The Devon “Witches”

The plaque is on the ruined gatehouse of Rougemont Castle, Castle Street, Exeter.

The inscription reads:

The Devon Witches. In memory of Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles, of Bideford, died 1682, Alice Molland, died 1685, the last people in England to be executed for witchcraft, tried here & hanged at Heavitree. In the hope of an end to persecution and intolerance.

The first three named from Bideford were arrested in August 1682, tried at the assizes in Exeter on 14 August and hanged 25 August. The Bideford three were charged with sorcery or witchcraft on the basis of accusations which to modern ears would be dismissed as malicious gossip or hearsay. Lloyd was accused of causing the death of several persons through the black arts to which she confessed. The other two were accused of causing sickness through witchcraft. It is not surprising in the atmosphere of fear and accusation that Trembles blamed Edwards for leading her astray and Edwards likewise blamed Lloyd.  It is known that Alice Molland was accused and sentenced to death for witchcraft in Exeter in 1685, though it seems no documentary evidence of her actual execution has been found.

The plaque was erected in 1996 by a group of people including the Pagan Federation, film-maker Judith Noble and Judy Molland, a descendant of Alice Molland. An online petition ‘Pardon Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles’ was launched calling on the government to annul their conviction “for actions they could not have committed” but was unsuccessful in reaching the necessary number of signatures.

The Exeter mural depicting the three executed women as stereotypical witches, which existed from 1996 until 2024.

To put these executions into context, the last case in Scotland was as late as 1727 when a witch was executed by burning. There were also the notorious witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, which resulted in the execution of 19 alleged witches in the course of 1692-3. Across Britain the overwhelming majority (around 80%) of those accused of witchcraft during the 16th-17th centuries were female, which is borne out by the statistics for the West Country.

A mural in Musgrave Row, Exeter, by the library, depicting scenes from the city’s history, represents the Bideford three rather improbably in pointed hats and round a cauldron. The mural has decayed and is due for removal and replacement in 2024.

A BBC radio play “The witches of Bideford” by Heidi Stephenson was broadcast in 2006. JW

It has been argued that the plaque should not describe the women as “The Devon Witches”, since they were clearly innocent of the things they were accused of doing. However, Judith Noble explains that the group felt that the description was appropriate, maintaining that the women confessed freely to being witches, and that they have a symbolic importance as witches for people campaigning for tolerance for belief in witchcraft.