A Brief Ghostly Tale: Erpingham Gate.

The best ghost stories are often discovered by chance. So it was with a certain anonymous Catholic priest in Yorkshire who, in early 2014, happened to come across an old journal. In that journal was a reprint of a story, dated 1736 and titled ‘A Strange Occurrence’. That story, later retold in the book ‘Recollections of Norwich 50 Years Ago’, was written by a Frederick Higbane who, in 1736, had visited Norwich from London and had encountered a ‘ghost’ of a martyred priest at Norwich Cathedral’s mighty Erpingham Gate. It is indeed a curious tale and begins:

Thos. Tunstall (Erpingham Gate)2
The Erpingham Gate, immediately in front of Norwich Cathedral, where Thomas Tunstall was executed on the 12th July 1616.

“Business chanced to take me many years ago to the ancient city of Norwich where I stayed at a very old Inn, situated in a street called, if my memory serves me right, Maudlin (Magdalen) Street. The room I occupied was a very old-fashioned one. Over the fireplace was a portrait, painted on the wall itself, of a very pale man with black hair, dressed in some sort of ecclesiastical garb and bearing the look of a Jesuit or Romish priest……There was something about this picture that affected me very strongly……Next morning I asked the landlord whose portrait it might be, and he could not enlighten me…..” In the evening the author, Frederick Higbane, then took a walk around Norwich Cathedral:

Thos. Tunstall (Portrait)
Was this the portrait of Thomas Tunstall displayed in Frederick Higbane’s room at the Maid’s Head Inn.

“I was walking near one of the great gates, which led to the Cathedral, when I suddenly observed a man clothed like a clergyman standing in the angle of a wall directly in front of me. Owing to the dusk I could not see him well until I was close up against him. Then I saw him perfectly clearly, and to my horror his face was terribly swelled, and a rope was drawn tight around his neck. Protruding from his breast was a knife, such as formerly used by executioners for dismembering the bodies of criminals. I could not think why his facial appearance seemed so familiar to me, and then there suddenly flashed across my mind – yes, the portrait in my bedchamber at the inn. For some moments I gazed with the utmost horror, not unmixed with fear, at this awful sight. For a while the figure spoke no words, then I heard a mournful sigh – or was it a groan? Then, as I withdrew, the figure vanished”.

Thos. Tunstall (Maid's Head)2
The Maid’s Head in Norwich, Norfolk where Frederick Higbane stayed in 1736 and saw the portrait which he believed was that of Thomas Tunstall the Martyr.

Returning to the inn, believed to be The Maid’s Head which is very close to the Cathedral and Erpingham Gate, Frederick Higbane took another look at the portrait to reassure himself that the vision he had seen was the same man. Then, taking the evidence of the portrait, Higbane further enquired of the landlord if there was a Catholic priest in Norwich and he was directed to a priest in the city.

“To him, therefore I went…….. telling him my strange adventure, he took me into his house and showed me a portrait of the same man. On my inquiring who it might be, he replied “It is the Rev. Thomas Tunstall, a priest, who was executed for the Catholic Faith in 1616 at the gates of the very street in which your inn is situated.” “Why I should have apparently seen his apparition, neither he nor I could form any idea.”

 

Thomas Tunstall took the College oath at Douay on 24 May 1607 and received minor orders at Arras on 13 June 1609, and the subdiaconate at Douay on 24 June following. His subsequent ordination is not recorded but he left college as a priest on 17 August 1610. What ever he got up to from that date and when he moved to England is something of a mystery, but whatever it was came to the notice of the authorities and he was almost immediately arrested after landing on grounds of his faith. He spent four or five years in various prisons until he succeeded in escaping from Wisbech Castle by rope. However, he sustained injuries to his hands in the process and sought medical help from Lady Alice L’Estrange in Kings Lynn, Norfolk. Unfortunately, her husband, Sir Hamon, reported him to the authorities and he was recaptured and committed to Norwich Gaol.

At the next assizes in July 1616, he was tried and condemned on the 12th of that month. The following day, Thomas Tunstall was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his body displayed at various points in the city before being taken down by Catholics and later placed in an altar at Bath. A contemporary report recounts:

Thos. Tunstall (Benedicts Gate)1

“The on lookers, who were very numerous, and amongst them many persons of note, were all sensibly affected with the sight of his death; many shed tears, all spoke kindly and compassionately of him, and appeared edified with his saint-like behaviour. His head was placed on St Benedict’s gate, in Norwich, according to his request; his quarters on the walls of the city. The judge who condemned him died before he had finished his circuit, and most of the jury came to untimely ends, or great misfortunes.”

Thos. Tunstall (Stonyhurst)
Stonyhurst College. Lancashire.

 

Thos. Tunstall (Portrait)
Fr. Thomas Tunstall

Now, there is a contemporary portrait of Fr Thomas Tunstall, the martyr, at Stonyhurst in Lancashire. It is not known if this painting is the same one as that which hung in Frederick Higbane’s room in the inn on Maudlin (Magdalene) Street, Norwich in 1736, but, as far as it is known, there are no other images of this martyr. Stonyhurst acquired the portrait in 1828. It is small; approximately 5 inches by 4 inches and is enclosed by a wooden frame. The image shows him as a man still young with abundant black hair and dark moustache. However, it is unlike most paintings of English martyrs which usually show them robed. This portrait presents Tunstall in just his shirt. All these facets do, indeed, indicate a contemporary, if not eye-witness representation of the Martyr – as he may have been at the execution?

Thomas Tunstall was martyred just outside the Erpingham Gate in 1616 and was beatified by Puis XI in 1929.

THE END

Source:

http://friendswithchrist.blogspot.com/2014/11/a-curious-norwich-story.html
http://www.eveningnews24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-ghost-haunting-norwich-cathedral-1-5595059
Photos: Google Images.

Norwich ‘Whifflers’ & ‘Snap’!

Whifflers and Snap Dragons are still about – but not in the rolls that they once had! Nowadays, the ‘whiffler’ name is confined to one public house on the Norwich Ring Road at Hellesdon, to a road opposite the pub and to an open air theatre in the shadows of Norwich Castle. This is not to overlook its use with the present-day enthusiasts who keep the character alive in the public’s consciousness by appearing in public processions and local events from time to time.

‘Whifflers’ went out of use in much of England long ago, but survived in East Anglia, thriving particularly in Norwich. It was the Whifflers, supported by Snap, who played such a major role in past Norwich Civic Ceremonies.

The origin of the word ‘Whiffler’ is 16th century and comes from the word ‘wifle’ for battle-axe and came from the Old English ‘wifel’ of Germanic origin: it was applied to attendants at processions who carried weapons to clear the way through crowds. It was a word which was once in general use and appeared in Shakespeare’s play Henry V;

The deep-mouth’d Sea, / Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King, / Seems to prepare his way”.

The Norwich Dragon, known affectionately as ‘Snap’, is preserved in a remarkable present-day collection at Norwich Castle Museum. This collection totals three old snapdragons which are more or less complete; one is the last of the Civic Snaps with the other two being later copies.

Snap was designed and constructed to be carried by one man, using straps over his shoulders. The form of the body is barrel-shaped, formed around a horizontal pole (head at one end, tail at the other) and two small wings concealing the man’s face. His hands are left free to operate the head and hinged lower jaw (this makes a loud click when it shuts, hence ‘Snap’.


In an old and long established Civic ceremonial, which persisted until the mid 19th century, included Snap who acted as the herald for the grand annual Guild Day procession which was held at the inauguration of a new Mayor. This cavorting dragon was a source of amusement and entertainment for the crowds who watched these processions. However, in earlier times, Snap took on a more religious significance as part of a pageant performed by the Guild of St. George in Norwich.

St. George riding on horse-back and fighting the dragon was the centre-piece of these Processions, with a third figure representing the maiden who was, supposingly, rescued by St. George. She was recorded as ‘The Lady’, ‘The Maid’ or ‘The Margaret’ – “the lady of the Gild“ and believed to be based on Saint Margaret of Antioch. A Sword bearer, carrying the Guild sword led the procession with priests, the City Waits, Cantors from the Cathedral and the City and Guild officials following.

In Norwich’s Great Hospital, St Helen’s Church, has a fine example of the devil depicted as a dragon. It is said the a dragon swallowed St Margaret of Antioch but her cross irritated the dragon, allowing her to break free.

Norwich (Pew)
Here she is shown on a medieval pew end emerging from the dragon’s belly, illustrating her role as the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth.

The Guild of St. George 1385-1731

The history of the Snap was inextricably linked to that of The Guild of St George, founded in 1385; its aims were religious, charitable and social: to honour St. George, to keep his feast day, to pray for its members past and present and to offer alms to the poor and needy within the Guild. The principal event for the Guild was the feast day ceremony held annually on 23 April which began as a simple religious celebration of the feast day of St. George. The event grew steadily in size and importance as the Guild’s relationship with the City Corporation deepened. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the event was no longer a civic religious ceremony but a civic secular ceremony which celebrated the coming to office of the new Mayor. For this no expense was spared.

Although the form of the procession changed over the centuries, Snap the dragon remained as part of the pageantry for over 400 years. The earliest reference to him comes from the minutes of the Guild Assembly of 1408 at which it was agreed:

‘to furnish priests with copes, and the George shall go in procession and make a conflict with the Dragon, and keep his estate both days’.

In 1585 the two separate celebrations, that of Guild Day in April and that of the swearing in of the new Mayor of Norwich in June, were combined to create one grand event on the Tuesday before Midsummer’s Eve. Over the next 150 years the pattern of the Guild Day celebrations remained the same but the scale and splendour of the occasion increased, gradually reaching its height at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

 

The three pictures above are copies of postcards published by the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage trust which are taken from glass roundels in the Dragon Hall, Norwich – http://www.dragonhall.org/

Then came 1645 and a setback which interrupted Snap Dragon’s progress: the Puritan government ordered that at the next procession there must be ‘no beating of drums or sounds of trumpets, no Snap-Dragon or fellows dressed up in Fools Coats and Caps; no standard with the George thereon, nor no hanging of Tapestry Cloth and Pictures in any of the streets’. However, in 1660, the monarchy was restored and all the old ways returned – including Snap and Whifflers. Their appearances continued and, in time, Norwich became quite famous for the scale and spectacle of its processions. However, the Guild found it expedient to make certain modifications to the form of the ceremony. They agreed that on the following feast day ‘. . .

“there shall be neither George nor Margaret; but for pastime, the Dragon to come and shew himself as in other years”.

A local historian, Benjamin Mackerell, has left us a description of the Guild Day festivities in the early years of the 18th century,

“On Guild Day the old Mayor, Sheriffs, Aldermen, the St George’s Company and Common Councillors met at eight o’clock in the morning at the house of the newly elected Mayor where they enjoyed sugar rolls and wine. The whole street (formerly the whole parish) where the new Mayor lived was decorated. The street was strewn with green sashes and planted with trees. The outsides of the houses were hung with tapestries and pictures, particularly the new Mayor’s house. From here the dignitaries then paraded on horseback to the house of the retiring Mayor where a substantial breakfast of pasties, roast beef, boiled legs of mutton and wine were provided. The procession then set out for the cathedral. The way was cleared by six Whifflers and two Dick Fools accompanied by the Dragon. The Dragon, carried by a Man in the body of it, gave great diversion to the common People: they always seemed very much to fear it when it was near them, but always looked upon it with pleasure when it was a little distance from them’.

As for the Whifflers, they were dressed in a distinctive costume of scarlet satin breeches, white satin jerkin and a hat decorated with a cockade of feathers and ribbons. They carried swords which they brandished and tossed in the air. Helping them were the Dick Fools, who wore painted canvas coats with red and yellow cloth caps adorned with fox or cats’ tails and small bells”.

With the demise of the St. George’s Company (formerly the Guild) in 1731, Guild Day continued, but on a much more modest scale. Although the Company was disbanded Snap the dragon, Dick Fools and Whifflers were kept on and their wages paid by the Corporation. Pagan Snap became Civic Snap, the property of the local authority and appeared on Guild Day when the Lord Mayor was inaugurated. Then, with the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835 much pageantry of corporate boroughs disappeared and that year saw the last Guild Day Ceremony.

Norwich (Market Sketch)
By Norwich Market and outside the extant Sir Garnet Wolseley Pulic House (copyright Norfolk County Council).

It was George Borrow, writing in 1857 in his book ‘The Romany Rye’ who lamented their passing in these words:

“The last of the whifflers hanged himself about a fortnight ago ….. from pure grief that there was no further demand for the exhibition of his art…….since the discontinuance of Guildhall banquets”.

There was, however, one final outing of the Whifflers and Snap in 1846. It was during the ‘crowning’ of Jeremiah Colman, the mustard manufacturer, when two Whifflers met a royal Duke off the train at Trowse Station and led him and the procession up Bracondale Hill into the city. The two of them taking it in turns to run ahead, leaping and twirling their two handed swords.

It was fortuitous that the Whifflers lasted into the age of photography so it is still possible to see the costume that they wore with breeches and white socks tied with fancy garters, a bowler styled hat with a cockade to the left hand. The whole uniform was completed by a white jacket. Maybe it was on the 1846 occasion that the following Whiffler photograph was taken?

