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Do you know the dark side of Colchester’s tumultuous history?

PUBLISHED: 16:54 24 August 2018 | UPDATED: 16:54 24 August 2018

Colchester's dark history

Colchester's dark history


There is much to be proud of in Colchester’s extensive history, but one man has been hard at work to ensure we don’t forget some of the darker times too. Petra Hornsby explains more

If you are looking back through the history of the oldest recorded town in the country, you may well expect to find tales of tribal wars, civil conflict, invasions, Roman occupation, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans. That’s Colchester!

The town itself is a museum of its own past with several landmarks and sites that illustrate how significant Colchester was, and is, which the town council and local organisations work hard at both maintaining and promoting.

Colchester Castle is undeniably the towering symbol of the town’s antiquity, reflecting a time when Romans first settled there and where Normans, having successfully fought the Anglo Saxons, built their castle or keep (the largest built by the Normans in Europe) to preside over the settlement.

Today it is a prime tourist attraction with much to see, including collections dating back to the Stone Age and displays documenting Roman and Anglo-Saxon life in the town, and across the region.

A reminder of the castle’s grim past lies in its dungeons. As well as being used to incarcerate prisoners of war, in the 16th century it was employed as a county gaol and it was in this claustrophobic, inhospitable environment that the women accused of witchcraft by Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, were kept before trial and, for some, before execution.

Colchester's dark historyColchester's dark history

Filmmaker John Worland, who has researched the subject of the Essex Witch Trials for over 14 years, has been a leading voice in asking for a memorial to honour the women who were wrongly accused. In June of this year his efforts paid off and, in the rose garden opposite the entrance to the castle, a plaque was unveiled in memory of the victims of the witch hunts.

John explains why he feels the memorial is so important. “We are, strangely, living in times where there are parallels with the plight of women back then,” says John. “Through social media we see hysteria and misrepresentation, where nobody relies on facts or evidence, and this can trigger hate crimes. This is what happened to many women 400 years ago and the significance of this shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.”

John’s interest in this part of local history inspired him to make a film giving an accurate portrayal of that time, something which he felt was lacking. He describes some of his findings. “Although the Essex Witch Trials are perhaps the most heard of and fairly well documented, others did take place in other parts of the country.

“The gaol calendar from the castle shows the prosecutions of suspected witches began around 1560 and went on for around 150 years. The Matthew Hopkins era lasted from 1645 to 1647 and, following his death, the numbers of suspects being accused and held dropped significantly.”

John has also spent time researching one of the earliest recorded accounts of witchcraft – that of Ursula Kemp, a resident of St Osyth, near Clacton. Kemp, a healer and herabalist, was accused by neighbours of causing illness and death. She was tried in Chelmsford and hanged in 1582. The full and fascinating story of her life (and discovery of what were understood to be her remains and subsequent re-burial) are also documented in a film by John.

Colchester's dark historyColchester's dark history

Records indicate that Hopkins, son of a rector and self-appointed ‘witch-finder’, was paid to hunt down women accused of using supernatural powers to cause mischief and even death within communities. He would torture them by various means (depriving them of sleep, for example) and they would be tried by water; if they floated when thrown in, they were guilty.

The barbaric practice of skin pricking was used (no blood drawn being the sign of the devil) and suspects were stripped and checked for extra teats, an indication of familiars (a demon in the form of an animal) suckling from them. Hopkins is believed to have rounded up around 230 women and some men too, including clergymen, although this is thought to be a conservative estimate.

Many of his victims came from villages close to Colchester. Hopkins himself lived in Manningtree, as did his first victim, an old woman called Elizabeth Clarke. Although torture was illegal at the time, Hopkins’ techniques got around this law and, humiliated and ground down, Clarke confessed her crimes and implicated five others.

Hopkins wasn’t without his critics even at that time, but he played on fear for his own financial gain (whether he truly believed in witchcraft himself or not) and witch-hunting seemed to become an obsession within communities.

Montague Summers, a Catholic Priest at the beginning of the 20th century and known for his views about witchcraft, reflected on Hopkins and his actions, describing him as, “energetic enough so far as his own pockets were concerned and his crusade up and down the eastern counties, which created something of a reign of terror at the time, has caused his name to stink in the nostrils of all decent people.”

Colchester's dark historyColchester's dark history

John continues: “Misogyny played its part during those times. It was the time of the Civil War and women were prominent in the community, so men objected to any demonstration of strength or power shown by them. It provoked distrust.

“Some suspects were reported by other women, often because of a long-standing feud. It was easy to become a target as many women were called upon to attend births and for their knowledge of healing. If this went wrong, they would become easy targets.”

Although many were held on suspicion of witchcraft, it would appear some magistrates weren’t easily convinced and 75% were acquitted. For those charged, punishment ranged from internment in Newgate Prison for damage to property to hanging for murder.

“Although the Colchester Castle gaol was not a prison, often women were kept there for as long as six months,” John continues. “There was no Crown Court back then and the Chelmsford Assizes only sat around twice a year. If you were remanded just following a sitting you could wait several months before the next one.

“During the Matthew Hopkins era, 33 women were held in the small, cramped cell for four months with no sanitation. Four women died before their trial. At the inquest it was said that those who died had received ‘a visitation from God’.”

A visit to the dungeon today is a stark reminder of the awful conditions and the despair those held must have felt, and the graffiti etched on the walls adds to the horror of what they went through.

John, through all his research, is happy to be regarded as an expert on the subject and he is often invited to give talks as well as offering his help to students studying this era. He is currently compiling a list of all those held in Colchester’s Castle on a witchcraft charge during the 16th and 17th centuries.

He concludes: “I am fascinated by what happened and the stories behind the women held on trial, in awful conditions, for little other than ignorance and superstition. Colchester Castle held more alleged ‘witches’ than any other place in the UK and I am really pleased that now, at last, there is a memorial for them in the castle grounds.”


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