The Chelmsford Witches

 In Essex Countryside Magazine,

Issue 112, May 1966

By Raymond Lemont-Brown

The very fact that Sir Gilbert Gerard, Queen Elizabeth I's Attorney General, came to the trial gave the whole proceedings an air of dignified importance. July 27, 1566, was extremely hot as most of the population of Chelmsford pushed and jostled for a good vantage point from where to view the entertainment the like of which had never been seen since Sampson's troupe of brown bears had broken loose in the market place.

The people were almost silent, their hearts full of fear as well as excitement. On an elevated platform sat the inquiry board, now in the second day of it's investigations. In the centre sat the Attorney General, to his right John Southcote, a justice of the Queen's Bench, and to his left Thomas Cole, the phlegmatic parson from the edge of town, and with him Sir John Fortescue. The crowd were greatly awed by the presence of such distinguished gentlemen.

As the inquiry board members talked among themselves for a few minutes the acting clerk of the court penned a title on a sheet of vellum, “The Examination of Certain Witches at Chelmsford in the County of Essex before the Queen's Majesty's Judges, the 27th Day of July, being the second day of the Trial, Anno 1566.” The clerk gave the last figures a flourish and, putting down his pen, allowed himself a few moments of meditation.

This was the first really notable witch trial since the passing of the Bill against witchcraft in 1563. This trial at Chelmsford, meditated the clerk, could set the pattern for all witch trials and could put himself in the way of earning several golden sovereigns as an expert transcriber. Although there was no evidence of a pact with the prince of darkness, the population had been puzzled by certain mysterious happenings lately; many people were frightened and, although interested, would play no part in the proceedings. Yes, thought the clerk, more witch trials could bring him more wealth.

A steady murmur among the crowd had grown to a buzz as the beginning of the trial was delayed; then, almost immediately, the crowd was silent as the constable brought forward the three accused women. Elizabeth Francis, Agnes Waterhouse and her daughter Joan stood with their heads bowed as the Attorney General signalled for the constable to form his men into a barrier between the three women and the crowd. The charges against them were not related, only in that they all came from the same village of Hatfield Peverel and that they had at one time owned the same cat, called Sathan.

The Attorney-General agreed that Elizabeth Francis be tried first, as all the evidence had been heard on the previous day. Elizabeth was the wife of a yeoman, Christopher Francis, and was charged with bewitching an infant child of William Auger, “who became decrepit.”

On examination Elizabeth Francis confessed that she had learned witchcraft at the age of twelve from her mother, who was known as Mother Eve; “. . . when she taught it to her, she counselled her to renounce God and his word, and to give her blood to Sathan [the cat], which she delivered her in the likeness of a white spotted cat, and taught her to feed the said cat with bread and milk.”

Today the clerk of the court's writings make strange reading. He tells of how Elizabeth Francis induced the cat Sathan to find her a rich husband, and this having been done the man was “murdered” and Elizabeth commanded the cat to get another husband. A child by this husband was removed from Elizabeth's body by witchcraft, “. . . [the cat] bade her to take a certain herb and drink it, which she did, and destroyed the child forthwith.” The whole proceedings and evidence had a decided sexual nature, and as the court became more interested Elizabeth's premarital experiences the witchcraft charges became less and less prominent. In the end the court decided that she be imprisoned for one year, although the previous Act had laid down burning at the stake for punishment. Elizabeth Francis persisted in her bewitching of neighbours and was finally hanged in 1578.

Agnes Waterhouse, a sixty-three-year-old widow, was charged with bewitching William Fynee, who had “languished” until he had died the previous year. Agnes Waterhouse's power of witchcraft had been intensified when Elizabeth Francis gave her the white spotted cat Sathan. Strangely enough, Agnes Waterhouse did very little to defend herself, and a host of neighbours came forth to give evidence. “. . . Also she confessed that falling out with one widow Gooday she willed Sathan to drown her cow, and he did so, and she rewarded him as before [she allowed the cat to drink her blood]. Also she falling out with another of her neighbours, she killed her three geese in the same manor. Also being denied butter of another she caused her to lose the curds two or three days after.”