Whiffler 1
A 1846 Whiffler – as supplied by an anonymous ancestor. Further examples at flickr.com/photos

As for Snap, he continued to appear occasionally up to around 1850 after which he was adopted by the Pockthorpe Guild, more as a publicity gimmick than anything else. By the 1880’s much of the mock pomp of the past had gone and the appearance of the Snap had degenerated into just a boisterous money-raising stunt for the Guild which used it alongside members carrying collection boxes. Even so, Snap continued to cause much hilarity when used to chase people with the intention of grabbing their hats or caps between its jaws and returning them only after a penny ransom had been paid. Young boys would taunt the Snap by running close by and chanting

‘Snap, Snap, steal a boy’s cap, give him a penny and he’ll give it back’.

Although much of the pageantry disappeared after the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835, a defiant tradition emerged: the people of Pockthorpe, a part of Norwich outside its walls and over the water, created their own dragon and their own mocking, subversive imitation of the Lord Mayor’s street procession. So the tradition of faux Snap terrorizing the people of Norwich continued in the district of Pockthorpe and in the nearby village of Costessey. This 1887 photograph of the Costessey Guild Day suggests the fun that accompanied the election of the ‘mayor’.

Norwich (Costessey Guild)
Snap in this picture is still in the care of the Norwich Museums Service (in store at Gressenhall since 2000), along with the head of the Costessey Dragon and another Snap Dragon.(c) Picture Norfolk at Norwich County Council

These annual revelries continued until early in the twentieth century, according to oral history, up to the First World War, but Snap lived on. In the 1930s, ‘Snapdragon’, was a magazine aimed at raising money in aid of hospitals. Then, the Festival of Britain in 1951 saw the Pockthorpe dragon come to life again for a procession of ‘Norwich Through the Ages’. Co-incidently, it was around this time that another very dilapidated dragon was found, this time in the Backs Bar in Norwich.

Norwich (Back's Dragon)
(Copyright: David Kingsley)

Norwich (Snapdragon and Whiffler 1951)2

Norwich (Snapdragon and Whiffler 1951)
The two photos above were taken around 1951. It has been said that one of the two Whifflers shown is the famous local naturalist Ted Ellis.

These Snap Dragons are the remnants of a medieval pageant play banned at the reformation (saints being denigrated as icons of papism). Snap meant something, for though its official role ceased in 1835 it persisted in a community based in both city and outskirts. Since the mid 1980s Snap occasionally accompanies the Lord Mayor, and at least three have materialised from the community, so the dragons clearly do still have significance for Norwich.

Norwich (Snapdragon and Whiffler 2017)
2017: Snap and the Whifflers escorting the Lord Mayor and Sheriff from The Guildhall to the Cathedral for the Annual City Service.

It was publicity that led to curiosity and from that the dragons found themselves conserved and are now on proud display in Norwich Castle. The publication of an important book about ‘Snap The Norwich Dragon’ by Richard Lane in 1976 led to Snap’s reappearance in the Lord Mayor’s Procession in the early 1980s and since that time the dragon has become well loved again, very visible in the culture of the city – and joined by newcomers.

THE END

Sources:

For those who want to know more: Click on the following links:

http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/politics/snap-heads-up-colourful-procession-as-norwich-marks-start-of-its-civic-year-1-5555325

https://www.facebook.com/NorwichWhifflers/#

http://www.dragonglow.co.uk/snap.htm

http://www.nor-folk.co.uk/Norwich%20Dragon/aliens.html

 

 

 

The Rabbit in East Anglia – Revisited.

Introduction:

Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.

Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.

The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:

 ‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.

The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.

Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop.  In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.

I

Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.

Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.

rabbit warreners
Rabbit Warreners

Most warrens in  East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.

Medieval Rabbit Warren1
Medieval Rabbit Warren

The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.

The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.

The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!

Rabbit Pillow Mound Diagram
Rabbit Pillow Mound

Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.

Warren Lodges:

The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.

mildenhall_warren_lodge
Mildenhall Warren Lodge

II

Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.

Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.

Thetford Warren Old Map
Old Map of Thetford Rabbit Warren Area

Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.

The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.

III

The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.

The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.

Poaching:

The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals  with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.

poacher1
Poacher

Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’.

poacher3

Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie.  Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’.  Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing  his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.

By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets.  A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.

Poacher2

Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.

It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.

The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.

THE END

Sources:

 

Doughty’s Hospital – Its Beginnings

On 25 March 1677, the Norwich Court of Mayoralty received a letter from William Doughty of Dereham, Gentleman. In this letter he declared his intention to come and live in Norwich and asked that he “be freed from rates and other charges while living in the City”. The Court agreed to free him from such ‘liabilities’ on the presumption that a ‘quid pro quo’ existed whereby Doughty would honour his declared intention to endow an Almshouse on the City. Ten years later, William Doughty made his Will, a formidable document of some 19 folios in which he bequeathed £6000 to his Trustees – his kinsman Robert Doughty of Hanworth, plus four Aldermen, namely, William Barnham, Michael Beverley, Augustine Briggs and Mr Willis junior, – “my very good friends”. These gentlemen were instructed to:

“purchase a piece of ground in Norwich which had never belonged to the Church and to build on it a substantial foursquare house of well-burnt brick on a stone foundation without any chambers above to be used as a hospital or almshouse for the habitation of poor old men and women”.

Doughtys (Up To Date)
Yes, William Doughty’s almshouse was originally called ‘Doughty’s Hospital’ but today the word ‘Hospital’ has been dropped as many people find it confusing. Doughty’s is not a hospital in the modern sense of the word – it has no nursing or medical services. The origin of the word ‘hospital’ is the Latin word ‘hospes’ meaning a guest, as in the use ‘hospitality’. This was relevant in former times because ‘hospitals’ or almshouses used to provide ‘alms’ for destitute people, giving them shelter, food and water.

 

**********

Little is known of William Doughty’s background, although the Will of his father, also named William Doughty, Gentleman of East Dereham in Norfolk, survives and reveals some clues. Comparison of this Will, dated 1650, with that of William Doughty (junior), indicates that both father and son had much in common. They both displayed ‘understated religious preamble’ in their respective Wills and a puritanical insistence on mourning attire which should not display  “vanity or vain expense”. However, the son’s bequests were less modest than those of his father’s.

William Doughty (senior) had clearly been a wealthy man; he was a member of the landed gentry of Norfolk, who made sure that all of his children, both male and female, were adequately looked after when he died. He also had a very clear idea about the relative merits of his offspring and appears to have been well aware of the potential ‘less than honest’ dealings amongst them. William Doughty (junior) on the other hand, showed himself as more of a ‘Puritan’ through his substantial charitable bequests and his attitude towards hard work. However, unlike many founders of almshouses, he was not to impose any religious restrictions or requirements on the inmates of what would become Doughty’s Hospital after his death. There is no mention of any wife or children in his Will and the fact that he bequeathed large charitable gifts suggests that he was either a bachelor or childless widower. However, he did have kin to whom he was to bequeath both money and land, but in some instances this came with conditions which tied the hands of the recipients in law –

“I have good reason and just cause to bind all and every of them by law…..as fully and firmly as the law can……for if I had not trusted to their fair words they had not deceived me”.

It seems therefore that William was not blessed with the most reliable or trustworthy of relatives. Maybe, the problems that ensued within and between the broader family ultimately persuaded him to give so much of his estate to charity?

William Doughty was reputed to have been from a non-conformist background and his Will had specified that his almshouse must be built on land that had “never been occupied by the Church”. A reflection maybe that, despite the power of the “Established Church” and the existence of such an extensive diocese centred on Norwich Cathedral itself, the City was a hub of non-conformist beliefs and activity. With this in mind, the details of his Will relating to the proposed Almshouse or Hospital – these two names are interchangeable in his Will – were specific. He stated that the ‘foursquare’ house was to be built around a quadrangle, or centre court, a well and pump provided and a “house of office” to be placed in a convenient place for the use of the ‘inmates’. Also, the front of what would be the Almshouse was to be built of freestone with a gate “so narrow that a cart should not be able to come into the courtyard”. At the entrance was to be placed a convenient dwelling for the ‘.Master of the Hospital’. The buildings were to include a large cellar for “laying in of coales” for the use of the poor people and the ground was to be large enough to make a convenient walled garden for their use. The cost of both the land and buildings together was not to exceed £600. With the balance of Doughty’s bequest, the Trustees were to buy lands and renements in Norfolk which must not be “subject to be overflowne with the sea” and to produce an annual income to the Trust of at least £250. This money was to provide pensions for the old people, cover repairs to the Almshouse whenever required, plus any other necessary costs.

Doughty (Will p1)
The first page of William Doughty’s Will which ran to 16 folios (Norfolk Record Office)

Instructions covering those who would live in the Almshouse were, simiarly, not overlooked. The Almshouse was to to be large enough to accommodate a total of 24 poor aged men and 8 poor aged women, each of whom was to be given an allowance of 2 shillings every Saturday morning to buy food. In addition to this measure of payment,  each resident would be provided with coal and “a coat or gown of purple cloth which was to be renewed every two years”. If anyone moved out of the almshouse, he was to leave his coat and she her gown behind. The Trustees were to appoint “a sober and discreet single man” to be Master. He was to live in the Hospital and to govern its running and well being, reporting all “disorders and misdemeanours” by the residents. The Master was to receive 4 shillings a week “for his pains” but if the Trustees found him remiss or negligent in the performance of his duties they were to displace him.

The final condition stipulated in William Doughty’s Will was that six years from his death – or earlier if they are ready – the Trustees were to transfer the Almhouses, Lands and Properties to the Mayor, Sheriffs and Citizens of Norwich.

Besides leaving money to finance the building and running of an almshouse in Norwich, William Doughty also left sums to the City’s Mayor, Sheriffs and Citizens from which interest free loan would be made available to poor weavers, shopkeepers and lightermen or keelmen engaged in transporting goods between Norwich and Yarmouth. He bequeathed £5 to each of his servants and 10 shillings to each of the twelve poorest families living nearest to his house, with further legacies to his nephews and other kinsmen – including an annuity of £10 to his kinsman and namesake William Doughty, a probable nephew, who had been “laid in London’s Wood Street Counter and the Kings Bench for debt from 1682 to 1683”. Then, around August 1684 he was put into Norwich Prison, again for debt and was not released until 1687.

Doughty (Wood_Street_Compter,_1793)

This nephew William was allowed just £10 per annum, to be paid to him quarterly for his maintenance and the Executors had to demand a receipt before three credible witnesses. Of equal importance was that no part of our William’s legacy was to be paid over to the nephew’s creditors. A second reference to William’s impecunious namesake was that the Executors were to pay no money to his cousin [nephew] William nor to his creditors except by a decree in Chancery and by a Statute of Bankruptcy taken out against him because his Executors:

“can never know all Mr Doughty’s creditors. Some are broke, some are dead, some gone beyond the sea, some abscond themselves and some conceal themselves and [their] debts”.

It seems that no one but our William Doughty knew his kinsmen better than he and, for reasons best known to himself, he put on record for every family member to digest that his wealth had been obtained and increased “by God’s blessing, his own industry and his voyages into Spain, Italy, France, Holland and elsewhere”.

History shows that our William Doughty had been the main beneficiary from a wealthy member of Norfolk’s landed gentry – his father. The fact that the son increased his own wealth largely on the back of overseas trade sheds an interesting light upon the close relationship that must have existed between the landed and mercantile classes in late 17th century Norfolk. Whilst William’s Will shows his privileged start in life it also highlights the contrasting fate of his namesake and was clearly thankful that he had invested his talents so wisely and that the fruits of his labour and investments were to be passed on for the benefit of Norwich’s poor.

Doughty (Portrait)001
Portrait of an older William Doughty

William Doughty died on 29 March 1688 and his body was buried in St Andrews Church without any pomp, sermon or mourning, for he stipulated that his executors were not to spend more than £40 on his funeral. Almost three months later on the 23 June Alderman Barnham, one of the Trustees, delivered a copy of Doughty’s Will to the Court of the Mayoralty who instructed the Town Clerk to record all the relevant details. The Trustees then purchased an orchard in the St Saviours parish as the site for the new Hospital, and also lands in a dozen or so separate Norfolk parishes by way of endowment. Once these purchases had been completed, they set about building the St Saviours Hospital, exactly as stipulated in Doughty’s Will – 32 almshouses on four sides of a square of approximately 30 yards interior measure – 8 houses on each side. On completion, the Trustees then had the particulars of the Founder’s Will and intentions engraved on two stone tablets which were probably set on either side of the entrance to the Hospital. These tablets were to be preserved when the Hospital was renovated in the 19th Century when a second floor was added, thus doubling the number of ‘chambers’. The tablets can now be seen in the stairwell of the North-West corner of the square. One tablet gives the particulars of William Doughty’s Will, the other:

“The Orders of This Place”

The Master of this Place is every Saturday Morning to pay to each poor Person two Shillings, & daily and equally to deliver the Coales to them, & to see good Orders kept, & when any Dye to Acquaint the Court therewith immediately, and to do the same if any disorderly; for the due Performance whereof, the said Master shall retain Weekly for his Paines, 4s, besides his dwelling (in which he must constantly inhabit) and the said Poor People must constantly dwell in this Place, and so wear their Coates or Gowns, and live peacably with the Master, and with one another, as becomes Christians, neither Cursing, Swearing, keeping bad Hours, nor being Drunk.

