by Frank E Earp
From the pulpit of St Mary’s Church in Nottingham’s Lace Market, the curate, John Darrell, harangued the congregation with tales of fire and brimstone. He told how the Devil was walking the streets of the town disguised as, – among other things like a cockerel, a crane and a newt, – a troop of Morris Men. The year was 1597, and the curate was Mansfield born John Darrell, a lawyer tuned puritan preacher. Darrell had preached these words before and already the good Christians of Nottingham were agitated and alarmed. Young maid servant refused to go down to the cellar to fetch a jug of beer or answer their master’s door. Even the upper classes were looking over their shoulders less the Devil or one of his minions take possession of their souls.
The year was 1597, and Mansfield born John Darrell, a lawyer tuned puritan preacher, was at the height of his singular career as a self-proclaimed exorcist. He was in Nottingham to battle the Devil once more and to expel an evil spirit from the body of a young man called William Somers. Little did Darrell know that this would be the last time that he would go up against the forces of the ‘evil one.’
Darrell had been invited to perform a public exorcism on Somers by the vicar of St. Mary’s, Mr Aldridge. Over the course of a few days Darrel has become the talk of the town and had amassed a personal following of around 150 people, all of whom were anxious to witness the struggle with Satan. Darrell reputation as an exorcist had begun 11 years earlier, in 1586, when as a 21 year old he had single handily expelled a demon from the body of a Derbyshire girl called Katherine Wright and exposed the witch Margaret Roper, who had caused the possession.
Darrell’s first attempt to exorcise the unclean spirit from Katherine was unsuccessful and his next course of action was to accuse Margaret Roper of causing possession by witchcraft. Roper was duly brought to trial before the local justice, Mr Godfrey Foljambe. But instead of committing the woman to trial as Darrel wished, Foljambe severely reproved him and even threatened him with prison. Darrell appears to have taken the threat very seriously and retreated to a new home in Bulwell were he gave up exorcism and reverted to practising law and occasionally preaching among the local Puritan population.
In 1592, Darrell’s father died leaving him sufficient money to buy and stock a small farm near Ashby-de-la Zouch, Leicestershire. The aftereffects of the Katherine Wright affair and the threat of imprisonment continued to rumble on and it was not until Faljambe died in 1596 that Darrell once again tried his hand at exorcism.
Darrell already knew Ashby well. In around 1584/85, as part of his law practice Darrell had lodged in the town at the home of Mr, Brakenbury. Living at the same address was an 8 year old servant boy from Nottingham by the name of William Somers. Despite a 12 year age gap, Darrell and Somers seem to have gotten on very well.
Somers was a shiftless shiftless boy, who, even at such a tender age was already on his fourth job, having previously worked ‘Belyn’ (Belbroughton) Worcestershire), Holme in Nottinghamshire and Langley-Abbey Leicestershire.
We cannot fully appreciate the stress and trauma experienced by 8 year old Somers. He must have been missing his widowed mother and home in Nottingham and any kindness shown by Darrell would have been met by obvious affection on the boy’s part. Whatever the circumstances or cause, Somers was taken ill and began to suffer a number of minor fits. His master, Brakenbury, was forced to dismiss him from his service. They boy quickly recovered, but not wishing to reemploy him, Brakenbury unceremonially packed him off to his mother in Nottingham. By this time she had married a man called Robert Cowper and poor Somers was not welcomed by his new step-father.
We do not know exactly the kind of reception the unfortunate William Somers received when he arrive back home in Nottingham. It certainly does not seem to have been the warm welcome he might have expected. On the 7th May 1593, – probably at the instigation of his stepfather, – William was ‘bound apprentice’ as a musician to Thomas Porter. William seems to have disliked the work or situation intensely and frequently absconded himself, only returning when driven to do so by hunger and necessity. Finally, William decided to leave Nottingham altogether and somehow managed to make his way to Essex. Probably believing that he had stayed long enough away to be dismissed from his master’s service, William returned home sometime in October 1597. However, Porter had not forgotten or dismissed the runaway and immediately demanded that William, – now a young man, – make up the lost period of his apprenticeship.
Once again William Somers began to suffer his boyhood illness, but now the fits were more regular and severe. Matters took a more sinister turn when he began to exhibit signs of what those around him believed to be demonic possession. Anyone who has seen the famous 1973 film ‘The Exorcist’ will have a good idea of the ‘show’ William was now putting on. A document from a deposition put before the High Sheriff on 20th March 1597, lists William’s symptoms, which include; apparently rising several feet from the bed, ‘great facial distortions’, – and a classic depicted or exaggerated in the film, – his ‘face turned directly backwards, not moving his body at all’. Scary stuff indeed, but we must remember that many of the witnesses where friends or followers of Somers and can hardly be counted as impartial. Like all good showmen, William Somers needed an audience and it is true to say that he had gathered a group of loyal friends around him. I ask you to consider if it is chance that among these was John Darrell’s married sister ‘Mistress Wallis’?
