top of page

Accused of Witchcraft

SEVEN FINCHINGFIELD VICTIMS OF BIGOTRY, BLAME, CRUELTY AND POWER

Alice Dragge • William Bennet • Alice Crake • William Bones • Abraham Bones • Alice Warner • Mary Warner

 

 

 

 

In the years around 1610, in the reign of the superstitious James I, the congregation of Finchingfield Church were likely lectured repeatedly on the dangers of witchcraft.

 

The parish priest, Thomas Pickering, had published a treatise on the subject that year, and was something of a celebrity in local clerical circles.

 

Villagers would also have been well aware of the spate of witchcraft trials at the county assizes a generation earlier, in the reign of Elizabeth, which had swept up three fellow parishioners, and hundreds of others in villages around Essex, most of them women.

 

In 1585 Alice Dragge had been tried, followed by William Bennet in 1588, and then Alice Crake in 1591. No record of their fate or history has yet been published, though the Dragge family name appears in records of the time in nearby Stambourne.

It is estimated that around one in four of the many hundreds charged during Elizabeth’s reign were found guilty and executed by hanging. Others died awaiting trial or as condemned prisoners awaiting the noose.

 

So if these three Finchingfield parishioners ever returned from Chelmsford Assizes to their pews in the church, they would no doubt have been utterly traumatised, along with their families, friends and neighbours.

During Elizabeth’s reign, only a few hamlets in the county were spared the arrest of one or more suspected witches by the constable to the local 'grand juries' — made up of a dozen local 'gentlemen', and with a duty to bring accusations of local crime to the attention of the county assizes. 

Under the Act of 1563, those found guilty of forms of witchcraft that did not 'cause' death, received a year in prison and exposure in the stocks every quarter. Where witchcraft was determined to have killed anyone, execution by hanging was mandatory. Any lesser offender who survived their gaol term, but was later convicted of a second offence, would also face mandatory execution.

 

At least 500 witchcraft indictments were issued in Essex during the 44 years of Elizabeth’s reign, making it the foremost county in such grim statistics. East Anglia and strongly protestant areas in the north dominated the national tally.

 

But by the time Reverend Pickering was finishing his manuscript in 1610, he might have imagined that the 'problem' of witchcraft was soon going to fade away. 

 

James had been famously fearful of witchcraft, and is said to have barred the return of protestants from Holland on the grounds that their ships might be carrying witches. Puritan emigration to America was booming. Whether there was an explicit plan — to banish 'witches' rather than try and execute them — numbers of indictments in Essex fell during James’ reign (87 over 22 years).

The persecution returns

In 1634, during the reign of Charles I, (53 Essex indictments over 17 years), an ailing puritan minister in Great Wenham on the Suffolk border, wrote in his will that he hoped his eldest son would one day join 'our friends in New England', probably in Massachusetts.

 

That minister was James Hopkins, proud father to Thomas his firstborn, and five other children, including one named Matthew, likely born in 1619, and possibly schooled in Belgium or France, where his Huguenot mother Marie is believed to have originated. 

 

By 1644, civil war had been raging across the country for two years, but the King, a High Anglican whose wife was Catholic, had little support in East Anglia, and many men of Matthew’s faith and age were fighting far afield for the Parliamentary army. The Eastern Regiment formed the backbone of the Roundhead army throughout the war, and the loss of labour in the farms and workshops must have had a noticeable impact on yields and production.

 

And though Royalists were outnumbered in East Anglia, they were still around and a risk. The king’s armies eventually made two major incursions into Suffolk and Essex with the support of some of the landed gentry, before being driven out again. While Parliamentary gains had been good in the first part of the year, the autumn of 1644 had brought reverses.

 

Returned from Holland and a decade after his father’s death, Matthew Hopkins now reappeared in local records. Based near Manningtree on the Essex coast, the young Matthew had been carrying out clerical work for a shipping company, and had also received a substantial bequest from his father’s executors.

 

He seems to have given up the clerical work, bought some patches of land, and purchased the Thorn Inn at Mistley. Here he fell in with two other young men, both of whom seem to have some connections to local gentry, even some in Parliament, through their fathers.

