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East Anglia and the Hopkins Trials, 1645-1647: a County Guide


While travelling along the border between Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire in 1646, Stearne and Hopkins received reports of mass meetings of witches at ‘Trilbrook-bushes’, i.e.Tilbrook. However, no further investigation was carried out.
Tilbrook (today part of Huntingdonshire) may well have provided fertile ground for witch hunting. In September 1645, the rector Edward Savage was removed from the living as an inveterate delinquent. Among other charges, he was said to have inveighed against Parliament ‘with severall fearfull curses’, saying that ‘he hoped to see them hang in Hell and that there are none belonging to them but rogues and Rascalls’. In his will, made in January 1661, he asked to be buried in his old chancel at Tilbrook ‘from which I have beene most wickedly caste oute’.
Stearne, Confirmation, 53; Wal.Rev., 209; TNA, PROB 11/303, fo.80r [will of Edward Savage, 10 December 1659; proved 8 January 1660/1].



According to John Stearne, one Lendall of Cambridge, a suspected witch, carried herself as if she was outwardly religious, ‘a saint on earth’. Henry More also provided a detailed description of Lendall, her attempted seduction of a young woman of Cambridge, and nocturnal feasts held at her house where many strangers were present and unheard of languages spoken. She may be the same as the woman referred to by the witchcraft sceptic Thomas Ady as ‘formerly reputed an honest woman’, but subsequently executed for witchcraft in 1645 for ‘keeping a tame frog in a box’. Ady’s source was possibly his brother-in-law, John Lowery, who served as MP for the town from 1640 to 1653 and was mayor in 1644-5.

Some time between 1646 and 1647, another witch scare gripped the parish of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, though it is not known how many were accused or whether or not Hopkins and Stearne were participants. One of the chief instigators of the witch hunt was one William Cropley, a vestryman of the parish, who was reimbursed for the cost of searching the witches in 1647-8.
Malcolm Gaskill has suggested that Lendall may be an error for Kendall owing to the absence of any of the former name from the parish registers of Cambridge. However, one Robert Lendall was a ratepayer in the parish of Great St Mary’s between 1622 and 1635.
Cambridge suffered major disruption to its daily life as a result of the outbreak of the civil war. Following the mass purges of royalists and delinquents from the colleges in the early stages of the conflict, it became a garrison town that was often threatened, though never attacked, by the armies of Charles I. In late 1643 and early 1644, it was also subjected to the official iconoclasm of William Dowsing, who found much to occupy his time here. More specifically, the parish of Great St Mary’s, situated at the heart of the town, was according to Gaskill a parish ‘in crisis’ by 1646. In the late 1630s the parish church, which doubled as the official church of the University, was the subject of much contention between the puritan townsmen and Laudian authorities who now dominated the government of the University. Financially stretched by the demands of the war effort and an influx of Irish emigrés, it also experienced the full force of puritan moral reformation. Dowsing twice visited the parish church, and a year later its minister was removed and replaced with an orthodox divine from St John’s College.

Stearne, Confirmation, 39; More, Antidote Against Atheisme, 128-30; Ady, Candle in the Dark, 135; Gaskill, Witchfinders, 190-7, 316n; Cooper (ed.), The Journal of William Dowsing, 155-205, esp.96-203 [no.24]; Foster (ed.), Churchwardens Accounts of St Mary the Great Cambridge from 1504 to 1635, 381, 412, 438, 446, 454, 462, 471.

According to Stearne, an unnamed witch confessed at Chatteris.
In March 1646, George Otway (d.1659) was sequestrated from the vicarage of Chatteris. The town was also a centre of Quaker activity in the early years of the Restoration.
Stearne, Confirmation, 17; Wal.Rev., 85; Besse, Sufferings, i, 92, 93, 94, 96, 98.

Witches: Peter Burbush, blacksmith, of Ely St Mary’s; Anne, the wife of Philip Desborough, labourer; Thomas Pye.

