The Mysterious Bentons
It all started over a disputed path, of all things.
Richard Jackson, a Wakefield man, had taken the tenancy of Bunny Hall. Soon after he did, a local woman – Jennet Benton – and her son George, began to claim a right of way through the grounds. Having none of this, Jackson ordered his servant Daniel Craven to stop the Bentons passing over the land. When Daniel confronted them, George Benton threw a stone in his face and (according to Richard’s testimony) ‘cut his overlip, and broke two teeth out of his chops’.
Legal proceedings ensued, albeit minor ones: an action of trespass against George; the Bentons settled the case and agreed to pay compensation.
But there were mutterings about the area. Dark whispers that something about the Bentons just wasn’t quite right. The old woman, Jennet, especially.
Susanna Maude of Snow Hill, just to the north of Wakefield, later testified on oath that Jennet had come to her house to seek George and bring him home, to which he had replied ‘Mother, which way shall I go? You know I can go through the stone wall if you would have me’.
He’d also said that ‘either his father or the devil’ had come to their house ‘all times of the night’, clanging iron tongs and the like, to which his mother had apparently said ‘villain, did it ever do she any hurt, it will do so at the noon time of the day’.
People knew not to mess with Jennet. There was something about her. Another local woman testified that Jennet’s daughter Beatrice, now married to one Nicholas Ledgard, had told a local landowner that ‘It was best’ for her ‘not to fall out with her (the said Jennet Benton) for if she did her goods would decay by little, but would end with greater things’. And in the case of this woman, it ‘accordingly proved so’.
In the Night-time
Richard Jackson, then, was dicing with dark and dangerous forces.
After paying his debt, George had gone to a local alehouse, where he was overheard saying that he had paid Jackson some moneys, but he’d have been better off without them, ‘for he would make it dear money to him’.
‘He would make him shake before the year was ended.’
We know what happened next from the detailed, sworn, testimony from Jackson himself, and to really get the horror of the situation he found himself in, we should allow his words to speak for themselves.
‘After which the said Jennet Benton & George Benton her son did utter these speeches: that it should be a dear day’s work unto the said Richard Jackson or to his, before the year went about, since which time his wife hath had her hearing taken from her, a child strangely taken with fits in the night time, himself also being formerly of healthful body has been suddenly taken without provable reason to be given or natural cause appearing, being sometimes in which extremity that he conceived himself drawn in pieces at the heart, back and shoulders’.
‘And in the beginning of these fits, the first night he heard a great noise of musick & dancing about him, the next night about twelve of the clock, he was taken with another fit & in the middle of it he conceived there was a noise like ringing of small bells, with singing & dancing and sometimes both nights a noise of deep groaning.’
‘Upon which he called of his wife and asked her if she heard it not & so of his man [i.e. servant] who answered they did not. He asked them again & again if they heard it not, and at last he his wife and servant all heard it give three heavy groans. And at that instant, dogs did howl and yell at the window, as though they would have pulled them in pieces. He had also a great many swine, which broke through two barn doors, also the doors in the house at that time clapped to and fro. The boxes and trunks, as they conceived, was removed, and several apparitions – like black dogs and cats – were seen in the house.’
The Power and the Speech
Jackson also complained that, by the Bentons’ ‘witchcraft or sorcery’, he had lost 18 horses and mares. It hardly needs saying, but this is a lot of horses.
It marks Jackson out as rich, or at least pretty comfortable. Add to this the fact he had a ‘great many swine’, employed at least one (possibly two) servants, and was tenant of somewhere called a ‘Hall’, and we have the picture of someone some distance above the breadline.
He didn’t call himself a ‘gentleman’, nor (apparently) adopt the title of ‘Mr’ (still pronounced ‘Master’ in the 17th century). So he was perhaps a wealthy yeoman-farmer, a member of that entrepreneurial section of the peasantry who had benefited from rising prices and falling wages over the preceding century and a half. ‘A nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman,’ Oliver Cromwell had declaimed at the opening of Parliament just a couple of years previously, ‘the distinction of these, that is a good interest of the nation, and a great one!’. Yeomen were part of the ‘natural magistracy of the nation’; a low rung on the governing ladder, but part of the governing classes no less.
But what of the Bentons? They were surely much poorer. We know, for example, that Jennet had worked as a servant in a gentlewoman’s house. It was relatively unusual for older women, at least those who weren’t relatively poor, to work in service. It may also suggest that she was a widow, in which case the reference by her son to noises in the night made by ‘his father or the devil’ takes on a rather different meaning than at first sight.
She was probably pretty old, too. We know from local marriage records that one Jennet Westerman married George Benton (of Wakefield), in May 1620 in the neighbouring parish of Dewsbury. Given that Beatrice was born shortly afterwards, this must be her. If she married around the average age for women at that point, that would place her birth around 1595, so she was probably aged around 60 when accused. A George Benton was buried at Wakefield in 1643 which may well be her husband.
Either way, the Bentons were hardly of the same social standing as Richard Jackson, thus when they fell out over a right of way, it was Jackson who prevailed with his action of trespass.
The way the Bentons fought back was with words and with rumour. They cursed, they threatened. Who knows, maybe they deliberately cultivated a reputation for supernatural powers, knowing that this would give them real power in the community. In 16th and 17th century England, most convicted witches were poor and female. They were people excluded from most formal kinds of power. Acting the part of the sorceress or the witch gave them the chance to punch upwards. It meant that the rich might fear them, for once.
But this, of course, could be very dangerous. Sure, witchcraft prosecutions were rare in 17th century England, but they did happen. Witches were put on trial and hanged. And in 1656 England’s greatest ever witch-hunt, in East Anglia under the direction of Matthew Hopkins, the notorious ‘Witchfinder General’, was but a recent memory.
Jennet Benton probably realised this. When her son claimed to be able to transport himself through walls, she told him (so she claimed) ‘son, speak no such words’. When she and her son were arrested and examined, they both denied that they ‘uttered any threatening speeches’ or practised any witchcraft or enchantments.
But they were brought to trial anyway – on the back of one of the witness statements I’ve been quoting, is the ominous, single word: ‘tryal’.
We have no further details. The outcome of trials at the York Assizes, held in the city’s castle, do not survive until 1658. But, as it happens, we do know something. Ultimately, the Bentons were released. We know this because they definitely weren’t executed.
In the parish register of All Saints, Wakefield, is a record for the 20th September 1662, ‘Jennitt Benton vid [i.e. widow], buried.’ By her name, it says ‘pauper’. She died poor, but at least she didn’t die on the scaffold. There are a number of Georges who died in the Restoration ere, and anyway given the evidence we have it would’ve been astonishing for the court to convict George but not his mother (for whom the evidence was much greater).
What this meant for Richard Jackson, and whether he slept soundly at night ever again, we’ll never know.
[A note on sources]: The Bentons’ case is not unknown. Many of the documents were transcribed (with much disdain for the ludicrous ways of the age) in the 19th century collection Depositions from the Castle at York (1861). It appears briefly in works by two of the major scholars of seventeenth-century witchcraft, Jim Sharpe and Malcolm Gaskill. It’s also given an entry in Yorkshire Witches (2012) by Eileen Rennison, where Jennet gets a black cat. The most imaginative treatment, however, is by John Billinsgley in West Yorkshire Folk Tales (2011). Here, Jennet gains a cat, a broomstick with which she flies to a sabbat, as well as skills as a folk-healer and as a rights of way activist. This blog post is based entirely on reading the original manuscripts, which are in the National Archives, Kew: ASSI 45/5/3/10-14.