The 1968 film Witchfinder General depicts Matthew Hopkins as a man in middle age, but at the Thorn Inn in 1644, only months before his explosion of cruelty, he was only 24 years old. He later claimed to have been appointed to his title by Parliament, but no evidence has been found in the records of either House.

In the space of just 24 months, Hopkins was to be personally involved as an interrogator and witness in as many as 300 allegations of witchcraft, and at least 37 death sentences, as he moved around east Essex, into Suffolk and eventually covering Norfolk, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. Around 80 per cent of those charged were women, and only two of the 37 documented victims who faced the gallows were men.

 

How had this dreadful eruption of violence and intrigue begun, and what sustained its sweep across the East Anglian countryside?

Matthew Hopkins

A criminal mind

The trial accounts suggest the trigger was banal. Hopkins, of fighting age but not serving in the army during war, apparently unmarried, with time on his hands, scheming with his mates and perhaps running out of money, had become irritated by a six-weekly meeting of a handful of local women next door to his living quarters, possibly adjacent to the Thorn Inn. They, and later two other similar groups of women in the area, would all end up hanged.

 

It seems he may have begun to eavesdrop on them, and a plan fell into place. At some point, he had acquired a couple of books on witchcraft and studied the workings of the English Grand Jury. Each county was divided into several hundreds, each of which must maintain 12 men or more with the duty to bring criminal charges in their district before judges at the regular county assize courts. Out of the main cities, there was a property requirement for members of grand juries.

 

Had Hopkins become a grand jury member himself, or did he know one? Writing later of his very first victim, a one-legged old woman named Elizabeth Clarke, he suggests he personally overheard the women carrying out rituals, 'one of whom this Discoverer heard speaking to her imps and bid them go to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended'.  

 

Hopkins’ own writing makes it clear that he had at least one accomplice, and possibly two, with him when or soon after Elizabeth was grabbed. Both remained at Hopkins’ side during the whirlwind tour of persecution that was to come. These were Jack Stearne and Mary Philips, who carried out 'privy' investigations of the naked victims in search of warts, skin tags or piles around the genitalia.

 

Deliberately sleep-deprived and humiliated by her captors, Elizabeth confessed to keeping 'imps' that were alleged to feed from the 'devil’s teets' on her body, and named several other women as co-conspirators. Hopkins’ little gang must have realised they had crossed a line, and had better press on with their outrages if they were to avoid official scrutiny of their own illegal conduct. They raised a hue and cry around the neighbourhood, calling for witnesses to the crimes that these women had surely carried out. And witnesses came forward. Not many, but enough.

Details of the allegations were later compiled by Hopkins in a pamphlet defending his actions. They make for very sad reading. As the round-ups and witness statements were gathered and presented to them, the humiliated and tortured women confessed to killing cattle, children, wives and husbands by spells. One woman confessed to sinking a ship miles out at sea by a spell, and 'causing' the loss of more than a dozen lives.

The pets they kept were revealed as 'familiars', which carried out the crimes their owners hatched. The lovers some confessed to taking were not the handsome men they thought, but the devil in human form.

A witch confesses the names of her familiars

More telling is the evidence given against them, by neighbours, old friends they’d fallen out with, often of the middling classes. More than one of these prosecution witnesses indicate that the women had sought food, firewood, money or employment from them, which they had refused. In Hopkins’ account it was the 'witches' revenge against these refusals of meagre assistance that explained subsequent misfortunes, often very tragic ones. The whole affair was a sadness heaped upon sadness.

Hopkins later writes of the case of Margaret Moone, doing his best to make it obvious to the reader that she deserved to die [variable spellings in the original]:

The Information of Will. Dammon, Hen. Cornwall, Bevis Vincent, and Tho. Buries, taken upon oath before the said Justices, April 29. 1645. THese Informants say, that upon the 21. day of April last past, they heard Margaret Moone confesse, that she was a Witch, and that she had twelve Impes, that she had killed a Cow of Stephen Cookers, and had two Cowes more of the said Stephen in handling; that she had killed a Cow and a Sow of Henry Robertsons. That she was partner with the aforesaid Eliz: Clark of Mannintree, in killing of a Child of one Mr. Edwards of Mannintree aforesaid, and spoiling of 3 Brewings of beere of the said Mr. Edwards. That she the said Margaret Moon spoiled a batch of bread of one Philip Berrimans; that she was the cause that one Philip Daniels horse broke his neck going down an hill in his Waggon And the said Informant saith, that the said M: Moons did freely and voluntarily confesse unto him, without any question being asked, that she was the cause of the death of Johan Cornwall this Informants daughter. 

