Just about 354 years ago, between the 10th and 13th March 1664, a trial took place at Bury St Edmunds Assizes, Suffolk. Two elderly women from Lowestoft, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender who were both widows, were tried before Magistrates on a charge of witchcraft. Thirteen indictments were brought against them, alleging that they had bewitched several people, including children, following quarrels. The trial lasted two days, during which time and apart from pleading ‘Not Guily’, the accused made no attempt to deny the charges made against them. On the afternoon of Thursday, 13th Match, the verdict of Guilty being returned, followed by the Judge Sir Matthew Hale, Kt, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, sentencing the two women to be hanged. The executions took place on Monday, 17th March 1664, with neither of the women confessing their guilt. This moment ended one of the most controversial of East Anglian witch trials.
Unfortunately, all that is known about this Trial is contained in a 60-page pamphlet entitled ‘A Tryal of Witches, at the Assizes held at Bury St. Edmunds for the County of Suffolk; on the Tenth day of March 1664’ and published in London in 1682. It was written by a supposedly anonymous spectator; nevertheless, this pamphlet is the sole primary source of information for this particular ‘witch trial’. The written account does, apart from the subject of witchcraft, make for an interesting case, being free from political coercion, religious rivalries, and the ‘wicked’ schemes of some other trials of the time.
Though the trial occurred at Bury St. Edmunds, the events leading up to it occurred in Lowestoft, an isolated fishing town with a population of about fifteen hundred inhabitants, 112 miles northeast of London and 50 miles east of Bury St. Edmunds. At the time of this trial, Lowestoft town was involved with a lawsuit against the larger fishing town of Great Yarmouth over fishing rights. Interestingly, this lawsuit involved two principal members of the Lowestoft witches trial, namely Samuel Pacy and Sir Matthew Hale.
The person responsible for bringing Amy Denny and Rose Cullender to trial was one Samuel Pacy, a wealthy fish merchant and property owner in Lowestoft, who had denied a request from a poorer member of that same community, namely a Amy Denny. Samuel Pacy had rejected several requests from this Amy Denny for him to sell her some fish. As way of further information and possibly relevant to the eventual witch’s trial, Amy Denny was not only a widow but also had a reputation as being a witch. According to Samuel Pacy, immediately after he had turned down Amy Denny’s request for a third time, his daughter, Deborah:
“…was taken with most violent fits, feeling most extreme pain in her Stomach, like the pricking of Pins, and Shreeking out in a most dreadful manner like unto a Whelp, and not like unto a sensible Creature.”
Believing his two daughters bewitched his suspicions fell first upon Amy Denny and requested that she be placed in the Stocks in the hope that this may break the spell; this took place on the previous October 28th. Apparently, this did not ease the condition of his children and their symptoms continued for another three weeks before Pacy asked a neighbour, Dr. Feavor, for his opinion. Feavor could not diagnose a natural cause of the illness. Then Pacy consulted a doctor but, it appears, the he did not seek the help of the clergy, which usually presented a unique absence from demonic trials. Neither, during the trial, did Pacy’s deposition mention him employing any religious methods of dispossession. Samuel Pacy’s deposition did, however, state that his daughter, Deborah Pacy:
“… in her fits would cry out of Amy Duny as the cause of her Malady, and that she did affright her with Apparitions of her Person.”
Two days later, on the 30th October,
“the eldest Daughter Elizabeth, fell into extream fits, insomuch, that they could not open her Mouth to give her breath, to preserve her Life without the help of a Tap which they were enforced to use…”
Apparently, for the next two months, the two sisters suffered other symptoms, including lameness and soreness, loss of their sense of speech, sight, and hearing, sometimes for days. Fits ensued upon hearing the words “Lord,” “Jesus” and “Christ.” They also claimed that a Rose Cullender, another reputed witch, along with Amy Denny, would appear
“ before them, holding their Fists at them, threatening, that if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them Ten times more than ever they did before.” ……the sisters also coughed up pins, “…and one time a Two-penny Nail with a very broad head, which Pins (amounting to Forty or more) together with the Two-penny Nail were produced in Court, with the affirmation of the said Deponent, that he was present when the said Nail was Vomited up, and also most of the Pins.” Allotriophagy, the vomiting of extraordinary objects, would provide an observable proof of possession.
