(Cover photo image credit: The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY)
The history of Norwich (and East Anglia as a whole) is riddled with witchcraft. And, like most places at the time, this history is quite brutal. But the legacy of witchcraft is so engrained in the history of East Anglia that for a long time, the entire region was unable to shake the stigma and association with witches, witchcraft and witch hunting.
You see, East Anglia was home to Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed Witchfinder General, who terrorised the country between 1644 and 1647.
Just so we’re on the same page: East Anglia is comprised of the English counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Sometimes Essex is also included, but in my opinion, Essex is not part of East Anglia. These counties make up the Eastern hump of England (kind of just below where the Midlands begins – if you believe the Midlands exists, that is).
Norwich is the capital of the county of Norfolk, and while some of the history covers the whole region, I will be listing Norwich-specific sites to visit. There are sites throughout East Anglia, but Jeremy and I are most familiar with those in Norwich as this is where we lived for many years.
Matthew Hopkins the Puritan
Hopkins was born in Great Wenham in Suffolk sometime between 1619-1622. As the son of a Puritan vicar, he was very much raised in the church. Although the condemnation of witches wasn’t a new practice, the turn of the 15th century saw the church amp up its vigour for persecuting suspected witches.
And not just in England. Throughout Europe, people were being accused and executed at alarming rates. In Basque Spain, over 7,000 people were accused of witchcraft between 1608 and 1614. While only 11 were executed, it was part of a bigger problem sweeping Europe. Between 1626 and 1631 Germany witnessed the Würzburg witch trials. It is estimated that as many as 900 people were tried and executed for witchcraft in the city and surrounding area.
This was the world that Hopkins was growing up in. So it is somewhat understandable that as a young adult, raised in the church, he came to see it as his duty to rid England of witches.
Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General
But understandable or not, Hopkins’ reign as Witchfinder General was gruesome. It is infamously noted that in the three years he hunted witches, more people were executed for practicing witchcraft in England than in the 100 years prior combined.
Between 1644 and 1647, Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne (also spelled Stern) are estimated to be directly involved in sending more than 300 people to their deaths. However, in total from the 1400s to the 1700s, fewer than 500 people were hanged or burned for witchcraft in England. This means that they were responsible for approximately 60% of the deaths related to witchcraft in England.
Hopkins primarily focused his witch hunting to within East Anglia (we are including Essex in this instance). But Hopkins was a fanatic, so if his services were needed, he would travel further afield. Outside of East Anglia, he most often worked in parts of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire.
Hopkins’ Methods of Detecting Witches
It isn’t entirely fair to categorise Matthew Hopkins as a psychopath. After all, as we said, he was somewhat victim to his own upbringing. He was also being paid by parishes to root out witches and doing so made him rich, but it also proved that his made-up role of Witchfinder General was a necessity. In essence, once he began down the path, he kind of had to embrace it; and embrace it he did.
Hopkins developed (and *ahem* stole) several methods of detecting witches, all of which he laid out in his book (manifesto?) The Discovery of Witches.
The swimming test
Hopkins’ swimming test was a modified version of ‘ducking’ (more on this further below). His reasoning was that because witches had repudiated their faith – and thus their baptism – water would in turn reject them. The accused was tied to a chair and thrown into a body of water. Those who “swam” were considered to be witches; those who drowned were innocent – and, you know, dead. Because this was considered torture (which was illegal in England), Hopkins was told he could not utilise the swimming test without the accused’s permission. By the end of 1645, the practice had died out.
Again, another unlawful practice Hopkins was a fan of. Nevertheless, this one was never officially ruled against and he used it regularly throughout his time as Witchfinder General. This is still a pretty shady practice that people use to extract confessions.
This method involved Hopkins, or one of his assistants cutting the arm of a suspected witch with a blunt knife. When they didn’t bleed, they would be deemed a witch. This practice was far more common for women than men, ’cause, you know, we’re so delicate and feeble.
Uncovering the Devil’s Mark
Much like “swimming” this was really a lose-lose situation. A Devil’s Mark was a mark that all witches were said to have. It most commonly presented itself in the form of a birthmark, mole or an extra nipple (seriously, who doesn’t have at least one of those first two things?). The mark was supposedly a means to feed a witch’s familiar (often a frog or cat). If no visible Devil’s Mark was found, the potential witch was pricked.
Here’s where it becomes inevitable. When no visible mark presented itself, the accused would be pricked by a “witch pricker” (a real job title). This involved being completely shaved and then pricked (i.e. violated) with “special” knives and needles. “Special” meant they were blessed and therefore would cause the Devil’s Mark to reveal itself through a kind of allergic reaction.
Ding Dong the Witchfinder is Dead!
Fortunately Hopkins’ reign of terror was cut short when he died on 12 August 1647. While his exact age was unknown, he was estimated to be in his mid-twenties when he died – most likely of pleural tuberculosis. Within hours, he was buried at the Church of St Mary at Mistley Heath.
If you are a fan of irony, you will appreciate that shortly after his death, rumours spread that Hopkins was a victim of his own swimming test and hanged as a witch.
The Witch Trial of Bury St Edmunds
In 1645, the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds (or Bury as it is known locally) saw the single largest witch trial held in England. 18 people were hanged for witchcraft in what is today their market square. Visitors can learn all about this history at Moyses Hall, which serves as the local history museum.
While we haven’t been, one disturbing thing I remember being told by a friend was that you can see corpses of mummified cats in the museum. This is because it was common practice to bury cats alive to ward off witches. Apparently they are still recovering the bones and bodies of cats beneath Bury homes.
