The 16th century was a time of religious upheaval caused, in part, by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. As the aftershocks of religious division extended across Europe, fear spread that the Day of Judgment was nigh. Catholics viewed the rift as a sign that the antichrist was increasing his works in the world, while Protestants saw the corruption of the Catholic church as proof that the devil was near.
Fuelling concerns about the pernicious influence of magic and the devil was the revolution of print, which saw an influx of written texts from the continent, such as the Malleus Maleficarum (c1486), urging people to take decisive action in the battle with witches and magic. It was against this emotionally charged backdrop that Henry VIII introduced the first English statutes addressing witchcraft in 1542, followed by new, stricter, legislation by Elizabeth I in 1563 and James I in 1604. No one was safe from an accusation of witchcraft, even clergymen. However, marginalised women bore the brunt of the accusations – particularly elderly spinsters, widows, and those living alone. In fact, 80 per cent of those tried in Britain were women.
Begging, a standard method of survival, lay at the root of many witchcraft allegations, and beggars were often blamed for misfortunes that occurred after they were refused help. More often than not, accusations of witchcraft resulted from neighbourly disagreements, inextricably bound to a deep-rooted fear of malevolent magic and the devil.
As stories of continental trials spread and as the new witchcraft laws filtered down through society, some took it upon themselves to lead the witch hunts, gathering evidence before trial as self-proclaimed ‘witchfinder generals’. The most notorious of these in England was a Puritan called Matthew Hopkins who launched an unprecedented campaign of terror against suspected English witches during the 1640s. These led to some 300 trials and the deaths of around 100 people in eastern England. Hopkins was by no means the only witch detector, but his reputation spread far and wide and he had a profound impact on those around him. One source from the time commented: “It is strange to tell what superstitious opinions, affections, relations, are generally risen amongst us, since the Witchfinders came into the Countrey.”
Although the use of torture to extract a confession was illegal in England, less ‘formal’ types of torture were often used by men such as Hopkins at a local level, often presided over by a magistrate or local constable. One such method was sleep deprivation, whereby the accused would be forced to walk back and forth until exhausted and then denied rest. Another, more public and informal type of trial was ‘swimming’ the accused to prove their guilt. The victim’s right thumb would be tied to their left big toe and they would be thrown into a nearby pond or river. If they sank, they were innocent; if they floated, they had been rejected by the water as a servant of the devil, in a type of reverse baptism.
As a capital offence, witchcraft trials in England were held before a judge and a jury under the common law system, during which evidence against the accused was presented. Court records reveal extraordinary stories of witches flying out of windows on broomsticks or cavorting with satanic imps. There are many theories to explain why the accused related such fantastical stories to open-mouthed juries – some historians cite mental health disorders; others attribute it to attention-seeking.
Contrary to popular belief, witch trials were not a foregone conclusion for only 25 per cent of those tried across the period were found guilty and executed. It has been said that the total number of people tried for witchcraft in England throughout the period was no more than 2,000.
By the late 17th century – thanks to a combination of judicial scepticism, low prosecution rates and the costs of pursuing a case through the courts – the number of accusations of witchcraft had plummeted. Many people turned instead to ‘cunning folk’ (‘wise’ men and women who practiced ‘good’ witchcraft) and healers to combat the malevolent forces they believed to be at large. Witchcraft was finally decriminalised in Britain in 1736 – though people were still being accused of it as late as the 19th century.
Three East Anglian Places Where History Happened:
1) Brandeston village, Suffolk
As the witch hunting momentum grew, self-appointed ‘witchfinder generals’ sprung up around Britain, devoted to extracting confessions of guilt. Matthew Hopkins, the most notorious of these, was responsible for one fifth of the total number of executions in England over the period. One of his targets, John Lowes, was the elderly vicar of Brandeston who was accused of witchcraft in 1642.
After being ‘swum’ in the moat at Framlingham Castle, and proclaimed guilty after floating to the surface, Hopkins “kept [Lowes] awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. Ultimately, Lowes ‘confessed’ to sending imps to sink a ship near Harwich and allegedly proclaimed that he “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1645.
All Saints Church has a plaque dedicated to Lowes and an image of his hanging is depicted on the village sign.
2) Sible Hedingham, Essex
Right through to the 19th century, magic and witchcraft were still very much a part of everyday life, and although trials by swimming were frowned upon in the eyes of the law, they continued to be used by the population at large long after the repeal of the witchcraft statutes in 1736.
