Some­thing wicked

The grisly his­tory of witch­craft in Suf­folkN

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Pip Wright

In April 1890, an in­quest was held at Fress­ing­field into the death of Edith Mar­garet Ham­mond, who, at just 11 weeks old, mys­te­ri­ously died soon after her grand­mother had also passed away.

The Daily News re­ported: “This woman died a few hours be­fore the child, and stated that the child would not live long after her. The fa­ther stated that he saw smoke is­sue from the per­am­bu­la­tor, and that the child died upon be­ing taken home, the mother stat­ing that it was hot and dry and smelt of brim­stone. Ge­orge Cor­byn, the child’s grand­fa­ther, said he was of opin­ion his late wife had the pow­ers of a witch and he al­ways tried to do what she wanted in con­se­quence.”

At the time of the in­ci­dent, it was more than 150 years since the law had been changed to stop the per­se­cu­tion of witches. But old habits and be­liefs die hard.

The his­tory of witch­craft in Suf­folk is a dark story of suf­fer­ing, per­se­cu­tion and death, reach­ing into the hearts of fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, and cre­at­ing fear and hys­te­ria that per­sisted even un­til re­cent times. Through­out the Mid­dle Ages, white witches, work­ing as herbal­ists and mid­wives, en­joyed the mys­ti­cism that sur­rounded them. Even kings took their ad­vice.

One of the ear­li­est tales is of Margery Jour­de­maine, The Witch of Eye, who was tried in

1441 with Thomas South­well and Roger Bol­ing­broke, ac­cused of us­ing sor­cery to know the date of the death of Henry VI. (He was just 20 at the time and lived for an­other 30 years). Margery was burned for trea­son, while her more noble ac­com­plices were hanged, drawn and quar­tered. She couldn’t have been tried for witch­craft be­cause there was no law pro­hibit­ing it. Magic was merely a cause for won­der and very much ac­cepted in this part of the world.

It wasn’t un­til 1563 that a Witch­craft Act fully ap­peared on the statute books. Even this didn’t link witch­craft with the devil or with re­li­gious heresy, but only con­demned to death those who com­mit­ted mur­der. While the rest of Europe burned witches, the 1563 Act only pre­scribed death by hang­ing for those “who shall use prac­tise or ex­er­cise any witchcrafte, en­chant­ment, charme or sor­cerie whereby any per­son shall hap­pen to be killed or de­stroyed”. Lesser witch­craft of­fences were pun­ish­able by up to a year’s im­pris­on­ment and a spell in the pil­lory.

In one early Suf­folk trial, Oliffe Barthram, of Strad­broke, was ac­cused at Bury As­sizes by wit­nesses, in­clud­ing the par­ish con­sta­ble and the vicar, who tes­ti­fied that she had sent a spirit, in the form of a cat called Gyles, down the chim­ney of one Joan Jor­dan, to kill her. It was also claimed that she had killed an un­born child by “nip­ping out his brains”. She was found guilty and hanged at Bury on July 12, 1599.


When James I be­came King of Eng­land in 1603, he brought a deep ha­tred of witches, and had al­ready pub­lished a book on the sub­ject, Dae­monolo­gie. From 1604 the law in­ten­si­fied. To hang you no longer had to be guilty of mur­der by way of sor­cery, merely at­tempt­ing to con­jure spir­its was a cap­i­tal of­fence.

To bring a witch to trial there had to be wit­nesses, the more the mer­rier. And there was noth­ing like a con­fes­sion to se­cure a con­vic­tion, though how some con­fes­sions were ob­tained was a con­cern, even back then.

It was use­ful to be able to show that a witch had been marked by the devil as be­long­ing to him, with places on the body where the witch could not feel pain. ‘Prick­ers’ were em­ployed, who used a va­ri­ety of knives and probes to test their vic­tims for ‘devil’s marks’.

And there were the ‘tests’. One in­volved weigh­ing the so-called witch against the big Bible in the par­ish church. If the Bible was heav­ier, it proved guilt. But the most fa­mous test was to ‘swim’ your sus­pected witch. Trussed cross­ways, the right thumb tied to the left big toe, and the left thumb to the right big toe, the sus­pect was ducked in wa­ter, as prayers were spo­ken. If she sank she was in­no­cent, if she

floated she was guilty, a sign that the wa­ter of her bap­tism was re­ject­ing her.

