Hex and the City: Accused Witches in Early Modern London

Detail from John Norden’s 1583 map of London. Wikimedia Commons.

This week sees the launch of an ‘immersive experience’ at the London Dungeon focusing on the infamous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. As the author of a book on the subject, I supplied them with some facts. It’s an entertainment, of course, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be historically accurate. The PR company representing the London Dungeon had the good idea of putting up ‘Dark Plaques’ around the capital to mark locations associated with Hopkins’s witchfinding campaign. So far as we know he worked exclusively in East Anglia, mainly Essex and Suffolk, but there is no shortage of identifiable places – some very precise – where well-documented instances of witchcraft accusation occurred.

Some years ago, inspired by Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, I rather half-heartedly pitched a book on London witches to a literary agent. It didn’t go anywhere, but I always liked the idea, not least because witchcraft accusations have a strongly rural image. It’s as if we imagine that the inhabitants of towns and cities would not be bothered with superstitions – too busy, perhaps, or too modern. But this is far from the case, and anyway London’s suburbs were once rural hamlets and villages, where the same beliefs and conditions of life existed as anywhere else in England. And in the centre of the capital, especially in what were the poorer neighbourhoods along the Thames, one finds the same kinds of privations and tensions as elsewhere, and with them accused witches.

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‘The Witch Hunter’ advertised on the London Dungeon website.

Originally, I suggested to the PR company that they might want me to find some cases for them that were relatively near to each other. Another idea to promote the London Dungeon’s attraction was for actors to replay the stories in a series of street theatre events; here, proximity would be an advantage so they could quickly and easily move between locations. The PR people agreed, so I set to work looking mainly at digitized copies of original cheap printed pamphlets on Early English Books Online. But what I found is that most of the cases, especially from the mid- to late seventeenth century, were naturally bunched together, especially in and around the City – places like Stepney, Limehouse, Wapping, and Shoreditch. Here are a few of the stories that emerged.

Anne Kirk, 1599

In The Triall of Maist. Dorell (1599), we learn about Anne Kirk, a poor widow. She lived in Castle Alley – now unidentified – near Broken Wharf, on the east side of Trig Lane, City, EC4V. One day she fell out with a neighbour, and threatened her. Later, sitting by the fireside, this woman’s child shrieked, pined away, and died. Afterwards, another of the woman’s children, a girl, met Mother Kirk and was struck down, foaming at the mouth, her body contorted. The child suffered more afflictions. In the end, her father went to a cunning woman, Mother Gillam, living at Bankside, who diagnosed witchcraft. The afflicted family cut off a piece of Kirk’s coat, as instructed, and burned it with the child’s underwear. The child recovered.

Others were bewitched, including an innkeeper who died, and three children who lived in Thames Street: George, Anne, and Joan Nayler. Joan Nayler fell into trances, so that, according to a contemporary account, ‘her mouth was turned to one side, her joints so shrunk up that her feet did beat together, her shoulder blades did strike one against another, so that they were heard to rattle’. She tried to scratch the witch’s face to break her power – an old superstition – but she was unable, her hands clenched shut.

Kirk was tried before Sir Edmund Anderson, Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas. In court, the judge asked one of the child victims to show how she had been tormented, but the child was unable to do so, saying she could only react as she did during her fits. Other justices present witnessed the same inability to scratch the witch. Hearing that a witch’s hair could not be cut, Sir Richard Martin ordered that some hair be pulled from her head and that the sergeant-at-arms should try using scissors. The hair remained uncut and the scissors were ruined. They then tried to burn the hair, but the fire flew away from it. Faced with this evidence, and credulous judges, the jury found Kirk guilty, and she was hanged at Tyburn (modern Marble Arch) on 4 December 1599.

Elizabeth Jackson, 1602

This case occurred in All Hallows-the-Less, a parish that now longer exists and whose church was destroyed in the Great Fire; but the location is near to the existing church, All Hallows-by-the-Tower, in Byward Street, EC3R 5BJ. We know the witchcraft victim, Mary Glover, Elizabeth Jackson’s neighbour, lived in Upper Thames Street. In 1602, Mary, the 14-year-old daughter of a shopkeeper, was allegedly possessed by a demon in April that year, following a quarrel with the elderly Jackson. Mary suffered blindness and dumbness, heaving and swelling in her body, and terrifying convulsions as the demon that the witch had put inside her raged.

