Saturday, 12 November 2016

Season Of The Witch

For the last couple of years I have managed to post topical articles regarding Samhain events that I have attended in Southwark and New Forest; however, Hallowe'en passed uneventfully this year, with no dancing in urban burial grounds and no druidic rituals on forest plains.

Although Samhain went unmarked this year, earlier in the month I managed to find myself in a place that has a historical connection to witchcraft: the small town of Manningtree, sitting on the banks of the Stour Estuary on the border of Essex and Suffolk, buttressed by the villages of Mistley to the east and Lawford to the west.

Manningtree from the Stour

The circular walk that my Eldest and I intend to undertake officially begins at the railway station on the west of the town, but we have decided to start elsewhere along the loop; therefore, we leave our vehicle along the waterfront, only a stone's throw from the town's most notable landmark: the so-called Mistley Towers.

Mistley Towers

The original church on this site had been built in the classical style early in the Georgian period, reflecting the architectural trend imprinted by Wren and his colleagues on the City of London following the Great Fire. However, in 1776 an ambitious local politician named Richard Rigby, who nurtured plans to create a spa town, employed the renonwned architect Robert Adams to 'enhance' the buiding, and the Towers that stand today are the result.

Adam's church served the community for a century, before being replaced in 1870 by a new church to the southwest. This was built in the Neo-Gothic style, reflecting the change in architectural taste between the Georgian and Victorian periods. The main body of Adam's church was demolished but the Towers were allowed to remain, and today are maintained by English Heritage.

River Stour from Manningtree, with Suffolk across the water

We stride west along the waterfront, heading for the centre of the estuarine settlement which claims to be the smallest 'town' in the country, although it has rivals to this claim ( such as Fordwich in Kent and Llanwrtyd in Powys, to name but two). The mudflats to our right are peaceful, dotted with godwits and lapwings, and boats bob quietly on the water.

High Street, Manningtree

This riverside road, known as The Walls, reaches an art gallery then kinks left up an incline before swinging right into a High Street with a narrow roadway and even narrower pavements. There are plenty of hostelries and tea shops, and little to disturb the street's Georgian feel. Many of these facades conceal older structures behind, and the town contains over a hundred Grade II listed buildings. We purchase a Meal Deal from an unobtrusive Tesco Extra and sit on a bench next to a small market area to enjoy our lunch.

In the medieval period, Manningtree was known for a Whitsun Fair at which a whole ox was roasted. This event was famous enough to be known to William Shakespeare, who made reference to it in Henry IV Part 1, with Henry describing Sir John Falstaff as 'that roasted Manningtree ox, with a pudding in his belly...'  Today, a sculpture of the Ox - complete with the pudding - hangs at Market Cross.

The Manningtree Ox

With our lunch finished, we continue west along what is now called Station Road, which leads to the edge of the town and - no surprise here - its railway station. From here, we take a footpath that heads south across countryside toward the parish church of Lawford, and then we strike east, across fields and through woodland, skirting the southern edges of Manningtree as we head toward the hamlet of Mistley Heath. To our left, across the meadows of Furze Hill, we can see the landmark chimney of the EDME Maltings, and somewhere beyond that lays the site of a 'secret' nuclear bunker.

Maltings Chimney

It is peaceful, attractive North Essex countryside, and yet - during the tumultuous, Civil War-torn decade that was the 1640's - this community managed to nurture one of the most notorious and controversial figures in English history. This was the home of Matthew Hopkins, son of a Suffolk clergyman, the man who descibed himself as the Witchfinder General.

Detail from frontispiece of Hopkins' book 1647 book, The Discovery Of  Witches

Hopkins was born at Great Wenham, Suffolk, around the year 1640, but moved to Manningtree in the early '40''s. East Anglia was a stronghold of Puritanism and strongly favoured the Parliamentarian side in the Civil War. The times were rife with superstition and were ripe for unscrupulous 'gentlemen' like Hopkins and his companion, John Stearne, to enrich themselves by exploiting the gullible. Already the iconoclast William Dowsing had rampaged through the district, destroying stained glass windows and whitewashing church walls as he carried out his commission to destroy 'monuments of idolatry and superstition'.

Hopkins wrote that his career began in 1644 after he overheard a group of Mannngtree women discussing their meetings with the Devil. Stearne seems to have been the dominant figure at first, but their roles were soon reversed. Twenty-three women accused of witchcraft were tried at Chelmsford. Four died in prison, the other nineteen were hanged.

The penalty for witchcraft

With Stearne and a group of assistants named Mary Philips, Frances Mills and Edward Parsley, Hopkins now took his witch-hunting roadshow around East Anglia. The women were employed to physically examine the unfortunate accused, ordeals which included being 'pricked' to see if they would bleed. During his career, Hopkins made the acquaintance of such notable figures as the astrologer-prophet William Lilly and John Thurloe, head of Oliver Cromwell's secret service.

It was certainly a lucrative business. Hopkins demanded that the town of Stowmarket pay over £23 for his services, at a time when the prevailing wage was sixpence a day. It is not known how many victims perished at Stowmarket, but over the course of his brief career he was responsible for the deaths of over three hundred women.

'Ducking', a popular ordeal for identifying witches

Not all his victims were women. The vicar of Brandeston in Suffolk, John Lowe, despite being seventy years old, was forced to run back and forth in his cell for several days before, exhausted beyond care, he finally confessed.

Towards the end of 1646, Hopkins' brutal methods and extortionate ways began to attract negative attention. The vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire, name of John Gaule, heard that the Witchfinder planned to visit his area and denounced him from the pulpit. The tide of popular opinion now began to swing against the zealotry and venality displayed by Hopkins and his followers. Prudently, Hopkins disbanded his gang and retired to Manningtree in the Spring of 1647.

He did not enjoy his retirement for long, dying in August of the same year, of what his former partner Stearne described as 'a consumption'.

The remnants of St Mary's Church, Mistley Heath

Eldest and I stroll along a fieldside footpath and enter the hamlet of Mistley Heath, a few farms and cottages straggling along a minor rural road. The footpath reaches the road and there, right opposite, an ancient wall surrounds a parcel of open land. At one end of this field, below a canopy of trees, lay the crumbling remains of a demolished medieval church, the building that was replaced by Mistley Towers.

We cross the road and survey the site from the wall. This field was clearly the old churchyard and somewhere under this unassuming plot of Essex land lays the dust of one of the county's most notorious and despicable figures. All is peace and quiet in Mistley Heath today but, gazing at this field, I find myself recalling the final line of Emily Bronte's classic Wuthering Heights:

'I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.'

The wall around the site of Mistley Heath churchyard
And off we go, strolling back toward Manningtree, toward Mistley Towers and our parked car. We cross the Hopping Bridge, by local tradition a spot where Hopkins ducked his victims. A pond in the local park is supposed to be haunted by the Witchfinder, and the local pub is said to have been owned by him at one time. We are a couple of weeks shy of Samhain, yet today we have traversed a pocket of Essex town and country replete with legends of witchery and persecution,  and who knows what other dark secrets may rest in this 'quiet earth'...

River Stour

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