Here be Witches – Essex and Witchcraft

“How do you know she is a witch?”  “Well, she looks like one” – Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

 If you imagine a witch, what do you see?  An old bent woman with a wart on her nose? a pointy black hat who is accompanied by a black cat? the stereotypical image that comes to mind when the word Witch is mentioned. The bent part is slightly accurate as the word itself derives from the Celtic word Wicca to twist or to bend. Today the word is usually used to describe a female who has received supernatural powers most of the time from the Devil. 

Why female? Of course, there have been male witches, some referred to as wizards or warlocks. However, throughout the centuries, the word witch has commonly been linked with the female sex. 

every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr’d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voyce, or a scolding tongue, having a rugged coate on her back, a skullcap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a Dog or Cat by her side; is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.

James VI of Scots said in his book on Demonology “But before yee goe further, permit mee I pray you to interrupt you one worde, which yee haue put mee in memorie of, by speaking of Women. What can be the cause that there are twentie women giuen to that craft, where ther is one man? The reason is easie, for as that sexe is frailer then man is, so is it easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Deuill, as was ouer well proued to be true, by the Serpents deceiuing of Eua at the beginning, which makes him the homelier with that sexe sensine.”

Hmmm so,women were perceived to be the weaker sex therefore, more likely to succumb to the devil. A number of the women persecuted as witches were sometimes those who lived outside the acceptable norms of society – the old widows who spoke their mind, the single mothers, the ones that had disabilities or deformities on their bodies. 90% of the accusations made were towards women. If a woman did not know her place did she deserve the harsh persecution and punishment that was delivered when accused of being a witch? No!

More witches have been hung in the county of Essex than any other in all of England. In the assizes from 1560-1680, 545 people were accused of witchcraft. There are 424 villages in Essex of which 227 have a connection with the persecution of witches. One hundred of these so-called witches were sentencedat Chelmsford, which was accrued the highest death toll of witches anywhere in England itself. 

Many of those in the years 1644-47 would have been the handiwork of the self-titled Witchfinder General, Mathew Hopkins. Born in Wenham, Suffolk around 1619 Mathew Hopkins was an unremarkable lawyer until 1644. He said that he overheard a discussion of witches at his local pub the Thorn Inn in Manningtree who were trying to kill him. He decided to leave his law practice and took it upon himself to rid the countryside of witches. With his right-hand man John Sterne, they would travel to villages and hunt down the witches, for a fee of course!

Aside from his knowledge of the law and reading about witches from James I’s book Demonology Hopkins had no other expertise in what he was doing. This did not stop him giving himself the title of Witchfinder General and claiming that he had been appointed by Parliament. This was not true but people believed him none the less especially when he said he possessed the ‘Devils List’ – which supposedly had all the names of the witches in England. In addition to John Sterne, Hopkins was also aided by ‘good’ Phillips, Edward Parslet, and Frances Mills

Hopkins was no fool. He knew what was needed to get people to seek his aid. He used the mood of uncertainty and fear to his advantage. Times were tough and due to the outbreak of the Civil War, the mood of the county of Essex was one of distrust. He also knew how to bend the law to get confessions, by using techniques, which were not deemed as ‘torture’, – sleep deprivation, and solitude confinement. 

Most of the time the accused would be taken to somewhere private and dark like a dungeon. Colchester Castle was such a location. There the prisoner would be thrown into the isolated cell, stripped naked, and beaten. They would also be starved and prevented from sleep. After this, Hopkins would move onto pricking. Hopkins had a special jabbing needle to do this, a three in one spike, which retracted when pushed against the skin so the woman would feel no pain, therefore, condemning her. If no so-called witches marks were found the prisoners would then be forced to sit crossed legged on a table or stall bound and left alone for 24 hours. After this, they would then be forced to walk naked, barefoot up and down until their feet blistered and bled – enough for anyone to confess to anything just to get it to stop or even driven mad.

The first to fall victim to Hopkins was a one-legged woman named Elizabeth Clark. John Rivet had accused her of placing a spell on his wife causing her to get ill. Clarke was placed under the ‘care’ of Hopkins and his inhuman methods until she could take no more and told him what he wanted to hear along with naming another 5 people. This ‘witchhunt’ soon grew to implicate 38 persons, of which 17 were hung, 6 reprieved in prison (with 4 of them dying while incarcerated) and 2 acquitted. 

