In 1621, William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford wrote a play titled ‘The Witch of Edmonton’. Described as “probably the most sophisticated treatment of domestic tragedy in the whole of Elizabethan-Jacobean drama”, the plot is familiar to those who know their witchcraft history – old woman is different, old woman is ostricised, old woman gets revenge, or is perceived to get her revenge.
But the Elizabeth Sawyer of the play was a real woman, convicted and executed for witchcraft in the same year the play was written. Who was she? What is the true story that inspired three men to write their play?
Our only source of information is her confession. Henry Goodcole was the chaplain at Newgate prison and heard confessions and wrote pamphlets about particular criminal cases. In Elizabeth’s case, he published her confession in a pamphlet entitled “The wonderfull discouerie of Elizabeth Savvyer a witch late of Edmonton” . These pamplets were a common occurance of the time. They filled society’s desire for lurid details and shocking stories, much like tabloids and trashy magazines today.
Little is known about Elizabeth Sawyer, other than what Henry describes to us in his pamphlet. We know that she lived in Edmonton. Interestingly she is described as a spinster in one part of Henry’s pamphlet, but in her confession she also briefly mentions a husband. She could perhaps be a widow, but no more of her marital status is mentioned. She doesn’t appear to have any children, or any family living nearby. And unlike her accusers, she does not appear to have a good social reputation.
Elizabeth was accused of murdering her neighbour Agnes Ratcliffe through the means of witchcraft. Henry explains that Elizabeth had laid out some soap, which Agnes’s sow licked up. Elizabeth, angry at this turn of events, told Agnes that “it should be a deare blow unto her”. That night Agnes fell ill. Her illness could not be explained by anyone in the village, and the presence of foaming at the mouth and “distemper” caused her neighbours to suspect witchcraft. Agnes also named Elizabeth Sawyer as the one who bewitched her. Within four days Agnes was dead.
This was not the first time Elizabeth’s name had been linked to witchcraft within her local community. A local Justice of the Peace, Mr Arthur Robinson, “…had often & diuers times, vpon the complaints of the neighbours against this Elizabeth Sawyer, laboriously and carefully examined her, and stil his suspition was strengthened against her, that doutlesse shee was a Witch.” Arthur Robinson had long suspected Elizabeth of being a witch, and upon this new accusation, immediately called for women to be brought to search her body for the mark of the witch. Elizabeth, understandably, was not best pleased at being strip-searched and “behaued her selfe most sluttishly and loathsomely towards them, intending thereby to preuent their search of her”. However, the women forced her to comply, and found what they were looking for. Elizabeth had “a thing like a Teate the bignesse of the little finger, and the length of halfe a finger, which was branched at the top like a teate, and seemed as though one had suckt it, and that the bottome thereof was blew, and the top of it was redde”. The discovery of such a thing may as well have been an outright admission of guilt. Elizabeth denied it’s very existence, which in the eyes of the Jury, showed her true character. It was at this point that Elizabeth was taken into custody, and met Henry Goodcole and gave her confession.
Henry begins by asking her how she came to meet the Devil, who was behind her despicable powers, and how she knew it was the Devil. Elizabeth explains she had been cursing and blaspheming, and at this moment the Devil appeared to her saying “Oh! haue I now found you cursing, swearing, and blaspheming? now you are mine.” She goes on to warn people not to engage in sin, as it was her choice of language that made the Devil single her out for his use. Henry asked what she said to the Devil, and was she afraid? Elizabeth explains she was very afraid, but the Devil reassured her that he was not there to harm her, and that he was actually there to help her, by carrying out ‘mischiefs’ at her bidding. She admits that she had been the cause of many Christian’s and beast’s deaths, and that her motivation had been malice and envy, and that if people had angered her, she called on the Devil to act out her revenge. Despite her earlier claims that the Devil had said that he intended her no harm, Elizabeth also explains that he desired her body and soul, and would tear her to pieces if she did not comply. The sealing of this agreement was in the form of sucking blood from her, and it was the repeated suckling that caused her teat to appear. She was also instructed not to tell anyone about their arrangement, also under the threat of being torn to pieces.
The Devil also mocked her for praying to Jesus, and instructed her to pray to him, giving her Latin words to do so. This is particularly interesting to me as these events are at the tail end of the reign of Elizabeth I, a period when Catholicism was seen by Protestant clergymen as “closely associated” with witchcraft, or at least just as offensive to
good and proper Christianity. Elizabeth goes on to say that the Devil appeared to her as a dog called “Tom”, and that he appeared either black or white. She then wraps up her confession by explaining that she confessed to clear her conscience, and to better prepare herself for death (her execution). I tried to find Elizabeth’s records from her trial at the Old Bailey, but unfortunately her trial just pre-dates the earliest records the Old Bailey has.
Sadly, this is where Elizabeth Sawyer’s story ends. She was convicted under the Witchcraft Act in April 1621 and hanged at the Tyburn Tree for murdering her neighbour by diabolical means. The Tyburn Tree was a gallows in what was the village of Tyburn, now a bit of pavement of a corner of Hyde Park by Speaker’s Corner.
– Henry Goodcole. 1586. “The Wonderfull Discoverie of E. Sawyer a Witch, Late of Edmonton, Her Conviction and
Condemnation and Death.”
– Sharpe, James. 2001. Witchcraft in Early Modern England. Harlow: Longman.