Yarmouth’s Rebecca Nurse

Rebecca Nurse was the oldest child of William and Joanna Blessing Towne from Great Yarmouth and one of three sisters who, in time, would be accused of witchcraft at the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Out of these three sisters Rebecca would be the second of them to be hanged.

Rebecca Nurse (St Nicholas)
St Nicholas Parish Church,Great Yarmouth, Norfolk  Photo:’Moldovia’ on Wikimedia Commons

Her father, William Towne was baptised on 18 Mar 1598/99 in St. Nicholas Parish Church, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England and his parents were said to be John TOWNE and Elizabeth CLARKE – although, others say that his parents were Richard TOWNE and Ann DENTON. Her mother, Joanna Blessing was born in 1594 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England but there again, others have said that she was born in 1595 in Somerleyton, Suffolk, England to John BLYSSYNGE and Joan PREASTE .

Whatever the true antecedents of these two, William Towne married Joanna BLESSING on 25 Apr 1620 in St. Nicholas Church, Great Yarmouth England.  He and his wife remained at Yarmouth long enough to have six children before emigrating to America aboard the ‘Rose of Yarmouth’ with 32 other parishioners; this was sometime around 1640. Among Rebecca’s siblings were Mary Easty (or Eastey, to be arrested 21 April 1692 and hanged on 22 September 1692) and Sarah Cloyce (or Cloyse) to be arrested on 4 April 1692 but the case was dismissed January 1693). The Towne family finally settled in America around 1640 to live on a farm in Salem where two more children were born to William and Joanna Blessing.

Four years later, Rebecca met nineteen year old Francis Nurse who was a “tray maker” by trade but more than likely also made many other wooden household items. Due to the rarity of such household goods, artisans of that medium would have been highly regarded. Rebecca married Francis Nurse on 24 August 1644, after which they went on to live for the next 30 years in the more thickly settled part of Salem, “near Skerry’s” not far from where the bridge crosses to Beverley. During this time they had four sons and four daughters, all but one of them married by the fateful year of 1692. As for Rebecca, she had “acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community” and became a long standing member of the Salem church; but she was also known for occasionally losing her temper. In 1672, Francis served as Salem’s Constable and was regularly asked to act as unofficial judge to help settle disputes in the village.

Rebecca Nurse (Homestead)2
Rebecca Nurse’s House, built 1636

Rebecca and the Salem Witch Trials

The public accusations of witchcraft in Salem Village began on February 29, 1692. The first accusations were levelled against three women who were not considered very respectable: the Indian slave Tituba, a homeless mother Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne who had a somewhat scandalous history.Then on March 12, Martha Corey was accused, and on March 19, Rebecca Nurse found herself accused, despite both being church members and respected community members.

A warrant was issued on March 23 by John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin for the arrest of Rebecca Nurse. In the warrant were complaints of attacks on Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams and others. Rebecca Nurse was arrested and examined the next day. She was accused by Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis and Elizabeth Hubbard as well as by Ann Putnam Sr., who “cried out” during the proceedings to accuse Nurse of trying to get her to “tempt God and dye.” When she held her head to one side, those claiming afflictions moved their heads to the side as well “set in that posture.” Rebecca Nurse was then indicted for witchcraft. “I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely what sin hath God found out in me unrepentant of, that he should lay such an affliction on me in my old age,” she said.

That Sunday was Easter Sunday, which was no particular special Sunday in the Puritan calendar, but with Rebecca Nurse in prison, as were Tituba, Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good and Martha Corey, the Reverend Parris preached on witchcraft. He emphasised that the devil could not take the form of anyone innocent. During the sermon, Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca’s sister, left the meetinghouse and slammed the door.

Rebecca Nurse (Towne Sisters)
Caption: “The Towne Sisters”
Plaster statue depicting Rebecca Towne Nurse, Mary Towne Esty, and Sarah Towne Cloyse, wearing shackles. The statue is located in the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers, Salem. Artist: Yiannis Stefinarkis, ca. 1970.

The sequence of events thereafter was that on April 3, Rebecca’s younger sister, Sarah Cloyce, came to Rebecca’s defence…..but was then accused and arrested on April 8. Then on April 21, another of her sisters, Mary Easty, was arrested after defending Rebecca’s innocence. John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin then ordered the Boston jail to take custody of Rebecca Nurse and others for acts of witchcraft committed on Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard – and others.

In a deposition, written by Thomas Putnam and signed on May 31, he detailed accusations of torment of his wife, Ann Putnam by the spectres of Rebecca Nurse and Martha. Another deposition detailed accusations of afflictions inflicted by Rebecca Nurse’s spectre.

A Mary Warren testified on June 1, that when she was in prison, George Burroughs, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, and several others said they were going to a feast at the Parris house, and that when she refused to eat some bread and wine with them, they “dreadfully afflicted her” — and that Rebecca Nurse “appeared in the roome” during the taking of the deposition and afflicted Mary, Deliverance and Abigail Hobbs, and that Philip English appeared and injured Mary’s hand with a pin.

On June 2, at 10 in the morning, the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in its first session. Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Elizabeth Proctor, Alice Parker, Susannah Martin and Sarah Good were forced to undergo a physical examination of their bodies by a doctor with a number of women present. A “preternatural excrescence of flesh” was reported on the first three. Nine women signed the document attesting to the examination. A second exam that day at 4 in the afternoon stated that several of the physical abnormalities they saw in the morning had changed; they attested that on Rebecca Nurse, the “excrescence …… appears only as a dry skin without sense” at this second examination. Again, nine women’s marks are on the document. A grand jury indicted Rebecca Nurse for witchcraft on June 3.

On July 3, the Salem church excommunicated Rebecca Nurse.

Rebecca Nurse (Brought in Chains)
Caption: “The sheriff brought the witch up the broad aisle, her chains clanking as she stepped.”
This drawing illustrates a scene in John Musick’s book The Witch of Salem in which Rebecca Nurse is brought in chains to the meeting house where the Rev. Nicholas Noyes pronounces her excommunication before the congregation.
Source: The Witch of Salem or Credulity Run Mad. By John R. Musick. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1893: 275. Artist: F. A. Carter. Source: Photograph by Benjamin C. Ray, 2001

Rebecca’s trial started on June 30 1692. Banned from having a lawyer, she represented herself and 39 villagers appeared on her behalf as character witnesses; her accusers broke into fits as they spoke about their claims and the so-called “spectral evidence” was deemed to be relevant. Regardless of this, Rebecca was found not guilty and there was an immediate outcry – the girls fell into prolonged fits and spasms, the public bayed for blood and the judges asked the jury to reconsider. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the verdict was changed and Nurse was sentenced to death on July 19 1692. However, another twist came into play; in light of urgent pleas from Rebecca’s family and abundant evidence of her good character, Sir William Phips, the Governor of Massachusetts granted Nurse a reprieve – then he withdrew it despite Rebecca filing a petition protesting the verdict, pointing out she was “something hard of hearing, and full of grief.”! On July 12, William Stoughton signed the death warrant for Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How and Sarah Wilds and they were all hanged on July 19, followed by her sister who was tried and hanged on September 22 1692. Sarah Good cursed the presiding clergyman, Nicholas Noyes, from the gallows, saying “if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” – Years later, Noyes died unexpectedly, haemorrhaging from the mouth!

Rebecca Nurse (Trial, Museum)
Caption: “Trial of Rebecca Nurse”
Diorama depicting the trial of Rebecca Nurse, shown seated in the dock at the right, the magistrates in the center, and the “afflicted” girls at the left.
Source: 35mm slide © Salem Witch Museum, 1999.

By October, with 20 people executed and 150 more men, women and children accused, the hysteria began to die down and the tide of public opinion turned against the trials. Sarah was released and later given nine gold sovereigns in compensation for her imprisonment and her sisters’ deaths.

Francis Nurse was to die on 22 November 1695, after the witch trials had been ended (in 1693) but before Rev. Parris finally left Salem Village and before the 1711 reversal of attainder bill that also gave some compensation to Rebecca Nurse’s heirs. In 1697, 12 members of the jury made a public apology, admitting they had been “sadly deluded and mistaken”. On August 25, 1706, Ann Putnam Jr., in formally joining the Salem Village church, publicly apologized “for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons…” She named Rebecca Nurse specifically and publicly confessed her contrition for her part in the trials. Her excuse – That Satan made her do it! In 1712, Salem church reversed its excommunication of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.

Rebecca Nurse (illustration-by-Howard-Pyle-1907)
“The Lord knows that I haven’t hurt them” illustration of Rebecca Nurse by Howard Pyle, published in “Dulcibel: A tale of old Salem” by Henry Peterson, circa 1907
Inscription: “Oh Lord, help me! It is false. I am clear. For my life now lies in your hands….”