On 6 June 1694, six years after William Doughty’s death, the Court approached the Trustees regarding their duty to hand control of the Hospital over to the City of Norwich, as stipulated in the Founder’s Will. The Trustees response was to say that they were not in a position to comply since they had yet to fulfil their responsibilities to allocate all the chambers (houses) to suitable almspersons. They had indeed appointed a number of these but more work was needed; nevertheless, they had been fortunate to install one William Sydner as Master of the Hospital. Not completely satisfied with this response, the Court left the matter until December of the same year when it consulted its law officers, the City Recorder and Steward as to whether the City then had the right of “putting in the Poor” itself. Whatever the legal advice the Court received, it took just over four years for the Trustees of the Hospital to declare themselves ready to hand over the controls. By the same time, 10 April 1698, the Mayor, Sheriffs and Community had by then obtained a Royal Licence from King William III which granted them the right to purchase lands and tenements, not exceeding a yearly value of £1,000 to support the Hospital. The licence, granted on 21 February 1698, allowed the Corporation to obtain lands at Wolterton, Erpingham, Colby, Wickmer, ingworth and Blickling, plus two Manors at Hellington and Calthorpe and a messuage in Burston.

But, the question of who was responsible for allocating almspersons remained in dispute, and remained so until the following October when the Court theatened legal action if the Trustees “put in” any more almspersons without the City’s consent. That move by the Court appeared to work because in the December the Master, for the first time, reported direct to the Court the death of a resident and the Court appointed the replacement. From that moment, all deaths and replacements were regularly recorded in the Court’s books. The Court also handled matters of discipline; as when in April 1700 the Master, William Sydner and the officers of St Saviours parish lodged a complaint against seven of the almspersons for “miscarriages and misbehaviour”. When the accused were brought before the Court one of them, a Thomas Thurlow, compounded his offence by using ‘opprobrious’ (scornful) words to the Mayor. Thurlow was discharged from the Hospital, along with two others; afterwards, one named Daniel Wright apologised and was re-admitted on a promise that he would be on his best behaviour.

The first Master of the Hospital, William Sydner, died in the spring of 1701 and was replaced by the 60 year old William Doughty, unanimously elected by the Court! Surely, this was the ‘impecunious’ cousin/nephew of the Founder who had been in prison for debt. In its defence, the Court may have felt that it was discharging a debt of gratitude to the Doughty family in appointing him. However, it might well be that cousin Doughty’s dilatory habits contributed to the Hospital’s financial difficulties which were soon to arise. Certainly by the October of 1702, money was needed to buy clothes for the poor; in order to cover this expense the Court decided to sell timber from the Calthorpe Estate, near Aylsham, which was one of the Hospital’s endowments. Other actions taken by the Court were to stop admissions until further notice and to appoint a future Mayor, Robert Bene, to be the Hospital’s Treasurer, on the understanding that he would continue to advance any money required but would be payed interest when advances exceeded £100. It would seem that at this point, William Doughty gave up his responsibilities and avoided any possible disciplinary by allegedly dying. Certainly by the September of 1704, a Robert Bendish was appointed Master in his place. This went some way towards rectifying the situation, but the financial problems continued and were not helped by some dubious dealings. In 1707 it emerged that one of the original Executors of William’s Estate , Robert Doughty – a kinsman, had used his position to admit his son, and on his son’s death his daughter, to copyhold lands at Calthorpe without paying the requisite fines to the Hospital. In January 1707, the Mayoral Court ordered that, in consequence, Robert Doughty should pay a fine of £10 to the Corporation, but by the December of the same year the matter was still not resolved.

TO BE RESUMED

Sources:

 

 

Witchcraft in 17th century Norfolk

By Keith Parry

The crime that has attracted the attention of historians more than any other in early modern England is witchcraft. It is a complex subject, not least because early modern beliefs regarding witchcraft and magic were obviously very different from those of today. However, it is not my intention to carry out an extensive investigation into early modern witchcraft beliefs here; that area has already received much coverage elsewhere.[1] My interest here is to look at what the records reveal about those charged with witchcraft in the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts and how these findings compare with current theories. In particular, I look at how complaints arose and developed, and the involvement of the neighbours of the accused in that process.

Woodcut Of A English Witch Hanging
(Original Caption) Picture shows a witch hanging in England in the 17th Century. Undated woodcut.

Prior to the mid-sixteenth century witchcraft cases were normally tried in ecclesiastical courts. Punishments were rarely severe and some form of public penance was the most likely sentence. Witchcraft became a secular crime in England for the first time with the passing of a short-lived act of 1542. Elizabethan legislation in 1563 resurrected the crime and provided for the death penalty when “any p[er]son shall happen to be killed or destroyed”. However, this was repealed in 1604 and replaced by “An Acte against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealinge with evill and wicked Spirits”. This provided for even harsher punishments, extending the list of offences to which the death penalty applied to wasting, consuming or laming persons as well as causing their death. Where the “goods of any p[er]son shall be destroyed” the sentence was a year in prison for a first offence and death for a second offence. However, the major difference between this and the earlier Acts was that it also made it an offence to “consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose”. For the first time a hint appears in the legislation of the fear of a diabolical compact, which was a major element in European legislation where practitioners of witchcraft were thought of as being members of an organised heretical sect.

The activities that witches were accused of were a clear inversion both of community norms and gender roles. However, Keith Thomas has argued that “the idea that witch-prosecutions reflected a war between the sexes must be discounted, not least because the victims and witnesses were themselves as likely to be women as men”. Whilst it has been well established that the majority of people charged with witchcraft in England were women, and the Norfolk records support this, the situation regarding witnesses is more contentious. Based on his findings from Yorkshire witchcraft depositions, James Sharpe has concluded that “the whole business of deciding if an individual was a witch or if an individual act constituted witchcraft, of how witchcraft should be coped with, of how suspicions should be handled, was seen as being fundamentally in the female sphere”. He argued that witchcraft accusations were frequently one of the ways in which disputes between women were resolved. This view has however, been disputed by Clive Holmes. He argued that whilst the gossip and suspicions of women may have been instrumental in bringing the accused to more general notice, it was men who were responsible for organising the process that took the case from suspicion to formal accusation. Holmes claimed that, despite their numerical involvement, women played a largely passive role in the legal process against witches. He noted that in Home Circuit indictments between 1596 and 1642 men acted alone as witnesses in 27.7 per cent of cases and together with women in a further 67.7 per cent. In contrast, in only 4.6 per cent of cases did women testify against an accused witch alone.[7]

V0048920 Witches: five silhouetted figures.

Feminist historians such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have seen witch trials as “a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population”. Their argument is partly based on the premise that old women, often known as ‘cunning women’, who dispensed folk healing were deliberately eradicated when a male-dominated medical profession came into existence. It is also known that some of these cunning women kept small animals such as cats and toads for use in their medical work and this is one explanation for the appearance of familiars in English witchcraft. Other feminists have seen witchcraft prosecutions as symptomatic of a misogynist social structure. Marianne Hester contends that the witch-hunts provided a “means of controlling women socially within a male supremacist society” and were “an instance of male sexual violence against women”.  She claimed that men gained from the linking of women with witchcraft as “it provided them with a greater moral and social status than women”.

Sharpe has argued that the involvement of women in witchcraft prosecutions allowed them to carve out a role for themselves in the male dominated legal world. Not only did they appear as witnesses, they were also involved in the search for what was often a crucial piece of evidence in proving guilt – witch’s marks on the body. The large number of references in the records to women searching for marks suggests that this practice was widely used. Sometimes teams of up to twelve women were appointed to search the accused, a midwife often included in the number. Clearly women did have a vital involvement in the witch trials, not least because, as has already been stated, it was women who were most likely to be charged. Some contemporary commentators recognised the disproportionate number of women accused, the well-quoted sceptic John Gaule complaining that every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr[owe]d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a skull-cap 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.

As can be seen from this description, witches were not only seen as women, but often as old women. One of the main reasons put forward for witches being elderly is that often they were only eventually prosecuted after suspicion of them had grown over the years. It has also been suggested that older, vulnerable women, unable to defend themselves in any other way, were forced to rely on their alleged occult powers.

Witchcraft (Witches)

The witch stereotype established by Alan Macfarlane’s Essex findings presents the accused as an economically marginal, elderly female, rarely living with a husband. He argued that, between 1560 and 1680, social and economic pressures led to increasing tensions within communities and to a lessening emphasis on the bonds of neighbourliness. One way in which these pressures manifested themselves was in villagers withholding alms that they had traditionally given to the poor. The fear of counter actions from those refused alms and the guilt produced by the abdication of responsibility then led to accusations of witchcraft, usually after the party withholding charity had suffered some sort of misfortune. However, as Cynthia Herrup found in Sussex, this stereotype was not always matched. Although she found only few examples of the crime they stood out “because of the prominence of male defendants and because of the economic and social parity of the accused and the accuser”. Here there appeared to be no gap in social status and conflict is seen as reflecting ongoing competition rather than guilt produced by a failure to provide alms.

The earliest known references to witches being condemned in Norfolk under the 1563 act date from 1583, when Mother Gabley was probably hanged at King’s Lynn, and 1584, when Elizabeth Butcher and Joan Lingwood were condemned to be hanged at Great Yarmouth. The forty years that followed the 1604 act saw an increase in the number of witchcraft trials in many areas of England, yet during this period there were very few in Norfolk, the only trial of note being that of Mary Smith, hanged in King’s Lynn in 1616. However, after being notable for having so few trials in the first part of the century, the county suddenly saw an eruption of cases in 1645 and 1646, especially in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn – towns visited by the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins.

Witchcraft (Mary Smith)
A stand-in for the face of Mary Smith

Nearly half of all seventeenth-century Norfolk witchcraft trials for which records have survived were prosecuted in the 1640s; prior to that there were under five per annum on average and, in common with other parts of the country, by the end of the century there were hardly any at all. A combination of reasons explains the circumstances under which such an increase in numbers of cases could take place. Firstly, England was in the middle of a civil war, and whilst it cannot be said that East Anglia was in the midst of the fighting, as it was a parliamentary stronghold, there were still threats of Royalist uprisings. Secondly, it has been claimed that, mainly because of the upheaval created by the war, there was a breakdown of authority during this period. The uncertainty created by the civil war and a less effective than usual local government permitted the witch-hunting activities of Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne, who operated among the towns and villages of East Anglia for over two years from 1645. There has been some debate about the typicality of the cases resulting from these activities and I will return to this later.

Of the sixty-nine people charged, fifty-nine or 85.5 per cent were women, so from a simple mathematical point of view the Norfolk evidence supports the view that the crime was gendered. This picture is strengthened by an analysis of the outcome of the trials. Ten cases resulted in the guilty party being sentenced to be hanged and there were four other guilty verdicts for which the sentences were not recorded. All fourteen of those known to have been found guilty were women. (Of the other accused, forty-two were found not guilty, verdicts are not known in twelve cases, and one was found to be non compos mentis.)

Of the women whose marital status is detailed in the court records, thirty-two per cent were described as ‘spinsters’, the same proportion were married and thirty-six per cent were widows. It is possible, of course, that some of those described as spinsters were not, although there is no clue as to this in the records. As ages were not recorded it is impossible to be precise, however, this profile does not seem to suggest that most were elderly women, as often popularly described. Whilst it is difficult to deduce from this whether women on their own were more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, the fact that only one of those found guilty was married suggests that they were possibly not in such a good position to defend themselves without the protection of a man.

Bewitching people                             26                          37.7 %

Bewitching animals                           3                           4.3 %

Bewitching property                         3                           4.3 %

Entertaining the devil                       14                          20.3 %

Consulting with spirits                      11                          15.9 %

Using witchcraft to find property   5                           7.2 %

Non-specific witchcraft                     7                           10.1 %

Table 1. Norfolk witchcraft cases by category

Table 1 shows, in general terms, just what these people were being accused of. By far the biggest category is the bewitching of people and over half of these cases claimed to involve the death of an infant or child. Whilst two other categories combined, entertaining the devil and consulting with spirits, account for an almost equal proportion, these charges, traditionally not associated with the majority of English witchcraft cases, were all brought in trials that Matthew Hopkins and his associates were involved in. A surprisingly small percentage of cases involved bewitching animals or property, acts of maleficium normally found in English witchcraft cases.

Analysing the surviving records for some of these cases allows us to examine the circumstances that led to these charges and how that compares with interpretations developed from other studies. In Norfolk the best surviving sources for background information are the witness statements gathered by the local justices to whom the complaints were made. It is clear from the numbers of witnesses in some of these cases and the stories that they tell, that neighbours must have talked together about their allegations or suspicions. Often there was one recent complaint that started the process off and others then added their stories from the past, sometimes the distant past. Allegations were frequently founded on the reputation that the accused had in the locality.

Thomas Cutting of Runhall, Norfolk, complained in 1679 that Anne Diver of the same town had made his cow sick and bewitched him so that he fell over a stile and broke his leg. He also recalled that on a previous occasion, after he had refused to give her some herbs from his garden, his wife and daughter fell ill and they also suspected that Diver had bewitched them. The collection of back-up stories then followed. John Calfe told how, when he fell ill over a year before, a cunning man showed him the face of Anne Diver in a glass. Seven years previously, Elizabeth Pitts bought a goose from Diver and fell ill for four months after eating it. Ten years earlier, Frances Beales refused to give Diver some beer on a hot day, but when she drank some herself she was ill for three weeks. Susan Major claimed that as much as twenty years before, Diver went to the house of her master to beg some meat for her father, but left before receiving any, saying that she was too proud to accept it. A week later she fell ill, losing her speech and sight and suffering strange fits.

