Trial by Water

  • 17 Jan 2012
  • Folklore
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It was usual for a witch to undergo 'trial by water', for it was believed that,as a form of baptism, the water would reject a disciple of the devil. The thumps were tied crosswise to the opposite big toes, and the woman thrown into the pool. If she floated it was conclusive proof she was a witch, if she sank, she was innocent. The last recorded 'Trial by Water' was at Red Marley D'Abitot, a Worcestershire village before its transfer to Gloucestershire. William Lygon, the first Earl Beauchamp, was riding through his constituency in the 1820s, when he came upon a throng of excited rustics, and learnt that they were putting an alleged witch through the ordeal by water'. His horrified protest was resented and they were at great pains to assure him that everything was in proper order and according to traditional rules. Only by his prompt and unflinching assertion of authority as a County Justice was he able to save the wretched victim who, a few minutes later, would have demonstrated her innocence by drowning.

The most renowned case of 'turning the tables' on the accusers is to be found in the registers of Rushock Church of 1660. Joab Bibb, at the instigation of the parson, the Rev. William Shaw and Justice Townshend of Elmley Lovett, was ordered to be tried and thrown into a pool as a witch, to prove or disprove the case. She afterwards brought action against her persecutors for insult and injury. She was awarded £10 against the parson, and say some reports, brought Justice Townshend to his knees with an offer of £20 by way of compromise. Joan lies buried in Rushock churchyard, and the pool in which she was ducked was in existence in 1930.

In 1662, at Great Comberton, a woman charged a neighbour of being a witch and of having bewitched to death two Comberton children, and attempting to get control of a third. The outcome of the legal enquiry is not known, but it was Elizabeth Ranford of Great Comberton, being accused of being a witch by Joan Willis, 'took the law' to her accuser. A few years later, Widow Daffye of Kington, was brought to court for accusing a neighbour of being a witch.