Mary Pannell the Ledston Witch

Berkshire ‘witch’ Mother Dutten feeding her own blood to her familiar spirits, taken from ‘A Rehearsal both Strange and True‘ (1579) – (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Almost every county in the UK has some story about a tried or convicted 16th or 17th century witch; it’s an unfortunate part of our history. Yorkshire has several noted ‘witches’; one with a surprisingly persistent local legacy is Mary Pannell (or Panel, or Pannel, or Pannal, or Pennell), supposedly a local ‘wise woman’ or sometimes just an ordinary girl with some knowledge of herbal medicine, who offered medical help to William Witham of the local Ledston Hall (renamed ‘Wheler Priory’ in ‘Most Haunted’ for security reasons), and supposedly ended up executed for witchcraft and/or for killing Witham when he died in 1593. Pannell’s story is still current in local news and oral tradition, she has her own (not very good) Wikipedia entry, and even featured in TV’s ‘Most Haunted Live’ 2007 Halloween Special. Her story has appeared both in print and online, but the oldest is an internet version from 1997 (this version revised 26.4.2006; the Internet Archive only has the 2000 version onwards). 

The first thing I should tackle are the modern embellishments introduced to the story in the retelling. First, William Witham was not the young son of the owner of the Hall, he was the owner, and was 47 when he died! Witham did have sons, two of which were also called William, but one died in infancy years earlier and the other survived his father and went on to have his own son. There is also no evidence that Pannell was an employee of Witham’s (a claim that has expanded in very recent versions to include Witham taking advantage of her). In fact, we know nothing about Pannell for sure, although (as Wikipedia informs us) it’s possible that she may be the same ‘Marye Tailer’ of nearby Kippax who married a John Pannell in 1559 (see these parish records, p. 11). Anyway, these modern changes have likely crept in to make Pannell and Witham more sympathetic victims of the unthinking posh folk who in some versions of the story kill their own innocent son and an innocent woman who was trying to help. Originally, Pannell is an evil woman to be feared; today she is feared in death as a wronged spirit, but otherwise pitied as a victim of prejudice and ignorance. 

The good news is that Mary Pannell did exist circa 1600, and was indeed believed to be a witch, as proven by Edward Fairfax’s 1622 manuscript ‘Dæmonologia: A Discourse on Witchcraft’ (p. 98):

“…that the devil can take to himself a true body, or that he can make one of this man’s leg, the second’s arm, and the head of the third (as a great divine hath lately written), or that he can play the incubus and beget children, as the old tale of Merlin, and our late wonder of the son of Mary Pannell* (not yet forgot) seem to insinuate.”

Unfortunately, the footnote on the same page containing the above details i.e. that Pannell was executed in 1603 and ‘bewitched’ William Witham to death was added by Grainge, based on an earlier source (see below). Fairfax’s original manuscripts (there are several versions) do not include any of this. We do know from unrelated period records that William Witham of Ledston Hall did die in 1593 and, again, that Pannell existed and was thought a witch; but there is no primary evidence connecting these facts. It’s by no means clear that Pannell was actually executed, or even tried for witchcraft. Court records for that area and period don’t survive, and unlike other witchcraft suspects, there are no other primary sources to fall back on. The earliest version of Pannell’s own story (most likely Grainge’s source) dates to 1834, over two centuries after the fact. This is Edward Parsons’ ‘The Civil, Ecclesiastical, Literary, Commercial, and Miscellaneous History of Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield, Bradford, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Otley, and the Manufacturing District of Yorkshire’ (p.277):

“William Witham, who, from the pedigree of his family, appears to have been buried on the ninth of May, 1593, was supposed to have died in consequence of the diabolical incantations of an unfortunate being called Mary Pannel, who had obtained a disastrous celebrity in this part of the country for her supposed intercourse with malignant spirits. About ten years after the death of her imagined victim, she was apprehended on the charge of sorcery, arraigned and convicted at York, and was executed on a hill near Ledston hall, the supposed scene of her infamous operations. The hill where she died was long afterwards called Mary Pannel’s hill, and was regarded with abhorrence and alarm by the ignorant rustics in the neighbourhood.” 