Arthur Miller’s Play “The Crucible”:

Rebecca Nurse (the-crucible)
“The Crucible” Thurston Hopkins / Getty Images

Rebecca Nurse is a central character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and in a Crucible Character Study of Rebecca Nurse Wade Bradford stated:

“If there is one character in “The Crucible” that everyone can love and sympathise with, it is Rebecca Nurse. She could be anyone’s grandmother, the woman you would never speak foul of or intend to hurt in any way. And yet, in Arthur Miller‘s tragic play, sweet Rebecca Nurse is one of the last victims of the Salem Witch Trials.

Nurse’s unfortunate end coincides with the curtain that closes this play, even though we never see it happen. The scene in which she and John Proctor head to the gallows is heartbreaking. It is the punctuation mark on Miller’s commentary on ‘witch hunts’ whether they be in 1690s Salem or the 1960s round up of alleged communists in America which prompted his writing this play.

Rebecca Nurse puts a face to the accusations and it is one that you cannot ignore. Can you imagine your grandmother being called out as a witch or a communist? If John Proctor is the tragic hero, Rebecca Nurse is the tragic victim of “The Crucible.” She is the saintly character of the play. Whereas John Proctor has many flaws, Rebecca seems angelic. She is a nurturing soul, as seen when she tries to comfort the sick and the fearful in Act One. She is a grandmother who exhibits compassion throughout the play.

  • Wife of Francis Nurse.
  • A sensible and pious older woman held in the highest regard in Salem.
  • Self-confident and compassionate and as the last act demonstrates, the humblest of all the characters.

When convicted of witchcraft, a humble Rebecca Nurse refuses to bear false witness against herself and others. She would rather hang than lie. She comforts John Proctor as they are both led to the gallows. “Let you fear nothing! Another judgment waits us all!”

Nurse also utters one of the more subtle and realistic lines of the play. As the prisoners are led to the gallows, Rebecca stumbles. This provides a dramatically tender moment when John Proctor catches her and helps her to her feet. She is a bit embarrassed and says, “I’ve had no breakfast.” This line is so unlike any of the turbulent speeches of the male characters, or the vehement replies of the younger female characters.

Rebecca Nurse has much she could complain about. Anyone else in her situation would be consumed with fear, sorrow, confusion, and rage against the evils of society. Yet, Rebecca Nurse merely blames her faltering on a lack of breakfast. Even at the brink of execution, she exhibits not a trace of bitterness, but only the sincerest humility. Of all the characters from “The Crucible,” Rebecca Nurse is the most benevolent. Her death increases the tragedy of the play.

Rebecca Nurse (Memorial)
Description: Rebecca Nurse Memorial, erected 1885. Located in the Rebecca Nurse Homestead cemetery, Danvers, Massachusetts. The inscription on the monument reads: Rebecca Nurse, Yarmouth, England 1621. Salem, Mass., 1692. “O Christian Martyr/who for Truth could die/When all about thee/owned the hideous lie!/The world redeemed/from Superstition’s sway/Is breathing freer for thy sake today.” From the poem “Christian Martyr,” by John Greenleaf Whittier.
Source: Photograph by Benjamin C.. Ray, 2001
Rebecca Nurse (Family Assoc.)
Description: Nurse Family Association, dedication of the Rebecca Nurse Memorial, erected July, 1885. The tall granite memorial is located in the cemetery of Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Danvers, Massachusetts
Source: Photograph, courtesy of the Danvers Archive Collection.

THE END

Sources:
https://blog.prepscholar.com/the-crucible-rebecca-nurse-analysis
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Nurse
https://www.thoughtco.com/elizabeth-proctor-about-3529972
http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/nursepics.html
http://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-trial-of-rebecca-nurse/
https://www.anamericanfamilyhistory.com/Towne%20Family/TowneRebeccaNurse.html
https://www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/salem-witch-trials
https://minerdescent.com/2010/05/18/william-towne/
http://familypedia.wikia.com/wiki/Francis_Nurse_(1618-1695)

 

The Lowestoft Witches (Trial Report)

TO THE READER

During the first half 17th century the coastal town of Lowestoft in Suffolk, England, witnessed many upheavals – plague, fire, civil strife and a rapid decline in the local fishing industry. It did not end there for the town was involved with an expensive law-suit with the neighbouring town of Great Yarmouth. All this left their mark on this small community of under 2,000 inhabitants.

Then, in the year 1660 another “menace” appeared in their midst, that of the ugly spectre of “witchcraft”. Two elderly widows, Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, were suspected of being “witches”. Within months they were arrested, accused and tried at the Lent Assizes held at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk on March 13th 1662. Both were found guilty and hanged.

The details of their Trial and the accusations against them were recorded at the time and twenty years later they were published in a small booklet entitled “A Tryal of Witches” – the text of which is as follows:

The Links in the dialogue will take you to details of the characters, events, background, etc . . . . Pictures herein were not in the Report but included here to support the text…….

 

A TRYAL OF WITCHES

This trial of witches hath lain a long time in a private gentleman’s hands in the country, it being given to him by the person that took it at the court for his own satisfaction; but it came lately to my hands, and having perused it, I found it a very remarkable thing, and fit to be published; especially in these times, wherein things of this nature are much controverted, and that by persons of much learning on both sides.  I thought that so exact a relation of this trial would probably give more satisfaction to a great many persons, by reason that it is pure matter of fact, and that evidently demonstrated; than the arguments and reasons of other very learned men, that probably may not be so intelligble to all Readers; especially this being held before a Judge, whom for his integrity, Learning, and Law, hardly any Age, either before or since could parallel; who not only took a great deal of paines, and spent much time in this Tryal himself; but had the Assistance and Opinion of several other very Eminent and Learned Persons:  So that this being the most perfect Narrative of any thing of this Nature hitherto extant, made me unwillingly to deprive the World of the Benefit of it; which is the sole Motive that induced me to Publish it.

Farewell.

Lowestoft (Sir Matthew Hale)
Sir Matthew Hale

At the Assizes and General Gaol delivery, held at  Bury St. Edmonds for the County of Suffolk, the Tenth day of March, in the Sixteenth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King  Charles II, before Matthew Hale, Knight, Lord Chief Baron of His Majesties Court of Exchequer;  Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, Widows, both of Leystoff in the County aforesaid, were severally indicted for Bewitching Elizabeth and Ann Durent, Jane Bocking, Susan Chandler, William Durent, Elizabeth and Deborah Pacey:  And the said Cullender and Duny, being arraigned upon the said Indictments, pleaded Not Guilty:  And afterwards, upon a  long Evidence, were found Guilty, and thereupon had Judgement to dye for the same.

The Evidence whereupon these Persons were convicted of Witchcraft, stands upon divers particular circumstances.

I.  Three of the Parties above-named, viz. Anne Durent, Susan Chandler, and Elizabeth Pacy were brought to Bury to the Assizes and were 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.

 As concerning William Durent, being an Infant, his mother Dorothy Durent sworn and examined deposed in open Court,  That about the Tenth of March, Nono Caroli Secundi, she having a special occasion to go from home, and having none in the House to take care of her said Child (it then sucking) desired Amy Duny her Neighbour, to look to her child during her absence, for which she promised her to give her a Penny:  but the said Dorothy Durent desired the said Amy not to Suckle her Child, and laid a great charge upon her not to do it.  Upon which it was asked by the Court, why she did give that direction, she being an old Woman and not capable of giving Suck?  It was answered by the said Dorothy Durent, that she very well knew that she did not give suck, but that for some years before, she had gone under the reputation of a Witch, which was one cause made her give the caution:  Another was, that it was customary with old Women, that if they did look after a sucking Child, and nothing would please it but the Breast,  they did use to please the Child, but it sucked nothing but Wind, which did the child hurt.

 Nevertheless after the departure of this deponent, the said Amy did Suckle the Child:  And after the return of the said Dorothy, the said Amy did acquaint her, That she had given Suck to the Child contrary to her command.  Whereupon the Deponent was very angry with the said Amy for the same; at which the said Amy was much discontented, and used many high Expressions and Threatening Speeches towards her: telling her, That she had as good to have done otherwise than to have found fault with her, and so departed out of her house:  And that very Night her Son fell into strange fits of swounding, and was held in such terrible manner, that she was much affrighted therewith, and so continued for divers weeks.  And the said Examinant farther said, that she being exceedingly troubled at her Childs Distemper, did go to a certain Person named Doctor Jacob, who lived at Yarmouth, who had the reputation in the Country, to help children that were Bewitch’d;  who advis’d her to hang up the Childs Blanket in the Chimney-corner all day, and at night when she put the Child to Bed, to put it into the said blanket, and if she found any thing in it, she should not be afraid, but to throw it into the fire.  And this Deponent did according to his direction; and at night when she took down the Blanket with an intent to put her Child therein, there fell out of the same a great Toad, which ran up and down the hearth, and she having a young youth only with her in the House, desired him to catch the Toad, and throw it into the Fire, which the youth did accordingly, and held it there with the Tongs; and as soon as it was in the Fire it made a great and horrible Noise, and after a space there was a flashing in the Fire like Gun-powder, making the noise like the discharge of a Pistol, and thereupon the Toad was no more seen nor heard.  It was asked by the Court, if that after the noise and the flashing, there was not the Substance of the Toad to be seen to consume in the fire?  And it was answered by the said Dorothy Durent, That after the flashing and the noise, there was no more seen than if there had been none there.

