When I am at home I am often guilty of leading what I have come to call an ‘eye-level life’. Yesterday, for some unknown reason, I broke this habit and found something surprising. The plaque commemorating the Bideford Witches.Normally I go about my ordinary daily activities, paying little attention to my everyday surroundings and without raising my eyes above my normal line of vision. Yet when I am abroad or visiting a different town or city I go to its museums, look at its monuments and plaques, take photographs and generally delight in my unfamiliar environment. My lack of curiosity – familiarity breeds contempt, perhaps? – about my local environment has caused me to be unaware of a fascinating piece of local history for ten years.
It is ironic that my fascination with Arthur Miller’s allegorical play, The Crucible, based on the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts between 1692-93, made me eager to visit the town which had been so consumed by witchcraft hysteria and had inspired a powerful piece of drama. I travelled hundreds of miles and yet here, virtually on my doorstep, was a tale of witchcraft much closer to home.
I discovered that Temperence Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles were tried, found guilty of practising witchcraft and went to the gallows on dubious confessions and evidence which was little more than malicious rumour and hearsay. Thousands of women were executed in England for ‘the crime of witchcraft’ during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and yet by 1682, the date of the Bideford Witches’ executions, the witchcraft hysteria was well on the wane and other women similarly accused were pardoned. Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter, has called it ‘a stain on our history’ and a campaign for a posthumous pardon for these three women was started in 2014.
It is likely these three – one, by some accounts, a senile old woman – were simply victims of religious hatred or intolerance or ignorance but perhaps there were other things in the Bideford of that time which caused them to be so unfortunately singled out. Women accusers revelling in the temporary influence and prominence their testimonies gave them in a society in which they had neither? Old scores being settled? Jealousy? Financial gain? To teach them a lesson? Perhaps their accusers expected them to be pardoned after all and never meant for them to be hanged? It is likely that we will never know the answer but that’s where imagination can take over and fill in the gaps.
I enjoy delving into the past to find inspiration for my writing and this experience has reminded me what nuggets of our past can be missed by leading an eye-level life in everyday routines. So I have made a promise to myself to break the habit.
Inspiration is all around us, if we only bother to take the time to look up and see it.