The Tudor Society

Expert Talk – The Witches of Elizabethan and Stuart Essex – Kate Cole

This month's talk is by the fascinating Kate Cole on her favourite topic, the witches of Elizabethan and Stuart Essex. We'll be joining Kate in the chatroom in early January, but until then ... enjoy this talk!

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  1. R

    Wow, thank you, Kate, what a wonderful talk. I studied some of the wider implications of the witchcraft trials as part of my degree and wrote a paper on Witchcraft and Mental Illness. It was a real, real fear and very much accepted as part of the belief system of the age. What I find astonishing is that the leading, learned men of the day were the ones who wrote books and legal texts on how to identify a witch and how to try a witch, as well as those with the deepest belief and fear of it. The huge tomes carried every description of every so called demon and their names and most people seem to have repeated the list almost as if checking boxes before reporting being bewitched. It was a good way to gain more land as the estate of a guilty witch reverted to the authorities who could give it to you as a reward. You could get rid of noisy or nasty neighbours, people on the edge who might be a nuisance and rivals. It didn’t take long for a witch finder to find more than one and he had financial incentive.

    Many accused did come to believe what they had been accused off, especially if they had been deprived of sleep and constantly questioned. You start to imagine all sorts after twenty-four hours. Some were also mentally ill, old and poor and probably cursed a lot if they were mistreated. By the 1680s it is ironic that we were ceasing to hang people at home because we now took the witch craze out into the colonies, with the Salem Witch Trials and others right across New England in 1690. It was also still being tried with executions in English territory in Africa. The last one there was in about 1770. The other ironic thing is that Matthew Hopkins had no authority whatsoever. He set himself up and people believed him. He was probably responsible for more than 200 deaths before fate caught up with him.

    1. C

      RTL, did you watch Doctor Who last week? It took as its inspiration the Pendle Witch Trials, although obviously aliens were involved! Although it wasn’t at all accurate, I think it brought home the fear and also that crowd mentality. It doesn’t take much manipulation to turn a whole community against a woman they’ve known for years – scary stuff. What was wonderful about that Doctor Who episode is that I was able to tell our son about what really happened in those times.

      I’ve just read a novel “The Witchfinder’s Sister” about Matthew Hopkins and that is also excellent in bringing to life the fear and paranoia of the time, and how people took advantage of it.

      1. R

        Hi Claire, yes, I watched Dr Who and the witches of Pendal, where I have visited a few times, being up here in Lancashire. Unfortunately, I spent half the time noting what was wrong. I wanted to break up the ducking stool and send James home, but it did convey the fear and the manipulation that could be used for the community to start accusing the everyone, even someone trying to help. I know Rebecca Savage was a female witchfinder but she represented the type of person who controlled the trials and the community to bring such ridiculous accusations such as putting a curse on your sheep or crops. All you needed was a poor harvest or a few odd behaving people and it all kicked off. In Pendal it was the child, who cursed a pendlar and he fell and had a stroke who caused the problem, because she panicked, thought she really had hurt him and confessed. Jennett then accused her mother, brother and sisters and neighbours who had met at their house for a perfectly innocent party and everyone was questioned. Her mother, two sisters, grandmother and two other women were hung. She was also involved in another trial 20 years later, but that time nobody believed her. This poor 9 year old child, standing on a table in front of the entire Court and accusing her entire family of harmful witchcraft. Can you imagine it? Her mother was hysterical and tried to shut her up, but she must have been too frightened and manipulated to say anything else. The fear alone made people say whatever the authorities wanted to hear. It was terrible and it was all controlled by one or two people. The episode of Dr Who I think showed how things could get out of control very quickly. Maybe a female Dr Who wasn’t the best idea, especially in the seventeenth century.

    2. K

      Thank you. I’m fortunate enough to give a variation of this talk to groups all over Essex. Every time I talk to a new audience, I learn something new about “my” witches. It amazes me that some of the surnames have carried on down through the centuries and are still present in some of the smaller Essex towns/villages. Also in some Essex villages, there are still practicing witches – I’ve met several in the audiences of my talks.

      Yes – mental illness figures a great deal in these trials. Also, the dissolution of the monasteries caused major problems. Not only did the monasteries previously take care of the sick, elderly and those that today would be termed mentally ill, but also the monks understood about herbs and their dosage. The monks would have known about the hallucinogenic properties of some herbs and that some were lethal. So much knowledge was lost with the monasteries. Also lost was England’s very first social welfare system.

      I believe that active witch-finders caused significant problems in Essex. First with the activities of Brian D’arcy in the 1580s and then by the evil Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s. Yes, he did operate without legal authority – but town authorities loved him and paid him handsomely to witch-find in their communities.

      It’s interesting that Salem’s trials in the 1690s were after Essex’s appetite for witch-hunting had ceased. Many of the Founding Fathers were Puritans who came from across Essex. Perhaps they took with them from the Old World to the New World their fear of witches.

      It’s a fascinating topic and one that I’m totally addicted to! The original Essex Girls!

  2. K

    Claire – I haven’t watched that episode of Dr Who yet, but have been told about it. As an honorary Essex Girl, it makes me extremely annoyed that this was set in Pendle – when they could have had far more interesting witches from Essex!

    Pendle has totally capitalised on their witches but Essex hasn’t at all. Colchester Castle is slowly realising – the plaque halfway through my talk was only unveiled at the Castle last summer. But apart from a few fiction novels set in Essex, that’s it! Chelmsford doesn’t even have a historic tourist trail.

    It was indeed scary and harsh times for women – particularly those that lived outside the “norms” of society – the sick, the old, those with illegitimate children, those whose husbands had died, who had quarreled with their neighbours. Sadly, the list is endless.

    1. R

      I completely agree, Kate, the dissolution of the monasteries left a huge gap in society. There was an increase in poverty and tenants lost farms and livelihoods, the monks tended the sick and knew what they were doing because they had knowledge in books and they ran the roads and waterways but they cared for souls above all. Their knowledge was now lost and cunning folk and others tried to fill the gap, but may not have always had the knowledge so I guess accidentally did cause harm. Yes, the garden with herbs became useful, but in the wider community there must have been a lot of people left without proper care with no infirmaries to go to.

      1. K

        Exactly! The dissolution was devastating for so many people – not just the monks. Also, many of Essex’s Elizabethan witches’ crimes conformed to the notation of “charity denied”. That is, the “witch” would ask for alms (eg some milk or bread) from a neighbour. The neighbour refused to help, and the next day the neighbour would drop down dead – attacked by the witch.

        With the monasteries, the poor could go to the monasteries for alms and the monks would probably always oblige. “Charity denied” would not have happened in monastic England. And if charity was denied at a monastery, the woman would be unlikely to bewitch the monastery/monks.

  3. L

    Interesting talk , I do have a interest in witches though the centuries so hopefully I will be able to attend the chat tonight 🙂

    1. C

      I hope you can come!

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Expert Talk – The Witches of Elizabethan and Stuart Essex – Kate Cole