According to Holmes, when women became involved in the accusation process they often retailed older grievances that had not previously been brought to the attention of the authorities, leaving the lead to men, and this case supports that view. However, it is the only one that does. In all other Norfolk cases for which witness information survives women took the lead in making the complaint. On occasions men also voiced older suspicions, but many accusations came from women alone, providing a very different picture from that Holmes found in the Home Circuit indictments. This is much closer to Sharpe’s position that “the background to a witchcraft accusation was something to which women were thought to have privileged access”. Of the surviving witness statements relating to Norfolk witchcraft accusations, exactly fifty per cent were made by female witnesses, a larger proportion than has been reported elsewhere. Of course, we cannot know the extent to which women may have been encouraged to make their statements by men. It is also difficult to assess the extent to which depositions were the product of leading questions from a justice or a clerk’s written interpretation of verbal answers. Care must therefore be taken in the use of these documents.

One aspect of the accusations involving Anne Diver that does conform to the stereotype developed by Macfarlane is the refusal of alms or charity from neighbours; Thomas Cutting had refused herbs from his garden and Frances Beales refused beer on a hot day. Furthermore, John Calfe informed that when “John Castleton … haveing the disposall of some money given to the poore of the … parish yearely gave to the said Anne Diver a lesse p[ro]portion then had bene given her in former yeares”, she said that he should “take heed lest some mischeife came to him or his”. Other cases also contained this element, for example, Elizabeth Scandell informed that her daughter was bewitched after Elizabeth Blade threatened her when she refused to let her have a chicken. Both Cutting and Scandell made the point themselves that their misfortunes came about because they had refused requests for charity, indicating that there was a popular belief in a connection between refusal of alms and acts of witchcraft.

Some of the depositions give the impression that someone who had suffered misfortune was looking for something to blame it on. Sometimes they made an accusation against a neighbour who had not even uttered any curse or threat, but who was simply “taken for a witch” or had maybe fallen out with them recently. When William Tasborowe suffered a series of misfortunes, including the death of his son and a fire at his house, he remembered an argument with widow Betteris. After he made a complaint to the justices other neighbours suddenly remembered similar arguments. “When the s[ai]d Betteris did fall out wth the wif of John Dennys … his child did sicken & dyed wthin three dayes”. “At another tyme after the s[ai]d Betteris had fallen out wth Edmund White the next day was the s[ai]d Edmund taken lame”. Anthony Leland of Saxlingham, Norfolk, did not even mention having seen William Chestney’s wife when, in 1614, he blamed her for the death of a cow and a calf. He could only testify that when he had moved to the area four or five years earlier, “he heard amongst his neighbors that shee was taken for a witch” and so was “persuaded in his conscience” that it must have been her doing.

Witness statements also provide evidence of other early modern popular beliefs about witchcraft and magic. Whilst these informers were ready to complain about their neighbours for their use of supernatural powers, they were also prepared to use such powers themselves as counteractions. In 1670 Margaret Kempe of Great Yarmouth complained that when she had been ill fourteen years previously her friends suspected Margaret Ward of bewitching her. Their response was to make a heart with a piece of red cloth and to put it into a bottle together with some nails and pins. This was then put on the fire for two hours. Within a fortnight she was well again. When Thomas Cutting believed that Anne Diver had bewitched one of his master’s cows he threw a horseshoe with seven nail holes into the fire. Elizabeth Pitts made an almost instant recovery from her bewitchment when she threw thatch from above the door of Anne Diver’s house into the fire. Thomas Burke of Northwold, Norfolk, also recovered from his extreme leg pains when he burned thatch from the house of Alice Lyster. Another remedy often described was that of ‘scratching’ the witch to destroy their power. When Elizabeth Scandell’s child saw Elizabeth Blade, who she believed had bewitched her, she “flew at her & desired to scratch her but was hindered by her mother”. Mary Crispe later testified that the child told her that “if she had scratched … Blade … she should not have had so much power over her”.

Daniel Jecks, another of Diver’s ‘victims’, chose another popular measure and went to a cunning man to seek help. Cunning men and women were believed to have powers to discover who had bewitched someone, to provide folk medicine cures, and to discover the whereabouts of lost property. On occasions they would find themselves prosecuted under the witchcraft legislation for using their supposed magic powers in these ways. Christopher Hall of Harpley found himself before Norfolk quarter sessions after Goodwife Smithbourne of neighbouring Hillington consulted him regarding a lump in her breast. Hall, who admitted to the local justices in his examination that he practiced as a cunning man, told Smithbourne that a Hillington witch had caused her harm. He gave her some powder and wrote out a charm, which, he claimed, would help her.

Another possible source for a cure was the accused him or herself. Some of those who believed that they or members of their family had been bewitched by a neighbour still allowed the accused to have access to them or their property after the event, probably believing that whoever imposed the curse also had the power to lift it. This is evident from the information of Margaret Kemp of Great Yarmouth who, in 1670, believed herself bewitched by Margaret Ward. Not only did she still allow Ward access to her house, but also to her infant son. When Kemp believed that Ward had also bewitched her son causing him to have fits, her husband “forced the said Margarett Ward to take the child into her armes and hold it some tym” in an attempt to stop the condition.

In virtually all of these instances the person accused had been suspected of being a witch over a period of time, sometimes over a very long period. Often the events that led to the accusation were also part of a long-running disagreement and in some cases the charge of witchcraft appears to have been a tactic in such a dispute A typical example of such a long-term dispute between neighbours, which involved accusations of witchcraft, is found in the Norfolk quarter sessions order books. In 1652 Mary Childerhouse petitioned that a group of her neighbours “plotted her ruin and the destruction of her body by witchcraft”. This was, however, only one of a series of complaints she made against her neighbours, with whom she was clearly unpopular. “Idle boys and rude people disturbed her in her trading”, and a “lusty young woman dressed as a man beat down her windows and threatened her”. When she complained, “they imprisoned her unjustly and took her goods”. Two local justices were requested to look into the matter, but no further action appears to have been taken at the time.

Two years later, in 1654, Mary Childerhouse was again petitioning the court regarding further disputes. Here the order book described her as “impoverished … aged and unable to prosecute law”. It is interesting to reflect on whether the response to the complaints would have been the same if it had been a group accusing the aged Childerhouse of witchcraft rather than the other way round. Clearly in this case the complaints of one aged woman against a number of neighbours brought no action, as three years later, in January 1657, Childerhouse was still complaining that six of her neighbours “endeavoured her destruction by poison, and to spoil her estate by witchcraft, fire and knives”. However, it is interesting to note that Childerhouse, a woman so poor that she was “unable to prosecute law”, was still able to take her complaint before the justices. She was another example of someone from the poorest social class who was able to take advantage of the flexible nature of the early modern judicial system to ensure that her complaint was heard, even if she did not get the result she wanted.

The episode that resulted in more witchcraft accusations in East Anglia than at any other time was of course that involving Matthew Hopkins and his associates. However, an interpretation of the Norfolk cases involved is problematic, not least because a lack of surviving documents does not allow for any in-depth analysis. For cases heard at Bury St. Edmunds, in neighbouring Suffolk, there is at least some material that details what those brought to trial were accused of and what they were purported to have confessed to. In Norfolk, however, all we have are the indictments recorded in the quarter sessions books. These are characteristically formulaic and in many cases state only that the accused consulted with spirits, or fed and entertained the devil. Occasionally more specific allegations were made. Maria Vervy of Great Yarmouth was said to have been responsible for the deaths of three children, but was found not guilty; Elizabeth Bradwell, also of Great Yarmouth, was accused of the death of another child, found guilty and hanged. There is no detail that might allow us to know why one was found guilty and the other not. Five others were found guilty at Great Yarmouth, but we are only told that they practiced witchcraft and consulted and compacted with the devil. At King’s Lynn there is even less detail, the sessions books recording only that nine people were charged with consulting with the devil. Again there is nothing to tell us why six were found not guilty, two guilty and one found to be non compus mentis.

Sharpe has claimed that although the context in which the Hopkins and Stearne cases took place was unusual – a country in the midst of a civil war, the involvement of witch-hunters and the interrogation techniques used – the charges against the accused were not – most were women, most were about cases of harm typical of other prosecutions, and the harm followed some kind of falling out. Unfortunately, the lack of surviving documents means that little can be added from Norfolk to that debate. Eighty-four per cent of those charged were women, typical of the English pattern, and, where the charge is given, it is for harm against children, not uncommon in witchcraft cases.

I would, however, point out an additional unusual circumstance. Hopkins was invited to find witches and was paid for that activity. An entry in the Great Yarmouth assembly book dated 15 August 1645 states that “it is agreed that the gentleman Mr. Hopkins imployed in the countie for discovering & finding out of witches shall be sent for hither to come to Towne; to make search for such wicked p[er]sons if any be here”. The following May the King’s Lynn hall book records that “Aldr Revitt be requested to sende for Mr. Hopkins the witch discoverer to come to Lynne and his charges & Recompence to be borne by the Towne”.

However, whilst Hopkins’ appointment may have been a catalyst for the formal accusations, it was still the neighbours of the accused that brought the complaints. Although the law and the teachings of the church may have provided a framework within which accusations of witchcraft could be made, as other historians of the subject also acknowledge, this was not simply a process being imposed from above – accusers, witnesses and accused all normally lived in the same village, town or district and had often known each other over long periods.

Given the high proportion of women involved in making accusations, neither does the Norfolk evidence support the view that this was some means of imposing patriarchal authority; although this does not rule out the possibility that women accusers and accused were not playing out some sort of power battle within a patriarchal society. In many ways the Norfolk evidence supports the stereotype of an early modern English witchcraft prosecution, if not the stereotypical English witch. Nearly all cases arose from disagreement between neighbours and a good proportion of these involving a refusal of charity.

Apart from some aspects of the Hopkins cases there is little to support the view proposed by Robin Briggs that English witchcraft was not very unlike its European counterpart, as has been traditionally maintained. In Europe witches were part of a circle that attended sabbats. In contrast, virtually all of the Norfolk examples concerned accusations against individuals. Although Briggs points out that in English cases the familiars performed the role of the devil, in only two examinations in Norfolk trials is there any mention of a familiar; in most cases words, in the form of threats, seem to have been the medium by which the maleficium was carried out. The European stereotype also emphasises the demonic pact, yet again, outside of Hopkins, there is little mention of this. Even in the Norfolk cases involving the Witchfinder there seems to be an obvious reason why the association with spirits and the devil should be cited, particularly in such formulaic indictments. It was important for the process of law that the indictment was worded correctly and made clear that the act under which the charge had been brought had been breached, and the 1604 act made it an offence to “consult covenant with entertaine employ feed or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose”.

Ideas about witchcraft would have entered early modern popular culture in a number of ways. It is certainly likely that people would have heard about the evils of the devil in church sermons and they would also have been brought up learning about a range of popular beliefs concerning witchcraft and magic. Even those who had no direct access to pamphlet accounts of trials are likely to have heard about them in alehouses, particularly the more sensational trials. The most sensational local case to have been written about in early seventeenth-century Norfolk was that of Mary Smith, who was hanged in King’s Lynn in 1616.

Treatise of WitchcraftDetails of the Mary Smith case appeared in a pamphlet published in 1616 by a King’s Lynn clergyman, Alexander Roberts, entitled A Treatise of Witchcraft. After “sundry propositions … plainely discovering the wickedness of that damnable Art”, in which he considers theoretical points, Roberts moves on to describe Mary Smith’s “contract vocally made [with] the Devill … by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she envied”. The devil is said to have “appeared unto her … in the shape of a blacke man”. This is an interesting early appearance of the devil in this form in one of these narratives. According to Macfarlane the devil never appeared as a man in Essex before 1645, so this may well be an example of a pamphlet that influenced later stories, particularly those that emerged during interrogations by Hopkins and Stearne. The devil is said to have taken advantage of the fact that Mary Smith was “possessed with a wrathful indignation against some of her neighbours, in regard that they made gaine of their buying and selling cheese, which she (using the same trade) could not do, or they better (at the least in her opinion) then she did”.

Roberts goes on to describe the “wicked practise” of Smith against each of her enemies. “The first who tasted the gall of her bitternes was John Orkton a Sailer”, who had hit her son after he had committed some misdemeanours. She “came foorth into the streete, cursing … and wished in a most earnest and bitter manner, that his fingers might rotte off”. Of course when he grew ill “his fingers did corrupt, and were cut off; as his toes putrified & consumed in a very strange and admirable manner”. Another argument, this time over an accusation of stealing hens, led to Smith wishing the pox to light upon Elizabeth Hancocke. Within three or four hours of the curse being made “she felt a sodaine weaknesse in all the parts of her body”. The illness went on for several weeks, during which, one night “the bed upon which she lay, was so tossed, and lifted up and downe, both in her owne feeling, and in the sight of others”. Eventually Hancocke’s father consulted a cunning man who, after showing him Mary Smith’s face in a mirror, gave him a recipe for a ‘witch cake’, which cured her. However, unfortunately for her, her husband became annoyed with Mary Smith’s cat and “thrust it twice through with his sword … and stroke it with all his force upon the head with a great pike staffe”. Not surprisingly, his wife’s condition returned.