The next day there came a young Woman a Kinswoman of the said Amy, and a neighbour of this Deponent, and told this Deponent, that her Aunt (meaning the said Amy) was in a most lamentable condition having her face all scorched with fire, and that she was sitting alone in her House, in her Smock without any fire.  And thereupon this Deponent went into the House of the said Amy Duny to see her, and found her in the same condition as was related to her; for her face, her Leggs, and Thighs, which this Deponent saw, seemed very much scorched and burnt with Fire, at which this Deponent seemed much to wonder.  And asked the said Amy how she came into that sad condition?  and the said Amy replied, she might thank her for it, for that she this Deponent was the cause thereof, but that she should live to see some of her Children dead, and she upon crutches.  And this Deponent farther saith, that after the burning of the said Toad, her child recover’d, and was well again, and was living at the time of the Assizes.  And this Deponent farther saith, That about the 6th of March, 11 Car. 2. her daughter Elizabeth Durent, being about the age of Ten Years, was taken in a like manner as her first Child was, and in her fits complained much of Amy Duny, and said, That she did appear to her, and Afflict her in such manner as the former.  And she this said Deponent going to the Apothecaries for some thing for her said Child, when she did return to her own House, she found the said Amy Duny there, and asked her what she did do there?  and her answer was, That she came to see her Child, and to give her some water.  But she this Deponent was very angry with her, and thrust her forth of her doors, and when she was out of doors, she said, You need not be so angry, for your Child will not live long:  and this was on a Saturday, and the Child dyed on the Monday following.  The cause of whose Death this Deponent verily believeth was occasion’d by the Witchcraft of the said Amy Duny: for that the said Amy hath been long reputed to be a Witch, and a person of very evil behaviour, whose Kindred and Relations have been many of them accused for Witchcraft, and some of them have been condemned.

 The said Deponent further saith, that not long after the death of her Daughter Elizabeth Durent, she this Deponent was taken with a Lameness in both her Leggs, from the knees downwards, that she was fain to go upon Cruches, and that she had no other use of them but only to bear a little upon them till she did remove her crutches, and so continued till the time of the Assizes, that the Witch came to be Tryed, and was there upon her Crutches, the Court asked her, That at the time she was taken with this  Lameness, if it were with her according to the Custom of Women?  Her Answer was, that it was so, and that she never had any stoppages of those things, but when she was with Child.

 This is the Substance of her Evidence to this Indictment.

 There was some thing very remarkable, that after she had gone upon Crutches for upwards of Three Years, and went upon them at the time of the Assizes in the Court when she gave her Evidence, and upon the Juries bringing in their Verdict, by which the said Amy Duny was found Guilty, to the great admiration of all Persons, the said Dorothy Durent was restored to the use of her Limbs, and went home without making use of her Crutches.

 II.  As concerning Elizabeth and Deborah Pacy, the first of the Age of Eleven Years, the other of the age of Nine Years or thereabouts:  as to the Elder, She was brought into the Court at the time of the Instructions given to draw up the Indictments, and afterwards at the time of Tryal of the said Prisoners, but 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 stomack 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, but was sensible of what was said to her, and after a while she laid her Head on the Bar of the Court with a Cushion under it, and her hand and her Apron upon that, and there she lay a good space of time: and by the direction of the Judg, 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; 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.

Deborah the younger Daughter was held in such extream manner, that her Parents wholly despaired of her life, and therefore could not bring her to the Assizes.

The Evidence which was given concerning these Two Children was to this Effect.
 

Samuel Pacy a Merchant of Leystoff (Lowestoft) aforesaid, (a man who carried himself with much soberness during the Tryal, from whom proceeded no words either of Passion or Malice, though his Children were so greatly Afflicted,) Sworn and Examined, Deposeth, That his younger Daughter Deborah, upon Thursday the Tenth of October last, was suddenly taken with a Lameness in her Leggs, so that she could not stand, neither had she any strength in her Limbs to support her, and so she continued until the Seventeenth day of the same Month, which day being fair and sunshiny, the Child desired to be carryed on the East part of the House, to be set upon the Bank which looketh upon the Sea;  and whil’st she was sitting there, Amy Duny came to this Deponents House to buy some Herrings, but being denyed she went away discontented, and presently returned again, and was denyed, and likewise the third time and was denyed as at first;  and at her last going away, she went away grumbling; but what she said was not perfectly understood.  But at the very same instant of time, the said Child was taken with most violent fits, feeling most extream 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.  And in this extremity the Child continued to the great grief of the Parents until the Thirtieth of the Same Month.  During this time this Deponent sent for one Dr. Feavor, a Doctor of Physick, to take his advice concerning his Childs Distemper; the Doctor being come, he saw the child in those firs, but could not conjecture (as he then told this Deponent, and afterwards affirmed in open Court, at this Tryal) what might be the cause of the Childs Affliction.  And the Deponent farther saith, That by reason of the circumstances aforesaid, and in regard Amy Duny is a Woman of an ill Fame, & commonly reported to be a Witch & Sorceress, and for that the said Child 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 (as the child in the intervals of her fits related) he this deponent did suspect the said Amy Duny for a Witch, and charged her with the injury and wrong to his child, and caused her to be set in the Stocks on the Twenty eighth of the same October:  and during the time of continuance there, one Alice Letteridge and Jane Buxton demanding of her ( as they also affirmed in court upon their Oathes) what should be the reason of Mr. Pacy’s Childs Distemper? telling her, That she was suspected to be the cause thereof;  she replyed, Mr. Pacy keeps a great stir about his child, but let him stay until he hath done as much by his children, as I have done by mine.  And being further examined, what she had done to her Children?  She answered, That she had been fain to open her Child’s Mouth with a Tap to give it Victuals.

 And the said Deponent further desposeth, That within two days after speaking of the said words being the Thirtieth of 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; and the younger Child was in the like manner Afflicted, so that they used the same also for her Relief.

 And further the said Children being grievously afflicted would severally complain in their extremity, and also in the intervals, That Amy Duny (together with one other Woman whose person and Cloathes they described) did thus Afflict them, their Apparitions appearing before them, to their great terrour and affrightment:  And sometimes they would cry out, saying, There stands Amy Duny, and there Rose Cullender;  the other Person troubling them.

 Their fits were various, sometimes they would be lame on one side of their Bodies, sometimes on the other:  sometimes a soreness over their whole Bodies, so as they could endure none to touch them:  at other times they would be restored to the perfect use of their Limbs, and deprived of the Hearing;  at other times of their sight, at other times of their Speech;  sometimes by the space of one day, sometimes for two;  and once they were wholly deprived of their Speech for Eight days together, and then restored to their Speech again.  At other times they would fall into Swounings, and upon the recovery to their Speech they would Cough extreamly, and bring up much Flegme, and with the same crooked Pins, and one time a Two-penny Nail with a very broad head, which Pins (amounting to Forth 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.  Commonly at the end of every fit they would cast up a Pin, and sometimes they would have four or five fits in one day.

 In this manner the said Children continued with this Deponent for the space of two Months, during which time in their Intervals this Deponent would cause them to Read some Chapters in the New Testament.  Whereupon this Deponent several times observed, that they would read till they came to the Name of Lord, or Jesus, or Christ;  and then before they could pronounce either of the said Words they would suddenly fall into their fits.  But when they came to the Name of Satan, or Devil, they would clap their Fingers upon the Book, crying out, This bites, but makes me speak right well.

 At such time as they be recovered out of their fits (occasion’d as this deponent conceives upon their naming of Lord, or Jesus, or Christ,) this Deponent hath demanded of them, what is the cause they cannot pronounce those words, They reply and say, That Amy Duny saith, I must not use that name.

 And farther, the said Children after their fits were past, would tell, how that Amy Duny, and Rose Cullender would appear before them, holding their Fists at them, threatning, That if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them ten times more than ever they did before.

 In their fits they would cry out, There stands Amy Duny, or Rose Cullender; and sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, running with great violence to the place where they fancied them to stand, striking at them as if they were present;  they would appear to them sometimes spinning, and sometimes reeling, or in other postures, deriding or threatning them.

 And this Deponent farther faith, That his Children being thus Tormented by all the space aforesaid, and finding no hopes of amendment, he sent them to his Sisters House, one Margaret Arnold, who lived at Yarmouth, to make tryal, whether the change of the Air might do them any good.  Any how, and in what manner they were afterwards held, he this Deponent refers himself to the Testimony of his said Sister.

