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Suffolk's history of witch trials
By Andrew Woodger
BBC Suffolk

Peter Jones at Moyse's Hall Museum
Peter Jones with the Moyse's Hall Museum witchcraft display

For a brief couple of decades, Suffolk was a centre of the persecution of women, and men, accused of witchcraft.

The largest single witch trial in England took place in Bury St Edmunds in 1645 when 18 people were executed by hanging.

East Anglia became synonymous with witch hunts due to the presence of Matthew Hopkins - the self-styled 'Witchfinder General'.

He made a small fortune as local parishes paid him for his work.

The question of how Hopkins (c 1620-1647), who started out in Mistley in Essex, was able to operate so successfully across East Anglia is explained by a mixture of the civil war, politics, religion and the genuine belief in witches - usually single elderly women - outlawed by the 1603 Witchcraft Act.

"There was a popular belief that witches could do you harm," said James Sharpe, professor of early modern history at the University of York and author of the books Instruments Of Darkness and The Bewitching Of Anne Gunter.

"There's also the theological belief in witchcraft - an educated belief that sees the witch in the service of Satan and willing to make war on the Christian commonwealth.

"You get the odd trial where people are just settling scores by accusation of witchcraft, but it's interesting that they're settling them that way."

Matthew Hopkins' The Discovery Of Witches
A drawing of Hopkins from his book The Discovery Of Witches

Pendle to Bury

Up until the Hopkins trial at Bury St Edmunds in 1645, the biggest legal case had been the 11 Pendle Hill witches who were tried at Lancaster in 1612.

Hopkins was paid by local parishes to find and try witches, usually by confession so it was obviously in his interest to extract those confessions which he did in tandem with his assistant John Stern.

This may have involved 'witch pricking' with needles or the infamous trial by water where the suspect was tied and dunked in a pond.

If they floated they were deemed to have been saved by the devil. If not, they simply drowned.

It's estimated Hopkins' work lead to around 100 executions across East Anglia.

"People did confess to being witches and independent people who didn't have an axe to grind recorded these confessions," said Peter Jones, curator at Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds.

"Now it may have been that these people had been kept awake for many days, walked for many days or indeed 'swum'.

Witch's puppet at Moyse's Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds
A witch's puppet/poppit which is on display in Moyse's Hall Museum

"The trials would have been seen as fair because these people had confessed.

"For Hopkins it was about money. For Stern I'm not so sure about. He was most probably what we'd call a zealot now.

"Ipswich paid Hopkins, as did Stowmarket, around £21, which at the time was an incredible amount of money.

"Famously, Ipswich had to introduce a tax because they had so many witches the jail was full and someone had to pay the jailer because it was a private industry then.

"It's a very important part of the history of the Bury St Edmunds. I think there's a recognition that the trials were important for the development of law and the price paid by innocent people because others had accused them of witchcraft."

Puritans and Parliament

East Anglia was the stronghold of the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War (1642-46) against the Royalists.

"There was a lot of Puritanism that got out of hand and created a sort of atmosphere which saw the devil everywhere," said Professor Sharpe. "The Royalists were being demonised by propaganda in that war.

"As a result of the war, the judicial system is weakened just enough to allow someone like Hopkins to come through. So what you've got in the Hopkins trials is an anomalous situation and the whole thing takes off."

Peter Jones at Moyse's Hall cites the case of a vicar from near Haverhill:

"The Reverend Lowes from Barnardiston was one of the only reverends charged with witchcraft and hanged.

"He was quite possibly a high Anglican who was leaning towards the Roman Catholic side of Anglicanism, where at that time you had the Puritans who were iconoclastic and didn't want any church with pictures, sculptures, statues."

The end of mass witch trials

Bury St Edmunds witch trial poster
The year of this trial is actually believed to be 1662

There were further witch trials in Bury St Edmunds, but Professor Sharpe sees a rise in an educated class as marking the decline of the persecution of 'witches'.

"Hopkins was a relatively lowly figure, so that type of large-scale witch hunting becomes associated with the belief system of extreme protestants and relatively lower class people.

"The actual laws against witchcraft aren't repealed until 1736, but a belief persists among the common people and includes mob violence which extends to killing.

"But right into the beginning of the 20th Century you're getting references, especially in rural areas, of going to 'good witches' to get advice about marriage or stolen goods."

Moyse's Hall has a display of dead cats, shoes and witch bottles which have been recovered from houses where they were bricked up behind walls to ward off witches/evil spirits.

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 and starred Vincent Price.

"It's a hoot!" said Professor Sharpe. "Not one for historical accuracy, but it does catch part of the mood of the Civil War background and that the times are out-of-joint and that someone like Hopkins is given room to manoeuvre."

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