The Glovers were godly puritans and well connected to the London elite. Eminent doctors and civic leaders examined the girl, and the case became a cause celebre, much talked about in the streets. It was also a case that divided public opinion: some people believed Mary’s possession to be genuine; others, including a sceptical faction led by the Bishop of London, thought it was a politically motivated trick in the battle between puritans and their moderate opponents in the Church of England. Elsewhere Catholic Jesuits had claimed the power to exorcise the possessed, whereas puritans cited the power of prayer. Mainstream Protestants wanted to keep both parties, left and right, at bay.

Jackson was tried in December 1602, found guilty, and sentenced to a year in prison and four appearances at the pillory. Medical evidence was heard, and a book published by Dr Edward Jorden entitled A Briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Mother (1603). This suggested that Glover was hysterical, an illness thought to be cause by a malady of the uterus (the Greek word ‘hysteria’ meant ‘wandering womb’). 

Elizabeth Sawyer, 1621

london_witches_2

Frontispiece from William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford’s 1621 play The Witch of Edmonton, based on the case of Elizabeth Sawyer. Wikimedia Commons.

This story comes from Henry Goodcole’s The Wonderful Discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer, a Witch (1621), and inspired a contemporary play, The Witch of Edmonton. Goodcole was the ‘ordinary’ or minister at Newgate Prison, so spent a long time seeking Sawyer’s confession after conviction, and witnessed her trial at the Old Bailey, which of course is still the site of London’s central criminal court (EC4M 7EH).

Reverend Goodcole wrote: ‘A Great, and long suspition was held of this person to be a witch, and the eye of Mr. Arthur Robinson, a worthy Justice of Peace, who dweleth at Totnam neere to her, was watchfull over her, and her wayes, and that not without just cause; still having his former long suspition of her, by the information of her neighbours that dwelt about her: from suspition, to proceed to great presumptions, seeing the death of Nurse-children and Cattell, strangely and suddenly to happen’. Thatch from her roof was burned, a counter-magical spell to identify a witch, which flushed Sawyer out.

During the trial her face was ‘most pale & ghoast-like without any bloud at all’. And she blasphemed and cursed – habits that had attracted the devil to her in the first place. ‘Thus God did wonderfully overtake her in her owne wickednesse’, wrote Goodcole, ‘to make her tongue to be the meanes of her owne destruction, which had destroyed many before’. A strange mark was also found on her body, and the ‘jury of matrons’ agreed it was suspicious. It was ‘a little aboue the Fundiment of Elizabeth Sawyer… a thing like a Teate the bignesse of the little finger . . . and seemed as though one had suckt it’.

Both judge and jury were convinced that Sawyer was guilty, not least because of the way she looked and behaved. She may well have been demented. In the end she confessed freely to her allegiance to Satan, to whom she prayed, but who deserted her as she lay in gaol. Her confession was read publicly at Tyburn on 19 April 1621, and she was hanged. 

Nicholas Culpeper, 1643

Portrait of Nicholas Culpeper. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) was a famous herbalist, who in 1643 found himself indicted for witchcraft, specifically bewitching a widow named Sarah Lynge of St Leonard’s parish in Shoreditch. He was acquitted; as a gentleman, it is unlikely that he would have been found guilty. We don’t know the details of the case, but it is striking how anyone dabbling in spells and healing and magic could be vulnerable to accusation if they fell out with a client, usually one whose condition either did not improve or deteriorated. It is almost certain that Sarah Lynge had sought help from Culpeper, and then accused him as a witch because the treatment was unsuccessful and she perceived some malice in him.

Culpeper treated patients at his pharmacy, which stood at 92 Commercial Street, Shoreditch, E1 6LZ (for years the Red Lion pub, now a branch of Toni & Guy). He devoted his life to healing, and especially to treating the poor, which infuriated medical colleagues who expected to be paid. He served as a surgeon on the parliamentary side during the civil war, soon after his acquittal for witchcraft, and was himself wounded. His masterpiece, Culpeper’s Herbal (1652) became a classic work, and is still in print.