And this Informant saith, that the said Margaret Moone before his child fell sick, sent for this Informant to do some work for her, and then she desired to buy an Hooke which he carried with him in his hand; And they agreed she should have the said Hooke for half a peck of Apples: And as this Informant went home he did eat one of the said Apples, and was presently taken sick with an extreme shaking and pain in all parts of his body; And his Informants wise knowing the said Margaret Moone to be a woman of a very bad fame and suspected for a Witch, and had formerly been questioned at an Assize for the same, she flung away the Aples.

And this Informant saith, that he continued in great extremity for the space of twelve weeks, and most part of that; time deprived of his senses. And at the same time his wife was taken in the same manner, and is not yet perfectly recovered. And lastly this Informant saith, that the next day after he had been at the said Margarets house as aforesaid, that his child (which the said Margaret confessed she was the death of) was taken sick with strange fits, and shrickings out, and so continued languishing for a month, and died.

A lucrative scheme

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is not yet clear from records how many convictions Hopkins obtained. Although we have a good idea of the 37 executions in Essex and Suffolk, there may have been more in neighbouring counties. In addition, Hopkins himself notes cases of non-capital convictions (those that did not involved murder 'caused' by imps and spells), and there may have been many more in the 200 or so less newsworthy cases that he doesn’t record or refer to.

 

It is entirely possible that Hopkins achieved 100 convictions over his two years of activity, the equivalent of well over half a million pounds today. Hopkins complains of the cost of horses, accommodation and wages, but one could perhaps draw a modern equivalent of a hire car over two years, and a couple of bunk-up rooms in a small-town Premier Inn or AirBnB on long-occupancy terms. He could definitely have come away with a few hundred grand in today’s money. Not a bad gig for an ambitious, criminally-minded young psychopath with a smattering of law.

It took a concerned village priest who had managed to stay on terms with both sides of the war, to bring the killing spree to an end. John Gaude from Huntingdonshire wrote to Parliament to express his concern about abuses of the law in Hopkins’ campaign and by local holders of legal office. In 1647, Hopkins announced he was to 'retire'. As national public opinion began to turn against him, he managed to publish summaries of evidence from his very first set of cases from Manningtree, before declining through tuberculosis, and dying still aged only 27 years.

 

The aftermath

The first wave of witch-hunting, in Elizabeth’s reign, had reflected religious and diplomatic concerns of the state in addition to the misogyny, prurience and psychological suppression later exhibited by Hopkins. 

 

But Hopkins was a chancer who struck rich from other people’s pain, and had no shame. Even if he was a grand jury member in his own hundred at some point, he would have had no authority to rush around the region arresting people in dozens of different hundreds. In comparison with the Elizabethan trials, the state interest was not predominant and the state itself was broken and distracted by the civil war. A handful of spivs and cowards had slipped into positions of authority while good men were away defending their freedoms. This gave the criminals free rein to make money out of the misery of the poor and bereaved.

 

Some researchers suggest that Hopkins was in part driven by a genuine religious fervour. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that. His own writings don’t touch on religion at all — they are dry unfeeling summaries of witness statements written in the manner of an apprentice copyist.

 

Even after his death, the influence of Hopkins still had the power to take more lives -- this time in America. Researchers believe news of his activities in 1645 would have reached New England by ship. By 1647, copies of his book, with more details of both the 'identifying marks' and interrogations of his earliest victims, were probably in circulation on the upper eastern seaboard. Hopkins’ 'signs' of witches are almost identical to those used by prosecutors in New England.

