would disappear into a garden from where would appear an old lady. There were plenty of stories that when chased by hounds who nipped the hare’s leg, the old woman would later appear with an injured ankle. Well into the last century, you would have heard these tales in Ditchling, East Harting, Duddleswell and other villages. And indeed, in the early part of the last century, contributions to the Sussex County Magazine about witches were frequent and vivid.

In Ditchling, Plumpton, Findon and Old Shoreham, Simpson recounts stories of old women who could stop carts or wagons in their tracks. Various cures were on offer however, such as running a knife under the horses’ hooves or under the cart wheels. And Simpson tells of many local characters thought to be witches, such as that of old Nanny Smart who lived in Hurstpierpoint in the 18th century, and who could immobilise carts and put people in a trance, and of Witch Killick of Crowborough who put a curse on her neighbour and Dame Prettylegs from Albourne in the 19th century who was thought to be guilty of hag riding the horses. As an interesting side note, Simpson points out that Prettylegs’ husband was thought to be engaged in smuggling which might just explain the reason for exhausted, sweaty horses of a morning.

But still no Mary Holt.

Sussex folkelore

When you delve into local legends of witches and witchcraft, you inevitably disappear down more than a few rabbit holes.  It’s still early days in my research and I will keep looking, but as yet, still no Mary Holt or her hand.



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