St. Osyth Witches : A witch hunt that swept through a remote coastal area of Essex, England, in 1582 brought indictments against 14 women. Despite lurid and flimsy testimony of the kind that quickly led to convictions and executions elsewhere, all but two of the women went free.
The hysteria took place in St. Osyth, not far from Chelmsford, where a major witch hysteria had occurred about 14 years earlier. The hunt began against Ursula kempe of St. Osyth, a poor woman who made a meager living by midwifery, harlotry and white witchcraft, chiefly “unwitching,” that is, removing bad spells that people believed had been cast against them.
A woman named Grace Thurlowe had a son who became strangely ill with convulsions. kempe and some neighbors came to see him. kempe took him by the hand, muttered incantations, and told Thurlowe that the boy “would do well enough.” The child was healed almost immediately. Thurlowe, suspicious of witchcraft, then would not let kempe nurse her newborn daughter. The infant fell out of its crib and broke its neck. Thurlowe and kempe quarreled violently, and “Ursley” threatened Thurlowe with lameness. Soon, Thurlowe was severely crippled with arthritis that was so bad she could scarcely drag herself around on hands and knees. (By another account, kempe treated Thurlowe for her arthritis, but Thurlowe refused to pay kempe’s fee of 12 pence, after which her arthritis flared up again.)
Thurlowe worked for a county session judge, Bryan Darcy, and complained to him about kempe. Darcy investigated, and coerced kempe’s illegitimate eight-yearold son Thomas to “confess” to incredible stories about his mother. He told Darcy that his mother
“hath foure seuerall spirits, the one called Tyffin, the other Tittey, the third Pigine, and the fourth Iacke: and being asked what colors they were, saith that Tyttey is like a little grey Cat, Tyffin is like a white lambe, Pygine is black like a Toad, and Iacke is black like a Cat.”
Thomas said he had seen these familiars come at night and suck blood from his mother at her arms and other places on her body. He also said that the spirits had been given to “Godmother Newman” (Alice Newman) in an earthenware pot. Darcy also found a man who claimed kempe had bewitched his wife to death. kempe denied these stories, but Darcy tricked her by falsely promising her leniency if she confessed.
Fearful for her life, kempe confessed to having familiars and consorting with other St. Osyth witches, whom she named: Elizabeth Bennet, Alice Hunt and her sister margery Sammon, as well as Alice Newman. Hunt and Sammon were daughters of “old mother Barnes,” a witch of notorious repute who allegedly had bequeathed to them her familiars, “two spirites like Toades, the one called Tom and the other robbyn.” These accused women in turn named others, hoping for mercy from the court.
Hunt confirmed her sister Margery as a witch, as well as Joan Pechey. Newman confirmed Bennet. Soon 14 women were “exposed.” most of them were disreputable and/or poor. Hunt’s eight-yearold stepdaughter claimed that she had two little things, one black and one white, “the which shee kept in a little lowe earthen pot with woll, color white and black . . . and saith, that shee hath seene her mother to feede them with milke.” Bennet admitted that she had two spirits, “one called Suckin, being blacke like a Dogge, the other called Lierd, beeing red like a Lion.”
Another accused woman, Annis Herd, was charged by her seven-year-old illegitimate daughter of having six avices or blackbirds as her Imps, and six more who lay in a box lined with black and white wool. The accused elaborated stories on each other, especially about their familiars. In Darcy’s own account, he reported:
The sayd Ursley kemp had foure sprytes, viz. their names Tettey a hee like a gray cat, Jack a hee like a black cat, Pygin a she like a black toad, and Tyffin a she like a white lambe. The hees were to plague to death, and the shees to punish with bodily harme, and to destroy cattell. Tyffyn, Ursley’s white spirit, did tell her alwayes (when she asked) what the other witches had done: and by her the most part were appelled, which spirit telled her alwayes true. As is well approved by the other withes confession. The sayd Ales Newman had the sayd Ursely kemps spirits to vse [use] at her pleasure.
Elizabeth Bennet had two spirits, viz. their names Suckyn, a hee like a blacke dog: and Lyard, red lyke a lyon or hare. Ales Hunt had two spirits lyke colts, the one blacke, the other white. margery Sammon had two spirits lyke toads, their names Tom and robyn. Cysley Celles had two spirits by seurall names, viz. Sotheons Hercules, Jack, or mercury. Ales manfield and Margaret Greull had in common by agreement, iiii spirits, viz. their names robin, Jack, Will, Puppet, alias mamet, whereof two were hees, and two were shees, lyke vnto black cats. Elizabeth Eustace had iii impses or spirits of color white, grey, and black. Annis Herd had vi impes or spirites, like aiuses and black byrdes, and vi other like kine, of the bygnes of rats, with short hornes; the aiuses shee fed with wheat, barley, otes, and bread, the kine with straw and hay.
The women were charged with crimes of bewitching animals, bewitching brewing, baking and butter churning, striking people with wasting sickness and bewitching people to death. Some accounts of the hysteria, such as by Reginald Scot, place the number of accused at 17 or 18, going to their deaths. Historian rossell Hope robbins, citing more recent research of records, placed the number at 14, with two executions. With lurid stories and “confessions” abounding, it seems that convictions would have been certain of many of the accused. However, two women were not indicted at all. Strangely, one of these was Sammon, who confessed.
Two women were imprisoned but denied charges of bewitching cattle and two people to death. They were not indicted and released. Four women who went to trial—three of them on charges of bewitching people to death—pleaded not guilty and were acquitted. Testimony against them came from children.
Four others accused pleaded not guilty, were tried and convicted, and then reprieved. One of them was Newman, who was charged with bewitching to death four persons plus her husband. Agnes Glascock and Cicely Celles similarly were charged with bewitchment to death. Joan Turner was charged with bewitchment by over-looking (see Evil Eye), and did spend a year in prison. The only two hanged were kempe and Bennet. kempe was charged with bewitching three people to death between 1580 and 1582. She confessed to the crimes. Bennet was charged with killing a man and his wife.
The remains of Ursula kempe were exhumed by researcher CeCIl wIllIAmson, and placed on display in an open elm coffin lined with purple satin in his museum oF Witchcraft. The exhumation was televised. Williamson discovered that kempe’s body had been driven through with iron spikes, an old custom intended to keep restless ghosts and vampires from leaving their graves to haunt the living. kempe’s remains were kept by Williamson for his personal collection when he sold the museum in 1996.
- Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Demonology. 1959. reprint, New York: Bonanza Books, 1981.
- Scot, Reginald. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. 1886. reprint. Yorkshire, England: E.P. Publishing, Ltd. 1973.
- Summers, Montague. The Geography of Witchcraft. London: kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1927.