Florence Newton - the woman at the centre of one of Ireland’s greatest witch trials

In 1661, Florence Newton fell foul of the febrile imagination of a Cork community living in fear and riven with superstitious beliefs, writes Billy O’Riordan
Florence Newton - the woman at the centre of one of Ireland’s greatest witch trials

The story began with an old woman begging on Christmas day and it ended with one of Ireland’s greatest witch trials.

The setting was Youghal; the year 1661. A cold winter’s night saw Florence Newton beg at the home of John Pyne for a piece of bread from the powdering tub. The housemaid, Mary Longdon, refused Newton’s hungry pleas and sent her on her way. A time later, Longdon was going to the stream with a pail of clothes when Newton emerged, threw the pail from her head, and violently kissed Longdon, exclaiming: “Mary, I pray thee, let thee and I be friends; for I bear thee no ill will.”

The events that followed have been recorded in the Cork Azzizes dated September 11, 1661, and catalogue the details of Youghal’s and Ireland’s sensational Witch Trial.

At the time, Youghal’s settler community followed English law, which, since 1586, had outlawed witchcraft. Add in an insecure elite following the restoration of Charles the Second, and witchcraft served as a distraction for a community fearful for its future.

So it was that Longdon, after the incident of the “violent kiss”, began to experience violent fits and trances. A packed courtroom heard that Longdon, in her trance-like state saw, “ a little old man standing by her bed dressed in silk with a woman in a vail standing next to him”. The woman, said Longdon, was Goody (Goodwife) Newton.

An enraptured courtroom heard that Longdon had “ vomited up needles, pins, horse-nails, stubbs, wool and straw”. Many of the town’s notables came forward to give evidence against the wretched Newton, one of whom claimed that Longdon was hit by stones “on her head, arms and shoulders” as she moved from place to place.

Florence Newton, the witch of Youghal
Florence Newton, the witch of Youghal

Community elders came to the Pyne house to stick pins in Longdon while she was in her delirious state. Most astonishing all is the claim that she was witnessed “ floating to the top of the house, resting on solar beams in the rafters”.

During the trial, Longdon went into a seizure in the presence of Newton and only recovered when Newton was removed from the courthouse and shackled. The trial was deemed to be of such importance that the Attorney General, Sir William Ashton, came to preside over it.

Events outside the courthouse construct in our minds a community familiar with the witchfinding procedures. This trial remains one of a few reported incidents of withcraft still in existence, which makes it of critical importance to historians.

Youghal mayor Mr Myre took charge at the outset and imprisoned Newton on March 24, 1661, in the landmark Clock Gate building. There, Newton implicated two other local women, Goody Halfpenny and Goody Dod. This news spread thoughout the town like wildfire and the words “witches coven” were whispered in the homes of Youghal’s townsfolk.

The evidence given by Mr Myre suggests that Newton was not the first witch to be outed. He threatened Newton that he had “sent for a boat” for the dreaded ‘water test’, whereby suspected witches had a rope tied to their thumb and ankle and were then dunked in the water. In front of the Mayor and faced with the threat of drowning, Newton quickly said that Halfpenny and Dod were innocent. With that, Newton was confined to Youghal Gaol to await her trial.

While languishing in prison, Newton was subjected to further ‘tests’, most notably by Valentine Greatrakes, a noted healer and self-proclaimed witchfinder. While incarcerated Newton had wooden awls rammed into her hands, was cut deeply on both wrists, and had her urine poured on a tile which was then brought to Longdon to watch for any negative reaction.

A sure test for witchcraft was an inability to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The put-upon Newton stumbled over the prayer several times, thus adding to the “evidence” against her. Several people attempted to help by teaching her the Lord’s Prayer, including her jailer Davy Jones. In gratitude, Newton reached through the bars of her cell and kissed his hand. A few weeks later, Jones died, apparently cursing Newton on his death bed.

As for Newton’s fate, alas that part of the trial’s records are missing. Her defence was that she was “old and disquieted, and distracted with her own suffering”. It is likely that someone who was addressed as the witch throughout the trial met a grisly end. Her only mistake was to find herself in an isolated, puritanical community, with political tensions rife in the borough. Add in magical beliefs and the unfortunate Newton found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time in Irish history.

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