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Why the Suffolk witch trials are relevant as ever

PUBLISHED: 18:13 09 November 2015 | UPDATED: 18:13 09 November 2015

The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott. Salem Witch Trials

The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott. Salem Witch Trials

Suffolk’s place in the history of witchcraft is assured. But have ‘witch hunts’ really been consigned to the past?

Robin Herne Robin Herne

Liz Nice asks UCS religious studies lecturer Robin Herne to explain more about Suffolk’s so-called witches.

Witch trials are supposedly consigned to the past, but the impulse to turn on the weak 
and the different, the opinionated and the confidently clever (especially if it is a woman?) is arguably not much unchanged since the 17th century when Suffolk’s place in the history of witchcraft was secured.

Nowadays, no one is burned at 
the stake literally but figuratively 
it is a different story. Single mothers. Immigrants. Benefit claimants. Practitioners of certain religions. Celebrities like Katies Price and Hopkins. All have experienced a version of being seated on the proverbial ducking stool, or been thrown, bound, into the water to see if they sink or swim.

Katie Hopkins’ namesake, the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins was very active in Suffolk over a short period.

Hopkins (c 1620-1647), originally from Mistley in Essex, was apparently welcomed across East Anglia during a Civil War era of familial distrust, religious fervour and a parochial belief in witches - usually single, elderly women - who had been outlawed by the 1603 Witchcraft Act.

During 1645 alone there were some 124 witch trials in Suffolk, mostly of impoverished women – though some were male and a few of better financial means.

Says UCS lecturer Robin Herne: “A well-known example of a male victim was the Reverend John Lowes of Brandeston, and 80-year old clergyman who was caught up in long running feuds with some of his parishioners.

“Several of them regarded him as rather too high church, bordering on the Catholic, and after brutal interrogation by the Witchfinder General and his cohorts, Lowes broke down and confessed.

Though he recanted this confession on the scaffold, he was still hanged.”

Meanwhile, a Mr and Mrs Evererd, who worked at a brewery in Halesworth, were accused of using magic to pollute their beer making it so poisonous that several died.

Robin says: “They are amongst 18 people tried and executed at the Bury St Edmunds assizes in August of 1645, condemned on the flimsiest of evidence.

“The August trials were the largest mass witch trial ever held in England.

“However, it is still quite small scale when compared to some of the persecutions held on the continent.”

Robin explained that a couple of decades earlier the German city of Würzburg burned 157 people as the result of a witch hunt – including quite a few children, vicars, and members of wealthy families. And over 368 people were burnt for witchcraft in the space of a few short years in the German city of Trier.

Robin adds: “Burning was a common form of execution in Europe, whilst in England and Wales hanging was the favoured method for dispatching supposed witches.

“Arthur Miller’s famous play, The Crucible, details the Salem Trials in America where evidence from hysterical children was used to send many innocent people to their graves. Similar, though smaller scale, events were also to be found in Suffolk.”

One example of this was in 1662 when two elderly women, Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, were sent to the gallows largely as a result of some very dubious claims by young girls from Lowestoft.

Thankfully, not all trials resulted in gruesome ends.

Robin concludes: “In the Bury assize of 1694 a resident of Hartest, old Mother Munnings, who had been accused of witchcraft, was acquitted because the evidence was deemed too flimsy – the judge in question clearly having higher standards for conviction.”

The question of whether our standards have risen or fallen when it comes to demonising modern day ‘witches’ since then remains to be seen however.

Robin Herne teaches the BaHons degree in Religious Studies and Ethics at UCS Bury St Edmunds. Places are still available on this year’s course. Call 01284 716333, visit www.ucs.ac.uk/Courses or email Mr Herne for more information

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