This post began as a response to the oft-repeated questions I got from other academics and friends on how many Recusants were tried for witchcraft and/or what is the connection between witchcraft and Catholicism in early modern England?
“Where God hath a temple, the [D]evil will have a chapel”: Roman Catholics, Witches, and Fear of ‘the Devil within’
Early in the English Civil War in 1642, anti-royalist and anti-papist mobs rioted in many towns and villages in the pro-parliamentarian counties of southern East Anglia. The riots were followed by organised iconoclasm and the largest witch-hunt in early modern England. I argue that violence against religious non-conformists, particularly Catholics, ‘superstitious’ idols, and witches were all rooted in a fear of the Devil working from within to subvert the godly community.[i]
Malcolm Gaskill has suggested several other women in Suffolk were likely of different religious persuasions from the majority of their community – including being Catholic.[ii] Although some of the accused witches may have been from Recusant families the accusations against them seem to bear a far greater resemblance to the template of Alan Macfarlane: accusations rose out of disputes between neighbours rather than that these women (and sometimes men) being targeted because of their religion.[iii] I agree with the assessment of Francis Young that witch-hunting in England was never Catholic-hunting. Young argues that “there is no evidence that Catholics in England were ever accused of witchcraft in England (except in rhetorical fashion)”.[iv] However, during the crisis of the Civil War there is an overlap between the communities that rioted against Catholics in 1642, and those that propelled the East Anglia trials in 1645.
The town of Long Melford in Suffolk has few claims to either fame or infamy for most people. However in the seventeenth century the town produced one of the most successful witchfinders of the seventeenth century. John Stearne was witchfinding partner of Matthew Hopkins, who would become far more infamous as ‘The Witchfinder General’. Stearne was a gentleman of some means, a committed protestant with perhaps an overtone of ‘Puritanism’, who became involved in the interrogations in Manningtree , in March 1645. Over the following three years he participated in or directed the interrogations of hundreds of women and men accused of witchcraft in the eastern counties of England.[v]
Although the town I wish to discuss in today’s blog post, Long Melford, saw only one actual witch prosecuted (an elderly man called Alexander Sussums), it still makes for an interesting case study. The town and its surrounding area were one of the many pockets of godly religion in the eastern counties, yet it had a small, but well-supported catholic minority; it was the witchfinder John Stearne’s childhood home; was the site of anti-catholic rioting in 1642; and was almost at the geographic centre of Stearne’s area of interest in Suffolk, being just seven miles from his new home in Lawshall. Unlike his associate Matthew Hopkins who travelled from Essex to northern Norfolk, and across to Ely, Stearne’s activities in 1645 were concentrated near his home in Lawshall, and later in nearby regions of Ely, Norfolk and Huntingdonshire. Malcolm Gaskill suggests this may be in part because his young wife and baby were in Lawshall, and he had friends in the area who assisted his efforts.[vi]
Frontispiece from [Anon], The apprehension and confession of three notorious witches, (1589).
Long Melford’s major claim to fame in the Civil War period, is that it saw significant anti-Catholic riots in 1642. As John Walter has established in Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution, these riots were in part directed at the eminent catholic Elizabeth Savage, Countess Rivers.[vii] Savage had fled to Long Melford after her property in St Osyth, Essex, another community that would likewise experience witchfinding in 1645, was threatened. The riot in Long Melford severely damaged Countess Rivers house, and caused the Countess to send for assistance to the Earl of Warwick (amusingly both a Protestant and a Parliamentarian, as well as a judge in the Essex witch trials in 1645), who consequently sent his steward to rescue the Countess.
The pre-existing conditions in Long Melford were not unusual across the Eastern counties. The town experienced spasms of religious violence during the Civil War. From anti-papist riots to iconoclasm, to the visit of a witchfinder in the summer of 1645, towns like Long Melford could be described as undergoing a series of panics about the Devil’s sinister influence inside their community.