 

The first execution of a colonial American for witchcraft was carried out in 1647 on Alice Young of Hartford, Connecticut. A similar cruelty was evident: Alice Lake was executed near Boston in 1649, after telling friends she had seen a vision of her dead baby. Her four other children were orphaned.

 

American cases rose steadily until the Salem trials in Massachusetts in 1692, which resulted in 20 executions. Only then did popular revulsion lead to an abandonment of witchcraft prosecutions in America, just as it had forty years earlier in England.

 

Finchingfield seems to have directly benefited from the popular resistance to the witch-hunt fever. In 1659, when four villagers were charged with witchcraft and arraigned at Chelmsford, records show they were all acquitted. These were William and Abraham Bones, and Mary and Alice Warner.

 

Bitter ironies

One cannot avoid the fact that in the two major waves of witch-hunting mania in England, and the one that followed in New England, emerged from the English protestant tradition, even though many of the victims were of the same faith. 

 

The persecution under the Witchcraft Acts is notably higher under Elizabeth than under Charles I before the civil war, and the greatest number of accusations arose in areas of the strongest puritan sentiment.

 

The rise of protestantism, from the time of Luther, is generally acknowledged as a 'progressive' movement in social history — in that it sought to remove the excesses of corruption of Rome and the Catholic church, made a step towards freedom of belief, and diminished absolutism in government. The loosening of Rome’s grip on science and learning also played an important part in the flourishing of the Enlightenment.

 

But the danger of Catholic reaction remained real too. The Inquisition, the Spanish Armada, the massacres of protestants on the Continent, and the Catholic Gunpowder Plot were all evidence to ardent protestants of the life and death struggle in which they believed themselves to be engaged.

 

 

Another significant factor in trying to understand the emergence of the Witchcraft Acts of the Tudor period is that the break from Rome led to the widespread distribution of the bible in English for the first time. The Roman church had insisted on performing its services in Latin — unintelligible to the vast majority of the population. It had also refused to allow translations of the bible to be circulated, at pain of death. Books and stories in native tongues that did receive endorsement by Rome tended to focus on the life of saints, and concentrated on teachings of the New Testament — the life of Christ and his disciples.

 

Rome was well aware that the Old Testament in particular was full of contradictory material, and that Rome’s grip on its adherents’ minds and pockets was best served by the suppression of any translations. The Catholic Church insisted that interpretation of the will of God should only be made by its priests — and enforced in the secret intelligence system of the confessional.

 

So when congregations first heard the two Testaments in the English tongue, the shock must have been substantial. Suddenly the entire population had access to an encyclopaedia of all the sins, prejudices and rules of desert farmers from millenia before. Most importantly, certain sections of the Old Testament claimed to be verbatim records of the words of God as spoken to prophets. Not only was all this material brand new, but every person could be their own interpreter of His meaning. 

 

The early and persistent factionalism of the English and European protestant movement attests to the wide range of unresolvable differences of textual interpretation that rapidly arose. The Catholic Church kept the Franciscans, Jesuits and even 'liberation theology' within its own ranks, but the religious factionalism of protestantism quickly generated Presbyterianism, Baptism, Quakerism, Methodism, Evangelism and others, most of which continue to fracture and break apart to this day.

 

Exodus

A central protestant concern were the Ten Commandments and a long set of laws and regulations dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. These laws were then relayed by Moses to his Israelite followers — at the end of their long sojourn in the desert after the escape from Egypt, and shortly before their bloodthirsty return to the land their forebears had left as captives and migrants some generations before.

 

In Exodus 22:18, one of God’s laws was translated into English to state: 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'. The original Hebrew construction implies that a 'witch' referred to one of a class of people, and that these people were female. The root of the word suggests it means 'murmurers of charms'. Elsewhere in the bible the same word is translated as 'sorcerer'.

 

It is suspected that much of the Old Testament was originally written during the later captivity of Judaic leaders in Babylon, and contains attitudes and origin theories of the civilisations of Mesopotamia, including the concept of the Garden of Eden. Official Babylonian propaganda stressed the superiority of their highly organised arable systems over the lifestyle of nomadic pastoralists and remnant hunter-gatherers that surrounded the city states, who were often rounded up and forced to work as captives. A similar attitude would likely have been taken by the Judaic leaders, despite their incarceration by a foreign power.