Anne Desborough was indicted on two separate occasions in 1646 and 1647. In the first instance, she was indicted on 28 July 1646 for entertaining, employing and feeding spirits [witnesses: John Caule; William Cooke; Amy, the wife of Edward Sharpe; Lettice Wilson]; true bill. The same witnesses were asked to enter into recognizances to give evidence against Desborough for ‘evil actions and malitious & wicked intentions’ towards Francis Caule, ‘metalman’. Depositions were subsequently taken before Thomas Castell, JP, on 7 August 1646. Amy Sharpe deposed that in conversation with Francis Caule following his recovery from his first fit he had said that things would never be well with him as a result of a falling out between him and Anne Desborough’s daughter whereupon Anne had vowed revenge. William Cooke testified to the ferocious strength of Caule’s fits and his desperate attempts to locate the witch in his house while suffering the same. John Caule deposed that Francis had fallen ill on 28 July 1646 and had since suffered violent fits punctuated by periods of serenity, good health and much cheerfulness. Desborough herself was examined by Castell. She described a particularly unpleasant meeting with Caule when she was forced to appear at his bedside and was threatened with violence for her pains. Imprisoned at Ely, she was acquitted at her trial.

On 16 August 1647, Desborough was again arrested and imprisoned by Richard Stanes, JP. In addition to the recovered Francis Caule, new witnesses appeared against Anne detailing new crimes. Walter Mayes of Ely, husbandman, claimed that after falling out with Desborough in 1645, his servant was almost drowned and many of his livestock died. He added that Desborough’s mother was ‘commonly reputed to be a Witch’, and he was convinced that Anne was employing imps or spirits to do her mischief. Thomas, the son of John Wilson, labourer, a servant of Mayes, added that he believed Desborough was responsible for an accident to his master’s cart in 1646. Finally, Francis Caule, the victim in 1646, recounted his sufferings at Anne’s hands the previous year when he fell into an extraordinary sickness ‘beyond any knowne cause in nature’. In his fits, he was visited by Anne’s imps or familiars, who tormented him in mind and body. All three witnesses were bound over to give evidence against Desborough.
Thomas Pye was accused of being a witch by the witchfinder John Stearne and Humphrey Davis Snr, of Ely, their depositions being recorded by Richard Stanes, JP, on 24 July 1647. Stearne focused on the evidence of strange marks that he had found on Pye’s body. Davis, on the other hand, deposed that he had fallen out with Pye, who threatened him. Shortly after, he fell sick and distracted for three months and was still troubled with the same affliction from time to time. Pye himself was examined the same day, and denied any knowledge of the charges or the workings of familiars. He was nonetheless imprisoned at Ely the same day.

The accusations of witchcraft levelled at Peter Burbush were seemingly opportunistic, as the depositions before Richard Stanes, JP, were taken on the morning of the assizes (23 September 1647). Burbush’s accusers were John Abraham, a weaver of St Mary’s parish; William Shelley, miller, of the same; and Henry Freeman, miller, of Ely. Abraham claimed that he fell lame after receiving some waste thread or yarn from Burbush three years earlier. He was convinced Burbush was responsible as both he and his mother were commonly reputed as witches. Shelley deposed that Burbush had confided in him as to how one might become a witch. He was apparently informed by one Henry Thorne of Ely St Mary’s, labourer, that one way was by stealing the communion bread and urinating on it against the church wall. Freeman suspected Burbush of witchcraft after his mill fell down for no apparent reason. He had also lost cattle in strange circumstances. Burbush, examined the same day, denied all the charges but was none the less imprisoned. He would have to wait for the next assizes, however, in the spring of 1648 for judgement.

The outcome of Desborough’s second trial on 23 September 1647 before chief justice John Godbold is not known. Pye, who died in 1657, was acquitted. Burbush’s fate is not recorded.

The small cathedral city of Ely, situated at the centre of a region dubbed by Thomas Edwards ‘that Island of Errors and Sectaries’, had long held a reputation for radical independence and religious extremism. In the late 1630s, it was further politicised and radicalised by the brief episcopate of bishop Matthew Wren, translated from Norwich in 1638. Wren’s commitment to the Laudian cause undoubtedly alienated many in the town. In 1641 it was alleged that while Wren was officiating one Saturday in the cathedral, a woman named Elizabeth Bancroft preached behind him that ‘it was fit upon Sunday to Sacrifice the Popes Bird [i.e.Wren] upon his own Altar’. By September 1640, there were rumours circulating in Essex that ‘an unruly company’ had sworn to kill the bishop, and within a year it was reported in Norfolk and surrounding areas that the region was ‘full of warrants for certificates against Bishop Wren’. Impeached and imprisoned by Parliament, Wren continued until at least 1645 to attempt to administer his diocese. In the mean time, his authority in the city rapidly declined. On 30 August 1642 the episcopal palace at Ely was ransacked, and within a few years many of his closest acolytes were removed. By the time of the witch trials, Ely had become a centre for puritanical reform and radical sectarianism as the various factions and supporters of Parliament contended for power. In early 1645, for example, Laurence Clarkson visited Ely in search of two seekers, William Sedgwick and William Erbery, who were said to inhabit the town. Two years later, at the height of the witch scare, Sedgwick declared that Christ would come to judgement within a forthnight after he claimed to have been visited by the messiah in his study at Ely.