The stories continued: she picked a quarrel with Cicely Balye, a neighbouring servant, and the next night a cat sat upon Balye’s breast so that she could not breathe properly and she “fell sicke, languished, and grew exceeding leane”.  The illness continued for six months until she moved away, then she recovered. Edmund Newton, who was also a cheese seller, was able to do a better deal than Mary Smith when buying cheese. However, every time he bought cheese he became grievously afflicted. When he lay suffering in bed Smith appeared to him “and whisked about his face … a wet cloath of very loathsome savour”, after which someone with a “little bush beard” appeared telling him that he had come to heal his sore leg, which by now had cloven feet. Later, imps appeared in the form of a toad and some crabs and crawled about the house until one of the servants caught the toad and put it on the fire, which caused Mary Smith to endure “tortured pains testified by her outcries”. However, Newton’s illness continued, despite his attempts to break the curse by scratching the witch, as whenever he tried “his nailes turned like feathers”.

matthew-hopkins 1These narratives are interesting for several reasons. Not only do they tell us something about early modern popular beliefs regarding witchcraft, but it is also likely that ideas from them were passed on to others at the time, for several of the features of earlier pamphlets such as this recur in later trials. As I have already mentioned the devil in the form of a black man reappears in the 1645 Hopkins trials at Bury St. Edmunds. So do the imps or familiars that Edmund Newton claims appeared to him. Throwing a toad or frog into the fire to cause distress to the witch is another feature that reappears in seventeenth century Norfolk cases. When Amea Winter of Grimston was accused of bewitching Alexander Turner in 1627 “two thinges like unto a frogg & a toade”, presumably Winter’s familiars, appeared, but one was caught by John Piper who “held it in the fire untill such tyme as it was burnt”, causing Amea Winter to become lame.[58] Witch cakes provided by cunning men and scratching the witches face to counter their power both also commonly recur.

However, these narratives leave many more questions to be asked than they answer. The behaviour of Mary Smith is again similar to that which might have seen her charged with scolding – if it hadn’t been for the illnesses that were claimed to have followed. So what was the truth about these claimed illnesses? Presumably at least some of the facts could be checked when complaints were made to the justices. If John Orkton’s fingers had really rotted and been cut off then this would have been apparent. Did Mary Smith perhaps know that he already had a problem with his fingers and made a nasty comment about it that eventually came true, or was Orkton just lying and she never even made such a curse? Elizabeth Hancocke’s bed couldn’t lift up and down on its own, so clearly she and the claimed witnesses to it were lying. And what are we to make of Edmund Newton’s claims that his feet had become cloven? We can, of course, never really know the truth; the main thing was that the justices believed them and the courts believed them. But how much did they question the evidence? The complaints against Mary Smith must have been over a period of time – so why didn’t they complain earlier, or if they did then why wasn’t she charged earlier? Unfortunately the assize records haven’t survived that might have provided some of the answers.

Whilst there has been debate about the usefulness of witchcraft pamphlets as a reflection of what actually happened up to and during the trial, there is no doubt that they are a useful source regarding early modern popular beliefs. They are also interesting because in some ways they stand between elite and popular attitudes towards witchcraft, in that they would have had an educated authorship, often members of the clergy or legal profession who usually had some agenda in writing them, but would have also had to appeal to the tastes of a popular readership. This reflects to an extent the “complex series of transactions between various elite and popular elements” that Clive Holmes has claimed brought about witchcraft prosecutions.

Witchcraft pamphlets would, of course, only have continued to be written whilst there were still witchcraft trials to write about. Towards the end of the seventeenth century there were fewer trials as the authorities became more and more sceptical about the whole issue of witchcraft and courts became much less likely to convict. Although this meant the death of the witchcraft pamphlet it didn’t mean the sudden death of a popular belief in witchcraft. Even in the later seventeenth century people were still making accusations that their misfortunes were the result of witchcraft, and some of the accused still believed that they had the power to carry out the acts. When Mary Neale of Wissenset, Norfolk, confessed in 1678 that she was the cause of the deaths of three local people she also told that two other women were involved with her. Both of these, however, denied the charge. But Neale was only too ready to admit to her witchcraft, signing a confession and crying out, “O wicked wretch that I am, I have destroyed two poore soules”. She was one of the few accused in Norfolk for whom evidence survives who admitted to using familiars in her craft. She claimed to have “sent a mouse” to Alice Atkins “wch did soone dispatch her in five dayes”. She also said that one of her accused accomplices “did send a Duck to John Willis … who soon died”. She also claimed to keep two imps, John and Robert, though did not expand on what form they took. Popular beliefs clearly did not change overnight.

In many respects this analysis of seventeenth-century Norfolk trials supports the models already developed around early modern witchcraft. The gender breakdown of those accused – about eighty-five per cent female, fifteen per cent male – is similar to that found in other English counties. The pattern of prosecutions was obviously affected by the outbreak of cases in the 1640s brought about by the influence of Matthew Hopkins and his associates, but apart from that aberration we see the decline in prosecutions towards the end of the century that was experienced elsewhere. Even the context in which many of the disputes took place fits the stereotype developed by Alan Macfarlane; many cases involved refusal of charity and acts of maleficium occurring after a falling out.

There is little to support the radical feminist view that witchcraft accusations were used as some sort of patriarchal technique to keep women under control. In fact, the main aspect of the Norfolk cases that seems to be somewhat out of line with other studies is that women were in the majority in making the lead, or most recent, complaint; in Norfolk it was often men who backed this up with older stories. As I have already mentioned, one of the main conclusions to come from the surviving evidence, and this agrees with what Macfarlane found in Essex, is that people were accused of witchcraft by their neighbours. Most historians now accept the view that witchcraft accusations were not simply imposed ‘from above’, but that a complex set of relationships existed between local elites and the poor that provided a framework within which these accusations could be made and pursued through to their legal conclusion.

We can now only speculate as to why neighbours made these complaints. Given the contemporary belief in the powers of witches, it is perhaps not surprising that when they needed an explanation for why things had gone inexplicably wrong they should blame someone they thought capable of witchcraft. This might well lead us to ask the question, originally posed by Robin Briggs, why were there not even more prosecutions than there were? Some of the Norfolk depositions give the impression that there may also have been strategic accusations, either to gain some sort of revenge for a past wrong or to enable the accusers to rid themselves of someone who they did not like or with whom they had been involved in some sort of interpersonal dispute. The very fact that witches were often only accused after a long period of suspicion means that there had been time for disagreements to develop and fester until an opportunity to solve it once and for all presented itself.

By Keith Parry


[1] Over the last thirty years or so witchcraft has been the subject of an enormous amount of research and a wealth of literature has been produced. Amongst the most accessible works on witchcraft in early modern England are James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness. Witchcraft in England 1550 – 1750 (London, 1996) and Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts, eds., Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge, 1996) and Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours. The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (London, 1996) draw on both the English and continental European experience.

[2] 33 Henry VIII, cap. 8.

[3] 5 Eliz I, cap. 16.

[4] 1 James I, cap. 12.

[5] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 568.

[6] J.A. Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women in seventeenth-century England: some Northern evidence”, Continuity and Change volume 6, no. 2 (1991), p. 192.

[7] Clive Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, Past and Present 140 (1993), pp. 56

[8] B. Ehrenreich and D. English, Witches, Midwives and Healers: A History of Women Healers (London, 1974), p. 6.

[9] Hester, Lewd Women and Wicked Witches, pp. 108, 199.

[10] Marianne Hester, “Patriarchal reconstruction and witch hunting”, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, Witchcraft in early modern Europe, p. 296.

[11] J.A. Sharpe, “Women, Witchcraft and the Legal Process”, in Kermode and Walker, Women, Crime and the Courts,  p. 120.

[12] John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts (London, 1646), pp. 4 – 5.

[13] B.P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London, 1987), p. 143.

[14] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 161.

[15] Herrup, Common Peace, p. 33.

[16] Norfolk Record Office. Wells Parish Register. PD 679/1, fol. 43, records the burials of four men “whose deaths were brought to pass by the detestable working of an Excerable Witch of King’s Lynn whose name was Mother Gabley, by the Boiling or rather labouring of Certain Eggs in a pail full of cold water. Afterwards approv’d sufficiently at the arraignment of the said witch”; Palmer, History of Great Yarmouth, volume 1, p. 273.

[17] Due to the lack of surviving assize records for this period, the most detailed account of the  alleged activities and the trial of Mary Smith is a pamphlet written by Alexander Roberts entitled A Treatise of Witchcraft (London, 1616).

[18] See especially Underdown Revel, Riot and Rebellion, chapter 2.

[19] For a discussion of the circumstances surrounding these cases, see J.A. Sharpe, “The devil in East Anglia: the Matthew Hopkins trials reconsidered”, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, pp. 237 – 254.

[20] This compares with ninety-two per cent in the 1645 Essex trials.  Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 160.

[21] This compares with Kent assizes where widows accounted for twenty-six per cent of prosecuted witches between 1565 and 1635 and thirty-seven per cent during the Interregnum. Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, p. 49.

[22] Sharpe has claimed that “English witches … were rarely accused of … consorting with evil spirits”. J.A. Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Harlow, 2001), p. 40. Whilst it is true that the depositions do not contain this allegation, the formulaic Norfolk indictments often do.

[23] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting, John Calfe, Elizabeth Pitts, Frances Beales, Susan Major, 22.5.1679.

[24] Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, pp. 54 – 5.

[25] Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women”, p. 191 – 2.

[26] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of John Calfe, 22.5.1679.

[27] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, February 1678.

[28] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/15 part 1, articles against [blank] Betteris, undated.

[29] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/19, examination of Anthony Leland, 28.5.1614.

[30] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe, 30.9.1670.

[31] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting; information of Elizabeth Pitts, 22.5.1679.

[32] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/13a, information of Thomas Burke, 2.3.1602.

[33] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 634; Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England, p. 53.

[34] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, Mary Crispe, February 1678.

[35] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Daniel Jecks, 22.5.1679.

[36] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, chapter 8; Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, chapter 5.

[37] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/41a, examination of Christopher Hall, 26.8.1654. See also NRO, Great Yarmouth quarter sessions, Y/S1/3, fol. 122: Thomas Wolterton prosecuted for using enchantments and charms to find lost property; Y/S1/2, fol. 196: Marcus Prynne prosecuted for using witchcraft to discover the whereabouts of lost money.

[38] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe 30.9.1670.

[39] See Annabel Gregory, “Witchcraft, Politics and ‘Good Neighbourhood’ in Early Seventeenth-Century Rye”, Past and Present 133 (1991), pp. 31 – 66, regarding the argument that some witchcraft accusations may have been strategic.

[40] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions order book, C/S2/1, petitions of Mary Childerhouse 13.1.1652, 10.1.1654, 13.1.1657.

[41] British Library, Add. MSS. 27402, fols. 104 – 21.

[42] NRO, Great Yarmouth assembly book 1642 – 1662, Y/C19/7, fol. 71v.

[43] NRO, King’s Lynn hall book 8, 1637 – 1658, KL/C7/10, fol. 187.

[44] For this view see Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze. A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco, 1994) and Hester, Lewd women and wicked witches.

[45] Willis, Malevolent Nurture.

[46] Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, pp. 28 – 53.

[47] Although, as I have pointed out, there are a large number of cases where details of events leading up to a trial have not survived.

[48] 1 James I, cap. 12.

[49] Interestingly, John Stearne claimed that sermons drawing attention to the power of the devil and his ability to torment the wicked had actually attracted some people to him. See John Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (London, 1648), p. 59.

[50] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 46.

[51] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 189. Although this may be an early reference to the devil appearing in this form, the fact that witchcraft was carried out in the devil’s name was popularly believed in early modern England. According to William Perkins “a witch is a magician, who either by open or secret league, wittingly and willingly, consenteth to use the aide and assistance of the Devil, in the working of Wonders”. William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1608), p. 3. The devil appeared in other forms in other early witchcraft pamphlets. The Apprehension and Confession of three notorious Witches, concerning the trial and execution of three women condemned at Chelmsford, Essex, in 1589, tells that Joan Cunny, one of the three, learned her art from one “Mother Humphrey … who told her that she must kneel down on her knees, and make a circle on the ground, and pray unto Satan the chief of the devils”. One of the other accused, Joan Prentiss, told that “the Devil appeared unto her … in the shape and proportion of a dunnish-colored ferret” who then carried out her evil work. The other two also admitted to having familiars to do their work, two black frogs, a mole and two toads. Reprinted in Joseph H. Marshburn and Alan R. Velie, Blood and Knavery. A Collection of English Renaissance Pamphlets and Ballads of Crime and Sin (Cranbury, NJ, 1973), pp. 80 – 8.

[52] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 45.

[53] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 48.

[54] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 50 – 4.

[55] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 55 – 6.

[56] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 57 – 8.

[57] The devil appeared in this form to Mary Bush of Bacton, Suffolk. He promised her that she would never want and “us’d to have the use of her body two or three times a weeke”. Stearne, Confirmation and Discovery, p. 29.

[58] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/26, articles against Amea Winter, dated 23.5 1627.

[59] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 85; Walker, “Demons in female form”, p.124.

[60] Clive Holmes “Popular Culture? Witches, Magistrates, and Divines in Early Modern England”, in S.L. Kaplan, ed., Understanding Popular Culture. Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Berlin, 1984), p. 87. See also Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, p. 179.

[61] Freely given confessions such as Neale’s illustrate that accused witches were not always the victims of malicious prosecution. See also Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, p. 71.

[62] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, Information of Mary Neale, 25.2.1678.