Sir Gilbert Gerard was intrigued by the blood sucking. “Agnes Waterhouse, when did thy cat suck of thy blood?” he asked. She replied “Never.” The constable then gave evidence that Agnes Waterhouse had bite marks on her face. Again Sir Gilbert repeated his question. This time Agnes made the damning reply, “By my good faith, my lord, not this fortnight.'

The court decreed that Agnes Waterhouse be hanged two days later, July 29, 1566.

Agnes's daughter Joan, a pretty girl of eighteen, was the last accused. She was charged with bewitching a twelve-year-old girl, Agnes Brown, “who on July 21st following became decrepit in her right leg and arm.” The evidence was conflicting however, and Joan Waterhouse was found not guilty.

Chelmsford had indeed set the trend for witch trials for the next 130 years. Within 100 years witches were condemned and hanged at the rate of one every two years; although of the many accused many were found not guilty. But the ball had been set rolling: neighbour watched neighbour carefully, and it is strange the number of times the cat Sathan figured, sometimes in the guise of a toad and sometimes as a black dog.

Personal Note:

These cases at first glance make it look as though superstitious fear was rife, and indeed it was, however its also probable that these trials helped with keeping public order. Whilst witchcraft in the guise of charms and herbal brews obviously took place and still does to this day in one form or another, the more bizarre cases, although from the court's perspective almost definitely fabricated, likely pursued convictions to prevent tit-for-tat squabbles throughout village communities. Although there are likely exceptions.

Whilst it sounds unfair to our modern sensitivities, if someone in a village is creating so much disharmony that multiple neighbours are willing to testify to nonsense claims, then perhaps they are best made a pariah and removed for the benefit of the rest of the community. With regards to this article, I can see no reason why Elizabeth Francis would "[persist] in bewitching her neighbours", if she was given one last chance to avoid the gallows. Although the courts were obviously happy to support the trials as it meant a steady income - and corruption likely went with it hand in hand.

What is interesting in this case however is that it revolves around the cat they name "Sathan", whom they attribute the supernatural powers to. (Very likely a deliberate perversion of Satan, although whether these particular women called it that or just the others in the village we'll never know.) Whilst this sounds bizarre, this sounds quite similar to later tales of witchcraft in Essex around the early-to-mid eighteenth century, where familiars or 'imps', were seen as a witches source of power. These familiars could be any small animal from rabbits, cats or even mice. It could be that this practice of feeding the familiar cat their blood actually did happen then, and wasn't as we might expect completely fabricated after all.

We have all seen the cartoonish witch stereotype, and she would not be complete without her black cat perched on the broomstick alongside her, but this likely has much more of a meaning than what we might think today. It would be easy for us with our modern mind to reason that the cat is merely a companion - the witch is clearly hideous and therefore unlikely to find herself a husband so she became a crazy cat lady. However, we might understand better if we take into consideration the historical folklore surrounding cats and their link with witchcraft.

In the Germanic pagan religion, the Goddess Freya was responsible for teaching the art of Seiðr, a type of sorcery or witchcraft generally reserved for women, to the other Gods and therefore mankind. The token animals she is often depicted with are two large cats found for her by Thor, and the chariot that she uses for transportation is in fact pulled along by them. Arguably, Freya could in some way be related in her root to the Egyptian Goddess Bastet who had the head of cat, but like Freya was also responsible for warfare, family and for love. Whilst I am purely speculating, it could be that the cat's protective nature over the home from disease brought in by rodents, had a particular magickal power to our ancestors, and being domestic therefore automatically had a feminine and family connection. However, the cat even today treads a fine line between being domesticated and being a free and wild animal - and therefore adds to both its otherworldly character and raw untamed aggression that could so also be attributed to a warrior goddess, or hex magick.

Whilst we'll likely never know for certain, it is possible that these customs are connected, albeit with obvious changes over the years, over thousands of years.


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