The Witches of Norfolk and Norwich

by | Oct 27, 2023

As it gets closer to Halloween, many people will turn their thoughts to our world’s more supernatural side. At this time of year we enjoy stories of ghosts, monsters and, of course, witches. However, the green-faced, pointy-hatted, cauldron-stirring evil witch of popular culture would have been alien to people in England back in the medieval and Tudor periods. To them, witches were walking among them and looked like everyone else. They could be your neighbour or even a family member.

To these individuals, witchcraft wasn’t something from fairy stories, it was very real. With a lack of scientific understanding, strange events or coincidences that we can explain easily nowadays were much harder to explain in the past. As a result a supernatural explanation would have to suffice. Norfolk was deeply involved in the trial and execution of many people accused of witchcraft. Matthew Hopkins, the supposed “witch-finder general” was himself, from East Anglia.

Our modern image of a witch was completely different to how they were seen by our ancestors.

Who Were Norfolk’s Witches?

Throughout most of England’s Christian history (from the 6th century onwards) any person with knowledge of herbs, medicine or an affinity for nature, could be seen as pagan. Pagan’s were nature oriented spiritual religions with multiple gods that came before Christianity. They were largely treated with suspicion by the large and ignorant Christian populations. As the centuries went on, Paganism was associated with Satanism, as the rituals and practices were seen as ‘un-Christian’. Anything that wasn’t part of the church was deemed as ‘evil’. This meant that it became very easy to accuse someone of ‘dark practices’, if they were to so much as spend their time alone in the woods.

In the 16th Century, it was made law that anyone accused of witchcraft would be tried and could receive the death penalty if found guilty. There were trials with the defendant being accused of witchcraft before this time. However, for those trials, witchcraft accusations were mostly around the Elite and were used as a political weapon. An example of this can be seen in 1442AD with the life imprisonment of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester. She was accused in a conspiracy of “Treasonable Necromancy,” against the King. This is possibly due to her influence in court thanks to her marriage to Humphrey, the youngest son of King Henry IV. She died in prison in 1452.

In the 17th Century, witch trials became more intense and widespread, especially during the time of the Civil War (1642-1651). This mostly started due to the obsession of King James I of England with the supernatural, especially witchcraft. When he ascended the throne in 1603, one of the first things he did was to renew and amend the English Witchcraft Act. Prior to this, the law had stated that the death sentence could be applied to anyone who caused death via sourcery. After King James’ alterations, the death sentence could be passed for anyone who ‘made a pact with the devil’. King James was so interested in witches that Shakespeare included the three witches in Macbeth to pique his interest. The king even wrote his own book on Demonology (in it he attempts to explain how to spot a witch and the punishments that were to be implemented.)

During the Civil war in the 1640s and Puritan era in the 1650s, witch trials became far more common and far more intense. It became very easy to accuse someone of witchcraft. People who were introverted or otherwise seen as ‘unusual’ or ‘outsiders’ to local communities were targeted. Most people accused were older, unmarried women or ‘spinsters’. It started to become fairly common for people to use the witch-craze to accuse neighbours they didn’t like, or even business rivals, of witchcraft to ‘remove’ them.

Signs of witchcraft became things we wouldn’t think twice about nowadays. People seen talking to their pets were suddenly speaking to the Devil in animal form. They could also be a ‘familiar’ (what used to be ‘spirit guides’ were essentially turned into demon messengers.) If crops died in the fields, a neighbour became ill, a freak storm occurred, harsh words exchanged in the street, a visible mole was seen on the skin or if someone was simply not very friendly, witchcraft could be offered as an explanation and someone was usually executed as a result.

Many folk traditions that, before the 17th century, were perfectly normal practices among rural communities, could now be considered witchcraft. Especially those designed to harm an enemy. It was common to see someone making an effigy of a hated neighbour in clay or wax and pushing needles into it. Needles pushed into the head or heart meant you wished death upon that person. It was believed needles in other places caused pain to the intended victim. A similar effect could be achieved by writing the name of the victim onto a piece of paper and then burning it.

Alongside this, taking an item of clothing from a victim and burying it in the back garden was thought to lead to the victim wasting away as the clothing rotted in the ground. Sometimes simply hurling abuse or a curse at the person was seen as a powerful magic in a practice that goes back as far as the Romans. These could also be scratched into a lead tablet. One of these has been found by archaeologists in Venta Icenorum, a roman/celtic town just outside of Norwich.

In Norwich Cathedral, a piece of graffiti with the name Keynfford (the name of a prominent merchant family in the city in the 15th Century) can be found written backwards with a moon symbol underneath. This is another version of a curse so it seems that someone was not happy with that family! These were powerful in reality thanks to the power of suggestion. Once a person had been ‘cursed’, they would start to associate every bad thing that happened to them as a part of that curse.

Some ostracised villagers would play into the mania. There are recorded instances of local spinsters deliberately threatening those that bad-mouthed them with curses. Some local healers would claim to use ‘good magic’ to heal their patients which others viewed with suspicion. In more rural areas of Norfolk, these beliefs carried on into the 19th century.

