The Exorcists by Wallace Notestein

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The Exorcists

by Wallace Notestein

exorcismIn the narrative of English witchcraft the story of the exorcists is a side-issue. Yet their performances were so closely connected with the operations of the Devil and of his agents that they cannot be left out of account in any adequate statement of the subject. And it is impossible to understand the strength and weakness of the superstition without a comprehension of the rôle that the would-be agents for expelling evil spirits played. That the reign which had seen pass in procession the bands of conjurers and witches should close with the exorcists was to be expected. It was their part to complete the cycle of superstition. If miracles of magic were possible, if conjurers could use a supernatural power of some sort to assist them in performing wonders, there was nothing very remarkable about creatures who wrought harm to their fellows through the agency of evil spirits. And if witches could send evil spirits to do harm, it followed that those spirits could be expelled or exorcised by divine assistance. If by prayer to the Devil demons could be commanded to enter human beings, they could be driven out by prayer to God. The processes of reasoning were perfectly clear; and they were easily accepted because they found adequate confirmation in the New Testament. The gospels were full of narratives of men possessed with evil spirits who had been freed by the invocation of God. Of these stories no doubt the most quoted and the one most effective in moulding opinion was the account of the dispossessed devils who had entered into a herd of swine and plunged over a steep place into the sea.

It must not be supposed that exorcism was a result of belief in witchcraft. It was as old as the Christian church. It was still made use of by the Roman church and, indeed, by certain Protestant groups. And just at this time the Roman church found it a most important instrument in the struggle against the reformed religions. In England Romanism was waging a losing war, and had need of all the miracles that it could claim in order to reestablish its waning credit. The hunted priests who were being driven out by Whitgift were not unwilling to resort to a practice which they hoped would regain for them the allegiance of the common people. During the years 1585-1586 they had conducted what they considered marvellous works of exorcism in Catholic households of Buckinghamshire and Middlesex. Great efforts had been made to keep news of these séances from reaching the ears of the government, but accounts of them had gained wide circulation and came to the privy council. That body was of course stimulated to greater activity against the Catholics.
As a phase of a suppressed form of religion the matter might never have assumed any significance. Had not a third-rate Puritan clergyman, John Darrel, almost by accident hit upon the use of exorcism, the story of its use would be hardly worth telling. When this young minister was not more than twenty, but already, as he says, reckoned “a man of hope,” he was asked to cure a seventeen-year-old girl at Mansfield in Nottingham, Katherine Wright. Her disease called for simple medical treatment. That was not Darrel’s plan of operation. She had an evil spirit, he declared. From four o’clock in the morning until noon he prayed over her spirit. He either set going of his own initiative the opinion that possessed persons could point out witches, or he quickly availed himself of such a belief already existing. The evil spirit, he declared, could recognize and even name the witch that had sent it as well as the witch’s confederates. All of this was no doubt suggested to the possessed girl and she was soon induced to name the witch that troubled her. This was Margaret Roper, a woman with whom she was upon bad terms. Margaret Roper was at once taken into custody by the constable. She happened to be brought before a justice of the peace possessing more than usual discrimination. He not only discharged her, but threatened John Darrel with arrest.

This was in 1586. Darrel disappeared from view for ten years or so, when he turned up at Burton-upon-Trent, not very far from the scene of his first operations. Here he volunteered to cure Thomas Darling. The story is a curious one and too long for repetition. Some facts must, however, be presented in order to bring the story up to the point at which Darrel intervened. Thomas Darling, a young Derbyshire boy, had become ill after returning from a hunt. He was afflicted with innumerable fits, in which he saw green angels and a green cat. His aunt very properly consulted a physician, who at the second consultation thought it possible that the child was bewitched. The aunt failed to credit the diagnosis. The boy’s fits continued and soon took on a religious character. Between seizures he conversed with godly people. They soon discovered that the reading of the Scriptures brought on attacks. This looked very like the Devil’s work. The suggestion of the physician was more seriously regarded. Meanwhile the boy had overheard the discussion of witchcraft and proceeded to relate a story. He had met, he said, a “little old woman” in a “gray gown with a black fringe about the cape, a broad thrimmed hat, and three warts on her face.” Very accidentally, as he claimed, he offended her. She angrily said a rhyming charm that ended with the words, “I wil goe to heaven, and thou shalt goe to hell,” and stooped to the ground.