As more and more witches were brought to trial, the pub­lic looked for pro­tec­tion against such evil, turn­ing to the church, or to peo­ple of­fer­ing pro­tec­tive reme­dies. It was said ‘cun­ning men’ could sell you a witch-bot­tle to pro­tect your home and fam­ily, and Bel­larmine bot­tles, with their dis­tinc­tive bearded faces, seemed de­signed for the pur­pose. Re­cent sci­en­tific ex­am­i­na­tion of sev­eral found buried un­der floors of old houses has shown the typ­i­cal con­tents to have been iron nails, pins, pointed sticks, hu­man hair, nail-clip­pings and phos­phates, de­not­ing the pres­ence of urine. Ren­o­va­tions of old build­ings have yielded all man­ner of good-luck charms in walls and chim­neys, such as mum­mi­fied cats, sil­ver coins, shoes and horse skulls – even witches’ brooms. It’s in­ter­est­ing how many have been put back. Well, you never know . . .


The 17th cen­tury was a con­fus­ing time of so­cial and re­li­gious change, civil war and the in­fa­mous Matthew Hop­kins, self-styled Witchfinder Gen­eral. Hop­kins trav­elled East Anglia, earn­ing a com­fort­able liv­ing find­ing and bring­ing to trial hun­dreds of witches in six coun­ties. His team spe­cialised in ex­tract­ing con­fes­sions from un­for­tu­nate in­di­vid­u­als who they had been paid to find and bring to trial. In the sum­mer of 1645, Hop­kins swept through Suf­folk, bring­ing to trial at least 117 ‘witches’ and ‘wiz­ards’. Just 17 of those tried were men. Three mar­ried cou­ples were also in­dicted.

Par­ishes in Suf­folk where the num­ber of witches tried at as­size to­talled four or more were Fram­ling­ham (10), Halesworth (eight), Bram­ford (six), Ip­swich (six), Cop­dock (four), Hintle­sham (four), Chat­tisham (five) Rat­tles­den (five), Stow­mar­ket (five), Wick­ham (five), Bac­ton (four), and Glemham (nine). An­other seven were hanged at Alde­burgh.

In such Pu­ri­tan times, the ex­plicit sex­ual con­tent of tri­als shocked and ex­cited Suf­folk peo­ple. Eliz­a­beth South­erne, of Dun­wich, claimed that an­other witch, Mother Col­lit, had sent the devil to her in the form of a crab. Climb­ing into her bed, he had nipped her and drunk her blood, so seal­ing a covenant and promis­ing to pro­vide for her. She claimed he lay with her a num­ber of times after that, in dif­fer­ent forms, once as “a hairy black boy”, just 10 years old.

The con­fes­sion of Mar­garet Ben­net, of Bac­ton, said: “The devil in the shape of a man, car­ried her body over a close into a thicket of bushes and there lay

with her, and after scratched her hand with the bushes and took her hand into his hand and writ upon a black patch, but she knew not what.”

It’s been sug­gested that at least 60 of Hop­kins’ vic­tims were hanged, though this is prob­a­bly a bit of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Sev­eral found guilty seem to reap­pear later in par­ish records. One of his vic­tims was Mary Lake­land, who was burned after con­fess­ing to be­witch­ing her hus­band who lay in great mis­ery un­til his death. Witches were al­most never to death. What made this case spe­cial was the mur­der of a hus­band. Classed as petty trea­son, it car­ried the penalty of be­ing “burned to ashes”.

An­other no­to­ri­ous case was 80-years-old Rev­erend John Lowes, who after 48 years as vicar at Bran­deston, was not a pop­u­lar man. By all ac­counts, Hop­kins kept Rev Lowes awake for sev­eral nights, after which his men ran him up and down the room un­til, ex­hausted and car­ing lit­tle for life, he con­fessed to send­ing his imps to sink ships be­tween Yar­mouth and Win­ter­ton, and caus­ing “the child of Nathaniel Mann to lan­guish and die”. He was among at least 19 witches hanged at Bury St Ed­munds on Au­gust 27, 1645. News­pa­pers were sold de­tail­ing their crimes and con­vic­tions.

