With the world première of a play based on The Witchfinder’s Sister, (Beth Underdown’s debut novel) being performed in Hornchurch, Essex and the publication of A.K. Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches earlier this year, the plight of those accused of witchcraft in Essex during the English Civil War is a hot topic.
The subject of the witch trials has been explored by other female creatives such as Caryl Churchill in her 1976 play ‘Vinegar Tom’ and more recently by local author Syd Moore in her 2021 book Witch Hunt. Many are fascinated: how could the King have sanctioned the torture and murder of so many innocent women, most of them vulnerable and marginalised?
How were the witch trials allowed to happen?
The witch trials took place predominantly in Essex in between 1645 and 1646 and most were the work of the self-appointed ‘witchfinder general’ Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Sterne. Looking back at the trials, is hard to ignore the misogyny which led to the torture and execution of many women in Essex and surrounding areas.
The trials and their outcomes were a way for men to get away with raping and physically abusing women and blaming it on them. At a time of low wages, Hopkins was offered the huge sum of £23 for his work, according to Alison Naylor, the Education Officer at Colchester Castle. In contrast, the women accused were alone, vulnerable, poor and marginalised. They were unprotected in a patriarchal society. Mathew Hopkins capitalised on this and got powerful men onside; because many men were away fighting in the English Civil War, they were allowed to continue unquestioned. Once the Civil War ended and order was restored, however, the practices in the area ceased.
Should the Essex ‘witches’ be pardoned?
In 2015, Essex writer Sara Pascoe led a campaign to have Anne West (accused of being a witch 370 years ago) pardoned and last year, a petition was started on Change.org. A QC in Scotland has appealed for a posthumous pardon for Scotland’s ‘witches’.
Two states in the USA (Connecticut and Virginia) granted pardons for some individuals executed for allegedly being witches. There has been a precedent set for posthumous pardons (for example, Alan Turing). One could argue, though, that to grant a pardon to the women executed during the witch trials is to acknowledge that they were guilty of wrongdoing, something which is strongly contested. Indeed, anyone reading Hopkins’ treatise ‘The Discovery of Witches’ can see that the accusations were bizarre and inconsistent, and described extremely unlikely events and situations.
Modern day ‘witch hunts’
Readers may be aware of misogynistic and violent internet ‘trolling’ levelled at women in the UK in recent months. For example, the Harry Potter author J K Rowling and Labour MP for Canterbury Rosie Duffield have both received threats due to comments they have made online. Even those who found Rowling and Duffield’s comments abhorrent have condemned the threats levelled at them. The level of ‘trolling’ on the internet of female MPs is frighteningly high and little is done to prevent this.
Many female MPs live in fear, and it has put women off going into politics as they are concerned for their families’ safety. These women who dare to express their opinions openly and use their voices to make a political stand are the victims of those who wish to silence them.
Rochdale: victim blaming as witch hunt
There are modern parallels to the kinds of vulnerable, marginalised and essentially powerless young women tried as witches by Hopkins and his like. For example, the kind of victim blaming which took place in Rochdale and other northern towns as serialised in the disturbing and powerful BBC Drama ‘3 Girls’ (2017). In these cases, much older men were allowed to get away with abusing girls (some as young as 13) and exploiting them, as police and social workers had labelled them ‘troublemakers’ and essentially accused the girls of bringing it on themselves.
These girls were not demure, quiet teenagers, they were loud, brash, keen to drink alcohol and take drugs and out of the control of their parents. The men involved manipulated them and used their vulnerability and the lack of supervision from the girls’ parents to subject them to the most horrendous sexual and physical abuse. Like the Essex ‘witches’ of Hopkins’ time, these girls were stigmatised and labelled for being sexually promiscuous (something women were not and are still not allowed to be).
The ‘Essex Girl’ stigma prevalent in the 1980s-2000s and still apparent today, stemmed from a fear of Essex women who knew their own minds and who were willing to go out and get what they wanted, particularly in their City workplaces.
There are still many powerful and influential women in and from Essex. Some are still berated and derided. We need to learn from history and stand up to misogyny and dangerous religious views which lead to such victimisation, or something like the witch trials may happen again…