Whoooo! At last the words are back. Today, I’m so excited to finally find the opening to my Granny Wenlock novel. After three nonstarters, her voice is coming through loud and clear.
It was only right to Granny, or should I say that Martha Wenlock introduced herself properly to the reader. I was desperate not to land up writing a continuation of The Funeral Birds and wanted to introduce the reader to whom Martha Wenlock was, and what her background story was, and- why was she accused of Witchcraft?
In Britain, witchcraft wasn’t a capital offence until 1563. When in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII denounced it as heresy against the church, so by 1750 over 200,00 so called witches had been tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe. The plain and simple fact is over this period in history women, especially older, poorer women who were unfortunate to have any crone-like appearance .i.e. snaggle-toothed, sunken cheeked or hairy-lipped were assumed to be possessed of the evil eye. If they lived alone in the company of a cat this was taken as further proof of being a witch. After being condemned on this sort of evidence they then under went terrible torture that would make you confess to anything, if you hadn’t already died of shock or a heart-attack. Thumb screws (pilnie-winks) and leg-irons (caspie-claws) which were heated over a brazier before applying them to the legs. ( just the thought of it makes me want to confess to being a witch)
Most of you will have heard of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. There has been many films and books written about the man and his terrible reign of terror. The man was just out to make money. He was a failed lawyer and plied his business around East Anglia over fourteen months between 1645-1646. The people in this part of England were Puritan and anti-Catholics. Like most Christians at that time Puritans believed in the active existence of the devil and demons which could possess and harm men and women. This widespread belief in witchcraft and witches led to unexplained phenomena such as the death of livestock, human disease, and hideous fits suffered by young and old being caused the devil or his agent, a witch.
On Matthew Hopkins say so, he had sixty-eight people in Bury St. Edmunds tortured and put to death, and in Chelmsford, in a single day, nineteen were hung. In Aldeburgh, he was paid £6 for clearing the town of witches. At that time it must be remembered the average daily wage was 2.5p, so he was making a small fortune. Kings Lynn raised £15 and a grateful Stowmarket found the grand sum of £23 to pay him to murder their so called witches.
His method of locating the Devil’s Marks was to hunt out a flea bite, wart or mole on his victim’s skin, and then with the use of a 3 inch long spike called a jabbing needle, he pushed into the devil mark to prove they felt no pain. Of course, this god fearing man was the devil himself as the jabbing needle was spring-loaded and would retract into the handle so the victim couldn’t feel any pain. Matthew Hopkins was a serial killer, with many delightful ways of inflicting pain on the victims. Other tests for proving a witch were the ducking stool, and a swimming test. Poor Mary Sutton of Bedford had her thumbs tied to her opposite big toes before being flung into the water. If she floated guilty, if she sank, innocent. Either way she would died, and he would get paid. Poor Mary floated.
It seems crazy to us in this day and age that anyone could believe in such things, but when you realise the truth behind the persecution of women and some men at the time of the witch hunts you’ll realise that many of the people were killed not because of witchcraft or demons but for the same things that happen today, and will continue to happen into the future. Greed, jealousy, spite, hatred, etc. Many elderly people who owned land, houses or other goods were accused as a means of obtaining their belongings on their death. At the end of Hopkins’ reign of terror he was responsible for over 300 executions. During the second half of the 17th-century there were fewer witchcraft trials in Britain until the last people executed for the crime was Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth in England in 1716.
After the introduction of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 in Britain by the Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain Witch trials formally came to an end. The introduction of the Act made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising witchcraft. The law abolished the hunting and executions of witches in Great Britain and a maximum penalty set out by the Act was a year’s imprisonment.The turning point with the Act of 1735 it repealed the earlier Witchcraft Acts as these created intolerance towards practitioners of magic, but became mired in contested Christian doctrine and superstitious witch-phobia. Instead, as the earlier laws did assume witches were real and had real magical power derived from pacts with Satan, the new law assumed the opposite that there were no real witches, no one had real magic power, and those claiming such powers were scammers extorting money from gullible people.
In 1921, in St. Osyth, a reminder of Hopkins’ handy work came to light when two female skeletons were uncovered in a garden. The women’s bodies had been pinned into unmarked graves with iron rivets driven through all their joints to make sure they didn’t rise from the grave.
As I’m setting Martha’s story locally I will be able to use the witch trials that took place in Chelmsford as these are local and happened around the time I have set my novel. I shall keep you updated with my progress.