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The Author - Brian Langston
Brian Langston

'The Boy of Bilston'-

A strange and long-forgotten case of Staffordshire demons

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An Etching
Ethching of 'The Boy of Bilston' after HogarthSource: British Museum

It seems remarkable that the industrial Black Country town of Bilston was once at the centre of a paranormal maelstrom of such magnitude that the King of England himself took a personal interest in the case.

Thousands flocked to the town to witness the unbelievable and grotesque events which centred on a young boy who became infamous across the kingdom and was known simply as the ‘Boy of Bilston’.

As a Bilston boy myself I was intrigued to rediscover this incredible story of demonic possession which has been all-but forgotten, and yet almost sent an innocent woman to the gallows.


Greyhound and Punchbowl
The Greyhound and Punchbowl Inn, Bilston.
 Built 1450 Source: Wolverhampton Arts & Heritage
"Daemonologie"

King

The year was 1620 and Jacobean England was under the rule of King James I, the son of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots. Belief in witchcraft and magic was almost universal in a society which was still brimming with religious tension dating back to Henry VIII’s break with Rome a century earlier.


James had shown himself to be a zealous crusader against the so-called ‘dark arts’ and had earlier published his anti-witchcraft tome ‘Daemonologie’ which became the handbook for the testing and prosecution of suspected witches and spawned a generation of atrocities most notably exemplified by Matthew Hopkins the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General.

 

 

Set against this febrile atmosphere comes the case of young William Perry, the son of a yeoman in the quiet leafy village of Bilston in South Staffordshire, long before the industrial revolution had created ‘The Black Country’. The story began during the Spring of 1620 when 13 year old William began to behave strangely.

 

 

His parents reported that his personality had suddenly changed and he flatly refused to go to church or school and began to have unearthly and violent fits. It was quickly diagnosed as demon possession and during his lucid moments William told his parents that a neighbour Jane Clarke had bewitched him. This caused an outcry in the town and the old woman, who had long been suspected of dabbling in the dark arts, came under suspicion of invoking Lucifer.

 

She was summoned to William’s bedside to account for her actions but her very presence precipitated a demonic outburst from the poor boy whose eyes rolled in his head, his body convulsed and he began to vomit an array of objects which terrified the assembled throng. Astounded witnesses reported that " He cast out of his mouth rags, thred, straw, crooked pins."

 

This was proof positive that William had been possessed by Satan himself and despite her protestations of innocence, Jane Clarke was taken into custody by the town authorities, thrown into prison and put her on trial for witchcraft- a crime which carried the death penalty.


William meanwhile continued to be wracked with evil spirits. He spent long periods in bed and was attended by a procession of clergymen of both Catholic and Protestant faith who were unable to dislodge the demon which had taken a grip of his very soul. It was discovered that the wrath of the demonic entity could be invoked if the first verse of St John’s gospel was recited. This would enrage the malevolent force within and send William into strangulated contortions accompanied by unearthly noises and the vomiting of nails and other strange objects. Gallows
Bishop
Bishop Morton of Coventry & Lichfield

Book
"I am the light and the word..." St. John's Gospel 1:1
This situation continued for some weeks and the case was talked about up and down the land, including the Royal household. Whether or not prompted by the King, Bishop Morton of Coventry and Lichfield personally went to Bilston and attended the home of William Perry in order to tackle the demon head on.

He recited the first verse from St. John which begins “I am the light and the word.....” and, as he had done many times before, the boy went into spasms and displayed the disturbing grimaces and peculiar behaviour which was typical of demon possession. In his fits he appeared to be both deaf and dumb, writhing, panting, and groaning, and retching.

The wily old Bishop however was not convinced by the performance and laid down a challenge to the demon. He called for a Greek Testament to be brought to him and said; “Boy- It is either thou or the Devil that abhorrest those words of the Gospel, and if it be the Devil, he (being almost 6000 years standing) knoweth and understandeth all languages of the world, so that he cannot but know when I recite the same sentence out of the Greek; if it be thyself, though art a most execrable wretch who playest the Devil’s part.”

He then read the 12th verse, which the boy assumed was the 1st and fell to the floor in agonising convulsions. When this was over the Bishop recited the 1st verse in Greek which the boy assumed was the next verse and was completely untroubled by hearing it. His deception was thus uncovered and when confronted by the Bishop admitted to the horror of his parents that it had all been a ruse.

The Bishop was hailed as a hero although many critics, with the gift of hindsight, poured scorn on gullible thousands who had flocked to Bilston to witness his ‘demon possession’. They scoffed that his change in personality and unwillingness to get out of bed was nothing more than the behaviour of a typical pubescent adolescent. His vomiting of objects was brought about by nothing more than sleight of hand, using objects which lay within easy reach of his bed.
However there was a twist in the tale and William was not solely to blame. It transpired that here was a political motive behind the fraud in which William was a pawn. Subsequent investigations revealed that he had been targeted by a Jesuit order who allegedly met at the home of the Giffard family of Chillington Hall and secretly coached him in the symptoms of demon possession.

Their aim was to exorcise the evil spirits and thereby demonstrate the power of the ‘true’ faith. Their plan backfired drastically however when, having been summoned to his bedside in order to exorcise the evil spirit, they discovered that William was enjoying the attention and notoriety and refused to give up the demon! Furthermore his antics meant that he could evade school and church and spend all day in bed being feted by his concerned parents and the great and the good of the town. His failure to ‘stick to the script’ not only embarrassed the Jesuits who quickly melted into the shadows, but almost lead to a sticky end for his neighbour whom he had falsely accused.

 Fortunately old Jane Clarke escaped execution and it was William instead who was sent to trial at the Staffordshire Assizes in July 1621. He freely confessed his duplicity and expressed great remorse at the trouble he had caused to everyone. After evidence was given on his behalf by the Bishop, he was pardoned and given over to his custody to be bound apprentice. History reports that he learnt the error of his ways after his brush with Satan, and never again transgressed in any way. Under the tutelage of the Bishop he grew up to be an honest and respected man in the town and joined the clergy as a Diocesan official.

The folly of his youth was eventually forgiven, although the strange case of demon-possessed ‘Boy of Bilston’ became cited as a notorious fraud. Young William Perry was even immortalised in a satirical engraving entitled ‘Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism’ in 1787 by William Hogarth before becoming lost in the mists of time as the Bilston demoniac that never was.
Chillington Hall
Chillington Hall, Staffordshire. Home of the Giffard family for 800 years.
 

Medley
Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism by William Hogarth
featuring 'The Boy of Bilston' at the foot of the pulpit.

Brian Langston
This article reproduced with the kind permission of the Author