Once arrested, the suspects were searched for ‘Witch’s’ or ‘Devil’s Marks’ by a team of six matrons. These marks, any spot or blemish of an uncommon sort, were believed to be either a brand made by the devil at the signing of the pact, or a spot which an evil spirit in animal form, had sucked blood. Such marks were found on Rose Cullender and this information was considered evidence of being a witch and would be presented to a court. After an oral examination, the two women were committed for trial and duly appeared before the Circuit Judge, Sir Matthew Hale, at the next Bury St Edmunds Assizes.
The legal system of the 17th century was far removed from that of today; no laws of evidence existed and testimony was therefore accepted from all, even children. Also at this time, there existed no provision for a Council for the Defence, in consequence, those brought to trial were largely unrepresented. It was in this situation that Amy Denny and Rose Cullender found themselves when they were brought into the crowded courtroom.
The trial itself started on 10th March 1664. By then, the afflictions of Samuel Pacy’s daughters had spread to three other girls, neighbours of the Pacy’s. They were Ann Durrant (probably between the age of 16-21), Jane Bocking (14 years old), and Susan Chandler (18 years old). Deborah Pacy and Jane Bocking were too ill to attend the trial. Though Elizabeth, Ann, and Susan did not testify (family members spoke for them), they were present and affected the courtroom atmosphere. The three arrived…
“…..in reasonable good condition: But that Morning they came into the Hall to give Instructions for the drawing of their Bills of Indictments, the Three Persons fell into strange and violent fits, screeking out in a most sad manner, so that they could not in any wise give any Instructions in the Court who were the Cause of their Distemper. And although they did after some certain space recover out of their fits, yet they were every one of them struck Dumb, so that none of them could speak, neither at that time, nor during the Assizes until the Conviction of the supposed Witches.”
The trial opened with the deposition of Dorothy Durrant. Her statement chronicled old and improvable events. Durrant did not explain why she had waited several years to accuse Denny. She alleged Amy Denny of bewitching and eventually murdering her ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, four years earlier. She also testified that although her infant son, William, suffered similar afflictions, Dr. Jacobs, a physician from Yarmouth, rescued him by recommending the use of counter-magic. Dr. Jacobs told Dorothy to hang William’s blanket over the fireplace and to burn anything found in it. When she took it down at night, a large toad fell out, which a boy in the house quickly caught. As he held it over the fire with tongs, the toad exploded with a flash of light.
Durrant also testified that the next day, a relative of Amy Denny told her that Denny had recently suffered serious burns all over her body. According to Durrant’s deposition, when she visited Denny, the burned woman cursed her and predicted that Durrant would outlive some of her children and be forced to live on crutches.
Her predictions soon proved accurate. Durrant’s daughter, Elizabeth, soon fell seriously ill, and after seeing Amy Denny’s spectre, died. After Elizabeth’s death, Dorothy Durrant became crippled in both her legs. Judge Hale, attempting to find a natural explanation for the affliction, asked her if the lameness was due to “… the Custom of Women.” Durrant rejected this possibility. Forced to use a crutches for over three years, she threw these away, supposedly cured, when she heard Denny and Cullender were pronounced guilty!
The most dramatic evidence at the trial was the presence and actions of the children. Elizabeth Pacy, in particular, created quite a scene, as she:
“…..could not speak one Word all the time, and for the most part she remained as one wholly senseless as one in a deep Sleep, and could move no part of her body, and all the Motion of Life that appeared in her was, that as she lay upon Cushions in the Court upon her back, her stomach and belly by the drawing of her breath, would arise to a great height: and after the said Elizabeth had lain a long time on the Table in the Court, she came a little to her self and sate up, but could neither see nor speak…, by the direction of the Judge, Amy Duny was privately brought to Elizabeth Pacy, and she touched her hand; whereupon the Child without so much as seeing her, for her Eyes were closed all the while, suddenly leaped up, and catched Amy Duny by the hand, and afterwards by the face; and with her nails scratched her till blood came, and would by no means leave her till she was taken from her, and afterwards the Child would still be pressing towards her, and making signs of anger conceived against her.”
