As in Arthur Miller’s famous play, The Crucible, which details the Salem Trials in America where evidence from hysterical neighbours was used to send many innocent people to their graves, similar events happened in Suffolk.
East Anglia became synonymous with witch hunts due to the presence of one of medieval history’s most notorious figures Matthew Hopkins - the self-styled 'Witchfinder General'.
From each town he visited he received ample pay (his services in Stowmarket, Suffolk alone earned him over £3,300 in today’s money). The more witches he rooted out, tried and executed on the flimsiest of evidence, the more Hopkins grew rich. It's estimated Hopkins' work lead to around 100 executions across East Anglia.
The first recorded account of a witch trial at Bury St Edmunds was in 1599 when Jone Jordan of Shadbrook (Stradbroke) and Joane Nayler were tried, but there is no record of the charges or verdicts. In the same year, Oliffe Bartham of Shadbrook was executed for "sending three toads to destroy the rest (sleep) of Joan Jordan".
It is thought that the trials were probably held at the site of the new Shire Hall in Raingate Street near the Great Churchyard now the town’s Premier Inn.
Two trials in Bury St Edmunds became historically well known.
In 1645, 16 women (Anne Alderman, Rebecca Morris, Mary Bacon, Mary Clowes, Sarah Spindler, Jane Linstead, Mary Everard, Mary Fuller, Susan Manners, Jane Rivet, Mary Skipper, Mary Smith, Margery Sparham, Katherine Tooly, Anne Leech and Anne Wright) and 2 men (Thomas Everard and John Lowes, the Vicar of Brandeston) were found guilty of witchcraft, all of them were from villages in the surrounding area.
The trial, facilitated by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, saw all 18 executed in one day on August 27 1645. Up until then the biggest legal case had been the 11 Pendle Hill witches who were tried at Lancaster in 1612.
In 1662, two elderly widows, Rose Cullender and Amy Denny (or Deny or Duny), both living in the nearby town of Lowestoft were accused of witchcraft by their neighbours.
They were accused of causing a toad to fall out of a child’s blanket and then vanish with a hiss in the fire. Once suspicion of witchraft began, they were then accused of making Samuel Pacey’s children vomit pins and nails after he refused to sell them herrings; they were also “credited” with infesting another man with lice, causing a cart to collapse and a chimney to fall down, not to mention causing the deaths of local pigs, cattle and horses.
They were tried on 10 March 1662 at the Assizes at Bury St. Edmunds by one of England's most eminent judges of the time, the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, Sir Matthew Hale, and the jury found them guilty on thirteen charges of using malevolent witchcraft.
The testimony of the philosopher, physician and author, Thomas Browne, probably helped in the conviction. They were sentenced to death and were hanged a week later at Thingoe Hill on March 17 1662. The trial had a powerful and tragic influence on the continuing persecution of witches in England and similar persecutions in the American colonies. The case became a model for, and was specifically referenced in, the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts, when the magistrates were looking for proof that "spectral evidence" (evidence based on dreams and visions) could be used in a court of law.
The executions were held on unconsecrated ground outside of the town at Southgate Green (near to where Wyevale Garden Centre is today), Thingoe Hill and to the west at Tut Hill (near to where Bury St Edmunds Golf Club).
Accused Witches were taken to a building where The Nutshell pub is today and had their nails cut or locks of hair. The nails and hair were stored in brown jars in the basement as it was thought that if you were not whole when you died, you wouldn’t be able to come back as a whole witch in the next life!
The last witch trial at Bury St. Edmunds was in 1694, when Lord Chief Justice Sir John Holt forced the acquittal of Mother Munnings of Hartis (Hartest) on charges of prognostications causing death. The chief charge was 17 years old, and the second was brought by a man on his way home from an alehouse.
After just three years, Matthew Hopkins retired as Witchfinder General. He moved back to Manningtree, and before the year ended had died of supposed tuberculosis. But his disturbing legacy lived on with his book ‘The Discovery of Witches’ providing a blueprint for further persecution of witches over the next hundred years. Hopkins has seeped into popular culture in the form of numerous heavy metal songs and the 1968 Hammer movie Witchfinder General which was filmed in Suffolk including Lavenham and starred Vincent Price.
To find out more about superstitions and witchcraft in Bury St Edmund visit Moyse’s Hall Museum, a beautiful medieval museum that is the second oldest building in England.
It houses a collection of witchcraft artefacts which includes a rare 17th century Elder Wand (in the Harry Potter novels, the Elder Wand was considered the most powerful wand of all), a witch’s puppet, along with mummified cats (above), child and adult shoes, which were bricked up in the walls of Suffolk properties to keep witches away.
If you enjoy gruesome tales then Moyse's Hall Museum is a must with its 'Terrible Tales' theme and stories written by Horrible Histories Author Terry Deary. Terry brings to life some of Bury St Edmunds more gruesome tales, especially for children. plus there are some great hands on exhibits. Step into a gibbet cage, hold a real Norman sword and try out a ball and chain for size!
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