Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Lowestoft Witch Trial

By Frances Collingwood 

FEW people were able to think straight about witches in the Middle Ages. Any wretched woman who behaved oddly could be persecuted to such an extent by her neighbours that sheer terror would make her more peculiar until before she knew where she was the hue and cry would be on. And once a witch was up for trial she rarely saw her home again.

The Lowestoft witch trial took place at Bury St. Edmunds on March 10, 1664 and was mainly notable for an element of sanity introduced into the proceedings towards the end. 

INDEED with a less prejudiced judge the verdict might easily have been not guilty. 
The events which led to the charge were petty in the extreme and a very nice example of the revenging of personal spite. It all started with a quarrel about herrings which some fishermen at Lowestoft had refused to sell to Amy Denny and Rose Cullender; the supposed witches. One gathers that much spiteful backchat ensued and there is little doubt that the fishermen's families were united by their mutual dislike of these two unfortunate women. 

ONE of the fishermen. Samuel Pacey, declared that his two children Elizabeth aged eleven, and Deborah aged nine, were bewitched. They had in fact been seized by violent fits as soon as he had refused to supply the accused with herrings. These two children kept crying out that the witches were in the room with them or else that they had sent their imps to torment them. On occasions they were unable to move their limbs and found they had lost the power of speech.

OTHER signs of bewitchment was the vomiting of pins and nails and this they were constantly doing. Mr. Pacey felt obliged to send them to stay with their aunt. Margaret Arnold in Yarmrouth where he hoped they might be out of reach of the witches’ powers. But this had been of no avail, for the children continued to vomit pins and their aunt declared that as many as thirty had been brought up in one vomit, this in spite of the fact that she had hidden all the pins in the house. Once, apparently, Deborah had brought up a twopenny nail with a broad head, which she insisted had been forced down her throat by a thing like a bee.” She also said she had actually seen Amy Denny in Yarmouth, and that the witch had tried to persuade her to kill herself by cutting her throat or by drowning. Elizabeth, it seemed, caught a mouse under the table one day, and when she threw it on the fire it exploded with a blinding flash like gunpowder. Her aunt was forced to admit, however, that she had not seen anything in the child’s hand. Both children insisted that they saw mice running about all over the house, although they were not visible to anyone else.  Elizabeth and Deborah were not the only Lowestoft children affected. Ann, the daughter of another fisherman who had refused to sell herrings to Rose Cullenden, also had fits, pains and visions. So did little Jane Bocking, and eighteen-year-old Susan Chandler.

AS was the case in so many witch trials, there was no lack of evidence. Horses were said to have been bewitched, and a certain John Soam swore that a spell had been cast upon his carts so that his men were unable to move or unload them. When he had called in other helpers their noses had bled so copiously that they had been powerless to do anything. Yet the following day the carts had been quite easy to move.  

ELIZABETH, Ann and Susan were taken to Bury to give evidence at the trial, and although apparently in good health at the outset they were assailed by fits the moment they entered the court-house, so that they were unable to speak properly. Elizabeth, it seems, lost all power of movement, and lay for some time semi-conscious on a table. One of the accused, Amy Denny, was ordered to touch Elizabeth while she remained in her apparent trance, and the child sprang up and scratched the witch’s face with such vigour that she had to be removed by force. Susan also threw a fit at the sight of Rose Cullenden in court, and when asked if she had anything to say against the prisoners she screamed Burn her! Burn her! at the top of her voice.The accused were persistent in denying all the charges against them, and could not be shaken from their attitude even after Susan’s mother and five other women swore that with their own eyes they had seen the two tell-tale prick marks known as the Devil’s mark upon the witches’ wrists.

ONE interesting feature of the trial was the testimony of the celebrated Sir Thomas Browne, whose wisdom was consulted. He seems to have adopted a rather cautious attitude, for after admitting that the fits thrown by the children were probably due to hysteria he went on to remark that they could “be heightened to a great excess by the subtlety of the Devil co-operating with the malice of those which we term witches, at whose instance he doth these villainies.”  The view of so learned a man naturally carried weight, but there happened to be present in the court a certain Mr. Sergeant Keeling, who apparently was not impressed by the great man's reactions. He roundly declared that no one would be safe from charges of witchery if such views were accepted. It was his considered opinion that the children had been encouraged to act a part by their vindictive parents, and he obtained permission to prepare a test. In this he was joined by Lord Cornwallis and Sir Edmund Bacon.

