Heritage: Belief in witchcraft was no joke

Believing in witchcraft wasn't so funny in the days when those thought to be witches were put to dea

Believing in witchcraft wasn't so funny in the days when those thought to be witches were put to death. Photo: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

Local historian Prof Ged Martin explains why he is no fan of Halloween

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to stop children having fun.

But I don’t like Halloween. It’s become too American, and too commercial.

But my real problem is that, for centuries, people really did believe in witchcraft – even clever people and important people.

Thanks to their absurd fears, women were persecuted and killed.

Cecily Glasenberye lived near Barking. Her husband Thomas was a “yeoman”, a small-time farmer. The surname probably came from Glastonbury in Somerset – still regarded as a magical place.

Neighbours denounced Cecily as “a witch and enchantress”. How could they be so sure? Well, they insisted, on August 20, 1573, she’d bewitched William, son of Barking farmer William Gylett. The boy died on September 10.

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Then, on October 2, she unleashed her evil powers against John Fyssher, a local tanner. Giles Graye, a glover, was her next victim, falling sick on October 13. They both died on November 1.

With three victims allegedly to her credit, Cecily might have knocked off for a while. But next summer, on June 6, she bewitched William Newman, a Stratford farmer on a visit to Barking. Everybody said she was responsible.

Newman was lucky: he lost the use of his limbs for two weeks, but the spell wore off.

Let’s be clear about this. Cecily was certainly unpopular. She probably cursed people she disliked. (I do all the time.) Maybe she had an ugly long nose.

But she did not wear a pointy hat and she did not ride a broomstick. In short, Cecily Glasenberye was not a witch.

But fearful neighbours reported Cecily to the authorities, and were ordered to deliver her for trial at the Essex court in Brentwood.

Barking’s parish constables would have trussed her up, to prevent any escape attempt, and carted her along the main road, through Ilford and Romford.

I don’t suppose anyone respected the principle that Cecily was innocent until proven guilty. I’d guess Romford people turned out to jeer the witch, and maybe pelt her as she passed through the Market.

At Gallows Corner, I bet her captors pointed to Havering’s gibbet and described her fate in agonising detail. Witches weren’t burned. They were hanged.

Appearing in court must have been a surreal nightmare. Surely these learned lawyers, with their gowns and dusty books, would understand that she was innocent?

Surely the jurymen (women couldn’t be trusted with such important decisions) – wise landowners and sensible merchants – would see through this nonsense?

But her “not guilty” pleas were dismissed.

A list survives naming her among the two women and seven men sentenced to death.

Brentwood’s gallows was located on Ongar Road, at the junction of the lane to Doddinghurst.

The condemned prisoners were probably loaded on another cart for their last journey.

I can’t begin to imagine Cecily’s terror as she faced death by hanging. Can you?

Cecily Glasenberye died horribly for a crime she could not possibly have committed. There’s no such thing as witchcraft.

Nine executions was about average for a Brentwood court session. South Weald’s parish register noted the delivery of seven corpses from the gallows in 1553.

Usually nobody bothered to record them at all. The bodies were probably thrown into a common grave on the north side of the churchyard – the unlucky side.

In Tudor times, there were witchcraft accusations in Brentwood, Havering-atte-Bower (a sorcery hotspot), Hornchurch, Navestock, Rainham and Romford. A Dagenham woman was hanged in 1591. An Upminster woman who’d played around with a skull taken from St Andrew’s churchyard in Hornchurch was hanged in 1614.

Not all alleged witches were women. At late as 1863, at Sible Hedingham in north Essex, a suspected male witch was beaten and thrown into a stream to see if he would float.

That killed him.

Any grumpy old man with strange ideas might be accused of witchcraft.

Good job I wasn’t around in those days!