After these dramatic events, parents of afflicted children outside the Pacy home testified. They were Edmund Durrant, father of Ann, apparently no relation to Dorothy; Diane Bocking, mother of Jane; and Robert and Mary Chandler, parents of Susan. They swore that their children suffered afflictions similar as to those of the Pacy children, specifically, fit, seeing spectral images, and vomiting crooked pins. They brought to the court several pins as evidence. In a deposition strikingly similar to that of Samuel Pacy, Edmund Durrant, about who nothing is known other than his deposition, described the afflictions of his daughter, Ann:
“……That he also lived in the said, Town of Leystoff, and that the said Rose Cullender, about the latter end of November last, came into this Deponents House to buy some Herrings of his Wife, but being denied by her, the said Rose returned in a discontented manner; and upon the first of December after, his Daughter Ann Durrant was very sorely Afflicted in her Stomach, and felt great pain, like the pricking of Pins, and then fell into swooning fitts, and after the Recovery from her Fits, she declared, That she had seen the Apparition of the said Rose, who threatened to Torment her. In this manner she continued from the first of December, until this present time of Tryal; having likewise vomited up divers Pins (produced here in Court). This Maid was present in Court, but could not speak to declare her knowledge, but fell into most violent fits when she was brought before Rose Cullender.”
The evidence presented so far would be considered ludicrous by today’s standards and indeed was not accepted unquestionable at that time. Indeed, a Mr Sargeant Keeling protested to this effect and was privately asked by the Judge, together with Lord Cornwallis and Sir Edmund Bacon, to repeat the experiments outside the courtroom using other people. The result was to suggest that the charges so far made were groundless and, as a result, the court proceedings were stopped for a considerable time whilst a course of action was decided upon. Eventually, it was agreed to seek the advice of an impartial observer, one Doctor Brown, a knowledgeable physician of Norwich.
Dr. Thomas Browne, a respected physician, was brought forward to testify. He affirmed that witchcraft did exist, specifically mentioning similar events that had occurred in Denmark. Despite mentioning possible medical explanations for the girls’ afflictions, namely “the mother,” Browne noted that the Devil could intensify symptoms. Though he believed that the girls were bewitched, he did not specifically state that Denny and Cullender had afflicted them. Browne testified:
“….. That the Devil in such cases did work upon the bodies of men and women, upon a natural foundation, [that is] to stir up and excite such humors, super-abounding in their Bodies to a great excess, whereby he did in an extraordinary manner afflict them with such distempers as their bodies were most subject to, as particularly appeared in these children; for he conceived, that these swooning fits were natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightened to a great excess by the subtlety of the devil, cooperating with the malice of these which we term witches, at whose instance he doth these villanies.”
After Browne’s testimony, the court did carry out several experiments to test the accused witches and their accusers. In contrast to the Mary Glover case, no burning occurred to test the hands for insensibility. Here, the fists of the girls, while afflicted, remained tightly closed,
“…as yet the strongest Man in the Court could not force them open; yet by the least touch of one of the supposed Witches, Rose Cullender by Name, they would suddenly shriek out opening their hands, which accident would not happen by the touch of any other person.”
The three respected members of the aristocracy present in court were Lord Charles Cornwallis, a member of Parliament, Sir Edmund Bacon, a justice of the peace for the county, and Sir John Keeling (who became Chief Justice of the King’s Bench three years after the trial); they tested Elizabeth next. While they looked on, a blindfolded Elizabeth Pacy touched Amy Denny and another woman. When Elizabeth “reacted similarly to both women,“…the three Gentlemen openly protested, that “they did believe the whole transaction of this business was a mere Imposture.” Samuel Pacy replied “…That possibly the Maid might be deceived by a suspicion that the Witch touched her when she did not.” Though Pacy’s explanation for the test result helped convince the jury of Denny’s guilt, other factors also played a role. As the author of “A Tryal of Witches” acknowledged, many people believed that these girls were not capable of “counterfeiting”:
It is not possible that any should counterfeit such Distempers, being accompanied with such various Circumstances, much less Children; and for so long time, and yet undiscovered by their Parents and Relations: For no man can suppose that they should all Conspire together, (being out of several families, and as they Affirm, no way related one to the other, and scarce of familiar acquaintance) to do an Act of this nature whereby no benefit or advantage could redound to any of the Parties, but a guilty Conscience for Perjuring themselves in taking the Lives of two poor simple Women away, and there appears no Malice in the Case. For the Prisoners did scarce so much as Object it.
Depositions by John Soam, a Lowestoft Yeoman, Robert Sherringham and Nicholas Pacy (Samuel’s father or brother), followed. Significantly, all had civil suits against a John Denny during the 1640’s and 1650’s. By the time of the trial, Ann Denny’s husband, John, was deceased. As there were two John Dennys in Lowestoft at this time, with dozens of civil cases against one or both men, it is impossible to prove that this was the same John Denny.