Joan Peterson, 1652

Joan Peterson’s case discussed in a 1652 pamphlet.

This story comes from The Witch of Wapping (1652), which tells of a healer who lived on Spruce Island, near Shadwell, and was hanged at Tyburn in April 1652. Spruce Island is not marked on modern maps but was definitely near the river, probably on land reclaimed by Henry VIII. The most likely location is the junction of Wapping Wall and Glamis Road, E1W, overlooking Shadwell Basin. Shadwell, once a small Stepney hamlet, had grown in the first half of the seventeenth century, as shipping expanded. By 1650, when Joan Peterson was accused, it was bustling and overcrowded, and many people who worked at the docks lived in cramped rooms in subdivided houses. Half of Shadwell’s inhabitants were classed as poor, that is too poor to pay tax. Peterson was not one of the poor: she had ready work, and kept a respectable home with at least one servant.

Some claimed Peterson had cured them and their animals. Others, however, believed that Peterson was the witch who was attacking them. The pamphlet says this:

There was one of her neighbours, who had a young child, which was very strangely tormented, having such strange fits that the like was never known and had continued certain days in that condition to the great grief of the Parents, and the admiration of all those that beheld it…. whereupon two women that were neighbours, desired that they might watch with it, which was very thankfully accepted of; about midnight they espied (to their thinking) a great black cat come to the cradle’s side, and rock the cradle, whereupon one of the women took up the fire-fork to strike at it, and it immediately vanished, about an hour after the cat came again to the cradle side, whereupon the other woman kicked at it, but it presently vanished, and that leg that she kicked with, began to swell and be very sore, whereupon they were both afraid.

Like many English witches, Peterson was believed to have conference with Satan, not directly but through a familiar spirit. These spirits, or ‘imps’, usually took the forms of animals, often cats and dogs and mice. Her maid said she saw her entertain a diabolic familiar in the shape of a squirrel, which talked with Peterson all night. Another witness was terrified to see a black dog come to her and put its head under her arm.

Lydia Rogers, 1658

Lydia Rogers was the wife of John Rogers, a carpenter, who lived in Pump Alley, at Green Bank in Wapping, E1W. Pump Alley no longer exists, but may well be the modern Meeting House Alley, which, like Pump Alley, can be found on Green Bank’s north side. The events in the story certainly occurred very close to here. The family – they had two children – belonged to a radical religious sect, the Anabaptists. Orthodox Protestants in the Church of England believed that these independent thinkers had been seduced by the devil, which probably explains why this case was interpreted in the way it was.

This woman was accused of making a blood pact with Satan, a typical kind of diabolic union that one finds in the records, especially from the mid-seventeenth century. The devil cut a vein in her right hand to obtain the blood to use as ink for the contract. Rogers’s motive, it was said, was a lust for money. This meeting was alleged to have occurred late at night on 22 March 1658. Subsequently the minister of Wapping, Mr Johnson, spent time with her, as she lay in a diminished state, confessing to her grievous sin. She showed him the mark where the devil had drawn blood. He prayed with her, and she suffered a raving fit as the devil in her was tormented, so much so that people present in the room had to hold her down. The source for the story is The Snare of the Devil (1658).

Jane Kent, 1682

This witchcraft accusation took place in Spitalfields in 1682, probably near the market (today Horner Square, E1 6EW). The suspect, Jane Kent, fell out with the accuser, Mr Chamblet, because he refused to give her two pigs on credit. The pigs were then allegedly bewitched, as was Chamblet’s five-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Next his wife was bewitched, and a doctor advised Chamblet should boil her urine, hair, and nail parings in a stone bottle, which caused pain to the suspect – a classic piece of counter-magic. It is also alleged that Kent had a teat, a mark where she was believed to have fed a diabolical familiar. Witchcraft convictions were unusual, and often depended on the poor reputation of the suspect. In this case, Kent proved that she was a good woman and was acquitted.

