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Exploring witch trials in Barking and Dagenham

PUBLISHED: 13:00 29 July 2017

'The Witch, No. 2' held at the Library of Congress. Date circa 1892, author Joseph E. Baker. Picture: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

'The Witch, No. 2' held at the Library of Congress. Date circa 1892, author Joseph E. Baker. Picture: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

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Witch-hunting was much more savage and sweeping in Europe and in Scotland than it ever was in England, and went hand-in-hand with heresy-hunting.

An image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsAn image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

In England there was no inquisition, torture was prohibited and, although burning was inflicted for heresy, poisoning and treason, it was never the punishment for witchcraft alone.

The death penalty for witches (by hanging) was introduced towards the end of Henry VIII’s reign. It was repealed by Edward VI, but restored by Elizabeth I, during whose reign England’s greatest persecution of witches took place, and 41% of those indicted were hanged.

In the local area of Barking and Dagenham, Thomas Glasenbury of Barking was a yeoman with a wife named Cecily. In 1574 she was sentenced to be hanged because, as a ‘witch and enchantress’, she caused the deaths of three men and a grey gelding, and the temporary paralysis of a fourthman.

The event was notorious enough to be commemorated in The Examination and Confession of a Notorious Witch named Mother Arnold, alias Whitecote, alias Glastonbury, at the Assise of Burntwood [Brentwood]in July 1574; who was hanged for witchcraft at Barking.

'The witch no. 1' lithograph, February 29, 1892, author Joseph E. Baker, held by the Library of Congress. Picture: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons'The witch no. 1' lithograph, February 29, 1892, author Joseph E. Baker, held by the Library of Congress. Picture: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Harding, Barking, was charged in August 1579, with bewitching to death Cecily, the three-year-old daughter of William Miles and 12 colts worth £30 belonging to Michael Towler. She was also charged with causing great injury to John Goode’s wife Ellen.

Found not guilty of Cecily’s death, she was declared guilty on the other charges and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.

At the next March assizes, while still in prison at Colchester, she was again charged with the death of Cecily Miles, found guilty and hanged.

In 1589 Joan Upney was found guilty of bewitching, so that they died, Alice Foster and Joan Harrolde.

Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving. The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott. Date, 1876. Source: William A. Crafts (1876) Pioneers in the settlement of America: from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849, 1849. edition, Boston: Published by Samuel Walker and Company. Picture: Wikimedia CommonsWitchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving. The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott. Date, 1876. Source: William A. Crafts (1876) Pioneers in the settlement of America: from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849, 1849. edition, Boston: Published by Samuel Walker and Company. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Her confessions – recorded in the publication The Apprehension and Confession of Three Notorious Witches, 1589, the only surviving copy of which now resides in Lambeth Palace Library – reports that in overhearing accusations made by John Harrolde and Richard Foster that she was a witch, she let loose her toads which pinched their wives causing their deaths.

Joan Upney was hung along with Joan Prentice and Joan Cony at Chelmsford on July 5, 1589.

In 1591 Ellen (or Helen) Gray was judged guilty on five charges of bewitching: Anne Bixon, who died; Richard Foster in his body (is this perhaps the same Mr Foster who accused Joan Upney?); a cow worth 32s. 4d. belonging to Henry Whood so that it died; Ellen Playt whereby she languished and four gallons of cream belonging to John Horold, so that the butter could not be made.

In the same year, Agnes Whitland apparently survived the damp and hunger of a year’s imprisonment in Colchester Castle to which she was sentenced.

Acquitted the previous year of the death of infant William Greene, she was charged with bewitching to death John Collopp’s four-year-old daughter, Margaret, his sorrel mare and cow, and a cow belonging to Richard Foster. She was acquitted of two charges but found guilty of the deaths of John Collopp’s mare and cow.

In 1627 Barbara Awgar alias Bright, an Upminster widow, was committed for trial by Sir Nicholas Coote, a JP living in Valence House.

She was accused of bewitching ‘whereof he died’ Andrew Parslowe but, perhaps because of a growing scepticism among many educated people, she was acquitted.

You can find out more through these sources:

The Apprehension and Confession of the Three Notorious Witches, Lambeth Palace Library

Howson, James: Brooms at Midnight (1996) in A. Hill & S. Curtis: Remembering the Past: A Selection of Local History Articles by James Howson (copy at Local Studies)

Gibson, Marion. Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing (2000) (copy at Local Studies)

Chapter 1 of Rhodes, Linda & Abnett, Kathryn: Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barking, Dagenham & Chadwell Heath (2007) (copy at Local Studies)

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