To What Extent Did Superstition Or Other Factors Influence The Convictions Of Essex Witches

Victoria Hulford

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The way in which witches were prosecuted during the Tudor and Stuart period did not alter very much. Anyone who suspected another person of witchcraft would give their information against the person to a Constable or local Justice. It was then the job of the official to decide whether to seize the suspect or begin an enquiry straight away, taking statements from other local people who might have information on the suspected witch. Once the statements were completed, the suspect would be taken into custody (if this had not already happened), examined and indicated to appear before the next Assizes at Colchester, Braintree or Brentwood. In cases of witchcraft, bail was rarely allowed. When the accused witch appeared in court, a presentation of the facts were made by the prosecutor, followed by the appearance of the witnesses. The suspect was then given the chance to confess before the sentence was passed.

By the end of the 16th century, most educated Europeans believed in witches who performed harmful magic. These beliefs spread into England through the literature that upper class people were reading at the time. This literature conveyed the European idea of Malleus Maleficarum, which was the belief that witches were in league with the Devil. This idea of the maleficium was closely related to heresy and was heightened by the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in England. Many people in the lower classes had some exposure to the thoughts and beliefs of the upper classes, and through this found that they could understand why their friend or neighbour might take up witchcraft and make a pact with the Devil to improve their life.

Due to the isolation of most of the Essex villages, the primitive conditions and lack of education, people were extremely superstitious and believed that witches could cast magic spells over their families, animals and crops to cause them harm. These superstitious beliefs were often encouraged by the church, which taught people about the devil and his sins. The church told people that witches were in league with the devil and were therefore evil. This superstitious belief in witchcraft and the devil was undoubtedly one of the main accusations that appeared in witchcraft trials in Essex. This is proved by the case of John Scates who was accused at the Quarter Sessions by a man named Richard Tarling. Tarling said that Scates had been "conjuring" and "practising with the devill for money" and had also tried to persuade others to join him. This accusation may seem unbelievable nowadays, but during the 16th and 17th centuries people did believe it. This court extract and Tarling's statement are a reliable source of what people actually believed, as when Tarling made the accusation he would have been under oath to tell the truth.

Because people in the lower classes were so superstitious, they believed that anything bad that happened to them must have been caused by a witch. If a member of a family fell ill, or if crops failed, a member of the village was often blamed and accused of witchcraft. Most of the surviving court records show that the majority of witches were accused of everyday problems which they could not possibly have had anything to do with. For example, a woman named Agnes Sawen, who came from Stock was accused at the Assizes of;

"bewitching Christopher Veele, son of Roger Veale of the same, husbandman, by reason of which the said Christopher became lame in his feet so that his feet were and now remain curved and he can scarcely use them, to his great hurt"

It is unknown whether the woman really did cause the lameness of Christopher Veele, as there are no medical records to prove either way what happened. But this source does show that the courts and people of the time took the accusation of bewitching seriously, even though there was no proof of why this man became lame, just an accusation that this woman caused it.

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