Of course panics about witches and papists were nothing new in England in the early modern period. There are, I think, three discernible peaks and troughs in the experience of local panics about both topics, which coincide with national political, religious, and military crises. This is not to suggest these threats were ever far from the minds of the Godly, but I think the periods at which these panics are heightened says something very interesting about the relationship between threats to the nation at large and local panics about the Devil within the community.[viii]
In discussing the intermittent nature of panics about Catholics, Robin Clifton described a brief timeline of panics which could have been experienced by someone alive at the beginning of the Civil War.[ix] There were panics in Sussex panic in 1596, and in Hampshire and Monmouthshire in 1605 – of course there was also the Gunpowder plot later that year. These were followed by a series of panics in Northumbria in 1613, and in the south east in 1625 (the year of Charles I accession), and then a few more scattered every so often up until the actual Catholic rebellion in Ireland in 1641. During the aftermath of the rebellion in Ireland fears about the internal Catholic threat in England were more pronounced than they had been since the sixteenth century, and fears about Irish Catholics joining forces with Royalists were perpetuated by accounts of Irish women wielding skeins accompanying the King’s army.[x]
I would argue that the pamphlet material and English witch trial data suggests a co-relation between fear of external violence – from Catholic armies and/or rebellions – and fears about the presence of the Devil’s agents (whether witches or Catholics) inside the community.
As the home of John Stearne’s youth, Long Melford and its neighbouring villages make an interesting place to focus upon in a micro-study of the interplay of local and national concerns. Between the confession of Alexander Sussums and the writings of John Stearne, a picture of how both witches and Catholics were seen as a form of internal disease, a cancer if you will, which others felt needed to be cut out or removed in order to protect the godly from their influence, can be seen.
As John Stearne put it in 1649 “I have heard in some places … where popery and prophanenesse is, with contempt of Preaching or vile neglect thereof, there Witch-craft is most rife.”[xi] Of course in 1645 the outbreak of the witch panic had been a source of satire for Royalists who joked at the godly counties of the Parliamentarian Eastern Association having ‘a plague of witches’, and noted the Bible’s injunction from 1 Samuel 15:23 that ‘Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft’. An offended parliamentarian newsbook, A Diary, or an Exact Journall, responded to their mirth indignantly in 1645, proclaiming that while:
It is the ordinary mirth of the Malignants in this City to discourse of the Association of Witches in the Associated Counties, but by this they shall understand the truth of the old Proverbe which is, that where God hath his Church the Devill have his Chappell. To labour in to the depth of this Mistery of Iniquity, we must dive as low as Hell.[xii]
The internal threat could often be narrowed down to particular people, from particular families; not only recusant families, but families whose disorder had threatened community stability, and/or who were accused or prosecuted for witchcraft. Alexander Sussums, an elderly man living in Long Melford meeting John Stearne in a local house, presumably where Stearne was staying during his work in the area, confessed without any questioning, or any accusations against him, to being a witch: “he confessed that he had things [meaning familiars] which did draw those marks I found upon him· but said he could not help it, for that all his kin[d]red were naught’.[xiv] This comment on kindred who were naught is echoed in other trials in the 1640s where witches were either accused of having had relatives executed for witchcraft, or admitted to having mothers, sisters, uncles or cousins who were witches.[xv]
Apart from the fear they evoked from their Godly neighbours, witches, like Catholics, could also suffer from a reputation established in previous generations. Like families locally ‘known’ to be recusant or ‘church papists’, families could have a reputation for witchcraft. John Stearne was clearly shocked by Alexander Sussums’ proclamation of his own diabolism and questioned him on his confession:
I asked him again why he should do it, when as God was so merciful towards him, as I then told him of, being a man whom I had been formerly acquainted withal, as having lived in Town. He answered again, He could not help it, for that all his generation was naught; and so told me his mother and aunt were hanged, his grandmother burnt for Witchcraft, and so others of them questioned and hanged.[xvi]
The context of Sussum’s confession to coming from a family that was ‘naught’, is one of religious contention. Clifton argued that “attacks on Catholics in the autumn of 1642… [indicate] that serious occurrences in national politics may have been understood in terms of a papist/anti-papist dichotomy.” In other words, national crises or national concerns could cause local outbreaks of persecution against Catholics. Given the rhetorical association between Catholics and witches during the Civil War, and the emphasis on the diabolic elements within Royalism (often equated with the King’s catholic supporters), heightened fears about witches in the same period seems almost inevitable.[xviii]
Ian Gentles concluded in The English Revolution and the Wars in the Three Kingdomes, 1638-1652 that the outbreak of popular activism reflected Puritan Preaching that the “construction of a godly people reinforced the idea of an active citizenship”.[xix] He concluded that the English revolution and the accompanying print revolution helped enlarge the role of popular activism in English politics, and that in 1642 this resulted in the outbreak of popular violence against Catholics and Royalists.
