The confusing fate of a witch from long ago

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As it’s Halloween next Monday, something spooky and perhaps a little grisly is in order.

So let’s assume it’s dark and stormy outside, and pull our chairs closer to a cheery, crackling log fire as the rain lashes and the wind howls against the leaded window-panes.

Let’s sup some goodly tincture, and tell tales of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties - together with things that go bump in the night. But none of your transatlantic trick-or-treating, if you please.

We’ll be proper and traditional here, looking back across centuries to Elizabethan times - and the fate of a supposed local witch. It’s something that cropped up in conversation with my old mate and one-time colleague, Tony Howell, who’s not only a terrific guy; he’s also very knowledgeable about matters Pagan and mystical – so the curious tale of Mary Pannell seems worthy of this supernatural time of year.

If the witch’s name seems familiar, it’s probably because of the rise just outside Castleford known to this day as Mary Pannell Hill. The story behind Mary’s rumoured crimes and eventual execution is somewhat confused, with two or three versions, each making differing claims about her victims as well as the time and manner of her death.

Some say that Mary, a maid at Ledston Hall, was trying to help the ailing son of the house, Master William, by brewing a potion to apply to the lad’s skin.

His mother sadly mistook the intention of the potion and gave it to her son to drink, rather than applying it as intended. The unfortunate young man unsurprisingly declined and died. Even less surprising, given the nature of those superstitious times, was that poor, helpful Mary was accused of witchcraft.

She was tried and convicted at York, with the inevitable result that she met an untimely and probably messy death at the hands of the executioner.

Another version of the events leading to Mary’s end has it that the William in question was not the son of the house, but the master, Sir William Witham. Bad Sir William had taken advantage of the maid and then callously spurned her in traditional aristocratic fashion.

Not willing to settle for such casual treatment, Mary arranged for his demise; again, the assumption was that she had practiced witchcraft upon him. It’s impossible to say which of the differing stories might be true; all that does seem certain is that it spelled the end of Miss Pannell.

The circumstances surrounding that end are similarly confused. There’s an odd time lapse in some accounts, with Mary’s execution apparently taking place years after her trial and conviction, in 1603.

With no formal system of appeals in those days, it’s difficult to explain such a long delay. And the means of Mary’s disposal is also the subject of some disagreement; some say she was hanged in York and that her body was then brought back to be burned on the prominence that bears her name.

Others insist that she was burned alive as a witch on Mary Pannell Hill, and that her ghost can be seen thereabouts on occasion, leading a horse.

Legend has it that, if you should chance to see this apparition, there will be a death in your family. It would seem that the troubled maid of Ledston Hall is still causing trouble from beyond the grave.

Happy Halloween!