 Margaret Arnold, Sworn and Examined, saith, That the said Elizabeth and Deborah Pacy came to her House about the Thirtieth of November last, her Brother acquainted her, that he thought they were Bewitch’d, for that they vomited Pins;  and farther Informed her of the several passages which occurred at his own House.  This Deponent said, that she gave no credit to that which was related to her, conceiving possibly the Children might use some deceit in putting Pins in their mouths themselves.  Wherefore this Deponent unpinned all their Cloathes, and left not so much as one Pin upon them, bur sewed all the Clothes they wore, instead of pinning of them.  But this Deponent saith, that notwithstanding all this care and circumspection of hers, the children afterwards raised at several times at least Thirty Pins in her presence, and had most fierce and violent Fitts upon them.

 The Children would in their Fitts cry out against Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, affirming that they saw them; and they threatned to Torment them Ten times more, if they complained of them.  At some times the Children (only) would see things run up and down the House in the appearance of Mice; and one of them suddainly snapt one with the Tongs, and threw it into the fire, and it screeched out like a Rat.

 At another time, the younger Child being out of her Fitts went out of Doors to take a little fresh Air, and presently a little thing like a Bee flew upon her Face, and would have gone into her Mouth, whereupon the Child ran in all haste to the door to get into the House again, screeking out in a most terrible manner; whereupon this Deponent made haste to come to her, but before she could get to her, the Child fell into her swooning Fitt, and at last with much pain straining herself, she vomited up a Two-penny Nail with a broad Head;  and after that the Child had  raised up the Nail she came to her understanding; and being demanded  by this Deponent, how she came by this Nail? she answered, That the Bee brought this Nail and forced it into her Mouth.

 At another time, the Elder Child declared unto this Deponent, that during the time of her Fitts, she saw Flies come unto her, and bring with them in their Mouthes crooked Pins; and after the Child had thus declared the same, she fell again into violent Fits, and afterwards raised several Pins.

 At another time, the said Elder Child declared unto this deponent, and sitting by the Fire suddenly started up and said, she saw a Mouse, and she crept under the Table looking after it, and at length, she put something in her Apron, saying, she had caught it; and immediately she ran to the Fire and threw it in, and there did appear upon it to this Deponent, like the flashing of Gunpowder, though she confessed she saw nothing in the Childs hand.

 At another time the said Child being speechless, but otherwise of perfect understanding, ran about the House holding her Apron, crying, hush, hush, as if there had been some Poultrey in the House; but this Deponent could perceive nothing: but at last she saw the Child stoop as if she had catch’d at something, and put it into her Apron, and afterwards made as if she had thrown it into the Fire:  but this Deponent could not discover anything: but the Child afterwards being restored to her speech, she this Deponent demanded of her what she saw at the time she used such a posture? who answered, That she saw a Duck.

 At another time, the Younger daughter being recovered out of her Fitts, declared, That Amy Duny had been with her, and that she tempted her to Drown her self, and to cut her Throat, or otherwise to Destroy her self.
At another time in their Fitts they both of them cryed out upon Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, complaining against them; Why do not you come your selves, but send your Imps to Torment us?

 These several passages as most remarkable, the said Deponent did particularly set down as they daily happen’d, and for the reasons aforesaid, she doth verily believe in her conscience, that the Children were bewitched, and by the said Amy Duny, and Rose Cullender; though at first she could hardly be induced to believe it.

 As concerning Ann Durent one other of the Parties, supposed to be bewitched, present in Court. Edmund Durent her Father Sworn and Examined; said 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 denyed by her, the said Rose returned in a discontented manner; and upon the first of December after, his Daughter Ann Durent 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 Fitts, she declared, That she had seen the Apparition of the said Rose, who threatned 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.

Ann Baldwin Sworn and Examined, Deposeth the same thing as touching the Bewitching of the said Ann Durent.

As concerning Jane Bocking who was so weak, she could not be brought to the Assizes.  Diana Bocking Sworn and Examined, Deposed, That she lived in the same Town of Leystoff, and that he said Daughter having been formerly Afflicted with swooning fitts recovered well of them, and so continued for a certain time; and upon the First of February last, she was taken also with great pain in her Stomach, like pricking with Pins; and afterwards fell into swooning fitts and so continued till the Deponents coming to the Assizes, having during the same time taken little or no food, but daily vomited crooked Pins; and upon Sunday last raised Several Pins.  And whilst her fits were upon her she would spread forth her Arms with hands open, and use postures as if she catched at something, and would instantly close her hands again; which being immediately forced open, they found several Pins diversly crooked, but could neither see nor perceive how or in what manner they were conveyed thither.  At another time, the same Jane being in another of her fitts, talked as if she were discoursing with some persons in the Room, (though she would give no answer nor seem to take notice of any person then present) and would in like manner cast abroad her Arms, saying, I will not have it, I will not have it;  and at last she said, Then I will have it, and so waving her Arm with her hand open, she would presently close the same, which instantly forced open, they found in it a Lath-Nail.  In her fitts she would frequently complain of Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, saying, That now she saw Rose Cullender standing at the Beds feet, and another time at the Beds-head, and so in other places.  At last she was stricken Dumb and could not speak one Word, though her fitts were not upon her, and so she continued for some days, and at last her speech came to her again, and she desired her Mother to get her some Meat;  and being demanded the reason why she could not speak in so long time?  She answered, That Amy Duny would not suffer her to speak.  This Lath-Nail, and divers of the Pins were produced in Court.

 As concerning Susan Chandler, one other of the Parties supposed to be Bewitched and present in Court.

Mary Chandler Mother of the said Susan, Sworn and Examined, Deposed and said, That about the beginning of February last past, the said Rose Cullender and Amy Duny were Charged by Mr. Samuel Pacy for Bewitching of his Daughters.  And a Warrant being granted at the request of the said Mr. Pacy, by Sir Edmund Bacon Baronet, one of the Justices of the Peace for the County of Suffolk to bring them before him, and they being brought before him were Examined, and Confessed nothing.  He gave order that they should be searched;  whereupon this Deponent with five others were appointed to do the same:  and coming to the House of Rose Cullender, they did acquaint her with what they were come about, and asked whether she was contented that they should search her?  she did not oppose it, whereupon they began at her Head, and so stript her naked, and in the lower part of her Belly they found a thing like a Teat of an Inch long, they questioned her about it, and she said, That she had got a strain by carrying of water which caused that Excrescence.  But upon narrower search, they found in her Privy Parts three more Excrescencies or Teats, but smaller than the former: This Deponent farther saith, That in the long Teat at the end thereof there was a little hole, and it appeared unto them as if it had been lately sucked, and upon the straining of it there issued out white milkie Matter.

 And this Deponent farther saith, That her said Daughter (being of the Age of Eighteen Years) was then in Service in the said Town of Leystoff, and rising up early the next Morning to Wash, this Rose Cullender appeared to her, and took her by the hand, whereat she was much affrighted, and went forthwith to her Mother, (being in the same town) and acquainted her with what she had seen;  but being extreamly terrified, she feel extream sick, much grieved at her Stomach;  and that Night after being in Bed with another young Woman, she suddenly scrieked out, and fell into such extream fits as if she were distracted, crying against Rose Cullender;  saying she would come to bed to her.  She continued in this manner beating and wearing her self, insomuch, that this Deponent was glad to get help to attend her.  In her Intervals she would declare, That some time she saw Rose Cullender, at another time with a great Dog with her:  She also vomited up divers crooked Pins;  and sometimes she was stricken with blindness, and at another time she was Dumb, and so she appeared to be in Court when the Tryal of the Prisoners was;  for she was not able to speak her knowledge;  but being brought into the Court at the Tryal, she suddenly fell into her fits, and being carryed out of the Court again, within the space of half an hour she came to herself and recovered her speech, and thereupon was immediately brought into the Court, and asked by the Court, whether she was in condition to take an Oath, and to give Evidence, she said she could.  But when she was Sworn, and asked what she could say against either of the Prisoners? before she could make any answer, she fell into her fits, screeking out in a miserable manner, crying Burn her, burn her, which were all the words she could speak.
Robert Chandler father of the said Susan gave in the same Evidence, that his wife Mary Chandler had given, only as to the searching of Rose Cullender as aforesaid.

 This was the sum and Substance of the Evidence which was given against the Prisoners concerning the Bewitching of the Children before mentioned.  At the hearing this Evidence there were divers known persons, as Mr. Serjeant Keeling, Mr. Serjeant Earl, and Mr. Serjeant Barnard, present.  Mr Serjeant Keeling seemed much unsatisfied with it, and thought it not sufficient to Convict the Prisoners: for admitting that the children were in Truth Bewitched, yet said he, it can never be applyed to the Prisoners, upon the Imagination only of the Parties Afflicted;  For if that might be allowed, no person whatsoever can be in safety, for perhaps they might fancy another person, who might altogether be innocent in such matters. There was also Dr. Brown of Norwich, a Person of great knowledge;  who after this Evidence given, and upon view of the three persons in Court, was desired to give his Opinion, what he did conceive of them:  and he was clearly of Opinion, that the persons were Bewitched;  and said, That in Denmark there had been lately a great Discovery of Witches, who used the very same way of Afflicting Persons, by conveying Pins into them, and crooked as these Pins were, with Needles and Nails.  And his Opinion was, 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 humours 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 swounding Fits were Natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightned to a great excess by the subtilty of the Devil, co-operating with the Malice of these which we term Witches, at whose Instance he doth these Villanies.

