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Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Widdershins by Helen Steadman Narrated by Christine Mackie my Coffee Pot Book Club Guest

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Thanks very much for inviting me along to guest post on your blog today [Helen: my pleasure!]. My historical novels Widdershins and its sequel, Sunwise, were inspired by the Newcastle witch trials in 1650 when sixteen people were executed for witchcraft on the same day. Now, Christine Mackie of Downton Abbey fame has brought the Newcastle witch trials to life as audiobooks.

Author: Helen Steadman
Narrator: Christine Mackie

It’s odd that the Newcastle witch trials are not widely known about when they resulted in the biggest mass execution of witches on a single day in England. The 1612 Pendle witch trials are very well known, and ten people were executed on Gallows Hill in Lancashire. At the 1645 Chelmsford witch trials, nineteen people were executed in all; however, these executions did not take place on the same day, or in the same town. That said, Chelmsford and Essex more widely suffered terribly under witch trials, not least because Essex was the main stamping ground of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. Hand on heart, I have to confess that I didn’t know about the Newcastle trials, even though they took place on my doorstep, until I started researching… 

Hanged witches from Ralph Gardiner 1655 book
England's Grievance Discovered out of copyright

After reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall I decided I had to write a historical novel but had no clue what it would be about. One day, when walking my dog in the woods, I smelt a strange strawberry-like smell and followed my nose uphill. At the top of the rise, the source of the smell became clear: loggers had cut down hundreds of Scots Pines, revealing an enormous natural amphitheatre, albeit one populated by oozing stumps. Stunned by the sight, and possibly in an altered state on account of the pine sap, I sat down to wonder what might have happened here hundreds of years ago. 

Apropos of nothing, Florence Welch jumped into my head, singing ‘We raise it up, this offering’. Sacrifice! Ritual! Rituals could have happened here, magical goings-on. Witches! Armed with nothing more than an overdose of pine sap, I realised that my book had to be about witches. It felt right. An astrologer once tried to convince me that I had been burnt as a witch in a past life and offered to regress me. Thank you, but no. Strangely, the revelation of my book’s subject was equally unwelcome. Why witches? I could not do witchcraft. I knew no witches. Witches would not be easy. This would mean research. Sorry, this would mean RESEARCH. And lots of it.

Cue a spending orgy in second-hand online bookshops (to the chagrin of the postie, who came to hate me). Tree medicine lessons were taken, gardens both physic and psychic were visited. The walls filled with old maps. The garden filled with strange plants. The cupboards filled with home-grown lotions, potions and tinctures, and I was haunted by endless moaning: 
Can I just have a paracetamol, Mam, I can’t stand the taste of silver birch.’ 
Can we have mouthwash from an actual shop? That acorn stuff has made my teeth brown.’ 
Who put hawthorn berries in my good vodka?’ 
The police have been round again.’

drying herbs

Undeterred, I continued. Paranormal groups were joined, county archives were raided, local historians were interrogated, execution records were pored over, and spectacle prescriptions were renewed at a rate hitherto unprecedented. 

During this research, I found my story, courtesy of a disgruntled Northumbrian coal trader, Ralph Gardiner. Thanks to his grievances, I discovered that a large number of people had been executed for witchcraft in Newcastle in 1650. This resulted from the Puritan council (in perhaps the earliest example of local authority performance-related pay) offering a witchfinder twenty shillings per witch. Fascinatingly, at the trial, the witchfinder was revealed as a fraud, but only one girl was spared execution, and the witchfinder escaped.
Having been inspired by Hilary Mantel’s makeover of Thomas Cromwell, I was tempted to write the witchfinder’s story. However, it was too overwhelming having a story written entirely from such an evil point of view. Besides, I could not stop thinking about the girl who got away. Despite further research, I could find no information on who she was or why the other accused ‘witches’ were still executed. This conundrum continued to bother me until I decided that this girl would have to be my story. So, unusually for witch trial novels, Widdershins and Sunwise are both told through the alternating perspectives of both accused witch and witchfinder, so we get to hear both sides of the story.
I have to say, that I was heartily glad once the sequel was published so I didn’t have this terrible man, John Sharpe living in my head any more. Or at least not until this year when I’ve been working with Christine Mackie on producing the audiobooks. She’s done an absolutely amazing job of bringing all the characters to life, but I’m in awe of what she’s done with evil John Sharpe. Now that we’ve completed audiobook production, we can both relax without the witchfinder haunting us. (At least for now.)

Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

The new audio book of Widdershins is narrated brilliantly by talented actor, Christine Mackie, from Downton Abbey, Coronation Street, Wire in the Blood, and so on.  

The first part of a two-part series, Widdershins is inspired by the Newcastle witch trials, where 16 people were hanged. Despite being the largest mass execution of witches on a single day in England, these trials are not widely known about. In August 1650, 15 women and one man were hanged as witches after a Scottish witchfinder found them guilty of consorting with the devil. This notorious man was hired by the Puritan authorities in response to a petition from the Newcastle townsfolk who wanted to be rid of their witches. 

Widdershins is told through the eyes of Jane Chandler, a young woman accused of witchcraft, and John Sharpe, the witchfinder who condemns her to death. Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane soon learns that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world. From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witchfinder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft. 

Praise for Widdershins:

The Historical Novel Society said of Widdershins: “Impeccably written, full of herbal lore and the clash of ignorance and prejudice against common sense, as well as the abounding beauty of nature, it made for a great read. There are plenty of books, both fact and fiction, available about the witch-trial era, but not only did I not know about such trials in Newcastle, I have not read a novel that so painstakingly and vividly evokes both the fear and joy of living at that time.”

Trigger Warnings:
Domestic abuse, rape, torture, execution, child abuse, animal abuse, miscarriage, death in childbirth.

Dr Helen Steadman

Dr Helen Steadman is a historical novelist. Her first novel, Widdershins and its sequel, Sunwise were inspired by the Newcastle witch trials. Her third novel, The Running Wolf was inspired by a group of Lutheran swordmakers who defected from Germany to England in 1687.

Despite the Newcastle witch trials being the largest mass execution of witches on a single day in England, they are not widely known about. Helen is particularly interested in revealing hidden histories and she is a thorough researcher who goes to great lengths in pursuit of historical accuracy. To get under the skin of the cunning women in Widdershins and Sunwise, Helen trained in herbalism and learned how to identify, grow and harvest plants and then made herbal medicines from bark, seeds, flowers and berries.

The Running Wolf is the story of a group of master swordmakers who left Solingen, Germany and moved to Shotley Bridge, England in 1687. As well as carrying out in-depth archive research and visiting forges in Solingen to bring her story to life, Helen also undertook blacksmith training, which culminated in making her own sword. During her archive research, Helen uncovered a lot of new material and she published her findings in the Northern History journal.

Helen is now working on her fourth novel.

Social Media Links:

Twitter  @hsteadman1650

Christine Mackie

Christine Mackie has worked extensively in TV over the last thirty years in well-known TV series such as Downton Abbey, Wire in the Blood, Coronation Street, French & Saunders and The Grand. Theatre work includes numerous productions in new writing as well as classics, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Comedy of Errors, Richard III, An Inspector Calls, and the Railway Children. In a recent all women version of Whisky Galore, Christine played three men, three women and a Red Setter dog! 


Follow the Tour

Twitter Handle: @hsteadman1650 @maryanneyarde
 @coffeepotbookclub #HistoricalFiction #Widdershins #Witches #Audiobook #BlogTour #CoffeePotBookClub

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