The Hart Witches
Published 09 Sept 2018
The church at Hart has always seemed a peaceful oasis - almost a refuge in the maelstrom of 21st century life. Said to have origins dating from the 7th century, it stands some distance above sea level, with a clear view over the North Sea. With a timeless sense to it, it's not too difficult to picture the generations of Hart inhabitants going about their daily lives, watching the weather lest it spoil the crops and the sea to gauge the safety of fishermen - or indeed, to watch out for invaders. Lindisfarne may have been the first recorded episode of Viking invasions, but Hart is also believed to be among the many who shared their fate. There is an interesting carving of a knight slaying a dragon on the side of the church - there are theories that this could indicate that the church was built on a reclaimed pagan site - or could it be linked with sagas such as Beowulf and the monster Grendel, which some believe to have linked with the North Sea coast?
Strange though it may seem, Hart village and church has become known for it's witches. In 1459 there was Helena de Inferno, in 1596 Ellen Thompson (who had been excommunicated) was buried near the stile on the eastern side on the churchyard, whilst Elwick's enigmatically named Old Mother Midnight was interred in 1641. Perhaps the most telling story is that of Alison Lawe, who was prosecuted as a 'sorcerer and enchanter' in 1582 - her penance was to stand bearing some type of label - once in Durham market, once in Hart church and once in that which stands at Norton. Her 'crime' was said to be that two neighbours had consulted her asking for cures for the sick, so it may be that she served as a herbalist or 'wise woman'. She was obviously not subject to excommunication, as her burial in the consecrated churchyard took place in 1588 - the year of the Spanish Armada.
The poor lady (and doubtless many others who shared the label of 'witch') had little in common with the modern perception of witchcraft, which has been widely popularised by the media. These ladies were likely to be (as previously mentioned), skilled in the use of medicinal herbs, possible midwives and layers out of the dead. Some may well have fallen foul of the established church, or been seen as living on the outskirts of the village society, which could well leave them open to all kinds of accusations in a more superstitious age. Next time you're passing by, please think of them...but don't wait to feel the cold chill which may follow....