In 1645 local members of the communities across East Anglia undertook the watching of witches, and generally only once a confession had been obtained was the accused witch brought before a JP or magistrate. In many communities ministers were also actively involved in the process of extracting these confessions. However by mid 1645 parliament was concerned enough about this outbreak of popular witchfinding to send a special Commission of Oyer and Terminer to oversee the cases in Suffolk, including that of Alexander Sussums. It is interesting to note that this attempt to restore order was an echo of Parliament’s response to the anti-Catholic riots of 1642 – bringing the violence to an end and into the courtroom, rather than allowing the mob to continue to attack people and property.
By and large witches were punished for being witches, and Catholics were punished for being Catholics. However the two groups had significant similarities in the way in which they were conceptualised by their godly neighbours. Both were a form of ‘heresy’ to the majority of Protestants around them; both were seen to have passed down their secret and diabolic beliefs through their families; and both were seen as a danger to their community. So, while violence against Catholics and the prosecution of witches are certainly linked to the same underlying fears of their Protestant neighbours, there is little evidence that recusant Catholics or members of non-conformist Protestant communities were commonly accused of witchcraft in court. Many authors made rhetorical links between witchcraft and papacy, and later between witchcraft and Quakerism, but this did not, by and large, result in accusations and prosecution. That is not to say that religiously fractured communities weren’t a major source of witchcraft trials, just that the accusations themselves were not made because of someone’s religious denomination.
As for Alexander Sussums, the records of his trial have sadly been lost, and we only have fragments with which to reconstruct it. It appears he was tried by the Special Commission of Oyer and Terminer, along with nearly a hundred other accused witches, the majority of whom were found guilty, and hung for witchcraft. Fortunately in the case of Sussums, the Special Commission that Parliament had sent to Suffolk was not convinced. In spite of his confession, he was found not guilty.
The witchfinder John Stearne disgustedly recorded that “This man is yet living, notwithstanding he confessed the sucking of such things above sixteen yeers together, [and] was suspected for doing of mischief”.[xx]
[ii] Note, One of the few cases which I have seen where a witches religion was openly discussed was in Wickham Skeith, Suffolk, in 1645. The local Minister Edward Willan – who was an indiscriminate persecuter of all sectaries, be they Leveller, Quaker, Familist or anything else – described one of the accused witches in his parish as an Anabaptist and ‘runner after the new sects’. See C. L’Estrange Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch Trials (1929): pp. 302– 3. See also Peter Elmer, ‘Saints or sorcerers: Quakerism, demonology and the decline of witchcraft in seventeenth-century England’, in Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts (eds), Witchcraft in Early Modern England: Studies in Culture and Belief, (Cambridge, 1996): pp. 176– 7.
