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26-09-2015, 03:17

CHELMSFORD WITCH TRIALS

Chelmsford Assizes in Essex, the most active witch-hunting county in England, was the scene of a number of trials of grotips of witches. (In the English legal system, assizes were occasions when traveling judges w'tttild try the major cases that emerged in the provinces.) A Chelmsford trial in 1566 was the first English w'itch trial to be the subject of a surviving pamphlet. The Examination and Confession of certaine Witches (1566) describes the trial of three witches, Agnes and Joan Waterhouse (a mother and daughter) and Elizabeth Erauncis. The other principal w'as Erauncis’s familiar, a cat named Sathan. Frauncis’s confession, as recounted in the pamphlet, describes how she received the cat from her grandmother. Eve, and how the eat did favors for her w'hen fed with a drop of her blcxid. The favors were of varying usefulness—Sathan procured sheep for Erauncis, but they all disappeared. When Erauncis w'anted to marry a well-off villager, Andrew Byles, Sathan told her she had to sleep with him first. After she did so, Byles refused to marry her, so Erauncis claimed that she requested and received from Sathan first the wasting of Byles’s goods and then his death. After fifteen or sixteen years she traded Sathan to Agnes Waterhouse for a cake. Waterhouse used her new familiar for maleficia, to kill the livestock and spoil

The beer and htitter of villagers she disliked, to kill one neighbor, and finally to kill her htishand. Waterhouse also changed Sathan from a cat to a toad tor easier keeping. Joan Waterhotise was accused ot calling Sathan in the form of a black dog to bewitch a child named Agnes Browne who had refused to give her a piece of bread and some cheese.

Depiction taken from a si. xtccnth-ccntury English pamphlet of the public httneinp ol three Chelmsford witches, Joan Erenticc, Joan Cony, and Joan Upney. © The Art Archive/The Art Archive.


The ptihlished confessions, however, were not that for which the witches were under trial. Agnes Waterhtuise pleaded guilty to the murder by witchcraft ot William Fynee and was hanged under the Statute of 1563. The pamphleteer places particular emphasis on Waterhouse praying in Latin and her familiar’s approval of that practice, suggesting that like many early English witchcraft pamphlets this one had an anti-Catholic agenda. Joan was acqtiit-ted, and Frauncis, who pleaded guilty to bewitching a child, John Auger, was sentenced to a year in prison and fotir appearances in the pillory.

The next major Chelmsford trial, in 1579, also involved Frauncis. In the

Intermediate time she had been convicted of another offense in 1573, serving another year in prison. In fotir unrelated trials, Frauncis and two other women were hanged for murder by witchcraft. Along with another woman, Margery Statinton, who was acquitted hecatise of a flaw in the indictment, the three witches were the subject of another pamphlet, A Detection of Damnable Driftes (1579). Frauncis was convicted rtf the murder of a woman named Alice Poole, who denied her some yeast for brewing. The spirit she claimed to have used this time was not Sathan btit a familiar in the shape of a little white, shaggy dog. Ellen Smith of Maldon, whose mother had been executed for witchcraft years before, was convicted and hanged for the mtirder of a four-year-old girl, Susan Wehhe, who had qtiarreled with Smith’s daughter. Alice Nokes of Lam-horne was convicted and hanged for the murder of Elizabeth Barfott. All the witches were also charged with having familiar spirits.

The year 1582 saw witches from the small Essex town of Saint Osyth tried. The mttving spirit in this case was a local justice of the peace, Brian Darcy, who was also ctninectcd with the printing of a pamphlet narrating the case in detail, “W. W.,” A True and Just Recorde, of the Informatum, Examination, and ConfeS' sion of All the Witches, taken at St. Oses in the Countie of Essex (1582). This was

The longest and most elaborate English witchcraft pamphlet to date, and the first to refer to Continental learned demonology—the preface inchides a passage translated from Jean Bodin’s Of the Dernonmania of Sorcerors. The pamphlet preserves an account of Darcy’s high-pressure interrogations, showing what a zealous magistrate could achieve in the way of getting confessions without torture. The first accusation, of a local cunning woman named Ursula Kempe, came from one of Darcy’s servants, a woman named Grace Thorlowe. Prolonged interrogations produced accusations and confessions of rnaleficia and keeping familiars from over a dozen local women, although trial at the assizes produced only two executions, Kempe and another woman named Elizabeth Bennett, both convicted of multiple murder. The case received wide publicity, and Darcy’s abuses played a part in inspiring Reginald Scot’s anti-persecution Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584).

The next notable set of trials at Chelmsford Assizes occurred in 1589, when three witches, Joan Cony of Systed, Joan Upney of Dagenham and Joan Prentice, were all convicted and hanged. The cases are described in The AppreheU' sion and Conviction of Three Notorious Witches (1589). The pamphlet claims that Cony had actually worshipped Satan, that she had received two familiar spirits in the shape of black frogs and that she had trained her two daughters to he witches. Cony was convicted of the murder of Elizabeth Finch, who had refused her charity, and of bewitching three other people. Her daughters’ illegitimate sons were among those who testified against her. Upney was convicted of using her familiars, in the shape of toads, to murder Joan Harwood and Alice Foster, whose husbands had called Upney a witch. Joan Prentice of Sihle Hed-ingham is described as having conversed with the Devil in the shape of a ferret. This is an early example of how the idea of the familiar was starting to merge with the ideas of Satan and the Satanic pact. Joan Prentice made a pact with the ferret-Satan to give him her soul, but the pact was sealed in the traditional way of English witches and their familiars, by the ferret sucking blood from her finger. Prentice was convicted for killing a young girl named Sara Glascock, whose family had denied her charity, although she claimed she had told the ferret only to harm the child but not kill it.

Chelmsford was also the site of many witch trials and executions during the Matthew Hopkins witch-hunt in the 1640s. The mass trial of 36 witches, with possibly 19 executions, on July 17, 1645, at Chelmsford is the largest trial and execution of witches in English history.

REFERENCES: James Sharpe. Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1996; Marion Gihson, ed. Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.



 

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