TODAY she would have been viewed as a mildly eccentric old biddy who cadged milk from her neighbours and cussed anyone who crossed her... but 400 years ago that was enough to get you hanged.

So how did Isabel Robey, an elderly woman from Windle, innocent of any real crime, end up being involved in one of the most famous British trials and paying the ultimate price, her life.

SUE GERRARD reveals a chilling true story.

THIS month marks the 400th anniversary of the famed Lancashire witch trials which saw one St Helens woman in the dock protesting her innocence.

Isabel Robey of Windle was one of ten accused and found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until she was dead.

She was executed along with Elizabeth Southerns (known as Demdike) and Anne Whittle (Chattox) who were alleged to cast an evil influence in the villages nestling under the misty mass of Pendle.

Isabel lived in treacherous times and it helps to understand her plight by looking at the era in which she lived during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth 1 (1558-1603) and King James 1 (1603-1625) and the associated religious unrest and distrust.

King James firmly believed in the existence of witchcraft. He believed a coven of Scottish witches had tried to murder him and his future wife Anne of Denmark in 1591.

They were brought to trial for allegedly raising storms off the coast of Scotland in order to drown them both.
This was followed, in 1597, by his book on witchcraft “Daemonologie” which was reprinted in 1603.

King James also provided his own authorized version of the Bible, in which the phrase “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” appears.

Main accuser of Isabel was Peter Chaddock and it helps to understand what was really going on when you realise that Chaddock was married to Isabel’s goddaughter.

Isabel strongly disapproved of her choice of partner.
The trial took place at Lancaster Castle in August 1612 with Judge Edward Bromley, accompanied by Judge Altham.

These judges were assisted by Sir Thomas Gerard.

Unbelievably none of the prisoners were allowed a defence counsel nor could they call any witnesses.

Although 18 other alleged witches were tried on that day Isabel Robey’s case was different as she was charged only in general terms with “felonious exercising and using devilish and wicked arts”.

Peter Chaddock alleged that his physical discomforts were caused by her and apparently she struck terror into her neighbours.

However, this seems to be because she was a difficult woman who spoke her mind and made enemies along the way.

Her greatest ‘crimes’ seem to be begging for milk and caring about the welfare of her goddaughter.

Isabel was the last prisoner to be called to the bar and the complaints of her neighbours, first brought before Sir Thomas Gerard in July, were now brought before the courts.

These included the accusations of Peter Chaddock.

There was also the evidence of Jane Wilkinson (wife of Francis Wilkinson of Windle) who had stated that she had become “so pained that she could not stand” after refusing Isabel Robey when she came begging for milk.

The fear which had been instilled in Jane Wilkinson by Isabel Robey is shown in her story of her journey to Warrington.

While travelling to this nearby town she felt a pinching “with foure fingers and a thumbe twice together.” After this experience she “thereupon was sicke.”
And could only return home “upon horse-backe.” Once home it seems that she soon returned to full health.

While Margaret Lyon (wife of Thomas Lyon the Younger of Windle) said that she had heard Isabel Robey boasting that Peter Chaddock would never recover until he begged for forgiveness.

She was sure that Peter Chaddock was a frightened man and that he would turn back if he saw the witch Robey approaching.

Isabel herself affirmed this to be true, saying that he, Peter, “did turne againe when he met her in the lane.”

He was also certain that she “had done him much hurt.”

However, in Margaret Lyon’s testimony she also states that Peter Chaddock had sent for a wise man called Halesworth and after this occurrence he was “now satisfied that the said Isabel Robey was no Witch.”

The fourth witness was Margaret Parre (wife of Hugh Parre of Windle) who had heard Isabel Robey confirm that apart from Peter Chaddock she had also bewitched Jane Wilkinson. Margaret Parre had defied Isabel Robey who “went away not well pleased.”

Tragically this was an ideal time for rumours and accusations of witchcraft against the innocent to flourish.


Grim outcome

AT the end of this three-day Assize 10 people were found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death by hanging.
They were Anne Whittle (known as “Old Chattox”), Ann Redfearne, Alice Nutter, Elizabeth Device (known as “Squinting Lizzie”), Alizon Device, James Device, Katherine Hewet (known as “Mouldheels”), Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock and Isabel Robey.
They were hanged the following day and among them was Isabel Robey – the Windle Witch. The repeal of “The Witchcraft Act” took place only in 1951 just 61 years ago!

SUE GERRARD is the author of “Isabel Robey – the Windle Witch” available from Wardleworths Bookshop, Westfield Street, St Helens.