In Attleborough, on the other side of Wymondham from Norwich, in the 1800s, an old woman was accused of having three imps to do her bidding. So frequent were these accusations, that she jokingly named her “imps” Pug, Lightfoot and Bluebell. Her neighbour, a horse dealer, decided to mock her by naming three new horses with the same names. He came to regret it when Bluebell was killed in an accident, Lightfoot began to kick out at anyone who came near and Pug became lame, only recovering when the dealer renamed him. This became further evidence for the villagers that the woman in question was in fact, a witch. Thankfully, by this time, witch trials were outlawed!

The Witch Trials and Witch Finders

Before the reformation of the church in the 16th century, the Catholic church had an arsenal of methods that could be used by people to ward off witches. Holy water, bells, candles, guardian angels and some of the many saints could be invoked to protect yourself. When the reformation came about during Henry VIIIs reign, it meant that these practices became illegal. To the people of the time, it must have seemed as though they were suddenly very vulnerable to evil magic.

Unsurprisingly, reports of witchcraft around the country began to become a lot more common as people began to imagine that witches were now wandering around unopposed. It was seen as a rising epidemic. In 1583, in the parish of Wells-Next-The-Sea a ship coming into harbour sank, killing all 13 of its crewmen. It was said that a ‘local witch’, a woman known locally as Mother Gabley, had been seen at the same time boiling thirteen eggs in a cauldron of cold water. Thankfully for Mother Gabley, the mayor did not believe in witchcraft and she was set free. This huge change in belief system, however, could have had some part to play in the witch mania of the 17th century.

A cauldron. Mother Gabley apparently miraculously boiled eggs in one of these but in cold water!

The witch trials that began in the early 1600s were the perfect storm of public unrest, superstition, and the aforementioned religious changes. One of the key figures in this chaos was Suffolk born Matthew Hopkins. The son of a puritan vicar, Hopkins grew up hearing about evil magic and the scourge of witches on the country. As an adult, he took it upon himself to rid the world of witchcraft. This started a bloody campaign of persecution that lasted three years.

Naming himself ‘The Witchfinder General’ (a position, by the way, that Hopkins made up as it did not officially exist) he came up with his own methodology of finding, testing and executing witches. From 1645 to 1647, he led a bloody campaign against anyone he deemed a witch, prowling around East Anglia and Essex, leaving hanging bodies in his wake. Around 350 deaths are attributed to his actions. It is thought that around 60% of the executions of supposed witches in England were due to Hopkins’ trials. In 1645, Hopkins visited Bury St Edmunds and, after “discovering an infestation of witches,” had 18 people put to death in one day in the middle of the market square. 

Hopkins employed many different forms of humiliation and torture in his quest to find witches. He laid them out in his book The Discovery of Witches. His main way of identifying a witch was a “devil’s mark.” These were simply warts, blisters or blemishes on the skin that Hopkins would tell people were teats used to suckle a devil’s familiar. Hopkins employed “witch-prickers,” whose job it was to strip down a suspected witch. They would then probe and stab their body with needles and “consecrated knives” to ‘discover’ a witch’s mark. This, of course, often led to bruising or wounds which would then be declared witch’s marks. It was almost impossible to pass the test as innocent.

Sometimes it was said that if a woman was cut with a knife but didn’t bleed, she was a witch. Blunt knives were employed to test for this and of course, not many people bled after having the dull blade pressed against their skin. Other methods employed against those accused were sleep deprivation. This had the victim locked in a small room where guards would keep them awake until they went mad or confessed to witchcraft. Other methods involved starvation and ‘watching’ a supposed witch. Normal people were employed to keep an eye out for their familiars (essentially any animal that came near them.)

Contrary to popular belief, in England, if a person was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death, they were not burned at the stake, but hanged. Burning was reserved for people who had committed arson or for heresy (going against the church.) If a woman was found guilty of harming her husband, this could be seen as ‘petty heresy’. If she was seen to have harmed him through witchcraft, this was the only instance in which a woman would be burned as punishment.

One of the more brutal ways of forcing a confession of witchcraft was use of a ducking stool or ‘swimming’ a witch. This method included using a crane with a seat on it which the accused would be tied to. The poor individual would then be lowered into the water until completely submerged. Originally, the ducking stool was not used for discovering a witch, but to humiliate someone deemed to have become a nuisance. At this time, someone would be dunked rapidly in and out of the water to soak them but not to drown them. Women could pay to have their husband ducked if they weren’t ‘fulfilling their marital duties’ but it was more common for a woman to be ducked for being a scold. This was a woman who was seen to be too outspoken, confrontational or who formed opinions “outside of her position.”

Essentially, if a woman was seen to have a personality, she could receive this punishment. When the method was employed for the witch trials, it took on a far more sinister and deadly turn. Instead of being simply dunked into the water, the accused was bound and held under the water for extensive periods of time. If the victim drowned, they were seen as innocent but if they survived the process, they were a witch and they were taken off and hanged. Norfolk also employed its own cruel form of swimming which involved throwing the victim into the river with a piece of long rope tied to each thumb. The other end of each rope was held by a man on either side of the river. Together they would walk up river, dragging the victim up river via their thumbs until they drowned or confessed.