 Besides the particulars above-mention’d touching the said persons Bewitched, there were many other things Objected against them for a further proof and manifestation that the said children were Bewitched.

 As First, during the time of the Tryal, there were some experiments made with the Persons Afflicted, by bringing the Persons to touch them;  and it was observed, that when they were in the midst of their Fitts, to all Mens apprehension wholly deprived of all sense and understanding, closing their Fists in such manner, as that the strongest Man in the court could not force them open;  yet by the least touch of one of these 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,  And least they might privatly see when they were touched, by the said Rose Cullender, they were blinded with their own Aprons, and the touching took the same Effect as before.

 There was an ingenious person that objected, there might be a great fallacy in this experiment, and there ought not to be any stress put upon this to Convict the Parties, for the Children might counterfeit this their Distemper, and perceiving what was done to them, they might in such manner suddenly alter the motion and gesture of their Bodies, on purpose to induce persons to believe that they were not natural, but wrought strangely by the touch of the Prisoners.

 Wherefore to avoid this scruple it was privatly desired by the Judge, that the Lord Cornwallis, Sir Edmund Bacon, and Mr. Serjeant Keeling, and some other Gentlemen there in Court, would attend one of the Distempered persons in the farther part of the Hall, whilst she was in her fits, and then to send for one of the Witches, to try what would then happen, which they did accordingly:  and Amy Duny was conveyed from the Bar and brought to the Maid:  they put an Apron before her Eyes, and then one other person touched her hand, which produced the same effect as the touch of the Witch did in the court.  Whereupon the Gentlemen returned, openly protesting, that they did believe the whole transaction of this business was a meer Imposture.

 This put the Court and all persons into a stand.  But at length Mr. Pacy did declare, That possibly the Maid might be deceived by a suspition that the Witch touched her when she did not.  For he had observed divers times, that although they could not speak, but were deprived of the use of their Tongues and Limbs, that their understandings were perfect, for that they have related divers things which have been when they were in their fits, after they were recovered out of them.  This saying of Mr. Pacy was found to be true afterwards, when his Daughter was fully recovered (as she afterwards was) as shall in due time be related:  For she was asked, whither she did hear and understand any thing that was dine and acted in the Court, during the time that she lay as one deprived of her understanding?  and she said, she did:  and by the Opinions of some, this experiment, (which others would have a Fallacy) was rather a confirmation that the Parties were really Bewitched, than otherwise:  for say they, it is not possible that any should counterfeit such Distempers, being accompanied with 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 themselves did scarce so much as Object it.  Wherefore, say they, it is very evident that the Parties were Bewitched, and that when they apprehend or understand by any means, that the persons who have done them this wrong are near, or touch them;  then their spirits being more than ordinarily moved with rage and anger at them being present, they do use more violent gestures of their Bodies, and extend forth their hands, as desirous to lay hold upon them;  which at other times not having the same occasion, the instance there falls not out the same.

One John Soam of Leystoff aforesaid, Yeoman, a sufficient Person, Deposeth, That not long since, in harvest time he had three Carts which brought home his Harvest, and as they were going into the field to load, one of the Carts wrenched the Window of Rose Cullenders House, whereupon she came out in a great rage and threatned this Deponent for doing that wrong, and so they passed along into the Fields and loaded all the Three Carts, the other two Carts returned safe home, and back again, twice loaded that day afterwards;  but as to this Cart which touched Rose Cullenders House, after it was loaded it again the second or third time, as they brought it through the Gate which leadeth out of the Field into the Town, the Cart stuck so fast in the Gates-head, that they could not possibly get it through, but were inforced to cut down the Post of the Gate to make the Cart pass through, although they could not perceive that the Cart did of either side touch the Gate-posts.  And this Deponent further saith, That after they had got it through the Gate-way, they did with much difficulty get it home into the Yard;  but for all that they could do, they could not get the Cart near unto the place where they should unload the Corn, but were fain to unload it at a great distance from the place, and when they began to unload they found much difficulty therein, it being so hand a labour that they were tired that first came;  and when others came to assist them, their Noses burst forth a bleeding:  so they were fain to desist and leave it until the next Morning;  and then they unloaded it without any difficulty at all.

 Robert Sherringham also Deposeth against Rose Cullender, That about Two Years since, passing along the Street with his Cart and Horses, the Axletree of his Cart touched her House, and broke down some part of it, at which, she was very much displeased, threatning him, that his Horses should suffer for it;  and so it happen’d, for all those Horses, being Four in Number, died within a short time after:  since that time he hath had great Losses by the suddain dying of his other cattle;  so soon as his Sows pigged, the Pigs would leap and caper, and immediately fall down and dye.  Also, not long after, he was taken with a Lameness in his Limbs that he could neither go nor stand for some days. After all this, he was very much vexed with great Number of Lice of an extraordinary bigness, and although he many times shifted himself, yet he was not anything the better, but would swarm again with them;  so that in the Conclusion he was forc’d to burn all his Clothes, being two suits of Apparel, and then was clean from them.

As concerning Amy Duny, one Richard Spencer Deposeth, That about the first of September last, he heard her say at his House, That the Devil would not let her rest until she were Revenged on one Cornelius Sandeswell’s Wife.

 Ann Sandeswel Wife unto the above-said Cornelius, Deposed, That about Seven or Eight Years since, she having bought a certain number of Geese, meeting with Amy Duny, she told her, If she did not fetch her Geese home they would all be Destroyed:  which in a few days after came to pass.

 Afterwards the said Amy became Tenant to this Deponents Husband for a House, who told her, That if she looked not well to such a Chimney in her House, that the same would fall:  Whereupon this Deponent replyed, That it was a new one;  but not minding much her Words, at that time they parted.  But in a short time the Chimney fell down according as the said Amy had said.

 Also this Deponent farther saith, That her Brother being a Fisherman, and using to go into the Northern Seas, she desired him to send her a Firkin of Fish, which he did accordingly; and she having notice that the said Firkin was brought into Leystoff-Road, she desired a Boatman to bring it ashore with the other Goods they were to bring;  and she going down to meet the Boat-man to receive her Fish, desired the said Amy to go along with her to help her home with it;  Amy Replyed, She would go when she had it.  And thereupon this Deponent went to the Shoar without her, and demanded of the Boat-man the Firkin, they told her, That they could not keep it in the Boat from falling into the Sea, and they thought it was gone to the Divel, for they never saw the like before.  And being demanded by this Deponent, whether any other Goods in the Boat were likewise lost as well as hers?  They answered, Not any.

 This was the substance of the whole Evidence given against the Prisoners at the Bar;  who being demanded, what they had to say for themselves?  They replyed, Nothing material to any thing that was proved against them.  Whereupon, the Judge in giving his direction to the Jury, told them, That he would not repeat the Evidence unto them, least by so doing he should wrong the Evidence on the one side or on the other.  Only this acquainted them, 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.  And such hath been the judgment of this Kingdom, as appears by that Act of Parliament which hath provided Punishments proportionable to the quality of the Offence.  And desired them, strictly to observe their Evidence;  and desired the great God of Heaven to direct their Hearts in this weighty thing they had in hand:  For to Condemn the Innocent, and to let the Guilty go free, were both an Abomination to the Lord.

 With this short Direction the Jury departed from the Bar, and within the space of half an hour returned, and brought them in both Guilty upon the several Indictments, which were Thirteen in Number, whereupon they stood Indicted.

 This was upon Thursday in the Afternoon, March 13. 1662.

 The next Morning, the Three Children with their Parents came to the Lord Chief Baron Hale’s Lodging, who all of them spake perfectly, and were as in good Health as ever they were;  only Susan Chandler, by reason of her very much Affliction, did look very thin and wan.  And their friends were asked, At what time they were restored thus to their Speech and Health?  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.

 After, they were all of them brought down to the Court, but Ann Durent was so fearful to behold them, that she desired she might not see them.  The other Two continued in the Court, and they Affirmed in the face of the Country, and before the Witches themselves, what before hath been deposed by their Friends and Relations;  the Prisoners not much contradicting them.  In Conclusion, the Judge and all the Court were fully satisfied with the Verdict, and thereupon gave Judgment against the Witches that they should be Hanged.

 They were much urged to confess, but would not.

 That Morning we departed for Cambridge, but no Reprieve was granted: And they were Executed on Monday, the Seventeenth of March following, but they confessed nothing.

F   I   N   I   S.

Amy Denny
Samuel Pacy
Sir Matthew Hale
Sir Thomas Browne
main page
Rose Cullender
Dorothy Durrant
John Keyling
the course of justice
The Chandler Family
Sir Edmund Bacon
the indictments
John Soan
Lord Cornwallis
execution
Margaret Arnold
Erasmus Earle
witchcraft act
Diana Bocking
Robert Bernard
Matthew Hopkins
Deborah Pacy
Elizabeth Pacy
Anne Landefielde
Jane Buxton
Alice Kiteredge
Richard Spendlar
Ann Baldinge
John Soan
Robert Sherrington

Sources:

http://www.lowestoftwitches.com/

 

Norfolk Witchcraft in the 17th Century

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.

