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Witch Trials Start in Scarborough

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Published by the Yorkshire Coast Radio News Team at 12:26pm 19th June 2012.

A series of re-enactments of witch trials are taking place in Scarborough this week.

One day, over 350 years ago, a vulnerable woman was dragged from her Scarborough home and accused of witchcraft.

Her name was Elizabeth Hodgson: her crime, curing a young girl who was having terrible seizures and fits, sometimes as many as six an hour. Elizabeth healed the girl by treating her with a potion of herbs, but then had to endure the agonies of being tried as a witch before courts in both York and at the Tower of London – because she understood and practised the art of potion-making.

Poor Elizabeth was found guilty. You can find out her fate later this month when local theatre group Irresponsible Decorators, working in conjunction with Scarborough Museums Trust, hold a series of unique outdoor performances around the town dramatising four famous witch trials.

The shows are being staged to tie in with the current exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery, Fears, Foes & Faeries, which features many charms which were believed to reveal, repel or punish witches.

The first, in the Crescent Gardens outside the Gallery, is on Tuesday 19 June, and features the story of 10-year-old Edmund Robinson, a Lancashire boy who claimed to have seen four women consorting with spirits. Later evidence suggested that his father had persuaded him to lie for the reward money that resulted from a successful witch trial.

On Wednesday 20 June, the town centre, outside the Brunswick Pavilion, will be the venue for a performance centred on the Samlesbury witch trial, which took place after a 14-year-old called Grace Sowerbutts, urged on by a Catholic priest, accused three women who had left the Catholic church in favour of the Anglican one.

The Spa Bridge will be the backdrop for Thursday 21 June’s performance, the Fairfax witch trial. A woman was accused of cursing one Helen Fairfax to the extent that she would lose her hearing. A ‘searcher’ was called upon to find any markings of the devil on the accused. After no signs could be discovered, the woman was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and Helen Fairfax was revealed to be harbouring ill feelings towards the accused, the case was dropped.

The fourth and final show, the Scarborough trial of Elizabeth Hodgson, will take place on the South Bay beach.

The performances are the result of a collaboration between the Museums Trust’s Head of Collections Karen Snowden, who masterminded the Fears, Foes & Faeries exhibition, SMT Learning Manager Ian Read, and Irresponsible Decorators, a theatre company led by Joe Berwick, Stan Walton and Charles Stokes, all students at the University of Hull Scarborough Campus.

They promise to be spectacular shows, with a cast of nine actors supplemented by a 20-strong choir, a soprano soloist, a violin soloist and a drummer.

The scripts have been written by Joe, who also co-directs, and who has already seen considerable success as a playwright – his play Out of the Garden was shortlisted for the International Student Drama Festival last year, while Acetate 2012, a ‘brash and politically incorrect’ portrayal of the Olympics has been shortlisted for the Theatre Games 2012 festival.

Joe said: “It’s been a really interesting and challenging exercise to take contemporary evidence from the trials and dramatise it for a modern audience. My aim as a writer is always to draw the audience into my characters’ worlds; my plays are often inhabited by strange and abnormal characters who are nonetheless socially recognisable and a clear window into the world in which we live. The medieval phenomenon of witchcraft lends itself perfectly to that.”

Karen Snowden said: “This is a fascinating, but often shameful, period of history. Witches were believed to be the cause of many things, from raising storms to ruin crops and drowning sailors to simply annoying their neighbours. They were believed to shape-shift, changing into hares or cats.

“Those accused of witchcraft were often elderly, vulnerable and lonely. They would be dragged from their homes and body-searched for the sign of a witch – and that could be any of the many tiny signs of ageing that we all exhibit: a wart, a skin tag, a mole or a stray bristle.

“Once accused, the ‘witch’ could be tested in various ways, including being weighed against a Bible, being made to touch the corpse of their ‘victim’ to see if it bled at the touch or, famously, by ‘swimming’ them: the bound accused was thrown into water – it was believed that the guilty floated, while the innocent sank!

“Many of the accusers were also vulnerable, and were manipulated by older people out to achieve their own ends, such as in the cases of Edmund Robinson and Grace Sowerbutts.”

The witch trials will take place at 7.30pm, and each performance will last approximately half an hour. The performances are free, and there is no need to see all of them – each can be seen separately.

Scarborough Art Gallery is also screening the cult British horror movie The Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price and Ian Ogilvy,as part of its Friday Lates series on 27 July. And, in more light-hearted vein, younger sorcerers can brush up on their broom-making skills at the Witches and Wizards Academy, at the Gallery each Tuesday to Saturday morning from 24 to 28 July, 7 to 11 and 21 to 25 August.

Fears, Foes & Faeries can be seen Tuesdays to Sundays, plus bank holidays, from 10am to 5pm. It closes on Sunday 30 September.

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