Some weeks ago I met with Leek resident John Band who wanted to show me his very interesting collection of 17th century pamphlets and journals. Several of them mention events in North Staffordshire during the period of the Civil War. But one very curiously mentions an incident that happened in Madeley in the spring of 1651. It is recorded in a newspaper called the Perfect Diurnal
“By Letters from Cheshire we had an exact accompt of a late strange appearance in the Air at a place called Madeley, of the Sun, Moone, and sighting, and other strange things as followeth, 16 Aprill 1651. Mary Sidway, Wife unto Robert Sidway in the Parish of Madely, Gent. in the County of Stafford saith, That sitting in her doore, one of her children being playing by her, about a quarter of an houre before Sun setting, taking notice of the Sunne, thought it to be of a strange bloudy colour, looking more earnestly upon it; perceived over it a perfect halfe Moon, but she thinking she might be deceived in her sight, wiped her eyes, and looked upon it againe: Upon which the said Moone suddenly vanished, and there appeared round about the Sunne many darke bodies, in compasse like unto ordinary Pewter Dishes, all which instantly turned as red as bloud, those of the North side, flying off from the Sunne,”
Mary Sidway called her maid who was looking after Mary's children. She was asked if she had seen the curious spectacle at first the maid denied that she had seen anything but recanted
“Crying out unto her Dame, ah Dame they come upon us! they come upon us! and forthwith in their view came downe from the Sun into the Court before the door, multitudes of darke bodies in the signs of men, having arms and swords discernable, but from the rest of the bodies were of a thick darknesse without fome, of which they can give no good accompt; there also in their view arose out of the ground as many like bodies in opposition unot these, which to their judgements ran violently one upon another; In their running up and down the Court they pressed so near the door where she sate and the maid stood by, that being afraid of hurt by them, they withdrew themselves into the entry of the house, but she, the said Mary Sidway, remembering her little Child to be left without doors desired her maid to fetch the Child “
The maid collected the child and the women and child barricaded themselves into the house and began to pray. They looked out of the windows to see if they could see anything. They saw
Two horses shapes being by them seen amongst this Company, and that which most affrighted them with the Mote beore the window, which seemed to be spotted all over in the Compass of Round Trenchers with staining blood: Her Maid then desired her to look out of the other window upon the other side of the house, (which she did) and there they beheld all the back side full of long Cannons, and holsters standing rowes, with their mouthes upwards; They being still in feare went to prayer againe, after which they looked out on both sides the house, and all was gone and seemed to be cleare.
The women left the house and wandered over some fields. A fog descended and out of the mist
“out of which came flying to them a creature in the bignesse of a Canon, with a broad face all hairy, two large wings (in their description, like unto the Angels wings pictured in Churches) upon sight whereof she the said Mary Sidway, said to her maid, certainely this is an Angell, and the day of judgement is come, come let us go and hasten to our folks and die together; but while she was thus speaking came another in the like shape, and after that a third”
The creatures disappeared and a farm labourer that the women saw did not see anything odd.
What can we make of the references to “pewter plates” or “ multitudes of strange sights” or the flying creature with “large wings and face all hairy”.
John Band is of the opinion that the women were suffering from ergotism the result of an enzyme released when rye or oats get damp and develops a fungal infection which can cause symptoms such as hallucinations. Some historians believe that religious visions or charges of bewitchment might be caused by ergotism. Although the early 1650s are characterised by fine springs and summers and drought like conditions.
Another suggestion is given in the clue of the the bloody colour of the Sun is that the woman witnessed an partial eclipse although it occurred on the 19th April and not the 16th. It could have been an error in typography and the wrong date given. The eclipse was visible in Lichfield not too far away.
And of course there is the fanciful view that it really was a Close Encounter of the Third Kind!