The last recorded case of swimming in England occurred in the village of Sible Hedingham in 1863 when an elderly man by the name of Dummy was dragged from the taproom in The Swan public house to a nearby brook. The man, who was deaf and dumb, gained a living by telling fortunes and was a figure of curiosity in the village. He was accused of bewitching the wife of the beerhouse owner, Emma Smith, who complained that she had been ill for some ten months.
After Dummy refused to ‘remove the curse’, Smith struck him “several times” with a stick and pushed him into the brook, encouraged by other villagers, in particular master carpenter Samuel Stammers. Dummy died a few days later from shock and pneumonia caused by the constant immersion and ill treatment, and both Smith and Stammers were sentenced to six months’ hard labour.
Although no longer a working pub, The Swan Inn still stands, and the stream in which Dummy was swum flows nearby.
3) Tring Hertfordshire
Long after the Witchcraft Act of 1736, people continued to administer their own justice on those they suspected of being witches.
Sometime in 1745, a Ruth Osborne went to a farmer by the name of Butterfield, who kept a dairy at Gubblecut, near Tring, in Hertfordshire, and begged for some buttermilk. Butterfield, with his brutal refusal, angered the old woman, who went away muttering that the Pretender would pay him out. In the course of the next year or so a number of the farmer’s calves became distempered, and he himself contracted epileptic fits. In the meantime he gave up dairy-farming and took a public-house.
The wiseacres who he met there attributed his misfortunes to witchcraft, and advised Butterfield to apply to a cunning woman or white witch for a cure. An old woman was fetched from Northampton and confirmed the suspicion already entertained against Ruth Osborne and her husband John.
Notice was given by the crier at the adjoining towns of Winslow, Hemel Hempstead, and Leighton Buzzard, that witches were to be tried by ducking at Longmarstone on 22 April 1751.
A large and determined mob mustered at Tring on the day specified, and forced the parish overseer and master of the workhouse by threats to reveal the hiding-place of the unfortunate couple in the vestry of the church, where those officers had placed them for better security.
The Osbornes were then stripped, and, with their hands tied to their toes, were thrown into Longmarstone pool. After much ducking and ill-usage the old woman was thrown upon the bank, quite naked and almost choked with mud, and she expired in the course of a few minutes. Her dead body was tied to her husband, who was alleged to have died shortly afterwards from the cruel treatment he received, but who ultimately recovered, though he was unable to give evidence at the trial.
The authorities determined to overawe local sympathy with the rioters, and to make a salutary example. At the coroner’s inquest the jury brought in a verdict of wilful murder against one Thomas Colley, a chimney sweep, and against twenty-one other known and unknown persons. Colley had taken a leading part in the outrage, and had collected money from the rabble for ‘the sport he had shown them in ducking the old witch.’ He was tried at Hertford assizes on 30 July 1751, before Sir Thomas Lee, and his plea that he went into the pond as a friend to try and save Mrs. Osborne being unsupported by evidence, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
“Good People I beseech you all to take Warning, by an Unhappy Man’s Suffering, that you be not deluded into so absurd & wicked a Conceit, as to believe that there are any such Beings upon Earth as Witches.
It was that Foolish and vain Imagination, heightened and inflamed by the strength of Liquor, which prompted me to be instrumental (with others as mad-brained as myself) in the horrid & barbarous Murther of Ruth Osborn, the supposed Witch; for which I am now so deservedly to suffer Death.
I am fully convinced of my former Error and with the sincerity of a dying Man declare that I do not believe there is such a Thing in Being as a Witch: and I pray God that none of you thro’ a contrary Persuasion, may hereafter be induced to think that you have a Right in any shape to persecute, much less endanger the Life of a Fellow-Creature.
I beg of you all to pray to God to forgive me & to wash clean my polluted Soul in the Blood of Jesus Christ my Saviour & Redeemer.
So Exhorteth you all the Dying
Signed at Hertford Augst the 23rd 1751”
He was escorted from Hertford gaol to St. Albans and the next morning, 24 Aug., was executed at Gubblecut Cross in Tring, and afterwards hanged in chains on the same gallows.
“The infatuation of the greatest part of the country people was so great that they would not be spectators of his death; yet many thousands stood at a distance to see him go, grumbling and muttering that it was a hard case to hang a man for destroying an old wicked woman that had done so much harm by her witchcraft”.
The inquest into Ruth’s death was held at the Half Moon pub in the village of Wilstone, The pub still stands, as does the church of St Peter and St Paul at Tring.