It’s interesting that this earliest written version suggests that Pannell was convicted of witchcraft in general, not of killing or even necessarily bewitching Witham specifically. Anyway, there are many later sources but all either reference each other or don’t cite a source at all, making Parsons ground zero for the legend. This makes it all the more frustrating that we don’t know his source, and certainly no period records survive today that would enable us to check this (perhaps they did in the 1830s but it seems unlikely). As Jim Sharpe states in his 1992 book ‘Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Yorkshire: Accusations and Counter Measures’ (p. 2), ‘for the years between 1563 and 1650 assize records do not survive in quantity outside of the south east…’. This is ironic, because Sharpe is (in the same volume, p. 4) one of several scholars to treat the Grainge footnote in Fairfax’s Discourse as though it were a 17th century primary source rather than a 19th century secondary one, stating “In 1603 a woman named Mary Panell [sic], whose reputation for witchcraft stretched back at least to bewitching a man to death in 1593, was executed at Ledston.” Again, all we know is that Pannell existed at that time and was thought a witch. Gregory J. Durston includes the same details on p. 79 of his 2019 book on specifically (and ironically) witch trials, and doesn’t even bother to give a reference. Regardless, I have to assume, given Parsons’ repeated use of the word ‘supposed’ and his snide dig at ignorant locals, that he was in fact recording an oral tradition, perhaps related to him by said locals, or by members of Parsons’ own social class, scoffing at the superstitions of their peons (although as Fairfax shows, some of the upper class also believed in witchcraft).  

Grainge’s 1882 footnote is actually cribbed from his own 1855 book ‘Castles and Abbeys of Yorkshire’, in which he disagrees with Parsons on the method and location of her execution;

“In 1608 [sic], Mary Pannell, who had long been celebrated for supposed sorceries, was hung at York, under the impression, that, among other crimes, she had bewitched to death William Witham, who died at Ledstone, in 1593.”

However, he (or his publisher) also ballsed up the date, so it’s possible that he was mistaken and didn’t necessarily have access to alternative sources of information. Or he may have been deliberately correcting Parsons. The assumption that she was actually executed at York makes more sense for the time and place; witches were typically executed in the town or city of their conviction/incarceration. Incidentally, there’s no reason that Grainge would consider that Pannell was actually burned; this punishment was very rare for witchcraft suspects in England. The very suggestion doesn’t appear until 1916 with J.S. Fletcher’s ‘Memorials of a Yorkshire Parish’ (p. 97). 

Shortly after the 1882 Grainge version, we encounter another fascinating piece of Mary Pannell folklore in ‘Topography and Natural History of Lofthouse and Its Neighborhood…’, Vol. 2 by George Roberts, 1885, p. 177

“On the right of the road there is a hill covered with wood, called Mary Pannal Hill. Upwards of two hundred and fifty years ago, when the country was covered with forest, when our villages and hamlets were scantily populated, and when superstition reigned in the place of education, Mary Pannal, clad as a gipsy, haunted this neighbourhood, hiding in the old quarries or sheltered nooks in the forest, and gaining a precarious living by begging or pilfering – being, in short, a poor, outcast, homeless, wandering mendicant. In winter time , the old villagers say, she would beg coals of the cartmen as they passed from the pits at Kippax to Ledsham or Fairburn, bewitching all those who refused to supply her with bits of coal, so that the horses could not get up the hills with the load. The drivers, however, devised a simple remedy; they got whip – stocks of wiggan, which enabled them to defy the powers of the witch and surmount the hills without trouble. In those days witches were put out of the way on very slender testimony. They were feared and abhorred. Ridiculous tests were employed to assist in detection; one test being to throw the suspected one into deep water, and if she sank and was drowned it was a sign that she was innocent, but if she floated it was a sign that she was guilty, and she was forthwith taken and executed. This kind of demonopathy prevailed for several centuries. For various acts of supposed witchcraft , and especially for having “bewitched to death ” one William Witham – one of the ancient race of Withams , owners of Ledstone Hall, — Mary Pannal was condemned to suffer on the gallows. The local tradition is that she was taken to the top of the hill, which still bears her name, and which is within full view of the windows of Ledstone Hall, to be hanged on a tree; but each time she was suspended on the cord, it snapped and let her to the ground unhurt, the cord being bewitched. The hangsmen were baffled, but whilst consulting and marvelling one amongst another, a bird of the crow tribe flew over, muttering slowly as it flew, “A withy, a withy, a withy!” whereupon the hangsmen got a flexible withy of wiggan from the adjoining thicket, and suspending the witch upon it, the execution was immediately consummated. Old inhabitants of Ledstone can remember seeing the identical tree felled.”

NB a ‘wiggan’ is another name for rowan, which was thought to have apotropaic properties against witchcraft.

From this we learn that there was a local tradition not just of the hillside where Pannell was supposedly executed, but of a specific purported hanging tree as well. Based on this description it had that reputation for some time prior to being cut down before Parsons ever wrote down his version of the story. Although this story was related in 1882, the ‘old inhabitants’ mentioned would have been young people when Parsons first recorded the basic story. 