The story produced a sensation. Those who heard it declared at once that the woman must have been Elizabeth Wright, or her daughter Alse Gooderidge, women long suspected of witchcraft. Alse was fetched to the boy. She said she had never seen him, but her presence increased the violence of his fits. Mother and daughter were carried before two justices of the peace, who examined them together with Alse’s husband and daughter. The women were searched for special marks in the usual revolting manner with the usual outcome, but only Alse herself was sent to gaol.

The boy grew no better. It was discovered that the reading of certain verses in the first chapter of John invariably set him off. The justices of the peace put Alse through several examinations, but with little result. Two good witches were consulted, but refused to help unless the family of the bewitched came to see them.

Meantime a cunning man appeared who promised to prove Alse a witch. In the presence of “manie worshipfull personages” “he put a paire of new shooes on her feete, setting her close to the fire till the shooes being extreame hot might constrayne her through increase of the paine to confesse.” “This,” says the writer, “was his ridiculous practice.” The woman “being throghly heated desired a release” and offered to confess, but, as soon as her feet were cooled, refused. No doubt the justices of the peace would have repudiated the statement that the illegal process of torture was used. The methods of the cunning man were really nothing else.

The woman was harried day and night by neighbors to bring her to confess. At length she gave way and, in a series of reluctant confessions, told a crude story of her wrong-doings that bore some slight resemblance to the boy’s tale, and involved the use of a spirit in the form of a dog.

Now it was that John Darrel came upon the ground eager to make a name for himself. Darling had been ill for three months and was not improving. Even yet some of the boy’s relatives and friends doubted if he were possessed. Not so Darrel. He at once undertook to pray and fast for the boy. According to his own account his efforts were singularly blessed. At all events the boy gradually improved and Darrel claimed the credit. As for Alse Gooderidge, she was tried at the assizes, convicted by the jury, and sentenced by Lord Chief-Justice Anderson to imprisonment. She died soon after. This affair undoubtedly widened Darrel’s reputation.

Not long after, a notable case of possession in Lancashire afforded him a new opportunity to attract notice. The case of Nicholas Starchie’s children provoked so much comment at the time that it is perhaps worth while to go back and bring the narrative up to the point where Darrel entered. Two of Starchie’s children had one day been taken ill most mysteriously, the girl “with a dumpish and heavie countenance, and with a certaine fearefull starting and pulling together of her body.” The boy was “compelled to shout” on the way to school. Both grew steadily worse and the father consulted Edmund Hartley, a noted conjurer of his time. Hartley quieted the children by the use of charms. When he realized that his services would be indispensable to the father he made a pretence of leaving and so forced a promise from Starchie to pay him 40 shillings a year. This ruse was so successful that he raised his demands. He asked for a house and lot, but was refused. The children fell ill again. The perplexed parent now went to a physician of Manchester. But the physician “sawe no signe of sicknes.” Dr. Dee, the famous astrologer and friend of Elizabeth, was summoned. He advised the help of “godlie preachers.”

Meantime the situation in the afflicted family took a more serious turn. Besides Mr. Starchie’s children, three young wards of his, a servant, and a visitor, were all taken with the mysterious illness. The modern reader might suspect that some contagious disease had gripped the family, but the irregular and intermittent character of the disease precludes that hypothesis. Darrel in his own pamphlet on the matter declares that when the parents on one occasion went to a play the children were quiet, but that when they were engaged in godly exercise they were tormented, a statement that raises a suspicion that the disease, like that of the Throckmorton children, was largely imaginary.

But the divines were at work. They had questioned the conjurer, and had found that he fumbled “verie ill favouredlie” in the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer. He was haled before a justice of the peace, who began gathering evidence against him and turned him over to the assizes. There it came out that he had been wont to kiss the Starchie children, and had even attempted, although without success, to kiss a maid servant. In this way he had presumably communicated the evil spirit—a new notion. The court could find no law, however, upon which to hang him. He had bewitched the children, but he had bewitched none of them to death, and therefore had not incurred the death penalty. But the father leaped into the gap. He remembered that he had seen the conjurer draw a magic circle and divide it into four parts and that he had bidden the witness step into the quarters one after another. Making such circles was definitely mentioned in the law as felony. Hartley denied the charge, but to no purpose. He was convicted of felony—so far as we can judge, on this unsupported afterthought of a single witness—and was hanged. Sympathy, however, would be inappropriate. In the whole history of witchcraft there were few victims who came so near to deserving their fate.