IT was a generally accepted principle that bewitched persons reacted instantly to the touch or presence of a witch, It was therefore arranged to closet Amy Denny in a room into which one of the children was taken blindfold. Other persons were also present, and the child was made aware of these circumstances. Expecting to be touched by the witch, the child fell into a violent fit on feeling a hand on her arm, thus proving Mr Keeling’s suspicions, for the witch had not moved from the corner in which she was sitting. As a result of this disclosure the three men made a declaration before the judge in the following words: We do believe the whole transaction of this business was a mere imposture.” And they were probably right.

ALL the same a verdict of guilty was returned and the luckless women were hanged. In his summing-up, Sir Matthew Hale did not refer to the test imposed by Keeling, but solemnly told the jury that he had no doubt in the existence of witches, for not only did Scripture affirm it; but every nation had laws against them. With the possibility of fraud so clearly evident it is surprising to find the judge not instigating a fuller inquiry into the honesty of the plaintiffs. But perhaps it would be truer to say that the most surprising element produced by this case was the clear thinking shown by the three men who were courageous enough to suggest that there might be something to be said after all for those poor unfortunates whom the majority believed to be in the pay of the Devil.

Scanned with OCR from the 1965 East Anglian and Essex Annual

I have posted this because of its relevance to current witch trials ongoing although I first noticed it because it mentions the Bocking family. There is a detailed website on the witch trials authored by Ivan Bunn which according to him:

The Bocking family is one about which very little is known. (Well, we're still living locally!) 
Diana Bocking, the mother of the bewitched Jane was not born in Lowestoft so her maiden name is not known, although records show that she did live there after her marriage. She was married to Henry Bocking the son of William and Jeane Bocking who was born in Lowestoft in 1616.  Only one child is recorded from this union and that is Jane who was born at Lowestoft in August 1647 making her 15 years old at the time she was "bewitched". 
Diana appears to have been a widow by 1653 (although there is no record of her husband's burial at Lowestoft) for in that year she purchased in her own right  a copyhold house and land at the north end of High Street.  However her time as a property owner was short-lived because four years later she sold all the land and the following year she sold the house as well.  Obviously her "fortunes" were failing because in 1656 the records show that Widow Bocking received a payment from the town Poor Rate .Eight years after the trial she can be found living in a small rented tenement in town. 
She died at Lowestoft at Lowestoft in October 1680 and is described in the burial register as "an ancient woman". All the parish records remain mute concerning the fate of her daughter the bewitched Jane Bocking.
Contemporary parish records in Norwich are filled with the Bocking name. The name is thought to originate in the Essex village founded by a Viking called Bocca, thus Boc-inge translates as 'Bocca's people'. There are contemporary Bocking families scattered all across Derbyshire, notably recorded in the plague quarantined village of Eyam. The Hawley Collection holds a knife with the mark of Robert Bocking registered with the Cutlers' Company of Sheffield in 1689.

The Essex village was a 'peculiar' to the Archbishop of Canterbury and another interesting Bocking was the archbishop's treasurer  Dr. Edward Bocking, who was instrumental in the the affair of Elizabeth Barton, the 'Holy Maid of Kent'. 

There are remains of a chapel at Court-Le-Street overlooking the Romney marshes where this young servant girl was miraculously cured of an epileptiform illness in front of numerous witnesses in the Spring of 1526, bringing her to the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury who sent his aide  to examine her. Dr Bocking declared her genuine and as her confessor, he stage-managed her to build a reputation as a visionary in an attempt to prevent the divorce of Henry VIII. She (and he) proved to be such a formidable opponent of the king's will that in 1533 Cromwell took steps against her and after examination by Cranmer, Barton and her associates were committed to the Tower. Bocking, Barton and the priests Richard Master, Hugh Rich, John Dering, Henry Gold and Richard Risby were executed at Tyburn on 20 April, 1534.

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