A couple of decades later (by which time various heraldic and genealogical sources have picked up the story, having never done so prior to Parsons and Grainge) several periodicals (‘Autocar’ mention it also, with the authentic-seeming quotes referencing the phrase ‘devilish arts’ and the word ‘sorceries’; common enough period terms that they could easily have been adapted from other cases. One example, an account of the trial of Isobel Young, even includes the Scots word ‘pannell’, as in a panel of accused people (although that’s probably coincidence and not the source of these references to Mary Pannell). If not this, it’s likely to have become associated with Pannell’s story in the same way as the phrase ‘counsell and helpe’ did in 1918 when it was implied to be a phrase from Pannell’s trial but was actually borrowed from a 1916 source that referenced Pannell and the phrase separately (it’s actually from a York Archdeaconry ‘Article’ against witchcraft in general). Regardless, I can’t find any pre-1913 or post-1922 instance of any variant of ‘sorceries and devilish arts’ with reference to Pannell. 

We then encounter a gap in the storytelling record until the early (1997) internet version that I mentioned at the beginning. It maintains the basic elements, the 1916 claim of Pannell being burned at Ledston, and adds new embellishments of Witham the boy, Pannell the non-witch herbalist maid, and her ill-fated attempt to help him (plus new aspects to the ghost story):

“Turning left towards Kippax we arrive back on the Roman Ridge Road at a crossroads called ‘Mary Pannell’. It is named so after the unfortunate woman who was burned here as a witch.

Mary Pannel or Pannell was a maid at Ledston Hall towards the end of the 16th century. She, like many others, had a knowledge of ‘old’ medicines and prepared a lotion to be rubbed upon the chest of the young son of the house, one Master William Witham Esq. who was suffering from a chill. His mother mistakenly gave it to the lad to drink and poisoned him. She blamed Mary and accused her of being a witch. This was in May 1593. Mary was tried in 1603 at York and convicted. She was burned to death on the hill that bares [sic] her name that same year. Local tales tell that she haunts the hill and its Roman road leading a horse. Anyone who witnesses the apparition will have a death in the family soon after

At this crossroads was an Inn which survived from medieval times until the beginning of this century – only short sections of stone wall mark it’s existence today.”

This more recent version started out in 2002 as simply;

“Mary Pannell, of Ledston, lived in a small hut and mixed enchantments and made curses and is said to have had dealings with evil spirits. She is said to have bewitched to death William Witham, Esq., of Ledston Hall, in 1593, and was convicted in York in 1603 and put to death by burning on Mary Pannell Hill, on the edge of Castleford.”

By 2004 it had been revised based on information from ‘John & Carol’ to fit the earlier (1997) version, albeit with the ‘health warning’ that it was a ‘local legend’;

“She is said to have bewitched to death William Witham, Esq., of Ledston Hall, in 1593, and was convicted in York in 1603 and put to death by burning on Mary Pannell Hill, on the edge of Castleford. Local legend has it that Mary was a maid who knew a little about medicine. She gave a lotion to rub on a child’s chest for a chill but the mother (an important person of the time) gave it to the child to drink. The lotion killed him and Mary was burned as a witch for it.

Her ghost, leading a horse, is supposed to haunt the Pannell Hill and it is claimed that anybody seeing her will have a death in the family. [Submitted By: John & Carol]” 

The story also appears in ‘Horrible Histories: Gruesome Great Houses’ (2017) by Terry Deary who like other 21st century writers is keen to ‘reclaim’ Pannell as a village ‘wise woman’, i.e. a magic practitioner and not simply an innocent herbalist. This fits the modern popular view of witchcraft suspects as well-meaning ‘white witches’ targeted by the patriarchy (although any pagan will tell you that there’s no such thing as ‘black’ or ‘white’). Mary’s popularity in ‘Mind Body & Spirit’ books and online has turned her into something of a meme, but in this case I don’t think that’s all she is. 

The geographical evidence – the hill being named after Mary Pannell – is important here, especially in light of the folklore recorded by Parsons and Roberts. It’s not much of a hill and is therefore often confused with the more noticeable and spookier-looking wooded western slope of the adjacent Sheldon Hill (often locally called ‘Mary Panel Wood’). Despite this it is an officially named location, appearing on the current footpath sign directing walkers from nearby Kippax and on Ordnance Survey maps drawn up in the late 1840s (labelled separately to Sheldon Hill). For the name to appear on official government maps, the name must have been quite long-standing. Although all of the written evidence for the Witham story (and ghostly Mary) centres around the early 19th century, it’s quite plausible that it could be 18th century or even older. It’s more likely that it emerged within living memory of Witham, local folklore to explain his untimely death, which may have attracted extra and sustained local attention due to the fame of his daughter, Lady Mary Bolles. Whether there was any historical connection between Pannell and Witham, we will probably never know. At the very least, Mary Pannell really existed, was really thought to be a witch, and the story of her and William Witham is genuine folklore, not some recent urban myth. 

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