This was the story up to the time of Darrel’s arrival. With Darrel came his assistant, George More, pastor of a church in Derbyshire. The two at once recognized the supernatural character of the case they were to treat and began religious services for the stricken family. It was to no effect. “All or most of them joined together in a strange and supernatural loud whupping that the house and grounde did sounde therwith again.”

But the exorcists were not by any means disheartened. On the following day, in company with another minister, they renewed the services and were able to expel six of the seven spirits. On the third day they stormed and took the last citadel of Satan. Unhappily the capture was not permanent. Darrel tells us himself that the woman later became a Papist and the evil spirit returned.

The exorcist now turned his skill upon a young apprenticed musician of Nottingham. According to Darrel’s story of the affair, William Somers had nine years before met an old woman who had threatened him. Again, more than a year before Darrel came to Nottingham, Somers had had two encounters with a strange woman “at a deep cole-pit, hard by the way-side.” Soon afterwards he “did use such strang and idle kinde of gestures in laughing, dancing and such like lighte behaviour, that he was suspected to be madd.” He began to suffer from bodily distortions and to evince other signs of possession which created no little excitement in Nottingham.

Darrel had been sent for by this time. He came at once and with his usual precipitancy pronounced the case one of possession. Somers, he said, was suffering for the sins of Nottingham. It was time that something should be done. Prayer and fasting were instituted. For three days the youth was preached to and prayed over, while the people of Nottingham, or some of them at least, joined in the fast. On the third day came what was deemed a most remarkable exhibition. The preacher named slowly, one after another, fourteen signs of possession. As he named them Somers illustrated in turn each form of possession. Here was confirmatory evidence of a high order. The exorcist had outdone himself. He now held out promises of deliverance for the subject. For a quarter of an hour the boy lay as if dead, and then rose up quite well.

Darrel now took up again the witchfinder’s rôle he had once before assumed. Somers was encouraged to name the contrivers of his bewitchment. Through him, Darrel is said to have boasted, they would expose all the witches in England. They made a most excellent start at it. Thirteen women were accused by the boy, who would fall into fits at the sight of a witch, and a general invitation was extended to prefer charges. But the community was becoming a bit incredulous and failed to respond. All but two of the accused women were released.

The witch-discoverer, who in the meantime had been chosen preacher at St. Mary’s in Nottingham, made two serious mistakes. He allowed accusations to be preferred against Alice Freeman, sister of an alderman, and he let Somers be taken out of his hands. By the contrivance of some citizens who doubted the possession, Somers was placed in the house of correction, on a trumped-up charge that he had bewitched a Mr. Sterland to death. Removed from the clergyman’s influence, he made confession that his possessions were pretended. Darrel, he declared, had taught him how to pretend. The matter had now gained wide notoriety and was taken up by the Anglican church. The archdeacon of Derby reported the affair to his superiors, and the Archbishop of York appointed a commission to examine into the case. Whether from alarm or because he had anew come under Darrel’s influence, Somers refused to confess before the commission and again acted out his fits with such success that the commission seems to have been convinced of the reality of his possession. This was a notable victory for the exorcist.
But Chief-Justice Anderson of the court of common pleas was now commencing the assizes at Nottingham and was sitting in judgment on the case of Alice Freeman. Anderson was a man of intense convictions. He believed in the reality of witchcraft and had earlier sent at least one witch to the gallows and one to prison. But he was a man who hated Puritanism with all his heart, and would at once have suspected Puritan exorcism. Whether because the arch-instigator against Alice Freeman was a Puritan, or because the evidence adduced against her was flimsy, or because Somers, again summoned to court, acknowledged his fraud, or for all these reasons, Anderson not only dismissed the case, but he wrote a letter about it to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Whitgift called Darrel and More before the court of high commission, where the Bishop of London, two of the Lord Chief-Justices, the master of requests, and other eminent officials heard the case. It seems fairly certain that Bancroft, the Bishop of London, really took control of this examination and that he acted quite as much the part of a prosecutor as that of a judge. One of Darrel’s friends complained bitterly that the exorcist was not allowed to make “his particular defences” but “was still from time to time cut off by the Lord Bishop of London.” No doubt the bishop may have been somewhat arbitrary. It was his privilege under the procedure of the high commission court, and he was dealing with one whom he deemed a very evident impostor. In fine, a verdict was rendered against the two clergymen. They were deposed from the ministry and put in close prison. So great was the stir they had caused that in 1599 Samuel Harsnett, chaplain to the Bishop of London, published A Discovery of the Fraudulent Practises of John Darrel, a careful résumé of the entire case, with a complete exposure of Darrel’s trickery. In this account the testimony of Somers was given as to the origin of his possession. He testified before the ecclesiastical court that he had known Darrel several years before they had met at Nottingham. At their first meeting he promised, declared Somers, “to tell me some thinges, wherein if I would be ruled by him, I should not be driven to goe so barely as I did.” Darrel related to Somers the story of Katherine Wright and her possession, and remarked, “If thou wilt sweare unto me to keepe my counsell, I will teache thee to doe all those trickes which Katherine Wright did, and many others that are more straunge.” He then illustrated some of the tricks for the benefit of his pupil and gave him a written paper of directions. From that time on there were meetings between the two at various places. The pupil, however, was not altogether successful with his fits and was once turned out of service as a pretender. He was then apprenticed to the musician already mentioned, and again met Darrel, who urged him to go and see Thomas Darling of Burton, “because,” says Somers, “that seeing him in his fittes, I might the better learn to do them myselfe.” Somers met Darrel again and went through with a series of tricks of possession. It was after all these meetings and practice that Somers began his career as a possessed person in Nottingham and was prayed over by Mr. Darrel. Such at least was his story as told to the ecclesiastical commission. It would be hazardous to say that the narrative was all true. Certainly it was accepted by Harsnett, who may be called the official reporter of the proceedings at Darrel’s trial, as substantially true.

