Looking for witches in St Osyth

Prof Gibson during her recent visit to ERO

I’ve recently been at the Essex Record Office looking for evidence that will help me tell the story of the “St Osyth” witches of 1582 in a new book. I say “St Osyth” in inverted commas because although the witchcraft accusations that engulfed north-east Essex in 1582 started in St Osyth, in fact there is far more evidence of their impact on surrounding communities than there is on the village itself.

In February 1582, a servant of Lord Darcy at St Osyth Priory complained that her small son was being attacked by witchcraft. Once she had accused a neighbour, Ursley Kemp, and Ursley had confessed to witchcraft then more people came forward to make accusations. More villages in the manors and parishes controlled by the Darcy family – Little Oakley, Beaumont, Moze, Thorpe and Walton le Soken, Little Clacton and others – were drawn in. At least two people were executed and four others died in prison, with multiple other imprisonments too. One woman was released as late as 1588.

This story has fascinated me since I read it as a student over 20 years ago. But there are few surviving records from St Osyth. The Priory was attacked during the Civil War and its estate and parish records were likely lost then – an epic frustration for historians. But the records of the other witch-accusing communities and authorities were more fortunate. Among these is today’s focus: a record of Elizabethan visitations made by the Colchester ecclesiastical authorities to the parishes around St Osyth.

St Osyth itself answered to the Commissary Court of the Bishop of London and, guess what, the Commissary’s early records are lost (you might almost think St Osyth’s documents were cursed…!) but the ecclesiastical team from Colchester visited most of the other witch-rich villages. In each place, they recorded the names of the minister and Churchwardens. And today I found the names of some of the accusers of the 1582 witches and learned that they were Churchwardens too.

Here’s a nice clear link between parish authorities and witch accusations. It’s easy to suppose that religious-reforming folk went after suspected witches but it’s important not to stereotype accusers: they can’t be dismissed as just “fanatical puritans” or “Anglican worthies”. But in this case there’s some documentary evidence that they were the community’s religious leaders. It’s going to need more thinking about as I carry on researching the book.

Essex Record Office is one of the most impressive and friendliest archives in the UK, and it’s come up with the goods once again. Has your village got a hidden history of witchcraft? Were your ancestors accused? Or were they accusers? Are there still stories of witches in your community? So much more to discover.

Professor Marion Gibson – University of Exeter

History and horror: do you dare to meet the Witchfinder General?

This Hallowe’en, experience history and horror with a screening of 1968 cult horror classic Witchfinder General at the Essex Record Office on Friday 26th October, 6.30pm-9.00pm. The screening will be accompanied by a talk about the real history of witchcraft in Essex by bestselling novelist Syd Moore (tickets available here).

The film is set in East Anglia in 1645, and stars Vincent Price as the notorious self-appointed ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins, who claimed to have been given the right by parliament to interrogate and execute witches. The plot is a fictionalised account of Hopkins’s bloody exploits, and follows him and his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) as they visit village after village, torturing and executing suspected witches.

Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General. Price was 56 when he played Hopkins, even though Hopkins was only in his 20s when he sparked a major witch panic in the 1640s. Image: British Film Institute

Interior scenes were filmed in converted aircraft hangars near Bury St Edmunds, and exterior scenes were filmed on locations including the Dunwich coast, Lavenham, Kentwell Hall, and Orford Castle.

The film is best known for its violence, despite being extensively cut by the British Board of Film Censors. It has divided audiences and critics alike, with some deploring its violent scenes, while others have championed it as an important part of British film history.

While Hopkins did exist and did indeed hunt suspected witches, the film departs from real history in several ways. Hopkins was the son of a Suffolk minister. Almost nothing is known of his early life, but by the winter of 1644-5 he was living in Manningtree in Essex. He came to believe that there were 7 or 8 witches living in the town; these and others were arrested and questioned, with Hopkins giving evidence against them. This sparked a trail of accusations, and eventualy 36 Essex women were tried for witchcraft at the Essex assizes in July 1645. Nineteen of them were executed. 9 died in prison, and 6 were still locked up in 1648. What Hopkins had started in Essex spread to Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, with at least 250 people tried as witches, and at least 100 executed.

Hopkins did not meet the violent end that he does in the film, but according to a contemporary account died slowly of consumption (tuberculosis) at his home in Essex in 1647. Price was 56 at the time that he played Hopkins, but in reality Hopkins was only in his 20s when he instigated the East Anglian witch hunts. The film’s biggest departure from reality, however, is its omission of court cases; in the film, Hopkins and Stearne subject their victims to summary executions, but in reality suspected witches were arrested and tried.

Burial record of Matthew Hopkins in the Manningtree and Mistley parish register, recording his death in August 1647, two years after he began pursuing witches (Essex Record Office). The text reads:
Mathew Hopkins sone of Mr James Hopkins Minister of Wenha[m] was buryed at Mistley August 12th 1647


Here are all the details if you want to join us for horror and history this Hallowe’en:

Date and time: Friday 26 October, 6.30pm-9.00pm

Location: Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT

Film length: 86m

Rating: The film is rated 18 as it contains strong violence and execution scenes. If you are lucky enough to look under 18 we will ask to see proof of your age on the door

Tickets: £10

Booking: Please book online at www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk/events