Burned, hanged or both?
It is not easy to ascertain the truth behind the execution of Mary Panel. Popular belief has it that after being found guilty of witchcraft in 1603 she was burned at the stake on the wooded hill which now bears her name. Others will argue that she was actually hanged at York after her trial and that it was her lifeless body, subsequently returned to Ledston, that was ceremoniously and vindictively burned there. So what did really happen? Unfortunately, the absence of any credible documentary evidence ( that I know of) means that at present I can only speculate on the sequence of events which followed her arrest and trial. If anyone can offer further clarification on this matter please do let me know.
A tragic accident, probably.
Whatever the truth is regarding the final tragic chapter of this poor woman's life, it seems historians familiar with the story are in agreement with regard to at least some of the events which preceded her arrest, conviction and eventual execution. Mary, employed as a maid at Ledston Hall, made some kind of herbal liniment to aid the recovery from illness of Master William Witham, the son of her employer. The remedy, which was meant to be rubbed on his body and certainly not to be taken internally, was mistakenly given to the child to drink by his mother. Poisoning and the death of the boy quickly followed and the hapless Mary was accused of maliciously "bewitching" him to his grave. Curiously, the event in question is said to have happened sometime in 1593, though it seems her arrest, trial and execution did not take place until 1603? Which leads one to wonder, was she really guilty of killing this young man, or was there some ulterior motive behind her eventual demise? Unfortunately, without any documentary evidence it is impossible to know for sure.
With regard to the alleged murder of William Witham by Mary Panel, we should at this point remember that in the absence of any kind of health service, home-made remedies, created from herb and mineral compounds, were commonly used in 16c England. Even the dubious practices and strange esoteric concoctions dreamed up by professional physicians included some of these ingredients, and the medications and practices prescribed by these men would probably have been no more effective than traditional preparations, such as the one proffered by Mary. For instance, a Tudor 'cure' ...
"for a headache was to drink a medicine made up of a mixture of lavender, sage, majoram, roses and rue ( so far so good, but then...)
or to press a hangman’s rope to your head. (huh?)
for gout was to apply to the affected foot a mixture made out of worms, pigs marrow, herbs all boiled together with a red-haired dog. (nice.)
for deafness was to mix the gall of a hare with grease from a fox. Warm the resulting concoction and place it in the ear. (.......?)
for Smallpox was to hang red curtains around a victim’s bed as the red light produced by the curtains will cure the patient." (Of course!)
And rheumatism was treated by the patient being made to wear the skin of a donkey." (now which smart ass thought of that one?)
Extract from the History learning Site
Try your hand at becoming a Tudor doctor!
A victim of class and circumstance.
Was Mary Panel guilty of maliciously and wilfully bewitching a child in her care to death? I doubt it. Witchcraft in itself is not a crime, nor is it intrinsically evil. As with all things, evil exists purely within the user and not within the vehicle, tool or craft. Witchcraft is an alternative belief system and a way of life. Nothing more: "The concept of witchcraft as harmful is normally treated as a cultural ideology, a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it either on a supernatural entity or a known person in the community." (Wikipedia) Unfortunately we are unlikely to ever know the reality behind the death of Willian Witham. We do know, however, how flawed human judgement can be and how easily people can be led astray by those who claim to know better yet seldom do . Like Lemmings over the cliff edge most people blindly go with the masses. Most rarely think for themselves and simply accept the general consensus, no matter how unlikely or illogical it might be. It's easier to go with the flow. Moreover, it seems credibility often goes hand in hand with status and rank; quite wrongly, of course. No one would have even considered the part of the mother in the death of her son. Her position in society would have rendered it unthinkable to view her in such a terrible light; or to concede that a person of such elevated social standing might be capable of such a horrific and tragic error of judgement. Unfortunately, 400 hundred years later little has changed and the holy grail of universal equality continues to elude humanity. Perhaps that restless and much maligned spirit, believed by many to haunt Mary Panel Hill, would wholeheartedly concur.
"The few facts known about Mary Pannal raise many questions," says Chris Gibson, author of Maleficium! The Life, Trial and Death of Mary Pannal. "The big question is why does Mary Pannal haunt the hill? She was accused of causing William Witham's death in 1593, but not hanged until ten years later, which is strange in itself. But if she was guilty of murder, then she was justly executed, so what I have tried to do is explain why she is a restless spirit." P&CE
Hmmmm. I wonder what his theory was?
Read about A Haunting Tale of a Ledston Witch which appeared in the Pontefract & Castleford Express: Wednesday 25 September 2002
View Ledston Hall & Mary Panel Wood in a larger map
Witchcraft in Britain
The Pendle witch trials of 1612 are the most famous and best documented of their kind in Britain. For more information about the Pendle Witch Craze please visit the Links page.
Photo of signpost by Ewa Gornas. Photo of Ledston Hall c1937: Castleford.Org. Colour plate: Royal College of Physicians