Witchcraft Was Rife

In Essex Countryside Magazine
Issue 132, January 1968

Witchcraft! The blood curdling tales of witches, wisemen and cunningmen. Evil enchantments and herbal brews. Horrific stories of torture and hanging of many quite innocent people, whose only crime was being a little too simple-minded, or having used some herbal remedy to cure an ill.

These are certainly not the sort of thing we associate with our peaceful Essex countryside, yet in the 15th to 17th centuries, and in some places even into the 19th century, witchcraft was rife, and in Essex alone 550 people were accused of witchcraft, and at least 55 of them sentenced to hang.

Witchcraft once hung like a pall over the south east coast of Essex, in such places as Rochford, Leigh, Hadleigh and Manningtree to name but a few, with Canewdon said to be at the heart of it all. 

It is thought that the ancient belief in witchcraft originated from far-off days when northern invaders found the south east coastline of Essex a good place to land.

The came in their long black ships, decorated both sides by many shields, and with the head of a serpant or dragon at the prow. Strong and adventurous, they leapt ashore, to plunder and pillage small, unprotected villages, then scattered between deep forest and marshy land.

The villagers themselves, surrounded as they were by nature at its wildest, fell an easy prey to

the Norsemen's pagan beliefs and herbal brews which they left behind, and these, handed down from generation to generation, gained momentum over the years. It soon became the custom then to blame any catastrophe that occurred, sich as failing crops, animal disease or human tragedy on to a witch's curse, for want of some more logical explanation.

In Canewdon, dominating the area from a high position, stands St Nicholas Church, with its imposing tower built in 1415 by King Henry as a thanks-giving offering for his victory at the battle of Agincourt. Even the church has not escaped folklore, for it is said that every time a stone falls from the church tower, one of the six to nine secret witches living in Canewdon will die, only to be immediately replaced by another. Also that when the witches fly over the church at night, there is a sound like a rustle of silk.

Canewdon was shunned by travellers of old, for they swore that as they went through Canewdon, their wagon wheels became bewitched, or as the saying went, 'were seized up'.

During those troublesome days, the Ducking Stool and Cage were very much in evidence, and there were those who were only too ready to thrive on the ignorant beliefs of others. It is on record that a Miss Rose Pye was convicted of causing the death of a one year old child by witchcraft, but she was subsequently acquitted of that charge on July 25, 1580.

A notorious name connected with witchcraft around that Essex area, is that of James Murrell. Born in 1780, the only child in the family to receive an education, and he made good use of it.

Among his many other occupations, he also worked for a time as a chemist's stillman, and learnt enough about herbal brews to set himself up as a Wiseman or Cunningman. Slighty built, with piercing blue eyes, he was known for miles around, and lived in a cottage opposite Hadleigh church, which he filled with all sorts of dried herbs and magic paraphanalia.

Hadleigh also boasted its own witch by the name of Mrs Eves, and nearby Leigh had old Mother Moore, who was reputed to be able to outswear any sailor.

Hockley had Nellie Button, who was supposed to have hypnotic powers, and she was apparently able to hypnotise anyone she disliked, so causing them to lose the use of their limbs. Hockley also had a notorious Wiseman known as George Pickingill.

Although living in Hockley, he spent most of his working life in Canewdon, and he was not only said to be able to bewitch machinery, but also to whistle up any of the secret witches living in Canewdon at any time he chose.

He retained his fearsome reputation right until the end of his life, when the horse carrying the hearse tore itself out of the shafts at the graveyard gate, and bolted off into the open fields.

Granny was a White Witch who also lived in Canewdon. She was more loved than feared, and advised anyone to keep a pair of scissors or a knife beneath their front door mat, which she assured them would keep evil forces at bay.

In 1594, Pope Paul gave permission for Inquisitors to be used to flush out anyone suspected of witchcraft. Such an Inquisitor was Matthew Hopkins, who travelled the length and breadth of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Huttingdonshire leaving behind him a trail of torture and suffering.

Now, St Nicholas Church, its ancient walls pitted by centuries of wind and rain, still looks down on that part of Essex like a guardian angel. A fitting symbol of how good can triumph over evil.

The fresh winds of time and progress have blown away the dark clouds of suspicion and fear that once brooded darkly over that area, and now the thriving, bustling population has no time for witches, evil spells and things that go bump in the night.

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