[63] For a case of a mentally disturbed woman who confessed that she had the power to use imps to carry out acts of maleficium, see Malcolm Gaskill, “Witchcraft and power in early modern England: the case of Margaret Moore”, in Kermode and Walker, Women, Crime and the Courts.

[64] Robin Briggs, Communities of Belief: Cultural and Social Tensions in Early Modern France (Oxford, 1989), p. 22.

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© Keith Parry

Drovers: Scotland to London via Norfolk!

‘Persons unacquainted with country affairs are apt to associate everything that is rustic and even vulgar with the vocation of a drover; but there was never a greater mistake.

From ‘Obituary of Robert Hope’ 1826

As early as 1359 there is a record of two Scottish drovers being given letters of safe passage through England with cattle, horses and other merchandise and yet, for centuries, the trade of driving cattle to English markets did not flourish, Why? Well, the main reason was the wars between Scotland and England that lasted centuries; any trade with England was actively prevented as it was seen as giving aid to the enemy. However, in 1603, James the Sixth ascended the English throne as James the First of England, uniting the two countries; by 1607, free trade had been agreed between the two.

This free trade agreement launched cattle droving to almost unimaginable heights, helped in no small way by the active discouragement of cattle rustling, or ‘reiving’. This unlawful practice had once been the scourge Scotland and if continued, would have been a threat to any meaningful movement of cattle. With rustling reduced significantly – for it was never completely eradicated, neither was the nice little earner for a few enterprising tough individuals who offered to ‘protect your cattle’ – some with a less romantic view would term it simply as a ‘protection racket’.  Most, however, conducted the business honestly and there was no doubt that droving would not have grown into a huge operation, which it did by the middle of the 17th century, without complete trust in those who took your cattle to market and returned with the money, whether it be honouring ‘bills’ or handing over cash.

In the lawless days of Scotland, cattle were the main source of a man’s wealth, obtained either by raiding or trading. The beasts were small and thrived on the hills, moorland and the intemperate climate which no doubt conditioned them for the future long drives to the English markets. Daniel Defoe noted that “in the South West of Scotland the gentlemen took their rents in cattle. Some of them acquired such large numbers that they took their own droves to England; a Galloway nobleman would often send upwards of 4,000 head of black cattle a year”. In the North of Scotland he found that “the people lived dispersed among the hills. They hunted, chiefly for food and, again, bred large quantities of black cattle with which they paid their rent to the Laird”. These cattle, which came from the remotest parts, were driven south, “especially into the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex”. The burial of two Scottish drovers in Thrandeston, Suffolk —William Brown on 6 February 1682 and John Deek on 21 November 1688 —provides evidence of the traffic in cattle from Scotland to East Anglia in the 17th century.

Drover (Collecting Cattle)
A Scottish Drover collecting cattle from farms.

For the most part, however, the drovers handling these cattle would have been local Scottish men who, in May of each year, would visit farms bargaining for cattle, often for only one or two at a time because many of the Highlands farming tenants were very poor. Gradually as summer advanced, the Drovers would gather together a herd before heading south across the border and into England. For example, in 1663 the border town of Carlisle recorded 18,574 cattle passing through during that year. By the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south. These totals would have been made up of herds of at least 100 strong and often up to 2,000 strong; many, if not all, on their way to markets in Norfolk and London. This movement was a clear indication that the economy was balanced between the Scottish cattle breeder and the East Anglian farmer. The former, until improved methods of farming were developed in Scotland in the early 19th century, was unable to bring his cattle to a condition suitable for a wholesale butcher. The East Anglian farmer, on the other hand, was within reach of the London markets and had grazing, straw and, later, root crops, enabling him to fatten and finish the beasts; the resulting manure provided a valuable by-product.

Drover ( going to the-Falkirk-Tryst)
Arriving for the Falkirk Tryst

The farmers in the Highlands and Islands needed to reduce their stock in the autumn owing to the difficulties of winter feeding. Dealers would visit the Highlands to attend the local markets, and notices would be posted on church doors informing the farmers when they would be in the District so that cattle could be brought from the glens. The business revolved on credit: a price was agreed and, if the cattle fetched more within a certain period, the seller received more; but the reverse also applied and farmers suffered many a loss. The cattle might change hands again before reaching Crieff Tryst which, until the middle of the 18th century, was the largest cattle market in Scotland and considered to be the gateway to the Highlands and convenient to both buyers and sellers.

Drovers (Falkirk Tryst)
The Falkirk Tryst

Before the Rising of 1745 the trade had been in the hands of the Scots, but later, English dealers in greater numbers were visiting the Scottish markets and Falkirk, further south, replaced Crieff in importance. The Falkirk Trysts were held in August, September and October and lasted several days, during which time endless droves arrived from the North. They spread over a large area of the surrounding country which was enlivened by many tents selling refreshments and interspersed with banks for the financial transactions. When an agreement was reached, the tar dishes were brought out and the cattle marked and taken from the field. Small jobbers would send their purchases to a common trysting place where they were consigned to a drover who collected cattle from several grazings. The topsman could, without scruple, reject any beast he considered unfit for travel, as his remuneration was a small sum per head for every beast safely delivered to a market. These men were entrusted with the management of other people’s property worth thousands of pounds.

The term ‘drover’ covered a wide range of men, from the cattle dealer who turned over thousands of pounds a year to the hired hand who helped to drive the beasts. By an Act of Parliament of 1562, drovers had to be registered: they also had to be married householders and at least thirty years old. This was obligatory until 1772. They came to enjoy a professional reputation which enabled them to assume the role of travelling bankers. It is probable that only the topsman was required to register.

Drovers (Galloway Cattle)2
Galloway Cattle favouted by Norfolk farmers.

The Galloways were bred in the South West districts of Scotland, and were popular in Norfolk and Suffolk as they were easily fattened. A similar pattern of sale occurred: a number of local cattle markets, a large weekly market and three autumn markets on the Whitesands of  Dumfries. The droves heading for England from both Dumfries and Falkirk passed through Carlisle. The cattle were shod for the journey and accounts vary as to whether the shoes were fitted at the outset of the drive or when rough roads were reached. The ‘cues’ were made of thin, crescent-shaped metal plates and, to be fully shod, a beast needed two to a hoof, but often only the outer hoof was covered. To accomplish the operation, its front and back legs were tied together and the animal thrown on its back. An experienced man could shoe seventy beasts a day.

Drovers (Penines)
The Pennines over which cattle would be driven on their way to Norfolk.

From Carlisle, the path to East Anglia lay across the Pennines to what is now the Great North Road, turning eastwards south of the Wash. In the autumn, when the industry was at its peak, the roads south were thronged with cattle: 2,000 a day passed through Boroughbridge and there were many times when from dawn to sunset Wetherby was never free from beasts. The route chosen depended on the decision of the topsman, the head drover. If the weather had been wet the rivers might be impassable; if dry, certain paths would be devoid of wayside grazing. A drove would consist of 200 or more beasts with one man to every fifty or sixty cattle. They went to Norwich, Long Stratton and Hoxne at a steady pace, averaging twelve to fifteen miles a day. The topsman, usually the only man mounted, would ride ahead to warn oncoming traffic and secure overnight pasture for the beasts and shelter for the men. If neither was available they slept in their plaids alongside the cattle.

The men reputedly often travelled barefoot and carried their own food, a mixture of oatmeal and water called ‘crowdie’, in a leather bag. In the early 19th century they received between three and four shillings a day, twice that of a farm labourer, and ten shillings for the return journey. They had to pay their own expenses —at one time, nine pence a night for lodgings in the winter and five pence in the summer.

 Norfolk’s St Faiths Fairstead:

For hundreds of years the village of Horsham St Faiths was famous for its annual cattle market, traditionally named the St Faith’s Fairstead, held there from October 17th for three weeks each year. This fair was granted a Charter in 1100 and the last cattle fair was held there in 1872. Whilst the Fairstead itself ran from October 17th each year, the so-called ‘Norfolk Season’ began at Candlemas, on 2 February. Drovers taking cattle from the Fair, made weekly journeys during February and March, twice weekly during April, May and June, with possibly one or two journeys in August and September. The season appears to have been approximately the same in Suffolk.

Drover (Horsham Sign)

The site on which the St Faiths Fairstead was held was situated just outside Horsham St Faiths, to the north of Norwich. It occupied at least 50 acres along the present Spixworth Road, between Bullock Hill and Calf Lane, two legacies of the old Fair. In those far off days, the Fairstead consisted of many small fields which Drovers would hire to hold their cattle for the duration of the sales. Then, alongside these fields, there were a further three acres called ‘The Lond’ which held the market stalls. Whilst the St Faiths Fairstead attracted sellers and their livestock from around Britain, it was particularly favoured by Scottish Drovers who brought with them Norfolk’s favoured beast – the Galloway.

“The purchase of Scotch in the district is chiefly at the Fair of St. Faiths, to which Scots drovers bring annually great numbers. The most common age is 4 years old. Some have been worked in the collieries.” –

Norwich Mercury circa 1800

Invariably perhaps, and because of the good business links between Norfolk and the markets at Dumfries and Falkirk, the largest droves that came into Norfolk probably headed for the St Faith’s Fair. There were, of course others of which the Hempton Fair, near Fakenham, was used, not only to sell cattle in their own right, but to also assist the selling of those heads which failed to find buyers at St Faiths. The date for the Hempton Fair was usually on, or around, the 22nd November.

As for the St Faith’s droves, they usually left Dumfriesshire around the 14 September, the 340 miles taking twenty-eight days, at an approximate twelve miles a day. Before reaching St Faith’s, each drover would have hired a field for his beasts, the majority being bullocks, four to five years old, mainly black or brindled, some dun and a few red. To accommodate each herd, the host farmer would have ensured that his fields would offer ‘a full bite of grass’ for the cattle. However, before arrival and employing the usual practice of ‘showing off’ his cattle to attract buyers, the ‘topsman’ drover would have assessed likely demand and price. As long as sales continued he would stay, up to a fortnight, before moving any unsold stock to another market.

As with all markets and sales, there was an art to selling lean cattle and much could be gained by choosing a favourable stand. The cattle looked best on a gentle slope with a minimum of forty beasts, especially the polled variety which stood closer together. Sixty were better and eighty better still. Ten beasts, matched for quality, would be segregated in one corner in the hope of persuading a grazier to buy all ten, in which case a discount would be given. The grazier had to know at a glance how much a beast would improve on good, bad or indifferent land as well as on turnips, in three, six or twelve months.

Drover (Old Drove Road)
Old East Anglian Drove Road

Whilst the Scottish drovers would eventually leave and return with business done, those cattle not retained for breading purposes would have further to go before their travels ended. There would be those sold on to Suffolk & Essex graziers who would further fatten these cattle on the luxuriant grass of coastal marshes before, in turn, selling them on to London buyers. The remainder would be fattened by local Norfolk farmers themselves, before returning to the St. Faiths Fairstead at some future date to sell their cattle direct to their own London customers. Local drovers would undertake the task of taking the animals to London and their final destination of Smithfield Market and the wholesale butcher – there to help feed a large and hungry city. It was a fact that Suppliers to London relied heavily on the Scottish Drovers who brought cattle south, together with the English (particularly East Anglian) farmers who fattened the beasts. The London meat market of Smithfield recorded in 1794, 108,000 cattle arriving for slaughter, at least 80% of which came from Scotland along the extensive network of Drove Roads.

Back at Horsham St Faiths, as elsewhere, local drovers would advertise their services to those attending the Fair. The advertisements for the times and places for drawing in the stock for Smithfield invariably began with the drover thanking the graziers, gentlemen farmers, jobbers and friends for past favours and the hope that he would continue to merit their future custom. When each beast had had the owner’s mark clipped from its coat, preparations for the journey (approximately a week) were complete.

One such 1826 advertisement from a John Mald at St Faiths is an example:

“John Mald, drover from Norwich to London, returns his sincere thanks to his friends and the public for that liberal share of patronage which he received last year, and begs respectfully to assure them that the same unremitting attention will be paid to the punctual delivery of all cattle etc. with which he may be entrusted, to any salesman whom they may appoint.”

Once a contract had been agreed with farmers at the Fair, John Mald would issue a Notice of time and place for collection of each consignment:

“J.M. Will start on Saturday 2nd December 1826 and stop at Homesfield Swan on Sunday night; Wortwell Bull Monday morning; Cap Inn, Harleston, at 12 o’clock; Needham Fishmonger’s Arms; Brockdish Greyhound and Scole Inn that night. Also at the Queen’s Head, Long Stratton at nine o’clock; Tivetshall Ram at twelve; Dickleburgh Kings Head at three in the afternoon, and meet at Scole Inn the same night. On Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock at Wortham Dolphin; Botesdale Greyhound till two; Pakenham Woolpack that night; Bury Market every Wednesday; and at Alpheton Lion that night.”

It is clear from this Notice that J.M’s drove would set out on a Weekend, arriving in London the following Sunday, ready for the Monday market. Smithfield Market was held weekly on Mondays and Fridays, with the latter day being favoured by Suffolk farmers. At Mile-End, salesmen would meet John Mald, as too other drovers, taking charge of their lots and handing over payment. It was Mald’s responsibility to take the money back to the Norfolk farmers. It was clear that the East Anglian drover, like his Scottish counterpart, had to be a man of integrity, financing the overheads of the journey and returning with his clients’ profit in cash or short-date bills on a local bank, which he would dispense on settlement day. A typical settlement day is described by William Marshall at the ‘Angel’ Inn at Walsham, Norfolk in 1780.

