The wonderful discovery of Elizabeth Sawyer

  • Jonathan Vischer

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Note this PhD comprises two elements:

(i) Creative Component: 

‘The Wonderful Discovery of Elizabeth Sawyer’ is a novel about conflicting narratives of salvation set in the early modern period. It is a fictional account of real people who were born into Elizabethan England and died during the Stuart era. The novel’s storyline explores how an illiterate countrywoman, Elizabeth Sawyer, affected the prison chaplain, Henry Goodcole, in Newgate Prison and guides the reader through the lay preacher’sreaction to her in the week of her execution for witchcraft on 19 April 1621.

My novel takes its title from Henry Goodcole’s pamphlet on Sawyer and contains references to the playwrights who created The Witch of Edmonton, which used Goodcole’s text as a source. In seeking to reverse the providential judgement of the original pamphlet, it also reimagines the tragedy of Dekker, Ford and Rowley’s play and presents Sawyer as a storyteller whose narratives challenge certain stock interpretations of Scripture, particularly ones that favour the status quo of the Established Church. Told largely from Goodcole’s point-of-view, the novel outlines a process by which the lay preacher is forced to first question and then expand his faith.

The creative component is currently embargoed and is subject to a review decision in 2026.

(ii) Critical Component:

‘A Story in Maps’ addresses the research question: ‘How do the maps and surveys commissioned during Elizabeth Sawyer’s lifetime shed light on the life lived by ordinary people in Edmonton Hundred?’ By contextualising the hand-drawn and hand-written evidence, most of which is still held by the Salisbury family in Hatfield House, ‘A Story in Maps’ shows how pressures on the landless contributed to the imprisonment of twenty-four of Elizabeth’s neighbours during her teenage years. In addition, the study speculates how this event anticipated Elizabeth’s own journey, first to Newgate then to Tyburn, thirty-one years later.

The study establishes that landless country women were active in defending their rights of common. It also shows that in a court of law such women required the intervention of a member of the male literateelite to pursue their complaint; this reality was evident in Sawyer’s own trial for witchcraft in 1621.

The critical component is immediately available.

Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorGlenn Patterson (Supervisor) & Ramona Wray (Supervisor)


  • Common rights
  • Edmonton
  • Sawyer
  • witchcraft

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