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.[2] 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”.[3] 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”.[4] 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.

Norfolk Witchcraft (Hanging)

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”.[5] 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.[6] 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]

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”.[8]  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”.[9]  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”.[10]

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)3

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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)4

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.[14] 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”.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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 Norfolk Witchcraft (Hopkins)

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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] 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.)

Norfolk Witchcraft (Ducking)1

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.[21] 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.[22] 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.

Norfolk Witchcraft (Weighing Witches)1
Weighing Witches

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.[23]

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.[24] 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”.[25] 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

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)1

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”.[26] 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.[27] 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”.[28] 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.[29]

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)2

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.[30] 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.[31] Thomas Burke of Northwold, Norfolk, also recovered from his extreme leg pains when he burned thatch from the house of Alice Lyster.[32] Another remedy often described was that of ‘scratching’ the witch to destroy their power.[33] 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”.[34]

Daniel Jecks, another of Diver’s ‘victims’, chose another popular measure and went to a cunning man to seek help.[35] 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.[36] 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.[37]

Norfolk Witchcraft (Ducking)2

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.[38]

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.[39] 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”.[40] 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.

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)5

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.[41] 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.

Norfolk Witchcraft (Trial)1

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”.[42] 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”.[43]

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;[44] 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.[45] 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.[46] 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.[47] 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”.[48]

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.[49] 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.

Norfolk Witchcraft 1
A stand-in for the face of Mary Smith

Details 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”.[50] 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.[51] 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”.[52]

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”.[53] 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.[54]

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.[55] 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”.[56]

These 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.[57] 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.[59] 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.[60]

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”.[61] 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.[62] Popular beliefs clearly did not change overnight.[63]

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?[64] 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.

THE END

[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.
[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 2011

Source:

https://keithparry.org/my-writing-2/witchcraft-in-seventeenth-century-norfolk/

Medieval Graffiti

All of us can imagine the medieval world. Our imagination was created by our upbringing, the books we read, and the films we saw. Imagining the Middle Ages is an act that usually starts in childhood, and changes slowly as we grow older. From the brightly coloured pages of a child’s history book to the visceral panoramas of the latest season of Game of Thrones, how we see the Middle Ages changes. In most cases, however, the fundamental perspective remains the same: it’s an elite view of the medieval past, a Middle Ages composed of princes and kings, of knights and fair damsels in distress. It is a vision of the past that includes the splendour of great cathedrals and the brooding darkness of mighty castles. A past of banquets and battles. But it has little bearing upon reality.

The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it excludes the vast majority of people who lived in it, so it’s a highly partial and misleading picture of that world. Just like today, most medieval people did not belong to top 5 per cent of society, they weren’t kings, princes, knights, or damsels. Most men, women and children were commoners. It is no coincidence that this other, everyday, 95 per cent of the population was the one who did most of the work.

Putting aside farming, food processing and survival, it was these workers who were responsible for actually building most of what we think of when the Middle Ages come to mind. These are the people who built the magnificent medieval cathedrals, the craftsmen who constructed the dour and monumental castles. The workers whose blood and sweat bonds together the stones of every medieval church. They are the men whose deft fingers filled window spaces with blindingly bright stained glass. These are the people who built the Middle Ages. Yet we really know very little about them.

Medieval Graffiti 1
Composite image including a tiny selection of the many thousands of medieval compass drawn designs being discovered in English churches.

The voices of medieval commoners are largely silent. The science of archaeology tells us something about their general health, about what they wore, where they lived, and what they ate. Modern techniques such as isotope analysis can even tell us details such as where they grew up. The wonders of modern science have their limitations, however. Archaeology and isotope analysis cannot tell us what these people felt and thought, what they dreamed of and feared, what they thought was funny or what they held dear.

Most medieval documents come with the same limitations. Occasionally, the lower classes turn up in the odd surviving document, account book or legal proceedings but, with low levels of literacy throughout much of the Middle Ages, these documents are usually the work of third parties. They were written and compiled by the priests, scribes and lawyers of the elite. They refer to the lower orders, but are most certainly not in their own words. Even where they turn up in the bright borders of illuminated manuscripts, it is alongside the fantasy beasts and grotesques of the medieval imagination rather than as a reflection of reality. Their voice – the voice of the medieval commoner, of the vast majority of medieval people – is largely lost.

The past seven or eight years have seen a massive rise in one particular area of medieval studies – an area that has the potential to give back a voice to the silent majority of the medieval population. Specialists have been studying medieval church graffiti for many decades. But new digital imaging technologies, and the recent establishment of numerous volunteer recording programmes, have transformed its scope and implications. The study of early graffiti has become commonplace. The first large-scale survey began in the English county of Norfolk a little over six years ago. Norfolk is home to more than 650 surviving medieval churches – more than in any other area in England. The results of that survey have been astonishing.

Medieval Graffiti 2
Enigmatic seventeenth century memorial inscriptions from Norwich cathedral.

To date, the Norfolk survey has recorded more than 26,000 previously unknown medieval inscriptions. More recent surveys begun in other English counties are revealing similar levels of medieval graffiti. A survey of Norwich Cathedral found that the building contained more than 5,000 individual inscriptions. Some of them dated as far back as the 12th century. It has also become clear that the graffiti inscriptions are unlike just about any other kind of source in medieval studies. They are informal. Many of the inscriptions are images rather than text. This means that they could have been made by just about anyone in the Middle Ages, not just princes and priests. In fact, the evidence on the walls suggests that they were made by everyone: from the lord of the manor and parish priest, all the way down to the lowliest of commoners. These newly discovered inscriptions are giving back individual voices to generations of long-dead medieval churchgoers. The inscriptions number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are opening an entire new world of research.

Today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned. The Coliseum in Rome, or Bodiam Castle in England, to take just two examples of key European heritage sites, are covered in centuries-worth of graffiti. Many of these inscriptions were created by members of the upper classes undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ at the end of their education, and date to the 18th and 19th century. In the same tradition, early visitors to the Egyptian pyramids didn’t even need to carve the graffiti themselves – they could hire someone to do it for them. Graffiti was seen as something that was both accepted and acceptable.

Medieval masons, the people who actually built these monuments, left the earliest markings to be found on any medieval church or cathedral. The traditional story is that each individual mason would have his own personal mark, which he’d inscribe wherever he’d worked. These angular marks, known today as ‘mason’s marks’, acted as a form of quality control. They also allowed the ‘master mason’, who doubled as architect and paymaster, to calculate how much each of his workmen was due to be paid. Masons today continue this old practice of marking their work, but their marks are more discreet, hidden away between stones and in darkened corners. Occasionally, the medieval masons left something more.

Medieval Graffiti 7
A selection of medieval compass drawn designs from Belaugh church in Norfolk. All images courtesy NSMGS

Their pragmatic approach to the construction of these stone monuments meant that the walls themselves sometimes served as drawing boards. In a few cases, such as at Binham Priory in Norfolk or Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, intricate working drawings can be found etched into the stones. The designs at Binham all appear to relate to the building of the priory’s great west front in the 1240s. It is one of the earliest marvels of gothic window design to be built in England. The nameless master-mason who undertook the work was apparently unfamiliar and uncomfortable with this innovative style. Step by step, he worked out the specifics of the design on the walls of the half-finished priory church. Sadly, the great west window, which acted as a centrepiece to the design, structurally failed in the late 18th century. It then had to be bricked up – and remains so today. From the mason’s inscriptions, however, we have a clear indication of how this groundbreaking design would have looked.

Witch marks were, simply, prayers made solid in stone

Many of the markings discovered in medieval churches are all but identical. A survey of a church in northern England will reveal the same graffiti motifs and markings as those found in a church on the English South Coast. Even more remarkably, the same medieval markings recorded in most English churches are in churches across the whole of western Europe. Essentially, everywhere the medieval Christian church thrived, medieval Europeans inscribed their places of worship with the same graffiti marks. Known as ‘ritual protection marks’, medieval people believed that these symbols warded off evil influences. Today they are more commonly called ‘witch marks’.

Witch marks make up about a third of all recorded inscriptions. This means that we have many, many thousands of examples of them. Some churches, such as that at Cowlinge in Suffolk, can contain many dozens of witch marks. It is a rare church that doesn’t contain at least a small collection. These markings make clear the differences between the medieval and modern concepts of graffiti. Much modern graffiti tends to be collections of names and dates, examples of people ‘leaving their mark’ upon a place.

Medieval Graffiti 6

However, witch marks belong to the world of faith and spirituality. They were not a replacement for the orthodox prayers of the Christian church. As much as the Church might have disapproved, people used them in association, as supplements to orthodox prayers. They enhanced the spiritual, and symbolised God’s protection from the powers of evil. They were, simply, prayers made solid in stone.