John Soam accused Rose Cullender of bewitching his three carts, making them unusable for a day. Robert Sherringham blamed her for the loss of four horses and several cows and pigs, as well as his lameness and his suffering a “…great Number of Lice of extraordinary bigness.” Following their testimony, the wife of Amy Denny’s landlord, Ann Sandeswell, deposed that Denny complained that her chimney might collapse, which it did a short time later. Additional testimony by Ann concerning the loss of geese and fish ended the depositions.
After these witnesses spoke, Hale had the opportunity to verbally review the evidence for the jury, which he had done in past cases. He did not recapitulate in this case, “… least by so doing he should wrong the Evidence on the one side or on the other.” Instead, according to the writer of ‘A Tryal of Witches’, Hale instructed the jury: ……”That they had Two things to enquire after. First, Whether or no these Children were Bewitched? Secondly, Whether the Prisoners at the Bar were Guilty of it?” That there were such Creatures as Witches he made no doubt at all; for First the scriptures had affirmed so much. Secondly, the wisdom of all Nations had provided Laws against such Persons, which is an Argument of their confidence of such a Crime……For to condemn the innocent and to let the guilty go were both an abomination to the Lord.
The jury took half an hour to convict both women. The spectacle of a tormented eleven-year-old girl fiercely scratching a stereotypical witch, coupled with a great deal of circumstantial evidence, appears to have convinced the jury. The men of the jury, none of whose identity is known, condemned the women to their deaths. The following morning, the previously possessed children and their parents visited Hale. The children appeared cured, “And Mr. Pacy did Affirm, that within less than half an hour after the Witches were Convicted, they were all of them Restored, and slept well that Night, feeling no pain; only Susan Chandler felt a pain like pricking of Pins in her Stomach.” Denny and Cullender “were urged to confess, but would not.” The two hanged on March 17, 1662.
From the evidence of the trial it would seem as though Amy Denny and Rose Cullender were the victims of superstition and parochial vindictiveness. Much of the evidence brought against them was due to coincidence, for example, a farmer who hit a house with his cart seems likely to be an incompetent driver and it is not really surprising to hear that it turned over or get stuck in a gateway! Equally, one does not have a witch to say that a chimney in an obviously bad state of repair is likely to fall if left unattended. Much of the rest could be a fabrication. The accused did seem to have something of a bad reputation in Lowestoft, and Pacy’s attitude in not selling them fish was obviously unfriendly. This, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender died having committed no crime save that they were unpopular, at a time when a scolding tongue and witchcraft so often went hand in hand.
FOOTNOTE (1): What is particularly interesting and significant about the 1662 trial at Bury St. Edmunds is the supposed personal integrity, obvious intellectual acumen, and the clear professional achievements of some of the main participants running the show.
At the top was Sir Matthew Hale, (1 November 1609 – 25 December 1676), Chief Baron of the Exchequer who was an influential English barrister, judge and lawyer. He presided over the trial;. Then there was Dr. Thomas Browne, (19 October 1605 – 19 October 1682), knighted 1671, a celebrated author and physician, who testified at the trial. Both were known at the time for their incorruptibility and tolerance, qualities that undoubtedly helped them to not only survive, but also to prosper during those turbulent and uncertain times in English history.
At the time of the Lowestoft Witches Trial Browne was a resident of Norwich in Norfolk and at the height of his career. He was the author of a half dozen major works, his interests ranging from his candid personal views on religion as a physician (Religio Medici, 1643), to natural history (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646) to ancient funeral rites (Hydriotaphia, 1658). Quite a mixture! He was, at times, sceptical, anti-dogmatic, mystical, erudite, witty, moderate, and curious, but his works had many admirers. Though he dabbled with some scientific experimentation (both he and Hale wrote about magnetism, for instance), Browne, like Hale, also firmly believed in Satan and witchcraft which should not go unnoticed with respect to this trial. Brown, for instance, believed evil was a part of God’s universe, and to doubt the existence of witchcraft opened the door to atheism. Two decades before the trial, in probably his greatest work, Religio Medici (1643), Browne had written:
“It is a riddle to me, how this story of oracles hath not wormed out of the world that doubtful conceit of spirits and witches; how so many learned heads should so far forget their metaphysics, and destroy the ladder and scale of creatures, as to question the existence of spirits. For my part, I have ever believed, and do now know, that there are witches: they that doubt of these, do not only deny them, but spirits; and are obliquely, and upon consequence a sort not of infidels, but atheists.”