 

One of the striking features of hunter-gatherer life reported by anthropologists of the last century is the equality of the sexes in decision-making, and personal autonomy. This was an additional factor at odds with early agricultural society, which treated women and children as legal possessions of men, to be deprived of knowledge and surveilled as closely as slaves. 

 

Hunter-gatherer conceptions of the universe tended to reflect practical concerns very different from those of agricultural societies. Survival as a hunter-gatherer band was not about imposing human will on nature, but of playing a respectful and appropriate part in nature’s continuous renewal. Each animal, plant or inanimate object had its own needs, character and role, and might attempt to influence fortune, just as humans could, by mentally engaging with the perceived motives and character of other natural actors, including not just animals and plants, but the landscape and weather.

 

It is little wonder therefore that resistance to the oppressions of early agriculture should have been felt especially strongly by women, and that this resistance might include practices and beliefs that harked back to a more autonomous past — before chatelhood, captivity and slavery.

 

Seen from the standpoint of arable cultures, with its hierarchies and discipline, such 'witchcraft' represented a risk to social order, with potential occult power just as dangerous as the rebellious behaviour of its adherents.

 

In essence, with the introduction of the Witchcraft Acts, the Tudor court took over from Rome the continuation of a 3000-year-old persecution of practices and ways of life that harked back even further.

 

In the first wave of trials, under Elizabeth, it is still possible to detect a deliberate state hand — the calculated maintenance of popular fear over decades. Arrests were suspiciously widespread, with typically only one or two persons taken at a time every few years in nearly all of the dozens of Essex towns and villages.

 

But Hopkins’ campaign lacked proper state oversight, manipulated the grand jury system, and ran rampant with a statute that should never have been left on the books under Elizabeth’s proclaimed principles of tolerance. The 'Witchfinder General' was a criminal opportunist, inciting the petty grievances and fears of the middling class to stuff his pockets through the torture and murder of poor women — whose only crime was to keep pet animals and sometimes beg for help from their neighbours.

 

If this sad tale suggests a pattern one can recognise elsewhere in history, the lesson seems to be the same. Eternal vigilance is required, alongside the duty of good people to speak out and act against tyranny as best they can.

Some very useful links:

https://sites.google.com/site/witchcraftin1645/essex-witch-trials

https://archive.org/details/ATrueAndExactRelationOfTheSeverallInformationsExaminationsAndConfessionsOfTheLateWitches1645/page/n5/mode/1up

https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/Result_Details.aspx?DocID=331117

http://www.witchtrials.co.uk/

https://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/witchcraft.html

https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/murder-money-and-a-town-under-siege/

https://www.luthercollege.edu/university/academics/impetus/spring-2011/the-historical-significance-of-matthew-hopkins-englands-witchfinder-general

 

Note: We have not been able to confirm two online references to a Goody Mumford, said to have been a girls’ teacher in Finchingfield, who was said to have been accused of causing a poor harvest through her witchcraft. The references suggest Mumford was either stoned to death or hanged, and was buried at a road junction.

Mumford is an Essex name, and Mumfords did live in Finchingfield. But we could find no online records of her being arrested or executed by the authorities, and no contemporaneous records of any incident in the village. For this reason she is not included in the main text.

As his business operation expanded, which he claimed was strictly demand-led by accusers who contacted him, Hopkins pulled in 20 shillings for each conviction. This was the equivalent of 40 times the day-wage of a labourer — perhaps between £6,000  to £8,000  per 'successful' case in the money of 2021.

 

The ducking stool: only the drowned were deemed innocent

So the protestant persecution of women through the Witchcraft Acts runs contrary to the socially progressive trend of the movement – arising from both state conservatism and the prevailing anxieties of the protestant populus. And perhaps this is the take-away point — that there is a cruel irony in history that allows socially progressive movements to drag in oppressive law from the past to commit excesses in the name of a generally progressive cause. Robespierre’s guillotine and the cruel despatch of the Romanovs spring to mind.

 

Forced confession followed by hanging: a common fate

Hand point L.jpg
Hand point R.jpg
bottom of page