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31 Days of Hallowe’en Tales: Day 11 – The Possession of the Lancashire Seven

Cleworth Hall no longer stands and the strange happenings within it have faded from memory, until now. On day 11 of our spooky tales we learn about a mass possession that lead to the hanging of a cunning man.

A black and white timbered, moated manor house named Cleworth Hall once stood in Tyldesley, near Leigh in Lancashire. Between 1594-1597 it was the scene of a strange and vast possession which affected seven people within the household. This unusual possession was ultimately responsible for taking the life of local witch and cunning man, John Hartley.

In 1594 Nicolas Starkie was living well as lord of his manor. He had married into the Parr family (a branch of a family tree that contained the famous Catherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII) and with the marriage came the well positioned Cleworth Hall. However, Nicholas’s peaceful life was soon to be rudely interrupted.

One night his daughter Ann was suddenly “taken with a dumpish and heavy countenance, and a fearful starting and pulling together of her body” and her brother John started showing the same symptoms a week later. Both children were having fits and seizures and howling and moaning as if in great distress. The Starkie family did not know what to do.

Nicholas Starkie’s first instinct was to seek the help of a Catholic priest. The priest said the children were most likely possessed, but that he was not equipped to perform an exorcism. Next Nicholas sought the assistance of John Hartley, a local cunning man known for his skill with charms and conjurings. Hartley was able to calm the children’s symptoms, but told Starkie their treatment would take time and continuous vigilance. By doing this, Hartley was able to convince Starkie to give him a pension and let him live at the hall whilst he tended to them.

After nearly two years Starkie was sick of Hartley and starting to suspect that he was extorting him, rather than exorcising his children. In desperation, Starkie asked the infamous John Dee, legendary Tudor wizard and alchemist, for help. During this period, Dee was trying to clean up his reputation and shake off the dangerous connection to occultism that he had previously courted. Dee quickly advised Starkie to contact some “godly preachers” immediately and to cease his affiliation with the godforsaken witch John Hartley.

Margaret Byrom was now seeing demonic crows which tried to slash her throat, whilst John Starkie was terrified by a demon with a crooked back.

Hartley was not pleased at his dismissal and on the evening he left the hall in a rage, seven family members were stricken with fits, screaming and whooping. Young John took his bed, savaging anyone who came near him with his teeth like a wild animal. His sister Ann did the same and then their three siblings followed suit. A servant, Jane Ashton, and another relation, Anne Byrom, were the last victims, and finally, the entire house was akin to Bedlam.

Wicked visions of satanic animals plagued Margaret Byrom. She cried in terror as a black dog set upon her and bit out her tongue. A black cat scratched out her eyes and stole away her hands. A huge mouse drove her to madness and starvation.

Young master John began to harbour an obsession with washing his hands, as though he were unclean, but no matter how fresh the water and how clean his hands, he would demand more water of the servants and continue on with his mania.

Witch, wizard and priest all failing him, Nicholas Starkie finally brought his possessed children before the magistrate. But whatever it was that afflicted them had now progressed so far that they were too unwell to give evidence against the witch John Hartley.

Despite the lack of tangible evidence, Hartley was trialled at Lancaster Castle where he was found guilty of witchcraft for which he would be hanged on the scaffold until dead. But his hanging would not go as planned.
Initially, John Hartley vehemently denied his charges and proclaimed his innocence. When he stepped off the block the rope snapped and he was not hanged. To the shock of all, Hartley decided to confess after being saved. Another rope was found and, this time, it did not snap.

The execution of the alleged witch did nothing to resolve the issue. The residents of Cleworth Hall were all still thoroughly possessed. Margaret Byrom was now seeing demonic crows which tried to slash her throat, whilst John Starkie was terrified by a demon with a crooked back. The seven possessed were still in the clutches of evil, despite John Hartley being cold in the ground.

Finally, after two full days of constant prayer they were freed from their possession. It took the joint efforts of a rector, a pastor and a wizard (John Dee, who had changed his mind and decided to help) to achieve the salvation of all the afflicted. Despite the horrors that they had witnessed, everyone returned to their normal lives and were never harassed again by malevolent forces.

Cleworth Hall was demolished in 1805 and, in its place, a farmhouse was built. The possession of the Lancashire Seven, and the old hall that housed them, faded from memory.

Read our previous Hallowe’en Tales

Day 1 – The Curse of Carleton Crematorium.
Day 2 – The Witch Ducking Stools of Poulton-Le-Fylde.
Day 3 – The Ghost-Seer of Weeton.
Day 4 – Smuggling, Drowned Nuns and Fallen Acrobats at Raikes Hall

Day 5 – The Hauntings at the Old Coach House
Day 6 – Old Scrat
Day 7 – A Goblin Funeral at Extwistle Hall
Day 8 – The Ghost of Lady Macbeth
Day 9 – The Mermaid & The Sea Serpent of Marton Mere
Day 10 – The Banshee of Poulton
Take a look at Zowie Swan’s debut novel, Chingle Hall here.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
  • Zowie Swan is a local writer of fiction and folklaw. Her debut novel, Chingle Hall, is out now with Safety Pin Publishing. She's also bassist for Blackpool band Dischord.

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