In the early 17th century, a young boy named John Smith stirred up fears of witchcraft in the town of Husbands Bosworth, in Leicester, England. His condition, possibly epilepsy or hystero-epilepsy, manifested in his childhood and his convulsions were visibly shocking to his family and their friends. These worrying parents and guardians, however, were no common folk. John Smith came from a prominent family—his father was Sir Roger Smith; his uncle was the silver-tongued sermonizer, Henry Smith; and his grandfather, Erasmus Smith, was Bosworth’s Lord of the Manor. As the boy was of noble blood, his concerned family friends also were prominent figures. One such acquaintance was Sir Henry Hastings, who took special interest in defending the boy against a perceived demonic threat.
Sir Henry Hastings was the High Sheriff of Leicester between 1607-1608. While Sir Henry was serving in that capacity, John Smith (reportedly four or five years old at the time) began behaving oddly and started to suffer afflictions that resembled seizures. The possibility of witchcraft quickly came to people’s minds, and Sir Henry Hastings questioned several suspicious persons in that regard. Yet, no known convictions for bewitching the boy were brought about during Sir Henry’s term as High Sheriff.
Although Sir Henry Hastings could not convict any witches between 1607 and 1608, the idea that witchcraft was involved must have festered in him and the boy’s family for years. Their fears could only grow as young John Smith’s condition persisted during his childhood, and the family apparently reached a breaking point in 1616, when the boy was 12 or 13 years old. A certain alderman named Robert Heyrick described the hysteria caused by John Smith’s disorder in Bosworth. In a letter dated July 18, 1616, Heyrick claimed that the boy would fall into fits where he loudly struck his own chest hundreds of times. Many of the well-to-do citizens of the town witnessed the episodes, and the aforementioned Sir Henry Hastings tried to stop the boy from causing any self-harm. Heyrick wrote (in ye olde English, mind you), “Sir Henry Hastings hath doon what he colld to hold him in his fit; but he and another as strong as he could not hold him; yf he might have his arm at liberty he woolld stryke himsellfe suche bloes on his brest, being in his shirt, that you myght here the sound of yt the length of a long chamber” (Letter of Alderman Heyrick to Sir William, July 18, 1616).
The family of John Smith was apparently so desperate to cure the troubled boy that they brought in several so-called Wise Women, or rural healers, whose knowledge of herbal and folk remedies made them frequent targets of witch-hunters. Alderman Heyrick, in his letter, mentioned the visits of these Wise Women, writing “When he [John Smith] was in his fyt, they [the Wise Women] were soomtymes brought to him, and then they were chardged to speake sarten words…at the end of the last he woolld fall out of his fit as quyetly as if one did lay him doune to slepe” (Letter of Alderman Heyrick to Sir William, July 18, 1616). Although these healers were apparently able to bring the boy out of his fits, their cures were not permanent. The failure of the women to totally cure the boy no doubt frustrated and angered the fearful family, yet, for the healers, it was their patient, John Smith, who would be the most dangerous foe.
Sometime during the first months of 1616, likely after being treated by some of the Wise Women, young John Smith began accusing the healers and their associates of being the cause of his affliction. The boy’s family and the local judicial system agreed with the accusation and the Bosworth Witch Trials were begun. By the time that Alderman Heyrick began writing his letter on July 18, 1616, the witch-hunt had been in full swing for four or five days. In that time, the authorities had filled their jails with suspected witches, and “9 of them shal be executed at the gallows this fornone, for bewitching of a younge gentellman of the age of 12 or 13” (Letter of Alderman Heyrick to Sir William, July 18, 1616). Unfortunately, the nine women mentioned here were indeed executed by hanging because of the boy’s claims.
Ironically, it was the witch-obsessed King James (VI of Scotland, I of England) who put an end to the Bosworth Witch Trials. The king arrived in the chaotic town in mid-August, 1616. At the time, the first nine women had already been executed, but six more were still imprisoned on suspicion of witchcraft. During his short stay in town, King James took interest in the trial and interviewed John Smith. Yet, the king had encountered false charges from children before, and when he watched and listened to the troubled boy, something caused James to be skeptical. Believing either the witchcraft accusations, or the fits, themselves, were completely fraudulent, King James sent John Smith to be interrogated by Archbishop Abbot of Canterbury. The archbishop came to the same conclusion as the king, and young John Smith eventually confessed that he had falsely accused all of the women. When the confession was brought to King James, he had the imprisoned women released without a trial. Tragically, one of the six captive women died before she could be released, bringing the deaths resulting from John Smith’s accusations to a total of ten.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of a witch trial by Joseph E. Baker (1837-1914), Public Domain via Creative Commons).
- The Demonology of King James I (introduction), edition of Donald Tyson (Llewellyn Publications, 2011).