Hopkins would be invited to use Colchester Castle as a base to interrogate the Witches that were accused in Manningtree. At times, the women would be held there for up to six months while awaiting trial and four of the 33 women held died due to the horrible conditions there. Moreover, as they had never been found guilty they never received a pardon, which those who were found guilty by Hopkins did.

In 2018, John Worland, a filmmaker successfully raised funds to have a plaque placed in the rose gardens opposite the entrance to the Castle to remember the victims of the witchhunts. 

“We are, strangely, living in times where there are parallels with the plight of women back then,” says John. “Through social media, we see hysteria and misrepresentation, where nobody relies on facts or evidence, and this can trigger hate crimes. This is what happened to many women 400 years ago and the significance of this shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.”

Chelmsford in Essex would be the location for many persecutions of witches. The location of the site of the execution today is believed to be Primrose Hill. Not all those sentenced there would be from the town. Chelmsford would be the location for the first full trial and execution of a witch in England in 1566 where Agnes Waterhouse would be executed as a witch. She and two other women – Elizabeth Frances and Joan Waterhouse (daughter of Agnes) who all lived in Hatfield Peverel in Essex. All that linked them was a white spotted cat called Sathan, which was believed to be their familiar.

Frances was accused of having bewitched a baby because it had become frial and weak. She would confess to the crime along with also confessing to murder, aborting, and having illicit sex. She said she had been taught to be a witch by her grandmother who introduced her to Sathan the cat. Sathan promised her that she would be rich is she followed his will. Francis was found guilty of bewitchment and was sentenced to a year in prison.

It turned out that Francis would meet Agnes one day and offer Sathan in exchange for a cake. She said that he was something that would improve her life massively to which Agnes agreed. Agnes was accused of bewitching William Fynee who went on to die in November 1565. Like Francis, Agnes too would confess, to not only to this crime but also one destroying her neighbours cattle and geese. She also said that she had sent her daughter Joan to the home of Agnes Brown a 12-year-old girl for cake and cheese. Agnes Browne refused and found a few days later that her right leg and arm became ‘decrepit’. Joan went home and called out for Sathan whom she had heard her mum call for. When he turned up she asked him to make the young girl afraid, in turn, Sathan said that he wanted Joan’s mind and soul.

Joan was tried for bewitching brown but was found not guilty. Her mother, however, was sentenced to death by hanging and was executed on July 29th. Frances Waterhouse in 1579 was accused again of being a witch and this time was not so lucky and was hung.

After being hung the bodies of the supposed witches could not be buried in consecrated holy ground. Most were placed in unmarked graves and some even at crossroads. Sometimes their remains were humiliated even more by the placing of stakes in each hand to prevent the witch ever rising. This was the case with Ursula Kemp in St Osyth 1582. 

In total, thirteen were accused of being witches, 10 on the charge of bewitching people to death. Of these 10, six were found guilty but only two sentences carried out – Elizabeth Bennet who confessed to murder and Ursula Kemp. 

Kemp was a woman of poor means who managed to survive by doing midwifery and removing bad spells from people. What brought her into the witch-hunt was a falling out with Grace Thrulowe where Kempe had threatened her with lameness. Just idle threat but unfortunately for Kempe Thurlow was soon overcome with severe arthritis in her legs and decided that it was a curse from Kempe. What made her case even more damaging was her 8-year-old son who was encouraged to tell damning stories against his mother. Kempe would confess but only with the promised of leniency is she cooperated and named others. This she did but the promise of leniency was false. The final charge was bewitching three people to death between 1580 and 1582.

But Kempe’s story does not end there. In 1921, the remains of two skeletons were unearthed in the garden of Mr Brooker in St Osyth. One of the skeletons was badly damaged but the other was still in a reasonable condition. It was then deduced that it must be the body of Ursula, and the other … Mr Brooker used this discovery to make some money and allowed people to view the skeleton for a small fee. Then in 1932, the house burnt down in an unexplained fire and the body of Ursula was reburied. It was disturbed again in the 1960s during some redevelopment but this time the body of Ursula was sold to the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle. Finally in 2007 filmmaker John Worland and others managed to get Ursula back to St Osyth and reburied in unconsecrated land with both representatives of the Christian and Pagan religions. May she now rest in peace.