The publication of the Discovery by Harsnett proved indeed to be only the beginning of a pamphlet controversy which Darrel and his supporters were but too willing to take up. Harsnett himself after his first onslaught did not re-enter the contest. The semi-official character of his writing rendered it unnecessary to refute the statements of a convicted man. At any rate, he was soon occupied with another production of similar aim. In 1602 Bishop Bancroft was busily collecting the materials, in the form of sworn statements, for the exposure of Catholic pretenders. He turned the material over to his chaplain. Whether the several examinations of Roman exorcists and their subjects were the result of a new interest in exposing exorcism on the part of the powers which had sent Darrel to prison, or whether they were merely a phase of increased vigilance against the activity of the Roman priests, we cannot be sure. The first conclusion does not seem improbable. Be that as it may, the court of high commission got hold of evidence enough to justify the privy council in authorizing a full publication of the testimony. Harsnett was deputed to write the account of the Catholic exorcists which was brought out in 1603 under the title of A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. We have not the historical materials with which to verify the claims made in the book. On the face of it the case against the Roman priests looks bad. A mass of examinations was printed which seem to show that the Jesuit Weston and his confreres in England had been guilty of a great deal of jugglery and pretence. The Jesuits, however, were wiser in their generation than the Puritans and had not made charges of witchcraft. For that reason their performances may be passed over.

Neither the pretences of the Catholics nor the refutation of them are very important for our purposes. The exposure of John Darrel was of significance, because it involved the guilt or innocence of the women he accused as witches, as well as because the ecclesiastical authorities took action against him and thereby levelled a blow directly at exorcism and possession and indirectly at loose charges of witchcraft. Harsnett’s books were the outcome of this affair and the ensuing exposures of the Catholics, and they were more significant than anything that had gone before. The Church of England had not committed itself very definitely on witchcraft, but its spokesman in the attack upon the Catholic pretenders took no uncertain ground. He was skeptical not only about exorcism but about witchcraft as well. It is refreshing and inspiriting to read his hard-flung and pungent words. “Out of these,” he wrote, “is shaped us the true Idea of a Witch, an old weather-beaten Croane, having her chinne and her knees meeting for age, walking like a bow leaning on a shaft, hollow-eyed, untoothed, furrowed on her face, having her lips trembling with the palsie, going mumbling in the streetes, one that hath forgotten her pater noster, and hath yet a shrewd tongue in her head, to call a drab, a drab. If shee have learned of an olde wife in a chimnies end: Pax, max, fax, for a spel: or can say Sir John of Grantams curse, for the Millers Eeles, that were stolne: … Why then ho, beware, looke about you my neighbours; if any of you have a sheepe sicke of the giddies, or an hogge of the mumps, or an horse of the staggers, or a knavish boy of the schoole, or an idle girle of the wheele, or a young drab of the sullens, and hath not fat enough for her porredge, nor her father and mother butter enough for their bread; and she have a little helpe of the Mother, Epilepsie, or Cramp, … and then with-all old mother Nobs hath called her by chaunce ‘idle young huswife,’ or bid the devil scratch her, then no doubt but mother Nobs is the witch…. Horace the Heathen spied long agoe, that a Witch, a Wizard, and a Conjurer were but bul-beggers to scare fooles…. And Geoffry Chaucer, who had his two eyes, wit, and learning in his head, spying that all these brainlesse imaginations of witchings, possessings, house-hanting, and the rest, were the forgeries, cosenages, Imposturs, and legerdemaine of craftie priests, … writes in good plaine terms.”

