Born in Mansfield in 1562, Darrell came from a wealthy family and studied at Queens College Cambridge for his Bachelor of Arts. He left Cambridge for London in 1582 and began to study law but soon returned to Mansfield to become a preacher. He first became involved in exorcism when a puritan minister, Thomas Beckingham of Bilsthorpe brought a young and apparently possessed girl to him. She was called Catherine Wright and was seventeen years of age. The exorcism, involving fasting and prayers took three days. During this time Catherine accused Margaret Roper of sending a legion of fiends into her. Roper was arrested and brought to trial before magistrate Godfrey Foljambe. Foljambe found her to be innocent but he was not happy with Darrell, detected an imposter and threatened him with prison. This threat stopped Darrell performing any further exorcisms until after Foljambe’s death in 1595.
Darrel then lived at Bulwell before moving to Ashby-de-la Zouch. Here he had a small farm but also preached. Darrell was called upon to cast out devils from Thomas Darling aged 14 who had accused Alice Goodrich of bewitching him. Goodrich was convicted but died in prison before execution. Darrell then travelled to Lancashire where he was called upon to exorcise seven people living at Clayworth Hall, Shakerley near Tyldesley, in the household of Nicholas Starkie.
“John Darrell has Anne Starchie, John Starchie, Margaret Hardman, Elizabeth Hardman, Eleanor Holland, Margaret Byrom and Jane Ashton brought together for observation, noting that of all of them Jane Ashton and the Starchie children are most grievously tormented. Satan is said to have exceeded for cruelty with John Starchie in particular. During the observation, three or four of them scoffed and blasphemed. At one point, they allegedly all join hands to cause a strange and supernatural loud whupping noise in the house and grounds, driving Darrell and his companion George More from the room.
John Darrell alleges that the Devil returned over the next few days following the exorcisms to torment Margaret Byrom, John Starchie, Anne Starchie, Eleanor Holland, Margaret Hardman, Elizabeth Hardman, and Jane Ashton. It throws them down, deprives them of the use of their limbs, promises worldly goods and makes threats to try to get them to consent to repossession. They resist, and are not tormented further to his knowledge.”
Darrell’s fame was spreading, aided by numerous books which celebrated his exploits. His next case involved casting out devils from an apprentice in Nottingham. He was invited to Nottingham by the Mayor on the advice of John Ireton, rector at Kegworth. The apprentice, William Somers , did not respond to written instructions sent to Nottingham by Darrell. The mayor asked Darrell to attend in person and perform the exorcism himself. He arrived at St Marys church in 5th November 1597. He visited Somers on 6th November and declared he was possessed. On 7th November he commenced his usual three day ritual of fasting and prayers. He was successful again but warned that Somers was so deeply possessed the devil was liable to re-enter his body. On the basis of this success, Darrell was appointed public preacher at St Marys. According to his prediction, Somers did indeed show signs of further possession when his fits returned. There were some though who noticed how Somer’s fits finished conveniently when nature called. Darrell did not prove to be a successful preacher and there were some who doubted his skills as an exorcist. These fears proved well founded when Somers was admitted to the workhouse where he admitted to being a fake and had acted according to Darrell’s instructions.
Those opposed to Darrell now called upon the Archbishop of Canterbury to carry out a full enquiry. The man tasked with the enquiry was a chaplain working for the Bishop of London, Samuel Harsnett. It was indeed unfortunate for Darrell that Harsnett was chosen. He had already survived one investigation by the archbishop of York. Harsnett was determined to expose the English “Romanists” who were carrying out exorcisms or dispossessions in private houses. Although a puritan himself, Darrell had made enemies in the clergy . Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London had become concerned that Darrell was using his exorcisms as a means of promoting the Puritan cause. Harsnett noted with interest how possessions and indeed successful dispossessions seemed most often to involve the willing participation of “children, boyes and wenches”. Harsnett argued that such people were easily impressed and easily enrolled as accomplices in Darrell’s school of dispossession. The enquiry concluded that in all the claims of exorcism save one, Darrell had previously met the sufferers and tutored then on how to act as if possessed. Harsnett castigated Darrell for the “stirres” which he had raised in Nottingham.