Here’s the original report taken from A Full and True Account of the Proceedings at the Sessions of Oyer and Terminer, Holden for the City of London . . . in the Old-Bayly (London, 1682), pp. 3–4:

Jane Kent, a Woman of about 60 years of Age, was Indicted for Witch-Craft, and using several Diabolick Arts, whereby she compassed the death of one Elizabeth Chamblet, a Girl about 5 years of Age; the Father of the deceased gave Evidence, that she first Bewitched his Swine, by reason she having bargained with him for two Pigs, which he refused to deliver her without Money; and that a while after his Daughter fell into a most piteous Condition, Swelling all over her Body . . . He farther deposed, that she also Bewitched his Wife, and that after the death of his Daughter, he went to one Dr. Ha[…]ks in Spittle-Fields, who advised him to take a quart of his Wives water, the pairing of her Nails, some of her Hair, and such like, and boyl them, which he did, in a Pipkin, at which time he Swore he heard the Prisoners voice at his door, and that she Screimed out as if she were Murdered, and that the next day she appeared to be much swelled and bloated: A Woman that searched her likewise Swore, that she had a Teat on her back, and unusual Holes behind her ears.

In the end, however, Kent was able to prove that she had a good reputation and went to church. This meant the accusations would not stick, and the jury acquitted her.

Sarah Moredike, 1702

Sarah Moredike was falsely accused of bewitching Richard Hathaway. She lived with her husband, a Thames boatman, at St Paul’s Wharf, near the present-day Millennium Bridge (and Northbank Restaurant). My best guess would be 1 Paul’s Walk, EC4V 3QH. The most informative source for this story is A Full and True Account of the Apprehending and Taking of Mrs. Sarah Moordike (1703).

Hathaway, a labourer, lived near the Falcon Stairs in Southwark, further up the river at Bankside where the Founder’s Arms stands today. These stairs led down to the river from the Falcon Inn, a pub frequented by Shakespeare a century earlier. Hathaway had extreme fits, bent double and barking like a dog. He was sent to hospital, but was uncured, which led to the diagnosis of witchcraft. Friends remembered him falling out with Sarah Moredike, and a mob set about her. She was saved by a local minister, Dr Richard Martin. He set a trap, inducing the ‘bewitched’ Hathaway to scratch a different woman in dim light. When he miraculously recovered, the imposture was exposed. Moredike went home to St Paul’s Wharf, where a magistrate ordered her stripped and searched; no mark was found but she was imprisoned anyway.

Moredike was tried and acquitted, and Dr Martin mobbed for having helped her. Hathaway was arrested and thrown into the Marshalsea Prison (today 161 Borough High Street), but his fits continued. Gradually others exposed his elaborate fraud, including how he faked the vomiting of pins and managed to eat secretly while pretending to fast. He was tried with others of assaulting Sarah Moredike, and convicted.

Conclusions

Many real-life stories have come down to us from court records and news reports, allowing us to identify locations for these devilish dramas. In almost every case, though, the modern place bears little resemblance to how it once looked. Cottages where possessed adolescents writhed in torment, smoky taverns where sinister stories were exchanged, the dank lock-ups where suspected witches were detained, have all gone, replaced by tower blocks and modern houses and concrete flyovers. But we can still say that it happened here, and then put our imaginations to work. I’ve stood at Marble Arch, and stared at the space above the busy traffic, and in my mind’s eye seen the terrifying sight of the three-legged gallows tree that stood there when this was Tyburn. This was the place of execution where in 1599, Anne Kirk mounted the ladder to be hanged as a witch, or Elizabeth Sawyer in 1621, or Joan Peterson in 1652, or many others besides.

Finally, although most components of a witch-trial – belief, law, and certain conflicts and misfortunes – belong to an age that has vanished, the underlying mentalities and emotions remain strikingly similar (as I wrote in The Guardian yesterday). Londoners who pointed the finger at witches and jeered at their executions lived just sixteen generations ago, and our brains and hearts are much like theirs. We, too, suffer from fear and anxiety, and alienate others to reassure ourselves. And we are manipulated by the media, just as when the seventeenth-century booksellers of St Paul’s churchyard fed feverish imaginations with lurid pamphlet reports. Of course, we know only too well how women and vulnerable people find themselves victimised using social media – a selfish, even sadistic, impulse that would have been familiar to our ancestors. Only the medium has changed: the message – we belong to one group and you to another – remains depressingly the same.

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