Hop­kins picked on the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of so­ci­ety, but his cred­i­bil­ity was short-lived. One or two high pro­file cases left a bad taste in the mouth, and he left a moun­tain of re­sent­ment when he moved on to Nor­folk and Cam­bridgeshire. By the end of 1646, he was wel­come nowhere, and ceased his witchfind­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. The Ham­mer Hor­ror film, Witchfinder Gen­eral (1970), filmed in Suf­folk, would have us be­lieve that he came to a grue­some end. It’s far more likely that, suf­fer­ing from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, he re­turned home where he died.

Though the tri­als con­tin­ued, more en­light­ened judges per­suaded even the most su­per­sti­tious ju­rors to ques­tion what was be­ing pre­sented as ‘ev­i­dence’ in their courts. In the spring of 1694, Sir John Holt heard a num­ber of in­dict­ments against Phillipa Mun­nings, of Hartest, in­clud­ing three ac­cu­sa­tions of “be­witch­ing to death”. It was claimed she had threat­ened her land­lord, Thomas Pan­nell, “Thy nose shall lie up­ward in the church­yard be­fore Sun­day next”, an un­for­tu­nate pre­dic­tion, which turned out to be true. But she was ac­quit­ted of all charges, and protested her in­no­cence right up to her own death two years later.

The last cap­i­tal con­vic­tion in Eng­land for witch­craft was prob­a­bly in Hert­ford­shire in 1712, but it wasn’t un­til 1736 that for­mer Witch­craft Acts were re­pealed, though not en­tirely re­moved from the statute books. Tech­ni­cally, you could still be im­pris­oned for prac­tis­ing witch­craft un­til 1951. Only then was the act fi­nally abol­ished.


You can change the law with the stroke of a pen, but you don’t change Suf­folk peo­ple’s opin­ions and be­liefs that easily. On a loose pa­per at the end of the par­ish reg­is­ter of Monks Eleigh are the words, “Dec. the 19th 1748, Alice, the wife of Thomas Green, labourer, was swam, ma­li­cious and wicked peo­ple hav­ing raised an ill re­port of her for be­ing a witch.”

From the early 18th cen­tury, lo­cal news­pa­pers were be­ing pub­lished across East Anglia, which show how at­ti­tudes had changed lit­tle in ru­ral Suf­folk, in spite of what had been pre­scribed at West­min­ster. The Nor­wich Gazette of Septem­ber 1752 re­ports: “By a let­ter from Woodbridge in Suf­folk, we learn that the coun­try peo­ple about As­pal Ston­ham in that neigh­bour­hood are still so full of ig­no­rance and su­per­sti­tion that they imag­ine there are sev­eral witches and wiz­ards in that neigh­bour­hood and they have tied up two or three old peo­ple in sheets with cords round their mid­dles and flung them into the rivers to see if they could save them­selves.”

Both lo­cal and na­tional press at­tended, when a 67-years-old man was swum for a wizard at Wick­ham Skeith in front of hun­dreds of peo­ple.

Ac­cord­ing to the Suf­folk Chron­i­cle, of July 16, 1825: “Isaac Steb­bings, earns a liv­ing as a huck­ster. As in for­mer days of gross credulity and ig­no­rance, some one or other put forth the sur­mise that two af­flicted per­sons are be­witched, and Steb­bings was spo­ken of as the

worker of the mis­chief. Be­sides this, the vil­lage shoe­maker per­sisted that one morn­ing, as Steb­bings passed two or three times be­fore his house, he could not “make” his wax - the in­gre­di­ents would nei­ther melt nor mix. Dubbed a wizard beyond all doubt, poor Steb­bings, ig­no­rant as his neigh­bours, and teased beyond bear­ing, pro­posed at length, of him­self, the good old fash­ioned or­deal of sink or swim.” The ar­ti­cle de­scribes how his ac­cusers at­tempted, with­out suc­cess, to get Steb­bings to sink, keep­ing the poor old fel­low three quar­ters of an hour in the pond un­til he came out “more dead than alive”.

