The Foxearth and District Local History Society

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WITCHCRAFT in Essex and Suffolk. Oct. 2023 meeting

Foxearth & Distinct Local History Society - Tuesday 10th October

WITCHCRAFT in Essex and Suffolk - Professor Alison Rowlands 

Professor Alison Rowlands looked at the role played by the infamous witch-finders, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, and the many local people who helped them, and explain why their witch-finding activities spread so quickly from north-east Essex into Suffolk, to make Suffolk the county worst affected in East Anglia 1645-1647. 


Alison Rowlands, Professor of History at Essex University, had battled through gridlocked Colchester traffic to reach Foxearth. We were pleased to see the village hall packed as she gave us a fascinating account of the events of 1645-47, when the largest episode of ‘witch’ persecution in English history began in Essex and spread into Suffolk.

Civil war was raging in 1645, and in Manningtree there was a vacuum of authority after the rector left for London & the Lord of the Manor died. Personal grudges sparked accusations of witchcraft, which were investigated by self appointed ‘Witchfinders’ John Stearn and Matthew Hopkins. To discover a witch, evidence had to be found of magic-working, association with evil spirits, or having ‘familiars’ (demonic imps). Unusual marks on a body were seen as the ‘Devil’s mark’, from which familiars would suck the witches’ blood. “Harmful magic” was seen as ungodly and a capital offence.

Eighty years old and one legged, Manningtree’s Elizabeth Clarke was the first person accused. After sleep deprivation and (illegal) torture she admitted association with several witches. Before she was tried at the Chelmsford Assizes and hanged, she implicated other poor women of harmful magic, and sex with the devil. This soon led to 92 testifying against the various accused. On the 21st March 1645, 13 were arrested from communities in the Tendring Hundred. In all 36 Manningtree women were charged with witchcraft, 29 were tried in Chelmsford, and 19 hanged. Only 9 were reprieved & pardoned (but some died in jail first).

Without this result other communities might not have become involved, but now the witchfinding spread quickly. John Stearn originated from Long Melford and later lived in Lawshall. Matthew Hopkins, son of a puritan minister at Wenham, volunteered to be his assistant; he had family at Framlingham. Buoyed by their early ‘successes’, Stearne and young Hopkins now set off on proactive witch hunts, starting in the parts of Essex and Suffolk where they had family and contacts. Spurious accusations of witchcraft were widespread and ‘confessions’ forced. Trials ran into the hundreds and John Stearn boasted that over 100 were executed in just 2 years. Widespread panic set in...

In Sudbury, Anne Boreham was interrogated and finally confessed to denying Christ and having relations with the devil, but not to any acts of harm. Although she escaped hanging in 1645, records show two Borehams, a mother & daughter, were hanged 10 years later in Bury St Edmunds.

The victims were overwhelmingly women, but 90 year old vicar of Brandeston John Lowes was accused of witchcraft, tried at Bury & hanged. This is still illustrated on the Brandeston village sign!


The Witchcraft Act of 1542 had made it a criminal offence, but it was over 100 years before this frenzy took hold here - then two years later it was largely** over. Why?

We were told it was probably for a combination of reasons:

   • The Witchfinders received little support further afield. Norfolk and Huntingdonshire did not encourage them, and they could not widen their influence.

    • Nearer home, people were realising that enough was enough. There were more critical voices, and sermons against the self appointed Witchfinders’ lucrative activities spread. Local ministers and Lords of the Manors realised the process was doing more harm than good, and had enough authority to divert the witchhunts elsewhere. 

    • Matthew Hopkins became ill and died in 1647 – aged about 30.

    • In wartime there were practical reasons too. Colchester Castle had an outbreak of plague in the overcrowded cells holding pre-trial ‘witches’.  

    • And the biggest disincentive to new accusations may have been that the accusers or their community had to pay all the costs of the trials, and the prison fees too.  It simply was not worth it financially… 


** However, it was not entirely over – the last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, taking the total well over 1000….

During the many questions from a fascinated audience, Andrew Clarke pointed out that earlier indictments of 1578 in Borley and Foxearth had not been upheld so perhaps in north Essex we were saved from this later ugly persecution.

Alison was warmly thanked and we wished her a more straightforward return journey!

Mark & Clare Mathieson


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