Of the three accused, Peter Burbush was a relative newcomer to Ely with his wife Agnes. Their two daughters were baptised in the parish of Ely St Mary’s in the early 1640s, but there is no early record of the Burbush’s marriage or any others of that name in the parish registers. Thomas Pye, who married in 1620, was widowed ten years later. Ann Smith (Anne Desborough) married Philip Desborough in 1619. There is no evidence linking her to the woman of the same name accused at Bythorn (q.v.) in nearby Huntingdonshire.

Of the examining magistrates, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Castell sat as a committeeman for Cambridgeshire in the Eastern Association. He lived at Haddenham (q.v.) and later had something of a reputation for opposing the Quakers in the Isle of Ely. In 1660, for example, George Whitehead referred to Castell’s admiration for the efforts of the Presbyterian minister James Bedford in opposing the Quakers in the Isle. Richard Stane or Stanes (for the city of Ely), like Castell, held numerous offices in the Eastern Association. He was a physician by profession, having graduated MD at Cambridge in 1645. Like his brother William (d.1680), also a doctor, he was a committed puritan and parliamentarian who may have owed his own appointment to the county committee to the influence of his brother. William Stane was personal physician to the earl of Manchester as well as auditor and treasurer of sequestration in the Eastern Association. He also acted as one of the regulators overseeing the parliamentarian purge of the University in 1644. Like his brother, Richard continued to serve the Cromwellian regime in Cambridgeshire throughout the 1650s, both as an active JP and committee member. In all probability, he shared his brother’s distaste for Presbyterian intolerance and favoured a moderate church settlement based on congregational lines.

CUL, EDR, E12 1647/6, 12 19, 21, 23, 44; EDR, E12 indictments, 1646; Gaskill, Witchfinders, 265-6, 328n, 329n; Anon., A Discoverie of Six Women Preachers, 4; Cressy, England on Edge, 154, 189; Schofield (ed.), The Knyvett Letters, 98-9; Clarkson, Lost Sheep Found, 19; Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men, 44; Cambridgeshire Archives, P67/1/1; P68/1/1; Kingston, East Anglia and the Great Civil War, 384; [George Whitehead], A Brief Account of the Illegal Proceedings, 5-6; Venn, iv, 143; Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii, 372, 459; Thurloe, State Papers, v, 328, 352; Twigg, ‘The Parliamentary Visitation of the University of Cambridge’, 518; Holmes, The Eastern Association in the English Civil War, 128.

John Stearne refers to the confessions made here by a number of unnamed witches some time around 1646.
Thomas Dodson, vicar of the parish, was sequestrated in about 1644. The parishioners of Fen Drayton subsequently petitioned the House of Lords for a grant to supplement the income of his godly successor, complaining that the patron of the living, Christ’s College, Cambridge, usually provided scandalous and unsound incumbents.

Stearne, Confirmation, 45-6; Gaskill, Witchfinders, 197-8; HLRO, HL/PO/JO/10/1/186, 17 May 1645; Wal.Rev., 79.

Witches: Joan, the wife of Robert Briggs; Thomasine Read; Adam Sabie, gent.
Joan Briggs was accused of witchcraft in a deposition given by her son-in-law Jeremy Briggs of Haddenham before Thomas Castell, JP, on 31 May 1647. He claimed that for a period of about seven years, many of his horses and cattle had died in mysterious circumstances, and that four years ago one of his children died after suffering terrible torments and agonising pains. He suspected his mother-in-law because they had frequently fallen out with each other and because of her general reputation as a witch. The following day, Joan herself was examined by Castell. She dismissed the teats discovered on her body as ‘nothing but warts’, and denied all charges made against her. She was subsequently committed to prison at Ely on 20 September 1647.