 In 1735 the Witchcraft Act which James VI had passed in1604 was repealed as most people believed witchcraft to not be possible. But not all would be convinced. There are still stories in our history of supposed witches, even in Essex such as Sarah Moore from Leigh on Sea who lived in the 19th Century.

Sarah was a local woman who is said to have lived in a cottage of Victoria Wharf. In appearance, she is said to have been weather-beaten, had a hooked nose and a harelip. The legend goes that Sarah would confront expectant women in Leigh telling them the sex of their child and that it would have a harelip. 

The story also goes that she would often offer charms to people and bless sailors to get good wind. One day a Captain forbade his men from giving her any money, which infuriated Sarah. She conjured up a huge storm. When he got further out to sea the wind got stronger and he got into difficulties. The skipper took action and with an axe cut down his rigging or mast. With the third strike, the storm seemed to cease. When we got back to shore, he heard that Sarah was found dead with a gash or axe wound to her forehead. A great tale to tell but it is just that. A woman named Sarah Moore did exist and there were rumours of her being a Witch but they were just that.

Today there are many legends and stories around witches in Essex. Tales of ghosts coming back from the grave to avenge their wrongs or just to visit us. Canewdon has such folklore behind it that every Halloween it is said the police have to rope the Church off to stop people going there and seeing if the story is the story. There are many version but all involve walking or running around the church tower. If you walk around it at midnight, you will be forced to dance with witched, if you run around it backwards three times you will see a ghost at the top of the tower if you run three times anti-clockwise a portal will send you back in time. On Halloween if you walk around it 7 times you will see a witch, 13 times, you will become invisible, and anti-clockwise on Halloween if you run around it the devil will appear. A very supernatural site it seems.

It is also said that there will always be six witches in Canewdown, three of silk and three of cotton and that whenever a stone falls from the church tower a witch has died but another will always take her place. Hopkins never visited Canewdon; did he feel it was not worth the visit? Was it too far to travel or was he afraid of the coven that is said to always live there? Who knows?

Even Hopkins does not escape the accusatory finger of being a witch. William Andrews, a 19th-century writer stated in Bygone Essex that in 1647, Hopkins was accused of being in league with the devil himself, and the Devils book he had obtained by sorcery. He was then swum in Mistley Pond by an angry mob where he either drowned or floated and hung. A suitable fate for such a man it seems. But no rerecord of this exists, what does exist is a record in Mistly church in 1647 of his burial and a statement by Stearne that “he died peacefully at Manningtree, after a long sickness of a consumption, as many of his generations had done before him, without any trouble of conscience for what he had done, as was falsely reported of him.”

Although the Witch-hunts in England began to die down after Hopkins’ death across the pond in America, they were beginning to boil over. In 1692,  Essex County the infamous Salem Witch trials had just begun. Head over to the following link to my sister site across the pond to find out the interesting truth about witches in America: https://thisfamilyblog.com/the-interesting-truth-about-witches-in-american-history/

Sources:

Brown, P. C. (2014) Essex Witches. History Press. London

Guiley, R. E (2008) The Encyclopaedia of Witches, Witchcraft, and Wicca  Visionary Living, Inc: London.

Hodgson, T and Wise, P. (nd) Colchester Castle: 200 years of History. Jarrod publishing and Colchester Castle. Peterbourgh.

Morgan, G. H. Essex Witches. Spurbooks Ltd. 1973. Buckinghamshire.

Pitt-Stanley, Shele (1996) Legends of Leigh. Ian Henry Publishing: Essex

Storey, N (2005) A grim almanac of Essex. Sutton Publishing London

Williams, J (2012) Essex Folk Tales. The history press. Gloucester.

Anon (nd) Witchcraft. Available from: http://www.essex-family-history.co.uk/witches.htm [Accessed 30/9/19]

Hornsby, P (2019) Do you know the dark side of Colchester’s tumultuous history? Available from: https://www.essexlifemag.co.uk/people/do-you-know-the-dark-side-of-colchester-s-tumultuous-history-1-5667085

James I DEMONOLOGY http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25929/25929-pdf.pdf [ACCESSED 18/10/19]

Jessel, (2013) Canewdon: the village where witchfinders feared to tread… https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/tag/essex-witches/ [Accessed 30/09/2019]

Worland, J (2012) History. Available from: http://www.ursulakemp.co.uk/history.htm [accessed 25/10/19]

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