It meant a good deal that Harsnett took such a stand. Scot had been a voice crying in the wilderness. Harsnett was supported by the powers in church and state. He was, as has been seen, the chaplain of Bishop Bancroft, now—from 1604—to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He was himself to become eminent in English history as master of Pembroke Hall (Cambridge), vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Bishop of Chichester, Bishop of Norwich, and Archbishop of York. Whatever support he had at the time—and it is very clear that he had the backing of the English church on the question of exorcism—his later position and influence must have given great weight not only to his views on exorcism but to his skepticism about witchcraft.

His opinions on the subject, so far as can be judged by his few direct statements and by implications, were quite as radical as those of his predecessor. As a matter of fact he was a man who read widely and had pondered deeply on the superstition, but his thought had been colored by Scot. His assault, however, was less direct and studied than that of his master. Scot was a man of uncommonly serious temperament, a plain, blunt-spoken, church-going Englishman who covered the whole ground of superstition without turning one phrase less serious than another. His pupil, if so Harsnett may be called, wrote earnestly, even aggressively, but with a sarcastic and bitter humor that entertained the reader and was much less likely to convince. The curl never left his lips. If at times a smile appeared, it was but an accented sneer. A writer with a feeling indeed for the delicate effects of word combination, if his humor had been less chilled by hate, if his wit had been of a lighter and more playful vein, he might have laughed superstition out of England. When he described the dreadful power of holy water and frankincense and the book of exorcisms “to scald, broyle and sizzle the devil,” or “the dreadful power of the crosse and sacrament of the altar to torment the devill and to make him roare,” or “the astonishable power of nicknames, reliques and asses ears,” he revealed a faculty of fun-making just short of effective humor.

It would not be fair to leave Harsnett without a word on his place as a writer. In point of literary distinction his prose style maintains a high level. In the use of forceful epithet and vivid phrase he is excelled by no Elizabethan prose writer. Because his writings deal so largely with dry-as-dust reports of examinations, they have never attained to that position in English literature which parts of them merit.

Harsnett’s book was the last chapter in the story of Elizabethan witchcraft and exorcism. It is hardly too much to say that it was the first chapter in the literary exploitation of witchcraft. Out of the Declaration Shakespeare and Ben Jonson mined those ores which when fused and refined by imagination and fancy were shaped into the shining forms of art. Shakespearean scholars have pointed out the connection between the dramatist and the exposer of exorcism. It has indeed been suggested by one student of Shakespeare that the great playwright was lending his aid by certain allusions in Twelfth Night to Harsnett’s attempts to pour ridicule on Puritan exorcism. It would be hard to say how much there is in this suggestion. About Ben Jonson we can speak more certainly. It is clearly evident that he sneered at Darrel’s pretended possessions. In the third scene of the fifth act of The Devil is an Ass he makes Mere-craft say:

It is the easiest thing, Sir, to be done.
As plaine as fizzling: roule but wi’ your eyes,
And foame at th’ mouth. A little castle-soape
Will do ‘t, to rub your lips: And then a nutshell,
With toe and touchwood in it to spit fire,
Did you ner’e read, Sir, little Darrel’s tricks,
With the boy o’ Burton, and the 7 in Lancashire,
Sommers at Nottingham? All these do teach it.
And wee’l give out, Sir, that your wife ha’s bewitch’d you.
This is proof enough, not only that Jonson was in sympathy with the Anglican assailants of Puritan exorcism, but that he expected to find others of like opinion among those who listened to his play. And it was not unreasonable that he should expect this. It is clear enough that the powers of the Anglican church were behind Harsnett and that their influence gave his views weight. We have already observed that there were some evidences in the last part of Elizabeth’s reign of a reaction against witch superstition. Harsnett’s book, while directed primarily against exorcism, is nevertheless another proof of that reaction

Richard Edwards has a BFA in Creative Writing and Journalism from Bowling Green State University and an M.S. in Education from the University of Akron. Managing editor of Drunk Duck, poetry editor for Prairie Margins, reporter for Miscellany, Akron Journal, Lorain Journal...check our About Us page for more. Also here is info on our On Classic Articles

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