Cambridge researchers unearth witch trials in old court rolls
Tales of magic and murder are revealed in historical records of Cambridgeshire witch trials in a research project by the Cambridge University Library.
Two centuries of Isle of Ely court records shine a light on the most serious crimes in the region’s past from theft and assault to murder and including witchcraft.
Archivists working on the records have not yet reached the period when witch hunts were at their peak, but they have still uncovered a number of interesting cases.
Sally Kent, assistant archivist says: “The first time I spotted a witch I felt excited about it. It was one of those things you know about but until you see it in writing. You can't quite believe it because the experience is so removed from our lives now.
“So far in the Elizabethan rolls we have found eight women who have been accused of witchcraft and it seems quite peculiar to us. We can't really get our heads around it.”
The rolls feature a rogue’s gallery of defendants covering a period of 1557 to 1775 when being found guilty could lead to the death penalty.
Ms Kent says that when a death couldn’t be explained, witchcraft was sometimes blamed. She says: “It seems peculiar to us but I think it is a way when they had unexplained deaths they had to come up with a reason for it and that's probably why witchcraft appears in the records
“Normally you find the accused is a single woman. She will be spinster and she will be accused of practising witchcraft and causing harm to a named person or in one case a goose and a cow.”
That case was one Alice Wilcockes of Deddington who in 1586 an she is accused of using her enchantments and her magical powers on a goose and a cow, causing them to die.
“I think what probably happened was these livestock died unexpectedly. There wasn't an obvious cause for it so the person who had lost the animals was looking for some kind of recompense,” says Sally.
“It seems unusual to us as an accusation, but she might have poisoned their food or something, on the other hand she could just be a spinster living in the village that these men didn't like, they’d had a run in with her and she was an easy target.”
Other cases include Joan Dowlinge of Ely, a spinster who was was indicted on August 4, 1573 because “she used, exercised and practised enchantments and magical arts on Richard Parker to vex, disturb and make him ill, contrary to statute.”
She pled not guilty and the verdict wasn’t recorded.
More intriguing is the case of Elizabeth Tyllingham of Ely, a spinster who was described as "being a witch as well of men as beasts” as her occupation.
She was indicted on August 20, 1595 because she “used, exercised and practised enchantments, magical arts and witchcraft on Elizabeth Lawne at Ely causing her to languish and die.”
This was the second time she had been accused of witchcraft, although she was found not guilty both times.
Sally says: “She’s given that title almost as if that's how she was known in the local community. The first time I saw it I had to look it up to translate it properly from the Latin.
“Given that expression used to describe her, she obviously had quite some reputation it must have been quite a hard life for her, I think.”
The other cases Sally has read so far included petty larceny (the theft of goods valued under 12 pence) to theft of money and livestock as well as burglary, trespass, assault, rape, murder, infanticide, vagrancy, defamation, breach of promise and debt.
Another woman accused of murder, but this time not by witchcraft was of a woman called Barbara Tompson of Ely.
She’s one of my favourites,” says Sally. “In 1596 she is accused of poisoning two men. It says ‘she feloniously poisoned and murdered Henry Tompson and Richard Tompson at her dwelling house in Ely with pottage in a wooden dish containing a poison’.
“It’s such an interesting case but we don't know whether this was her husband and son or her children. On the one hand it's nice to know her name and that she existed, but we don't know enough to say she was in an unhappy marriage or anything - we don't have that information.
“The interesting thing about this case is she confessed to the crime and she was still sentenced to be hanged. Quite often people did confess to crimes particularly when they had stolen and it was a means to get a more lenient sentence.”
The place of execution would be a prison, likely the gaol at Wisbech Castle or Barton gaol in Ely, but there are no records of the executions.
One crime that cropped up again and again in the records was cheese theft. This was usually not a capital offence as the food was of a low value.
“Some crimes were clearly crimes of necessity. In the first roll I looked at I spotted a person who had stolen three cheeses and it seemed so random and peculiar, but actually cheeses come up a lot. He took three cheeses to the value of three pence each.But now I have found at least a dozen cases of cheese stealing. Everybody wants to know what kind of cheese it was but it doesn't say.”
Another crime that crops up is theft of a bowl of milk, however sally has discovered people were rarely found guilty of food theft, perhaps because the jury felt sorry for them.
“I think you could make a case for leniency in the case of food theft towards the end of the Elizabethan period there was a quite bad famine in the 1590s so I think shortages of food was probably a real problem.”
Another type of case that cropped up with some regularity was defamation, or besmirching someone’s good name.
“One word they used a lot of knave, it did make me chuckle the first time I came across it
It's not a word we use any more. It's a polite way of saying a rascal or a naughty person but it is straight out of Shakespeare.
One example was John Webbe of Thetford, a yeoman, who answered a plea of defamation of character from William Tyler, on November 20. 1580. Webbe falsely accused Tyler of being a thief. Joan Tyler, the wife of William, heard John say, ‘Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascal and a thief for he stole my goddess (goods) thievishely in the night’.
Sian Collins, Cambridge University Library archivist, says the rolls provide an important record of ordinary people’s lives.
“The Assizes collection is a vitally important source for the period. It enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds whose names come tumbling out of the records. Many of these people, long dead and forgotten and for whom there is no other surviving record, will now have a small piece of their story told.
“Courts were an option for a surprisingly large proportion of the population at this time and the records are a cornucopia of information about everyday life and communities. It is both fascinating and touching to see the names and words of people who have no other memorial.”
More by this authorAlex Spencer