Dr. Thomas Browne of Norwich appears in only one paragraph of the ‘A Tryal of Witches’, pamphlet about the Witchs’ trial at the Bury St. Edmonds Assizes. Unfortunately, neither Browne nor Hale was alive at the time of the pamphlet’s publication to review and possibly refute its content. Also, since neither man mentioned the experience at Bury St. Edmunds in any of their subsequent works or personal correspondence, it is impossible to know what their views were towards that event.
Sir Matthew Hale, was four years Browne’s junior, but also wrote prodigiously. Unlike Browne though, Hale chiefly wrote for his own enjoyment and, presumably, to satisfy his desire to grow intellectually. Although he published only a few works, his posthumous ‘History of the Common Law of England (1713)’ and ‘Histroia placitorum coronae (1726)’ were highly regarded for centuries. Principally interested in religion and the law, Hale, like Browne, commented on natural history and the relationship between Christianity and reason. Both men seemed to be examples of the typical Oxford-educated, successful, well read, and well-respected Englishman at the top of his chosen profession.
Sir Matthew Hale and Sir Thomas Browne were clearly highly intelligent people, at the top of their respected professions, who sincerely believed in witchcraft. It is understood that Hale presided over at least one other witchcraft case – and that ended with an execution! In England, however, the era in which it was possible to prosecute and execute witches was coming to an end. Educated justices found executing poor, elderly, and “outcast” women based on the testimony of children problematical. As the belief in witches slowly died out, the ability to prosecute them died out even more quickly.
The real grievance against both Hale and Browne is that they were to be judged by later legal, medical, and scientific standards, not those of their own era. Edmund Gosse, a biographer of Browne, characterized his participation in the trial, “..…the most culpable and the most stupid action of this life..…Among the most appalling stories of witch-trials, none was more shocking, none more inexcusable than that which resulted in the hanging of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender.” Hale’s biographer, Edmund Heward, found the omitting the summary of evidence at the end of the trial a “sign of weakness” and alleged that Hale’s behaviour “……indicates the credulity and superstition which mingled with his religious beliefs.”
FOOTNOTE (2): Another consequence of the Lowestoft Witches Trial was its influence upon the events at Salem, Massachusetts, USA. Several features of the Lowestoft Witches Trial bear a remarkable resemblance to the Salem trials three decades later. The crisis originated with the afflictions of Deborah and Elizabeth Pacy, whose ages, nine and eleven, were identical to those of two girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, who played a key role in the Salem witchcraft trials. The symptoms of the girls and reports of witches’ spectres were similar in Bury St. Edmunds and Salem. In both cases, the afflictions spread to other girls, and adults contributed testimony about previous confrontations with the accused. Finally, the conclusion was the same- hangings.
In 1693, when Reverend Cotton Mather published his ‘Wonders of the Invisible World’, he enclosed a chapter entitled “A Modern Instance of Witches: Discovered and Condemned in a Trial Before That Celebrated Judge, Sir Mathew Hale.” Mather begins, “It may cast some Light upon the Dark things now in America, if we just give a glance upon the like things happening in Europe. We may see the Witchcrafts here most exactly resemble the Witchcrafts there.” After stating that the trial was “……much considered by the Judges of New England,” Mather summarized Lowestoft’s ‘A Tryal of Witches’ in the next nine pages of his book.
Cotton Mather, like Browne in his testimony at Bury St. Edmunds, believed that the Devil could “stir up and excite humours,” especially in children and females. Describing the afflictions of Mercy Short, whose possession occurred within a year after the Salem trials, Cotton Mather wrote ‘Another Brand Plucked Out of the Burning’. Emulating Browne’s testimony, Cotton Mather wrote:
“That the Evil Angels do often take Advantage from Natural Distempers in the Children of Men to annoy them with such further Mischiefs as we call preternatural. The Malignant Vapours and Humours of our Diseased Bodies may be used by Devils, there into insinuating as engine of the Execution of their Malice upon those Bodies; and perhaps for this reason one Sex may suffer more Troubles of the kinds from the Invisible World than the other, as well as for that reason for which the Old Serpent made where he did his first Address.”
Unfortunately, in terms of what soon would unfold at Salem, Hale’s judgment and Browne’s opinions continued to influence events even after their deaths. Though witchcraft beliefs were dying out, the impact of Bury St. Edmunds remained. As historian James Sharpe has written, “The Bury St Edmunds trial of 1664 demonstrated how, even in the face of a court willing to entertain the possibility of deception, and anxious to subject a witchcraft accusation to as many of the known tests and methods of proving witchcraft as possible, the accepted standards of proofs in witchcraft trials were still difficult to reject.”