“There was a roomful of graziers who had sent bullocks to Smithfield the previous week. The weekly journey was made alternately by the drover, J. Smith of Erpingham, and his servant. Smith sat with each man’s account and a pair of saddle bags with money and bills lying on the table before him. A farmer would sit at his elbow, examine the salesman’s account, receive his money, drink a glass or two of liquor, throw down sixpence towards the reckoning and return to the market”…. “What a trust, no security but his honesBeyond

Beyond Norfolk and nearer to London:

Similarly, Suffolk drovers followed same practice and would place notices in the local press advertising where they would be collecting cattle stock. James Howlett of Brome, a drover and salesman was one:

Drovers (Notice)

A postscript to his advertisement assured ‘those gentlemen who may be pleased to confer their favours’ on him that every attention would be paid to their stock, and every care taken ‘to obtain the best price the market will afford to the benefit of his employers’ 2 January 1819). The advertisement ends ‘Please to direct, 60 West Smithfield, London’, which suggests that he was commissioned by a Smithfield salesman.

Drovers (Map)001
The drovers’ collection points for cattle being taken to Smithfield Market in London.

Inevitably misfortunes occurred. The drovers Benjamin Bell and his son Thomas farmed near Canobie in Dumfriesshire and brought droves to East Anglian fairs. They left home in mid October 1746 with a drove which contained 500 particularly good beasts which Thomas had bought at a favourable price after bargaining for twenty-four hours. On reaching Hoxne, on this occasion, in December they met with disaster – Distemper! Thomas wrote to their backer on Christmas Day to say that the illness was raging in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and there was no way for them to escape. The cattle in the area were dying at an alarming rate, and one hand at Hoxne had already lost 300. An Act of Parliament had been passed which obliged them to insure any cattle sold; they had sold forty beasts to a Mr Wilson of Colchester and had heard that they were all dead. On 7 January Thomas wrote again saying that he had found twenty-nine dead in one pasture, and twenty-five in other pastures; the rest were all infected. They were expected to dig pits and bury the infected beasts within three hours. The Bells had charges to pay and no money. He added that they would be home by Candlemas and people could do what they would with them. Apparently, the Bells’ fortunes recovered during the ensuing years!

In June or July 1766 there was an increased demand for Scottish beasts owing to a shortage resulting from a series of past cattle plagues. Many of the dealers in East Anglia went to Scotland for the first time and bought direct, depriving Scottish drovers of custom; this deprivation of trade stimulated a number of ‘drovers’ to become dealers in their own right. There developed a class of professional cattle dealer, referred to as ‘drover dealers’, whose reputation for honesty and fair-dealing became recognised throughout the country. They were highly organised, hard-headed businessmen who rode thousands of miles to cattle markets; they therefore needed a stud of horses, and rented thousands of acres of grazing. Many of them dealt with the English markets and sent their own droves south, where they employed a salesman or used the services of another firm.

These droves would start travelling down in January February and March, when the usual venues were either the Tie’ Nagpie] or the ‘Cardinal’s Cap’, both at Harleston. George Campbell was one of the first men to sell in this manner; his notice in the local newspaper for 2 January 1779 advised the gentlemen, farmers and graziers in Norfolk and Suffolk that he had on the road, on its way to Harleston and Hoxne, ‘a capital drove of Galloway Scots and heifers which he is determined to sell upon the most reasonable terms at the above places’. The date of sale was to appear in a future issue. The advertisement was repeated in the editions of 9, 16 and 23 January. On 30 January a further notice announced that the sale would begin on the following Monday, 1 February, and continue until all the cattle were sold. The First three days’ sale would be at Harleston, the next three at Hoxne, ‘and to change alternately’. The drove was said to be ‘very capital’ and would be ‘sold cheap’. The sale was evidently successful, for Campbell inserted a further notice on 20 February, intimating that he would be at Harleston with yet another capital drove by the end of March.

Campbell’s journeys emphasise the organisation required of the drovers, who had to work to a tight schedule to arrive at their destination on time. January, February and March were not the best months to be travelling on foot from Scotland to East Anglia. Grazing would have been at a premium, while paths could be water-logged, frozen, or obliterated by snow Overnight stops with fodder had to be reached and occasionally the weather did defeat them. James Campbell intended selling a capital drove at the Tye’ Inn, Harleston, on Wednesday 15 January 1794 which he advertised in the Local newspaper on 4 January. A week later a further notice informed the graziers that ‘owing to the badness of the roads’ the drove would be a day late and shown on 16 January.

Another name of note was William McTurk, possibly a relative of Robert McTurk who, in his day, was a dealer of consequence. A bystander recalled seeing one of his droves, numbering seventy-five score of Galloways, passing through Carlisle on its way to Norfolk. McTurk would buy between one and two thousand large cattle at Falkirk, sweeping the fair of the best lots before the other dealers had made up their minds to begin. He was a stout man with a calm, composed demeanour, who would sit on his pony and buy seventy score without even dismounting. He rented large grazings in Dumfriesshire, where he wintered his highlanders ready for the southern markets.

Drovers (Fighting)
Sometimes Tempers Flared!

With a workforce of one man to fifty or sixty beasts there could be a number of Scotsmen at the fairs and sometimes tempers flared. A violent fight took place between the Scotsmen and the locals at the `Bell’ in Hempton, Norfolk, in August 1791. Several people were injured, two seriously. The drovers then broke into a neighbouring public house where they attacked people and swore they would defend themselves against the Civil powers to the last drop of their blood. The next morning Lord Townshend armed his servants and tenants, surrounded the house and ordered them to surrender. The few who refused broke through the roof as evening approached and were caught nearby.

On the outskirts of London, such as Mile End, there were ‘layers’. These were areas outside the City’s jurisdiction where the beasts could be fed, watered and rested before they were collected by the licensed London drovers in the early hours of market day. Such ‘layers’ possessed great advantages as the stock went into the market less fatigued and in better condition than is possible in the usual method of droving. Early morning departure for Smithfield appears to have been at 3 o’clock when it would just be possible to see the beasts; the implication here is that salesmen came to the ‘layers’ and found advantages there.

Drovers (Through London Streets)
Funnelling cattle through London streets towards Smithfield Market.

As the droves funnelled towards the Capital they caused much inconvenience to the local inhabitants. When it was proposed to close one ancient footpath in Hornchurch Lane the tenants of Havering Enclosure wrote in alarm to the Commissioners to say that the path ‘enabled the women and children of the industrious tradesmen to enjoy the benefit of the air free from the dread and danger of the numerous droves of cattle and from the greater dread of insults from the drovers’. It is not difficult to imagine the disturbance caused by jostling cattle being driven through the narrow London streets. In 1839 regulations were enforced as to the number of beasts and the hours in which they could be driven. No dogs were to be used. On their left, upper arm, the London drovers wore a metal badge stamped with the armorial bearings of the City of London and their licence number. Further regulations in 1850 stipulated the routes the cattle had to follow; those from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge were met at ‘layers’ in Stratford or Mile End and were to be driven via Shoreditch, Worship Street, Barbican and Long Lane. Tolls were paid at the City gates and to the City of London for the beasts sold in the market. On reaching Smithfield the beasts were tied individually to long lines of oak rails where the salesmen negotiated sales with the carcase butchers. Although the cattle had their prescribed routes through the City they caused much disruption and the public voiced their distress at the cruelty suffered by the beasts which, alarmed and frantic from pain, would rush in any direction but that which was intended.

Drovers (Arm-Badge)
London drovers wore a metal badge stamped with the armorial bearings of the City of London and their licence number.

By the early 19th century, droving as a major industry was nearing the end of its days. The peace, after the battle of Waterloo in 1815 finished the Napoleonic wars, meant the shrinking navy needed less beef but other changes were even more important. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in agriculture. Enclosed systems of fields replaced open common grazing and large, fatter cattle were bred and raised ready for market. More importantly, by the 1830s, faster steamships were being built and farmers in the lowlands and elsewhere started to ship cattle directly to the southern markets instead of by the long arduous overland droves. Then, once railways were being established from the 1850’s, an even swifter and more reliable means of transporting cattle and other agricultural products to market was being offered. By then, cattle had been more carefully bred and were not hardy enough to take the long road anyway.

 

Drover (Smithfield)3

In East Anglia few traces of the long trails south now remain. ‘Bullock Hill’, ‘Calf Lane’ or ‘Fair’ incorporated in the name of a road suggests a one-time involvement, while the Inns, where farmers brought their cattle to be taken to London, now have large car parks. Was this where the men congregated with their cattle? – and, did the rivers nearby provide water for the drinking troughs?

THE END

Sources:

 

Deterring Witches

Today we use locks, burglar alarms and timer-set lighting to protect our homes, but 300 to 400 years ago householders were not just worried about human intruders. They believed their homes were also at risk from supernatural forces – evil spirits, ill luck, ghosts and witches. Strong magic was therefore needed in a world beset by disease, failed harvests, disastrous fires and unexplained deaths. So, wherever evil might enter a building they buried magic charms, be it in doorways, up chimneys and beneath fireplaces; they even protected roof spaces with dead animals and would ‘brick up’ a bottle full of urine, human hair and nails – of which witches and bad fairies were known to be frightened! Importantly, all these spells against supernatural harm were concealed in secrecy, because secrecy was part of ‘charm’s’ power to protect against demons, witches and curses.

img_3319
The brick with magical symbols found at Earlham Hall, Norwich.

Today, witch bottles and mummified animals are still being discovered during renovations and demolitions, In Hethersett, near Norwich in Norfolk, a bottle with iron pins and nails was found buried beneath a cottage fireplace. A dead cat was concealed in a room in King’s Lynn, a horse skull was hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, and a jar of urine, human hair and nails was unearthed in King Street, Norwich.

img_3318
horse skull hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, Norfolk

The practice of trying to turn away evil with magic charms and potions is called apotropaios and was common for centuries. The “apotropaic” terminology comes from the Greek term “apotropaios,” meaning “averting evil.” Witches or their evil conjured spirits were thought to attempt to enter homes via doorways, hearths, and windows, and hide in shadows made by the nooks and crannies of the house. It was believed that once they had entered the property, witches and evil spirits would want to attack the inhabitants, or ruin the most valuable possessions of the owner. Tudor proprietors took a proactive approach to the issue, and carved the apotropaic marks near where items of value were storedIn Britain it was particularly prevalent during the peak period of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was still seen into the 20th century.

These protective measures were taken inside all types and sizes of buildings, irrespective of the status of their occupants. Marks have been found in lowly cottages and high status buildings including the Tower of London. It seemed that homes, businesses, churches and grand houses all had a need of protection.

img_3322
The Red Cat of the Red Cat Hotel in North Wootton.

Animals were believed to have special powers, Particularly dead cats, sometimes positioned as if hunting. Cats were also believed to have a sixth sense and might have been hidden as a sacrifice to ward off bad luck and black magic. During the 17th Century, it was common in England to bury mummified cats in the walls or ceilings to deter witches or evil spirits from entering the property. Remains of a cat were found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011.

Witches (Cat)
Mummified Cat

It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Partly because of the cat’s sleek movements and eyes that ‘glow’ at night, they became the embodiment of darkness, mystery, and evil, possessing frightening powers. If a black cat walked into the room of an ill person, and the person later died, it was blamed on the cat’s supernatural powers. If a black cat crossed a person’s path without harming them, this indicated that the person was then protected by the devil. Often times, a cat would find shelter with older women who were living in solitude. The cat became a source of comfort and companionship, and the old woman would curse anyone who mistreated it. If one of these tormentors became ill, the witch and her familiar were blamed.

Witches (Bottle)Witch bottles a common counter spell against illness caused by witchcraft was to put the sick person’s urine (and sometimes also hair and fingernails clippings) in a bottle with nails, pins, or threads, cork it tightly, and either set it to heat by the hearth or bury it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in 1671, ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’ (The Astrological Practice of Physick (1671). Usually buried beneath the hearth or near entrances to buildings, their recipe was still known in a Norfolk village in 1939:

“Take a stone bottle, make water in it, fill it with your own toe-nails and finger-nails, iron nails and anything which belongs to you. Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. The room must be in darkness; you must not speak or make a noise. The witch will come to your door and make a lot of noise and beg you to open the door and let her in. If you do not take any notice, but keep silent, the witch will burst. The strain on the mind of the person when the witch is begging to be let in is usually so great that the person often speaks and the witch is set free.” (E. G. Bales, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 67).

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A 16th-century Bellarmine jar found on the site of The Forum in Norwich.

Witch bottles are usually found beneath hearths or front-doors, but have also been uncovered from beneath floors and inside walls. Around 200 have been recorded in England, dating back to the 16th century. More than half are grey stoneware bottles and jars called bellarmine, decorated with the faces of grim-looking bearded men. As well as the ingredients mentioned above, they sometimes contained small bones, thorns, pieces of wood and heart-shaped scraps of fabric.

img_3320
A witch bottle found in Bury St Edmunds, containing the remains of rusty iron objects

Witches (Candle)‘Candle Smoke Marks’ have been found on ceilings, often in bedrooms or hallways near bedrooms. They consist of magical symbols written on the ceiling with the smoke from a candle. There were also spells written in words on rolls of paper, or scratched in pictures and diagrams on walls.