Prior to the trial at Bury St Edmunds, the largest witch trial and execution had been in 1612 in Pendle, Lancashire. The trial in Pendle saw eleven people tried (nine women and two men), ten of which were found guilty and hanged.
The Pendle trial was before Hopkins was born, but he was directly responsible for finding all 18 people in Bury guilty of witchcraft due to his detection methods. While they were all convicted and hanged almost immediately, the trial did cast down on the validity of Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General. Following the executions in Bury, he gained a strong opposition and by 1647, his momentum had mostly petered out (which likely gave some credence to the rumours behind his death for some).
Nevertheless, because of Mathew Hopkins’ efforts, East Anglia was synonymous with witch hunting for a long time. In fact, due to the ties between England and New England at the time, what happened in East Anglia would later become a blueprint for the notorious trials in Salem Massachusetts.
Which brings me to…
Norwich’s Sinister Connection to the Salem Witch Trials
While researching the dark history of Norwich, I discovered that the city has a rather interesting connection to the Salem Witch Trials: one of the victims was from there. But it gets weirder than that…
Mary and Thomas Oliver
Mary Leman married Thomas Oliver on January 29 1626. Over the next few years, the couple had several children (possibly as many as six, at least one of whom died within a few years). In 1637, the Olivers sailed to America to start a new life and wound up in Salem.
However, once in their new home, the couple were ostracised due to Mary’s outspokenness. Thomas was thought to be unable to control her, though it is also possible he did not want to, as many of her “outbursts” were in favour of business deals he was making.
By 1649, the Olivers were exiled from Salem and returned to Norwich.
Within a few years, Mary had died. No one can say for certain how she died. But, an official record does exist for a Mary Oliver who died in 1659. The record states “Mary Oliver burned for witchcraft and her goods confiscated for the use of the city.” It is unknown whether or not this was Thomas Oliver’s wife. But if it was, it might make what happened to his next wife all the more insidious.
The Second Wife
By 1666, Thomas Oliver was back in Salem and looking for another wife. He married Bridget Wasselbe (née (Playfer), a widow. It was the second marriage for both of them.
But the couple were unhappy almost from the beginning. They quarreled regularly, and were even arrested for swearing on the Sabbath. When this happened, the couple were advised they could pay a fine, or be chained up outside and be publicly humiliated. Reportedly, one of Thomas’ daughters from his first marriage paid her father’s fine, but not Bridget’s, and she was therefore forced to be publicly humiliated.
Apparently Thomas began to tell everyone who would listen that marrying Bridget was a mistake. He was sure she was a witch, and cavorting with the Devil. When Thomas died in 1679, and Bridget inherited most of his estate, she was immediately accused of witchcraft by at least one of her step-children and put on trial. Luckily, she was acquitted.
Bridget went on to marry Edward Bishop. However, the charges of witchcraft hung forever over her head. So in 1692, when five young Salem girls accused Bridget of witchcraft following a theft, the rest of the town was all too ready to convict her.
Bridget Bishop was hanged in Salem on 10 June 1692 at the age of 60.
As a side note: Rebecca Nurse, another victim, was from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. And weirdly, Sarah Good (also another victim) was born in Wenham, Massachusetts (Great Wenham being where Matthew Hopkins was from).
Witch Related Sites to See in Norwich
So what is there to see in Norwich related to this history? There are probably pieces and remnants all over the city, many of which I am unaware of. But the following sites are my top recommendations for witch-related historical sites in Norwich.
The Fye Bridge is the oldest bridge in Norwich with its earliest mention dating back to 1153 – though it has been rebuilt several times since. The bridge that stands there today is relatively new, but the history it holds is medieval.
Fye Bridge is believed to be the site of Norwich’s ducking stool. Now, before Matthew Hopkins came along, ducking was horrific, but not necessarily deadly. Rather it was really more a form of punishment (read: torture). It was also used exclusively for women.
So what was medieval ducking? Well, just like the swimming test, a woman was tied to a chair. The chair was attached to a gallows that would lower them into the water. However, unlike the swimming test, the accused would only be ducked – albeit probably several times – not drowned. The intention was humiliation, or to extract a confession; not death.
Who was ducked? Witches, of course, strumpets (prostitutes), and scolds (a nagging woman).
Norwich’s second oldest bridge also has a witch-related history, and arguably a more gruesome one than Fye Bridge.
Bishops Bridge is located across from Lollard’s Pit, where the Lollard’s (pre-Protestant Christians who called for reforms to the Catholic church) were jailed. In addition to Lollards, other accused heretics and witches were locked up there. Those who were convicted of these crimes would be kept overnight in the jail cells built into the ground. In the morning, they were forced to walk across the bridge to a burning pyre, where they were burned at the stake.
Nothing remains of this practice today, but you may as well pop into Lollard’s Pit (now a pub) for a pint!
St Peter Mancroft Church
If you look closely, you will find a small remnant of the medieval era of punishment outside of St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich city centre.
Near the bike racks and the market (which is 900 years old, by the way!) are a set of manacles. While not exclusively used for witches, shackles like this would have been used to publicly humiliate those accused of all manner of sins and crimes – including witchcraft.
Want to read more about witches in England?
– Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedy by Malcolm Gaskill
– Witch Hunt: The Persecution of Witches in England by David & Andrew Pickering
– The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown (a historical fiction novel based on Matthew Hopkins’ time as the Witchfinder General)
Want more Norwich content? Check out our posts on haunted places in Norwich and haunted pubs in Norwich.
Have you ever been to East Anglia? Did you accuse anyone of being a witch? (Do people still do that)? Does your hometown have any history of witch hunting? Let us know in the comments below!