The Chron­i­cle con­cluded: “Even now in the nine­teenth cen­tury, a por­tion of the pop­u­lace - per­haps a con­sid­er­able por­tion - re­tain­ing the fool­ish prej­u­dices of their fore­fa­thers, be­lieve that there are witches and wiz­ards still.’ Isaac Steb­bings lived for an­other 22 years.

The Star of the East, June

15, 1886, re­ported: Witch­craft at Frams­den - The great­est ex­cite­ment has been caused in the un­usu­ally quiet vil­lage of Frams­den by a re­port that has got about among the labour­ing classes that a young girl liv­ing on the road from Otley to Frams­den has been be­witched. It seems that the girl has been sub­ject to pe­ri­od­i­cal fits. Large num­bers of peo­ple have nightly con­gre­gated at the cot­tage to wit­ness the spir­i­tu­al­is­tic man­i­fes­ta­tions which ac­com­pany the fits. Th­ese are said to con­sist of vi­o­lent twitch­ings of the bed fur­ni­ture and su­per­nat­u­ral knock­ings on the wall.”

Across East Anglia, 19th cen­tury pa­pers car­ried count­less tales of burn­ing ef­fi­gies, haunt­ings, and even mob­jus­tice. The fa­mous Hed­ing­ham witch­craft case recorded how, in 1864, Emma Smith, of Ridgewell, and Sa­muel Stam­mers, of Si­ble Hed­ing­ham, in Es­sex, would even­tu­ally be charged with caus­ing the death of an old dis­abled man known as Dummy. Think­ing him to be a sor­cerer, the two ring-lead­ers as­sem­bled a crowd and at­tempted to swim him in a stream.

Dummy never re­cov­ered from his or­deal and died a month later. The pair were found guilty of man­slaugh­ter and sen­tenced to six months hard labour.

The East Anglian Mis­cel­lany of 1904, re­ported: “In Stow­mar­ket, we have a woman who is said to have in­her­ited the gift from her mother, who cuts for the spleen, an imag­i­nary af­fec­tion. The woman cuts the back of the ear slightly with a ra­zor, dips her fin­ger into the ex­ud­ing blood, marks the fore­head with the sign of a cross, mut­ters an in­can­ta­tion, puts a plas­ter of the ex­pressed oil of mace upon the pit of the stom­ach, or­ders them to chew rhubarb root be­fore each meal, and the spleen will be cured. She charges a fee of 5s, an im­por­tant fac­tor in the treat­ment.”

And still such be­liefs held good. Lo­cal news­pa­pers in Septem­ber 1904 pub­lished the fol­low­ing case from Bot­tisham, near Cam­bridge. “Last year, a wood mer­chant aged only 27 was im­pris­oned for cru­elty to his three horses. He thought they had been be­witched by an en­emy, and to re­move the spell he gave them a broth which he made by boil­ing some nails, a penny worth of pins and pieces of a horse’s hoof over a fire with in­can­ta­tions. It is by no means im­prob­a­ble that this na­tive of civilised Eng­land has oc­ca­sion­ally dipped his coin into the mis­sion­ary’s bag to help con­vert the hea­then in his dark­ness.”

We read such ac­counts with a mix­ture of hor­ror and amuse­ment. But even to­day, sto­ries ap­pear from time to time that show be­lief in forces of the oc­cult is very much alive and thriv­ing in parts of Suf­folk.


ABOVE: Mist­ley, home to Matthew Hop­kins, the in­fa­mous Witchfinder Gen­eral.LEFT: Self ap­pointed Witchfinder Gen­eral Matthew Hop­kins swept through Suf­folk bring­ing to trial at least 117 ‘witches’ and ‘wiz­ards’.

ABOVE: Con­ceal­ing mum­mi­fied cats about your home was one way of pro­tect­ing your­self against witchesRIGHT: Mary Sut­ton, the swim­ming of a witch in 1608, Her cart­wheel was bro­ken: it was be­lieved that if this was done a witch couldn’t curse you

ABOVE:The vil­lage pond at Wick­hamSkeith, known lo­cally as ‘The Grim­mer’, where Matthew Hop­kins swam witches in 1645

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