But perhaps the most common hidden charms of all were old shoes – almost always patched and repaired, usually single, often a child’s. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes, such as coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones. This superstition dates back at least as far as the 14th century when Buckinghamshire rector, and unofficial English saint, John Schorn is said to have trapped the devil in a boot – something which is depicted on several Norfolk rood screens. More than 1,200 examples have been recorded with one of the earliest found so far hidden in Winchester Cathedral in 1308. And the practise survived into the 20th century. Strange as it may seem, modern shoes are regularly encountered; there was an example not so long ago of a Nike trainer being found in the roof of a central London bank and the clues seemed to indicate that it had been deliberately placed there.

Witches (Shoe)
The lonesome shoe at St. John’s, Cambridge University was discovered while staff members were removing panels to install electrical cables in the Senior Combination Room located in the College’s Tudor-era Second Court. This building was constructed between 1598 and 1602 and was originally home to the Master of the College. However, experts believe it was placed behind the panels between the end of the 17th century and mid-way through the 18th.

In homes, shoes were often placed on a ledge inside a chimney where it was thought they would trap bad spirits. Nothing unusual here; hidden charms were generally placed at entry and exit points, including the hearth which would have been open to the sky. Any supernatural harm circling the house would, hopefully, be put off trying to gain access.

It has been found that some houses had shoes, bottles, marks and cats, all from the same period, hidden together, evidence that there was a very strong urge to protect the property and occupants. Others have been found with many layers of protection, such as the three witch-bottles found mortared into the hearth of a grand house in Essex, at a time when the mistress was known to have been very ill. Maybe it was believed that she was bewitched!

Many hidden charms will still be concealed in buildings so, anyone keen to search for magic charms in their own houses, should try under floorboards or above lintels near doors, in walls and roofs, and around hearths and chimneys. Simply shining the beam of a torch obliquely across hearths or door lintels could reveal ritual marks carved into the stone.

It is known that buildings from the 17th and 18th century are frequently found to contain hidden charms. By their very nature, these charms are concealed so they are often only found by luck or during repairs or demolition. Many, of course, will have vanished without trace into builders skips or the antiques trade so they may have been far more common that we imagine.

Objects such as witch-bottles, dried cats, concealed shoes, horse skulls and written charms – amongst others – have all been found in buildings in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia. These are mainly found during demolition, restoration or sometimes just by exploring the nooks and crannies of a building.

It is a fact that secrecy and mystery still surrounds many of hidden charms, even after they are discovered. Unlike superstitions such as up-turned horseshoes, which are displayed openly, it was thought that magic lost its potency if uncovered and even modern-day householders often don’t want items removed or even discussed – perhaps because a vestige of those old beliefs still remains. It is quite common for extremely sensible, non-superstitious and professional people to suddenly become very superstitious and acutely tuned-in to the supernatural when they find these objects in their home. It is said that one home-owner refused to allow the contents of a bottle found in his home to be examined and insisted that it be re-buried with a small ritual with some nuns. Others have insisted that concealed shoes are returned to their find-spot and that cats be re-concealed.

THE END

Sources:

 

Three East Anglian Witch Hunts

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.

Witchcraft (Matthew Hopkins)
Matthew Hopkins

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 ‘formalWitchcraft (Water Test)’ 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.

Witchcraft (Framlingham Castle)
Framlingham Castle

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.

Witchcraft (John Lowe)

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.

Witchcraft (Dummy's Cert)
Dummy’s Death Certificate

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.

Witchcraft (ducking_notice)

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.

Witchcraft (Ruth Osborne)

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

                                 Thomas Colley

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”.

Witchcraft (Half Moon Pub)
Half Moon Public House, Wilstone

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.

Witchcraft (St Peter & St Paul)
The Church of St peter & St Paul, Tring

THE END

Lowestoft: Its Two Famous Witches

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.

Lowestoft (Trial)1

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.

Lowestoft (Pacey's House)

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:

Lowestoft (Sketch)1

“…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…”

Lowestoft (Sketch)2

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.

Lowestoft (Sir Matthew Hale)2
Sir Matthew Hale

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:

Lowestoft (Rose Cullender House)

“……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.

Lowestoft (Sir_Thomas_Browne)
Sit Thomas Browne

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.

Lowestoft (Execution)

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.” 

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Sir Thomas Browne’s Statute in Norwich

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.

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Sir Matthew Hale

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.” 

THE END

Of a Man and his Wandering Head

By Anna Belfrage 7 April 2016

image-1Today, I thought we’d spend some time with a certain Oliver Cromwell. Well, to be quite correct, not so much with dear Olly himself as with his mortal remains. (I call him Olly, ok? Others call him Noll. I imagine he prefers Oliver when amongst casual acquaintances, and as to what his wife calls him in private, we will never know – the man just smiles) Rarely has a decapitated head seen so much adventure as Mr Cromwell’s did – not that I think Olly cared all that much. After all, he held the opinion that once the spirit had fled, all that remained was dust.

Oliver Cromwell is one of those historical figures who triggers a black-or-white response. Either you’re with him or against him, and all those rooting for the dashing royalists (futile: they lost) will mostly be against him, holding up the execution of Charles I as the prime example of just what a low-life Oliver was.

There is no doubt Oliver Cromwell has a lot of black marks against him – I would personally consider his treatment of the Irish to be far more reprehensible than the execution of an inept king far too enamoured of the concept of Divine Right – but there are other aspects to the man. No man rises to the heights Olly did without having considerable talents, and whether or not we buy into his religious beliefs (somewhat harsh, I would say) there is no denying Olly was a devout man – and a man determined to take up arms against what he perceived as the despotic rule of Charles I.

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Charles I by Anthony van Dyck

Olly wasn’t the only one who disliked Charles I. Initially, he wasn’t even the leader of the Parliamentarian faction, but as the Civil War went from skirmish to battles, from polite crossing of swords to fields filled with blood and gore and screaming men, Cromwell worked his way methodically to the top, this very much because of his excellent command of his men.

After the king’s execution in 1649, the monarchy was abolished and replaced by a Commonwealth. Initially, Cromwell was one of many leaders, but over the coming few years he established himself as the effective ruler of the country, and as of 1653 he became Lord Protector. Depending on your biases, you may consider Cromwell as being a man dedicated to ensuring an inclusive and relatively tolerant regime, geared at returning permanent peace to the country, or as a bigoted dictator. I lean towards the former – albeit that, as stated above, I have certain issues with some of Olly’s policies.

In general, I find Oliver Cromwell an intriguing man – on the one hand a capable and ruthless general and leader, on the other a caring family man, whose letters to his wife breathe love and affection, even after thirty years of marriage. Driven, courageous, gifted with an innate understanding of tactics – both on the battlefield and on the political stage – Cromwell was also a visionary, and a man most concerned with the state of his immortal soul.

Much has been made of Cromwell’s religious fervour and his determined efforts to clamp down on all kinds of sins. Absolutely, this was a man who believed in upholding high morals and went as far as to banish certain customs (such as Christmas) to reduce the risk of sin. But he was also a man who believed firmly in “liberty of conscience” whereby man (and woman) should be free to worship as per their own beliefs – assuming, of course, that their beliefs fell within the overall umbrella of Protestantism.

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. He was magnificently buried in Westminster Abbey, next door, more or less, to Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. I imagine these royal corpses were less than thrilled with their new neighbour, but seeing as they were dead, no one asked their opinion. With Oliver’s death, the backbone of the Commonwealth sort of evaporated, and after a couple of years of general confusion, Parliament decided to invite Charles II back. Needless to say, our man Charles Stuart leaped at the opportunity.

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Charles II

Now, if you were Charles II, it would have been very, very difficult to endow Olly with any positive traits. After all, Cromwell had been one of the most vociferous proponents of executing Charles I, and it is hard to forgive a man for having condemned your father to death – or for having forced you to live as an impoverished exile for close to a decade.

To give Charles II his due, he did not return to his kingdom to wreak revenge on all those accursed Parliamentarians who had caused him, his family, and their loyal retainers so much grief. Instead, Charles II showed admirable restraint, issuing a general amnesty. Well, with one exception: the men who had sentenced Charles I to death – the so called regicides – were all to be subjected to being hanged, drawn and quartered.

At the time, many of the 59 men who’d signed the execution order were already dead. Twenty of them, to be exact, including our Olly. Nine of the remaining 39 were to suffer  that most gruesome of deaths, a number fled abroad, and several were granted the mercy of having their sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

Three of those already dead were condemned to posthumous executions. One of these, unsurprisingly, was Olly. (One of the others was his son-in-law, Henry Ireton). While it may seem more than petty to disinter people and subject their remains to an execution, I suppose that Charles II felt there was a high level of symbolism in doing this.

Whatever the case, the whole thing was rather ghoulish. First, the bodies were disinterred. Due to his relatively recent death and a competent embalmer, Olly’s corpse was in better shape than the two other gents who were to share the gallows with him. Ireton had been dead close to a decade, and the other corpse belonged to a certain Mr Bradshaw who had presided over the court that had sentenced the former king. Bradshaw had only been dead for a year or so, but someone had screwed up with his embalming, so he probably smelled a LOT more than the other two.

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The “Execution” of Cromwell – the heads are already on their pikes…….

The remains were transported to Tyburn, still in their cerecloth wrapping, where they were “hanged” mid-morning. After some hours of swinging back and forth, they were then taken down and the executioner proceeded to hack off their heads. In Olly’s case, all that cerecloth required several blows with the axe before his head finally separated from his body. I imagine there was some weak cheering – the evil Protector had been justly punished.

In difference to Olly, who ensured Charles I was buried WITH his head, Charles II ordered that Oliver’s embalmed – and now decapitated body – be thrown into a pit, while his head was to be mounted on a spike and set to adorn Westminster Hall.

And here, with Olly’s bits and pieces rotting in a pit, the head slowly disintegrating on its spike, things could have ended – rather ignominiously. If it hadn’t been for that storm late in the reign of James II which toppled the stake upon which Olly’s head balanced, thereby sending the skull to crash land on the ground far below.

By some miracle, the skull did not disintegrate, and as per tradition one of the sentries – a former Parliamentarian – found the head, swept it into his cloak and carried it home. Some years later, said sentry died, and his daughter sold the head – by now not much more than leathery skin and some stubborn strands of hair attached to the bone – to an eager French collector. Here, at last, was a nice gory exhibit for his little museum.

At some point, Cromwell’s blood relatives heard of the exhibited head, and one of his indirect descendants bought his skull and brought it home to Huntingdon. Unfortunately for Olly’s head, some generations later another member of the family – something of a drunk wastrel – took possession of the skull which was now paraded around various pubs. By now, there was not all that much left of the so carefully embalmed features. Olly was missing an ear, people had gouged out keepsakes from his desiccated facial skin, and as to his hair, well… Apparently, stealing a lock from the severed head of Cromwell was something many wanted to do.

Eventually, the drunk wastrel – Sam to his pub mates – had gone through all his assets. The only single thing of value he had left was the skull of his distant relative. After signing one IOU too many, he no longer had that, his creditor a certain jeweller named Cox who walked off with something of a spring to his step, Olly’s poor head cradled in his arms. Why the jeweller wanted something as ugly as an old skull is beyond me – maybe he was an admirer of Cromwell. Or maybe he was gambling on the value of the head increasing.

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In the event, Cox did make quite the handsome profit when he sold the skull in 1799. The eager buyers, a pair of brothers named Hughes, paid him twice as much as the original value of the IOU. Cox’s walk was, I assume, even springier this time round, and brothers hastened off to exhibit Cromwell’s head to the public. At the time, there were TWO heads exhibited as being Olly’s, and whatever we may think of him, he was no two-headed monster, so one of them was obviously a fake. As per the brothers, theirs was the real thing, but it was becoming difficult to prove.

The brothers died, the head changed hands yet again, this time ending up in the hands of a doctor Wilkinson. Our good doctor had the head examined and decided it had to be the genuine thing. For the coming century or so, the Wilkinson family hung on to the head, now and then showing it to specially invited guests. Somewhat macabre, IMO. “Want to join me for a nightcap and a peek at my skull?” is not a line that would have me skipping with eager anticipation…

In the 1930s, the head was subjected to a thorough examination by cranial experts. These specialists concluded that the head had belonged to a man in his sixties, had been trepanned after death – as required to embalm a body in the 17th century – and that several strokes had severed the head from the neck post-mortem. Not that many embalmed bodies would have been subjected to such treatment. Add to this the remnants of a moustache and beard, the depression left behind by a wart over one of the eye sockets, and it was considered more than likely this was, in fact, Oliver Cromwell’s rather battered head.

Finally, in early 1960 a certain Horace Wilkinson died and bequeathed the head to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Why this particular college, you may wonder, and the simple reason is that this was Cromwell’s college, back when he was young and eager, not yet twenty years old but already determined to make his mark on the world. After spending his entire childhood and youth in a household dominated by women – his widowed mother and seven sisters – college must have seemed a bright new world indeed, although Olly seems to have been one of those men who genuinely liked and respected women. Right: neither here nor there…

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Sidney Sussex Chapel, photo by Ardfern Creative Commons Attr.

Anyway: the college decided the time had come to bury this rolling stone of a head, and so, more than three hundred years after his death, Cromwell’s skull was secretly interred, somewhere close to the chapel. No plaque marks the spot itself, but I don’t think that old skull really cares. It lies safe at last, hidden from gawking eyes and grasping hands. And as to Olly, I imagine he now and then pops by to check on what little remains of his remains, a gust of a chuckle escaping his soul as he considers just how hardheaded his skull must have been to survive all its adventures!