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

Victoria Hulford

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The economic problems during the 16th and 17th centuries also affected the migration of people. Many of the poorer people in Essex moved around the villages looking for work. It can be difficult to generalise about whether witchcraft accusations were made amongst long - established village families, or against individuals who had recently arrived in a particular village. The few facts that can be gained from surviving records show us that in Hatfield Peverel, the fiercest accusations took place between families who had been living in the village for at least 40 years. The four major families involved in the witchcraft prosecutions ; Duke , Frauncis, Osborne and Waterhouse had all been present in Hatfield Peverel in 1524, as were many of their victims families, such as the Wilmotts, Hawkins, Highams, Augurs and Wardolls#. In the village of Boreham, only one family connected with witchcraft, the Pooles, had been assessed in 1524. But the other suspected witches were not newcomers; all of them are recorded in earlier local records as living in the village#. From this very small sample of the remaining witchcraft records, it would seem that accusations were not normally made against newcomers to a village as a discreet method of controlling or reacting to the frequent movement of people. The only known case of a newcomer being prosecuted was that of Joan Cocke; but this was almost certainly because she was already known as a witch, suspected by the people in the village in which she had previously lived.

By looking through the court records from the Essex Quarter Sessions and Assizes, the historian is usually able to discover the name, sex, and marital status of the accused person, along with their place of residence and the duration and nature of the bewitching they are said to have caused. The court records that I am using as part of this study are useful and reliable for the above information, but are limited in their usefulness in some respects as they only provide a summary of the outline of the prosecutions. However, the information that they do provide us with can be used to make several conclusions about the types of people who were accused and convicted of witchcraft.

As previously mentioned, many of those who were accused of being witches were fairly poor. By studying the records from the Essex Quarter Sessions, we can also see that the majority of those accused were women, who were considerably older than the accusers and who were usually widowed or spinsters. Of the witches convicted in Essex, 95% of them were women.

Contemporaries of the time suggested that those accused of witchcraft were, almost always 'old'. In most cases it is not possible to tell exactly how old they were as indictments did not record the ages of those accused. But from information produced in pamphlets at the time, historians are now able to know the ages of fifteen of those accused at the Essex Assizes. Of these people, two were between forty and forty nine, three between fifty and fifty nine, seven between the ages of sixty and sixty nine and three who were aged between eighty and eighty nine. In Essex, the likeliest age for a witch appears to have been between fifty and seventy.

Traditionally in Tudor and Stuart times, it was the old women of a village who acted as midwife, and provided cures for illnesses. If these women lived within the community with their family or near relations, then they were usually left alone, but if they lived by themselves, they were often picked upon for witchcraft as they were vulnerable and had no one to defend them. The women who acted as midwives and helped to cure people were often blamed if a baby or person died after they had visited them. In all probability, it was unlikely that the women had anything to do with the deaths, but because these were superstitious times, they were accused of bewitching the person and causing their death. The case of Agnes Whitland shows that she was blamed for the death of an infant, due to witchcraft;

"Indictment of Agnes Whitland of Dagenham, spinster, on the above date and at divers other days after the said day, for wickedly and feloniously practising and exercising certain deestable arts called witchcraft and sorcery at Dagenham aforesaid in and upon a certain William Grene, an which certain arts the said William from the above date until 29th day of the same month of July was very dangerously and mortally ill and languishing. And on the said 29th day the said William by the aforesaid died at Dagenham aforesaid. And so the jurors present that the said Agnes of her malice aforethough, wilfully, diabolically, wickedly and feloniously by the arts aforesaid, killed and slow the same William at the same manner and form arrested"

This extract also informs us that Agnes Whitland was also a spinster, which backs up the previous statement that single women were often picked upon. The source unfortunately doesn't say exactly what the child died of, but shows how superstitious the parents were, as they believed that witchcraft caused their child's death.

As mentioned, it was predominantly women that were accused of being witches, but the impression that can be gained from witch trial evidence also suggests that it was actions and personality, rather than the physical factors of a person, which determined them as a witch in the eyes of their friends and neighbours. Those who were boastful, illiterate, miserable, lustful and leading a 'lewd and naughty kind of life', were all in with a chance of being accused of witchcraft. Above all, these people were thought to be the type who went around the villages begging, and those who had vicious tongues. According to the historian Alan Macfarlane, these generalisations about those accused of witchcraft can be tested against the actual cases in the Essex records; furthermore, we are able to see whether suspected witches were often accused of other types of offence - for example incest or petty crime.

Another factor of witchcraft convictions that shows up from sources of the time, is that people were often accused by members of their own family or children. Many children accused members of their own family, and two of the worst cases held in Essex in 1579 and 1589, featured children giving evidence against their own mothers. At the time, it was widely believed that witchcraft was hereditary, and it is therefore possible that children accused their parents and other relatives to stop themselves becoming victims of the accusations.

The theme of witchcraft being hereditary is something which is shown as quite common in court records and pamphlets from the 16th and 17th centuries. For example, in Easter 1646 Deborah Mayler and her daughter were accused of bewitching two men#. Unfortunately, the source this information came from does not tell us why both women and not just one were accused, although it could be assumed that only one of the women was actually guilty of the crime, and the other was accused because she was related to her and living alone. It is a well known fact, shown in mast court records, that women who were accused of witchcraft were usually widows or spinsters. One can also assume that as these women lived alone, they were looked upon unfavourably by others in their village and were accused of witchcraft because they were vulnerable and had no form of defence.

Another example of mothers and their daughters being accused of the same crime is that of Agnes Waterhouse and her eighteen year old daughter Joan. According to records written at the time of the trial, Joan Waterhouse was accused of commanding a creature like a dog to haunt a girl named Agnes Brown, who had refused to give her bread. The facts of this case came from a pamphlet printed in 1566, entitled "The Examination and Confession of Certaine Wytches at Chensford". The pamphlet also informs us that Joan's mother was also accused of being a witch, although it doesn't give the reasons for these accusations. It is unknown whether this source is accurate or reliable, as there are no surviving court records of the case to back up or refute it's claims. It is possible however, that the source could be biased as it is not a legal document like some of the other sources I have used, and could have been written by someone who had strong feelings about witchcraft, or an aim to publicise it and the trial of these two women.

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