Just six months after being appointed preacher in Nottingham Darrell was in prison and awaiting trial. In May 1599 he was summoned to Lambeth and appeared with a George Moore, a minister often present during Darrell’s exorcisms. He was convicted of fraud by the Commission for Ecclesiastical Causes and sent back to prison. Eventually both Darrell and Moore were offered their release from prison but both refused because of a key condition of their release.. they should not “meddle any more with fasting and prayer for parties possessed.” In late summer Darrell was quietly released and with the aid of friends and supporters he set about clearing his name and restoring his reputation. He received a setback when Harsnett published a treatise on his investigation called “” A Discovery of thefraudulent practices of John Darrell, Batcbelor of Arts, in his proceedings concerning the pretended possession and dispossession of William Somers of Nottingham: of Thomas Darling, the boy of Burton at Caldwall: and of Katherine Wright at Mansfield and Whittington: and of his dealings with one Mary Coupe at Nottingham, detecting in some sort the deceitful trade in these latter days of casting out devils,” (1599)
Harsnett went beyond the details of the Nottingham case and was at pains to point out there were no genuine cases of possession and that all the supposedly supernatural symptoms of demonic possession had natural causes. Darrell himself printed a rebutall to Harsnett’s findings and treatise with “A Detection of that sinful, shamful, lying, and ridiculous Discours, of Samuel Harshnet.* L’ntituled: A Discoverie of the fraudulent practices of John Darrell. Wherein is manifestly and apparently shewed in the eyes of the world. Not only the unlikelihoode, but the flate impossibilitie of the pretended counterfayting of William Somers, Thomas Darling, Kath. Wright, and Mary Couper, together with other 7 in Lancashire, and the supposed teaching of them by the saide John Darrell,” (1600). The same year, Darrell also published, ” A true Narration of the strange and grevous Vexation by the Devil, of 7 Persons in Lancashire, and William Somers of Nottingham.”
Both works failed to help him; Darrell’s days as an exorcist were over. The debates sparked by Darrell had rattled the clergy and they sought to put an end to it all. A law was passed that no-one could practise exorcism without a licence from the Bishop. In 1601 Darrell returned to Mansfield where he settled down to a life on the family farm. He died just one year later in 1602.
Mary Couper was sister to William Somers and was said to have fits and to have been possessed. It was said she started her fits when Somers ended his. Darrell faced charges of instructing both William and Mary.
Thomas Darling, whose false accusations cost the life of Alice Goodrich went on to study at Merton College. Here in 1603 he was sentenced by the Starchamber to be whipped and to lose his ears for libelling the Vice Chancellor of Oxford.
Samuel Harsnett later became archbishop of York.
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The Temptation of St. Anthony by Martin Schöngauer c. 1480-90. Engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church 1560-1600 edited by Peter Lake, Michael C Questier
Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 Volume 14
“” A Discovery of thefraudulent practices of John Darrell, Batcbelor of Arts, in his proceedings concerning the pretended possession and dispossession of William Somers of Nottingham: of Thomas Darling, the boy of Burton at Caldwall: and of Katherine Wright at Mansfield and Whittington: and of his dealings with one Mary Coupe at Nottingham, detecting in some sort the deceitful trade in these latter days of casting out devils,” Samuel Harsnett (1599)
“A Detection of that sinful, shamful, lying, and ridiculous Discours, of Samuel Harshnet.* L’ntituled: A Discoverie of the fraudulent practices of John Darrell. Wherein is manifestly and apparently shewed in the eyes of the world. Not only the unlikelihoode, but the flate impossibilitie of the pretended counterfayting of William Somers, Thomas Darling, Kath. Wright, and Mary Couper, together with other 7 in Lancashire, and the supposed teaching of them by the saide John Darrell,” (1600)
“A true Narration of the strange and grevous Vexation by the Devil, of 7 Persons in Lancashire, and William Somers of Nottingham 1600” John Darrell