On the south wall of Clitheroe Parish Church is the last epitaph of a remarkable man who for part of his life was at the centre of the political, religious and scientific upheavals of the seventeenth century. John Webster was born in Thornton in Craven in Yorkshire in 1610, son of Edward Webster and baptised on February 3rd 1611 at Coxwold in the North Riding. Webster’s life spanned a period of unparalleled turmoil in this country. When he was a child, however, the coming of the English Civil War could not have been predicted.
There are many unanswered questions about his early life. William Weeks, Webster’s first Victorian biographer makes an interesting allusion to Webster’s schooling, as being in some psychologically (or physically) scarred by punishment at school. Was he really educated at Cambridge University as he claimed? The University has no record, but many records from this period are incomplete. Wherever he gained his education we know that he had a good writing style and read Latin and Greek. He frequently referred to himself as Johannes Hyphastes, as he does on the plaque in church. Johannes is the Greek version of John: Hyphastes means “weaver”, the origin of the now common surname “Webster”. In his later life, one of Webster’s main areas of interest was to be reform of the university system, at this time an area of fierce c
His next publication, The Academiarum Examen of 1654 made detailed proposals for the reform of the university curriculum; it was dedicated to General John Lambert, a highly-placed officer of the New Model Army and a former near neighbour of Webster’s in Kirkby Malham. At this time, Lambert, at the age of 35, was arguably the second most powerful person in England, after Cromwell. While advocating the work of Francis Bacon, Webster wanted to combine ideas from the experimental philosophy of the time with those of astrology and alchemy: he also advocated the teaching of Robert Fludd and Paracelsus. The reformed universities, according to Webster, had to promote experimental and utilitarian learning, which should include alchemy and natural magic, which he vindicated against the impostors’ misuse.
Webster’s article soon drew a reply from the Oxford academics Seth Ward and John Wilkins, in Vindiciae Academiarum (1654) They argued for a less radical and more moderate programme of updating, partly put in place already. Ward and Wilkins put the case that Webster was ignorant of recent changes in University education, and was inconsistent in championing both Bacon and Fludd, whose methods were incompatible.
Sometime in the 1650’s Webster must have returned to Clitheroe. In 1658 he says that many of his manuscripts were confiscated but he appears to have been in many ways a model citizen being elected in bailiff twice. One can only imagine the position of this former parliamentary soldier and radical now settled in Restoration Clitheroe and had to live with those he had imposed many of the unpopular laws of the Commonwealth period when he had also served as in-bailiff.
There is an anecdote that Webster, during the Commonwealth period had, with a group of friends, knocked down the three “Paulinus Crosses” which were in Whalley Churchyard. After the Restoration, Webster paid to have them re-erected to the position that they still hold today, in atonement for his actions. The riverside walk, still known as Webster’s Walk is supposed to be one of his favourite walks during his last years.
During this, the final period of his life, he published “Metallographica” (1671), the fruit of his experimental work in chemistry. For Webster, chemistry was about much more than science: for Robert Fludd the Rosicrucian who Webster passionately admired, chemistry was the search for God. Webster believed that the spiritual and the physical are one and that the search for the physical transformation of metals is fruitless unless accompanied by a genuine inner search for spiritual perfection.
Webster’s last work is the one for which he is today most famous; The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677), a criticism of the traditional demonology and the belief, still current then, among scientists in the realityt of wittchcraft. . It is apparent that material for it had been collected for several decades and the work was completed by 1674, but initially it failed to gain an imprimatur, apparently because of opposition from the ecclesiastical authorities even though by the 1670’s the tide of scepticism was running very much in favour of John Webster’s thought. Webster had asked for the support of his friend and correspondent Martin Lister, to whom he sent a draft of the work in 1674. He also sent a copy to the Royal Society, which was forwarded by Oldenburg to Hooke, who read it on 19 March 1675. In the event, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft was published in 1677 with the imprimatur of the society’s vice-president, Sir Jonas Moore, dated 29 June 1676, and was dedicated to the justices of the peace in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The significance of this, of course is that it was the justices of the peace in the West Riding who had investigated and condemned the original Pendle Witches a generation before. The five Webster mentioned: Thomas Parker of Browsholme, John Asheton of the Lower Hall, William Drake of Barnoldswick-coat, William Johnson of the Grange, Henry Marsden of Gisborne he honoured in this way he states because
“You have all been Gentlemen, not only well known unto me for many years, as being my near neighbours, but also with whom I have been freely admitted to a Noble and Generous converse, and have been trusted and honoured by you in your Domestick concerns, wherein by my Medical Profession, I might be serviceable to you”.
Where Webster’s work formed a departure from previous works was in laying out a theological, scientific and psychological rationale both for why some people might be accused of witchcraft and believe themselves to be witches even though their alleged crimes were impossible.
The Displaying opens with a vindication of freedom in philosophical matters and is aimed at answering the arguments in favour of the existence of witchcraft held by Meric Casaubon and by Joseph Glanvill. Glanvill had urged that disbelief in witchcraft was but one step in the path to atheism. No witches, no spirits, no immortality, no God, were the sequences of Glanvill’s reasoning. In answer Webster urged that the denial of the existence of witches—creatures endued with the power from the Devil to perform supernatural wonders—had nothing to do with the existence of angels or spirits . In other words – if we grant the existence of spirits we don’t also have to accept the existence of witches. Webster’s work was also crucial for its “early recognition of psychological phenomena which in the later 19th century were studied as suggestibility and suggestion especially under hypnosis” (Hunter & MacAlpine, 209)
Webster died at Clitheroe 18 June, 1682 leaving a widow, Elizabeth and no children. In 1684, Alice Molland was sent to the gallows in Exeter and became the last witch to be executed in England.
Of himself Webster observes: “I owe little to the advantages of those things called the goods of fortune, but most (next under the goodness of God) to industry: however, I am a free born Englishman, a citizen of the world and a seeker of knowledge, and am willing to teach what I know, and learn what I know not.”