What makes the witch marks even more powerful is that they were also personal. The religion of medieval England was one of hierarchy, with parishioners’ own worship and interactions being organised and mediated by the parish priest. The priest, in turn, was subservient to the local bishop and, eventually, to the Pope himself. The prayers in the stonework altogether bypass that hierarchy, and it’s a hierarchy from which almost all other historical sources from the medieval world originate. These are personal interactions and statements by everyday members of the parish congregation with ‘their’ God. There is no need of intercession by priests, bishops or the Pope. In that way, they reveal things that the official, learned histories of medieval religion never can. These are not actions based deep in medieval theology and scholarly argument. They are acts of personal faith and belief, reflecting real people’s hopes, dreams and fears.

Many of the other images on the walls were born of an agricultural society. We see windmills, horses and geese – fixtures of peasant life. These are things that they saw every day, that were important to them, and essential to their ability to feed themselves and their families. The walls are also covered in the mundane: images of the people themselves, their faces and hands. In some cases, they left full-length portraits. Staring at the medieval walls long enough will sometimes result in the walls staring back.

Beasts and dragons are also included in the graffiti. They are strange and misshapen creatures, who seemingly walked, or flew, straight off the decorative borders of an illuminated manuscript. There are images of knights on horseback, heraldry and coats of arms, suggesting that the graffiti was either created by those from the knightly classes, or perhaps those who aspired to be. The walls are full of the peoples’ hopes. They also contain their darkest fears.

Take, for example, angels and demons: the medieval church was awash with images of them. Angels were carved into the elaborate roof timbers, their wings outstretched soaring high above the congregation. Angels flew in the bright wall paintings that once adorned almost every medieval church, passing news to the Virgin Mary or leading the souls of the departed heavenward. Angels guarded the ends of dark wooden pews and pale stone fonts, carved there, bearing shields emblazoned with the arms of saints.

The demons are there, too. Grotesque beasts painted on the walls above the chancel arch, casting the souls of the damned down into the everlasting sufferings of hell. Comic demons sitting beneath the carved seats of the choir-stalls, bared backsides raised to noisily salute the clergy who perched upon them. Demons in coloured glass dance in the windows.

Demons were very real, and to be feared. This fear drove people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.

But while the medieval church was formally adorned with angels and demons, when it comes to the graffiti on the walls, there are only demons – many dozens of them, from the grotesque to the comic, dancing across the angel-free stonework.

Medieval Graffiti 4
Medieval demon complete with ‘flesh hook’ still stalking the walls of Beachamwell church in Norfolk.

Why are there no angels? The reason is quite simple. The graffiti on the walls shows only what those who made it thought was real and immediate. Angels were heavenly beings. They littered the pages of the Bible, but could not be expected to play a part in the lives of the people in the world. Demons, on the other hand, were very real indeed. It was demons who were responsible for any sudden illness or unexplained death. Demons brought down a blight upon the harvest crops. Demons unbalanced the mind of the simpleton, and brought on the terrifying storms that could lay waste a whole year’s crop in a single afternoon. Demons were real and to be feared. This fear drove medieval people to carve their counter-curses into the walls of the parish church.

Of all the graffiti being recorded in English churches, text inscriptions are actually rather rare. They make up only about 5 per cent of all the discovered markings: again, a distinct difference with modern graffiti. The rarity is in part a result of the low rates of contemporary literacy, but it is also testimony to the power of images over the written word. Many of the text inscriptions are difficult to read even by long-practiced historians. Generation after generation of wear and abrasion has left them in a sorry state. Even those that can still be made out are sometimes less than illuminating. The poor level of education among some parish priests, and the use of shortcuts and contractions, is reflected in the sometimes appalling attempts at Latin found on the walls. In many cases, the Latin is so bad that the only person who could probably have read it was the very same person who wrote it. Sometimes the writing on the walls simply can’t be read.

So what are these ancient markings on our medieval churches? Are they simply the random scribblings and doodles of bored choirboys, or do they have a deeper significance? Is there a meaning to some of them beyond the obvious? Beyond the simple statement of ‘I was here’? Recent research suggests that, yes, they are very important.

One of the most striking types of medieval graffiti is that of medieval ships. These small images are among the best-studied of all the graffiti, and are beginning to shed light on the mystery of exactly why they were made. When the modern surveys began, it was widely presumed that ship graffiti was confined to coastal churches: simple images created by local people of the ships they saw every day. However, research has shown that ship graffiti is found just about anywhere in the country. There are examples from Wiltshire and Leicestershire, about as far from the sea as one can get in mainland England. Even more intriguing, all the examples of ship graffiti, even those found many miles inland, appear to show sea-going vessels. The church at Blakeney, on the north Norfolk coast in the east of England, can help to explain why there is so much graffiti of these little ships.

Medieval Graffiti 3
Simple late medieval example of ship graffiti from Cley-next-the-Sea church in Norfolk.

Blakeney’s church is covered in early graffiti inscriptions, and they are spread fairly evenly throughout the building. All the dozens of examples of ship graffiti, however, are to be found clustered in one clear and distinct area. Without exception, all of the images were inscribed on the pillars of the south arcade – and most are on the single pillar that sits at the eastern end. According to maritime historians, the images were created over a period of 200-300 years. Despite this, each little ship respects the space of those around them, never crossing over one another. This tells us that the earlier ships were still clearly visible when the later images were created centuries later.

People sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls.

It is, however, their location that holds the real clue to their meaning. The eastern pillar into which they are carved sits opposite the side altar in the south aisle. From the historical record we know that this altar was dedicated to a church’s patron saint. In the case of Blakeney, that was Saint Nicholas. Now better known for his association with children and Christmas, throughout the Middle Ages St Nicholas was regarded as the patron of ‘those in peril upon the sea’. The ship graffiti is clustered around the St Nicholas altar for a reason. Historians and archaeologists believe that each of these little ships was a ‘votive’ offering – quite literally, a prayer carved into the stonework. Exactly what that prayer was, we might never know. Was it a prayer of thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a voyage yet to be made? The fact that some of the ships appear damaged has led some to suggest that these might be prayers for ships, crews and loved ones that never made it home.

This is the true value of searching out these ancient inscriptions on the wall. These little prayers and etchings offer one of the few avenues into the hopes and feelings of those who left their mark many centuries ago. It is not a world of knights, princes and kings. It is a world of real, fallible human beings. People who sat in the dark, praying for the safety of a long-drowned ship, and etched their fears and demons into the walls. Quite simply, the medieval graffiti gives us back the lost voices of the medieval world.

THE END

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

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Witchcraft in seventeenth-century Norfolk

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sources:

 

The Haunting in Glasshouse Row!

The old ‘Yarmouth Independent’ newspaper carried a two-part article in its January 6th and 13th 1894 editions, entitled ‘Tales and Traditions of Old Yarmouth – A House of Mystery’ This story concerned the haunting in an old housed in Glasshouse Row, so named because the glass works of the celebrated William Absolon had been located there a long, long time ago.

The ‘Rows’ of Great Yarmouth, of which few remain complete, were an unique gridwork of very narrow streets which covered almost all of the old town. They were very narrow streets, most only measering a few feet in width and to quote from the article “most possessed the same quaint, gloomy and somewhat dingy characteristics in common”.

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) said of them:

“A Row is a long, narrow lane or alley and quite straight, or as nearly as maybe, with houses on each side, both of which you can sometimes touch at once with the finger tips of each hand by stretching out your arms to their full extent. Now and then the houses overhang and even join above your head, converting the Row so far into a tunnel or tubular passage. Many picturesque old bits of domestic architecture is to be found among the Rows. In some Rows there is little more than a blank wall for the double boundary. In others, the houses retreat into tiny square courts (Crown Court was one -see below) where washing and clear starching was done.”

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Unfortunately, a great proportion of these rows were destroyed by bombing during World War 2; subsequent planning and rebuilding has more or less obliterated the rest. However, during the period in which this story is set, the Rows were probably in their hey-day containing, no doubt, a complete cross-section of the Great Yarmouth population. The Row with which this story is concerned was named Glasshouse Row, so named because a glass factory once stood in, or close to, its precincts. Glasshouse Row extended from George Street to North Quay in the east/west direction.

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Diagram of Glasshouse Row and its immediate surroundings. The actual haunted house can not be located since it, and indeed most of this area was destroyed in 1941 and later rebuilt with flats which crossed the line of the old Glasshouse Row.

In 1797 there stood in the middle of this Row an ancient house which for many years had the doubtful reputation of being haunted. Such was its reputation that it had remained more or less unlived  in for many years, what few tenents had been brave enough to rent  the property invariably moved out again within weeks, if not days.

All sorts of stories circulated as to the nature of the haunting. The general concensus of opinion was that, many years previously, someone had been murdered within its walls although opinions differed as to who exactly was responsibly for the haunting. Some said it was a guilty spirit of the murderer that wandered the house, whilst others maintained that it was the restless spirit of the victim which could not rest because its body was buried in unhallowed ground. Yet another section of opinion said that the spirits of both the murderer and his victim haunted the place and that they periodically re-inacted the grim tragedy. Whatever the true story,  the reputation of the place was enough to keep even the most stouted hearted away.

