It is the easiest thing, sir, to be done.
As plain as fizzling: roll but wi’ your eyes,
And foam at th’mouth. A little castle-soap
Will do’t, to rub your lips: and then a nutshell,
With tow and touchwood in it to spit fire.
Did you ne’er read, sir, little Darrel’s tricks,
With the boy o’Burton, and the seven in Lancashire,
Sommers at Nottingham? All these do teach it.
Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass (1616)
The tale of the Boy of Burton began on Saturday, 27th February 1596
when a certain Robert Toone of Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire went into the Winsell Wood with his thirteen year old nephew Thomas Darling to hunt hares. Sometime during that day they became separated, although Robert and his nephew were soon re-united and they returned home. All appeared well, until Thomas "afterward grew to be very sick, vomiting and casting up what he had eaten at dinner, and so was got to bed". Thomas also began to complain that he could see green angels standing by the window and that a "green cat troubled him". Another uncle named Jesse Bee was called for, and in his attempts to comfort the boy, Jesse began reading out passages from the Scriptures. Jesse noted that the boy's fits grew worse when he did so and so came to suspect that the boy had been bewitched.
Eventually Thomas became sufficiently lucid to explain that whilst he was alone in Winsell Wood that Sataurday he had met "a little old woman". As Thomas explained matters, as "I passed by her in the coppice I chanced ... to let a scape". (A scape being a sixteenth century euphemism for a fart.) This apparently angered the woman in question who retorted with the words;
Gyp with a mischief and fart with a bell:
I will go to heaven and thou shalt go to hell.
From Thomas's description of the woman he had encountered, some identified her as a certain Elizabeth Wright, already known in the neighbourhood as the Witch of Stapenhill and therefore fairly obviously a prime suspect. Others however claimed that Wright was far too old to go wandering about the woods and that a more likely candidate was her daughter, Alice Gooderidge, who was also "had in great suspicion of many to be a doer in these devilish practices"
even though she was about sixty years of age at the time.
In order to settle the matter, the local Justice of the Peace decided to arrest both women and "agreed that certain women should search the mother and the daughter severally, to see if they could find any such marks on them as are usually found on witches". After due examination of Elizabeth Wright they "found behind her right shoulder a thing much like the udder of an ewe that giveth suck, with two teats like unto two great warts, the one behind under her armhole, the other a handful off towards the top of her shoulder"; whilst an examination of Alice Gooderige revealed "upon her belly a hole of the bigness of two pence, fresh and bloody as though some great wart had been cut off the place". Since both women bore the infamous witch's mark, the matter remained undecided, and so both women were taken in turn to visit young Thomas in his chamber. Since he "fell into a marvellous sore fit" in the presence of Alice Gooderige they concluded that "it was surely she" who was responsible for his condition, committed her to Derby Prison and dismissed her mother.
Unfortunately the identification of the culprit did nothing to ease the boy's torments, which led the authorities to conclude that this was because Alice Gooderige had so far refused to confess. They decided to "put a pair of new shoes on her feet" and placed her "close to the fire" believing that she could be persuaded "through increase of the pain to confess". Eventually such tactics had their desired effect and by the 3rd May Alice Gooderige admitted that she had become upset when Thomas had addressed her as the Witch of Stapenhill and complained that "every boy doth call me witch, but did I ever make thy arse to itch?" Alice then claimed that she had summoned the devil who appeared in the "likeness of a little parti-coloured dog red and white"; she "called him Minny" and instructed him to "go thy ways and torment this boy in every part of his body at thine own pleasure".
She also informed her inquisitors that "the boy will not mend except you seek for help" and therefore they called for John Darrell "a faithful Preacher of the Word". Darrell was an puritan preacher who had already established something of a reputation for "releeving of those that were distressed in this sort". He assured everyone that Thomas was "possessed with an unclean spirit" and prescribed "the holy exercise of prayer and fasting". On the 28th May 1596 Darrell fell into a trance and elicited the information that Thomas Darling was in fact possessed by two evil spirits named Glassap and Radulphus, and persuaded them to depart from his body and go and torment that of the witch instead. Thus released from his torments, Thomas Darling "went presently into the town, that it might appear what Jesus had done for him". As to Alice Goodridge, although convicted of witchcraft she died in prison before anyone could get around to burning her.
An account of the exorcism of Thomas Darling, the Boy of Burton was later edited by John Denison based on notes taken by Jesse Bee, a kinsman of the demoniac, published in June 1597 as The most Wonderfull and True Storie and made John Darrell's name. He achieved further fame for his exorcism of the "seven in Lancashire", being another seven similarly possessed individuals in the household of Nicholas Starkey at Clayworth Hall, whom he cured on the 17th and 18th March 1597. Darrell was then called on to perform a similar exercise at Nottingham in November 1597 where he cured William Somers (the "Sommers at Nottingham"). However in February of the following year Somers confessed that he had merely been feigning possession, and as a result Darrell was arrested and eventually found guilty of fraud by the commissioners for ecclesiastical causes in late May 1599.
John Darrell was however quietly released and although his career as an exorcist to an end, he and his supporters continued to publish books and pamphlets in defence of his actions which excited much controversy within the church and later inspired the seventy-second canon, which specifically forbade exorcism without episcopal permission.
- The Most wonderfull and true storie, of a certaine witch named Alse Gooderige of Stapenhill, who was arraigned and convicted at Darbie at the Assises there (London 1597) reproduced at
- Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass (1616), and exorcism.
- 'Burton-upon-Trent: General history', A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 9: Burton-upon-Trent (2003), pp. 5-20. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=12328
- Thomas S. Freeman, ‘Darrell , John (b. c.1562, d. in or after 1607)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004