In 1594, no less than seven members of a Huntroyd family were possessed by evil spirits. Nicholas Starkie and his wife lived in the large house with their two children, John and Anne. The children were the first to be afflicted by spirits and an exorcist by the name of Edmund Hartlay was summoned. Hartlay rapidly dealt with the spirits by the use of magical spells, but it seems he was unwilling to leave. He told the Starkies that only his continued presence in the house would prevent a recurrence of the trouble. He even went so far to demand forty shillings a year, on top of his free accommodation.
Three years later, Nicholas Starkie was growing increasingly tired of his house-guest and told Hartlay he must leave. There was a heated argument and then it became apparent that the two children were once again possessed – as were two of the servants, Starkie’s three female wards and an innocent visitor to the house. All eight began shouting and shrieking and Hartlay was blamed; it was said that he had breathed the Devil into whoever he had kissed in greeting. The ‘possessions’ lasted for days; the afflicted suffered terrifying delusions such as imagining beasts were inside their own bodies, seeing huge angry dogs before them and hearing voices. They ran about madly and one even tried to hurl herself from a window. They spoke in strange tongues at great speed, they howled and shook with fear.
Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s own astrologer and alchemist, was called to assist in exorcising the afflicted, but he refused to be involved with such meddling, which he saw as conjuring on the part of Hartlay. He suggested that religious men be summoned instead. The two ministers who attended were George More and John Darrell and it is the latter we have to thank for writing down all that transpired at Cleworth and for giving the poor afflicted people the name ‘demoniacs’. More and Darrell gathered all the demoniacs together and laid them on couches. They brought thirty people to pray with them for an entire day. By the next day, all eight were delivered from their torment, although some of them were reported to bleed from the mouth and nose as the deliverance occurred.
As Edmund Hartlay was clearly responsible for the so-called ‘demonic possessions’, he was tried for witchcraft at Lancaster Castle. At first, the judge could find no basis on which to convict him, despite the trouble he had caused. Then Starkie came forward and swore that he had seen Hartlay draw a magic circle into which he had invited Starkie to step. This kind of witchcraft was a felony so, much as Hartlay denied doing anything of the kind, he was sentenced to death.
Darrell wrote about the case in a book, accusing the family of Starkie’s wife (who had been married before, to Thomas Barton of Smithells Hall) of bringing about the whole affair by their prayers. They were Catholics and were said to have prayed for the death of all her male children from both her marriages, so that Cleworth would not be inherited by them. Whatever the reason, Starkie’s two children John and Anne suffered no lasting damage from their demonic experiences; Anne grew up and married happily, and John became Sheriff of Lancashire.