[vii] John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge University Press, 1999): pp. 38-39, 45-46; See also John Walter, ‘Anti-Popery and the Stour Valley Riots of 1642’ in David Chad, History of Religious Dissent in East Anglia, III (Norwich, 1996), p.121-40; Alexandra Walsham, Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700 (Manchester University Press, 2006), p.133.
[viii] Note, The first peak in witch trials and witchcraft pamphlets could be generally described as matching the period from the Spanish Armada to the Popish plot -with a little lee way a few years either side. So there was a peak in witchcraft prosecutions from the 1580s to 1605 – though as I say there is considerable leeway either side of those dates.[viii] Robin Clifton, argued that ‘from time to time English towns and villages were swept by panic fears of “Catholic Plots” – most of them imaginary – to rebel and massacre protestants”.[viii] Similarly, from time to time, communities would experience spasms of witch trials, usually small such as those in Essex in the 1580s and 90s, and sometimes larger, such as in Lancashire in 1612.The second period of sustained panic about both witches and popish plots, unsurprisingly coincides with the Civil Wars of the late 1630s, and lasts until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. And a final spasm of concern occurs in the late seventeenth century, with concerns over a catholic head of state, James II, with a succession crisis followed by the Glorious Revolution, and then unease about rebellion in Ireland and/or a French invasion in support of the ousted James II.
[x] Note, the depiction of Irish women as sexually depraved, violent, and diabolic whores, was an established part of anti-papist propaganda that was intensified by Irish insurrection and fears about Catholic infiltration through the Irish ‘backdoor’. Irish Catholics were portrayed as the inverse of English Protestants – much as the witch was portrayed as the unnatural inverse of good motherhood. They were part of the binary that depicted the true church of England as the good wife of God, and the Catholic Church as the ‘Whore of Babylon’. Mary O’Dowd, ‘Women and War in Ireland in the 1640s’, in Margaret MacCurtain and Mary O’Dowd (eds), Women in Early Modern Ireland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), p.96.See also Alexandra Walsham, ‘“This Newe Army of Satan”: The Jesuit Mission and the Formation of Public Opinion in Elizabethan England’, in David Lemmings and Claire Walker (eds), Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
[xv] For example, Elizabeth Clarks who I discussed last week was described as having “[a] mother and some other of her kinsfolke did suffer death for Witchcraft and murther.” See ‘H.F.’ [Anon], A true and exact relation, p. 1.
[xvii] Note, There is also the suggestion that ‘his grandmother burnt for witchcraft’, which is rather extraordinary given that only very special cases in which a witch had also committed the crime of petit treason, were burnt at the stake. In fact I know of only one case in Suffolk of a witch being burnt at the stake, and that was from the same trial as Alexander Sussums. So while it is highly unlikely she died in the way he described, it is possible she was executed for witchcraft, although I have so far not found no other Sussums (or any name like it) being executed for witchcraft.
[xviii] During the Second Battle at Newbury, in October 1644, it was reported that the Catholics of the King’s army had many witches amongst them, whom ‘Cromwell’s souldiers did plainly perceive to fly swiftly from one side of the [K]ing’s army to another’. The original pamphlet, which apparently made this claim, has not been found but it was quoted in the Royalist newsbook Mercvrivs Avlicvs. See [Anon], Mercvrivs Avlicvs, (27 October to 2 November, 1644). The Mercvrivs Avlicvs later mocked the witch-hunt in England, claiming that ‘we have also multitudes of witches among us … More, I may well say, than ever this Island bred since the Creation. I speak it with horror. God guard us from the Devil, for I think he was never so busy upon any part of the Earth that was enlightened by the beams of Christianity; nor do I wonder at it, for there’s never a Cross left to fright him away.’ See [Anon], Mercvrivs Avlicvs (July 13 to July 20 1645).
*I presented a longer version of this at the Australian Historical Association conference in 2014.
The main image at the top of this post is the torture of Saint Nicholas Owen, S.J.
an engraving by Melchior Küsel (17th century). via Wikimedia commons