Thomasine Read was indicted for witchcraft on the evidence of five deponents: Edward Mason; Ellen, the wife of Oliver Pope; Robert Miller; Thomas Woodbridge; and Robert Gray. All were questioned by Thomas Castell on 29 May 1647. Mason asserted that Read had told him of how the Devil had lured her into a contract and granted her imps, which she used to bewitch the child of one John Miller of Hillrow. The child was still ‘grievously tormented’, but Read claimed she was powerless to act on its behalf. Ellen Pope claimed that after Read had been searched and marks found on her body, she confessed to having made a contract with the Devil sixteen years earlier when she lived at Cottenham. She then repeated Read’s confession to Mason relating how her imps had bewitched the child of Miller. Her imps were also responsible for the death of sheep belonging to Thomas Woodbridge and Thomas Gray, both of Hillrow (the latter, after he had sacked Read’s son, a ploughman). Finally, Robert Miller gave an account of his poisoning or bewitchment at the hands of Read. Read herself was examined the same day and corroborated much of the evidence given by her victims. She claimed that one Hitch of Aldre [i.e.Aldreth] was able to unwitch Miller’s child. She was subsequently incarcerated at Ely by Castell on 29 May 1647, there to await her trial.

Adam Sabie was accused of being a witch by the witchfinder John Stearne and John Kirby of Haddenham in depositions made before Thomas Castell, JP, on 1 June 1647. Stearne claimed to have conducted a body search of Sabie at the behest of some of the villagers and to have found near his fundament ‘one Teate of the greatest length that ever he sawe upon the body of any man’. Sabie subsequently confessed to him that a spirit in the shape of a young child had first appeared to him twelve years earlier ‘when he was in trouble’. Kirby claimed that he had become strangely ill after Sabie had threatened revenge upon him. He also lost several bullocks and one of his children went lame. Examined the same day, Sabie denied the existence of the diabolical teats, but agreed that thirty-five years previously a spirit did appear to him in the likeness of a child and told him to ‘ffeare not [for] I am thy God’. Later, having moved to Somersham, he appeared again in ‘a flame of ffyer’ and repeated his claim to be a deity. Immediately, the skies darkened and the spirit told Sabie to repair to the house of a local recusant, Lady Sandys, who would give him £20. The spirit also gave him nourishment and preserved his life. At the end of his examination, Castell had Sabie committed to gaol at Ely the day before these depositions were taken.
Sabie and Briggs would appear to have been found not guilty and released. They were buried in 1648 and 1649 respectively. Nothing is known of the fate of Read.

Haddenham was a notable centre of Quaker activity in the Restoration. By 1670, Friends were meeting regularly at the house of John Adams, who later died in prison.

Adam Sabie, who styled himself a gentleman, had been involved in a slander suit in 1646 when it was alleged that he had called a fellow villager, Francis Coker, ‘a perjur’d knave’. Sabie was an aged widower by this date, having lost two wives in 1624 and 1633. Thomasine Read, too, was a single person, her husband John having died in 1632. Lady Sandys, the wife of Sir John Holland, was a Roman Catholic who fled England at the outbreak of the civil war. All the witnesses against the witches were landowners and ratepayers. For the examining magistrate Thomas Castell, who lived at Haddenham, see under Ely (above).
CUL, EDR, E12 1647/10, 11, 17, 23; Gaskill, Witchfinders, 251-3, 255-6, 327n., 328n.; Stearne, Confirmation, 37-8; Besse, Sufferings, i, 94, 96; Cambridgeshire Archives, P82/1/1.

Witch: Anne Greene, widow.
Greene was indicted on 14 September 1646 for entertaining, employing and feeding evil spirits [witnesses: Robert Wilson; William Day; Matthew Cotes; Lettice Waddelowe or Wodeloth; Ann Alexander]; true bill.

Robert Wilson deposed before Thomas Castell, JP, on the same day that, on the advice of Anthony the farrier of Ely, his sick mare was bewitched. Greene, who was present at the examination, offered to go to one Goody Petche for aqua vita and ‘solit oyle’. The mare subsequently died, as did much other livestock belonging to Wilson. William Day deposed (probably the same day) that he had purchased a milch cow from Daniel Scott, which had been earmarked for Greene. Seeing the cow in his yard, she laid her hands on it, stating that it would not prosper. It died two days later. She was also accused of cursing another cow that damaged her fence. Greene herself was examined by Castell and denied any knowledge of witchcraft. She was nonetheless incarcerated at Ely.