Yarmouth Rows 4
A typical Row

The lack of tenants and upkeep certainly seemed to have shown on the old building. The windows became broken, the roof tiles became dislodged to allow rain to pour in through gaping holes. The woodwork became rotten and the whole placed was completely devoid of paint. All in all, the house presented quite a very sorry sight, with the only occupants for any length of time being a colony of rats.

The building continued in this derelict state for a number of years, until the owner died and it changed hands. The new owner, who one suspects went into the deal without doing his homework, soon became anxious to get rid of his newly acquired ‘white elephant’, which because of its reputation was more of a liability that an asset; so he put it up for sale. Needless to say, no queue formed to purchase the house and many months passed before one person eventually became interested. The owner was approached by this middle-aged man of an austere appearance and with a brusque manner, his name was David Browne…….. They haggled of course but Browne being a very determined fellow managed to secure the property for a very low price and, although not ignorant of the building’s reputation, considered that he had secured the best bargin. With little ado, he had the house repaired and furnished and within a short time he and his family had moved in. The family consisted of Browne, his wife, daughter of about 12 years of age and an aging mother – a kindly old lady who was devoted to her son.

During the first few weeks of their occupancy all went well and Browne could not help but congratulate himself on what appeared to be a shrewed purchase. However, this period of tranquility was not to last for much longer, as subsequent events soon proved. After a residency of about two months, the family began to be constantly annoyed by the sound of doors being slammed violently shut. Even if they were shut were closed tight, unseen hands would quietly open them and violently slam them shut. At first, the slammings were attributed to draughts so steps were taken to make the whole house draught free. However, instead of curing the problem the precautions taken only led to the opposite effect. Now, instead of the doors slamming occasionally as before, they slammed constantly in quick succession. If this was not enough, there came the occassionally the tramping of heavy feet ascending the stairs, followed by the heavy ‘thud’ of something hitting the floor overhead. At other times, light hesitant footsteps would be heard stealthily pattering about the house, accompanied by a soft ‘rustling’ sound like that of a long skirt brushing the floor. The door of the room in which the family were sitting in would invariably be thrown open and some invisible presence would enter, walk around the room, pause for a seconds to seemingly ‘examine’ the trespassers and then depart leaving behind an air of sinister ‘creepiness’.

Yarmouth Rows (Ghost)

Naturally, all this soon left its mark on the family, especially the female members who were becoming more and more frightened. Browne himself, being a hard-headed man, would not openly admit that anything strange was happening, although deep inside he knew that there was more to this strange phenomena than could be explained – and he was more than uneasy! This nagging realisation was gradually to cause him much worry as to the best way to deal with whatever or whoever was causing the disturbances. He went to the former owner, but received little sympathy and certainly no help. At this point his anxiety increased to a point of desperation and he decided to visit one Nancy Green, an elderly woman who had the reputation locally of being something of a ‘witch’. She concocted love-potions for women, could find lost articles and cured those who considered that they had been bewitched and, above all, was known far and wide for her power over evil spirits. It was also reumoured that she could work evil against people – if the price was right!In fact, she was shunned by the majority of the populace whose only respect for her stemmed from fear. Such then was the person who Browne, in his desperation, consulted. Her house was situated in Crown Court.

Yarmouth Rows (Courtyard)
A modern touch to what used to be a typical Row courtyard where washing and dyeing was carried out.

David Browne knocked loudly on Nancy Green’s front door and, after what seemed to be an eternity to his mind, the door opened and Nancy invited him in. She then startled her visiter by first telling him exactly what the nature of his visit was about and then saying that she was unable to help as she had no control over evil spirits. Then as if teasing Browne she went on to say that she did have something else to tell him, but then silence – she said no more. Minutes ticked by and Nancy continued to show absolutely no interest in resuming any conversation with Browne. This impasse in any form of sensible communication with the woman soon became impossible for him and the little patience that he had normally snapped! Browne demanded to know what it was that she had to tell him and, receiving nothing but a silent stare, cursed her. “Damned you woman, you are nothing but a charlatan and a cheat!” Nancy’s response was to look him straight in the eye and break her self imposed period of silence by calmly telling him that when he arrived home he would find one member of his family Dead!

Browne’s immediate response to what he thought was a threat was to laugh – so Nancy thought. Then he called her a liar and left for home, unable not to ponder on what the woman had said. The sight that met him as he approached his front door was to see his wife in tears. She told him that in his absence his very own mother had collapsed and died……………………..!

The period of burial and mourning passed, but surprisingly perhaps, Browne made no immediate attempt to move his family out of the house in Glasshouse Row; in fact, the days passed into weeks and the weeks grew to five months during which time the whole house remained quiet and free from disturbances. But, any thought that the house would remain in this ‘normal’ state was cruelly shattered by a series of events that was triggered by piercing screams one night. These were followed by first a single thud overhead which reminded Browne and his wife of similar passed thuds which helped prompt him to visit Nancy Green. On this ocassion, they saw to their horror the gaunt figure of a very old man, wearing a long white night shirt and red flannel night-cap. He gazed at the couple for some seconds before sighing and disappearing through the bedroom door. The screams stopped…….

Yarmouth Rows (Ghost)2

Yarmouth Rows (Wizened Old Lady)7…..A further period of peace and tranquility descended on the house which made Browne think that the appearance of the old man had been the culmination of a whole  haunting and that maybe it was now finished. With this thought and some discussion, the family decided to stay in the house a while longer. Big mistake! Once more those piercing screams were again heard, only this time accompanied by a succession of loud crashes. Browne was to discover that, in the adjoining bedroom from which the screams were heard, every article of furniture, apart from the bed, was piled up in one corner, whilst the bed had been moved from its usual position to the centre of the room. Sitting at the head of the bed was a little wizened old lady, dressed in a black silk dress. She was intently occupied with a pack of cards which were spread out on the bed. She appeared to be completely unaware of Browne’s presence and continued rearranging the cards whilst muttering to herself. It was as if she was trying to see if the cards would foretell something! At length she gave a low chuckle, gathered the cards together and glided to the far end of the room and vanished. Browne was spell-bound and woundered if it was just his imagination, until he saw again the stacked up furniture. This was the final straw which convinced him that they should move out.

David Browne wasted no time in vacating the house but unsurprisingly he failed to sell it and it was left empty; Browne, in fact, thought that he had arrived at a point where he would never sell it, simply because stories of the Browne family’s misfortunes had spread throughout the neighbourhood and beyond. However and somewhat inexplicably, the notorious Nancy Green turned up out of the blue as it were and asked Browne for his permission to live in the house as a rented tenant; she gave no explanation. At first he was more that a little reluctant to have any more dealings with her but eventually, after some thought, agreed; probably because he knew that it would be impossible to find anyone else to take on the premises. No one knows why Nancy wanted to live in that particular house in Glasshouse Row. Did she have some past connection with not only the house……but maybe with that which caused its doors to slam, maybe the old man in the nigh-shirt who sighed…… and maybe, just maybe…the old lady who appeared to be able to ‘read’ cards? Of course, everything would be pure speculation with no human knowing this side of the divide. But, what was to become known to everyone hereabouts, was that in less than one month from moving in, Nancy Green was found dead, her facial appearance frozen in contorted terror!

Everything that happened after this, including the movements of David Brown and his family, was never-ever recorded. It was, however, suggested in the orginal Newspaper Article, that the house had been ‘exorcised’ and in the 25 years preceeding the 1894 Article, no further hauntings of the house were heard of…. but we don’t know what the future holds….do we!

FOOTNOTE: Today, very little remains of Glasshouse Row, certainly not that area in which the haunted house once stood. In fact most of it, running westwards from George Street, has long gone and replaced by a block of flats which extends across the original path of the Row at one point. Dare the question be asked as to whether there has been any reports of hauntings in. or near, these modern flats? Answers on a postcard please!

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March Hares & Witches

The Customs and Traditons of Spring

The ‘Spring’ or ‘Vernal Equinox’, which was once called ‘Ostara’, occurs on either 20th, 21st or 22nd March when the sun enters ‘Aries’ according to the Earth’s orbit and the insertion of leap years. The Spring Equinox marks the time when the sun crosses the celestial equator northwards or the ‘half way point’ resulting in equal twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. At the equinox the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west after which the daylight hours grow increasingly longer until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky at the ‘Summer Solstice’, which occurs in June. 

The Oestra Hare in folklore and tradition

Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival? The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival’s connection with the pagan goddess Eostre.

Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word “oestrogen” and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.

In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake – the Easter “bunny” is more likely to have been a hare, since it is the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.

Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance.

The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively.  The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there. 

Witch Hares

It is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion. When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches’ familiars.

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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.” 

Lowestoft (Sir_Thomas_Browne's_Statute_Norwich)
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.

Lowestoft (Sir Matthew Hale)
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