Like many a small boy it was the witches in Macbeth that first focussed my attention on Shakespeare. I can remember thinking their melodramatic presence merited a more important place in the plot, and I craved more of their relatively short appearances. For me they were not simply a catalyst in Macbeth’s vaulting ambition but characters full of fascination and meaning in their own right. Stephen Fry reports feeling the same when he was one of the witches in his school play. Following a unique flash of inspiration he recalls how he and his ‘weird sisters’ heightened the horror of the scene by wearing black bin liners and throwing bloody offal, fresh from the local abattoir, into a plastic cauldron. There was nothing quite as explicit as that for us at Steyning Grammar School; we had to make do with corny pointed hats, dry ice, and stick-on beards. Despite such unsophisticated props the witches spell remained ‘firm and good’, and I have remained under it all my life.
About thirty years after leaving school I began writing a history of my hometown, Southwold in Suffolk, and luckily for me it provided all the right ingredients for a very fast read. Like London in the seventeenth century, the people of this small town corporate on the east coast were devastated by fire and by plague. Southwold returned stories of hidden treasure, smugglers, and murderers, and on top of it all a famously haunted building in the High Street called Sutherland House. And yes, Southwold even had its own witch, but when I first encountered her it seemed that she had left only the faintest footprints in the occult sand. All that was known of Ann Cammell was her name and that she was accused at the height the savage East Anglian witch trials of the mid 1640s.
My book Southwold: An Earthly Paradise had been published in 2006, and the same year Malcolm Gaskill published the paperback edition of his own, called Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy. The fruits of years of careful research, this is history as it should be written, but its subject matter is dark and profoundly disquieting. Malcolm explained that Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne believed they had sanction of both God and Parliament and took it upon themselves to hunt down witches, to examine them, to torture them, aid in their conviction, and secure their execution.
Scapegoats were sought in a country torn by civil war, disease, and famine, and witches were in the front line to explain the inexplicable. Local councils sought the help of the witchfinders and they were prepared to pay dearly to purge villages, towns, and cities of this evil. In Aldeburgh the corporation paid a total of £40 to convict seven witches who were later hanged, all on the same day. In the end, some three hundred East Anglian men and women were accused, a hundred hanged, and one burned to death in a barrel of pitch.
On the evidence of Malcolm’s book I believed that the indictment of the Southwold witch was inspired by Hopkins’ incentives, and despite it being too late for my book I wanted to know more. So off I went to the National Archives at Kew where after a cumbersome process of admission I was shown Ann’s indictment, written on vellum on 14 January 1646. For me this grubby, organic document was a chilling sight as it had been written by the court clerk, facing Ann as she stood alone, accused of a capital offence.
Despite its ghastly emanations the document presented a temporary impasse. It was written in Latin in a seventeenth-century hand and consequently was unintelligible to me. I had it professionally transcribed and translated and learned that Ann Cammell had been accused of ‘being a common witch and enchantress not having God before her eyes but instigating diabolical works’, and ‘wickedly, diabolically, feloniously, willingly and with malice aforethought’ had ‘employed wicked and nefarious spirits to certain evil and devilish arts called witchcraftes inchantments charmes and sorceries on a certain William Whitten of Southwould sailor to the harm and wounding of the body’. Damage to property was one thing but damage to a person’s body was quite another. This was considered the most serious of offences and following conviction the death penalty was a virtual certainty.
Ann Cammell may have been mentally, even physically tortured. She certainly knew of the grisly fate of the Aldeburgh witches, the burning of Mother Lakeland in Ipswich, and must have been in terror of her own life. Ann had plenty of time to consider her likely fate. Her case was referred to the highest court of common law in the land, the Court of the King’s Bench in Westminster, and she had to wait at least eighteen months for her hearing. When that came she pleaded not guilty. The case was inconclusive and her anguish was set to continue when she was bailed to appear at the next assizes in Suffolk.
We do not know the verdict of her final trial but there is circumstantial evidence that Ann survived her ordeal – an ordeal that has an unearthly resonance to this day. Against all odds her house survives, and I have discovered that it is none other than the haunted Sutherland House referred to above. Apart from a variety of poltergeist activity and apparitions, even cold sweats, an anguished red haired woman is said to make an annual appearance at an upper window. We do not know Ann Cammell’s colouring, but tellingly an ancient tradition has it that red hair is one of the many marks of the witch.
The haunting of Sutherland House has been the subject of a variety of dotty notions, and maybe this is just the latest. However, I believe that naming Ann Cammell as its ghost is not just the latest but also the most credible. The only, and I stress the only truth is that belief in this ghost is very much alive in Southwold now. Thus we are faced with alternative explanations of the phenomenon. The first is to simply accept it as evidence of the supernatural and that Ann’s spirit is nailed to the site of her torment. The second, perhaps more easily allowed, is that her terrible ordeal is the subject of a chain of whispers to this day. Both are equally fascinating and almost equally improbable.
They say that time will tell, but I doubt if it will tell much more about the unhappy Ann Cammell and indeed her troubled afterlife. Happily for me I have had a second chance of relating all I know of her tragedy in the revised edition of my book, Southwold: An Earthly Paradise, which is published this year.