One of the only concrete accounts of a witch being executed in Norwich is in regards to a Mr Meggs. Meggs was a baker in the city and according to Hopkins, he gave himself up for trial. This is highly unlikely due to the significant chance of death were you found to be a witch. It is possible he was related to a Margaret Mego who was also accused of witchcraft. She, however, escaped to Australia and so maybe the accusations were placed on Mr Meggs in Matthew Hopkins’ frustration.

Locations in Norwich Associated with Witchcraft.

It is believed that the location of Fye Bridge, situated between The Ribs of Beef and The Mischief, was the site of the ducking stool for Norwich. However, it’s possible that the remains of a worn wooden structure a little further along Quayside that sits just below the water level might be the actual ducking stool location. It is chilling to think of the horrors inflicted on people in what is today one of the most picturesque locations in the city.

Bishop’s Bridge and the nearby Lollard’s Pit has been rumoured to be, by some locals, the place where we burned witches. As we discussed before, we know that we didn’t burn witches here, apart from in certain circumstances. So who were we burning? Well the name of the pub gives us a clue. It was a group of pre-protestant people who disagreed with the way the catholic church was run. As a result, they were rounded up and executed after being named “Lollards.” As this was a “crime of heresy”, and freedom of speech didn’t exist, they were burned at the stake.

St Peter Mancroft’s Church, which today sits opposite the forum, was the “Death Knell church” during executions. Every time an execution took place, the bells of the church would ring for an extended period of time. This was to alert everyone to the execution and to give them time to make their way down to the site to watch. Anyone being executed for witchcraft would find that the ringing of those bells was one of the last things they heard. There is also a set of manacle anchors on the wall near the bike racks. This is where some of those accused of witchcraft or petty crimes might find themselves locked to the wall. This was so that passers-by could humiliate them with insults or by throwing things at them.

St Peter Mancroft Church

The Guildhall was the main courthouse for Norwich from the 1400s. Many trials took place here. It is conceivable that this would be the location for trials involving witchcraft. The undercroft beneath the building was also used as a gaol and so it is easy to think of the poor individuals thrown into there over the years.

Norfolk’s Link To The Salem Witch Trials (USA)

One of the most infamous witch trials in the world were those in Salem, Massachusetts in the USA. Norwich has a direct link to these trials as, despite the distance, some of the people involved had moved there from this very county. More specifically, Thomas Oliver and his very unlucky wives. Thomas and his first wife, Mary Leman, moved from Norwich to the USA as part of the mass emigration taking place in 1637. They settled originally in Salem and lived there for a year before things started to go bad.

It started when Mary started to speak out in church and became generally unhappy with the way the church acted in the local community. Her comments caused outrage among the locals due to the chauvinism present at the time but her husband did little to try and stop her. As a result, eventually they were forced to leave the colony and return to Norwich, leaving their estate and belongings in the USA. Mary passed away a couple of years after their return and there are rumours that she was executed for witchcraft. However no substantial evidence of this can be found. If this is the case, however, then it makes what happens next all the more insidious. 

Thomas returned to Salem in 1654 and eventually remarried to another settler and widow named Bridget Wasselbe in 1666. Once the two were married, it became obvious that it wasn’t a happy marriage. The two were often seen arguing and were even arrested for swearing during the Sabbath. Thomas would tell anyone that listened that he made a mistake in marrying her and that she was clearly a witch.

Thomas eventually died in 1679 and Bridget inherited his entire estate. Possibly through jealousy, Thomas’ children from his first marriage accused Bridget of murdering their father through witchcraft. Bridget was thankfully acquitted on this occasion but it laid the groundwork for the beginning of the infamous witch trials that took place shortly after. In 1692, Bridget was once again accused of witchcraft by five girls after a theft in the town. This became the first trial of the famous Salem Witch Trials and the town was all too ready to accuse her of being a witch thanks to previous convictions. On the 10th June 1692, Bridget was hanged for witchcraft aged 60 years old.

The End of the Witch Trials

Toward the end of the 1600s and into the early 1700s, the idea of people going on trial for witchcraft was starting to lose popularity. It became apparent to people even then, that a lot of the ways that these trials were conducted were wholly baseless and produced on pure conjecture. The country’s leaders began to realise that this was not a sustainable practice and newer members of parliament were starting to stand against the idea. The last official witch trial in England was of a Jane Wenham in 1712.

In 1735, parliament passed The Witchcraft Act. This outlawed the ability to accuse someone of using supernatural powers or witchcraft, essentially outlawing witch hunting and witch trials completely. This stopped the executions on an official basis and meant that people all over the country could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Even though there were still superstitious people who believed in witchcraft, you could no longer face death at the hands of the state as a result.


Witches of Britain

Matthew Hopkins and the Norfolk Witches

Mary Oliver Bio

Norfolk 17th Century Witchcraft

Mr Meggs (Norwich Witch)

Witchcraft, Magic and Culture – Owen Davies 1999

This Hollow Land – Peter Tolhurst