On 19 September, Wodeloth, Coates and Alexander, assisted by Elizabeth Crab, and under the direction of the constable, searched the body of Greene. They discovered three long teats, and deposed this information before Thomas Castell, JP.
Greene was acquitted at her trial before Justice Godbold on 26 September 1646.
Like so many parishes in the Isle of Ely, Littleport had suffered at the hands of the drainers in the 1630s. The sluice was sabotaged in 1642. It was also a centre of radical dissent. As early as 1614, the parish had hosted the preaching of the radical prophet John Traske (c.1585-1636). In the mid 1650s there was a group of General Baptists meeting here which subsequently split as a result of the conversion of a number of its members, including its two leaders (Samuel and Ezekiel Cater) to Quakerism. Thereafter the Quakers were a major presence in the village. Meetings were being held here as early as 1655, and many Quakers from Littleport continued to suffer persecution in the years after the Restoration. The village itself remained a centre for all forms of dissent after 1660.

Anne Greene herself was clearly a troublesome individual who had attracted the unwelcome attention of the authorities on a number of previous occasions. In 1634 she had been prosecuted for ‘chiding and giving evill language’ in a pew dispute in the parish church. Five years later it escalated into an accusation of witchcraft. Despite the fact that all the women who searched Greene signed with a mark, they would appear to have come from the more prosperous families in the village. Elizabeth Crab or Crabbe, the wife of Thomas Crabbe, yeoman, fought a civil action in 1646 as executor of her husband’s will. She was probably related to the various Crabbe’s (Clement the elder, Robert and Anne) who were among the first to suffer persecution in the village as a result of their support for the early Quakers.

CUL, EDR, E12 1647/4-6; loose bundles of indictments and recognizances, 1646-7; CUL, EDR B/2/35, fos [need refs]; Gaskill, Witchfinders, 233-4, 323n-324n; Taylor, History of the English General Baptists, i, 141-3; Besse, Sufferings, i, 85, 86, 93, 94, 95, 96, 98; CUL, EDR B2/56, fo.17v.

According to Stearne, an unnamed witch confessed at March in 1647.
Stearne, Confirmation, 17.

According to Stearne, a female witch at Over scratched off her marks so she could go undetected. However, she subsequently admitted to entering into a covenant with the Devil before a JP of that town in 1646.
Over was badly effected by the drainage schemes and resulting loss of common land. It was also, according to Gaskill, a village with many puritans and radical sectaries. It was certainly a major centre of early Quaker evangelism in the Isle of Ely and harboured a group of Muggletonians in the early years of the Restoration.
Stearne, Confirmation, 45; Gaskill, Witchfinders, 197, 317n; Besse, Sufferings, i, 91, 94, 94-5, 96, 98; Hill, Reay and Lamont, World of the Muggletonians, 55; Spufford, Contrasting Communities, 295.


Witches: Dorothy Ellis; Robert Ellis; Elizabeth Foot; Joan Salter.
Dorothy Ellis was the subject of two depositions by Gillian Salter and Alice, the wife of William Wade, taken by Thomas Castell, JP, on 30 May 1647. Salter claimed that seven years earlier her daughter, Mary, the wife of Thomas Salter and granddaughter, also Mary, were much tormented and ‘evell handled in there bodyes’. The younger Mary was just over a year old and suffered terrible fits before dying. Ellis was held responsible. Alice Wade claimed that while she was in the shop of Mihill Malen, with her child in her arms, Ellis came in to buy some salt. There, she touched and stroked the face of the child and mumbling some words, went out. Shortly after, the baby fell mysteriously ill, the side of her face touched by Ellis being severely swollen. Ellis herself, examined the same day, deposed that about thirty years earlier, being ‘much troubled in her minde’, she entered into a contract with the Devil in the shape of ‘a great Catt’. Thereafter, she was ordered to bewitch the cattle of Thomas Hitch, Mary Salter the younger (above) and the latter’s mother. She was also ordered to send her imps to bewitch John Gotobed because he called her ‘old Witch’ and flung stones at her.

Robert Ellis was accused of being a witch by Thomas Hitch and Rowland Taylor, their depositions being taken by Thomas Castell, JP, on 30 May 1647. Hitch and Taylor were present when John Stearne conducted a strip search of Ellis and both confirmed the witchfinder’s evidence that four teats were discovered on his body. They added that Ellis had been suspected for a witch for over twenty years, and that he had been ‘the author of much mischief’ in Stretham in that time. Ellis, examined the same day, blamed the teats on his great labours in his youth, and refused to confess ‘though they pulled hime a peeces’. He had actually been incarcerated at Ely the day before by Castell and fellow JP, John Towers.

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