What of John Darrell himself, what had happened to him in the intervening years between 1584 and 1597? It was whilst he was at Ashby that Darrell had, as he put it, been ‘called by the Spirit’, and began to associate himself with the Puritan fact of the town. On his return home to Mansfield, despite not having been ordained or having any formal qualifications, he took on the title of Doctor of Divinity and began to administer to the sick and practise as a minister.
After his disastrous foray into exorcism with the case of Katherine Wright, Darrell had retreated to Bulwell and in 1592, to his newly acquired ‘farm’ near Ashby. It was not until the death of his adversary Faljambe, that he felt safe to claim the events as a victory over Satan. But what Darrell did not know was the fact that he had made other enemies. One of these was no other than Samuel Harsnett, the future Archbishop of York.
Between 1596 and 1597, Darrell became involved in a second case of demonic possession involving a child. This time it was a young boy from Burton-on-Trent, Thomas Darling, who was said to be possessed. Darrell did not immediately become involved in the case, but by the time he did on the 27th May 1596, it had achieved an unparalleled notoriety, drawing curious spectators from many miles around. The affair had begun on 27th February, when the boy Thomas had accompanied his uncle Robert Toone to Winsell wood on a hare hunting expedition. Whilst in the wood, Thomas had become separated from his uncle. After some hours he had returned home alone suffering from ‘vomiting, ague and hallucinations’. Thomas was put to bed, but complained of being troubled by a large green cat in his bed chamber. He was further seen to point with his hand and to call out; “Look where the green angles stand in the window!”
A physician was sent for, but failed to cure the boy of his ‘light-headedness’. Later, the good doctor stated that although he did not know what was wrong with Thomas he; “Doubted that the child was bewitched.” Had the man broadcast his belief at the time, it is doubtful that matter would have taken the turn that they did!
Even by the standards of the time, John Darrell’s religious morals and practises were unique. Using an old expression, we might say that Darrell was neither ‘fish nor fowl’. It was not so much his belief in witchcraft and the Devil, or in Heaven and Hell that set him apart, but rather the way in which he expressed those beliefs. Outwardly at least, Darrell was a Puritan and his style of ministry would have reflected this. However, His stance on exorcism and the power to expel unclean spirits, – a practice and power Darrell claimed as his own, – was very much a Catholic manifestation. This not only set him apart from the established Protestant Church of the day, but would have been a source of conflict with the order of the day.
Finding that the physician could offer neither cause or cure for Thomas’s affliction, the Darling family turned to the Church and the power of prayer for help. News of young Thomas Darling’s strange illness had spread throughout the district and the Darling home in Burton received a constant stream of visitors all doubtless offering help and advice. One such visitor, Jesse Bee, told Thomas’s aunt that he had observed that when Thomas; “….ceased to pray or read scriptures he obtained relief from his fits, but if he occupied himself religiously, they came upon him thick and fast”. Bee concluded that the affliction must therefore be the result of witchcraft.
Young Thomas heard the discussion between his aunt and Bee and immediately began to give an account of his lost time in Winsell Wood. He told how soon after he had become lost he met with; “…. a little old woman, who had a grey gown with a black fringe about the cape, a broad thrummed hat and three warts on her face”. It is interesting to note here, that the description is that of the archetypal witch. He went on to say; “….as he passed her in the coppice, he chanced (against his will) to let a scape”. This offence aroused her anger and she said, “Gyp with a mischief and fart with a bell: I will go to heaven and thou shalt go to hell”, and forthwith she stooped to the ground.
From his testimony it was concluded that Thomas was under a spell and suspicions fell upon the infamous Witch of Stapenhill, Elizabeth Wright. Others concluded that it was her 60 year old daughter Alice Gooderidge who had bewitched Thomas. Alice was already under suspicion of being a witch like her mother. Twelve months earlier she had failed to repeat the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ when asked to do so by another accuser.
Thomas continued to be tormented by fits by day and fearful dreams by night. On the 8th April he was visited by his grandmother Mistress Walkenden of Cliffton in Nottinghamshire and another of his aunts Mistress Saunders. Together these two women seemed to have taken charge of the situation. On their instruction the suspected witch Alice Gooderidge was summoned for ‘trial by scratching’ – a method of identifying a witch were they are scratched by their victim.
Alice was brought to Thomas and when she entered the bedchamber he; ‘fell in a marvellous fit’. Thomas then scratched her face and the back of her hand; ‘until the blood came out apace’. At this Alice is reported to have said, “Take blood enough child, God help thee”. Thomas replied, “Pray for thyself, thy prayer can do me no good”. A brief questioning now followed in which Alice denied that she knew Thomas and that she had ever caused him any harm. Alice was allowed to go home, but two days later on 10th April, both Alice and her mother were arrested by the constable under a warrant issued by local magistrate Thomas Graysley. The two unfortunate women now faced the full horrors of a 16th century witch trial, including the prospect of torture to extract a confession.